Movie Review: Superman II (1981)
I saw “Superman: The Movie” six times in the theater in the late 1970s. I saw “Superman II” once during the summer of 1981. It’s not just that the original came out when I was 15 and still reading comic books, and the sequel came out when I was 18 and heading toward college and something resembling adulthood. “Superman II” just isn’t very good.
The director of the first film, Richard Donner, clashed with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind over budget and scheduling, and, even though 80 percent of principal photography on “II” was done with “I,” he was replaced by Richard Lester (“A Hard Day’s Night”), who didn’t know from Superman. He didn’t know from comic books. And he didn’t like the epic way Donner filmed the first movie—what he called “the David Lean thing,” which included the sweeping camera shots of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (“2001: A Space Odyssey”). Lester insisted upon flat, static camera shots to evoke comic book panels. He got it. He wanted a less serious movie. He got that, too.
The Clementis of “Superman II”
The second movie begins with an eight-and-a-half-minute recap of the first movie. We see the three Kryptonian criminals, Zod, Ursa and Non (Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran), steal into one of those non-rooms on Krypton, grab a red crystal and break it in two. Then the room goes black, they’re imprisoned by those hula hoop thingees and charged with treason. They’re all pronounced “guilty guilty guilty” and sent off to the Forbidden Zone, while Lara (Susannah York) takes the baby Kal-El and off he goes and… Jesus, they’re going to recap the whole thing? Smallville and Metropolis and helicopter rescue and San Andreas fault? Yes. Yes, they are. The whole thing has an “On the last episode of ‘Superman’…” vibe. It feels cheap.
It feels particularly cheap because Jor-El (Marlon Brando) has been excised. Brando was in litigation with the Salkinds, who were often in litigation over non-payment, and he’d been promised a percentage of the profits if he appeared in “Superman II.’ That’s why he didn’t. He’s gone, scrubbed, like Clementis disappearing in the beginning of Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” The signing of Marlon Brando for the first film announced its seriousness. His removal from the second film announced the opposite.
The movie proper begins when Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) strolls into the Daily Planet in the middle of the day while his colleagues are working. It’s supposed to be funny when everyone ignores him—as it was funny in “Superman: The Movie” when everyone ignored his “Good night” wishes—but it’s not. They’re doing their jobs and he’s not. Doesn’t he care? Is Kal-El that contemptuous of human affairs? Only after some back and forth with Perry White (Jackie Cooper) does he even realize that three terrorists (including a young Richard Griffiths) are holding the Eiffel Tower and Paris hostage with a hydrogen bomb, and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is already on the scene. So where was Clark/Superman this entire time? Doing good deeds in outer space? At the Fortress of Solitude? We never find out.
The whole “not doing your job” thing suffuses the entire movie, by the way. You could almost call it a theme.
Supes finally shows up and saves Lois, who is trapped in a falling Eiffel Tower elevator with an H-bomb attached. “I believe this is your floor,” he says with a kind of James Bondian twinkle. Ha! Yeah, no. Then he sends the elevator, and the H-bomb, into outer space. This is the second nuclear device Supes has detonated in space in so many movies. Yet when Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) invades the Fortress of Solitude and accesses its Kryptonian learning program, the second lesson he learns is all about Zod, Ursa and Non, the Phantom Zone, and this warning from Lara, finally getting screentime:
The Phantom Zone might, might be cracked open by a nuclear explosion in space.
Two possibilities: Superman either forgot this lesson or he never learned it. Either way, he’s not doing his job.
Lara, wife of Clementis.
This is not a job for Superman
That theme continues. As Zod, Ursa and Non terrorize and kill, first, astronauts on the moon, then a small Idaho town with a redneck Southern sheriff and a boy with an unmistakable British accent, Clark romances, sadly, pathetically, Lois, as the two investigate a Niagara Falls honeymoon scam. “Lois, look,” he says, full of need. “Everyone’s holding hands. Maybe we should hold hands, too.” One wonders what game he’s playing here. Why be pathetic as Clark? To better conceal his identity? Lois obviously loves him as Superman, when he’s at his strongest, so maybe he wants her to to love him at his weakest? Does he truly feel like a schlep? Or is Clark, as Quentin Tarantino has suggested, Kal-El’s rather cruel imitation of humanity? It’s how he sees us. What fools these mortals be.
Mortals certainly be in this movie. We get parents too busy to watch their kid hanging over the railing at Niagara Falls, and a kid too stupid to realize the danger he’s in. We get Lois jumping into the rapids to prove Clark is Superman. There’s the insinuating bellhop, and the redneck sheriff and his Barney Fife deputy, and the trigger-happy gendarmes willing to blow up Paris, and the lackadaisical NASA men at mission control in Houston (including Cliff from “Cheers”), and all of the fools, the many, many fools, treating the final battle between Superman and Zod on the streets of Metropolis as if it were a WWF cage match rather than a battle to determine if three Kryptonians rule the world or we do; whether we’re free or forever enslaved.
The movie also blows the great superhero reveal. From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. She rejects me (Clark) because she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She fails to see what’s super in me. And here, finally, the disconnect is connected. The two men become one.
