Movies We Like
1978’s Superman began to the era of the superhero film. It would still be another decade before they would become a summer rite of passage at the box office, but Superman helped usher them from small screen, low budget affairs to big splashy tent poles with classy casts. Its first and only watchable sequel, Superman II, has had a fascinating history. It was already in production while the first film was being made and its director was fired halfway through, replaced by journeyman Richard Lester. Superman II may be the last of the quality “comic” comic book films, before the much darker Batman would change the landscape.
You may recall at the beginning of the first Superman flick Marlon Brando as Superman’s old man, Jor-El, sentenced three criminals - General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and the big mute, Non (Jack O’Halloran) - to a life of hurling through space stuck in a square bubble (the kind Queen used in their Greatest Hits album cover). Superman II opens with Superman (Christopher Reeve) making a big boo-boo. He tosses a terrorist’s hydrogen bomb into space and its explosion frees the prisoners who make their way to Earth. But first, back on Earth, Lex Luther (Gene Hackman) escapes from prison, finds Superman’s North Pole getaway, and learns much of his secret history. Meanwhile, on a trip to Niagara Falls, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) finally looks past Clark’s Kent’s glasses and realizes he’s Superman, they go back to his ice pad and get jiggy.
The three super villains come to Earth and begin to wreak havoc, even harassing the President of The United States. Lex Luther introduces himself and lets them know that Jor-El’s son is on Earth. They want revenge. But Superman’s Fortress Of Solitude does not get cable news so he has no idea that these aliens are taking over the planet. Instead, so he can spend a life with the druggy looking Lois Lane, he uses some space technology and relinquishes his super powers making himself human. Now just a normal earthman, Superman gets his ass kicked in a snowy dinner and then finally learns of the three super creeps who have invaded his planet. He heads back to the North Pole to regain his mojo. Eventually he returns as Superman and has a super duel with the three who have vowed to destroy him. Superman II is a total blast even if it only makes half sense. There are definitely some issues with the script and the editing that may have come from changing the director during production. Lex’s two main cohorts, Otis (Ned Beatty) and Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), appear early and then completely disappear. Superman’s super powers seem to expand, beyond the usual. Out of nowhere he is now able to rip an S off his shirt and use it as a lasso. What? Apparently blooper fans have a field day with the film. With the two year gap in much of the filming Reeve’s bulk seems to change from scene to scene as does Kidder’s skeletal appearance. The first film’s director, Richard Donner (whose directing career has ranged from The Omen to the Lethal Weapon films) conceived SI & SII to be shot back-to-back, Lord Of The Rings style. But delays in SI took him away from SII, and after more than half of SII was shot he was fired over a dispute with the producers. They brought in British director Richard Lester to complete the film and give it his own spin (Lester was most notable for The Beatles films A Hard Days Night and Help! and those Oliver Reed Three and The Four Musketeers flicks, but it had been a while since he had a mega hit). Lester is the credited director on SII and apparently Donner seethed at Lester’s cut. To cash in on that lame Superman Returns movie, Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut was released on DVD. Even though they share most of the same footage with different tweaks in the editing, they really are different movies. Though flawed, I still throw my hat onto the side of Lester, the original version.
Lester’s Superman II is also a comedy; it’s campy and goofy, and much closer in style to the Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon than Superman I (another once great British director recast strangely as a blockbuster creator). The epic battle between Superman and his three foes above downtown Metropolis is punctured with zany slapstick by the onlookers, toupees being blown off, etc. The humor is needed, though, to offset the utter danger that the three super villains create. And they are violent - they encounter astronauts on the moon and kill them for no reason. These are some evil folks, no wonder Jor-El banished them.
Donner’s version eschewed much of the humor; his cut foresaw much of the darker superhero films to come (Batman, X-Men, The Hulk), and frankly it’s not as entertaining. The one upgrade however is major - adding Brando. The overpriced actor shot footage for SII while doing his scenes for SI. Both films have Superman and then Lex Luther listening to a lot of plot exposition in the form of an ice crystal video machine. With the original release of SII the producers decided that using Brando’s footage was too costly (he had a massive profit participation that would kick in). It was reshot using Superman’s space mother, Lara (Susannah York). It never really made sense since Jor-El is actually at the center of the revenge plot. With the 2006 release of the Donner Cut and now Brando dead, his footage was thankfully restored. Otherwise though that Donner Cut is only of interest as a historic curio.
Superman can be viewed as the last truly innocent superhero, his DC Comics counterpart, Batman, was much more haunted. By the end of the '80s Tim Burton’s Batman would dominate the superhero screenscape, though that series would run out of gas quickly and also turn to camp and humor (as would the Spiderman franchise). Superman II was another big hit, more sequels would be demanded and slapped together - one would rely on Richard Pryor’s mugging and another would see Superman take on nuclear weapons of something. Superman II would be the apex for the big man from Krypton, as it would be for the tragic life of actor Christopher Reeve (he would later become a paraplegic from a horse riding accent and then die), and he only had a couple of memorable non-Superman films (most notably Somewhere In Time and Deathtrap). With his performance in Superman II he was able to give both Superman and Clark Kent the three-dimensional treatment. Instead of just being a heroic muscleman, Superman II actually gives the character of Superman his one chance at being a romantic lead and reveal the loneliness of his super powers, (the guy is so desperate he flies around the world to pick the perfect flowers for Lois). If nothing else, Superman II shows us humans how super powers can be applied to a really good first date.