Rather impressively, “Superman” and “Superman II” were filmed simultaneously; a practice that’s not uncommon now for film franchises but was pretty rare in the 70’s and 80’s, because handling a workload that size is stressful as hell. Pretty much everyone involved with “Superman” worked their asses off and poured all their creativity into that film to make it a masterpiece. It was “Superman II” that felt the strain of all the behind the scenes drama going on at the time. The Salkind brothers were apparently dicks and fired the director, Richard Donner, over creative differences when the film was already partly filmed, resulting in a lot of reshoots and the script being rewritten. Donner’s absence would probably explain why some of the wire-work and flying scenes feel clunkier this time around. You’ll also notice that despite “Superman II” name-dropping his character loads of times, this movie seems to go out of its way to avoid showing Jor-El, even previous footage of Jor-El, to the point where Zod’s trial is refilmed and given a decidedly less impressive reimagining. After Donner was dismissed from the project, the Salkinds decided that Marlon Brando was a very expensive actor to keep around and cut all of his scenes in the movie, even footage from the first movie, to avoid paying Brando royalties.
Really, considering how heated the production of this movie got towards the end, it’s a miracle that the final theatrical cut turned out as well as it did. As it stands, “Superman II” accomplishes a great many things: it gives us further insight into Christopher Reeve’s Superman, it puts greater focus on his relationship with Lois Lane and ties it into the personal balancing act Clark has to do everyday, it picks up the hook established in the first film about the Phantom Zone prisoners and fleshes them out into their own fantastically campy villains, and it brings Lex Luthor back into the fray for a second shot at revenge on Superman. “Superman II” works well as a character study and a frothy, romp movie. In retrospect, “Superman” and “Superman II” strike a good balance between silly, campy, over-the-top fun and lofty, contemplative themes about a hero’s burden and the loneliness that comes with being the last of your kind, which gives these movies just the right amount of weight. The Donner films are a lot of fun to watch, with a wide of variety of charismatic characters, so it’s easy to forgive their faults, like how the climax of this movie gets fucking insane.
“Superman” went to great lengths to establish Clark Kent’s background and level him up gradually – from his childhood, to the years he spent training with Jor-El, and finally the early days of his Superman career. Now that that’s done, “Superman II” delves deeper into his personality and expands on his character faults, which is a choice I really appreciate. Characters need to have flaws and shortcomings in order to be well-rounded, even a paragon of virtue like Superman. His relationship with Lois Lane provides the emotional crux of the movie. The first film played the classic Lois and Clark, triangle for two dilemma entirely straight and was fantastically romantic for it, while the second film deconstructs it and shows just how dysfunctional that set-up would be for both parties involved. Lois is starry-eyed for Superman and pretty indifferent to Clark Kent, who she sees everyday, which irritates him. He seems to want Lois to love both his identities, as irrational as that is, and tries to pursue her as Clark. Meanwhile, Lois has been feeling Superman pull away from her lately and is feeling rejected. It’s quite a mess, and the movie milks it for all the comedy it’s worth. As the only Kryptonian of his kind, Clark is always very lonely. He’s always putting on several different masks to the world, whether it’s the exaggeratedly nerdy, wimpy Clark Kent, or the perfect, boy scout hero everyone thinks Superman is. Very few people know Kal-El’s true self, besides his elderly mother in Kansas and the memory of his dead parents in the Arctic, but he wants to share every part of himself with Lois. He eagerly does so when he finally shares his secret identity with her, and after getting a taste of domestic bliss with her, he decides he wants to go one step further than that. Clark would like to live an ordinary life with Lois. He could devote most of his time to being with her, grow old with her, fully enjoy intimacy with her, and maybe start a family with her someday. The prospect of becoming human is very tempting to him for a variety of reasons, so Clark chooses to give up his powers and become a mortal man.
