Welcome back to the Sequelthon everyone! Today we are happy to host a review of Superman II written by Lebeau from Lebeau’s Le Blog. Head over to his site to read a huge catalog of awesome content including the “What the Hell Happened?” series. Coincidentally, Superman II is currently in the Sweet Sixteen of our DC Comics Movie Tournament running right now. Head over to vote in all the matchups.
In 1978, the super hero genre came to the big screen with Superman: The Movie. The original script for that movie was high camp. It even included a cameo appearance for Telly Savalas as Kojak. In one scene, while looking for Lex Luthor Superman would have found a bald man who turned out to be the TV detective. This is but one of example of what Superman: The Movie might have been.
Fortunately, fate intervened. The production moved to England for budgetary reasons which forced director Guy Hamilton to drop out of the project. Hamilton, who was best known for directing several James Bond movies, was a tax exile in his home country. That opened the door for Richard Donner to take over directing duties.
In a move that was rarer then than it is today, both Superman and its sequel were filmed back to back. This was a huge undertaking. Donner was unhappy with the campy script, so he hired Tom Mankiewicz to do a polish of both scripts which turned into a thorough rewrite. When Donner arrived in England, he found that the production was badly organized and overwhelmed. The flying effects were unconvincing and Donner knew the movie hinged on convincing the audience that a man could fly.
Much to the dismay of the producers, Donner demanded perfection. The movie missed its original release date. Eventually, the decision was made to cease work on Superman II and concentrate on getting the first movie into theaters. Fortunately, Donner’s high standards made Superman: The Movie a hit with critics and audiences alike. Even today, it is considered by many to be the best super hero movie ever made.
Flush with success, Donner was prepared to go back to work on the sequel. But the producers with whom Donner had fought for control had other plans. They fired Donner from Superman II and replaced him with Richard Lester with whom they had worked before. In order to qualify for sole credit, Lester was required to direct at least half of the movie. So scenes that had already been filmed by Donner were reshot by the new director.
Gene Hackman, who plays Lex Luthor in both movies, had already finished all his scenes with Donner. He refused to return for reshoots. So any shot in Superman II with Lex Luthor in it was either filmed by Donner or used a stand-in for Hackman.
The end result is that Superman II can feel a bit inconsistent in tone. Lester liked slapstick comedy and brought back some of the campiness that Donner had discarded in the original. Additionally, Donner had planned to include footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El. But when Brando demanded more money, his scenes were reshot with Susannah York as Superman’s Kryptonian mother. Which makes it a bit odd when he calls out to his father for help late in the movie.
Despite the patchwork quality, there’s enough DNA from Donner’s original vision for the movie that Superman II works better than it probably should. There are those who consider it to be the rare sequel that is better than the original. While I don’t share that opinion, I understand it. As a kid, I preferred the action-packed sequel to the slower-paced original.
The best thing Superman II has going for it over the original is that the stakes are raised. Lex Luthor was never really a match for the Man of Steel. But here, he joins forces with three villains who all have the same powers as Superman. And as Terrence Stamp’s General Zod explains, they aren’t hampered by the need to protect innocent people the way Superman does.
Unlike so many unnecessary sequels, Superman II flows from the original movie very organically. The first scene in the first movie sets up the conflict of the sequel as Jor-el banishes the villains to the Phantom Zone. The romantic triangle between Clark, Lois Lane and Superman also gets taken to the next level in Superman II when Lois discovers that her romantic interests are one and the same.
Following Superman II, Richard Lester got his chance to make his own Superman movie. The end result was Superman III, a campy Richard Pryor movie guest starring Christopher Reeve as Superman. If anyone had any lingering doubts about Richard Donner’s contributions to Superman II, the third movie proved what Lester was capable of on his own.