Superman II (1980)

With all the griping and complaining (still going strong ten months later!) about Zack Snyder’s lackluster reuse of General Zod as a villain, you may be surprised to learn that we here at the Agony Booth have yet to document the movie that made General Zod a household name in the first place. I’m rectifying that now with our first-ever review of Superman II—specifically, the theatrical cut released in 1980, now sometimes known as the “Lester Cut”. (But I’ll also be covering Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut in due time, so you can look forward to that review in the near future.)

In a story well-known by now to every comic book movie fan on the planet, Richard Donner, director of the first Superman, was fired by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind before he could finish filming the sequel. The Salkinds had intended to shoot Superman and Superman II simultaneously, probably inspired by the success of their earlier films The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (though, in the case of those movies, the decision to split the film in two wasn’t made until after filming had wrapped). But as the shoot went long and the budget ballooned out of control, filming of scenes from Superman II was temporarily put on hold to assure the first film could be finished on time.

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Superman: The Movie went on to become a box office smash, of course, but in spite of that success, Donner was blindsided by a telegram from the Salkinds informing him that his services were no longer required. The exact reasons for his firing have never been made clear, but the prevailing assumption is that the producers blamed Donner’s quest for realism (or “verisimilitude” as Donner himself often put it) for the bloated budget, which in turn forced them to give up a larger share of the profits.

They eventually hired Richard Lester (who had directed the Beatles and also the two aforementioned Musketeers movies) to finish the film. It’s difficult to know precisely how much Lester-directed footage ended up in the final cut, but over the years, various estimates have been thrown around, some suggesting that as much of 75% of Superman II was shot by Lester.

Which is probably why Lester went on to become persona non grata to Superman fandom over the decades. Superman II has a goofier tone than the original film, and given the all-out campy farce of Superman III (which is 100% Lester footage), the problems with Superman II were generally assumed to be all his fault.

Superman II (1980)

Of course, now that we have the Donner Cut to go by, we know that’s all bullshit. Back in 1980, I’m sure it was in the best interest of everyone involved to insist that Lester was the primary director here, but it now appears the majority of the theatrical cut of Superman II is made up of footage shot by Richard Donner. Upon watching both cuts, I’m guessing at least 60% of it is Donner footage, probably more.

So the idea that Lester ruined a potentially great film is a bit of a misguided notion. It’s true he added a good deal of bad comedy, and he seems to have a strong predilection for slapstick violence involving rednecks. But the original Donner footage certainly has its fair share of dumb shtick. And let’s not forget that there was plenty of silliness in the first film, particularly once the film transitions to Metropolis and we meet Lex Luthor and Otis.

And there are other aspects to keep in mind: For one thing, the original scripted ending of Superman II, with Superman turning back time, got cannibalized and used as the ending of the first film. For another, they had to cut Marlon Brando’s scenes as Jor-El, because Brando was at the time suing the Salkinds for not paying him the huge sums of money he was owed from the first movie. And for yet another, Gene Hackman declined to do any reshoots with Lester, so all scenes featuring Lex Luthor come from whatever was in the can when Lester took over.

So essentially, Lester was handed an unfinished movie and asked to complete it, even though it had no ending, and two of the three above-the-title stars refused to come back for reshoots. It’s hard to imagine any director coming up with a great film under these circumstances. It’s actually a bit of a miracle that it turned out as good as it did. Even with all of Lester’s silly comedy bits, Superman II is still superior to any other superhero movie that would come along for decades.

Superman II (1980)

The film opens with a reenactment of the opening scene from the previous movie, with Kryptonian criminals Ursa, Non, and General Zod being sentenced to the Phantom Zone. Except, this time Jor-El is a no-show, for obvious reasons. Instead, we get a generic British announcer voice identifying the criminals and listing their crimes. The projected faces in the background go “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” and the three criminals get swept up into the Phantom Zone album cover.

Superman II (1980)

Weirdly, as the album cover flies off, Zod is still screaming about having his revenge on Jor-El and his heirs, even though, going solely by this movie, Jor-El is not even around for their sentencing. Also, this film adds a bit of setup to the scene of them being sentenced: They knock out a guard and snap a random crystal, and then the rotating hula hoops descend around them. That was… necessary.

Superman II (1980)

Then come the opening credits, where we get a montage of scenes from the first movie, with the footage carefully edited to remove all traces of Marlon Brando (except for a couple of shots of his hand). And basically, they show us the whole damn movie here. Including the prologue, which is really just a remake of the first film’s prologue, it’s over eight minutes before we get any new material. It’s rather amazing what they could get away with in the days before home video, when they could operate under the assumption that nobody had seen any of this in years.

Caption contributed by Winston

This screenshot cost $20,000.

The movie proper begins at the Daily Planet, with Clark Kent stumbling around and everyone treating him like he’s mentally challenged. He heads into Perry White’s office and learns that terrorists have taken over the Eiffel Tower, and they’re threatening to detonate a hydrogen bomb and blow up Paris. And this is the first Clark is hearing about it? You know, for being Superman, you think he’d be much better at keeping up with breaking news.

He also learns Perry sent Lois out there on the Concorde, and Clark, apparently knowing that Lois will find the quickest way to get herself vaporized, immediately changes into Superman and heads to France.

