The production history of Superman II is a long, troubled, and oft-storied one: Originally, director Richard Donner shot the majority of Superman II during principal photography of Superman (1978), but deadlines and a sky-rocketing budget forced the production to switch gears, so the first film could be delivered for a Christmas ’78 release. After that film’s success, feuding between Donner and the producers led to the director’s dismissal before he could return to complete the second film. With the firing of Donner, producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind brought in director Richard Lester (who had helmed The Three Musketeers  and The Four Musketeers  for them) to finish Superman II. However, Gene Hackman didn’t return out of respect to Donner, and after a lawsuit the Salkinds didn’t want to pay Marlon Brando again (which explains Susannah York’s appearance in some crucial scenes). And to make matters worse, Lester didn’t even use th majority of Donner’s footage. Despite these seemingly-detrimental strikes against it, Superman II is a remarkably coherent, entertaining film. It’s held up well, and is still one of the best sequels to a superhero movie.
The film is wildly entertaining and fast-paced; while Superman dedicated a large amount of screen time to Supes’ origins and carefully establishing the world of the film, Superman II hits the ground running. After a quick recap of the events of the first film, Superman II picks up the loose threads from Superman: When the Man of Steel thwarts a terrorist attack on the Eiffel Tower, he inadvertently frees the three Kryptonian criminals – General Zod (Terrence Stamp), Ursa (Sara Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) – from the Phantom Zone. With the help of Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Zod and his crew seek revenge and world domination. Simultaneously, the relationship between Superman (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) moves forward.
For the most part, the film does a great job continuing themes and building on the groundwork laid in the first film. The Superman-as-Christ metaphor is taken further, what with the death and resurrection elements from the plot. The script too allows Reeve to explore Superman with depth and complexity, as Superman struggles to reconcile his god-like abilities with his all-too-human emotions and desires. It’s a terrific performance from Reeve – really, the film’s greatest asset – and a makes for a satisfying character arc.
Lester (who retains sole directorial credit) and Donner have vastly differing visual styles, but they sit together very nicely, and only clash in terms of the tone under scrutiny. Donner’s earnest approach to the material doesn’t fully mesh with Lester’s emphasis on comedy and camp. Yet, the final product is borderline great. Reeve and Kidder bring insurmountable charm and chemistry as Supes and Lois, respectively. Stamp too is marvelously fun and over-the-top (in the best possible way) as Zod. The action and special effects are terrific too, giving the film a number several memorable set pieces, like the epic battle in Metropolis. And while the film is great fun – despite some cringe-worthy and wholly misplaced comedy during the climax – the ending is incredibly problematic. Not only does Superman’s memory-erasing “super-kiss” reset the status quo for another sequel and smack of laziness, it also crosses a boundary that is rather uncomfortable and threatens to sour the film.
Donner’s original vision is (sort of) preserved in the 2006 “Richard Donner Cut” released in the wake of Superman Returns. While the Donner Cut follows the same basic plot as the original version, it ends up being markedly different. This version, which has some astoundingly great moments is not without its problems: To reconstruct the film, Donner makes the mistake of using as little of Lester’s footage as possible, and when he does it’s only to serve the narrative. This cut also uses screen tests and some re-shoots to fill in some other gaps; the scene where Clark reveals his identity to Lois is cobbled together from each actor’s screen test. The Richard Donner Cut restores lots of great footage – including Brando’s scenes – which pack much more of an emotional punch. Yet this version is still incomplete. Donner re-uses a plot device from the first film, which was always intended to end Superman II, by the way – back when Superman was supposed to end as a cliffhanger – but here just doesn’t really work. The pacing is poor, and sadly, the newly produced special effects and pick-up shots are far too noticeable and look cheap. It doesn’t have the coherence to be canonized or rightfully labelled as a ‘Director’s cut,’ and simply holds a place as an ‘alternate’ version of Superman II. It does show, however, how great the film could have been, had the working relationship between Donner and the Salkinds not gone south. Perhaps one day when Warner Bros. is looking for another tie-in, we’ll see some comprehensive cut of Superman II.
As it stands, though, the original cut remains the definitive version. It is hard, however, to separate the film from its sordid and fascinating history. But stripped of its muddled production and all its ‘what if?’ scenarios, Superman II really is an accomplished piece of comic book escapism, despite its problematic shortcomings, and set a high standard for comic book film sequels.
Superman II (1980, USA/UK; Theatrical Cut: 127 mins; The Richard Donner Cut: 116 mins). Directed by Richard Lester [and Richard Donner]. Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, and Leslie Newman. Starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp.