THE HISTORY OF DC COMICS ON FILM
PART 4 – SUPERMAN II (1980)
For part 4 of the complete history of DC Comics on film, we come to the first sequel on the list, Superman II. Released in 1980, the film was a roaring success, bringing in a then-huge $190 million dollar box office haul against a $54 million budget. In addition to its commercial triumph, it was also critically well received, scoring well with the worldwide press. Building on the huge impact made by Superman: The Movie, this second instalment takes the action up a notch, giving Superman not one, not two, but three Kryptonian adversaries to do battle with, giving him a physical threat that was not present in the first film. With Lex Luthor still on hand to provide the cerebral obstacles, the film gives Superman different levels of foes to overcome, as well as the self-created issues stemming from his love affair with Lois Lane, giving him cause to reject his birthright and become a mortal man. The fantastic finished product doesn’t tell the whole story however, as the film endured an extremely troubled production indeed…..
PLEASE NOTE – THIS ARTICLE IS CONCENTRATING SOLELY ON THE THEATRICAL CUT OF THE FILM, THE RICHARD DONNER CUT WILL BE REVIEWED ONCE OUR TIMELINE REACHES 2006….
In the act of saving Paris (and Lois) from a hydrogen bomb by tossing it into space to detonate, Superman inadvertently frees General Zod, Non and Ursa from their Phantom Zone prison. Granted identical powers to Superman due to being under Earth’s yellow sun, the three villains travel to Earth to conquer the population and force them all to “kneel before Zod!” At the same time, whilst on assignment in Niagara Falls, Lois finally deduces that Clark and Superman are one and the same, due to Clark’s hand being completely unscathed despite reaching into an open fire to retrieve Lois’ comb. Taking her to his Fortress of Solitude, Clark confers with the artificial intelligence of his mother, Lara, and declares his love for Lois. Realising that he cannot have a life with her and still be the Man of Steel, Clark exposes himself to red Kryptonian sunlight, stripping him of all his powers and rendering him a mortal man. Subsequently beaten and bloodied by a truck driver in a diner following a night with Lois, a humbled Clark witnesses Zod addressing the world from the White House, daring the “son of Jor-El” to face him. Realising that he is humanity’s only hope, Clark travels back alone to the Fortress to try and regain his powers, allowing him to face the Kryptonians in open combat through the streets of Metropolis….
After production had halted on the simultaneous production of parts 1 and 2, to allow director Richard Donner and crew to concentrate on getting Superman: The Movie into cinemas and avoid further delays, Superman II was put on ice, in October 1977. Superman: The Movie was of course released to huge acclaim and success, and the stage was set for production to pick up on part 2, which had already had several scenes shot and in the can. In early 1979, with cameras ready to roll, Donner was no longer at the helm. Due to an extremely fractious relationship with the Salkind family and Pierre Spengler (the films producers), he was relieved of his duties. A replacement was on hand in the form of Richard Lester, who had already been brought on board to act as an intermediary between Donner and the producers.
Due to the sacking of Donner, numerous issues arose with the cast and crew. Gene Hackman declined to return to film further scenes as Lex Luthor, meaning a body double was used for several shots. Thankfully, enough of his footage had already been shot on the Donner shoot to ensure the character had a presence throughout the film. Writer Tom Mankiewicz and editor Stuart Baird refused to return to duty out of loyalty to Donner. All of Marlon Brando’s scenes as Jor-El, which had already been shot, were scrapped and replaced with new footage of Susannah York as Lara instead, due to Brando suing the producers over his share of the first film’s profits. Margot Kidder had some choice comments to make about the departure of Donner, which saw her relegated to a bit part player in Superman III (more to come on that in a future instalment of this series).
Once production eventually recommenced in June 1979, several newly written scenes were added to the plot that were not originally there under Donner, most significantly the Eiffel Tower-based opening sequence. Despite using footage from two different shoots, under two different directors, from almost 2 years separation, the production still managed to turn out a cohesive, masterful event movie.
Cast and Performances
The principal performances of Reeve, Kidder and Hackman are extensions from the first film, which were reviewed at length in the previous instalment, so we will look to focus on other performances in this film. None are more significant than Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran as Zod, Ursa and Non, the three Kryptonian criminals. Only seen in the opening scenes of the first film, this time they dominate the film, pushing Luthor to more of a supporting villain role. Stamp is pitch perfect as Zod, displaying arrogance, ruthlessness and charisma as the evil General. Whilst more recent portrayals of Zod (Michael Shannon, Colin Salmon) have seen a more sympathetic representation of the character, here we get to see pure evil, with his drive being solely to rule the Earth. Coldly delivering his lines, he creates a real sense of menace. So too does Douglas, her Ursa is a cold-hearted, sadistic killer, who thinks nothing of taking lives. The sheer delight she gets from her new found powers is clear, as she puts the men of Earth under her boot heel. One of the best female villains in comic book film history, she is both a physical match for Superman and a great precursor to Antje Traue’s Faora in Man of Steel. O’Halloran is great fun as Non, his huge physical frame gives him a towering presence over Superman in combat, and that menace is nicely juxtaposed with the comedy that comes from his lack of speech and intelligence, as his form of communication is strange noises and growls. The interplay between Zod and Non is a joy to watch, as Zod, whilst clearly appreciating Non as the muscle behind his operation, often openly despairs at his stupidity, rolling his eyes on more than one occasion.
Also on great form is Clifton James as the small town sheriff that comes up against Zod and co upon their initial arrival on Earth. Seemingly reprising his role as J.W. Pepper from Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun in all but name, he provides some stellar comic relief when trying to deal with the threat posed by the unstoppable supervillains as they wreak havoc on his town. On a side note, please do re-watch the scene where the young boy of the town pleads with Zod to release his father from his his laser-like pointing ability. If ever a clue was needed that the film was shot in England, listen to his Oliver Twist-esque accent, somewhat out of place in a rural, Southern America setting! Found below, look for it around the 2.20 mark…..
To sum up, Superman II is a quite excellent film. Despite it’s troubled and ill-fated production, the final product delivers on all levels. The super-powered 3 on 1 smackdown is a scene that hadn’t been attempted before, setting the bar high for future films to come that used advances in technology and cgi to portray such devastating scraps. Shot before such luxuries became commonplace, it is an inventive and thrilling action sequence. Although the film was not Richard Donner’s original vision, it is still revered as a classic, even being Christopher Reeve’s apparent choice for the best in the series. Several years later, when given access to his footage that was previously thought to be lost, Donner was able to retroactively put together his own cut, which got its own release in 2006 (to be reviewed here at a later date).
In my opinion, Superman II is ever bit as good as its predecessor, making a great companion film which allows for the two to be watched as a pair, telling a great story over several hours, an incredible treat for all Supes fans!
In the next History of DC Comics on Film………Swamp Thing!!…….