Cut to Paris, where Lois distracts a police officer (by… showing him an English-French dictionary?) and heads for the Eiffel Tower. She climbs under an elevator, and while being lifted hundreds of feet in the air, she reassures herself that this is going to earn her the Nobel Prize for journalism, though I’m fairly confident no such award exists.

Superman II (1980)

The cops, knowing that the terrorists’ hydrogen bomb is inside the elevator, decide to set off explosives to cut the cables, because what could go wrong when you send an H-bomb hurtling several dozen stories to the ground? But little do they know that by doing this, they’ve inadvertently triggered the bomb and sent Lois plummeting to her death.

Superman arrives just in time to save Lois and fly the entire elevator out into space, past the Moon. The H-bomb explodes, sending out cartoon waves of force.

Superman II (1980)

The waves just happen to reach the Phantom Zone album cover. The thing briefly transforms into a bad cartoon and shatters, releasing the three criminals into space. So… the criminals ended up near Earth, somehow? You could theorize that they got caught up in the wormhole or whatever it was that brought Kal-El’s rocket to Earth, but the movie never suggests anything like that.

Superman II (1980)

The three Kryptonians instantly make a beeline for the Moon, apparently not too thrown by the fact that they can now fly and survive in the vacuum of space.

Back in Metropolis, Clark jaywalks in front of a cab, totally caving in the car’s front end. In a dumb bit, no one who witnesses this finds anything odd about it. Clark meets up with Lois, who says she’s on a juice diet for her health, and for more alleged “comedy”, she explains this while smoking a cigarette.

Superman II (1980)

Meanwhile, Lex Luthor is in prison following his attempt to destroy California in the previous film. It’s a bit odd that a prison would have such a high profile inmate not only mingling with the general population, but also as a cellmate with Otis, the guy who actually helped him plan his crimes. Nevertheless, Luthor has invented a device that can track “alpha waves”, presumably alpha brain waves, which I guess only Kryptonians emit in this movie? This will help him figure out where exactly Superman goes when he heads up north.

Superman II (1980)

But first, they have to break out of prison, which turns out to be exceptionally easy. Luthor has also invented what appears to be a 3-D holographic projector that turns into a 2-D projector whenever a prison guard steps in front of it. He’s made it look as though he and Otis are playing chess, when they’ve really snuck out onto the prison yard. And I know this is not an original thought, but with his brain wave detector and his 3-D hologram generator, you really have to wonder why Luthor doesn’t just patent these inventions and make millions instead of turning to a life of crime.

Superman II (1980)

Miss Tessmacher appears above the prison yard in a hot air balloon, lowering a ladder for them to escape. Luthor climbs up into the balloon, but we get stupid shtick where Otis tries to climb the ladder but only pulls the balloon down, because waaa-waaa he so fat! Luthor ditches both the ladder and Otis and takes off, and I’m actually pretty thankful that this is the last we’ll be seeing of Ned Beatty here.

Meanwhile, the three Phantom Zone criminals have made it to the Moon, where they just happen to encounter a joint U.S.-Russian manned mission. This seems like a rather common motif in comic book movies; even though they usually take place in the present day, we’re still supposed to accept the existence of highly improbable space missions like this one. I guess if we believe a man can fly, we’ll also believe NASA actually got the funding to go back to the Moon.

Caption contributed by Winston

I knew Kubrick faked it!

The criminals terrorize and intimidate the astronauts, while somehow being able to talk on the airless surface of the Moon, and also walk as if they’re experiencing Earth-like gravity. Eventually, they kill the astronauts, but the only thing you’ll remember from this scene is how one of the astronauts sees Ursa and reports seeing a “girl”, causing a couple of Mission Control guys (one of whom happens to be John Ratzenberger) to argue about whether or not he saw a “curl”, which is supposedly slang for a comet. And I’m pretty sure this “slang term” has never been used outside of this movie, which makes the conversation that much more bizarre.

Caption contributed by Winston

“Now, you see there, Normie, a ‘curl’ is what the old Cape Canaveral guys used to call a comet with an east-west trajectory!”

After killing the astronauts, Zod looks up at the Earth and explains to the others that the men came from there, calling it the planet “Houston”. Okay, it is kind of funny, but it’s also an odd thing to throw in when you’re trying to set up what a stone cold killer your villain is. (Also, when did they all learn to speak English?)

While this is going on, Clark and Lois have been sent by the Daily Planet to Niagara Falls to “expose a honeymoon racket”, and despite all the times I’ve seen this film, I still can’t quite figure out what this “racket” entails, and what they’re trying to “expose”, exactly.

As they’re standing by the falls, some dumb kid goes over the railing, so Clark immediately slips away, changes into Superman, and saves the kid. The best part is how Lois pushes her way through the crowd of onlookers afterwards and yells, “It’s me, Lois! Lois Lane!” and Superman just ignores her and flies away as if he doesn’t have super-hearing. (He’s a dick in the movies, too!)

Superman II (1980)

Clark comes right back at that very moment, and even a ditz like Lois is starting to put things together about how Clark disappears as soon as Superman appears, and vice versa. She’s so convinced that he’s Superman that she throws herself into the rapids, expecting him to save her. Clark avoids having to change into Superman by surreptitiously using his heat vision to send a tree branch into the water for Lois to hold onto.

