Superman I and II have a lot to answer for. Until 1978 Superman was just that, a 'super man'. Oh, he had 'super powers', faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; powers inaccessible to humans, but all within the realms of possibility albeit fantasy. Superman had been seen in comic books, in animated adventures and had live action TV shows, but in all that time, the only power to change was the ability to fly - a natural extension from 'leaping tall buildings'. Then along comes Superman the Movie (you'll believe a man can fly) and suddenly there is a new string to his bow. Superman can travel so fast he can turn the world back and reset time. The beginning of the end. In Superman II the three Kriptonian criminals, having the same powers as Superman, are able to not only breathe in space, but talk as well; incredible considering there is no air. Not only that they have some white finger power that can lift objects high into the air. So, that's it, the gloves are off, Superman can now do anything including move so fast he can separate his molecules and get through force fields, a feat he achieved in the Lois and Clark: New Adventures of Superman TV show. All rather silly if you ask me. Call me old fashioned but I preferred Superman when he was just super.
Tonight we are looking at the latest release of Superman II, a film with a past as chequered as that of Superman himself. Richard Donner, years before anyone had even heard of Peter Jackson, filmed both Superman and Superman II simultaneously. Although he only completed eighty percent of his principle photography on film II, the plan was to complete this film after the release of the first. However, that was not to be, Donner was fired from the project and replaced by Richard Lester; his take was rather less than epic and more akin to dumbing down, resulting in a film of two halves with little holding them together. Didn't stop its critical and commercial success upon release in 1980 though, but without the hysteria glasses and some twenty six years of intervening time, does Superman II still stand up? I shall leave that unanswered until after we've taken a look at the film itself.
After a lengthy credit sequence inter-cut with highlights from the first film, demonstrating the close tie to this sequel, we open to Metropolis and Clark Kent's discovery that terrorists have seized hostages, amongst them Lois Lane, in Paris and are using an atomic bomb to threaten the city. Superman manages to save the day, and Ms Lane, when he flies the offending bomb into space where, he thinks, it detonates safely. Unfortunately, shock waves from the explosion shatter the Phantom Zone, a prison holding Zod, Ursa and Non, three Kriptonian criminals imprisoned for all time my Superman's father Jor-El. Once back on Earth, Clark and Lois are sent on assignment to Niagara Falls, where, on the flimsiest of evidence Lois, suspects that Clark and Superman are one and the same person, leading to the unveiling of Clark's alter ego. He subsequently gives up his super powers for the woman he loves unaware that the three Kriptonian criminals, finding themselves near our yellow sun and gaining impossible powers, subjugate Earth with fear. It is up to Superman to try and regain his own powers and save the planet once again.
As mentioned above, this is a film of two distinct halves that only come together towards the end of the third act. If one subscribes to the theory of the Superman mythos as a Christ like figure then in the first story of Lois and Clark's blossoming love, Lois could be likened to the Mary Magdalene figure, with the saviour choosing mankind over his own wants, even going through his own resurrection, of sorts. And really this should be where the heart of the film should lie; however in Lester's hands any such mythology is lost in the ham fisted way he treats his subject matter. The second story with Zod and his cohorts should be the action of the film, but again, Lester seems to misfire treating these 'deadly foes' as comic relief. And when the two stories do combine there is little sense of danger or peril and never any moral dilemma between Superman saving the planet or the girl he loves. However, by removing any pretension and stripping away the 'flesh' Lester created a perfect popcorn fodder blockbuster. Looking at the film now, I was amazed at how slow the pacing was, I was never bored, but it took so long to get anywhere; an artefact of having two directors, two looks, in effect two films and splicing them together.
Another difficulty the film has is its dated effects; at the time they where cutting edge, but come the age of the computer, 1980's flying and model shots just don't cut it. This is made interminably worse by the digital clean up of the film which manages to highlight the edges further. However these are nitpicky complaints and it's the film that should live and die by its look. So to answer my original question of whether or not the film still stands up we are left with a subjective answer. There are those that crave the 'Donner Cut' sighting this, the Lester version, as nothing more than a tragedy (and now they can have their wish since it has also been released), there are those that see this version as one of the best sequels ever committed to celluloid and there is me, who sits on the fence taking the film for what it is; light hearted entertainment, a bit slow in places and lacking any real depth, but you are never in any doubt about the good guy. As for Superman's final super ability, a kiss that erases memory, well, the least said about that the better.......
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