Superman II (1980) Review

Superman II (1980) Director: Richard Lester

“Good afternoon, Mr. President. Sorry I’ve been away so long. I won’t let you down again.”

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Superman II presents some corny laughs and a handful of emotionally gripping scenes, but the rest of the film is just painfully mediocre in my view –it is awkward, grainy, and in many ways underwhelming in contrast to its magnificent predecessor. I realize that I may be alone in the view that Superman II is somewhat flimsy and overrated. Original Superman director, Richard Donner, who initially began shooting the sequel back-to-back with the original, was fired from the project and replaced by Richard Lester (an intermediary who was hired during the first film when director Richard Donner and producers the Salkinds were no longer on speaking terms). Lester was the memorable director of The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (1964). However, nobody on set seemed to be happy about the directorial change –Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder were somewhat outspoken about Richard Lester’s poor choices, Gene Hackman refused to reappear for reshoots, and lead writer Tom Mankiewicz also declined to participate out of loyalty to Richard Donner. Other creatives were also not involved in the picture –especially cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth who passed away (to whom the original film was dedicated) and John Barry (of Star Wars fame) who also suddenly died. Sadly, John Williams also refused to participate in this film and it was left to Ken Thorne to attempt to emulate the extraordinary Williams score from Superman, albeit rather unconvincingly.

Whereas many movie reviewers seem to regard Superman II as one of the best superhero movies of all time, I found it to be little more than mildly entertaining. With a confluence of different tones –some scenes shot by Donner in the familiar style of epic grandeur, while others were shot in a distilled, static fashion by Lester– the tone of Superman II is simply a mess. And since its release, a Richard Donner cut has also been released –broadly considered a legendary director’s cut among fans (however, I watched the original theatrical Lester version). After a notorious interview with Margot Kidder, the “Donner Cut” was finally released along with Superman Returns (2006).

Needless to say, the plot of this film is a bit haphazard. Superman saves Lois and others from a terrorist bomb at the Eiffel Tower, but the bomb is detonated in space which somehow manages to release the imprisoned insurrectionists led by Zod (Terence Stamp) who were banished to the “phantom zone” in a spinning parallelogram from Krypton by Superman’s father, Jor-El as portrayed at the beginning of Superman (1978). The first half of Superman II concerns the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, as Lois begins to grow suspicious that Clark is secretly Superman. Different scenarios unfold, depending upon whether you watch the theatrical version or the Donner Cut, but Lois tests Clark by leaping out a window, hopping into the rushing waters at Niagara Falls, and she even fires a gun at Clark which is later revealed to be firing nothing more than a blank. In the theatrical version, Clark trips over an animal carpet and falls upon a burning fireplace, but when Lois notices Clark has no injuries, his secret is revealed.

Clark and Lois travel to the “Fortress of Solitude” where Superman professes his love for Lois to an artificially reconstructed image of his mother (notably, Marlon Brando is entirely eliminated from this movie resulting from his infamous salary dispute). Superman then is forced to give up his supernatural powers by stepping into a glass encasing, making him mortal. This moment offers an emotionally gripping twist as Superman must choose between his love for Lois and his powers. After they depart together, Clark is then brutally beaten up by a trucker named Rocky at a diner –one of the more uncomfortable scenes in the film. Clark then trudges back to the “Fortress of Solitude” to hopefully regain his powers.

Meanwhile, Zod and his cronies arrive on Earth and begin causing widespread mayhem –conquering towns and cities until they arrive at the White House and force the President of the United States to his knees. They are joined by Lex Luthor. This band of foreign terrorists invade the Daily Planet and force Metropolis to submit, until Superman arrives at the last moment. A goofy battle sequence ensues with lots of snappy cartoonish comments from bystanders on the city streets below, and in the end, Superman, Zod, Lois, and Lex Luthor all wind back at the “Fortress of Solitude” where Superman unveils odd new powers and he reverses the power-removal effects of the glass casing so that it works on Zod et al, rendering them mortal. They are then easily defeated, order is restored, and –somehow—Superman is able to erase Lois’s memory with a kiss? I guess, it’s better than Superman turning back time once again (as was apparently originally planned). There is also a bit of street justice delivered at the end of the film as Clark Kent returns to the diner where he was defeated earlier and proceeds to beat up the ruffian trucker Rocky who embarrassed him earlier. In the Donner cut, apparently Superman decides to turn back time once again, which raises all sorts of questions.  

In all, this movie is a flawed mixed bag in my view. Why is Superman so willing to relinquish his powers? And how is he able to regain his powers? Wasn’t the process supposed to be irreversible? What are we to make of Superman weaponizing the “S” against Zod at the end? How should we understand Superman erasing Lois’s memory with a kiss? Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder shine in their respective lead roles, and the movie is filled with plenty of corny fun, but it seems to me that it tends to garner more favorable reviews in light of the truly terrible sequels that were to follow Superman III (1983) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). I may be alone in the view that Superman II is not a particularly impressive outing, but at least it’s good for a few chuckles.    

3 thoughts on “Superman II (1980) Review

  1. Personally I felt, more than ever now, that the Superman sequels should have ended with II, having found III quite ridiculous and chose to never bother with IV. I saw Superman Returns and wasn’t as impressed with it as I’d hoped. I think that sequel magic tends to drain after the first sequel in a lot of franchises. Filmmakers may crave the options for more exciting stories and adventures via sequels, or prequels, and so long as the sequel premise is sound, it deserves a chance. But Superman sequels weren’t taken seriously enough and it’s very sad.

    Thank you for your review.

    Liked by 2 people

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