Warner Brothers' first two Superman features were conceived as a two-part film, with both parts plotted by Mario Puzo and scripted by Puzo and rewriters David and Leslie Newman (Robert Benton received a credit for his polish on the first film). But the grand design ran into a hitch when producers Alexander and Illya Salkind began to feud with director Richard Donner.
At first, director Richard Lester was hired to serve as a negotiator between the director and his producers. But when the Salkinds decided to dismiss Donner between the release of Superman and the completion of Superman II, Lester became the latter film's official director. Donner had already shot well over half of Superman II when Lester took the reins, but the Salkinds opted to reshoot much of this footage in addition to shooting the missing scenes (this ploy also made it possible to credit Lester as the sole director).
By its very nature, the resulting film is severely compromised, but still rip-roaring, unpretentious entertainment. The schizoid effect includes scenes in which one actor, shot by Donner in 1977, converses at length with another actor shot in 1979. The complex editing can be partially decoded by careful examination of the actors' appearance and the fact that Donner loyalist Gene Hackman refused to participate in any reshoots.
Puzo's plot guarantees thrills and romance. When Superman (Christopher Reeve) accidentally unleashes the Kryptonian villains prosecuted by his father Jor-El (Marlon Brando, absent due to a legal tussle), the fate of the world—as represented by the United States—hangs in the balance. As General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O'Halloran) antagonize stupid rednecks in Idaho (?!), Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) regards Clark Kent with suspicion: could he be Superman?
The secret finally spills out in Niagara Falls, leading Lois and Superman to repair to Superman's Arctic getaway, the Fortress of Solitude. There, after some super-nookie, Superman repudiates his powers to live as a mortal with Lois. Unfortunately for humanity, it's a decision of world-class bad timing, as the Kryptonian super-villains shortly score a coup against the President (E.G. Marshall).
Also on hand is Hackman's Lex Luthor; Hackman spins comic gold from the escaped con's attempts to ingratiate himself with the power-drunk alien gods. Valerie Perrine, Jackie Cooper, and Marc McClure reprise their roles from the first film. Susannah York also returns—as super-mom Lara, she carries the load for the conspicuously absent Brando. Composer John Williams declined to participate, but Ken Thorne adapts Williams' original material.
Both major plot threads in Superman II yield satisfying results, thanks in no small part to the actors. Terence Stamp's ice-cold Zod is an all-time great comic-book-movie villain ("Kneel before Zod!"), and Reeve and Kidder make the most of their opportunities for humor and drama. Remarkably, the film's single most dramatic scene was shot by Lester, and comes in the last minutes of the movie. Kidder's distraught Lane confesses to Clark, "I am selfish when it comes to you. I'm jealous of the whole world," forcing Superman to once more agonize about his unique relationship issues.
There's no getting around the cumulative effect of Superman II as a somewhat chintzier movie than its predecessor, but the action sequences are memorable and frequent (and shot almost exclusively by Lester). An early crisis finds Lois in dire need of rescue from terrorist bombers in the Eiffel Tower (one played by Richard Griffiths), both Superman and Clark must go into action at Niagara Falls, and Zod, Ursa, and Non do serious damage to both East Houston, Idaho and downtown Metropolis.
Lester peppers the latter brawl—a knock-down, drag-out fight between Superman and the super-villains—with lame jokes and some of the most egregious product placement in movie history. Some of the flying effects are also lousy here, but in concept and much of the execution, the battle delivers most everything we want out of a superhero movie.
Elsewhere in the picture, Lester shows less acuity for the genre, or at least more tolerance for flexible comic-book "logic." Zod shoots a levitating beam out his finger, a power we've never seen Superman exhibit, and Superman demonstrates bizarre "powers" of his own: projecting multiple images of himself and, infamously, plucking an "S" symbol off his chest and throwing it, net-like, at his foe. At one point, a powerless Superman walks to the Arctic Circle in casual dress. And then there's the Super-kiss, which has a psychic effect.
By the end, order is restored, with the all-American hero re-planting the stars and stripes atop the damaged White House. Despite this reassurance, and Reeve's Superman once more flying by the camera with a smile, the original Superman franchise would never again fly so high.
[For Groucho's interview with Marc McClure, click here.]