The search for Clark Kent.
Who made it?: Richard Lester (Director), Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Tom Mankiewicz (Writers), Pierre Spengler (Producer), Warner Bros. Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Terence Stamp, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran.
Tagline: “The Man of Steel meets his match!”
IMDb rating: 6.8/10.
Depending on who you ask, Superman’s longevity as a cultural touchstone is down to his alter-ego, the perpetually mild-mannered Clark Kent. We should be able to recognise ourselves in his enduring meekness. In the right hands, Kent allows us to deal with the fact that he’s also capable of such outlandish feats. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2 posed the theory that the Man of Steel was the real him, and that the bespectacled reporter was “his critique on the entire human race.” That might be true for Silver Age Superman, but it’s a rather misanthropic view of the character that I just can’t get behind in a post-John Byrne era. He was born Kal-El of Krypton, but he was raised as Clark Kent. That’s who he really is – Jonathan and Martha Kent imbued their ideals in him. He chooses to become Superman because he learns of his real heritage. That makes it three distinct identities, but I’ll pose a fourth: Clark from Smallville isn’t the same as Clark from Metropolis. On home turf, he’s calm, confident and without glasses. This is a hero at battle with himself.
I’m telling you this because Superman II is preoccupied with that notion of inner-self. This sequel is not the equal of its epic predecessor, at least to adult eyes, but it has many pleasures. The least of which is the surprisingly strong mental battle between Mr. Kent and his superior alter-ego (both played compassionately by Christopher Reeve). Should he carry on saving the world or finally forge a life for himself and his beloved Lois Lane (Margot Kidder)? It’s a theme that many comics and by extension their films have reused, most notably 2004’s Spider-Man 2. It gives the picture a strong core progression that teaches us something new about the protagonists and allows them to develop. It’s also why I’m able to overlook Superman II‘s numerous missteps. How would the responsibility of being mankind’s supposed saviour weigh on your mind?
The film begins with a reprieve of the first, with Jor-El (Marlon Brando) placing three Kryptonian criminals into the Phantom Zone prison (a visual effect that used to freak me out as a child, but now inspires titters). They are the silent but stupid Non (Jack O’Halloran), the devious Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and their remorseless leader General Zod (Terence Stamp). Jettisoned into space shortly before Krypton’s destruction, they are later inadvertently released by a nuclear blast in space. Their subsequent arrival on Earth is cross-cut with Clark’s soul-searching. After revealing his real self to Lois, he decides to give up his powers via some gizmo in the Fortress of Solitude. This has disastrous consequences when news of his super-powered kin hits the airwaves. Zod and his cronies want world domination, and only Kent’s alter-ego can stop them…
The real miracle is that Superman II is as watchable as it is. Original director Richard Donner had shot footage for two mammoth movies before the original film’s looming release date led him to finish that first. When the dust settled, Superman was naturally a worldwide box office sensation, but Donner’s long-standing squabbles with financiers Alexander and Illya Salkind and their notorious penny-pinching resulted in his dismissal. They brought in Richard Lester (an uncredited producer on the first film) to complete the project, but it also meant re-shooting Donner’s footage to ensure that he couldn’t get a credit. The stars were not too happy about this, and Hackman refused to return, meaning that around 25% of Donner’s footage remains in the theatrical cut. This also meant using body and voice doubles for Luthor in a few scenes, which is made alarmingly obvious on a modern surround sound system. They were also forbidden from incorporating scenes shot by Brando. And yet, this is an entirely respectable film to come from such behind-the-scenes trauma.
Lester is no Donner. He’s entirely competent, of course, but not being a fan of the character hurt the overall fabric of the film. Perhaps best known for his Beatles picture A Hard Day’s Night and his 70s Musketeers films, Lester was a fan of bold, campy humour, and Superman II has quite a few eye-rolling moments geared towards the kiddiwinks. His predecessor took the mythology more seriously, although Donner knew where to insert a good gag. Here, we get bits like Zod and his comrades altering the faces of Mount Rushmore with their heat vision, and engaging in arm-wrestles with local yokels. Why?! Aren’t we supposed to fear these Kryptonians? For every moment that works, there’s another to set the film back a step. Superman II is a very schizophrenic experience.
