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Movie Review - Superman II

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

To talk about Superman II, you have to end up talking about two separate films. That’s why it’s been so many months between this and my initial review for Superman: The Movie. [Depending on when this review finally makes it to the web, it actually has a good chance of being a FULL YEAR! Still…beats your pending Transformers 3 review…or…is that still pending? – Ed.] The drama behind the scenes of making Superman and Superman II are the stuff of cinematic legend, and hell, I could go on and on just about that alone. Instead, I’m going to try [Key word that. – Ed.] to keep this article focused on the films themselves. Filming for both movies occurred mostly simultaneous…it was only once the money was running out did the production focus on the first film, hoping to get to part 2 later. With 70% of Superman II already shot and the first film being a run-away success it was a poorly timed comment from Richard Donner about one of the producers in the pages of Variety that would lead to his dismissal from the project…which would now be finished by Richard Lester. In order for Lester to take proper credit for directing the picture, some of the already finished footage would have to be tossed out, replaced by scenes the new director had shot. So, while drawing from mostly the same pool of talent and footage, we as movie watchers end up with two very different films. Lester’s cut is warmly regarded, best exemplified by this consensus offered by Rotten Tomatoes: “The humor occasionally stumbles into slapstick territory…but Superman II meets, if not exceeds, the standard set by its predecessor” but upon viewing 2006’s Richard Donner cut, one has to wonder how much Lester had to do with the aspects of the film that would come to earn that praise.

How these films begin gives us a hint at what’s to come. As these were made in the days where home video and repeat viewings of films were still in their infancy, each film needed to open with some recapping material. Donner’s cut starts with the launch of the XK-101 rockets from Lex’s scheme at the end of the first film. What’s new though is that the rocket that Superman caught and sent off into space? Its detonation is what leads to the release of the 3 Phantom Zone criminals; Zod, Ursa and Non. Lester’s opening reminds us of the criminals (restaging the Phantom Zone scene from the first film, sans Brando) but then moves on to a contrived hydrogen bomb sequence in Paris. Why do I say contrived? Well, first, I’ll be honest, when I first saw Superman II, before the Donner Cut was released…and, you know, I was like, five…I had no problems with the scene. Now? It pisses me off more and more every time I see it. Here’s why. According to Richard Lester, Lois Lane is an idiot. He’ll illustrate this point more and more throughout his cut of the film, but it’s REALLY on display during the Paris scene. It’s important to keep in mind that Lois Lane is in fact a reporter and, to hear Perry White tell it, the best the Daily Planet has, so for her dialog in the scene, we clearly get the impression we’re dealing with a Pullitzer Prize capable journalist: “Hydrogen bomb? Are you sure? That could blow up all of Paris!” That? That right there? That’s some ‘pull no punches’ reporting right there. [Given the state of modern journalism though…perhaps you’re giving Lester a raw deal…maybe he was oddly prescient? – Ed.] Moving past that, how did this situation even develop in the first place? I mean, sure, Superman needs to have some downtime, I get that, but events like this are why Clark Kent chose journalism as a profession to begin with…to get heads up on these type of things the minute they break, not to saunter into the newsroom wondering why everyone is doing their best Barry Allen impression. Anyway, through a series of mishaps and what-have-you, this H-bomb is what ends up cracking the Phantom Zone in Lester’s version…the scene clearly constructed and dictated by where the plot needs to go. Back to Donner’s version, our first look at Lois is in a much quieter Daily Planet newsroom with Luthor’s foiled plot making the headlines. As Clark enters, she notices something odd, grabs a marker and a picture of Superman and…sure enough. She’s figured it out…or at least she thinks she has. Both filmmakers would take this Silver Age trope of Lois constantly trying to prove Clark was Superman and run with it…but Donner’s Lois would show some real intelligence. Lester’s…not so much.