Of course, it turns out to be a terrible, impulsive mistake in the long run. Leaving aside that Clark is breaking the promise he made to be humanity’s protector, what would he do to help Lois the next time she inevitably got in trouble? Clark grew up with his alien abilities: they’re a part of him, an extension of his senses. Without them, he’s far more weak and vulnerable than he expected, like he when he decides to go start something with some creep in a bar and the fight does not go the way Clark thought it would. Lastly, the whole situation with Zod only grows as dire as it does because the villains went unchecked for ages while Lois and Clark lived in their own little corner of the world. “Superman II” expands on the Space Jesus motif from the first movie: Christopher Reeve’s Superman is pretty much portrayed as a demigod who gave up his incredible strength for personal desires and mortal folly and let everyone down, before he thankfully regains his powers via a crystal ex machina. The film also implies that Clark has a bit more of a vindictive streak than he lets on. He baits Zod into a false sense of security before he crushes his hand and tosses him down a chasm to die. Keep in mind, that unlike in “Man Of Steel”, the threat has already been defused at this point, so this is clearly Supes wanting some payback, and I can’t say I blame him in the slightest. I also find it hilarious how as soon as Lois realizes what’s happening, she decides she wants in on that action and shoves Zod’s lieutenant down there after him. Later, Clark goes to teach that Rocky guy a lesson, and having learned his own lesson from the last time, he waits until after he’s gotten his powers to do it, so he doesn’t get his ass beat again. Whilst he’s saving the day, Superman proves he has a good mix of brains and brawns. He lures the Zod Squad away to the Arctic when he realizes Metropolis won’t survive their onslaught, and he tricks Lex Luthor into helping him defeat Zod, because Lex is so predictably two-faced he knew he couldn’t help but try to betray him.
Developing their dynamic from the previous film, Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder have some lovely chemistry as Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Despite pretending to be foppish and ineffectual in many other areas, one thing Clark always stands his ground on, without or without the cape, is his personal convictions. With Clark’s unbridled optimism constantly combating against Lois’ jaded cynicism, Lois and Clark bounce off each other well as foils and trade some good snark with each other day to day about their respective flaws. Lately though, their dynamic has started to charge. Lois is starting to become aware of Clark’s feelings for her, even though she doesn’t really return them, and she’s starting to grow suspicious of him. Lois is starting to realize Clark is always absent when Superman appears, and that without his glasses, Clark sure looks a lot like Superman, which leads to one of the funniest scenes of the movie: Lois tries to get Clark to out himself by throwing herself into a raging river. Yeah, Lois is kind of nuts (but we all still love her). Funny thing is, this scene is entirely in-character for her, because Lois Lane did a lot of crazy stuff during the silver era (like that time she decided to try out being black and gave herself a race lift for a story). In any case, Lois finally discovers Clark’s secret, and as a result, her whole demeanor subtly changes for the rest of the movie; her brash, sardonic outer shell falls away to expose the romantic dreamer within. As previously established, Superman brings out a different side of Lois that she’s been protecting ever since she stopped being a girl, a side that likes to dream of impossible things and support impossible heroes, and occasionally indulge in a bit of whimsy. Lois becomes a more soft-spoken character in the second half of the film because she holds a great deal of respect for Superman and feels humbled by his origins, even if Clark would rather just be an ordinary man.