And it’s as boring as shit.
Lois, always feisty, becomes wide-eyed and starstruck. Superman, always polite and distant, becomes supersenstitive:
Superman: We have to talk.
Lois: I’m in love with you.
Superman: Then we really better talk …
Lois: Where do you want to … talk?
Superman: Let’s go to my place.
At the Fortress of Solitude, Lois belts out, “Wow! This is your home?!” after which Superman flies around the world to get flowers and groceries. Meanwhile, people are dying in Idaho. “Where’s Superman?” people plead. “Where is he? Why doesn’t he do something?” Sorry, but he’s pouring champagne for Lois. When she says, “I’m going to change into something more comfortable,” he uses the opportunity to speak with hologram Lara about what he needs to do to consummate the relationship. She delivers a stern warning:
You must become one of them. All your great powers on Earth will disappear forever. But consider: Once it is done there is no return.
There is no return. Until there is.
They sleep together in a silver satin hammock-bed that seems stolen from Andy Gibb’s 1970s pad. Meanwhile the President of the United States (E.G. Marshall in toupee) is kneeling before Zod.
Question: How can we not hate Superman at this moment? The movie is actually set up so we hate Superman. Because he isn’t doing his job. Then Clark loses a diner fight with an asshole named Rocky. Then he discovers that the Earth is at the mercy of Zod. Then he walks back alone to the Fortress, through the Arctic cold, without hat or gloves or anything, and begs hologram Lara for his powers back. “FATHERRRRRRRR!” he cries.
Sorry, Kal-El. Father is in litigation at the moment.
After booze, Supes loses his powers and beds Lois at Andy Gibb's place.
Cheap cheap cheap, talk a lot, pick a little more
So how does he get his powers back? His picks up a green crystal and all of a sudden he’s streaking toward Metropolis and saying, “Care to step outside, General?” This thing is a joke. It gives Kryptonians the power to point at things and levitate them. It gives Superman the power to kiss away Lois’s memory. It gives the Salkinds the power to kiss away Jor-El. It’s a hot, holy mess, Batman.
They didn’t just excise Brando. They actually filmed without Hackman, Beatty or Perrine. For the Luthor scenes, they just used footage Donner shot. You know the difficulty of maintaining continuity over several days? Try three years. Watching, you can play a game: This was shot in ’77, this in ’80. Here Lois has split ends, here she doesn’t. Here she’s younger, here Margot Kidder’s drug addiction is beginning to show.
They use the cheapest cinematic glue—the distant shot overdub— to bind the story together. When Lex and Miss Tessmacher return from the Fortress of Solitude, someone, sounding like Hackman but not Hackman, says of Zod and company, “Wait, that explains the three alpha waves I’ve been getting on my black box! They’ll need a contact on earth! … South, Miss Tessmacher!” And off they go. We never see her again. Shame. Greater shame? We don’t even need this overdub. We get it when Luthor just shows up at the White House. It’s not difficult.
So much is cheap here. The flying looks worse, the lunar capsule looks like tinfoil, the supervillains shove humans around like they’re on an old episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man.” Sure, special effects are expensive. But how much does an American kid cost? Did no one tell the British filmmakers how British the Idaho kid sounded? Like he’s Oliver Twist asking for porridge: “Please, general. Please put me Daddy down.” And do we need a full minute of Zod using his superbreath to blow Metropolitans around? Like it’s a vaudeville routine? For the scene, according to IMDb.com, “Director Richard Lester improvised most of the jokes.” Jokes?
The pivotal moment of the movie doesn’t even make sense. When Superman first loses his powers in the crystal chamber, he grimaces in pain and emerges with blow-dried hair and jeans. When Superman reverses the crystal chamber so the supervillains lose their powers, they don’t even know it’s happening. How to account for this discrepancy? And why would Superman, emerging, kneel before Zod even momentarily before crushing his hand and killing him? Even at 18, I thought it was bullshit.
This was shot by Richard Donner in 1977...
... and this split-ends version by Richard Lester in 1980. Same scene, three years apart, different conditioner.
When the Salkinds began this project back in 1974 we were smack in the middle of the Easy Riders/Raging Bulls decade of great American filmmaking. By the time “Superman II” was released in June 1981, the era of the blockbuster and its neverending sequels had begun. The Salkinds helped in this regard. “Superman” was No. 2 at the box office in 1978 (after “Grease”) and “Superman II” was No. 3 at the box office in 1981 (after “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “On Golden Pond”). Adjust for inflation, and the first grossed $461 million in the U.S., the second $313 million. Yet somehow they couldn’t find a way to settle with Brando.
So much happened between ’78 and ’81. We went from the middle of Jimmy Carter’s presidency to the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s. Gas prices shot up. Hostages were taken. Chest thumping began. The movies got dumber.
What a shame. “Superman: The Movie,” directed by Richard Donner, was heroic, epic and funny. “Superman II,” directed by Richard Lester, was none of these things. Lester did what Zod, Ursa and Non couldn’t do. He flattened Superman.
Truth, justice, etc.: The beginning of the chest-thumping stupidity.