By the end of the 1980s, the movie-going public had tired of campy comic book hero film translations and was in the mood for something darker and grittier. The putrid Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) was the perfect precursor to Tim Burton’s moody and violent retelling of Batman in ’89. The wheel never stops turning, however, and it wasn’t too long before these new dark “edgy” revisionings started too look as hackneyed as their forerunners.
Recent comic-to-film translations such as Spiderman and the two X-Men pictures have tried to rekindle some of the fun of their source material and have tempered their action with varying amounts of goofy humor. Still, none of these films has rekindled the pure unadulterated joy of watching grown men and women prance around in tights while whacking each other over the head as Richard Lester’s first crack at the Superman mythos in Superman II.
Itself a sequel, the second Superman film wasn’t so much a homage to the old television series as the first Superman was. Rather, it was the first major step in the evolution of a newly burgeoning genre that would come to dominate the summer cineplexes for the next two decades and counting.
Superman II‘s story deals with Superman’s (Christopher Reeve) desire to have a normal, human life when he’s not fighting crime in his underwear. This desire finds its focus in Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), the spunky reporter for the Daily Planet and the co-worker of Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent.
Clark is completely enamoured with Lois, so it is doubly vexing to him when she falls head over heals for the Man in Tights. He realizes that it would be dangerous for Lois if she were to discover his true identity, and so he continues to pine for her as Clark while teasing her with glimpses of Superman. Eventually, however, even Lois can’t miss the not-so-subtle connection that the nerdy reporter and the superhunk hero share. In one of the more ridiculous (and wonderful) scenes in the movie, she realizes the truth when Clark trips over a bearskin rug and drops his hand into a roaring fire without getting burned.
He may possess super speed and strength, but apparently he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
Now that Lois knows the truth, there is still an impediment to the star-crossed lovers’ romance: namely, Superman isn’t human. Using one of his trusty green crystals, Superman gets a visit from his dead mother via an interactive hologram and learns of a process that would render him human and enable him to be with Lois. The caveat: he will lose all of his powers and cease to be Superman. In haste to get his life with Lois moving forward, Superman undergoes the procedure and he and Lois happily unite.
But there’s a problem, of course. Clark is used to being super strong, and now that he’s just a normal man he can’t even stand up to the thuggish truck driver who hits on Lois at a roadside diner. What’s worse, after being pummeled by said truck driver, Clark learns that three of his fellow Kryptonians, the villanous General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran), have been freed from their interdimensional prison and have found their way to Earth.
Now they, too, have superpowers, and seeing as they were imprisoned by Superman’s father on Krypton, they’ve got an axe to grind. As if that weren’t bad enough, the trio are aided by Superman’s arch nemesis, Lex Luther (GeneHackman), who has uncovered the location of his Fortress of Solitude.
So now Clark has a tough decision: return to being Superman and lose Lois, or stay with the woman he loves and watch Zod and his lackeys enslave humanity? Decisions, decisions. From here on out the film rocks and rolls all the way to its satisfying and clever conclusion.
One of the most satisfying things about Superman II is the depth they give to Superman as a character. Make no mistake, this is still a comic book character, and the colors which fill in the inked outlines remain bright and primary. Still, he is much more than the muscle-headed naif that he was in the first film. The main problem with the first picture was that Lex Luther was smarter than Superman, who always broke through walls first and asked questions later. It made Superman’s inevitable victory less palatable since it was the result not of his cunning, but of his superpowers and more than a little luck.
In this sequel, Superman shows that he has the super brain to match his super brawn and it is ultimately his wits that save him from the enemies allied against him.
Everything about Superman II screams campy goodness. The special effects, which were state of the art when the film was released, maintain some cartoonish charm despite the fact that they seem hopelessly outdated by today’s standards. The story is interesting and involving without ever taking itself too seriously. If ever an actor was meant to play a role, Christopher Reeve was meant to play Superman. He is so good as both the steely-eyed Superman and the geeky Clark Kent that you can almost buy the fact that everybody in the city of Metropolis is fooled by a pair of thick black-rimmed glasses (almost).
Gene Hackman is delightfully over the top as Lex Luther, and he instills the film with massive doses of needed humor, much as he did in the first film. Margot Kidder gives a convincing portrayal of Lois Lane as a reporter so dedicated to uncovering the truth that she would throw herself into a raging river and risk death just to prove that Clark is really Superman. Terence Stamp always brings something undeniably cool to any role he takes on, and his General Zod is deliciously evil and pompous, vacillating between maniacal glee at inflicting damage and boredom at not having more worthy opponents to vanquish.
The recent DVD release of Superman II (concurrent with the releases of I, III, and IV) leaves quite a bit to be desired, unfortunately.
There are no extras aside from the obligatory theatrical trailer and cast bios. The picture is presented in its original anamorphic widescreen format and everything looks crisp and clean, but it definitely shows its age. Overall, it feels like the film was just slapped cheaply onto a disc without much thought or care being put into the overall product. Why is it that you can get a 47-disc special edition of Matrix: Revulsions (with three discs dedicated exclusively to apologies) but this bare bones disc is all we Superman junkies can lay our hands on?
Nearly twenty-five years after its release, Superman II remains as arguably one of the best superhero movies ever, staying true to its source material and poking fun at it without ever making fun of it. Smarter than Spiderman, more fun than X-Men, and just all around superior to the crudfest that was The Hulk, Superman proves again just how cool it is to have x-ray vision… and to use it for good.