WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Saving Paris from a nuclear explosion, the Man of Steel inadvertently frees three of planet Krypton’s most notorious villains from their eternal prison. They head for Earth where, blissfully unaware, events force Clark Kent to reveal his true identity to the woman he loves. Will Superman sacrifice everything and leave Earth wanting in its darkest hour?
Childhood memories can be horribly misleading. Superman II was one of my favourite films as a youngster, especially the big fight between Supe (Christopher Reeve) and the three Krypton baddies which, in my mind, took up half the film. Reviewing the film with an older, more critical eye, it’s easy to see why my memory would have played that trick on me.
However, to begin at the beginning, the film opens with a sequence showing the imprisonment on Krypton of General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his acolytes, Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and mute brute Non (Jack O’Halloran). They are doomed to spend an eternity in the Phantom Zone, a square that travels the universe with them inside. This sequence will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Special Edition of Richard Donner’s Superman, as these scenes were deleted from that film. Also familiar will be a long montage from the first film which accompanies the swooping credits. Though probably redundant, this does leave the viewer in no doubt of Superman’s origin and heroic abilities.
Superman rescues Paris from a hydrogen bomb in a fairly long-winded sequence which re-introduces Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, in soft focus throughout) and serves the purpose of unleashing the nuclear explosion which releases Zod and friends from captivity. From this point, Mario Puzo’s story follows three strands: firstly, the villains’ descent on the moon and then Earth, where they use and abuse their powers; secondly, the escape of Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) from prison and his discovery of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole; and finally, Lois piecing together Clark’s secret during an improbable reporting assignment at Niagara Falls.
The Lois-Clark part of the film is the one that, looking at it now, appears poorly handled. Not only does it lessen the time Superman actually spends on screen (which is, after all, what most people want); but once the secret is out, Superman seems rather too keen to give up his powers (can he not be a gentle enough lover with them?). Cal-El interacts with the hologram of his mother (Susannah York), who is at great pains to stress that the process of becoming human and mortal is irreversible. Undergoing the procedure anyway (by way of, bless them, some cheap 80s effects), Kent is humiliated at a diner and instantly travels back to the North Pole to see what he can do about reversing the procedure after all. We don’t see how he does it, but the reversal of the reversal is unsatisfactorily quick and has no apparent side effects.
While Superman is away, Lex and the villains have some fun with the puny efforts of American military might. As his other work might lead you to expect, Dick Lester is keen to emphasise any situation where the actors can raise a laugh; this is not so much true of Zod – Terence Stamp is a quietly menacing presence – but Non appears to exist solely for laughs, and Hackman has a whale of a time as Luthor, encouraged by his buffoonish assistant Otis (Ned Beatty, thankfully not in the film for long). The tendency towards slapstick also extends to Lois and Clark: look at what Reeve does with his hat in the first thirty seconds after the credits! Unfortunately, the search to exploit jokes sometimes comes at the expense of the effects, which are at best only partially effective. Although the backdrop of Metropolis is meant to mirror New York, the film was shot at Pinewood studios and looks like it. In general, the sequel doesn’t look as polished as the original, which is surely not the way things should be. Also, Ken Thorne is credited with re-working John Williams’ iconic music, when all he appears to have done is replace some of the violin parts with trumpets.
All that said, when Superman finally has his showdown with Zod, Ursa and Non, the sequence is well-realised. It is funny and dramatic, with our hero in real danger, and its ultimate resolution is very satisfying even if the Kryptonians gain the strange power of teleportation. Clark’s mind-erasing kiss is strange too, but as a way of tying up that story too, it’ll do. And that is a reasonable assessment of Superman II as a whole: not the classic that I thought it was, but containing enough drama and amusement to fill its two-hours running time without boredom setting in.