The Good: Decent general plot, Moments of Lois Lane’s character.
The Bad: Entirely campy, Lex Luthor’s character/dialogue, Utterly cheesy special effects, Craptastic background acting.
The Basics: More fun than truly substantial on the character front, Superman II might hold up poorly over time, but it still entertains.
As audiences flock to Man Of Steel (reviewed here!) this weekend, I am enjoying a retro-Superman weekend. Taking in the films of Christopher Reeve and revisiting movies that I only vaguely recall from my childhood now on DVD. Today, it’s Superman II, a film I have not seen since I was about ten years old.
Superman II is a fun movie, but it is a great example of superhero camp as opposed to truly compelling cinematography. In fact, watching Superman II now, it is hard not to look at the hokey idealism of Superman in Superman II and feel like it was acting as a distraction from the political and social disillusionment that followed Watergate and the Iran Hostage Crisis. Superman appears as an absolute good who is an ideal that is virtually impossible not to idolize. That type of monolithic good hero lacks complexity and Superman II runs with it, as opposed to challenging the archetype.
Following a fast-forwarded version of Superman (reviewed here!), Clark Kent arrives at work at The Daily Planet where he learns that French terrorists have seized the Eifel Tower and are threatening to blow it up with an atomic bomb. When he learns that Lois Lane has gone to France to get the story, he transforms into Superman and rescues her. In disposing of the atomic bomb in space, he inadvertently releases the Kryptonian prisoners from the phantom zone, General Zod, Ursa, and Non. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor plans his escape from prison and he believes he has found Superman’s weakness based on how he flies north whenever one of the major powers tries to track him. When the Kryptonians destroy the American lunar lander on the moon and they head to Earth where General Zod plans to rule over all humanity.
When Lois and Clark are sent to Niagara Falls to investigate a honeymoon swindle, Lex Luthor makes his escape and arrives at Superman’s Fortress Of Solitude. Lois becomes convinced that Clark Kent is Superman and she throws herself into the river above the Falls to test that theory. By not turning into Superman to rescue her, she comes to doubt her theory. As Lois launches into a pity party for herself, the Kryptonians start to explore “Planet Houston” and Lois discovers the truth about Clark Kent. While Lois and Superman get to know one another better, Zod and his people take East Houston, Idaho and get their message out beyond the tiny town when the military tries to stop the Kryptonians. After Superman gives up his powers to be with Lois, Zod makes his move and takes the White House. With Earth surrendering before Zod, Clark Kent must get his powers back and thwart the three Kryptonians without losing his identity and integrity.
What works in Superman II is Lois Lane’s character. Lane starts out the film as the classic female damsel in distress character and she evolves into a woman hurt by how the man she idolizes ignores her and then develops into an actualized heroine who is willing to stand up for herself. After Superman gives up her powers, Lois actually kicks some ass (or tries) and that is a nice change for the supporting character who is usually relegated to screaming in the background. And the moments where Clark Kent actually is focused on as an actualized character, Superman II is actually compelling. Clark Kent wants to be able to stop fighting and fall in love, but the world needs Superman. Despite the shallowness of Lois Lane at some moments, she is mostly an interesting character in Superman II and the resolution of her character through a somewhat artificial Mcguffin is disappointing.
The redeeming quality of the villain in Superman II is that General Zod is smart enough to exploit Superman’s compassion for humanity as a weakness. Both Zod and Ursa have no problem with using Superman’s love of humans and Lois Lane against him. Otherwise, Zod is just a monolithic villain who wants to rule the world . . . for no particularly compelling reason other than the fact that he is the most powerful man on the planet at this point. Lex Luthor is predictably treacherous, but presented in Superman II as a ridiculous villain, just as he was in Superman. Criminals usually do not go around touting that they are criminals and Luthor in these movies is more silly than superior.
The real problem, more than the writing and the lack of realistic character development that goes deeper than the idealism of Superman is that the acting in both the foreground and the background. The extras cast in Superman II are among the worst in any film ever. The hammy deliveries and overacting is just gut-wrenchingly bad. Gene Hackman is also uncharacteristically bad as Lex Luthor. For a guy getting top billing, he seems not to care so much and in one of the climactic scenes opposite Terence Stamp’s Zod, Hackman slips into a ridiculous Irish accent that is utterly inconsistent with the rest of the movie. Why director Richard Lester did not demand another take is utterly baffling.
Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder have decent on-screen chemistry as Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane. Reeve is good at playing the duality of the nervous Clark Kent and the strong and unyielding Superman. Margot Kidder displays decent emotional range as Lois and while the ending to the film might not be in any way superlative, Kidder sells the resolution in a way that a lesser performer might not be able to.
While not, perhaps, part of the pantheon of great superhero movies or even particularly wonderful films, Superman II has its moments of nostalgic charm, if nothing else.
For other Superman works, please visit my reviews of:
Man Of Steel: The Prequel
The Death Of Superman
World Without Superman
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies
For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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