Director: Richard Lester
Everybody loves sequels, don't they? If I've said it once, I've said it a million times: unless the movie is a critical and financial failure, it'll probably get some kind of sequel, even if said sequel is essentially a remake with the number two stuck at the end of the name. Sequels are so prevalent, it's not uncommon for a movie's sequel to be shot concurrent with either the original film or another sequel. The closing two chapters of both the Matrix and Back To The Future trilogies were like that, as well as Superman and its first sequel. And if you saw the credits of the original theatrical version of Superman back in 1978, you probably saw the tag "Coming Next Summer: Superman II." They were also set to be filmed back to back, but thanks to some rather crappy circumstances, production hit a little snag. After the sequel began filming, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth sadly passed away, and director Richard Donner was fired after butting heads with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind over the script. Since the show must go on, Warner Brothers hired themselves a new cinematographer in Rob Paynter and a new director in Richard Lester. The movie missed its Summer 1979 release date thanks to the behind-the-scenes shakeups, instead seeing releases in Europe throughout the winter of 1980 before hitting American theaters on June 19, 1981. Why an American movie wasn't actually released in America until six months after its European release, I'll never know. But in any event, Superman II is one of those rare examples of a sequel that actually rivals its predecessor in terms of quality. Now let's get to that review...
After a quick visual recap of the previous movie, our main story begins at the Daily Planet offices in Metropolis, where Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) has returned to work following a short vacation. The perpetual invisible man, he goes completely unnoticed by his colleagues as he tries to wave hellos to them. Clark stops into the office of Planet editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) to find out what he needs for a particular article, but discovers that terrorists armed with a hydrogen bomb have taken hostages at the Eiffel Tower and that Mr. White has sent ace reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is on her way to cover the story.
Realizing that Lois is potentially in great danger, Clark darts out of the building, changes into his Superman costume, and flies off to Paris. Meanwhile, in Paris, Lois figures that the best way to get the "inside scoop" is to be right inside the tower with the terrorists, so she weasels her way past a security guard and clings to the undercarriage of an elevator on its way up to collect some freed hostages. But we also learn that Parisian cops doesn't screw around with terrorists. Once the hostages are free, they plan on destroying the elevator with a bomb of their own, but what they don't realize is that doing so will set the sixty-second timer on the H-bomb into motion. The French plastic explosives are detonated, sending the elevator, the H-bomb, and Lois plummeting to the ground. The emergency brakes fail, but luckily, Superman arrives in the nick of time. He stops the elevator, frees Lois from beneath it, then takes off into outer space with the elevator car. He throws it into the distance, thinking it would just explode harmlessly.
It does explode, but ends up doing a lot more harm than help. The shock wave from the explosion spreads, shattering a piece of Kryptonian prison technology called "The Phantom Zone." Inside the crystalline Phantom Zone reside General Zod (Terence Stamp), his companion Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and his mute henchman Non (Jack O'Halloran). If you saw Superman, you'll remember these three, who were banished into the Phantom Zone and cast into deep space at the beginning of the previous movie by Superman's father for attempting an insurrection. Now free, the trio soon land on the moon, where they confront (and dispatch) the crew of NASA's Artemus II geological survey. After hearing the radio transmissions from the Houston Space Center, the three villains head to "Planet Houston" not to visit, but to conquer.
But there's one other villain we have to contend with as well. Super-genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) stages a less-than-dramatic jailbreak, leaving his bumbling sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty) behind as he heads due north with his usual lady friend, Miss Tessmacher (Valerie Perrine) in a hot air balloon. Why due north? Thanks to a specialized radar set to follow alpha waves, Luthor has discovered why Superman is always heading north: the one and only Fortress of Solitude. After getting access into the Fortress of Solitude, he comes across Superman's mystical crystals containing all Kryptonian wisdom and discovers the existance of General Zod, Ursa, and Non. And what's better than teaming up with three other criminals? Teaming up with three other criminals that have the exact same powers of Superman!
As Luthor schemes, Clark and Lois pose as newlyweds to expose some kind of "honeymoon racket" in Niagara Falls. The only racket I saw was an über-tacky honeymoon suite that puts Biff Tannen's clock tower penthouse in Back To The Future 2 to shame. This sucker has a motorized bed, a pink polyester bear rug, cheap champagne, and a heart-shaped tub. Despite the oh-so-romantic nature of the room, Lois is more distracted by something. She soon starts growing suspicious of Clark, especially since he disappears every time Superman saves the day. Lois soon decides to test her theory by jumping into the waterfall, but not wanting to reveal himself, Clark stealthily uses his heat vision to drop a tree branch in front of Lois and bring her to safety. At first convinced that her theory was a load of bollocks, she discovers that she may have been right all along when Clark falls into their suite's fireplace and comes up without a burn or even minor skin irritation.
Knowing he's been found out, Clark finally confesses and reveals that he's been living a dual life, and both reveal that they're totally crushing on one another. Aww, it's so sweet, I think it gave me diabetes. He takes her to the Fortress of Solitude and explains to Lois the ins and outs of how he came to be Superman (though it would have been easier to show her the first hour of the first movie instead), and they even have themselves a romantic dinner at the Fortress to boot. They definitely have the warm fuzzies for each other, but when Superman consults his crystals about it, he learns that if he's gonna date human women, he's got to be a human man. And since he loves Lois, he's willing to make that sacrifice. He heads to a special chamber and gives himself a quick Kryptonian tan, and in no time, Superman is Clark Kent for good.
While Clark gets used to his new physical limitations, Zod, Non, and Ursa land in the extremely tiny town of East Houston, Idaho, where they proceed to take over. They stomp the crap out of the Idaho National Guard (and the Army to boot), even heading to Mount Rushmore in their own images before heading to Washington and invading the White House. Knowing what they're up against, the President (E.G. Marshall) and the other major world leaders abdicate control of Earth to Zod. Of all the times for Superman to become Clark Kent permanently, he sure picked a great time to do it. Clark Kent: timing master. After getting beaten bloody at an Alaskan diner, Clark discovers that Zod rules the planet and hikes back to the remains of the Fortress of Solitude for reasons only known to him.
Meanwhile, Lex Luthor of all people arrives at the Oval Office with a business proposition for General Zod. Thanks to that little radar of his and the information he acquired from the Fortress of Solitude, Luthor offers to lead Zod's crew to the son of the man who put them in the Phantom Zone to begin with. And in exchange, Luthor gets to run Australia. A criminal running a former penal colony... it's almost poetic. They arrive at the Daily Planet office and start accosting Lois, but the rejuvenated Superman arrives to save the day. This leads to a massive brawl, destroying most of downtown Metropolis in the process and marking the film's most memorable scene. If Krypton had their own professional wrestling promotion, this is what their Wrestlemania main event would look like. After a ten-minute throwdown, Superman departs, an ulterior motive in mind. Luthor takes Zod's cronies (along with Lois as bait) to the Fortress of Solitude, where the son of Jor-El has his final showdown with his home planet's most notorious criminals.
