Superman: General, would you care to step outside?
Beware: Spoilers may follow.
While the first Superman movie was being filmed the sequel was being filmed right along with it and by the time it was finished the second movie was 75% done. Unfortunately during production, tensions mounted between director Richard Donner and the producers resulting in Donner getting fired and being replaced with director Richard Lester. While there is a version of Donner’s cut, I’m looking at the theatrical cut here. Much of Donner’s work was cut and re-shot. The result while not as great as the first is still a good movie.
The story involves Superman (Christopher Reeve) stopping a bunch of terrorists by throwing their nuclear bomb into outer space. However the bomb’s shock waves free Kryptonians General Zod (Terrance Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’ Halloran) from their imprisonment in the Phantom Zone. They make their way to Earth and threaten the Earth with destruction at the same time Superman decides to give up his superpowers to enjoy a normal life as Clark Kent with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder).
Despite Donner and Lester having different footage with very different approaches to the material the film as a whole blends well. Sadly Lester’s direction takes much more of a comedic approach and the movie suffers in some areas because of this. In the Donner cut Non for instance was portrayed more as Zod’s brutal muscle during the massacre of the astronauts or the attacks on the White House and the Daily Planet. Here however Non is just the comic relief among the villainous trio. Sometimes it ventures too much into slapstick territory such as when Zod uses his super breath to keep a mob away from him we get a series of comedic gags. And while the original Superman movie did have humor it wasn’t overused.
Some moments are just downright bizarre such as Superman being able to wipe Lois’ memories of her knowledge that Clark is Superman with a single kiss or Superman being able to attack his enemies with the emblem on his chest. On the one hand they aren’t powers associated with the character nor are they given any kind of foreshadowing in the narrative. They just come up as plot conveniences. It’s not great storytelling in this regard but it’s a nice homage to the Silver Age weirdness of the comic books. Superman’s character also works nicely to the silliness of these moments and it gives the movie a campy charm that still holds up.
With this being said there are elements of the story that make it work as a sequel. It does well in giving an insight into Superman’s identity of who he is and why he does what he does and it works in explaining his decision to give up his powers.
Lester’s direction also works well in the battle of Metropolis involving Zod and his minions against Superman. It is quite the spectacle and it has a grand scale to it particularly in its destruction. There is a little bit of silliness in the process but scenes like the emergency services fighting the flames and helping the survivors really give a nice perspective and while the Donner cut did well in taking away the silliness it lacked the same scale.
Much like the last movie Reeve once again gives a fantastic performance. He does well in making Superman and Clark feel like different people through his body language, delivery, and posture. It’s the little things during each scene with him that count and Reeve manages to get them down.
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor was fun but his appearance in this movie didn’t bring much. He has some good one-liners and chews the scenery but for the most part he felt cast aside. The greatest strength in the villains lies in Terrance Stamp as General Zod who gives a powerful presence.
The relationship between Clark and Lois is also a major highlight of the movie as it very much portrays Clark beginning to grow up and put away childish things. Of course while Lois and Clark don’t get the luxury of living happily ever after, Lester’s version doesn’t really feel like his time with Lois has made him better or stronger and merely more like he was wrong to leave the world behind for a girl.
All around Superman II can bring some level of enjoyment. It does tell a legitimate story but it just feels incomplete. Both Lester’s and Donner’s versions have their fair share of pros and cons but there’s just so much of what could have been and given the behind the scenes conflict neither version can fully satisfy. All around it’s not a great movie but it is still a good one.