Superman II (1980)

Meanwhile, Luthor and Miss Tessmacher are now in the arctic wilderness, following Luthor’s alpha wave detector until they stumble onto the Fortress of Solitude. In a slight deviation from the comics at the time, they can just walk right in. They find Superman’s crystals and use them to call up various recordings. First, they get some random bald dude reciting a poem about trees, followed by a recording of Superman’s mom Lara (replacing what was originally supposed to be a Brando cameo).

Superman II (1980)

By pure coincidence, she just happens to be talking about the three criminals, and how the Phantom Zone “might, just might, be cracked by a nuclear explosion in space!” As Luthor hears this, he mentions that he recently picked up three more sets of alpha waves, so he sets out to find them, because “they’ll need a contact on Earth!” My, but this is all very, very convenient.

Cut to the three criminals landing on what they think is “Planet Houston”. Zod walks on water, and Ursa finds a snake which, amazingly, is able to bite her Kryptonian skin hard enough to cause pain. She incinerates it with her heat vision, which she just now realizes she has. Non tries to use his heat vision and fails, for comic relief reasons.

Superman II (1980)

Then it’s back to Lois and Clark in the Niagara Falls honeymoon suite, where there’s a roaring fireplace in the center of the room. Clark accidentally reveals his secret identity by tripping on a bearskin rug and falling into the fire. When Lois sees that he’s not burned, the jig is up.

Superman II (1980)

Reeve has a great acting moment where he pulls off the glasses and straightens up and immediately transforms into Superman right before our eyes. But I guess at some point during filming, they remembered that Clark’s clumsiness is just something that’s part of his disguise, and it wouldn’t make any sense for his fake clumsiness to be the thing that undoes his secret identity. So they proceed to talk about how he subconsciously wanted to reveal his secret to Lois. Sure thing, guys.

When I first saw this movie, I absolutely loathed the idea of Lois finding out Superman’s secret identity, mostly because it totally contradicted the Superman mythos of the time (in which Lois Lane was trapped in a hopelessly futile, decades-long quest to prove Clark was Superman). But now, after years of reboots and re-imaginings and secret identities being revealed, not just with Superman, but pretty much every other major comic book superhero still in existence, this is hardly a blip on the radar.

Meanwhile, a couple of small town sheriff’s deputies are driving along and having a truly idiotic conversation about a restaurant that serves fish and beans and has “a wide selection”. Finally, they see the road is blocked by the Phantom Zone criminals, and assume by their outfits that they’re from “Los Ang-uh-leez”.

A deputy aims his rifle at Zod, who uses his heat vision to make it too hot to hold. Zod then simply points at the gun to make it hover over to him. Meaning, for no particular reason, the three Kryptonians have been given telekinesis powers that Superman doesn’t even have, which is just lame.

Superman II (1980)

After more hijinks with the rifle and the cop car, the criminals head to a redneck bar. Ursa arm-wrestles a guy and destroys a table, and soon it’s total mayhem as they’re throwing the local yokels through walls, and levitating them with finger rays, and so forth. This is all Lester footage and pretty cringe-inducing, and hands down the most painful moment comes when some dirty-faced ragamuffin goes, “Please, Mistuh General, please let mah daddy down!” I believe he might also want some more gruel.

Superman II (1980)

The military arrives, or a rather small contingent of Army men, at any rate, and the three criminals quickly defeat them. This leads to Zod memorably asking, “Is there no one on this planet to even challenge me?”

Well, there is, but he’s otherwise occupied. Superman has brought Lois to the Fortress of Solitude, where he shows off his collection of crystals. In particular, he shows her Jor-El’s special green crystal, saying it “called to me” and it built the Fortress all by itself. Lois regards this incredible alien artifact for half a second, then sets it down under her purse.

Caption contributed by Winston

“You’re right, Superman, that is the biggest Jolly Rancher I’ve ever seen!”

They have a nice dinner together, despite the lack of any apparent kitchen facilities. While Lois is off changing into “something more comfortable”, Superman uses the crystals to call up his mom. He tells her that Lois is his one true love, and he wants to be with her forever.

Superman’s mom (who’s no longer a recording and is now in “AI mode”, apparently) says, “If you intend to live your life with a mortal, you must live as a mortal.” What’s with this “mortal” stuff? Last I checked, Superman is not a god, nor is he immortal. Nevertheless, Lara insists he must enter a special crystal chamber that will take away his powers for good. Well, she says “crystal” chamber, even though the damn thing is obviously made of plexiglas.

Superman stupidly enters the chamber, while stupid Lois just stands there and lets it happen. Then comes an acid trip moment as we get to see all of Superman’s skin and muscle stripped away to dramatize him losing his powers. It’s a pretty crappy effect.

Superman II (1980)

Superman fades away, and Shirt and Slacks Man emerges from the chamber. I’ll just assume this shot is meant to be impressionistic, because otherwise it would appear the chamber just destroyed Superman and created a powerless clone dressed in business casual. All the crystals self-destruct, and then, I swear, Superman immediately takes Lois right over to a bed so they can have sex.

