Plot: Led by General Zod (Stamp), three Kryptonian criminals escape from the Phantom Zone where they have been imprisoned, and, discovering the yellow sun gives them phenomenal powers, set out to rule Earth. Meanwhile, Superman (Reeve) reveals his true identity to Lois Lane (Kidder), and transforms himself into an everyday human being - just when the world needs him the most.
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After the big-time success of Superman (1978), Warner Bros. looked to capitalize by coming up with at least two sequels. The first was Superman II, which arrived in the US just in time for summer 1981.
Unfortunately, there were problems along the way. The original director, Richard Donner (who also directed Superman (1978)) was fired during shooting, and new director Richard Lester was brought on board. Veteran actor Marlon Brando (Jor-El) sued for and won for profits from the first film, and was unceremoniously cut from the second – despite still being paid for the second film. Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor) did not return for filming for the second film, and all of his sequences are extra footage shot by Richard Donner from the first film – the rest use a look-alike and voice impersonator.
With all of this unrest in the background, would Superman II still be able to live up to the appeal of the first film, or does it look as thrown together as it actually was?
Christopher Reeve still embodies the 50’s era Superman from the first film and seems even more at ease in the role the second time around. Unfortunately, though, the dramatic sequences that fell so flat in the first film are in greater abundance in Superman II and aren’t much better the second time around. Dealing with much more emotional trauma than in the first film, he seems to view his alter-ego Clark Kent not only as weaker, but less worthy because of that weakness. This showcases a shallow side to Superman that wasn’t apparent in the first film. In fact, the first time he gets into a fight and is overpowered, he immediately scurries off to get his powers back.
General Zod later calls Superman a coward, and while it may not be true in that sequence (he’s merely fleeing to protect the defenseless humans), some of the other sequences of the film do call Superman’s heroism into question. After all, anyone can be heroic if they are superhuman. It takes real guts to be heroic when your life is as fragile as the rest of ours.
Margot Kidder, who’s lost a bit of that shy awestruck quality around Superman, is still decent in this second film. The script this time around gives her and Superman less of that banter that made their relationship so fun before. Surprisingly, her ability to unveil Superman’s alter-ego, while obvious (sorry, Supes, but glasses don’t change a person that much) is actually a bit of a let-down. Half the fun as a viewer was watching Clark Kent try to hide his heroic other half underneath a nerdy charm, and viewers will miss that aspect for most of this second film.
Gene Hackman actually is a bit better in this second film, which is odd considering how pieced together his role is. He seems much better as the man controlling the bad guys, rather than as the only foe. This time, he lets Superman fight it out with Zod and his cronies while he relaxes in the shadows, awaiting the outcome. It’s a much better role for a criminal mastermind (something “Smallville” (TV) picked up on, creating a much more diabolical foe in Luthor than the films ever did).
Sadly, the film shows a bit of that pieced-together look, as new director Richard Lester tries to give viewers a more comic-y film. The result is a mixed bag, as it’s nice to see Superman take on some worthy adversaries in Zod and crew, but there just isn’t that lasting appeal to this second film.
Part of that may be due to the much shoddier effects in this second film, many of which have been brutally ravaged by the passage of time. This is especially true during the first military battle sequence against Zod and crew. Unrealistic looking flames, missiles that obviously miss, and machine guns that make a lot of noise but don’t actually fire anything abound. This first battle between Zod and the “mere humans” should be instilling a dread within the viewers (uh-oh, bad trouble for Superman!). Instead it’s unintentionally comical by this point – which kind of destroys most of the viewer’s reasons to root for Superman.
Sadly, this means that Terence Stamp’s Zod performance goes largely to waste, despite his best efforts. With his co-horts barely contributing anything, it’s up to Stamp to make this trio worthy opponents for Superman. When even the special effects seem to be conspiring against him, it’s no wonder he just can’t manage to do it.
While it is nice to see Superman battling foes that can match him power for power, Superman II has too many problems and obvious plot gaps to really be taken seriously at all. Maybe, Richard Donner’s version (an almost completely different film finally released as “The Donner Cut” on DVD) is better. If Richard Lester’s version is all that’s available, it’s something viewers may take with a heavy heart.
It’s painfully obvious that pieced-together sequel Superman II could have used a lot more fine-tuning before it’s public release.