Wow! That really sums up my feelings for my movie. Despite being one of the more controversial entries in the series (thanks to all the shakeups during production), I'm of the opinion that Superman II is the best of them. I mean, can you top Superman dropkicking someone into a giant neon Coca-Cola sign? Outside of Warner Brothers doing Superman vs. Batman: The Movie, I doubt it can be done. Seriously, the list of bad things I can say about Superman II is very short. I think I'll go ahead and get those complaints out of the way, so I can concentrate on the good. The biggest problem I have, really, is the oddity that is the superpowers. Everyone knows Superman's most famous powers, like flight, super-strength, and heat/x-ray vision. But in Superman II, the four super-powered Kryptonians can also make objects and people levitate, teleport, shoot lasers from their index fingers, and make holographic duplicates of themselves. Superman also has kisses that cause memory loss and can create giant cellophane nets out of the logo on his chest. I'll admit I'm not a regular reader of the comics, but are any of those powers actually taken from the source material? Since when did Kryptonians use the Force? I mentioned in my review of Superman that maybe they should have ripped off some visual effects from Star Wars, but I didn't know they'd rip off the Force of all things. I know Superman has godlike powers, but come on, that's a bit of a stretch. The crazy powers make for neat action, but considering they weren't even mentioned in the previous movie or the ones that followed, I think the film's writers (Mario Puzo, David Newman, and Leslie Newman) just took a few liberties with the characters. I also wonder what prompted them to use phrases like "irreversible" when referring to Superman losing his powers. If he's stuck as a normal human forever after he loses his powers, why and how does he get them back by the end of the movie? I guess "irreversible" means "reversible" in the Kryptonian language. Kinda like how "flammable" and "inflammable" mean the same thing when you think they'd be total opposites.
In spite of the mid-production directing shuffle, Richard Lester's work here is really good, maybe too good. I honestly couldn't tell where Richard Donner's work ended and Lester's began, it's that seamless. The direction is sound, the camera work and editing are great. The fight on the streets of Metropolis is proof enough of that. Sure, the effects haven't aged all that well, but the fight scene still holds up as some of the most fun I've had watching a movie. And once again, the music score is wonderful. Composer Ken Thorne takes the themes done by John Williams on the previous movie and creates an equally good score, again seeming to tell a story with music alone. But as with the previous movie, where Superman II excels is the cast. Christopher Reeve once again gives us a character torn between his two lives, only now he's torn between his destiny and the woman he loves. He excellently plays the gawky Clark Kent and heroic Superman again, now with the romantic conflict thing going for him. Also stepping up her A-game is Margot Kidder, who drastically improves on her disappointing work in Superman. Her Lois Lane in Superman II is strong and inquisitive, just like the character should be. It also helps that Kidder and Reeve have a quirky chemistry, which makes the romance between their characters even better. Their scenes at Niagara Falls have a certain whimsy and gentleness to them, and both shine as we want the characters to stay together despite the odds, and its their chemistry that makes the story's conclusion all the more touching.
The prominence of the three villains allows Gene Hackman to take a diminished role as comic relief, a role he plays greatly despite much smaller screen time. But perhaps the cast's true standouts are the three villains. Superman II corrects one of the original movie's biggest flaws, offering us not one, but three capable villains. They're exact equals to Superman, and it's their extreme amorality that makes them dangerous. Terence Stamp is absolutely perfect as General Zod, whose overzealous confidence makes for quite the charismatic villain. While he's overbearing and pompous, his inquisitive nature regarding humanity and its relationship with Superman is quite fun to watch. And how can you not enjoy the guy after hearing his delivery of that classic "kneel before Zod" line near the end of the movie? Sarah Douglas's portrayal of Ursa is a very well acted performance of a very intriguing character. The discussions between Zod and Ursa are very interesting indeed, as he's surprised Superman doesn't lord himself over the puny-by-comparison Earthlings and she seemingly has no clue what humans are to begin with. Douglas handles the role well, and she makes a entertaining female counterpart to Zod. And last but not least is Jack O'Halloran as the mute, less-intelligent crony Non. He's kinda like Curly from the Three Stooges if he was a tall, muscular guy that never spoke and had powers comparable to Superman. He doesn't have any lines at all (outside of a few grunts), but his facial expressions make him this movie's version of Otis from the first movie. No complaints here.
While I don't find it necessary to see Superman before seeing Superman II, the pair do make quite an entertaining story when viewed back to back. And while the most dedicated of Superman fans will probably want to see or own all four movies in the quadrilogy, one would perhaps be better off stopping here. The Clark/Lois love story is played out here, and the third and fourth parts suffer from a severe drop in quality. Those who enjoy a good superhero story should stick with the first two movies, because the entire story wraps itself up superbly there. Four and a half stars for Superman II.
Final Rating: ****½