I don’t know anything about Superman comics. I’ve never read a single one. Not even The Death of Superman when it was a big deal in middle school. I always thought his powers were boring because he was practically invincible and I didn’t think his villains were as compelling as Batman’s. I did see “Superman II” (1981) as a child, probably on cable in the late 80s, and my conception of what Superman is, or is “supposed to be,” comes entirely from this film.
The plot of “Superman II” is about General Zod’s attempt to take over the Earth. But the story is really about Clark and Lois and how Superman fits into their relationship. What I like most about it is how crystal clear the characters of Clark Kent and Lois Lane come through. Sure, they’re one-dimensional, but at least they have a dimension. And it’s a fun dimension. It’s a dimension where I don’t mind spending two hours. (Here begins my veiled criticism of “Man of Steel” (2013), which I loathed.) These two characters are so broad, it’s almost as if they were plucked from a Broadway musical. This is as it should be.
Clark is naive and idealistic. He’s fiercely compassionate. He always tells the truth. He always tries to do what’s right. He’s a total farmboy. These fundamentals are crucial because he was Clark before he was Superman, and Clark’s character fully explains why he becomes a superhero. No elaborate origin story is required. He becomes Superman because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. That’s Clark.
Lois is a cynic. She can be cruelly unfeeling. She’s harried and overworked. She’s a chain smoking city girl. It’s obvious that someone like her would have no interest in the pitiful affections of someone like Clark. She’s too busy and on the trail of too many important stories to give him a second thought.
But Lois and Clark do have some things in common. They’re both passionate about justice, and they both see journalism as a means to that end. She shares traits with Superman too; they’re both fearless and would both put themselves in danger to help others.
And here’s where “Superman II” opens. Lois begins to suspect Clark’s secret and she uses her investigative skills to pry a confession from him. Clark admits both his secret identity and his love for her. Now he has a problem, having apparently concluded that he can’t be a good superhero and a good boyfriend at the same time. (This seems rational.) So, which should he give up? Superman or Lois? What’s the right thing to do?
It’s almost like the writers created a dilemma for the main character based on his established character traits. Yes, it’s good old-fashioned screenwriting, and it’s where “Superman II” succeeds where “Man of Steel” failed miserably.
But “Superman II” is not without its flaws. Much has been said about studio meddling in such recent films as “Fantastic Four” (2015) and “Suicide Squad” (2016), both of which were purported to be ruined by reshoots, but “Superman II” was the original case of studio meddling in a comic book movie. The director, Richard Donner, was fired in the middle of production and replaced with Richard Lester, who reshot several of Donner’s scenes so the studio could avoid giving Donner directorial credit.
With Donner out of the picture, “Superman II” began to take a very different form. The studio had been squabbling with Marlon Brando and was eager to cut his scenes from the film, which Donner had refused to do, but which Lester merrily agreed to, replacing the hologram of Superman’s father with a hologram of his mother. She served the same purpose to the plot, but Brando’s gravitas was sacrificed.
Lester’s reshoots also stand out. In some cases, the actors look so different from one scene to the next that it gets distracting. This is particularly true of Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, who looks sickly in the reshot scenes, as if she wasn’t given enough notice before being recalled to play Lois and she starved herself to get back into shape.
The biggest problem for me in the film is the unexplained (or under-explained) method by which Clark regains his powers. Earlier, he takes Lois to the Fortress of Solitude and after conferring with his holo-mom, chooses to give up his powers so he can be with Lois. His mom warns him that the process cannot be undone, but he steps into the magic chamber and is turned into a regular human. This is one of the best moments in the Superman films, when Clark chooses Lois over Superman.
But later, with three evil Kryptonians running amuck, he realizes this was a poor choice. He returns to the Fortress of Solitude (never mind how mortals keep traveling back and forth from the North Pole to Metropolis in this movie) and finds some random crystal that for some reason reverses the process and restores his powers. Well, okay, but that kind of undercuts the whole “giving up your powers” thing.
The magic chamber was a neat device though, and led to another of the best moments in the series, where Superman outwits both Lex Luthor and General Zod during the film’s climax.
While “Superman II” delivers some great moments and some appropriately broad characterizations of Lois and Clark, the Greatest Superman Film has yet to be made. Some might say that it’s the original, “Superman: The Movie” (1978), but I think that film, like its sequel, suffers by making its villain too comedic.
Someday we’ll get a bright, idealistic, patriotic Superman who must face a genuine threat that challenges both his strength and his values. Maybe Hollywood will never embrace such corniness again… but there’s always Broadway.