By Jacobus Dixon

By the early 1980s, Hollywood was beginning to notice more and more how summer blockbusters and franchise films kept their wallets full. Movies like Jaws, Star Wars, Rocky, and Superman just raked in the dough, so naturally there were sequels planned to recapture the magic. This was especially good for the Superman franchise because director Richard Donner had opted to shoot the original and the sequel back-to-back (good thing the first movie was a hit, or that just would have been awkward). Apparently people liked the idea of seeing a superhero as an actual action/adventure character and not just campy comedy. Christopher Reeve gave a Superman performance that was so three-dimensional and human, it made us remember why we fell in love with the character in the first place (and also why so many still think of him as their favorite Superman).  By the time Superman: The Movie was released in 1978, about 75% of Superman II was shot and completed. With Donner behind the camera, and Reeve in the tights it wouldn’t be long before we got our amazing sequel starring the Man of Steel.

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Well…heh…that wasn’t quite how things turned out. We still got Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran reprising their respective roles of Superman/Clark Kent, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, General Zod, Ursa, and Non, but there would be no Richard Donner to direct. Behind the scenes, Donner and the Salkinds (the producers of the film franchise) were constantly arguing since both had different visions of what they wanted Superman to be. Even though the first Superman film was a guaranteed hit, Donner’s constant clashes with the producers got him booted from the film, much to the chagrin of many cast members (Marlon Brando even sued the Salkinds $50 million for it, they responded by having his scenes in Superman II cut).

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The replacement director, Richard Lester (best known probably for his Beatles comedy movies A Hard Days Night, Help! and the musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) was more willing to give Superman the campy treatment that the Salkinds wanted, but first he had to reshoot a bunch of Donner’s scenes to comply with the mandates of the Director’s Guild of America. And it took some work, but the film managed to be released in Australia and Europe by December of 1980, but didn’t reach the U.S. until June of 1981. With all the drama behind the scenes I guess we were lucky we got it at all.

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The film focuses on a group of Krytonian criminals (introduced in the first film and sentenced to the Phantom Zone by Superman’s father, Jor-El) who are released from their imprisonment by a nuclear bomb that Superman has thrown into outer space (lucky they were orbiting Earth at the time). Once freed, General Zod (a disgraced military leader from Krypton) Ursa, and Non proceed to use their newfound abilities to take over the world and wreck the place while doing so. But where’s Superman? Well, he decides he wants live a normal life with Lois Lane and gets himself depowered at his Fortress of Solitude. He’s normal ol’ Clark Kent now, but then he can’t do anything to prevent Zod and co. from enslaving the world. With that and handily getting his butt kicked by a bully at a diner, Clark suddenly comes to the conclusion that he may have made a mistake.

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He returns to the Fortress, somehow gets his powers back (in Donner’s cut it was by the ghostly hologram of Jor-El depleting its energy to reverse Clark’s red sun treatment) and suits up for a king-size brawl between him, Zod, Ursa, and Non. The fight causes Superman to retreat back to the Fortress (it was three against one, what’d ya expect). Unfortunately, Lex Luthor has escaped prison and found the Fortress of Solitude. Hoping to ingratiate himself with Earth’s new leaders, Lex offers to show the three Krytonian amigos where it is (and just to tick off Superman even more they capture Lois Lane as well). They face off again and Superman tricks Lex Luthor into draining the three Kryptonians of their powers, after which he knocks their fragile carcasses into the deep depths of the Fortress where they die presumably. Superman then drops off Luthor back to jail, wipes Lois Lane’s memory with a kiss (one of many talents Superman has never showcased until this film), fixes the Whitehouse with a smile on his face and enjoys a soothing flight above Earth’s atmosphere.

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While Donner wanted to do Superman’s mythos with respect, Lester was more interested in getting off as many laughs as he could. Fortunately most of Donner’s touches made the film, but some of the patches Lester introduced were hard to ignore. The weird new superpowers that Superman and the Kryptonians now had like finger beams, telepathy, giant S-shields that grew large and tangled foes in a wash of red and yellow plastic were a few such nitpicks. And all of the Superman/ Jor-El scenes were replaced with Superman/Lara (his mother) scenes (Susannah York, who played Lara in the first film, was quickly called in to replace Marlon Brando).

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Although Lester strayed a bit from the mythos of Superman, he wound up cobbling together a film that was, for the most part, enjoyable. Even with some of it’s more confusing plot elements, critics praised the film and it wound up being the third highest grossing film of 1981 (after Raiders of the Lost Ark, and On Golden Pond). Plus there was no way anyone was going to ignore Stamp’s magnificent performance as General Zod; which was highlighted when he made “Kneel before Zod” one of the biggest catch phrases in pop culture. So while many Superman and cinema fans could nitpick the films flaws and inconsistencies, it was a hit just like the first film. And whenever there’s a hit, a sequel cannot be far behind. Although, with Richard Lester in the Salkind’s good graces, this next sequel could be counted on to just having one director with one vision to helm the film as opposed to two with somewhat jarring visions.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the writer, and not Midtown Comics. Additionally, Midtown Comics makes no representations as to the accuracy of any of the information expressed herein.

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