Let’s keep going with this…as both directors do a version of this scene in some fashion. Continuing with Donner’s cut, once Lois feels she’s figured it out, she shows her sketch to Clark…who is visibly shook by this and then seemingly seems to over-act his Clark persona. Lois then opens the window, pronounces that she’s willing to bet her life that he is indeed Superman, then leaps out. This takes place at the very start of the film and thus, gives Lois a character arc; she goes from failing to prove her point, finally ‘checkmating’ Clark into revealing the truth and then ultimately learning the price of her victory and why she has to always stay on the outside. Aside from all the other themes present in the film, this arc brings a ‘starcrossed lovers’ theme into play…a poignant equal-opposite-doomed tone that, again, typically wasn’t associated with comic books in the late 70s (when this was being filmed). The aforementioned ‘checkmate’ scene really highlights that equal aspect. Lois pulls a revolver on Clark, turning around her proclamation from the movie’s opening, “I’m willing to bet YOUR life you’re Superman”, and opens fire. Clark straightens up into his Superman posture and chastises her, “You realize if you’d been wrong, Clark Kent would be dead.” “How? With a blank?” It was a scene Donner felt was so important that it was used in screen testing both Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve. And, given the drama within the production, that’s the footage we get in Donner’s cut…the only version of this scene that was filmed. Yes, the changes in Reeve’s appearance are off-putting…but the power of the scene and to see Lois in a way that she was intended to be yet we wouldn’t really see in media until Lois & Clark in the 90s…it makes you ponder that age old question of “What if…?”.

Let’s switch gears to Lester. So, to continue with that motoring analogy, we’re definitely shifting into a lower gear. Lois starts putting together that Clark and Superman are the same person for two reasons; first, when she cleans his glasses of the spray from Niagara Falls and second from when Superman swoops in to save an idiot kid from falling to his doom at said Niagara Falls. From this, she opts to throw herself in a fast running river (there’s no real sense of how said river is connected to the Niagara, by the way, just that it’s fast). Clark, much like in the Donner version of this “I’m willing to bet my life you’re Superman” scene, finds non-obvious ways to save Lois from herself while never breaking character. This scene, however, leads directly into the revelation. The two are drying off from the earlier misadventure in their hotel room when Lois asks for a brush. Clark, in delivering it, stumbles over the bearskin rug and into the centrally located fireplace…where his hand comes out unscathed. Thus, Lois posits that “maybe your heart wanted to”. So, not only does Lester succeed in making Superman look a little dumb here, but he also once again completely undermines Lois, almost flat-out saying that she’d NEVER figure it out without help from Supes. You know, now that I think about it, given that Lester only had 3 more directorial gigs after his Superman films, it’s my fervent wish that the Feminist Reprogramming Commando Death Squad got their mitts on him. More evidence to this? Of the numerous behind-the-scenes documentaries they’ve made of the Superman films, he’s been absent from every single one. Holy crap! In pulling up Lester’s Wikipedia page…HE’S AMERICAN?!?!? Look, part of the reason I dismissed Lester’s failure in capturing the heart of Superman in his one and a half Superman films is because I assumed he was an English director. I mean, come on, he did two Beatles films. But no, the SOB was born in Philly in 1932…moved to London in 1953…so that gives him, what, 15 years exposure. And, he would’ve been the perfect age for when Superman first appeared in June 1938. God…that makes Superman II and III even MORE disappointing. If that was possible. Hell, Donner was born in 1930…and he clearly gets it! [Let’s try and get this back on track, shall we? – Ed.]

As with the original Superman, we do have to make the concession that these films were made in the 70s, where comic books were still regarded as a children’s medium. Thus, the insertion of gags was simply going to be unavoidable. Donner is certainly guilty of it (the character of Otis exists solely for this purpose), but Lester even moreso…as the jokey nature of things almost threatens to take over the film with the introduction of Clifton James’ sheriff. However, I’m not sure we can point the finger strictly at him for the throw-away character. Tom Mankiewicz was a screenwriter of the James Bond films Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun that would feature James in the role of Louisiana Sheriff J.W. Pepper. That character aside, little gags are present throughout Lester’s version…ESPECIALLY during the climactic showdown in the streets of Metropolis. Just…ugh.

