Superman II (1981)
Superman II (1981)

Genre: Superhero Running Time: 2 hrs. 7 min.

Release Date: June 19th, 1981 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Richard Lester Actors: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran, Valerie Perrine, Jackie Cooper




eneral Zod (Terence Stamp) and his cohorts Non (Jack O’Halloran) and Ursa (Sarah Douglas) are guilty of treason against Krypton, resulting in imprisonment in the Phantom Zone – visualized as a wafer-like, square, glass object (a sequence that is repeated from before to tie this sequel back to a brief moment from the original). During the opening titles, booming with John Williams’ stellar music (here composed and conducted by Ken Thorne), a further recap highlights major scenes from the prior picture; clearly, the filmmakers have some doubts as to whether or not all audiences will be familiar with the 1978 blockbuster. Nevertheless, the essential takeaway is that extraterrestrial hero Superman (Christopher Reeve), who remains successfully hidden among regular people through his alter ego, reporter Clark Kent, is in love with coworker Lois Lane (Margot Kidder).

As if to emphasize Superman’s comical inability to be seen in a crowd, the Daily Planet journalist can’t seem to draw attention from any of the people bustling about the office; his broad shoulders, 6’ 4” height, and chiseled jaw can’t seem to marshal even subtle glances in his direction. But when he learns that a gang of terrorists have seized the Eiffel Tower, with 20 or so hostages, making threats about a hydrogen bomb, the mild-mannered fellow immediately finds an unused alley to change into – or reveal, in his classic shirt-ripping fashion – Superman, flying off to Paris. Normally, he might delay his flight, but Lois is already on the scene, certain to be in the midst of trouble and in desperate need of a super-powered rescue.

Apparently, the world isn’t yet aware of Superman’s exploits, nor is he summonable with a specialized signal like Batman when a colossal job requires his assistance. But at least his former nemesis, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, whose dialogue is 99% sarcastic quips), is tucked away in a penitentiary, alongside stooge Otis (Ned Beatty), where they must hatch new schemes to get revenge (and freedom). Once again, their machinations are of the lighthearted, silly type; their bickering and conversations are largely laced with laughs (or attempts at laughs). This, of course, goes along with Kent, who is even clumsier than before, while Lane’s voice has become a touch lower as if from all the smoking. Though the original formula was rewarded with box office (as well as critical) success, this follow-up employs the exact same tone and design, even sticking with the concepts that previously didn’t work. “This is really embarrassing.”

Still, the faithfulness allows for a welcome familiarity (even down to unnecessary, minor personas like Valerie Perrine’s Eve Teschmacher); it’s too soon for this cast and crew to reinvent Superman (the script is by Mario Puzo again). But the focus on comedy is routinely overwhelming; when the supporting roles and steady flow of predicaments are so glazed with humor, there’s never any sense of gravity or sincerity. Lives aren’t really in danger; the world isn’t actually on the verge of destruction. Superman will always be there to save the day. Fortunately, the trio of Krypton terrorists aren’t as goofy as the other characters (reactions to them, however, are expectedly quizzical), presenting a glimmer of harsher severity – though, unsurprisingly, they’re still not much of a match, and they spend a good deal of time frivolously experimenting with newfound powers. Yet just when a turn of events grows more appropriately deliberate, another purely comic-relief role turns up – such as the recognizable Clifton James as a hick sheriff. Awe is always stymied by wisecracks, even during the climax.

The love story is marginally more effective (viewers even get a glimpse of Superman’s arctic bedchamber), which also adds to the steady distribution of jokes (one-liners abound), while a few stunts and action sequences are impressively complex and destructive. But a considerable amount of this film is posturing and flexing and stalling; the actual plot is mostly uneventful, doing little other than adding details about the various characters – of which there are too many. And the special effects haven’t stepped up either, remaining unconvincing, particularly during shots of flying and those with CG additives.

But in the end, it’s a matching continuation, even if it’s an uninspired one, whose stale direction wasn’t dismissed in later years (the crux of the plot involves an unexplained permanent sacrifice of superpowers that is instantly impermanent), prompting uncredited and fired director Richard Donner to release his own cut of the film using uncovered and discarded footage, including shots with Brando as Superman’s father. Contemporary viewership rewarded the theatrical effort (directed by Richard Lester) all the same, making it another box office gem, complete with rave reviews, ensuring yet another sequel (promised by the closing credits) arriving only three years afterward. “I’ve discovered his weakness. He cares.”

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10