Superman II (1980)

So, I guess the implication is clear that Superman had to lose his powers to consummate his relationship with Lois, correct? This was several years after Larry Niven published his infamous essay “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex”, and it would appear this movie is intentionally confirming it. So if Superman can’t have sex with Lois (or presumably, any other human woman) without giving up his powers, doesn’t this mean that Kal-El is losing his virginity here? No wonder he was so eager to give up his powers.

Meanwhile, in another stupid bit, the three Kryptonian criminals shoot their heat vision at Mount Rushmore, changing it to show their faces. And it’s not even them defacing Rushmore that’s the stupid part, it’s how they use their heat vision for 0.7 seconds while flying by and somehow create perfect likenesses of themselves.

Superman II (1980)

Zod and the gang then burst into the White House looking for the president. After a massive gunfight and a fakeout with some bald guy pretending to be the president, the real president (E.G. Marshall) steps forward. But come on, shouldn’t the Secret Service have taken him to a more secure location by now? Regardless, at Zod’s prompting, the president kneels before him and utters, “Oh God,” teeing up Zod’s pitch-perfect response: “No. Zod.”

Superman II (1980)

Meanwhile, after an evening spent cuddling in a big mylar bean bag, Lois and Clark drive on down from the Fortress. Say what? Where did Clark suddenly get a car? Is it really that easy to drive to the Fortress? And even though all civilization is falling to General Zod, they’re still able to hit up a truck stop for a hamburger.

There, a Jerry Reed-looking trucker comes onto Lois (is this really the most intimidating actor they could find?) and Clark tries to defend her honor. He quickly gets his ass handed to him, and he’s in total shock over seeing his own blood.

Superman II (1980)

That’s when the President appears on the diner’s TV, announcing his decision to turn over his authority to Zod, but not before lunging at the microphones and yelling, “Superman, can you hear me?” And then Zod appears on the screen, taunting Superman, and this is when it finally occurs to Clark that giving up his extraordinary superhuman powers wasn’t exactly the smartest idea.

Superman II (1980)

He hitchhikes back to the Fortress (what happened to his car?) and is soon walking across the frozen tundra wearing nothing but a windbreaker. At the Fortress, his begs his mother and father to come back, eventually letting out a big hammy “FAAAATHERRR!!” And then he notices that the one special green crystal survived. Yes, it’s still intact, purely by virtue of being under Lois’ purse when all the other crystals blew up.

Cut to the three criminals sitting around the White House bored. Lex Luthor enters, waving a handkerchief of surrender, and informs them that this “Superman” they’ve been hearing about is really the son of Jor-El. Zod salivates at the prospect of finally having his revenge, and Lex promises to give them Superman in exchange for being declared ruler of Australia.

Superman II (1980)

Over at the Daily Planet, Lois is in Perry’s office (how the heck did she get all the way back to Metropolis on her own?) when the criminals come crashing in through the windows. Luthor shows up and tells them to use Lois as bait. There’s some back and forth to kill time, and then Superman makes his triumphant return standing on a flagpole outside the window.

Superman II (1980)

He gives the great line, “General? Would you care to step outside?” Which also happens to be the same thing he said to the trucker before getting beat up. So, you know, there’s a whole macho power fantasy thing going on here as well. Though, as always, the odd decor in Perry White’s office somewhat undercuts the moment.

Caption contributed by Winston

“Come back here, son of Jor-El, and kneel before Cosby!”

And thus begins a big brawl in the streets of Metropolis, with lots of product placement in Times Square (because for some reason, Metropolis in these movies is just an exact replica of New York City). The three criminals get thrown through skyscrapers, and into neon signs, and at one point, Ursa and Non throw a bus at Superman. He disappears under the bus, and it seems everyone’s under the impression that Superman can be killed that easily.

Caption contributed by Winston

Superman becomes the first person in history to be literally thrown under a bus.

In the wake of Superman’s supposed “death”, the citizens of Metropolis decide to band together and take on the criminals themselves. So the three Kryptonians blow with their super-breath, leading to a lengthy, goofball sequence of everybody getting blown around, including some guy who keeps talking on a pay phone the whole time, and an ice cream cone getting blown into another guy’s face, and another guy wearing a sparkly vest on roller skates. As you’d expect, this is all Lester.

Superman II (1980)

Superman finally emerges from the wreckage of the bus, but simply flies away, and everyone thinks he’s abandoned them. The criminals go back to the Daily Planet to menace everybody some more, which is when Luthor offers to take them to the Fortress of Solitude. During this, Zod gets tired of Luthor’s inane babbling and drops another instantly quotable line on us: “Why do you say this to me, when you know I will kill you for it?”

The Kryptonians fly to the Fortress with Lois and Lex in tow, and somehow, Superman knew they would show up here and is ready for them. He jumps out and rips a plastic version of his S logo off his chest and throws it at Non. The plastic S grows bigger, surrounds Non, and then vanishes into thin air. Okay, that was just bizarre. And I have no idea what Superman even accomplished by doing that. Whoever came up with this had to be smoking something, right?

Caption contributed by Winston

“Ahhhh! I’m being suffocated by hope!”

The criminals all point their finger-lasers at Superman, while disappearing and reappearing around him. What, they can teleport now? Did the people making this movie actually know what Superman’s powers are?

But then Superman suddenly splits himself into multiple Supermen. Are these robots? Holograms? All I know is when Non lunges at one of them, it turns to stone. God, there must have been some good drugs on the set.

