This post begins a new feature on Every ’70s Movie: Periodically, entire weeks of posts will be devoted to noteworthy theatrical releases from 1980, since nearly every 1980 movie was either written or produced in the '70s. For instance, today’s film is a direct sequel to one of the most beloved blockbusters of the '70s, and production on Superman II commenced years before the picture hit theaters. As the saying goes, we will return to our regularly scheduled program next Monday . . .
Since very few sequels surpass their predecessors, second films that come anywhere close to matching the appeal of first films are rightfully viewed with great admiration. A fine example is Superman II, which combines key elements from Superman (1978) with an increased emphasis on action and humor. If Superman was the prelude, Superman II is the main event, delivering gigantic battles loaded with Super-flying, Super-punching, Super-kicking, and such. Better still, the movie is also funny and romantic. Superman II is far from perfect, of course, and learning about the project’s torturous backstory helps explain why. Nonetheless, even after the current era’s onslaught of superhero cinema, Superman II remains one of the most purely enjoyable comic-book movies ever made. As directed by Richard Lester (and, partially, Richard Donner), the picture never forgets to be fast and frothy.
Picking up a thread from the prologue of Superman, the sequel focuses on three Kryptonian criminals, led by the cruel General Zod (Terence Stamp), who escape captivity when their outer-space prison explodes. The aliens travel to Earth and take over the planet, because Clark Kent/Superman (Christopher Reeve) has relinquished his superpowers in order to enjoy mortal love with reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Yet through the magic of Kryptonian science, Superman is able to reclaim his abilities in time to combat the evil troika. The three-against-one odds ensure lots of property damage while the characters duke it out in downtown Metropolis with fists, found objects (watch out for that bus, Superman!), and heat vision. Also woven into the mix is beloved baddie Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who tries to help the Kryptonians defeat Superman in exchange for—well, that’s a droll one-liner better discovered than described.
Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind originally planned to shoot Superman and Superman II simultaneously, with Donner directing both pictures. Budget and schedule overruns derailed that scheme, and once the Salkinds resumed production on the sequel in the wake of Superman’s box-office conquest, relations with Donner had chilled. Enter Lester, who previously made the wonderful Musketeers movies for the Salkinds. Lester integrated his signature style of light farce to various scenes, juicing the rom-com textures of Clark Kent sequences and layering sly sight gags into Superman vignettes. Excepting the intermittent nature of Hackman’s presence (the actor shot a few sequel scenes with Donner but didn’t return once Lester took over), the integration of the two phases of production works quite well. It helps that John Williams’ majestic score creates unity, and that Reeve’s confidence in the leading role(s) grew exponentially between the Donner and Lester eras. He’s so smooth in this picture that he’s like Gary Cooper in tights.
Superman II is filled with scenes both droll and exciting, from the systematic destruction of a small town to a memorable lovey-dovey bit at Niagara Falls. It all works, so long as one ignores the nonsensical way the filmmakers give Superman a new gadget or power every time they need to wriggle free of a narrative jam. Kidder locks into a charming screwball groove (she’s marvelous in the Eiffel Tower scene), Stamp gives great villain (“Kneel before Zod!”), and the movie feels like a logical summation of Superman rather than a random follow-up. Alas, the Superman film franchise faltered after Superman II and, as of this writing, has yet to recover. The final Reeve films of the ’80s were tacky, the 2006 reboot Superman Returns was too reverent to the 1978 original, and the 2013 re-reboot Man of Steel was too reverent to Superman II. Plus, the less said about the straight-to-video Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, the better, since Donner wasn’t actually present for the entire making of Superman II. But, to borrow a phrase suited to the aforementioned Eiffel Tower sequence, we’ll always have Paris.
Superman II: RIGHT ON