Superman II’s fatal flaw is that it never determines whether it’s an action movie, a satire, a superhero movie, or a comedy. It builds upon the world created by the first Superman film, but the direction it takes, and the humour it employs, confuses its destination. Yes, you know which parts to laugh at, but most of the time you don’t. And then the movie tries too hard to make you laugh, an endeavour that sends you back to square one.
It has been well documented the trouble Superman II had during its production. Richard Donner, the director of the first film, was pulled out of this project after shooting almost three-quarters of it. In order for his replacement, Richard Lester, to gain full directing credit, he had to shoot 51% of the film, which meant much of Donner’s footage had to be scrapped and reshot. This resulted in loopholes and gaps in continuity, made clear in the movie’s third act at the North Pole, which features a Gene Hackman stand-in who never shows his face till Hackman’s scenes reappear.
For what it’s worth, Lester does a fine job of keeping with Donner’s tone and style. Superman still wears the same costume. The characters who surround him retain many of their everyman qualities, some less than others. The problems he has to tackle have grown in sincerity, but the crux of their demands remains the same.
What has changed, I suspect, is the approach. Donner knew that his Superman was a larger-than-life character, glued to the Superman of the comics, bound by his duty and winking at us while he carried it out. If Superman’s methods in the first film were questionable, his intentions were pure and just.
Superman is still pure and just here, but he’s more cheeky. More sly. More carnal. He wants Lois Lane as much as she wants him, and finally, all truths are revealed when Lois and Clark bunk together in a honeymoon suite during one of their cases at Niagara Falls. There is an amusing test where Lois (Margot Kidder), after suspecting Clark (Christopher Reeve) of being Superman (again), falls off a ledge into Niagara’s rapids knowing Clark will change into the man of steel and rescue her. It’s a long, drawn out scene, but it plays straight and smooth. And Clark delivers the expected by not changing into Superman.
His relationship with Lois is what sets the tone of this film. It is the only thing that grounds it in some sort of warped reality. We know that Clark and Superman look as different from each other as Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, so we know that the characters in the Superman films must either be blind or mentally disabled if they cannot, even at a glance, determine Superman’s identity. Or maybe their psychology runs deeper; maybe Clark and Superman look so much alike that none of the people who see them would ever think they are one and the same. Least of all Lois, who in this film has grown duller and more predictable. She constantly finds herself, whether intentionally or not, in need of Superman’s assistance. The movie opens with a terrorist situation in Paris — the terrorists plan to blow up the Eiffel Tower with a nuclear bomb. Lois finds herself in the middle of the action, dangling from one of the Tower’s lifts. Why is she in Paris? Because she’s the Daily Planet’s best reporter. A reporter sent to France without knowing a word of French.
Superman swoops in from half the world away and throws the lift (bomb and all) into space, where it drifts away and explodes in the approximate vicinity of Krypton’s Phantom Zone, which, if you recall from the first film, contains three Kryptonian convicts: Zod and his two cronies (Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran). Luckily, nuclear blasts are the only things that can crack open the Phantom Zone; it cracks indeed, and Zod flies to Earth with the intention of ruling it as supreme commander.
There are some clever moments during Zod’s invasion, and some tightly structured effects — Lester and his team do well to make three people, dressed in trash bags, appear impervious to helicopter missile fire. But why are they not more enamoured by their newfound powers? Why, for that matter, do they use them as if they’ve always had them? Do they not realise that they look exactly like the “primitive species” they’ve come to conquer? These questions are hard to answer. The screenplay, co-written by Mario Puzo, makes no attempt to make Zod a complex character with far-reaching goals — after he conquers, then what?
I enjoyed the first Superman a lot more than this one. Neither movie is exceptional, but Donner’s Superman knew clearly what it was and refused to deviate. Lester’s is like that little kid who can’t choose between chocolate and vanilla ice-cream. There is an extended sequence in Superman II where Zod and his team try to destroy Metropolis by huffing and puffing and blowing it down. It is so unintentionally slapstick that it looks cut out from a Leslie Nielsen movie. Nielsen should have been given a part, then, even if all he had to do was look up and shout, “Way to go, Superman!”
Best Moment | Seeing Reeve as Clark Kent. He makes such a good Clark.
Worst Moment | Any scene involving Lex Luthor, Lois, or Zod and his duo.