Superman II (1980)

Oh, and during all this, we see a really obvious Gene Hackman stand-in slowly sliding his way down the Fortress. Once you see the Donner Cut, you’ll know why they had to do this: Lester basically inserted an entire fight scene here, and obviously had to come up with some reason why Lex isn’t in it.

Superman II (1980)

Eventually, the criminals get the upper hand by threatening to kill Lois. Superman whispers to Lex, revealing the existence of the power-removing crystal chamber. Lex then immediately turns around and points it out to the criminals, who force Superman to get inside.

Superman, now supposedly powerless, kneels before Zod and takes his hand. But in a triumphant reversal, Superman crushes his hand, and lifts him up, and it’s hard not to notice the super-sweat stains in his armpits in this shot.

Superman II (1980)

Superman somehow switched the operation of the crystal chamber, causing it to remove the powers of everyone outside, while he stayed safe inside. So… let’s see if I fully understand his plan for defeating the Phantom Zone criminals. He pretended to be a coward and flew back to the Fortress of Solitude, somehow knowing the criminals would follow him there (even though he had no way of knowing they or Luthor even knew of the place’s existence). He somehow knew they would bring Lex along with them, and Superman somehow knew he would have some alone time with Lex to reveal the power-removing chamber, and he somehow knew Lex would turn around and reveal it to the criminals. Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a whole lot of ways this plan could have gone wrong.

Though I will say this: unlike in Man of Steel, I give this Superman all the credit in the world for actually trying to lure Zod away from populated areas.

Caption contributed by Winston

Think, Snyder, think!

The three Phantom Zone criminals are now totally powerless, and they all get thrown down into the ice and snow surrounding the Fortress, where they… freeze to death, I guess? Despite what the defenders of the ending of Man of Steel might say, I don’t think the intention was that Superman kills the three criminals (though, for the record, Non falls down into the snow on his own, and Lois shoves Ursa down there), but whatever happens to them, we never see them again.

Superman II (1980)

(For what it’s worth, there’s a deleted scene that shows them being taken away along with Lex by the “Arctic Police”, which I’m sure is a thing that totally exists.)

And so, the criminals are forgotten, and Superman flies Lois back to her apartment. The next day at the Planet, she’s depressed because she can’t be with Superman and yet still has to see him as Clark every day at work. So Superman kisses her, which immediately wipes her memories, and now she just wants a hamburger.

Superman II (1980)

I’ll be completely honest: for the longest time, it never even occurred to me that this kiss wiped Lois’ memories. Maybe I was too young to get it at the time, but I always thought it was just such a great kiss that it left her in kind of a daze. It really wasn’t until the internet came along, and I read other reviews of this movie, that I came to realize it was supposed to be a memory-wiping kiss.

But this is just dumb, and raises so many questions. How much of the past few days did she forget? All of it? Some of it? Does she remember anything about being at the Fortress? Does she remember anything about the Phantom Zone criminals? What happens when Perry asks her to do follow-up stories on the aftermath of General Zod’s attack on Metropolis, and she has no idea what he’s talking about? There’s a good chance Superman just got her fired!

Clark then goes back to that diner near the North Pole, and meets up with that trucker again. He spins the guy’s stool around really fast, then slides him down the bar into a pinball machine. And it’s just a tad bit disturbing to watch Superman beat up on a guy with no powers. I guess we’re supposed to feel great that a jerk finally got his comeuppance, but I don’t know if what he did to Clark deserves permanent injury.

Caption contributed by Winston

“I can’t feel my legs!”

(Picture this instead: the trucker comes out of the diner to see his truck up in a tree. Clark stands underneath the tree doing his “I’ve been workin’ out” gesture. Same comeuppance, less disturbing.)

Caption contributed by Winston

“Bro, do you even lift?”

But that’s not the most uplifting ending, I suppose, so we wrap up with Superman flying the American flag over to the White House, and telling the President he’ll always be around when he needs him, unlike some other time the President could mention. Then the film wraps up by reusing the final shot from the previous film, of Superman flying over the earth and smiling at the camera (which would then be used again for the following two movies, and then recreated by Brandon Routh for the movie after that).

Superman II (1980)

Superman II is a mixed bag, of course. There are some pretty great moments throughout the film. The good: Superman confessing his secret identity to Lois. Terence Stamp as General Zod remains one of the most memorable action movie villains of all time, with his shadow looming over the Superman franchise the way Khan looms over Star Trek (and considering he was nothing more than an inconsequential one-shot villain prior to the movies, it’s kind of amazing what they were able to do with him here). And despite being confined to about a one-block radius on an obvious soundstage, the fight between Superman and the criminals still feels big and epic. It certainly feels more epic than 40 minutes of Superman throwing Zod through CGI skyscrapers in Man of Steel.

The bad: Superman “accidentally” giving away his secret identity. The rednecks straight out of a Smokey and the Bandit movie. All the ridiculous attempts at comedy during the big battle in Metropolis. The conspicuous lack of Jor-El. The way all the women (Lois, Ursa, Lara) look more haggard in the Lester-directed reshoots compared to Donner’s footage (it’s subtle but it’s there).

