From Krypton to Gautham: Superman II (1981)

Superman-II-(1981)-movie-poster

Based on the success of Alexander Salkind’s, Ilya Salkind’s, and Pierre Spangler’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) being shot together as though they were one movie, when the rights to Superman were bought in 1974, the decision was made that they’d make two movies together. So their original screenwriter, Mario Puzo, wrote one massive script that was eventually rewritten by Robert Benton, David Newman, and Leslie Newman into two screenplays. When Richard Donner was hired to direct the films, he brought in his friend Tom Mankiewicz to overhaul the screenplays, though his credit on the film was as creative consultant. In April 1977, filming commenced on both Superman: The Movie and Superman II. However, due to the production of both films going over schedule and overbudget, as well as clashes between the producers and Donner, the production of Superman II was halted to focus on finishing and releasing the first film.

Because it was known that a sequel would be made, Superman: The Movie introduced its sequel’s villains in its opening scenes. Brando is putting General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) on trial for treason against Krypton. The council votes them guilty, with Jor-El’s vote the deciding factor. Zod announces that because Jor-El’s was the vote that sealed their fate, that he and his heirs will pay and kneel before him. The three criminals are placed in a flying piece of glass which holds them in the Phantom Zone. It’s one of the more jaw-dropping moments of the first film, with a giant dome opening on the crystal planet and a ray of light shooting up into the night sky and space. Superman II opens on Krypton with the three criminals going bad, getting caught, and being put to trial…without Jor-El.

It is the first change an audience member would have noticed sitting in their movie theater back in 1981. They may or may not have heard why Brando was suddenly not in the scene, I wouldn’t know, I was only three years old and knew of Superman II only through trading cards. Of course, with the huge success of Superman, one would think that the producers would have happily returned to shooting Superman II with all the original cast and crew, but that’s not what happened.

Of course, the story is legendary and if you’re here reading this, you probably know it. Still, in case you don’t know the story….

A dramatic enactment of Richard Donner fighting Alexander Salkind.

A dramatic enactment of Richard Donner fighting Alexander Salkind.

Because of the clashes between Donner and the Salkinds (I’m hoarding Spengler with them), even though Superman: The Movie was a huge success, Donner was not asked back to finish the sequel, effectively being fired. The Salkinds went with their friend, director of their Musketeer movies, Richard Lester. In order for Lester to get sole credit as director (so the story goes), he would need to shoot more than was actually left of shooting on Superman II when Donner and company left off. So more rewrites were done and in 1979, shooting (and in some cases, reshooting) began on Superman II.

I eventually saw it on HBO or Cinemax when I was about five or six. I knew about it, though, and I knew of the horrible happenings in the story: Superman and Lois Lane “get married” (that’s how it was explained to me). I was horrified. The two things the main heroes–my main heroes–could not do, under any circumstances, were: 1) Fall in love/get married, or 2) cry. When I get to the Star Wars Saga (if I get to the Star Wars Saga) you’ll hear more about that rule. Kissing was all right, but actual falling in love and marriage? Absolutely not. Still, I liked the rest of the movie at that age, even more than the first movie, which had slow moments. But I’m not a kid anymore (despite writing ad nauseum about kid’s fair), so, let’s take a look at Superman II.

The Super

Superman returns! It’s the common complaint of these kinds of movies and it started with this series: The first movie may be great but it’s always a build-up until the superhero we’ve paid money to see finally makes it onscreen. Nearly an hour goes by in Superman: The Movie before we finally see Superman, and it’s another 15 minutes or so before he saves Lois Lane in the helicopter scene, his coming out party. In Superman II, he pops up in the first 20 minutes, probably even sooner. Lois is at the Eiffel Tower trying to get a story on a terrorist situation and is in trouble and Superman shows up to rescue her (and set up the rest of the movie). Because a lot of the movie was shot at the same time as the first movie, and because Reeve’s embodiment of Kal-El is so pitch-perfect, it doesn’t feel like anything’s changed. I daresay, he’s the most consistent part of this movie. Or at least one of them. He has some of the real anguish that was only hinted at in the first movie when it comes to having to choose between maintaining his dual identity or becoming human for love. When Clark Kent, sans super powers, gets his ass kicked, the look of fear and shock on Reeve’s face is perfect. Looking at his own blood for the first time is terrifying. His helplessness and anguish as the realization dawns on him that no matter how much he may want to be human, he can never be so, is simply short of amazing. The whole performance, whether it’s Donner-directed or Lester-directed, is pretty much perfect.

Oh, I knew this feeling well.

Oh, I knew this feeling well.

The Phantom Zone criminals. Zod, Ursa, and Non bring some actual danger to Superman’s world. No matter how great Lex Luthor is in this incarnation, without the green rock, he’s essentially powerless over Superman in any physical way. Sure, using Lois Lane and the Daily Planet folks can get to him, but physically, he’s no match. General Zod and company is a match…a match to be taken very seriously. They are roles that could have been too big, too much, except that casting Terence Stamp as Zod was the right choice. He is cool, calm, and venomous. He says more with a look than just about anyone else in these movies. I suspect that Sarah Douglas took her cue from Stamp and played Ursa under Zod’s spell. Non is a little too silly at times, but when is up to evil, a formidable villain that is quite dangerous. Their costumes are cool, too, though a little strange.

Aaahhh...the seventies...

Aaahhh…the seventies…

The battle scenes at the end are every little boy’s dream fight. Or at least it was in 1980. Earlier that year, little boys got to see Luke Skywalker finally duel with Darth Vader…and lose. Six months later, Superman took on three equally-powered villains. Before CGI effects dominated the cinema with huge, grandiose battles (that often last far too long), children of the 1970s (1980 was barely the ’80s) got to see a battle like that without any CG effects. Christopher Reeve, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran were actually on the streets of New York beating each other up using wires, camera tricks, models, and ingenuity. And the kicker? They weren’t even in New York! Instead, a set that looked like New York-as-Metropolis was built in (I believe) a studio in London. Re-watching it in the age of CGI, where just last year I saw The Avengers fight space bad guys in New York, doesn’t hurt the fight. The emotional resonance between Superman and Zod is still there.

The adult theme of the romance is another super thing about this movie. They really don’t sugarcoat it but never get graphic. Superman is giving in to his human feelings and being selfish and we root for him (while the little boys surely do not–they know what Superman should do!). We understand because we would do (and have done) the same goddamn thing for love. And this is where Superman: The Movie and Superman II succeed. “This is no fantasy” is still in the back of the mind. The beautiful sequence where Superman and Lois Lane fly together and begin to really fall in love is brought to a head here. They have an official date and then Superman chooses to give up his powers despite the hologram of Lara (Susannah York) warning him not to. It was a decision that troubled me–maybe even offended me–when I was between four and six but that I understand 30 years later. Like its predecessor, it brought Superman to the big screen not just for the kiddies, like the previous incarnations of Superman did, but also for their parents. Unlike the Kirk Alyn Superman serials (Alyn and Noel Niell appear as young Lois Lane’s parents on the train in Smallville in the first film) and the George Reeves movie, the Christopher Reeve Superman movies came out when the cost of a ticket got you movie trailers, the feature, and that was it. No cartoons, no newsreels, not endless viewings just by staying in the theater all day. This was the post-JFK assassination, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Star Wars world and the parents needed something to hold onto, too. And this aspect of the story delivers.

My wife wondered why I wanted to put aluminum foil on the bed our wedding night....

My wife wondered why I wanted to put aluminum foil on the bed our wedding night….

The Kryptonite

Marlon Brando, now known for his arrogance and laziness as much as for his talent, wanted more money–a load more money–to appear in Superman II and the Salkinds, now known for the stupid arrogance, decided not to pay. Suddenly, Jor-El was no longer convicting Zod, Ursa, and Non. Suddenly, the holograms were of Lara that Kal-El spoke to. Jor-El hardly gets mentioned until the end. It’s a shame because it’s jarring for the viewer to go from the story of the father and the son to suddenly go to the mother and the son. It’s even more jarring when a famous, perfect scene loses its key player. Jor-El placing the final guilty verdict is the reason for Zod’s rage, and in the sequel it’s excised. Foolish.

Not Brando. Not a hologram. Not in continuity.

Not Brando. Not a hologram. Not in continuity.

Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor is under-utilized. He’s nearly as sinister as in the first movie, especially in the way that he tries to use Superman’s friends against him and to win favor with General Zod, but he almost gets lost in the shuffle. And his escape is ridiculous. Ned Beatty is once again the oafish Otis who is roommates in prison with Luthor. There’s a plan where they fool prison guards by placing a hologram of the two of them playing chess in their cell (apparently, in whatever state Metropolis is in, they allow convicted friends to share a cell). They then attempt an escape by hot air balloon, piloted by Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Luthor gets on but Otis begins to bring the balloon down as he tries to climb the ladder. Luthor eventually throws the ladder over and Otis stays in jail. The scene is ridiculous and one I’d like to blame on Lester’s touch (which I’ll get to very shortly) but can’t. All of the Hackman scenes are said to be shot by Donner. While bringing Luthor back definitely helps bridge films, he spends most of his time making wiseass remarks and watching the Phantom Zone prisoners be evil. Maybe he’s there to bring some lightness to Zod’s seriousness. Maybe the intention was to utilize the knowledge Luthor gains when he finds the Fortress of Solitude in a future film (the end credits begin with a notice that Superman III will be coming soon). Either way, Hackman’s talents are wasted as the comic relief to Zod and gang.

