Judge Daniel MacDonald's super-speed let him write this review in four seconds!
Our reviews of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (published January 22nd, 2007), Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (HD DVD) (published November 28th, 2006), and Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology (Blu-ray) (published June 13th, 2011) are also available.
The Man of Steel meets his match!
Many people consider Superman II to be better than the first: a thoroughly entertaining comic book film, with many great scenes (and a few lousy ones). The last time around, it was unceremoniously dumped on DVD with a relatively poor picture quality and sound that sucked the spectacle right out of it. Now re-released in a super two-disc special edition, how does this 27-year-old picture hold up?
Facts of the Case
Superman II actually begins with reworked action from the start of Superman: The Movie, as three Kryptonian criminals are sentenced to the Phantom Zone (represented as a giant pane of probably-tempered glass) and banished from the planet. Cut to Paris, France, where spunky reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, The Amityville Horror) is getting herself in trouble with a group of terrorists who are threatening to destroy the Eiffel Tower with a hydrogen bomb! Superman (Christopher Reeve, Somewhere In Time) predictably flies in to save the day, but inadvertently, and unknowingly, releases the banished trio in the process.
From there we follow separate storylines that don't converge until late in the second act. Superman struggles to balance his responsibilities as protector of the world and his desire to have a relationship with Lois, culminating in his deciding to use a handy device in the Fortress of Solitude to rid himself of his powers, permanently becoming his alter ego Clark Kent.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned evildoers General Zod (Terence Stamp, The Limey), Non (Jack O'Halloran, Dragnet), and Ursa (Sarah Douglas, Conan The Destroyer) discover, as Superman did, that they have super powers when on Earth thanks to our single yellow sun. Being an evil genius, General Zod naturally decides that with their newfound powers, they could rule the people of Earth; after a quick stop in middle America, they make a beeline to the White House to overtake the leader of the free world.
A third storyline follows Superman's arch enemy Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, Crimson Tide) as he escapes from prison and travels North to find the Fortress of Solitude, where he learns of Superman's history and devises a plan to ingratiate himself to Zod and his partners.
With Zod set to take over the world, how will Superman respond now that he's human? Are we all doomed?
To some extent, Superman II is mired by controversy over the well-know firing of original director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon), who had filmed a good deal of the picture concurrently with Superman: The Movie, including scenes with Marlon Brando (Apocalypse Now) and Hackman. After the great success of the original, Donner was replaced with Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night), who reshot much of Donner's work and made the picture his own. While one may naturally assume that such behind-the-scenes would lead to a sub-par final product, this is largely not the case with Superman II. (Visit my review of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut to find out what might have been).
The movie starts strongly, both with the grand sentencing of the three criminals and the Eiffel Tower set piece. It's making a statement that this will be a faster paced, more spectacular vision than the first picture, a promise that is mostly kept throughout. The same advantages that make Spider-Man 2 and X2 satisfying films are at play here—the first movie got the origin story out of the way, so now we can focus on something fresh and new. The characters of Superman and Lois Lane can be explored in much greater depth, they can face tougher choices and take actions with more serious ramifications, and the villains benefit for more available screen time as well. That said, Superman II avoids the pitfall to which the Batman sequels (the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher ones) fell victim, that being the introduction of so many new characters that the hero is relegated to the background.
When Superman is in disguise, the interplay between Lois and Clark is absolutely a joy to watch. Reeve's bumbling, awkward performance strikes all the right notes, making us root for him at every turn and cringe at each misstep, despite knowing it's all an act. The degree to which he managed to differentiate the characters of Clark and Superman is a testament to his formidable talent and a mark of the complete commitment with which he approached the character. Kidder's Lois Lane is at turns spunky, grounded, and completely in love with her work, a timeless performance that elevates every scene in which she appears. Her character is a little more serious than in the first film, perhaps a little older and wiser, but that just makes her an easier character in which to invest an audience's emotions. The supporting players are masterfully cast as well, with Terence Stamp making an especially strong impression with his humorless portrayal of egomaniac General Zod.
Iconic images of Superman abound, when he's flying in space or returning the flag to the top of the White House, for example, and there's certainly deference to the comic series as far as the scale of the events. A destruction-filled battle between Superman and Zod's crew in downtown Metropolis is the kind of huge spectacle that marks today's summer blockbusters, with some truly impressive special effects made more so by the fact that CGI was years from being invented when the film was shot. Superman II retains its entertainment value 27 years later.
