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November 9, 2013
 

Looking back on “Superman II”

So, “Superman II”….

I won’t waste any time in saying that, even morse so than the first film, this movie defined Superman for me as a child, and did so in a way that would not be equalled until the Man of Steel’s battle with the Kryptonian monster Doomsday in “The Death of Superman”. To me, “Superman II” is by far the best of the original five Superman films, with “Man of Steel” being the only Superman film since to do the Last Son of Krypton the same degree of justice (note I said Superman FILM; “Smallville” was and remains one of my favorite TV shows, but it isn’t quite in the same category we’re talking about here, given that it’s Superman before he was Superman.)

And what a coincidence that the two best Superman movies ever made, thus far, both have General Zod as their primary villain! As I said in my review of “Superman: The Movie”, General Zod represents the true archenemy of Superman even more so than Lex Luthor, in my opinion. In the movie “Unbreakable”, Samuel L. Jackson tells us that the arch-villain is “the exact opposite of the hero”, and being a devoted comic book lover myself, I respectfully disagree. One can indeed be a splendid, formidable villain if they are everything the hero is not, as evidenced by Lex Luthor, the Greatest Criminal Mind of Our Time! However, true archvillainry, in my opinion, comes when the hero and he enemy are more alike than they are different. If you give the hero and the villain a similar or the same power or skill set, what each of them does with it is what ultimately sets them apart.

In this case, Superman and General Zod (along with Zod’s disciples, Ursa and Non) originated on Krypton. Under Earth’s yellow sun, they each possess identical powers. Superman chose to use his to serve mankind, but Zod only wanted to rule. We saw in the first film that Zod already saw himself as above his own people and worthy to seek uncontested rule; once he acquired his powers, there was nothing to stop him from making good on his threat before being banished to the Phantom Zone: .

Lex Luthor, Darkseid, Doomsday, Brainiac, Bizarro, all the great Superman villains are indeed great supervillains, but what ultimately sets General Zod apart is that while they all represent everything Superman is not, Zod represents everything Superman is, or would be, with a different personality!

On that note, this will be a somewhat unusual review in that I’m actually reviewing TWO movies. “Superman: The Movie” and “Superman II” were filmed simultaneously in the late seventies, before the film’s producers, Ilya and Alexander Salkind, on top of their conflicts with director Richard Donner over the style and tone of the films, became increasingly concerned over the arduous production and skyrocketing budget. Eventually, after most of “Superman II” was completed, the Salkinds decided to halt the filming of the sequel and focus completely on the first film, which had had it’s release date pushed back from June to December 1978 as a result of the production troubles, and if “Superman: The Movie” was the flop that everyone feared it could be, the sequel would ultimately never see the light of day.

However, “Superman: The Movie” became a colossal worldwide hit, propelling Christopher Reeve to superstardom and marking the beginning of the modern era of superhero films. The sequel was given the greenlight once more, but the Salkinds conflicts with Donner couldn’t be resolved, which resulted in Richard Lester stepping into the director’s chair and reshooting most of the film. But Superman fans across the globe hadn’t forgotten about Richard Donner, and after more than two decades of rallying and petitioning, the fans finally got their wish when Warner Bros. approved Richard Donner to complete his version of the film. It took more than little scouring of the vaults and archives for his footage, along with an avalanche of legal mumbo-jumbo, but the tenacity of the fans was rewarded on November 28th, 2006, when “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” was at last released on DVD, the same day as “Superman Returns”, no less!

The two versions follow the same story, more or less, but how divergent both versions are is evident right from the start. You’ll notice that Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El is AWOL in the Lester version, and that had to do with the Salkinds decision to save money by keeping Marlon Brando’s footage out of the sequel. Instead, Kal-El’s Kryptonian mother Lara Lor-van, along with some random Kryptonian Elder, appear in the Fortress of Solitude. To be honest, I think it’s a testimony to the strength of either version of the film that this inexplicable change didn’t really seem to stand out to anyone until the Donner version was released. Still, any Superman fan will agree that whether he’s animated hologram in “Man of Steel” or a floating head superimposed in midair like Zordon, Jor-El is the true master of the Fortress of Solitude!