There is one decision that I can’t tear down Lester for…even though it was made for all the wrong reasons…the inclusion of Superman’s mother in the Fortress of Solitude. In the making of the original film, Marlon Brando netted a then-record setting paycheck for such a short period of work, so that when it came time for Jor-El and Lara to bid their infant son farewell, it was Brando that put forth this moving soliloquy from which the God/Jesus undertone of the film comes from. Actress Susannah York even famously asked “Well…what does the mother send?” Well, in Lester’s cut of Superman II, the mother sends girl advice...because using footage already shot of dad was too expensive and would net Marlon Brando another payday. Hell, I know I sought advice about girls from my mom. [And given how successful you were in high school and college…and years after college (and by that I mean not at all)…are you sure that’s a strategy you want to hang on to? – Ed.] In this, it does equal out the parents. [Thus keeping the Feminist Commando Death Squad off of Lester’s scent for a few years for the whole Lois thing. – Ed.] However, it does completely derail the biblical analog that Mankiewicz started with the first film. In fact, it prevents that theme from ever meeting its culminating moment…where “The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son.” In watching the Donner cut’s take on this Fortress scene, where Superman professes his love for Lois to Jor-El’s crystalline consciousness, damn it’s powerful. Yeah, seeing mom is nice and it serves the plot…but it has nearly none of the weight that the father brings to the scene…because that’s just it. When it’s mom, it’s just a scene. When it’s dad, it’s the culmination of a theme introduced in the previous movie. There’s weight. [And that’s not a Marlon Brando fat joke…or at least it’d better not be. – Ed.] There’s impact.

As we make our way to the film’s climax, Lester’s cut commits a cardinal sin. In the final showdown between the three Phantom Zone criminals and Superman within the Fortress of Solitude, Superman is given new, heretofore unexplained powers; the detachable cellophane S, teleportation and, something that the 3 villains have displayed prior to this scene, telekinesis. Once again, as a 5 year old kid, I was confused by it…I’d never seen him do it in the comic books, but here he was, doing it on the big screen…so that means of course he could do it…right? As I got older though…it became more and more of a WTF moment and ultimately proves to be another set piece displaying the complete lack of understanding of the characters by those behind the scenes. While my first inclination is to point the finger directly at Lester, I recall a vintage ‘Making-of’ special that shows two of the producers talking about the film on a balcony (which I’m certain was staged) wherein Ilya Salkind says “Yeah, but how do you keep it interesting when he has the same powers as he did in the last film?” Sigh. You know, it’s between this and the misconceptions of Jon Peters about the character that make our current comic book movie filled multiplexes seem like that much more of a miracle. It’s that kind of thinking that gave rise to this scene with all these very un-Superman powers. And you can see from Donner’s cut of the film, if you have a strong character and faith in that character, not only is this kind of thinking completely unnecessary, it’s goddamn insane and actually detrimental to the product as a whole.

Finally, we come to the end. Lois knows Clark is Superman, loves him, yet knows why they can’t be together…and is devastated. Where do we go from here? Well, we really only get the answer from one of the directors. Lester’s cut figures since we’re introducing a bunch of new powers, how’s about an amnesia kiss? For Donner, the original solution is summed up nicely by Cher, “If I Could Turn Back Time”. Yup, this is where the whole turning-back-the-world thing was supposed to happen…but with money running out and the need to get the first film out the door and to audiences, it was considered to be the most fantastic effect and thus, was re-written as the end of film 1. The ending for film 2 would be revisited once production resumed. But neither Donner nor Mankiewicz would be back…and Mankiewicz was adamant that “Only Superman should kiss Lois,” not Clark as it’s shown in the Lester cut. And I can see his point, as it’s very clear that Superman is the one she’s in love with. But, with nothing in the can, the Donner cut ends with its original, now repetitive, ending…thus proving to be the biggest negative of the film.

In the final analysis, the stories of drama behind the scenes of Superman II don’t end up tainting the legacy of the film itself, but with two versions of the film now available, the lines blur some on where the decline of this movie franchise started. As I said at the opening, when Superman: The Movie hit theaters, 70% of Superman II was shot, but with the firing of Donner, Lester had to reshoot scenes to make the film at least 50% his. In saying that, that means that there’s still plenty of Donner footage in what we got from Lester in his theatrical cut. Having these two versions of the film confirms that…and at least provides a glimpse of what could have been should Donner had stayed on. Given that after his firing, Donner would go on to make 4 Lethal Weapon movies, it does make you wonder, had Donner stayed on, had his vision of Superman II hit theaters way back in 1980, would we have had the age of comic book movies that started in the 2000s almost twenty years earlier? Would we have been able to avoid or shrug off the outdated notion that these characters and stories were only for the palettes of children ages ago? Would Superman have remained culturally relevant, instead of falling off after two bad films to be replaced by his darker contemporary, Batman? No one can really say.

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