Superman II (1980, Richard Lester)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Lois Lane begins to suspect he’s really Superman, Clark Kent faces a huge dilemma… Meanwhile, three Kryptonian psychopaths are taking over planet Earth.

Good guys: Clark Kent/Superman is again played by the peerless Christopher Reeve. At the beginning of the film he flies to Paris when he learns terrorists have taken over the Eiffel Tower. Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, likewise returning from the preceding film; likewise excellent) is caught up in the incident too and needs saving. Later, she and Clark pose as a married couple in a Niagara Falls hotel and are given the honeymoon suite. Great mileage is made with the idea that while Clark is in love with Lois, she’s in love with Superman. As Lois gets closer to discovering Clark’s secret identity, he becomes more nervous about it – she risks her own life to test her theory, but it’s only when he accidentally burns his hand and there’s no scar that he has to own up. As Superman, he takes her to his Fortress of Solitude near the North Pole and chooses to renounce his powers so they can live as a couple. Reeve then, in effect, plays a third character: Superman in persona, Clark in abilities. It doesn’t last long, however…

Bad guys: The three criminals we saw briefly in film one – General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Hallaran) – swore revenge on Jor-El and his heir when they were imprisoned. Once freed thanks to the shock wave from a hydrogen bomb Superman has flung into space, they end up on the moon, then head off to conquer Earth. Zod is self-important and arrogant; Ursa has a habit of stealing badges from victims and adding them to her own clothing; while Non is a mute and slightly dim giant. Also in the film is Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman again). At the start, he’s still in prison with bumbling sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty) and is without a wig. Once Lex has escaped with help from Miss Teschmacher and a hot-air balloon, he searches for Superman’s hidden lair (which he finds easily), then attempts to team up with Zod.

Other guys: Susannah York reprises her role as Superman’s mum in a scene filmed to replace Marlon Brando’s Jor-El (who was dropped from this sequel in order to save paying the actor more money). Also back from Superman: The Movie, but with little to do, are Jackie Cooper as Perry White and Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen. Clifton James appears as a local cop – it’s a role not too dissimilar from JW Pepper, his character in a couple of earlier Bond films. EG Marshall plays the US President.

Best bits:

* The prologue-cum-credits sequence, which recaps the important beats of the first film (well, except Marlon Brando’s contribution, which is edited around).

* The breezy opening scene in the Daily Planet newsroom – Clark is ignored by everyone he tries talking to, casually throws his hat onto a hat-stand without looking, then learns about the crisis in Paris. (Clark: “That’s terrible!” Perry White: “That’s why they call them terrorists, Kent…”)

* Clark opening his shirt as he runs down an alley, revealing the Superman logo.

* Lois sneaking onto the Eiffel Tower and giving herself a pep talk as she holds onto the underside of a rising lift.

* Oh, look: it’s Richard Griffiths playing one of the terrorists.

* Clark walking out in front of a taxi when he spots Lois on the other side of the road – the car comes off worse.

* Oh, look: it’s Cliff from Cheers again, seemingly playing a different control-room lackey from his character in the first movie. (Shane Rimmer, an American in so many UK-based productions, is in the same scene.)

* An astronaut on the moon spotting Ursa flying past his craft.

* Lex Luthor using a hologram projector to trick a prison guard into thinking he and Otis are still in their cell.

* When a searchlight hits Lex, Otis makes shadow-puppet bunny ears. Otis then tries climbing up the rope ladder Miss Teschmacher has dropped from the balloon – but each step simply drags the basket closer to the ground.

* Clark panicking when Lois pulls off his glasses to clean them. When she finally looks up and sees him, a big thought occurs to her…

* The little boy titting about on the barrier of Niagara Falls. He has a mum who’s pretty blasé about her son’s wellbeing.

* Lex and Miss Teschmacher finding the Fortress of Solitude. She keeps repeating the last word of his impressed dialogue (“The place is genius…” “Genius…”), then implies she needs the toilet. “Why didn’t you go before we left?” “That was two days ago!”

* Oh, look: it’s John Hollis, the baldy guy from The Empire Strikes Back, as a Kryptonian official.

* Lois throwing herself into a fast-flowing river to try to force Clark to reveal he’s Superman. (He refuses.)

* Arriving on Earth, Zod walks on water. The scene has an ubiquitous bemused onlooker.

* “You *are* Superman!” Lois works it out, and Clark owns up.

* In a redneck diner, Ursa challenges a guy to an arm wrestle – and wins so much she breaks the table.

* Zod’s expression of pride when he realises the whole planet can see him on TV.

* Superman gives up his powers…

* Zod, Ursa and Non defacing Mount Rushmore, replacing three of the Presidents with their own faces.

* Zod, Ursa and Non’s attack on the White House.

* “Rise before Zod… Now, kneel before Zod.”

* Clark is hit by a bully in a roadside cafe and bleeds. (It shows how fantastic Reeve is: despite the fact he was 6’4” and well-built, you buy him being intimidated.)

* Clark returning to the Fortress of Solitude and finding the crystal necessary to return his powers, which glows green on his face as the music swells.

* Non being fascinated by a Newton’s cradle executive toy.

* Waving a white handkerchief, Lex walks into the Oval Office to parley with Zod.

* After the bad guys have burst into the Daily Planet, Lois punches Ursa – the latter doesn’t flinch, but Lois busts her hand.

* Surveying the damage Zod and co have caused in the Daily Planet office, Lex says to himself, “When will these dummies learn how to use the doorknob?”

* When a colleague suggests Zod is as powerful as Superman, Lois pushes her out of shot.

* The lengthy and inventive battle on the streets of Metropolis. Well, at least at first – a plethora of product placement gets tiresome, while it gets increasing silly. When Zod and his allies create an overpowering wind, we see a man who continues his conversation despite the phone box being knocked over, a man roller-skating backwards and other facile jokes.

* Thinking Superman is human, Zod orders him to take his hand and swear loyalty – Superman squeezes it like in a vice. (Lois, meanwhile, realises Ursa has lost her strength – so socks her in the mouth.)

* After a kiss from Clark, Lois forgets that he’s Superman.

* Clark returns to the roadside cafe to humiliate the bully.

Review: This film was made concurrently with Superman: The Movie, and the turbulent production history is fascinating. If you don’t know the behind-the-scenes story, I highly recommend checking it out. A good précis can be found here. The most relevant fact is that, after completing the first film but before all of Superman II had been filmed, director Richard Donner was sacked and replaced with Richard Lester. A lot of Donner’s work was retained, but some scenes were reshot, the story was reworked and new footage created. Sadly the cracks are all too apparent. Gene Hackman refused to return after Donner was fired, so Lex inelegantly disappears from a crucial scene. Margot Kidder, under contract and with no choice but to carry on, visibly changes appearance in scenes shot months apart. Lester’s approach is clearly more flippant than Donner’s. But despite all that, the film holds up remarkably well. It’s very, very enjoyable. Zod and his sidekicks are great villains – camp yet still menacing – while the love story between Clark and Lois is superbly written and played. Their relationship is the beating heart of the story, and his sacrifice for her feels huge.

Nine molecule chambers out of 10.

Next time: Richard Pryor skies down the side of skyscraper!

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