In 2013, DC Comics declared the 12th of June as “Superman Day”, a day for fans of the Man of Steel the world over to celebrate Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, the superpowered virtue of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” who is widely regarded as the first ever costumed superhero. This year, I’m spending every Sunday of June celebrating the Man of Steel as I expand Superman Day to “Superman Month“.
Released: 9 April 1981
Director: Richard Lester
Distributor: Warner Bros. / Columbia–EMI–Warner Distributors
Budget: $54 million
Stars: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran, and Gene Hackman
Having thwarted Lex Luthor’s (Hackman) maniacal plans, Clark Kent/Superman (Reeve) faces a new challenge when intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Kidder) manages to deduce his secret identity. While Clark prepares to give up his incredible powers to be with Lois, General Zod (Stamp) and his two followers escape from the Phantom Zone and begin terrorising the planet, leading Clark to choose between his happiness and his responsibilities to mankind.
As I detailed in my review of Superman (Donner, 1978), producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler convinced Warner Bros. to produce a two-film adaptation of the character back in the late seventies. However, the production was fraught with issues, both financially and creatively; director Richard Donner frequently clashed with the producers and Richard Lester was brought in as a mediator to allow the filmmakers to focus on the first film, which was a financial and critical success. Despite having shot 75% of the sequel, Donner was replaced as director with Richard Lester, a decision that irked star Gene Hackman so much that he refused to return for the necessary reshoots. Lester shot an entirely new opening for Superman II in addition to making numerous changes to the tone of Donner’s original version to place more emphasis on slapstick silliness. Star Christopher Reeve returned to the project after negotiating a better deal with more artistic control for himself but Marlon Brando was excised completely from the film due to his unrealistic financial demands. Despite all the behind the scenes turmoil, Superman II was still a financial success; its worldwide box office gross of just over $190 million might’ve been less than its predecessor but it was still highly praised, with Stamp’s turn as Zod drawing particular acclaim. Many years later, of course, in the build-up to Superman Returns (Singer, 2008), Donner would finally return to the film to assemble a version that closely resembled his original vision of the film.
As far as I can remember, Superman II is another of those instances where I actually saw the sequel before the original; consequently, the film had much more of an impact on my childhood and I remember being more entertained by it thanks to it having a far brisker, more action-orientated flow and featuring villains who could actually match Superman in combat rather than simply just outwitting him. Not that I have a problem with the “mind over muscle” concept, it’s just far more gratifying to me to see Superman getting into a superpowered scrap as Superman II definitely delivers in that regard. Thankfully, for those who haven’t seen the first film, the movie opens with both a quick recap of the first movie over the opening credits and a return to Krypton to show exactly how General Zod, Ursa (Douglas), and Non (O’Halloran) got themselves banished to the mysterious “Phantom Zone”. Basically, they broke into one of the Kryptonian council’s crystal chambers and destroyed one of their fancy little crystals; since Jor-El (Marlon Brando) is entirely absent from this film, the three are sentenced and imprisoned by the nameless Kryptonian council yet, as they’re being thrust into the void of space in their mirror prison, Zod vows revenge upon Superman’s birth father regardless.
The film then picks up shortly after the events of the last film to find the Eiffel Tower overtaken by terrorists who are holding a bunch of people hostage and threatening to detonate a hydrogen bomb if their demands aren’t met. Being the feisty, fearless reporter that she is, obviously Lois Lane is right in the middle of the story and her boldness leaves her in danger of being killed; thankfully, Superman is again on hand to save her and disposes of the bomb-filled elevator by tossing it into space and unknowingly releasing the three Kryptonian criminals form their prison. Still playing the part of the lovable, bumbling goofball, Clark stumbles his way through his assignment with Lois in Niagara Falls but, after springing into action to save a young boy from a fatal fall into the waters, Lois’ suspicions are raised to the point where she willingly puts herself in danger in order to prove that the two are one and the same.
