The success of Superman: The Movie all but assured a sequel, and fortunately, producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind decided to make two Superman films concurrently: the debut and the all-but-guaranteed sequel. Unfortunately, Superman II had a myriad of problems, problems that affected its success (artistic, not financial). Superman II was taken over by another director because the Salkinds and Superman director Richard Donner no longer could work together. Richard Lester, who had helmed the Salkinds Three and Four Musketeers, took over, and the end results are obvious. While Superman II is not a terrible film, it did soon start veering towards more comedy than perhaps it should have. It also introduced plot points that in the future would muddle things for future Superman features (even those without Christopher Reeve, but that's for another time). It might even have sown the seeds for the three successive disasters from which the Man of Steel has yet to fully recover from.
Terrorists have taken the Eiffel Tower, and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) has rushed to the site. Her Daily Planet coworker, Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) was completely unaware of what was going on in Paris (oddly, this seems to be a recurring theme in Superman II, but more on that later). As Superman, he races to Paris, saving Lois and throwing the hydrogen bomb they've placed into outer space; this however, has an unforeseen effect: the explosion destroys the Phantom Zone where three villains briefly seen in Superman were placed: Non (Jack O'Halloran), a mute giant of a Kryptonian, Ursa (Sarah Douglas), the femme fatale of the group, and General Zod (Terence Stamp), who attempted to lead a coup and take over Krypton. Now free from their imprisonment, they make their way to this planet called "Houston".
Also making a daring escape is Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), with a little help from Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), in the process leaving poor Otis (Ned Beatty) in prison. Luthor has put all his mental prowess to good use: attempting to locate Superman's lair. With a little aid from his latest gadget he finds the Fortress of Solitude and also learns of the Three Supervillains (and that they would have the same powers as Superman). Luthor thinks that would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Meanwhile, back in Metropolis, Lois and Clark are sent to Niagara Falls to investigate a honeymoon scam. Lois is putting together the fact that Superman and Clark are never at the same place at the same time. At first, she believes she is wrong about her 'Clark and Superman are one and the same' theory when Superman fails to come to her rescue when she deliberately attempts to be a damsel in distress, but when Clark trips and his hand literally is put in the fire but he comes out unscathed Clark is forced to reveal all.
|Faster than a speeding bullet...
That's not the only thing he reveals when he "takes her to his place". In the Fortress of Solitude Kal-El speaks to his long-dead mother Lara (Susannah York) about what would happen if he wishes to be with Lois (whether he means in the Biblical sense or not I leave to you). He is told that if he is to be with a mortal, he must be AS a mortal (begging the question, are Kryptonians...immortal?). However, once he goes into a chamber where his powers will be stripped and he will become a mere mortal, THERE CAN BE NO GOING BACK...his powers will disappear FOREVER. Superman chooses love, and now AS A MORTAL, ORDINARY MAN he and Lois consummate their love.
Sadly, this could not come at a worse time, for General Zod and his Crew have conquered Houston...well, East Houston, Idaho, but soon the rest of the Earth falls into line. Sadly, while even the defeated President (E.G. Marshall) calls for Superman, the Man of Steel is on a date and far too busy to notice an invasion (see how his lack of knowledge/interest is a recurring theme). Zod and his underlings soon find their conquest rather boring...a bit like Megamind, but I digress.
Enter Luthor, who is the only person on Earth who knows that Zod, Ursa, and Non are the enemies of Jor-El and his Son, who is now merely a mortal man. In exchange for letting Luthor rule over Australia, he delivers if not Kal-El, the next best thing...his girlfriend. During this time, when Superman has disappeared, he goes back to the Fortress and finds something...and then Superman Returns!
A battle between Kryptonians appears to end in a draw, and just when Zod tires of Luthor he offers the General something just as good...Superman's address. Up in the Fortress of Solitude, Superman and Zod again fight, but threats against Lois are enough to have him all but surrender. However, using Luthor's deviousness, the Last Son of Krypton is able to defeat all his enemies and bring peace on Earth once again.
As I watched Superman II, I kept getting more and more disappointed. I should know that Superman II is the work of Richard Donner as well as Richard Lester, but somehow the epic nature of Superman, and especially the seriousness of the first one, seemed to vanish. To my mind, a lot of Superman II felt almost like a joke, veering towards camp. What can one say about how poor Otis is dispatched...the joke that he is so fat that he literally pulls the balloon down whenever he tries to climb up the ladder.
As a side note, Superman II felt no compulsion to get rid of characters once they were no longer needed. I wondered whatever happened to Miss Teschmacher once she helped Lex find the Fortress of Solitude...
Continuing on this "Superman II is a bit of a joke" motif is when Zod, Ursa, and Non arrive in East Houston, Idaho (already calling the town "East Houston" when the trio believe the planet is called "Houston" is already pushing credibility). The entire 'encountering hicks and laying waste to a backwater town' thing is already a hackneyed idea, but the execution leaves much to be desired. First, the special effects, a hallmark of what made Superman a brilliant film, look less convincing and almost cheap (obvious rear screen projections for example). Second, the three villains looked almost bored being there, as if saying, 'I guess we have to conquer this place'. The worst decision involving "East Houston" was to hire Clifton James to play the Sheriff. James played the exact same role in two James Bond films (Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun), and that's the FIRST thing I said when I saw James (it's Sheriff Culpepper!). In the Bond films, Culpepper is played for laughs, but when he is pulling the same shtick in Superman II that he did in the Bond films, it just falls so utterly flat. Not only do we think he's doing the same thing (I'd be amazed if it wasn't the same CHARACTER) but the situation calls for serious, almost terror, not humor.
