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Review: Superman II (1980)

Superman II (1980)

Directed by: Richard Lester

Premise: The sequel to 1978’s Superman: The Movie. Superman’s (Christopher Reeve) relationship with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) gets serious while Earth is invaded by three criminals from Krypton.

What Works: Superman II is an enjoyable follow up to the 1978 film. It benefits significantly from the choices of Superman: The Movie and at its best the sequel captures what was successful about the original picture. The main cast from Superman: The Movie return for this sequel and having established the characters in the previous installment, the sequel is able to get into its story with a minimum of exposition. The second Superman film has two major story arcs: the romance between Superman and Lois Lane and the invasion of Earth by General Zod (Terrence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran). The action is done better than the romance although the filmmakers deserve some credit for allowing the hero to have a more passionate relationship than is usually seen in other superhero movies. Viewing the film now, when the contemporary crop of superheroes show almost no interest in romance or other human emotion, the on-screen chemistry between Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve’s Superman is a pleasant reminder of the importance of humanity in superhero stories. But the parts of Superman II that are the most fun involve the Krytonian criminals. The performances by Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran are very good and they are able to include some humor into their scenes without compromising the villainy of their characters. Terrence Stamp in particular is impressive; even though he isn’t very menacing in a physical way, Stamp does do a lot of great work with his voice, conveying a potent mix of violence and narcissism. Superman II is a slightly more fun piece than its predecessor. It does not have quite the same mythic weight as the original but it is a much more action-oriented film and it moves along a lot faster. The action comes frequently, more so than in the first Superman picture, and the set pieces are very satisfying. For the most part, Superman II accomplishes exactly what a sequel should: it honors and builds upon the accomplishments of the first film and develops its characters and concepts.  

What Doesn’t: Superman II is a step down from the quality of the previous film. Its special effects have aged less well than its predecessor and some of the optical effects are not even up to the standard of movies of 1980. It has a campier tone than the original, which on one hand is part of the fun of this installment but paradoxically it also cheapens the action. Superman II also has problems with pacing. The story is a succession of plot points but there is very little rising action between them. This becomes most apparent in the love story which is clumsily handled. As part of this subplot, Superman gives up his powers so that he can live a normal human life with Lois Lane. This is a false choice. There is no reason why he cannot maintain his superhero status and live happily ever after with the love of his life. And as hastily as that choice is made it is almost as quickly reversed. Like Superman: The Movie, the sequel has a problematic ending. The showdown at the Fortress of Solitude is anticlimactic, especially given the grandiose battle scenes before it, and both Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and Lois Lane basically stand around and do nothing through the whole sequence.

DVD extras: There are two versions of Superman II: the theatrical cut directed by Richard Lester and the 2006 restoration, known as The Richard Donner Cut. The Blu-ray edition of the theatrical cut includes commentary tracks, featurettes, deleted scenes, cartoons, and a trailer. 

Bottom Line: Superman II is the best sequel in the Christopher Reeve Superman series. Although it has significant shortcomings it is a lot of fun and it does the duty of a sequel to raise the stakes and broaden the story palate. Within the arena of sequels it may not reach the heights of The Empire Strikes Back but at times it comes close.

Episode: #444 (June 23, 2013)