Continuity is an issue with this movie. It’s pretty apparent that Superman and Superman II are supposed to be one long story, or two chapters of a long story. However, because of the issues between the Salkinds and Donner, because of the money issues with Brando, because of Richard Lester’s insistence on rewriting the story to suit his direction (which was probably needed if he were to take sole credit, according to the Director’s Guild), continuity between the two chapters is very loose. It begins right away, on Krypton, where we see Zod, Ursa, and Non murdering a guard to a red crystal to suddenly be jailed in the rings. The Kryptonian Council heads float above them on the dark dome and go through who they are, and then find them guilty. I mentioned this scene two paragraphs ago. For fans of the first movie (which I’d assume would’ve been everyone in the theater seeing the sequel), it rewrites history and lessens Zod’s motives.

Another thing that bothers me is: What happened to Miss Teschmacher? True, we’re not sure what happened to her in the first movie, but she shows up to help Lex Luthor escape from prison. She goes with him to the Fortress of Solitude. She sees the holograms of a man teaching poetry and of Lara telling Kal-El about General Zod and his friends, but then…? She’s never seen or mentioned again.

Miss Tesch-Who?

Miss Tesch-Who?

Another continuity thing is the Daily Planet offices. Their basic set-up is the same, only now Lois has an office. It was pretty blatant in the first movie that she didn’t have an office, but had her desk with several other reporters, including Clark Kent. Now, suddenly, she has an office. It could be argued that she received one because she’s such a good reporter in between movies, but the way the office looks it makes one believe she has been in it a while. Of course, there’s no mention about how much time passed between the chapters of this story, but we know two years passed between the release of Superman and Superman II, so perhaps shortly after the events of the first movie, Lois Lane received an office. Still…

Richard Lester’s decision to bring more camp into the movie, and to give Superman, Zod, and the other Kryptonians ridiculous powers hurts an otherwise really good movie. Now, this is the 35-year-old talking. At five, six, or seven I thought these powers were great, but I didn’t realize that they were very much not powers Superman had. The first movie took his powers fairly seriously. With the exception of his turning the world, and time, backward, every power Superman displays is in the comic books. Superman II gives the evil Kryptonians the ability to make people levitate. Superman has the ability to broadcast himself throughout the Fortress of Solitude at the end, making some versions of himself holograms, others statues, all to throw the villains off. Don’t forget the S he takes from his chest and hurls at the villains. The S grows and becomes, essentially, cellophane and wraps around Non. The camp of the first film remained mostly with Lex Luthor and his goons, but in this one, it’s all over. From the silly doorman at Niagra Falls, to Lois’s attempt to out Clark as Superman with the falls (albeit, Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are great in the scene, even if it is silly), to some of the people of Metropolis, Lester’s world is sillier. A little too much so. Again, I don’t want to be one of those fanboys who believes that everything in these kinds of movies must remain serious, it’s just that compared to the first movie, the tone is a little off.

After the Battle

Despite such a long list in the Kryptonite section, I actually enjoy Superman II quite a bit. After I found out the story behind the story, the firing of Richard Donner and everything else, I wondered what Richard Donner’s version would have been like, but that doesn’t hurt this movie that much. The cast still turns in strong performances, there’s still plenty of action, and it feels like a satisfying conclusion to the story begun in Superman: The Movie. As a child, I really enjoyed this movie and loved how the two movies went together. As an adult, I’m impressed by the work that went into both movies at a time when movies like these were huge gambles.

Superman and Superman II set the template for the superhero (or comic book) movie. It’s been used again and again, but hardly ever as well. Spider-Man, Batman Begins, and Iron Man are the closest to the feeling of the pure joy of discovery that Superman: The Movie provides. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, and Batman Begins and The Dark Knight the left-right punch of that Superman and Superman II delivers.

I feel like Superman II has gotten a bad rap because of the controversy behind the Salkind-Donner feud. When you get right down to it, it’s a pretty good movie. In some ways, it’s less than in its predecessor, in others, it’s better.

Superman!

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About Bill Gauthier

Bill Gauthier is a writer. His books include the collection CATALYSTS (2007), ALICE ON THE SHELF (2011), and SHADOWED (2011).

Posted on June 16, 2013, in From Krypton to Gautham, Life, Memoir, Movies, Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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