In any case, Donner’s intended ending of the first film didn’t involve Superman spinning the Earth backwards. His idea was to end the film on a cliffhanger, with Superman throwing Lex Luthor’s nuclear missiles into space, which after exploding would shatter the Phantom Zone and free Zod and his followers. The ending of the first film was actually to be Donner’s intended ending of the second, but after “Superman II” was halted to complete the first film, Donner omitted the cliffhanger, reasoning that, “if ‘Superman’ is a success, they’re going to do a sequel. If it ain’t a success, a cliffhanger ain’t gonna bring them to see ‘Superman II.” Of course, “Superman: The Movie” was a success, and that meant that we’d ultimately see two versions of the villains release from the Phantom Zone: Superman throwing a Parisian terrorists bomb into space in the Lester version, or one of Lex’s nukes in the Donner version. In either case, the three villains quickly discover their superhuman abilities, and after murdering a few astronauts on the moon, set about conquering the world:

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While Zod and his followers serve as the main antagonists of sequel, Lex Luthor also returns, and I must say that I’ve always had mixed feelings about his portrayal in the followup. On the one hand, it was certainly a good move to 86 Lex’s bumbling henchmen Otis during his escape from prison, since his presence, which was easily the Achille’s Heel of the first film, certainly would never have meshed with the Kryptonian villains, allowing Lex to uncover he Fortress of Solitude in order to exploit its secrets against Superman later in the film. On the other hand, once Lex and the three Kryptonians meet, Lex himself seems to fill the same comic relief role that Otis did. Zod clearly doesn’t take Lex seriously and he and his disciples don’t so much join forces with Lex as tolerate his presence for him to help them bring down Superman. Seriously, does anyone really expect that Zod plans on upholding his end of this little bargain:

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But, where is Superman in all of this? Well, over the course of the film, Lois Lane uncovers his secret (through different means, depending on which version you watch), and she and Superman are to ready to fully realize their love for each other. Superman is forced to enter a red molecule chamber to strip himself of his powers, per the Kryptonian laws of being with a human companion. I’ve always liked the idea of superheroes retiring and trying to seek a normal, peaceful existence, and “Superman II” really set the precedent for how it should be done, because of both the horrible timing his retirement has, along with this little scene:

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Not only is Clark finding out too late of General Zod’s conquest of Earth, but it comes right on the heels of him taking a horrific beating from one of the very people he once protected as Superman. Not to mention the fact that, for the first time in his life, Kal-El is finding out what a punch in the face feels like. Has there ever been a better, more literal example of adding insult to injury?

Which brings us to what I think is the most interesting difference between both versions of the film: Superman’s repowering scene. Now, of course, Kal-El and General Zod need to be able to face off in order for the audience not to feel cheated, but each version has its own interpretation of Superman’s repowering. Richard Lester leaves it more to your imagination:

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While Richard Donner’s take is a little more detailed:

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The reason why I say this is the most interesting difference between both versions is because I honestly can’t decide which one I prefer. The interaction between Kal-El and Jor-El gives the film a lot more pathos and emotional weight, not to mention an actual explanation for how Superman is repowered. But I also find the mystery of the Lester version intriguing and thought-provoking. You can come up with any one of a million different explanations for how the repowering works in the Lester version, and they’d all be perfectly plausible. We comic book geeks are notorious for always wanting an answer, but I can’t say I mind when the film asks us to fill in the blanks, ourselves. In any case, Superman is now repowered, and that can mean only one thing:

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Three of the most quotable moments in any superhero movie, all the space of 21 seconds! And that leads right into Metropolis Battle between the four Kryptonians, and watching it today, I can only say the same thing that I did when I first saw the film around the age of 5.

Wow.

Just WOW!

As I said in my review of the first film, I’m not going to pretend that the effects of the original “Superman” series haven’t begun to show signs of their age, especially in the wake of “Smallville”, “Superman Returns”, and “Man of Steel”. But this Kryptonian throwdown in the streets of Metropolis REALLY holds up. When I first saw the film as a child, my brain was processing it as a true battle of gods, and it’s done so well that you can easily see that that was exactly what audiences were thinking when the film first debuted in 1981. In its time, this was the equivalent of the New York City battle in “The Avengers”, and even of the Metropolis battle between Superman and Zod in “Man of Steel”! It’s true testimony to the power of this superhero brawl that you can still feel today the same sense of energy and wonder that would have been felt by audiences of the early 80’s, and in my opinion, no other sequence in the original four “Superman” films has aged as well as this has, which has the added benefit of either version of the film as whole feeling the least dated of the series. But please, don’t take my word for it!

