The scene didn’t make the film’s final cut, and if not for a greedy television network wanting to stretch its Sunday night movie to collect more ad revenue, I might never have seen it. But the scene is typical of what makes Superman II such great fun to watch. There are heroic rescues and epic battles between the hero and his evil nemeses, but there are also whimsical moments and subtle bits of characterization and humor. Superman rescues Paris from a hydrogen bomb and the world stands up and cheers; Clark Kent gives his hat a perfect blind toss over his shoulder onto the hat rack, and no one but him seems to notice. From worshipped to invisible, in all the time it takes to put on a pair of eyeglasses. The Superman of the films is sometimes criticized for being too powerful; Superman II shows us a hero of incredible power, for sure, but also a man that is all too human.
Here’s the film where finally, after over 40 years (at the time of its release) of comic book, movie and television adventures, Lois Lane finds out that Clark Kent is Superman. Here’s the story where, after four decades of repression and pining and loneliness, Lois finally tells Superman/Clark that she’s in love with him. He flies her to the frozen north, shows her the Fortress of Solitude, and they do a lot more together than cook soufflé. Clark gives up his powers to live with Lois as an ordinary man, forsaking his identity as Earth’s greatest hero for the woman he loves. This is a lighthearted comic book fantasy, but the scenes between Clark and Lois carry real weight. These are two people in love with one another, and the film doesn’t treat that love with irony or silliness or anything else but sincerity. Making the love story all the more powerful is the fact that it’s doomed from the start, and we know it, even if we’ve never seen the film before. Superman can’t give up the world for one woman, even if that woman is Lois Lane. If he could, he wouldn’t be Superman.
It’s a truth Clark has to come to terms with pretty quick; no sooner has he given up his powers than he sees a trio of Kryptonian criminals, led by his father Jor-El’s arch-enemy General Zod, on television forcing the President of the United States and all other world leaders to proclaim Zod ruler of the Earth. Clark returns to his dark, silent Fortress of Solitude and begs the spirit of his father to return his power so he may battle Zod. It’s another fearlessly earnest scene; Clark, exhausted from trudging through miles of snow, ashamed of his selfish shirking of Superman’s responsibilities, timidly announces to the spirit of Jor-El, “I failed.” His sincerity is sufficient; he finds a glowing green crystal – the same green crystal which led him to discover his true identity, and built the Fortress? – and his powers are restored.
Supes has not only Zod and his cohorts to contend with, but the zany-yet-lethal machinations of Lex Luthor as well. Lex escapes from prison and soon weasels his way into Zod’s inner circle, promising to help him defeat Superman and asking only ownership of the entire continent of Australia in return. With Supes tied up fighting the three supercriminals from Krypton, Lex is reduced to more of a supporting player, which, given the character’s tendency to veer hard toward the goofy, is not a bad thing. Lex in Superman II isn’t obsessed with blowing up half of California to make a fortune in real estate, or some other Saturday matinee supervillain scheme; he’s an opportunist, looking to con General Zod out of whatever he can get. And if he can help out with killing Superman in the process, so much the better.
It’s as obvious as the stripes on a zebra, but I’ll point it out anyway: the cast is outstanding. Christopher Reeve excels as Clark Kent and Superman – not because he plays the two personas so differently, but because he is able to play them differently while still uniting them into one man. There’s a lot of Superman in Clark, obviously; he’s always watching and listening, waiting for when his abilities might be needed. But there’s a lot of Clark in Superman, as well, in the moments of tenderness and doubt when we see that Superman is, in all the important ways, just a man. There have been a few good portrayals of Superman since Reeve’s day – Dean Cain on Lois & Clark, Tom Welling on Smallville – and a great performance by Brandon Routh in Superman Returns – but no one has ever gotten it as right as Reeve did. Ditto for Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. Noel Neill, Phyllis Coates, Teri Hatcher, Erica Durance, Kate Bosworth – all good Loises in their ways, but you can keep ‘em. Make mine Kidder.
The other great standout in the cast is Terrence Stamp as General Zod. Dictatorial, impatient, cruel and impossibly arrogant, Zod is one of the great comic book villains to be found in film. He ranks alongside the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus from the Spider-Man films, though he admittedly lacks the complexities found in those characters. What Zod lacks in depth, he more than makes up for in bombast – when the President warns Zod that Superman will never kneel to him, Zod grabs a microphone and shouts into a television camera with his nefarious British accent, “Come to me, Superman, if you day-uh!” After he and his cohorts Ursa and Non have destroyed a small Texas town, Zod announces to the people that as long as they behave themselves, they will enjoy his “generous protection. In other words, you will be allowed to live.”
