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Dissecting the Classics – Superman II

June 9, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Last week, I covered 1978’s Superman in anticipation of Wonder Woman (which was fantastic, by the way), and I really enjoyed the conversation that was generated. And since the demand is obviously there, this week is dedicated to its equally beloved sequel. Next week? Something a little more down to earth.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Superman II

American Release Date: June 1, 1981
Directed By: Richard Donner and Richard Lester
Written By: Mario Puzo, David and Leslie Newman
Produced By: Pierre Spengler
Cinematography By: Geoffrey Unsworth (Donner footage) and Robert Paynter (Lester footage)
Edited By:
Music By: Ken Thorne and John Williams
Production Company: Dovemead Limited, Film Export A.G., International Film Production
Distributed By: Warner Bros. and Columbia-EMI-Warner
Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman
Margot Kidder as Lois Lane
Terence Stamp as General Zod
Sarah Douglas as Ursa
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor
Marlon Brando as Jor-El (The Richard Donner Cut)

What Do We All Know?

1978’s Superman was a smash hit with critics and audiences. With dazzling special effects and an actor who was astonishingly well suited to playing the Man of Steel, it made one of the biggest pop icons of the century feel real for millions. Obviously, had it been released today, a sequel would have been inevitable, but at the time it wasn’t always commonplace. But Richard Donner had plans right away, planting the seeds for part II in the film’s first scene. One could say that, along with The Empire Strikes Back, Superman II brought the modern serial into existence.

Of course, Donner never did get to finish Superman II; after a falling out with the producers, Donner left with “approximately 75% of the film” complete and the rest of the film fell on Richard Lester, who had to direct over half of the film to get credit. The result is a strange chimera of a film, and eventually, the 2006 “Richard Donner Cut” that is like a totally different film. The split was definitely a source of controversy, with Gene Hackman refusing to contribute further and Marlon Brando’s scenes cut altogether for financial reasons. In spite of all that, many fans consider Superman II superior to the original.

What Went Right?

A lot of what was good about the original film carries over to this one. Christopher Reeve is still pitch perfect as Superman, and is arguably better in this since he has more complex material to work with. Margot Kidder gets more screentime this time around, and while Gene Hackman is more or less a bit player, he is still selling the hell out of his interpretation of Lex Luthor. And if you are watching the Donner Cut, Marlon Brando is still dependably excellent in his brief scenes as Jor-El. The innovative special effects are top notch, with the film’s second to last set piece still being impressive today.

What makes Superman II stand out from its predecessor is the presence of General Zod and his fellow evil Kryptonians. With a threat that equals or succeeds his own power, Kal-El is now placed in a more dangerous situation and feels more vulnerable. It’s an excellent direction for the series to go in, as Superman vs. Alien Invaders is about the only major theme the first film doesn’t touch on. Clark is the embodiment of everything we hope aliens will be; compassionate, kind, willing to share his power for the good of everyone. It stands to reason he would defend us from the aliens who embody our greatest fears. And fortunately, we have Terence Stamp, who plays Zod so effectively that his schtick of bored dictator actually plays instead of feeling silly… most of the time.

Also, while I have problems with the mechanics of each, Lois finding out Clark is Superman and Clark giving up his powers are creative ideas that do work in context. It took what was always teased in comics and ran with it, allowing DC’s most famous couple to actually be a couple and largely establishing how that dynamic works. And Superman having consequences to his choice to stay with Lois adds weight to it, giving Superman a moral dilemma and some added tragedy to him regaining his powers. And the scene with him getting his ass kicked in the bar is one of the film’s best.

The film also surprisingly benefits from having two cuts. I would argue that the original version works better as a sequel, in that if you haven’t watched the original in a while, it establishes the status quo again before changing things. The Donner Cut works better as a binge watching experience, tying up the loose ends of the first film and wrapping things up nicely. Both are very different movies, and the choice of which to see is a nice novelty.

What Went Wrong?

Hoo boy, this is gonna be complicated. With two versions, there are two sets of problems, and there’s also a recurring issue in both cuts. Lester’s cut has a long opening in Paris that is creative and designed to show off Superman’s usual workday. It also has some of the cheesiest dialogue I’ve ever seen in an otherwise good movie. The film also ends on a sour note with a magic kiss that makes Lois forget Clark is Superman. I know Superman has a lot of crazy powers as the plot demands, but this has always been a serious “WTF?” moment for me.

The Donner Cut removes those aspects from the script, but the cost of other stupid aspects. The entire opening highlight reel feels like a “Last time on…” segment from a TV show, and the extra Phantom Zone footage is just goofy and makes Zod and company look like jokes. Instead of the kiss, we have Superman going back in time again to save the city and make Lois forget. This was always where Donner planned to have the time travel sequence before it was moved to Superman, and makes more sense in terms of resetting the status quo. But since there is no “Donner Cut” of the first film, it is just the same plot point all over again.

So either cut has its faults, but both have a couple of problems. Something that annoys me is how dumb the normal people are so that Superman can save them. The kid at Niagara Falls is the worst, and how the scene didn’t end with Clark reprimanding him and his inattentive parents is beyond me. Later on in Metropolis, there is a mother with her child in a stroller and instead of running out of the way, she covers her baby from a falling building! At this point, my inner Darwinist is screaming. Say what you will about the first film, the set ups for Superman saving people never felt contrived or forced.

But for me, the real problem is a lack of urgency. Zod, Ursa and Non take out a moon mission, terrorize a small town, and takes over the White House. What was Superman doing? Spending time at Niagara Falls with Lois Lane (in an investigation that accomplishes nothing and is dropped entirely), showing her the Fortress of Solitude, and then giving up his powers to be human. I’m sorry, but the dissonance between an ongoing crisis and Superman and Lois in bed together is just jarring.

What Went Really Right?

For me, Superman II is riddled with distracting problems that make most of its runtime a chore to sit through, which is why I always prefer the original. But what Superman II does so well is deliver a climax worthy of the grandeur of these two films. The battle in Metropolis is a great spectacle, and unlike Man of Steel, the writers knew that protecting people at any cost is Superman’s top priority. It helps to illustrate the key differences between Clark and the Kryptonians.

The Fortress of Solitude confrontation is even better, for my money. Instead of a throwdown, we get a mental chess match between Zod and Superman. I love how Lex betrays Superman and how he anticipates it to turn things to his advantage. And while I’m not huge on the power draining, it is a clever callback to make that the solution. Whether the death of Zod and everyone else is a negative or not is up for debate, but it works for the film.

Superman II is absolutely a good film and a worthy sequel to the original. For me, it isn’t quite a classic, but the highs are really high and make a lasting impression. Despite lacking any real presence in most comics, Zod is still an iconic Superman villain because of this movie. Clark and Lois’ dynamic as a couple was really started here as well. If it’s a classic for you, that’s awesome. I certainly enjoyed going back to revisit it.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie

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