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Eventually, Superman realizes he can’t beat the three Kryptonians without trashing Metropolis in the process (and before you bring it up, no, fleeing the city would not have been a wise course of action for him to take in “Man of Steel” after Zod explicitly states his intention to kill every human on Earth one by one, as opposed to “Superman II” where the Man of Steel himself is Zod’s only intended target.) The confrontation comes to head in the Fortress of Solitude, where Superman is seemingly once more stripped of his powers, condemned to serve as Zod’s personal slave forever, leading to probably the best I-so-did-not-see-that-coming moments of my entire childhood:

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Superman can certainly bluff with the best of ’em, although part of me wonders how audiences in the early 80’s reacted to that scene, considering the controversy over a certain element of the ending of “Man of Steel”. In any case, Superman restores the status quo back to normal, either by deleting Lois Lane’s memory with a kiss in the Lester version or spinning the Earth backward, thus undoing the damage of the Kryptonians rampage and resurrecting them/returning them to the Phantom Zone in the Donner version, before flying off into space for further adventures. But enough comparing the two version of the film, the time has come to ask the $64,000 question:

In Hindsight, was “Superman II” REALLY that good?

Which version you prefer may influence your answer to that question more than anything else, but in the case of both Lester and Donner’s take on the film, I give and emphatic yes! Now, I must qualify that statement by saying that, even though it’s incomplete and has to make use of footage from the earlier version of the film in order to fill in the blanks, I think that yes is slightly more enthusiastic for the Donner version, and that largely has to do with the fact that Donner’s version wisely eschews the more campy and comedic elements that Lester snuck into his version, which would later completely dominate and utterly destroy “Superman III”. In his version of the Metropolis Battle, breathtaking as it is on the whole, it still includes some pretty distracting attempts at comedy when the three supervillains unleash their superbreath on the people of Metropolis – a woman’s toupee comes off, one guy gets hit in the face with an ice cream cone, another man gets blown over while inside of a phone booth, etc. And even with both versions being seen as the peak of the original four films, let’s face facts – that saran wrap “S” in the Lester version came right out of left field:

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It’s clear from watching the original film, both versions of the second, and the abomination that was the third that not only did Donner take the subject matter far more seriously than did Lester, but the whole reason why the Lester version of the second film works is because it still uses Donner’s conception as it’s template, even if Lester takes it in his own direction. Richard Donner’s work with Superman wouldn’t end with the first two films; he would go on to co-write to Superman storyarch “Last Son” in 2006, which re-introduced General Zod into DC’s mainstream continuity and also gave Ursa and Non their debuts in comic book form. Of the two directors, Donner was clearly the one who both understood Superman more thoroughly and was an all-around genuine fan of the character.

While my preference ultimately lies with the Donner version, I do think that either take on “Superman II” holds up splendidly well, and either is easily the best of the pre-“Man of Steel” Superman movies. Christopher Reeve was as perfect in the role as the Man of Steel, and Terrence Stamp (who would ironically go on to provide the voice of “Jor-El” on “Smallville”) simply devoured the role of General Zod, and his portrayal would become associated with the character for years to come. And the Metropolis Battle still puts my jaw in my lap!

And that brings at last to “Superman III”, and my feelings on the prospect of having to watching it again can be best summed up as follows:

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About the Author

Brad
In ancient Greece, they told legends of Odysseus, Theseus, and Hercules. Our heroes on the silver screen today serve the same purpose. I grew up devouring martial arts movies from Hong Kong, action flicks from Hollywood, and superhero movies from DC and Marvel. You can bet your bottom dollar that if it's got any one of those, I wanna see it! I also write for www.kungfukingdom.com, a site dedicated to all things martial arts; check out my stuff there, as well!



 
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