The showstopper – when I was six years old and right today – is the superpowered throw-down in the streets and skies of Metropolis between Superman and Zod and company. Even by today’s CGI-assisted standards, the sequence is a triumph. There are chases and wrestling matches in the air, Superman struggling to battle the villains while protecting the innocent bystanders, car crashes, explosions, gale force winds, and a victory (albeit short-lived) for the bad guys when Superman appears to give up and flees to the Fortress. Watching it even now gives me a feeling of pure childish glee. The fight in the Fortress of Solitude, which immediately follows, is a lot of fun, too. Sure, liberties are taken with Superman’s powers – he turns invisible, is able to project multiple illusions of himself, and stymies Non by wrapping him in a giant cellophane “S” – but if you’re sitting there watching that awesome scene and nitpicking Superman’s powers, you’re probably also the type that had a problem with Spidey not having fucking mechanical web-shooters in his movies, and if that’s the case I can only invite you to kiss my ass.
There’s another cut of this film just out on DVD, both separately and as part of the almost-too-good-to-be-true Ultimate Superman Collection DVD set (which includes the “soufflé scene” as bonus feature!). It’s the “Richard Donner” cut of Superman II, an attempt to reconstruct the story as original director Donner planned to tell it before the Salkind’s shitcanned him in favor of Richard Lester, using a lot of never-before-seen footage that Donner shot, which was scrapped by Lester. In a general sense, it is the same film. But in many details it is very different. The opening sequence in Paris is gone entirely, replaced by a scene at the Daily Planet where Lois realizes there is an uncanny resemblance between mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent and a certain Last Son of Krypton. It unfolds much like the Niagara Falls scene in the original (Lester) cut, with Lois testing her theory by risking her life, diving out a Daily Planet window instead of into the rapids of the Niagara River. There’s also a great deal of Marlon Brando in this one. Scenes Brando filmed as Jor-El were deleted by the Salkind’s to avoid paying him for the sequel. Now restored, Brando’s Jor-El is nearly as strong a presence here as he was in Superman: The Movie; when Clark talks of giving up his life as Superman for Lois, it is Jor-El’s disembodied spirit that warns him against it, and when a defeated Clark returns to beg for help, it is Jor-El who restores his powers.
Many of the “new” scenes are improvements over what made it into the Lester cut; for instance, the throw-down in Metropolis includes two jaw-dropping shots, one of Zod dropkicking Superman into the Statue of Liberty’s torch, and one of Superman spinning around and hitting Non on the jaw with a right cross that sends him sailing into the Empire State Building. Still, Donner had only filmed 70% of his version, so some Lester footage is also necessarily included. The result is a movie that lacks cohesion, that has many virtuoso scenes but never quite comes together. One vital scene – where Lois discovers Clark’s secret by shooting him with a pistol – was available only as a filmed screen test. It’s a wonderfully written scene, but plays as bland and stagy within the context of the film. The ending isn’t the greatest, either – Superman flies backwards around the world and reverses time to repair the damage caused by Zod and erase Lois’s memory of his secret identity. Sound familiar? According to Donner and his writer Tom Mankiewicz, the time-reversal was the original ending of Superman II, but was written into the first film at the request of the Salkind’s. The turning back of the clock here is at least presented differently than in Superman: The Movie; in the Donner cut, we see the reversal of time mostly from the inside – Perry White’s toothpaste going back into the tube, cars running backwards on the street, the destruction wrought by Zod repairing itself – with only a few short glimpses of Superman in space flying around the world. The Donner cut all by itself is enjoyable, but too disjointed to be an improvement on the more polished Lester version I’ve known and loved for twenty years. Still, the film Donner has been able to reconstruct from his original vision isn’t bad; if the Salkind’s had allowed him to finish it, it could have been great.
Some years ago I wrote a review where I stated unequivocally that there would never be a better superhero film than Superman II. Pessimistic, sure, but I wrote it not long after Batman & Robin came out, so I don’t think I was being unreasonable. Turns out I was wrong. In the last few years, a number of brilliant films based on comic book characters has been produced – Spider-Man 2, Ang Lee’s criminally underrated Hulk, and most recently Superman Returns. I’d rate them all superior to Superman II, but it will always have a unique place in my heart – as long as I can remember sitting on my Granny’s living room floor, watching Superman use his heat vision to cook dinner.