Despite being arrested and locked up at the end of the first film, Lex Luthor (Hackman), the self-proclaimed greatest criminal mind of all time, quickly breaks his way out of prison with the help of a holographic projector of his own making and the assistance of Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), thankfully leaving the bumbling Otis (Ned Beatty) behind. Not only does Luthor now largely sport his traditional bald head, he also has a far better plan than simple real estate; having deduced that Superman has a tendency to travel north, he tracks the Man of Steel and discovers his Fortress of Solitude, boning up on the three Kryptonian criminals and using this knowledge to charm his way into General Zod’s good graces. There’s something disconcerting about seeing Luthor in the Fortress of Solitude and poking around in his private archives and materials; although Luthor doesn’t learn that Clark Kent is Superman from this excursion, he learns more than enough to be able to barter with General Zod and spare him from the Kryptonian’s unending wrath in exchange for being able to rule over Australia after the three Kryptonians consolidate their control over the entire world.
Still, even Luthor is fearful of his new tentative allies; Zod, a verbose egomaniac who craves power and acknowledgement, strikes fear into the hearts of those around him with not only his sadistic and cold-hearted demeanour but also his inclination to fly into an intense rage when his power is defied. The alluring and callous Ursa revels in causing destruction and acquiring new badges and trinkets for her uniform, while the imposing brute Non is as childlike as he is silent and literally follows his General’s orders without question. The three quickly discover and reveal in the superhuman powers afforded by the Earth’s yellow sun, which immediately grants them all of Superman’s powers but with none of his moral compass. They start small, toying with a group of astronauts on the Moon and terrorising a small town in the United States before identifying where the true power of the U.S. lies and laying seize on the White House in a harrowing scene where he forces the President of the United States (E.G. Marshall) to transfer all control to their General.
Of course, it’s difficult to talk about Superman II without addressing some of the film’s more ridiculous aspects; Otis might not be around but his status as the comic relief is usurped by Non’s infantile nature. While things quickly take a turn for the dramatic when Zod steps in out of boredom, it’s initially played for laughs when the three are causing trouble in Houston; similarly, when the three are terrorising Metropolis to goad Superman into a conflict, there’s an awful lot of slapstick and tomfoolery for what is meant to be an imposing scene. And let’s not forget the outrageous superpowers introduced in the film; while traditional Kryptonian powers like heat vision, super breath, and freeze breath are all on display to great effect when the three are causing destruction and fighting with Superman, there’s all kinds of crazy stuff added to the film. Zod is somehow able to levitate objects with a point of his finger, the three of them deface Mount Rushmore by simply blasting it, all four Kryptonians are all able to duplicate themselves in the finale (which I can only assume was originally supposed to be some kind of depiction of superspeed that was limited by the technology of the time), and don’t even get me started on Superman’s weird s-shield attack-thing! Yet, as mental as all of this, it’s actually nowhere near as insane as some of the stuff Superman was doing in the comic books at the time!
While a romantic element was present in the first film (and gave us the God awful cringey scene of Superman and Lois flying together), it’s far more prominent here. Although Clark is able to momentarily quash Lois’s suspicions about him, his dual nature is ultimately revealed after an accidental stumble. Of course, bearing in mind that Clark is clearly besotted with Lois and was tempted to reveal himself to her in the first film, both Clark and Lois suggest that this was anything but an accident and that Clark subconsciously wanted Lois to learn the truth and made sure that it happened. Regardless, the two embark on a romantic tryst that sees Clark focus on her above all other concerns. Busy wooing her with flowers and food from the far corners of the world at his Fortress, Superman ignores the chaos caused by General Zod and his subordinates and makes the ultimate sacrifice when the consciousness/artificial intelligence of is mother, Lara (Susannah York), dictates that to live with a mortal, he must live as a mortal.
This wrinkle, which results in the destruction of the main control console in the Fortress, goes a long way to showing just how serious Clark is about his love for Lois; indeed, he willingly gives up all of his superpowers just to be with her despite the fact he can hear that people are pleading for his intervention. Clark’s adjustment to mortal life is a tough one; almost immediately, he feels the fatigue and pains of us normal folk and runs afoul of mouthy trucker Rocky (Pepper Martin). Humbled and humiliated, Clark is horrified to find that Zod has taken control of the world and immediately journeys back to the Fortress (from what looks like Canada…because I guess there’s a direct road from Canada to the Arctic now?) in a desperate bid to regain his powers. Although the Fortress appears dead and his father Jor-El doesn’t answer his son’s desperate plea, Clark finds the green crystal that birthed the Fortress and this, somehow, restores his powers. Although this whole sequence is a little sloppy, mainly thanks to the way the film was cut up and re-edited from Donner’s original version, I can’t say that I was ever really a fan of it; we’ve seen in the comics, and other adaptations, that Superman is fully capable of being in a relationship with Lois without having to give up his powers and it seems like this aspect was only included to give some humanity to the all-power Man of Steel. One part of it that does work for me was the emphasis on Lara; since Jor-El is entirely absent, Lara’s importance is greatly increased and makes Superman II an interesting companion piece to the first film by placing the focus on his mother rather than his father.
Armed with Luthor’s knowledge of Superman’s true heritage and affinity for Lois Lane, Zod, who quickly grows bored of having absolute power, relishes the opportunity to exact his revenge upon Jor-El’s progeny. To this end, the three ransack the Daily Planet and then cause destruction in downtown Metropolis in entertaining scenes of devastation that were certainly ambitious and in stark contrast to the first film’s slower, more subdued tone. It’s clear that the budget is being pushed to its limits to show all four characters flying and fighting in the skies and streets of Metropolis and, while the special effects and the quality of the fight does suffer a bit as a result (there’s a lot of awkward standing around, posturing, and slow, easily telegraphed attacks on show), it’s still a commendable effort for the time. Crucially, Superman goes out of his way to draw the fight away from the city and to save lives rather than mindlessly ploughing his opponents through buildings and causing as much damage as the film’s villains, which goes a long way to emphasising Superman’s selfless and heroic nature (something that arguably needed to be reinforced after he seemed to abandon his responsibilities in favour of getting laid).
Although the three have the numbers advantage, and are clearly better fighters than he, Superman manages to hold his own but, realising that continuing the fight would only endanger further lives (despite the commendable spirit of the Metropolis citizens in their willingness to stand up to the three after Superman appears to be killed), he flees from the city and lures them to his Fortress for a final showdown. The three are led their by Luthor with Lois as their hostage; when Zod declares that Luthor has outlived his usefulness, the criminal mastermind attempts to double-cross Superman in order to regain favour with the General and, in the process, unwittingly plays right into Superman’s plan. Having reversed the molecule chamber so that Krypton’s red sun rays erase the three’s powers, Superman and Lois are easily able to best their foes and send them hurtling to their deaths. However, in the aftermath, Clark and Lois split up since Superman can’t prioritise one life over the lives of the world and, to spare his love further pain from the burden of knowledge, Superman busts out another new power: the ability to erase minds with a kiss. With Luthor back in prison, the Earth saved, and the status quo restored, Superman promises the President that he’ll never abandon his responsibilities again and heads off for his victory lap.
When I was a kid, I absolutely loved this film; it was probably the closest and most accurate depiction of a live-action Superman I had seen and definitely set a high standard for superhero movies in general for its mixture of heart, action, and comedy. Even now, thanks to the ambitious and impressive special effects, the film holds up surprisingly well; once again, it’s the performances that help bolster the film, with Terrence Stamp putting in a scene-stealing turn as General Zod. The inclusion of three evil Kryptonians to match Superman blow-for-blow was a great way to raise the stakes from the first film and Superman II definitely builds upon the themes and standards of the first film. While I still have a lot of affection for Superman II and definitely prefer it to the first movie, it’s difficult for me to rate it much higher as there are a number of aspects of Superman II that don’t sit too well with me. The same can be said of the first film, and the rest in the series, but I’m still a little baffled by the idea of stripping Superman of his powers and then immediately restoring them and the absurd memory erasing kiss that is almost as preposterous as Superman turning back time at the finale of the first film. Still, it’s easily the best film out of the original four for me and, crazy superpowers aside, deserves to be rated as being at least on par with the influential original and is well worth a watch of only for Stamp’s iconic performance and the battle between Superman and his Kryptonian adversaries.
What are your thoughts on Superman II? Did you feel like it measured up to the first film or do you perhaps consider it to be superior, or inferior? What did you think to the introduction of more physically capable villains for Superman to fight and were you a fan of Terrence Stamp’s performance as General Zod? What did you think to Superman sacrificing his powers for Lois and then erasing her mind with a kiss? Do you prefer the theatrical cut of the film or do you think the Donner Cut is the superior version? What is your favourite Superman story, character, or piece of media? How are you planning to celebrate Superman Day today? Whatever you think, feel free to share your opinion and thoughts on Superman in the comments below.