Superman II (1980)

Superman became the first superhero film to get a serious adaptation to the big screen.  Christopher Reeve fits the part of both Kal-El and Clark Kent and Gene Hackman turned out to be a good Lex Luthor.  It was also enhanced by a score from John Williams, who was on a role after scoring Jaws, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It did have its issues.  The movie was overlong and director Richard Donner had a hard time reconciling a long, serious beginning with a campier middle and end. 

Still, Warner Bros., and in particular producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, initially had enough faith in the film to finance two movies to be made back to back.  The introductory portion of Superman introduced three criminals that were sentenced to banishment in the Phantom Dimension: General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his accomplices Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O'Halloran).  They are not mentioned again throughout the first movie, but we are reminded of their crimes as the second one begins.

Not long after the criminals are banished Krypton is destroyed, with Kal-El being sent to Earth.  A short time after the end of the first movie, with Superman spoiling Lex Luthor's plot to use nuclear missiles to sink a large portion of California west of the San Andreas Fault in order to corner the market on beachfront property, Luthor is serving his sentence along with his henchman Otis (Ned Beatty).  While in prison he has been working on a plot to track Superman to his Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic and, with the help of former associate Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perine), he escapes and finds it.  Meanwhile, Superman foils a terrorist plot in Paris, but his disposal of a hydrogen bomb results in Zod, Ursa and Non being released.

The three come to Earth and realize that the yellow rays of our sun enhance their powers.  Luthor also realizes that other beings like Superman have arrived and decides to ally himself with them.  As for our hero, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) finally figures out who Kent really is.  In order to be with Lane he returns to the Fortress of Solitude and becomes human, destroying the control center in the process.  Problem is, he is unaware of Zod's arrival on Earth, finding out soon after.  Aware that his romantic plans will have to wait he returns to the Fortress to find a way of restoring his Kryptonian self before it's too late. 

Superman II had a troubled production, so much so that it is surprising it turned out as well as it did.  Luthor is absent a good portion, and both Otis and Eve, who were featured as comic relief in the first film, disappear early on.  This is because Richard Donner was fired by the Salkinds after he had completed a good portion of the movie.  Hackman was not available for reshoots when Richard Lester took over, so what there was of Donner's footage had to be included unless the plan was to remove Luthor from the movie.  As for the rest Lester reshot most of Donner's work in order to maintain sole director credit as Donner, angry at his firing, refused to have his name on the film.  

The result is that there are a number of spots where it feels like Superman II is not finished.  Superman shows up for a final battle with the evil Kryptonians, but it is never quite explained how he gets his powers back, something that the recording of his mother (Susannah York) says is a permanent change.  There are many baffling decisions throughout that either make no sense in the context of the finished film or seem to be offbeat ideas that Lester added in for fun.

Despite this Superman II is far superior to the first movie.  Superman's powers, and those of his enemies, are more clearly defined, and the way he handles them at the end is logical within the story and not a deus ex machina like in the first where he suddenly has the power to fly around the Earth and make time go backwards in order to save Lois during the earthquake.  Margot Kidder, for her part, feels much more comfortable with the role, although from her perspective she had a lot less to do this time around and was not happy about Donner's firing.  

As for the villains Luthor's arrogance is still played for laughs, though he doesn't serve a pivotal role other than to get the final battle going.  Terence Stamp plays Zod with a cold, detached amorality, while Jack O'Halloran offers some actual humor as cloddish Non.  Sarah Douglas does the sexy and dangerous thing as Ursa, and it works.  Despite some ridiculous costume choices it was a wise decision to bring in villains that were the match of Superman as a problem with the character has always been he is too perfect and too capable.

In 2006 Warner Bros., along with Richard Donner, assembled the footage that they had in order to release a version of Superman II that was more in line with what he wanted.  It includes Donner's original versions of the material Lester re-filmed, skips the opening in Paris and includes Marlon Brando's portions as Jor-El.  I think I may have seen it at some point, but the original theatrical version is nowhere near an unwatchable travesty as one would think.  It is a lot of fun, keeps things within a reasonable time and, most important, keeps the action going throughout.  The special effects also hold up quite well.  It is too bad the movies that followed did little more than kill the franchise. 

Superman II (1980)
Time: 127 minutes
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Gene Hackman, Jack O'Halloran
Director: Richard Lester



  1. I think I saw at least part of The Donner Cut but it didn't really seem like an improvement. Though I think he wanted to save that going back in time bit for the second movie but since they used it in the first one it wouldn't have made sense to do it again.

    I borrowed from Superman II for a story where the super character gives up her powers after some innocent people die in an attack. She starts to enjoy being human and falls in love with the Jimmy Olsen character before of course she has to get her powers back.


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