It’s very refreshing for Lois to be in the know throughout this movie: she always tries to be understanding and always tries to be there as someone Clark can confide in, like she promised she would be, but it’s also very clear that Lois feels increasingly out of her depth. Up until now, Lois has almost started to regard Superman as a benevolent god, a modern mythological figure. Now she’s being confronted by the fact that he’s also still a man, he’s still very fallible, and he can still be injured, and it’s a definite shock to her. Lois is pretty mortified when Clark is assaulted and beaten to a pulp by Rocky (how great is it when she jumps into that brawl and straight up attacks Rocky?), and the confrontation with Zod really puts her through her wringer. Having been suddenly confronted by Superman’s mortality, Lois is terrified for Clark when he has to face three super-powered tyrants who can actually kill him, especially since the fate of her world is also on the line. Superman triumphs over Zod, because it’s what he does, but Lois’ fears and her inferiority complex next to Superman remain afterwards. Lois has to deal with the fact that as much as she loves Clark, he can never be just hers. He’s married to his job, and she has to share him with the whole world, all while feeling worried about him every time he goes out to fight crime; the stress of that breaks her heart. So Clark wipes her mind. Yeah, the amnesia kiss kind of comes out of nowhere, and it’s portrayed as a quiet sacrifice on Clark’s part – he’s giving up the relationship he could have with Lois for her happiness and peace of mind – but it’s also kind of creepy. Knowing Lois, she wouldn’t want Clark to do that for her or appreciate him doing it without her permission. And since the last five minutes of the film reset Lois and Clark right back to the status quo, it almost makes Lois’ whole journey and character growth throughout this film feels pointless. I’ve never been fond of the reset button in moves and TV shows when it comes to resetting character development, but it is what it is I suppose.
I do love the Zod Squad, because all three of these space fugitives are crazy as hell and they chew so much scenery throughout the movie. General Zod and his soldiers are a trio of mutineers (decked out from head to toe in leather of course, just so we know they’re evil) who tried to overthrow the science council on Krypton, but were instead banished to the Phantom Zone, which ironically saved their lives until Superman’s time. General Zod is a massive ham, but a cold one. He’s callous and reserved, but he houses some serious anger issues behind a seemingly even temperament. He’s an experienced soldier, with a long military background, so the general is a very efficient strategist and a fairly ruthless usurper when it comes to overthrowing authority figures and making his way up a chain of power. Zod is very egotistical, power-hungry and self-aggrandizing; he wants to rule because he feels he deserves glory, he never misses an opportunity to assert his authority, and he loves to boast about himself in the third person (which is so goofy, but the movie plays it entirely straight, and I love it for that). Zod is flanked by his two subordinates, Ursa and Non. Ursa is Zod’s second-in-command, and a total vamp as far as villainesses go. She’s arrogant, cruel and sadistic, and she’s apparently something of a misandrist. She holds nothing but contempt towards every man she encounters that isn’t Zod, who is the only man she knows that’s earned her respect and devotion by being as brutal and goal-focused as she is (it’s easy to assume Zod and Ursa are very involved, in more ways than one). Non is the near-silent muscle of the trio. He’s a total brute, occasionally seems more like like an animal than a person, and his own partners make it clear he’s not that bright, but he follows orders well and he’s every bit as loyal to Zod as Ursa. On Krypton, Zod, Ursa and Non were simple usurpers, three mutinous soldiers with delusions of grandeur, but on Earth they’re far more dangerous.
The trio, Zod in particular, still believe in Kryptonian supremacy when it comes to their place in the universe: they will settle for nothing less than humanity bowing at their feet, and they’re more than capable of making that happen. As goofy as the Zod Squad can be, they can also just as easily be frightening. The spark of humanity and the world humans have created for themselves over the years is so fragile compared to them, they might as well be conquering a world made of cardboard, allowing them to easily bully whoever they please. The first film devoted a lot of time to establishing Superman’s powers, but his principles as well. To quote another famous superhero franchise, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. The Zod Squad’s presence in this movie allows us to see for the first time how devastating Superman’s nearly unlimited power can be without his morality, and the Phantom Zone trio relish it – they lord it over every human character they encounter. The Superman films are usually pretty campy and silly when it comes to their tone, so it’s very jarring, disturbing and effective when characters actually die horribly, like an early scene of the trio straight-up murdering a group of astronauts on the moon, or the group razing a line of troops come to fight them. “Superman II” takes it’s time building up these villains, as they progress from experiencing culture shock, to menacing rednecks, to rejuvenating their plans for world domination. Conquering humanity isn’t as fun or challenging as Zod thought it would be, so he sets his sights on fighting Superman, partly for excitement and partly so he can get revenge on his old jailer’s son. The last act of the film is devoted to the Zod Squad’s 3-1 fight with Superman, and it is awesome. My only complaint is (like Clark’s time-traveling trick in the first film) it makes the Kryptonian race a bit too OP. In addition to their standard power set, they pull all sorts of other powers out of nowhere towards the end, like teleporting, telekinesis, the ability to make holograms of themselves, and of course, amnesia kisses.