But since most of the footage here is Richard Donner’s, Superman II still owes most of its success (and failures) to Donner, who had conceived of these two movies as being one complete, quasi-religious character arc for Superman. Of course, with all the drama behind the scenes, most of that original idea was lost and diluted down into a typical action movie, but that’s not necessarily a terrible thing.

While it certainly doesn’t live up to expectations set by the previous film, Superman II is a solid action picture and special effects extravaganza. Overall, I enjoy the film, even though I’m acutely aware of all its many failings.

Over the years, some of the unused footage shot by Donner eventually surfaced, a great deal of it appearing in the network TV premiere of Superman II to make it a “two-night event”. As a result, the original proposed “Donner Cut” of the film became legendary among Superman fans. And in 2006, enough time had passed and enough events had transpired (key among them the death of Marlon Brando, which is why unseen footage of him as Jor-El made it into Superman Returns) led to Warner Brothers making the Donner Cut a reality.

So with most of the original footage finally restored, is the Donner Cut of Superman II a better movie? Well, in some ways it’s better, while some of it is worse. What? You didn’t expect a simple yes or no answer here, did you? For the full rundown, stay tuned for my review of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, coming soon!

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  • TheScottCSmith

    Great review. I’ll await your review of The Donner Cut to comment as most of what I want to say is related to that version.

  • conservative man

    The only hypocritical thing about those that hate man of steel is the fact that in Superman II supes kills Zod in that film too ! Only here, he does it with a smile on his face all the while knowing General Zod has no powers now. At least in man of steel there was a reason he had to kill General Zod, I’m not saying man of steel is superior or better than superman II but people got waaaay too bent out of shape about superman killing Zod in man of steel when superman did the same thing back in the original one ! I know that in the original version superman was supposed to reverse time by spinning the earth backwards and reversing the damage Zod and his henchmen did while on earth and sending them back to the negative zone. Of course that scene was used for the first film instead, meaning superman DID kill Zod and the others in superman II. Sorry people but that’s what happend, and I have seen that scene people always bring up where Zod and his gang are supposedly being taken away by the police, you can’t see who are what is there…trust me I have viewed it many times, you can’t tell it’s them ! So in the end superman killed Zod in II and in Man of steel, Man of steel can be criticized for a lot of things but killing Zod/Hitler is NOT one of them.

    • Gallen_Dugall

      The first killing of Zod was done because nobody involved in the film cared about Superman being depicted accurately. So did the second.

      • Wizkamridr

        Or in the new 52 where superman reminds me of the 1930’s version. Punch first, ask questions later.

        • Gallen_Dugall

          yeah, or as I put it they’ve simplified the characters to make it easier to write “cool stuff” into the story that doesn’t fit the characters… and it’s not like they were that complex to begin with

    • CBob

      The gist I got from most of the MOS complaints was that it wasn’t that Superman killed Zod at all, but rather that the filmmakers did a poor job of constructing the circumstances so it looked like he really had no choice.

      I haven’t seen MOS myself, but from what I’ve heard, the scene tries to lay it on really thick emotionally that Supes has to kill Zod right there, but too many people felt there were too many obvious way Supes could have stopped Zod in the moment without killing him, so the scene backfired and made Supes look way too ready to kill.

      …Which to be fair, would be true in Superman II as well. I mean the instant Zod and the gang are depowered, they’re no threat of any kind anymore. Supes could just tell them to sit their asses down and wait for the cops like kids outside the principles office, and they’d have to do it. Beating them up at that point, lethally or not, becomes a bad-form power trip in the same vein as beating up the trucker.

      Still, I wouldn’t say it’s hypocritical unless they’re trying to compare S-II to MOS favorably. Supes killing Zod without adequate reason in S-II wouldn’t excuse him doing the same in MOS. Both movies are guilty.

      • conservative man

        The thing I didn’t get was when critics were bashing man of steel for killing Zod none of them mentioned anything about the fact that the same thing happend is Superman II. Also in Man of steel superman is given a choice between letting Zod kill a family of 3 or snapping Zods neck. I know that seems to violate the golden rule that superheros cannot kill, but in Dark Knight Batman did the same thing as well when Harvey Dent tried to kill Jim Gordons son, Batman pushed Dent off the building killing him. Some might say that is was a accident but if you go back and look at that scene it was not, Batman was given no choice in the end, just like superman in man of steel.

        • The Horror Guru

          To be fair, it wasn’t until the Man of Steel situation that I learned Superman killed Zod in Superman II because it turns out the version I saw growing up was the Television cut which ends with Zod in jail. My opinion of Superman II definitely dropped when I found out the theatrical ending.

          • Well, to reiterate what I said in the review, it doubt it was the intention of the filmmakers to give us the impression that Superman kills Zod. I think it was just sloppiness/carelessness in not including a scene where we find out what happens to them. I highly doubt Superman would have killed Zod and then been all smirky with Lex a second later. He’s a dick in these movies but not that much of a dick.

          • adam walker

            “Well, to reiterate what I said in the review, it doubt it was the intention of the filmmakers to give us the impression that Superman kills Zod.”

            Correct. In the TV cut,we see that Zod and company were not killed by Superman. Even in the theatrical cut, we have no evidence of anyone dying; we just see three people dropping into a mist-filled chasm.Why people persist in saying that Zod, Non, and Ursa died in SUPERMAN 2 is something of a mystery.

          • $36060516

            Don’t drop the kryptonite soap, Zod!

