Superman II (1980)
by Steve Habrat
If action fans were turned off by Richard Donner’s 1978 slow burner origin story Superman, they will find tons to enjoy in Richard Lester’s breathless action extravaganza Superman II, the controversial follow-up to the original film. Pitting the Man of Steel against the dreaded General Zod, a foe that possesses the same powers as Superman, Superman II manages to be more of a nail bitter than its predecessor by really putting Superman’s back against the skyscraper. Out of all the Superman films, Superman II has to be my favorite for how tense some of it can be. There are moments where you really think Supes isn’t going to make it out of this one alive, especially when General Zod teams up Lex Luthor. Superman II also features some really complex emotions, especially when it dives into the relationship between feisty news reporter Lois Lane and Superman/Clark Kent. Filmed simultaneously with Superman, it is said that Donner, who claimed to have made 75% of Superman II, quit working on this film because the studio pushed him to make it campier than the original, which led to Lester stepping in and finishing the film. Personally, I have always found this film to be a bit darker and lacking in the winks that were heavy in the first film, something that made me like Superman II even more.
Superman II begins with a quick flashback to the events in Superman, which began with wise Jor-El (Played by Marlon Brando) banishing three criminals by the names of General Zod (Played by Terence Stamp), Ursa (Played by Sarah Douglas), and Non (Played by Jack O’Halloran), into deep space just before the destruction of Krypton. He traps them in the Phantom Zone, a glass-like cube that spirals aimlessly through the galaxy. The film speeds ahead to present day with Superman (Played by Christopher Reeve) foiling a terrorist plot to destroy the Eiffel Tower. Supes discovers the terrorists have a hydrogen bomb in their clutches, which he quickly takes to space and detonates. The shock waves from the bomb destroy the Phantom Zone and free Zod and his cronies. The deadly trio soon arrives on earth, where they begin destroying anything in their path. Meanwhile Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Played by Margot Kidder) are on a business trip in Niagara Falls when Lois begins to suspect that Clark Kent is in fact Superman, given the fact that he is never around when Superman is swooping in to save the day. She is proven right and Superman learns that if he wishes to be with a mortal, he must be stripped of his powers and also live as a mortal. Soon, Superman learns of General Zod’s plot to enslave the human race and to make things worse, his arch nemesis Lex Luthor (Played by Gene Hackman) has broken out of prison and offers an alliance to General Zod.
Bigger, louder, faster, and stronger than Donner’s original film, Superman II has an epic final showdown that goes on for almost forty minutes in the streets of Metropolis. Everything that gets in between Superman and General Zod is crushed like a tin can. Cars tumble through the air and buildings are destroyed as Superman tries desperately to prevent Zod, Ursa, and Non from reducing Metropolis to ash. It is a lot of fun with some camp thrown in to keep things from getting too dark for children. To make things worse for Superman, Lex Luthor refuses to lend him a hand in trying to figure out a way to beat Zod, Luthor revealing every single trick Superman tries to use against the trio. He is basically on his own and that adds a lot of anxiety to Superman II. How does the Man of Steel beat three invincible foes with little regard for human life? Now that is one hell of a sequel if you ask me. Screenwriters Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Tom Mankiewicz work overtime to also give the love story a set of teeth. Things are not simple between Lois and Superman, at least not as easy as Superman first figures they are. Responsibility steps in between the couple and forces them to put their love on hold as Zod forces Superman to step out of retirement.
With the screenwriters taking Superman to new emotional heights, the cast is forced to add more depth to their characters. The darkness that crept into Superman’s heart of gold flares up again in smaller ways. He grapples with being stripped of his powers as a hulking bully in a diner roughs him up. He trembles with fear and embarrassment, the nerdy Clark Kent actually helpless for once. The tough Lois Lane finally loosens up a bit, especially when her theory that Clark Kent is Superman turns out to be right. I actually enjoyed that the filmmakers made her character suspect that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. I always thought it would be a cinch to spot the resemblance. The affection between Lois and Superman is out of this world when it is being fully addressed, especially when without hesitation, Superman declares that he is willing to be stripped of his powers so that he can be with the one that he loves. It’s a sweet romance that builds up to a finale of tears and hurt, something that still pierces even after having seen the film multiple times.
Superman II also comes loaded with four villains ready to lay waste to the Man of Steel. Hackman’s Lex Luthor doesn’t really show much growth outside of the reveal that he is a slight coward. He gravitates to whoever is on top at that particular moment. He seems present just to add a little bit more comic relief to the action and to keep the kids chuckling. It is said that when Donner left the film, he went with him, refusing to work for Lester. Then we have Stamp as the booming General Zod, who speaks in third person and promises anyone he meets that they will “kneel before Zod!” He is so evil that you will want to cheer when Superman shows up and asks him if he’d like to step outside to work out their differences, which is code for throwing a few punches at each other. Zod’s second in command Ursa is a sexy femme fatale who is loyal to her general until the very end. She may just be an enforcer but she still sends chills down your spine, especially her amused smirk as she butchers a group of astronauts. Rounding out the baddies is O’Halloran’s Non, a mute giant who is capable of more destruction than Luthor, Zod, and Ursa combined. He barrels at Superman in midflight and smashes through brick like it was a sheet of paper. The trio gets a fun little destruction free-for-all in a small town where they deflect flamethrowers and break missiles in half as a warm up before the battle for Metropolis.
Much like Superman, Superman II’s special effects are completely devoid of the wonder I’m sure they once possessed. Some of the battles are a bit flat as the actors bob around on wires that don’t allow them to move as quickly as they would like. Still, the moments where cars and buses crash through the streets of Metropolis hold up nicely, adding a wave of apocalyptic dread to the battle. Zod is capable of destruction that makes Luthor salivate, another aspect that is pretty neat to watch. Superman II is also loaded with barefaced jingoism that really fits the superhero that stands for “truth, honor, and American way”. The film fades out with Superman flying to the destroyed White House with an American flag that he places atop the ruins, promising the president that he will never disappear again. It is this beaming pride that makes Superman II endearing and reminds us that ol’ Supes will always be the American good old boy. Overall, a faster pace and trickier romance angle allows Superman II to be just slightly more fun than the influential original, even if it is not as thought provoking with its imagery. It also justifies the very idea of a sequel and proves that a sequel can sometimes be a great thing.
Superman II is available on Blu-ray DVD.