Making it all worthwhile is the central conceit with Clark. There’s a sense that he secretly wants to “out” himself to Lois. They both visit Niagara Falls on Daily Planet business, and share a hotel room together. Kent, being the dope that he is, trips and tumbles hand-first into the fireplace. When the burns don’t show up on his skin, the penny finally drops for Lois. But because he’s merely adopting the guise of a klutz, this never would have happened unless he willed it to. It’s a fantastic thread that is enriched further when Kent, sans superpowers, is beat up in a diner by a random thug. This scene, naturally shot by Donner, shows us a Superman that we rarely see; one bloodied and aided by Lois. Imagine feeling pain for the first time after three decades of living without it. Although we know he will finally reclaim his abilities, there is an important learning curve for the character that humbles him. This is brought home in one of the final scenes; the announcement “I never lie” got him in deep trouble last time, but here he uses people’s belief in his honesty to turn the tables on them. That’s some great growth right there.
Concepts like this make Superman II more than just a fireworks show, but the filmmakers did include some large-scale set-pieces, represented best in the final reel when Zod, Non and Ursa battle the Man of Steel in downtown Metropolis. This must have been a real sight in 1980, and while the “flaws” are all too apparent now, its still a giddy display that has influenced countless action films (including, evidently, Man of Steel). Lester makes the trailer moments sing on a technical level, and while the photography doesn’t hold a candle to Geoffrey Unsworth’s stately genius, everything looks fantastic. Ken Thorne even does a good job with the score, reworking those iconic John Williams cues to appreciative effect while never topping him.
The cast is also more than up to the challenge. Hackman is just as good here as he was last time, shifting comfortably into the comedic relief role whilst Stamp has a field day as the sinister Zod. You have to remember that, before the mid-80s, Luthor was still a “mad scientist” type in the comics, and Hackman fits that bill superbly. I much prefer the modern interpretation of a billionaire industrialist, but it’s such a joy to see him verbally sparring with his castmates. Likewise, Stamp cuts an authoritative figure as Zod and he gives some Shakespearian gravitas to his largely poor dialogue. But both of them are beaten by Reeve, whose increased confidence is readily apparent in part II, as is his chemistry with Kidder. He was asked to play a whole range of emotions in this story and he nails every one of them, making us sympathise with a character that many fail to find relatable.
Let’s not go into the phony, made-up powers that come out of nowhere (parodied amazingly well in Family Guy, below), and the concluding “memory erasing kiss” that takes the whole Lois and Clark relationship back to square one. We won’t argue that the character development in this film is ultimately wasted to restore the status quo, but the journey getting there is still a blast if you can put up with the occasionally off-putting slapstick.
Whilst Superman II was my favourite as a child, it is now obvious that Donner’s original is the clear winner. Lester’s efforts are more of a mixed bag, but this is still a hugely enjoyable sequel that survived a hundred production problems to come out highly polished on the other side. It should be noted that Donner’s cut eventually saw a release on DVD in 2006, although its stitched-together nature makes the theatrical cut more agreeable overall for its presentation. Until Warner Bros. give it the spit and polish they gave to Blade Runner, Superman II is always going to be equal parts delightful and frustrating.
Here’s a hybrid of both cuts for the climactic battle.
- Director Richard Lester was not sympathetic to the epic look that Richard Donner had given the original Superman, saying that he didn’t want to do “the David Lean thing.” Lester decided to scrap most of Oscar-winning cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth”s footage, and hired director Michael Winner’s cinematographer, Robert Paynter, to create a style that would evoke Superman’s roots in comic books. Lester, Paynter and camera operator Freddie Cooper replaced Unsworth’s gliding camera with horizontal panning and static framing to evoke comic books and comic strips, with static frames crammed with people and objects. Similarly, the composition of shots the trio developed for Superman II had objects and people crammed into the frame. To further emphasise comic book composition, the action was photographed from one angle, to give the film a desired flatness. Harkening back to the techniques of the early sound era, Lester’s films had always been shot with three cameras filming the action simultaneously; two cameras for close-ups, one for the long shot. Lester’s technique added to the friction on the set caused by Donner’s firing. Margot Kidder particularly disliked him.
- In the original script, the nuclear missile from Superman releases Zod and companions from the Phantom Zone. This scene was added to “The Richard Donner Cut” DVD edition, and the scene in Paris was deleted.
- Two “007” veterans contributed to the screenplay, although neither is credited. George MacDonald Fraser co-wrote Octopussy. Guy Hamilton directed Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun. Tom Mankiewicz, an uncredited co-screenwriter of the original Superman, also co-wrote the latter three 007 films.
- Warner Bros. released the film in Europe at the end of 1980, and in the U.S. in the summer of 1981.