Superman II (1980) – Directed by Richard Lester (and Richard Donner; uncredited) – Starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Jackie Cooper, Sarah Douglass, Jack O’Halloran, Ned Beatty, Mark McClure, Valerie Perrine, Clifton James, E.G. Marshall, and John Ratzenberger.
SUPERMAN II is an insanely frustrating movie that is, in large parts, quite brilliant, and in smaller parts, quite maddeningly daft.
In my review of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, I noted how I wasn’t a big fan of that movie as a kid, but now really dig it. It’s not quite the opposite with SUPERMAN II, because the parts I loved about this movie as a kid I still love, but where I was willing to accept the downer parts then, I have very little patience for them now. The good parts of SUPERMAN II (and I’m reviewing the Richard Lester-directed version today; I’ll get to the re-cut Richard Donner version next) are so good that I suffer through the bad parts, but where the first film offered a coherent vision of Golden Age comics brought to life in the modern cinema, SUPERMAN II is a disjointed mess that introduces far too much camp and far too much melodrama into the mix, and the end result is a film that sits right on the edge of working beautifully, but ends up only working adequately.
What frustrates me most about SUPERMAN II is the way the film toys with my emotions. When Zod (Terence Stamp) or Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) are on the screen, I become convinced that this movie is going to be awesome. But then Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) pop up to do their milquetoast/harpy routine and I become convinced the movie is going over Niagra Falls.
I’ll gladly rank Stamp’s performance as General Zod alongside any other performance by an actor playing a super villain, but there’s just not enough here in terms of character to make Zod the equal of Heath Ledger’s Joker or Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus. Zod is a bit of a one-trick pony who is unbelievably preoccupied with making people “Kneel before Zod.” That Stamp makes Zod so memorable simply by carrying himself with such a grand sense of bored superiority is quite amazing, given that the movie opens with him and his henchmen trapped in the Phantom Zone, and that they only escape because Superman sends a missile into space to save the Eiffel Tower.
Zod, Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) are freed from the Phantom Zone near the moon, and they proceed to kill an international team of astronauts, just because that’s what they do. They decide these humans represent an easy conquest and so decide to go to the planet Houston, because that’s who the astronaut in the command module was talking to. This idea of Zod getting the planet name wrong works very well in the film because it adds a bit of levity without diminishing his character. The three of them end up in East Houston, Idaho, which they proceed to take over due to their new, yellow-sun based powers.
It’s in East Houston where the film starts to let the Phanton Zone escapees down a bit. They take themselves super seriously, but the locals are, well, a bit of the yokel variety. In fact, if they didn’t tell you the action was taking place in Idaho, you might think (as I would) that we were in rural Mississippi or Georgia, given the presence of the town sheriff, played by the consummate “Southern Sheriff” actor, Clifton James. Fighting the locals is one thing, but when the military shows up, things start to fall apart because if Joe Arm Wrestler wants to act like a doofus it’s not a big deal, but when the military acts like a bunch of incompetent extras, it hurts the film’s effectiveness.
Like SUPERMAN, SUPERMAN II has stuff happen just because the story needs it to happen – so when Zod, Ursa, and Non attack the White House, they’re almost instantly given control of the entire world. This kind of storytelling worked better in SUPERMAN because there was a nostalgic quality to Donner’s film, which felt like a large modern fairy tale. SUPERMAN II does not have that same quality to it, even if the script offers up a few of those moments that you’re just supposed to accept and go along with.
One thing that SUPERMAN II does exceptionally well is in its use of multiple villains. Last film offered up Luthor and two henchmen, but Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) are barely in II. They’re not missed as Luthor’s relationship with the Kryptonians is magnificent to watch. Luthor reveals himself to be able to think on the fly. He finds a way to insert himself into Zod’s takeover (he wants control of Australia), and he continually makes himself useful after Zod accepts his help and then tries to dismiss him. Hackman imbues Luthor with a bit of hucksterism, but you can also see Lex always working the angles to his own benefit.
The film’s best scene comes at the end, when Zod tries to dismiss Luthor once again while at the Fortress of Solitude. Luthor cozies up to Superman, who tells him to get the Kryptonians in the special pod that robbed him of his powers earlier in the film, but then Luthor betrays Superman and the Kryptonians order him into the container. When Luthor turns the machine on, it’s the Kryptonians outside the container who get their powers stripped.
It’s a fantastic ending. I love that the climax to the film depicts Superman winning by out-thinking rather than out-punching his opponents.
The worst part of the movie, however, is the idiotic Clark/Lois arc. For reasons known only to him, Perry White (Jackie Cooper) sends Lois and Clark – two of his very best reporters – to go undercover at a cheap motel at Niagra Falls to determine if the hotel is running a scam on its guests. We have to watch Clark fumble around and awkwardly hit on Lois, and Lois stomp around and complain about how this story isn’t going to win her the Pulitzer.
It’s brutal to watch. Absolutely brutal.
Lois decides that Clark is Superman and puts that theory to the test by jumping into the fast rapids at the Falls. Clark does not switch outfits and jump in to save her, which is kinda awesome. One imagines he would out himself if Lois’ life was really in danger, but it’s not so he lets the rapids push her forwards until Clark can realistically help her out of the water. His secret identity secure, he then trips into a fire and outs himself. This leads to him flying Lois to the Fortress of Solitude, where he almost instantly decides he’s so in love with Lois that he has to step inside the magic box and have his powers stripped away from him.
I don’t really understand why he has to strip himself of his powers to be Lois’ boyfriend, but the film apparently thought it needed some falsely elevated drama. On the good side, a de-powered Clark gets his ass kicked at a diner, but on the bad side, when he decides he has to get his powers back to help defeat Zod, he walks back to the Fortress. Alone.
Yup. Lois doesn’t go with him. He does’t rent a car. Or plane. Or team of sled dogs. He just walks through the bitter cold, all by himself, because …
Because it looks better on screen, one supposes.
SUPERMAN II is a disjointed mess, but Stamp and Hackman make it worth not only a watch, but repeated viewings. The film demonstrates why it’s important to have a consistent vision. What the film lacks beyond that consistent vision is Superman. After Clark gets his powers back, all of the Superman vs. Bad Guys action is decent.
There’s another questionable ending. In the previous film, Clark spun back time to save Lois, and here, he erases her memory of Clark and Superman being the same person. That’s creepy. And wrong. Maybe even more wrong than allowing the Kryptonians to fall to their death at the end of the movie.
I like SUPERMAN II but there are parts that are incredibly tough to watch.