Originally planned as a back-to-back production with the original Superman, Superman II suffered a number of behind-the-scenes setbacks, including a change in directors and the loss of Marlon Brando as Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor‑El. In spite of these troubles, the sequel delivers a satisfying conclusion to the first major Hollywood comic-book story, forming a reasonably cogent whole with its predecessor.
Where the original Richard Donner film established the pieces of Superman’s world, the sequel, begun by Donner but completed by Richard Lester, gives the Man of Steel more formidable villains and super-powered action worthy of his powers and abilities. At the same time, it offers a definitive look at the strange, impossible love triangle of Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Superman.
One of the weaknesses of the original Superman films, alas, is the buffoonish presentation of Superman’s archnemesis, Lex Luthor, entertainingly but campily played by Gene Hackman. This Luthor is just too much of a lightweight to pose a credible threat to the last son of Krypton, especially surrounded by the likes of Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Tessmacher (Valerie Perrine).
Superman II compensates for that by unleashing a trio of Kryptonian supervillains — exiled in the alternate dimension of the Phantom Zone by Jor‑El himself — on the earth. Led by the ruthless, egomaniacal General Zod (a formidably scenery-chewing Terence Stamp), with Ursa (cool, aloof Sarah Douglas) and Non (bull-like Jack O’Halloran) upping the ante against Superman three to one, the trio crash Superman’s adopted homeworld unbeknownst to him, itching for destruction, conquest — and vengeance against the son of their jailer.
Meanwhile, where is Earth’s greatest champion? Following an entertaining sequence of events at Niagara Falls, Lois Lane has at last seen through the token disguise of his alter ego, Clark Kent — and, unable for once either to fly away or to hide behind a pair of Harold Lloyd spectacles, he is forced to confront his feelings for her.
Then comes the fateful choice. For reasons that aren’t spelled out (but could be guessed at), Kal‑El is told by his long-dead mother (Susannah York) that as a superman he cannot be with a mortal woman; to be with her, he must become an ordinary man, giving up his powers — forever. (Of course the movie doesn’t really mean it, but that’s what she says.)
Here, of course, is the essential dilemma of Superman and Lois Lane — at least as the characters were classically conceived, before their 1990s wedding in the comic books.
Superman/Clark loves Lois, but Lois’s feelings for Superman are complicated, and may be as much about the “super” as about the “man” (as a line from Clark in the nasty diner sequence hints). Yet like any celebrity or power player, Clark wants to be loved for who he really is, not just what he can do. After all, if Lois can’t love Clark without his cape and tights and super-powers, then does she really deserve Superman?
At the same time, the aura of nerdy, bumbling incompetence Clark deliberately fosters — not to mention his penchant for undercutting himself by giving in to the temptation to flirt with Lois in uniform — makes it hard to fault Lois for feeling only platonic affection for her fellow reporter.
The other, more serious problem with this quasi-marital sequence is Kal‑El’s inescapable super-impediment: his unique responsibility to the world. In a way, Superman’s dilemma is like the choice between the celibate clerical state and marriage: To exercise these powers on behalf of mankind, one must give up this kind of domestic happiness.
Yet in keeping with the much-noted Christological parallels in the Superman films, Superman is in a way more like Jesus himself than a priest or bishop; there’s only one of him, and the fate of the world is in his hands.
In fact, film writer Peter Chattaway has provocatively extended the much-noted Christological resonances in the Superman films by suggesting that Superman forsaking his powers to marry Lois in Superman II parallels Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ temporarily coming down from the cross to marry Mary Magdalene before realizing his mistake and “going back” to complete his mission.
As deeply problematic as this is in Last Temptation, it works dramatically in Superman II. Superman is a Christ figure, yes, but a flawed, fallen one — which is fine for Superman, precisely because he is only a Christ figure, not Christ himself.
At any rate, the untimely arrival of the Phantom Zone villains drives home to Kal‑El in no uncertain terms that the earth needs him more than Lois does. He realizes he must go back; and, because the story requires it, he is allowed to do so. Then follows the ambitious battle royale beginning in the streets and climaxing in the Fortress of Solitude.
Like so much else about the film, the resolution of this battle doesn’t entirely make sense, yet manages to be dramatically satisfying. It might not fly in a comic-book movie today, but in these early films we don’t have to understand exactly how the Kryptonian crystal builds the Fortress of Solitude or restores Superman’s powers, or how the Man of Steel manages that neat reversal with the red-sun energy-generating molecule chamber.
Even the film’s capping case of deus ex machina, the amnesia-inducing super-kiss, goes down easier than it might have, in part due to the wildly improvised use of noncanonical super-powers throughout the film (object-levitating finger-beams, the strange rules of Kryptonian hide-and-seek, etc.) as well as the somewhat fairy-tale tone established by the first film.
Purist complaints about tonal shifts between the Donner sequences and the Lester sequences may be overstated. True, the seams are evident in places, but even the original Donner film displayed considerable tonal shifts, from the ultra-serious bits on Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude to the slapstick bumbling of Otis, etc.
Together, Superman and Superman II redefined a classic American hero for decades to come, while at the same time honoring who he always was and perhaps always will be. Subsequent attempts to follow in the footsteps of these films — including, alas, two additional sequels, as well as the Batman films of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher — only underscored their unique achievement. Superman II isn’t perfect, but in the annals of comic-book movies it remains an indispensable touchstone.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.