          • conservative man

            Interesting, never knew that about the tv version. I always saw superman I and II on video back in the days when we still had video stores. That’s why seeing the Donnor cut after all these years was so interesting, I think the film would have been much better in some respects with the Donnor cut leaving out all the goofball humor and silly stuff we would get in Superman III. Can’t wait to see the review on that !

          • Adam Bomb 1701

            There were TV versions of both “Superman” and “II”, both run on ABC here in the U.S. The original movie was expanded enough to run four hours over two nights. The TV version of “II” restored a scene of Superman outrunning a Concorde that I had read about in a “Making of ‘Superman'” book, that (IIRC) was meant for the original. It also has a scene where the de-powered villians (and maybe Luthor as well; I’ve forgotten) are being taken away, assumedly to jail.

        • Nessus

          Merely not mentioning it isn’t hypocritical if they’re not otherwise comparing the two films.

          If they never bring up S-II at all in their revieiw of MOS, then there’s no inferences at all to be drawn about how they may view S-II, positively or negatively. For all you know based on that alone, they might not have even seen S-II.

          It’s not hypocritical unless A) they actually do compare the two in the review, or B) you can find a review of S-II by the same reviewer that shows inconsistency/contradiction when compared to the MOS review. Though the latter is not reliable, as they may have changed their views in the time between.

          Hokay, I just spoilered myself and looked up the MOS scene in question on YouTube. Yeah… that was BS. Anyone who thinks Superman was given no choice is either an idiot or thirsty enough to drink ANY kool-aid set in front of them (starting with the people who wrote and choreographed the scene, I guess). He had many, many options. The most obvious being to just take off straight up with Zod still in a headlock. Or he could’ve pitched onto his back and rolled Zod’s face into the ground. Or any number of other things. That was just terrible. No amount of FX bling can offset that kind of basic scene-building incompetence.

          • conservative man

            Zod stated in MOS that he would not stop, even if superman found a way to prevent Zod from killing that family he would have killed many more. The reason being that Zod was becoming stronger and unlike superman, Zod had millitary training, he would probably in time be able to defeat superman and kill all of humanity. I do believe MOS could have been better served by supes rescuing civilians as Zod and his army attacked Metropolis ……and some other things as well, but killing Zod is not one of those things I had a problem with.

          • Nessus

            That’s fair. I suppose I was so focused on the physicality of the struggle that I overlooked the dialog. Even if Superman subdues him, he’s got no way to contain him so far as I know.

  • I’ve always been amazed at how thorough Jor-El and Lara’s preparations were. They managed to pack up scenarios and supplies for every contingency their son might face being raised on an alien planet into that green crystal, decades (centuries?) in advance, presumably without too much warning. I have trouble planning out a weekend trip.

    • Gallen_Dugall

      the effect of ubiquitous computing and molecular tools make it likely that this preparation was just a series of relatively small app downloads – but now I’ve put more thought into this than the people who made this film.

  • Gallen_Dugall

    Outstanding and thought provoking review. I look forward to your review of the “Donner Cut”
    “It’s actually a bit of a miracle that it turned out as good as it did” I think this can be said for any movie that turns out well, given that movies are collaborative efforts requiring everyone involved be on their “A Game”. It’s easy to forget that virtually no one in Hollywood took “comic book” films seriously as a story telling genre. This was back when GL’s success had convinced Hollywood executive-dom that any film with “special effects” existed for pure spectacle for the masses and not serious story telling, this is something that many of the powers in that industry still believe. As always rationalization always confirms existing beliefs in spite of obvious facts. So it’s not surprising that no one involved would admit to knowing about Superman or bring up problems in continuity or logic – they’d have been quietly black listed as a “nerd” and everyone knew it, this was at a time when violence against “nerds” was subtly encouraged as a social good. This also explains all the horrible comic book films made afterward… as well as Michael Bay’s filmography. When you get to the first “serious” comic book film, the first “Batman” movie, you are looking at pure accident. They were clearly going for a more jokey feel but problems (and the first half is horribly un-funny jokeyness) with production problems that made it fail upward. Gradually nerds in the increasingly technological west grew in power and influence until they got to make the movies they wanted the way they wanted… mostly.

  • Hmmm… The question about how much Superman wiped from Lois memory might explain something… After all, if she was that dazed and out of it that she forgot about Zod’s attack when Perry asked her to do a followup, that might explain why she is such a diminished character in the other movies. After all, if your reporter went from an ace star reporter to a ditzy zombie that forgot half of the major worldwide events in just one day… You’d start to phase her out too. Give her coverage of fashion week rather than the latest terrorist attack or things like that…

    • Superman IV implies that it’s something Clark does on a semi-regular basis, too. Lois is probably paranoid from all the blackouts.