Warner Bros. has done a phenomenal job with this two-disc special edition. Despite some blemishes and moments of heavy grain early on, especially during the opening credit sequence, the overall picture quality is very good, reproducing the comic book color scheme of cinematographers Robert Paynter (Spies Like Us) and the late Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey). The sound has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and despite lacking the dynamic range of today's bombastic audio, it's a marked improvement from the previous DVD release of the movie. The best audio moment comes when Non slams Superman underground through a manhole cover, and the two presumably duke it out unseen—the crashing destruction moves throughout the room with more channel separation than in any other scene of the film.
But where this set really shines is in its special features. On disc one, we get an audio commentary with executive producer Ilya Salkind and producer Pierre Spengler. Both men are surprisingly candid about the circumstances surrounding the development and making of the movie, including telling their side of Donner's exit from the project, and Spengler especially is not shy about criticizing the movie's weaker points. This was an unexpectedly engaging listen, and can really add to one's appreciation of the final product. Also on disc one is an amusing deleted scene and the theatrical trailer.
On disc two, we're treated to an excellent making-of special from 1980. This hour-long program, which interestingly includes several shots not in the theatrical version, is a real treasure for two reasons: first, it provides quality information on the work behind the film including stunts, models, set building, matte painting, etc.; and second, its vintage adds a lot of historical value, with the opening bit on the premiere's after party and Christopher Reeve's warm welcome setting the tone; clearly this was made for an audience not accustomed to seeing behind the scenes on a movie set, but the makers don't dumb anything down too much. I highly recommend checking out this featurette. Next up is a 45-minute 1988 TV special celebrating Superman's 50th anniversary—except it's completely tongue-in-cheek, with host Dana Carvey (Wayne's World) introducing hilarious interviews with residents of Metropolis, one of whom claims to have had Superman's lovechild in the form of her overweight, sloth-like son. Watch out for bit parts played by several well-known actors and comedians. It took me a minute to realize the show wasn't trying to be serious, but it made me laugh out loud several times, and still provides a solid review of Superman's history in comic books, cartoons, live-action television, and movies. Next is a 13-minute featurette on the Fleischer Superman cartoons, which were highly influential on both animated and live-action movies and shows. Finally, we get to see eight of those cartoons from the 1940s, remastered from their original elements and probably looking better than when they originally aired; these are entertaining, short (each lasts about nine minutes), and quite telling about the mentality of America at the time. All in all, this is a superb set of features that does what good supplemental material should—it makes a viewer better able to appreciate the feature film, providing context and loads of trivia, all in an engaging, well-produced manner.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Those looking to be critical of Superman II don't have to look far, as the film undoubtedly has its flaws. From the opening montage, recapping events from Superman: The Movie in kind of a revisionist way that downplays the importance of Superman's dad to avoid paying Brando's high salary once again, it's clear that continuity will not be of utmost importance. From there we get a number of scenes taking place in the Arctic, with Luthor flying over the icy landscape without a coat; later, Lois and Clark show the same imperviousness to cold.
Which leads to another major sticking point—he takes Lois to the Fortress of Solitude! It's called the Fortress of Solitude for a reason! But in this picture, it's got more visitors than a Holiday Inn, which seems to undermine how serious a place it is for the Man of Steel.
Gene Hackman shot all of his material during the filming of the first movie, as scheduling conflicts would prevent him from being available later; when the movie was overhauled under Lester's direction, a look-alike had to be found to impersonate Hackman in new scenes, with an impersonator doing the lines. While most of the body double material is done from far enough away that it's not obtrusive, the voice work is truly terrible. Every added line stands out like a rooster at a chicken convention, and really took me out of the movie. This problem is not helped by the fact that most of the new lines are bad, bad jokes.
Tone is not as consistent as I would have liked, with much of the comic relief falling flat, but that problem plagued, to varying degrees, all films in the series.
Both Superman and the criminal masterminds seem to spontaneously get new powers that they often use once and then forget about, even when they might come in handy. Most egregious is when Superman pulls a giant cellophane "S" off his costume and throws it at Non. Apparently cellophane packs a bigger punch than you might think, with Non's reaction being similar to Leslie Nielsen being hit by a pillow in The Naked Gun.
And finally, for a plot point as big as Superman giving up his powers, it's treated rather casually when Supes decides to get them back—his mother warned him that the process would be irreversible, but that doesn't seem to be the case, which works out well since he regrets his choice about five minutes after taking the plunge. And how come his outfit changes when he becomes human? He doesn't even get to keep the suit? That's cold.
A healthy suspension of disbelief is necessary to enjoy and appreciate Superman II, but if you can muster it you're in for a good time. And fans of the film, and of Superman in general, will be mighty pleased with the presentation and special features in this release. This is an easy recommendation.
Not guilty according to the laws of Krypton.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler
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