The big sequence that robs Superman II of the tension and menace the Kryptonian Trio are suppose to have is the battle between a fully regenerated Superman and Zod & Company. These groups are suppose to be fighting an epic battle, but one wonders why the humans didn't have enough sense to hide or stay indoors. Instead, we are treated to bits after bits that don't stretch believability but look downright stupid. Zod, Ursa, and Non are using their super-strength to blow massive wind towards the public, but does the public attempt to hide from the chaos they've witnessed? No, they're eating ice cream (allowing for it to fly into people's faces), they try to get their chicken home (and get blown away), the continue making phone calls (apparently oblivious to how the phone booth has crashed and is barely holding them in place) and we even have a guy with the unfortunate luck to be in ROLLER SKATES when all this is going on.
I looked at this and said, this is stupid. Lester is more known for having comedy bits, and there isn't much wrong with that (the sequence where Lois attempts to unmask Clark by putting herself in danger may not be too funny, but it at least is logical). However, scenes like this (where it looked like it was filmed in massive soundstages with models of cars and buses) took away from anything that can be called either 'exciting' or 'intelligent'.
|Kneel Before Zod!
An Iconic Line...
Going on about intelligence, there are plot points that I find infuriating. The entire "Superman becomes Man" bit was just idiotic. Allow me to make my case. First, I kept wondering how curious it was that he apparently had never asked what would happen if he wanted to mate with a human (given there were no Kryptonian Mingle sites he could go to). Second, I thought it was rather insensitive to not ask Lois what SHE wanted (after all, she really had fallen in love with Superman, not Clark Kent).. Third, I never understood why he had to give up his Kryptonianism to be with a human. Is this a bit like EDWARD CULLEN, a man so perfect that the mildest sex with him could kill you?
Finally, we have this "one and done" bit. Lara (and the screenplay by Mario Puzo and David and Leslie Newman with Tom Mankiewicz as 'creative consultant) made it clear that once he made that choice, there was no way he could become Superman again. Guess what happens...he becomes Superman again! Despite this constant declaration of Mommie Dearest that if he goes into the chamber he comes out a mere mortal, by the end we have the most fortuitous turn of events that allow Superman to rise once more. That kind of Deus Ex Machina explanation always irritates me to no end because we are asked to invest emotionally in something only to find, 'surprise...just messing with you. We found an easy way out'.
When Wynken, Blynken and Zod are defeated, it is done so quickly and so easily and so almost unenthusiastically one barely notices how quickly it all goes.
There were a lot of things Superman II could have done better. There was a disjointed sense to things, introducing characters and situations, dropping them, and bringing them back without much structure. For example, what would have been so wrong with starting Superman II with Luthor's escape and then having the Kryptonian Trio's story told to him before the Parisian bomb released them? Maybe Luthor himself could have used the Eiffel Tower heist as a way to get the explosion into space and thus having Zod pledge loyalty to Luthor...see how that works so well?
Also, whatever happened to Lois & Clark's Niagara assignment?
In a film like Superman II, one really shouldn't wonder about things like that. Just a thought.
Also, I need to remind people, when Kent and Lane got it on, he was a MERE MORTAL. This will prove VITAL in the future; remember that, because I will make reference to it again at a later date (no pun intended).
And seriously...Lois forgets everything about Clark's true identity with a KISS? A KISS? Talk about your easy and quick ways out of an impossible dilemma...
What good things come in Superman II are courtesy of some of the actors. Hackman is closer to parody than true menace as Lex Luthor, but he still manages to pull off a mixture of raging ego and a light touch in his own self-aggrandizement. Stamp is commanding as Zod, one who is used to giving orders and how rarely if ever goes on tirades. The best villains are the ones that don't go unhinged on you, and Stamp manages that (even if at times he looks almost bored with everything). Kidder and Reeve have a great scene when she discovers Clark Kent's secret identity: underplayed with little to no dramatics, and their comic bits are the rare ones that work. It is also a credit to the movie that Lois Lane is seen working it out rather than just come across Superman's alter ego.
The sleeping together bit, maybe not so much. Kidder herself in the definitive Superman documentary Look, Up in the Sky! has said that she in retrospect thought Lois and Clark should not have slept together. "I would side with the prudes on that one," she remarked.
Superman II is not a terrible film (certainly not when compared to what would come later) and in some parts the film works. However, for me the magic is gone. The effects look less convincing, the comedy bits too distracting, the villains not as memorable or even good (though yes, Stamp's constant calls for people to 'Kneel Before Zod" have become part of the vernacular...odd fixation Zod had on people kneeling before him...) and the resolutions far too pat for my liking (a crystal and a kiss allow for everything to basically be reset). It's a lesser film that what came before, but what came afterwards...
Alternate Version of Superman II
Next Superman Film: Superman III