Gene Hackman reprises his role as Superman’s arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, and he’s as darkly funny as ever as the evil businessman, without overshadowing the new villainous trio. I think “Superman II” is one of the last times Lex Luthor works really well as an antagonist in a Superman movie, because the Superman movies really have an obsession with Lex Luthor. Most of the Superman films seem to have Lex as the main villain or a side villain, to the point where the other members of Clark’s rogues gallery like Darkseid, Doomsday, Braniac and Bizarro must really hate him for hogging the spotlight every time. In any case, Lex still hasn’t given up on his real estate schemes and he’d love to get some revenge on Superman for foiling his plan in the last movie, even if he’s currently doing time in prison. However, he finally gets smart and decides to ditch his two comedy relief lackeys, the bumbling oaf Otis and the flighty airhead, Miss Tessmacher. Amusing as they are, they’re a liability and they cramp his style, so Lex flies solo for much of “Superman II”. He pokes around Superman’s home base in the Arctic, which Clark leaves unprotected most of the time, to try to find another weak spot in the Man of Steel’s defenses, and he manages to hit the jackpot. Lex proposes the glorious idea of a supervillain team-up to the Zod Squad, and is basically willing to sell out his entire race to some alien tyrants so he can get some notoriety. Lex is as smarmy, greedy and ambitious as ever, brimming with bluster (whether it’s earned or not) and is no doubt planning on out-playing them, but there’s definitely a sense that he’s a bitten off more than he can chew this time and is dealing with villains above his league. Aside from their mutual hatred towards Clark, Lex and the Phantom Zone trio have nothing in common and they can back up their threats in a way Lex can’t, so it’s a lot of fun watching Zod make Lex squirm again and again. Lex also lets Superman outsmart him during the climax. Clark made the mistake of underestimating Lex in the last film, and he clearly resolved not to make it again.
Richard Lester’s direction for “Superman II” isn’t quite as dynamic as Richard Donner’s work in the first film (heh, two Riches), but it still manages to impress with it’s sleekness and immersiveness, particularly during some of the meatier scenes in the film: like Lois’ ride down the raging rapids and Superman’s brawl with the Phantom Zone trio in the climax. In addition to the usual back-lot shoots for Metropolis, there was quite a bit of location shooting done for the movie in middle America and Paris, France. Lester wanted to emphasize the humor of the story as much as the pathos and the mythological elements, which eventually led to “Superman III” and “Superman IV” becoming so silly that they became parodies of themselves, but with “Superman II”, Lester’s approach paid off incredibly well, since the final film is completely hilarious. Like I mentioned before, the final cut of the film flows surprisingly well, considering it’s basically a hodgepodge of footage captured by Richard Donner and Richard Lester a year apart, and the only really noticeable drop in quality from the first film is that the flying scenes for Superman and Zod Squad seem more awkward and stilted. Replacing John Williams, Ken Thorne composes the score for “Superman II”, and basically expands on the catalog of material from the first film. Rather delightfully, Ken Thorne’s score is mostly made up of variations on the themes and leitmotifs from the previous movie, including the lovely Lois and Clark love theme, considering the greater amount of focus their romance gets in this sequel. There’s also a peppier, extended version of the Superman March from Thorne, which does a excellent job of drawing the audience back into the Donner-verse during the main titles recap.