      • Perhaps… Perhaps it wasn’t just a movie thing, but Margot Kidder actually had memory wipes like that? It would explain a lot of her later behavior…

      • Murry Chang

        Well, Superman IS a well known dick…

  • Alexa

    Let’s just say this movie and Man of Steel have their faults, but I think the faults in Man of Steel are way more egregious. Since here Superman II had the decency to have better pace, better editing, better acting ( in that people didn’t look like they were in pain or bored and the actors gave the character’s personality) and wasn’t relying so heavily on action but taking the time to develop characters and relationships. Plus the reason I was annoyed more with the ending of Man of Steel was that it was suppose to be a very big moment but in the film it had barely any real build up at all. It just happens and its suppose to have weight but the script was so badly written that I couldn’t tell what this was. And the heaviness of the moment was completely undermined by that next really stupid scene where Superman acts like a dick. Man of Steel was the biggest chore to get through for me, is all I can say…

  • StevePotter

    I honestly hated the action in this movie. I liked a lot of the film in general (Zod is fun, and Christopher Reeve was a great Superman, obviously) but I think the movie wasted time. The effects simply weren’t where they needed them to be to justify however long the fight in Metropolis lasted (it felt like 40 minutes when I watched it, but it was probably shorter). I had similar problems with Tim Burton’s Batman films, although that probably has less to do with the effects and the more to do with the fact that Tim Burton’s a crappy action director.

  • I was reading about this movie recently and I read that at the time this was made you had to film 51% of the footage in the finished film to get a direction credit, so you’re estimate for how much footage was Donner’s may be off a bit.

    • Adam Bomb 1701

      I had read someplace that Donner was offered to share the directing credit with Lester, but turned it down. And to be fair to Mr. Lester, he directed a pretty good suspense flick (with, IIRC, very little bad comedy) back in 1974 titled “Juggernaut”. That one starred Richard Harris, Omar Sharif and (a quite young) Anthony Hopkins, as they search for a terrorist who planted a bomb on board an ocean liner.

      • Adam Bomb 1701

        Guy Hamilton, the director of three Bond flicks (including “Goldfinger”) was originally signed to direct “Superman”. I remember this from an ad in the trade papers in 1974. (Does that make me feel old or what?) Hamilton bowed out when production of the film moved from Italy to England, as he is a British tax exile. Also, I don’t know if they were planning to make two movies simultaneously at that time; I think that idea came much later.

  • DamonD

    For many years Superman II was my favourite, but when I did the whole run of the films a couple years back on Blu-ray I did end up feeling the ’78 Superman was the best one. While I love Zod and his followers, II does have some flaws (that you nailed pretty well) that let it down at times.

    I’m REALLY not saying it’s the same level of film as Batman Forever, II is much superior I feel, but in a similar way of Forever to Batman & Robin you can see the fault lines and silly bits starting that get worse in Superman III and IV.

  • mamba

    This movie does have a LOT of flaws, but I can explain a few of the major ones I think:

    -Zod’s telekenesis: what if ALL kryptonians have it? Zod was trained as a general, while Clark was raised to discover his abilities on his own. Maybe all superman ever masters was lifting HIMSELF mentally (hence he can fly) while Zod and his crew mastered it to much more of a degree. After all, they weren’t surprised at all when they could fly, but were surprised when they were strong and had heat vision. Same with being able to survive in space…who said Krypton even had an atmosphere? You see winds blowing around? could be the default state for kryptonians.

    -Superman having to be mortal to be with Lois. Yeah, that was for sheer sex, no question. To be family-friendly, I think an excited superman would be like a shotgun blast to the crotch, so his mom was trying to tell him “she can’t handle you…depower before deflower or you’ll kill her”.

    -No going back to having powers. The green crystal can do anything apparently. I’m guessing he absorbed it’s energy to give them back, and donner/Lester forgot to film him doing it. Maybe his daddy hologram (Brando) told him “Yeah, your mom’s smart, but I’m the scientist and she was simply wrong. Crack that crystal and you’ll be fine again son. Now go save the world!” (You know, like ZOD was trying to do in the “unnecessary” bit you referenced? Maybe he knew one crystal empowers you and he simply found the wrong one before getting caught? Making it “necessary” (smile))

    -The hologram powers: I figured that was him using kryptonian tech…after all he ONLY did that trick in the fortress…so maybe it was the fortress letting him do it? Same as the logo throw…a simple tangible hologram to throw them off? (ok, that’s a stretch, but this one’s a tough nut to crack!) we know he reconfigured things before to set a trap…so he had time to prepare things in advance!

    -Lois’s kiss amnesia: ok, I got nothing short of a drug in his mouth at the time slipped in at super-speed. (tough nut #2) also let’s face it, she’s REALLY REALLY stupid, so brain damage is likely anyway (apologies to the real-life Lois here, just “kidder”ing. )

    Not perfect by any stretch, but iron out a FEW kinks anyway! We needed more ZOD and less Lois, for sure! great movie, and I always enjoyed how Zod and crew aren’t even all that evil half the time, just wandering around and notice ONLY attacking in self-defence and eventually figuring “these people are too stupid to rule themselves, so I’ll do it for them”, same attitude as he had on Krypton. (show once where they STARTED a fight aside from meeting up with superman). He doesn’t even want to kill everyone and I got the imporession that everyone was going to be free to live their lives normally for the most part…just acknolodge him as ruler and go about your day. Identical to loyalty to the queen today when you think about it, if she had any inclination to DO anything if you disagreed.

    Great review BTW, look forward to your next one!

    • On the telekinesis:
      Maybe, would explain why objects don’t collapse under their own weight when lifted by a Kryptonian, because there is a telekinetic field around them.
      That is the comic’s canonical explanation for how Superboy’s powers work.

      • