The tale behind Superman’s sophomore flight on the big screen is one of betrayal, missed opportunities and bitter lessons learned… oh wait, did you think I was waffling on about the plot?
Heavens no! I was riffing on the skullduggery that was rife behind the scenes that led to original director Richard Donner being unceremoniously ousted from a production he was still technically midway through filming. You see, in an idea way ahead of it’s time, Donner and the producers had planned to film Superman and it’s sequel at the same time but disagreements arose between the two and the Director was ordered to halt filming the sequel 75% of the way and finish the first film. He was then summarily fired despite making the most influential superhero movie of all time and replaced by Richard Lester – a man who then went on to put Richard Pryor in a large foam cowboy hat in Superman III.
Picking up the sizable thread of the sentencing of Kryptonian war criminal General Zod left dangling from the first film that seemed to have nothing to do with anything except to have giant floaty faces ominously declare GUILTY, we catch up with the virtually invulnerable Kal-El in his human guise of Clark Kent still pining after co-woker, reporter Lois Lane. The fact that she loves Superman from afar but can’t see past Kent’s bumbling facade is starting to wear on the noble Kryptonian but his pining is cut short by the object of his affections getting mixed up in a plot to blow up the Eifle Tower by distractingly stereotypical French terrorists (berets, droopy cigarettes hanging nonchalantly from their bottom lips, the works). Superman hurls the bomb into deep space but, and wouldn’t you know it, it collides with the gateway to Zod’s interdimentional pokey and soon the bearded sadist and his two compatriots are free to wreak havoc on planet earth. While the trio of superpowered psychotics test their growing abilities by first slaughtering a group of astronauts on the moon (oddly disturbing considering it’s a family film) and then laying waste to a small mid western town, Kal-El has decided to give up his superpowers and become a mortal man after Lois discovers his secret identity. Proving that one of his more latent powers is super bad timing, the Man Of Steel becomes the Man Of Veal after having his abilities removed just as Zod makes his move on the White House, worse yet, chrome domed, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor has slyly circumvented his jail time with a daring escape and tries to manipulate the Kryptonian warlord into calling out and killing Superman. But if Superman ain’t so super anymore, how can he possibly hope to square down not one, not two, but three, steely eyed lunatics that all have the same powers he used to have?
Despire the traumatic power shift behind the scenes, Superman II holds together immensely well considering whole chunks were re-scripted and shot by a director whose grasp on the delicate tone Donner created was shaky at best, but at least Lester was a proven director (The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and the silly Michael York Musketeer movies attest to this) even if his sense of humor is as subtle as a nitrous powered wheelchair.
The numerous cracks, are rendered virtually invisible by the efforts of returning leads Christopher Reeves, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman, but pumping new blood is the assention of Terrence Stamp’s uber baddie and his acolytes. Striding around in a get up that implies ABBA has ventured into glam/death metal territory, Stamp infuses Zod with a magnificently disinterested arrogance, his pasty visage firmly locked to maximum sneer as he demands that everyone an their dog kneel before him. Ably backing him up as deranged Zod groupie Ursa is Sarah Douglas, slinking around like a feline that has the ability and temperament to drop kick you into orbit and who milks her villainous English accent for all her worth (just drink in the delicious way she pronounces the word “See-yew-perman”). Where the first movie had Supes flying super fast and lifting super heavy thinks to out-manuver the brain of Lex Luthor, here things are way more physical with Kal-El’s brawn being tested to the limit by his trio of foes in a mid movie showdown on the streets of Metropolis. Despite being the first scene of it’s kind on such a scale, the fight thankfully doesn’t disappoint and even though there’s the odd visible wire here or a noticable matte line there, it’s truly a magnificent example of an epic superhero smackdown way before the age of CGI.
It’s just a shame the movie constantly breaks character by being so fricking weird. Much has been made of Superman’s utterly random ability to yank a giant cellophane S off his chest and fling it at an enemy like a monkey throws poop, but what’s with the bizarre game of teleportation tag that happens in the Fortress Of Solitude or Clark drugging Lois to make her forget both his secret identity and the fact that they’ve totally “done it”. I get that in the 80’s the scene is trying to show Kal denying what he wants to keep her safe but now it feels uncomfortably more like he’s feeding her a Kryptonian roofie…
But whenever Lester’s influence threatens to overturn the boat, some of Donner’s orginal concepts appear to put things closer to being on track (it’s rumoured that Donner shot the majority of the massive fight and it shows), for example, in the character’s long history there’s never been a more genuinely upsetting scene than a de-powered Clark getting beaten up in a diner by a thuggish truck driver – no one has sold an ass-whupping better than Reeves does in this movie and watch at his sublime disbelieving reaction to seeing his own blood for the first time ever. Genius.
Superman II certainly has it’s ups and downs but for the most part is a worthy sequel to the original and fairly influential in it’s own right – the hero losing his powers storyline is frequent go-to point for most franchises after the requisite origin story and the epic urban battle between super powered combatants totally was an early bar setter – certainly so much that it made the prospect of kneeling before Zod not such a horrible prospect after all…