Richard Lester and Richard Donner direct Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Terrence Stamp in the blockbuster sequel where Superman abandons his powers to settle down with Lois, just as three vengeful Kryptonian exiles arrive on Earth hellbent on getting everyone to kneel in front of them.
If you asked me up until 2019 “What’s the best Superman movie?*”, I’d plump for this without a millisecond of hesitation. But it isn’t really, is it. A film of wonderous, iconic, childhood defining moments that holds together flakily. The perfect example of why you shouldn’t see the sausage being made. When you know about Superman II’s troubled production you cannot help but see the joins, fudges and compromises snagging out at your entertainment hungry eyeballs.
For those who don’t know: The producers were the Salkinds, a pair infamous for getting cast and crew to film an excess of material during the production of a first film so that they could pay principals only once for essentially two shoots, ending up with a cost reduced sequel already in the can before Episode One premiered. The plan almost worked here if it wasn’t for three people.
1. Marlon Brando threatened to sue them if any footage of him appeared in Superman II. This leads to him being edited out of all flashbacks and Fortress of Solitude moments, moments he should certainly be in. Creating an almost Stalinist revision of what we saw in 1978 in the cinemas / three hours earlier at home. He is glaringly out of the picture.
2. Then Richard Donner disagreed with the Salkinds about the tone of the sequel. So he was kicked off the set with 30% of filming still to go. Richard Lester took over, a director who preferred silly sight gags over epic sweep, and had to reshoot so many scenes in his more journeyman style otherwise the Director’s Guild would credit Donner and the Salkinds would have to pay him. This, in turn, created another problem.
3. Gene Hackman sided with Donner and refused to take part in any reshoots out of solidarity. Meaning a lot of Lex Luthor’s new midshots are an obvious body double, facing the wrong way and dubbed by an impressionist. Meanwhile reams of plot are narrated by said impressionist and Miss Teschmacher while stock footage of indistinguishable, tiny figures in wideshot traverse snowy tundra and mountainous peaks. Lester and the Salkinds found a solution to the myriad problems of getting caught without their biggest names, but it is not a solution that works particularly well on repeated viewings.
Yet a deeply flawed film is not necessarily a bad film. The fudges do link a lot of memorable stuff. Terrence Stamp’s high camp Zod is an absolute blast as the tyrant who doesn’t quite understand the planet he is subjugating. Sarah Douglas’ Ursa makes for a support villian so deviously sexy and powerful I’m sure she pre-programmed quite a few boys of my generation to seek out strong, bad girls with pixie haircuts in later life. Together with dumb muscle Non, they make a triumvirate that genuinely threatens Earth and Supes. Plotwise, how can our hero beat three antagonists all equally as powerful as him, working together and with no regard for human life? It creates an excitingly tense premise sadly only really explored in a lengthy slapstick fight outside the Daily Planet. Lester should be shot for some of those “sight gags”.
The romance between Clark and Lois continues. With Clark forsaking his powers for a normal life. This sequence adds to the growing tension (boy oh boy, will he need those powers soon) and gifts Reeve with his best acting moments when he discovers what it truly would feel like to be as defenceless as his Clark Kent persona.
So Superman II doesn’t really hold up to adult scrutiny yet it still manages to link together a few really fabulous sequences.
*The best pure and uncut Superman movie is the more consistent first entry, while the best movie featuring Superman is Zack Snyder’s much maligned but chaotically compelling BvS: Dawn of Justice. Kneel before, Snyder!