“Superman II” is a rare example of a really good sequel that does everything a sequel ought to do: it tells a fun story, develops the themes and ideas from the original film further, and fleshes out the two lead characters. While not quite as strong as it’s predecessor, “Superman II” would also go onto influence the superhero genre years down the line.
* Yeah, the planet Krypton in these movies is still giving me Star Wars vibes.
* “Mr. White, that’s terrible” “That’s why they call them terrorists, Kent”.
* “I hope you don’t have many sins to be forgiven, because if you let go of that, you’ll only have ten seconds to list them”. I think becoming a terrorist would be pretty high up on the list.
* Wait, that was the police’s plan? Just drop the bomb down an elevator shaft and let it fall several hundred stories until it hit the street? Even if the bomb wasn’t already primed, how did they not expect that to make it explode?
* Guys, don’t become terrorists if you’re not ready and willing to be blown to bits by your own bomb.
* But the Phantom Zone prison exploded right next to Clark in space, how did he not notice that?
* “This is our genuine bearskin rug-” “Gee, real polyester!”
* “Look at this, Lois. A complimentary corsage” “Oh sure, everything’s complimentary, until you get the bill”.
* “Now, what are we gonna do about our sleeping arrangements?” “Mr. Smith – the complimentary couch”.
* “Lex, how could you do that to Otis?!” “What else is ballast for?”
* “You know, Lois, we should hold hands. Everyone else is doing it” “You know what I think? They’re afraid to let go, cause as soon as they let go, they’re off straight to the lawyers”.
* Man, this boy is dumb, even by movie standards.
* “Lois, you are amazing. Here we are in front of one of Nature’s most awesome spectacles, and you’re still thinking about food!”
* “After eons of harmony, there appeared among us three rebel elements. What you on Earth would call ‘criminals'”. “Criminals? My kind of people”.
* “You’re what I thought was Superman?” “Sorry, Lois” “This is really embarrassing”.
* Snake murder.
* I just have to ask: if Zod, Ursa and Non didn’t have powers inside the Phantom Zone, then why haven’t they aged a day since they were imprisoned decades ago?
* “Please, sir, let my daddy down!” I’m sure there’s a very interesting, untold story about why there’s this one British kid in a town full of rednecks.
* “Look, they need metal machines to fly!” “What bravery, be kind to them, dear. Blow them a kiss”.
* “I’ll kneel before you, if it will save lives” “It will, starting with your own”.
* “Dear, god” “No, Zod”.
* So, how did Lois and Clark get back from the North Pole without Clark’s powers?
* “Come to me, Superman! Come and kneel before Zod! ZODDD!!!” Zod being crazy on live TV always makes me laugh.
* “FATHER!!!” How dramatic of you, Clark. These movies are still giving me Star Wars vibes.
* “What an undemanding male this Superman must be” “Yeah, you could use a tuck here and there yourself, sister” I really love Lois.
* “Superman, thank god” Lex, you traitor.
* “My baby, someone save my baby!” Well, you could save your baby yourself by moving out of the way, lady.
* “I never thought this thing would go the distance”.
* “Why do you say these things, when you know I’ll kill you for them?”
* “Scruffy, so morbid. A sentimental replica of a planet long since vanished. No style at all”.
* Thanks to “Superman II” and “Man Of Steel”, Superman / General Zod has gradually become one of my crack ships.
* “We did it, Superman! We stopped-” “IT’S TOO LATE FOR THAT, LUTHOR! IT’S TOO LATE!” It’s good to see Clark is so done with Lex backstabbing Luthor at this point.
* I’d just like to point out that Superman mindwiped Lois, but there’s no indication that he also gave Lex Luthor an amnesia kiss. I’m sure letting Lex retain the top secret location of his fortress of solitude won’t bite Clark in the ass at all in some future movie.
* “I won’t let you down again, sir” *Cough* “Superman Returns” *Cough*.
* “Coming soon: Superman III” Where Superman faces his deadliest foe – Richard Pryor.
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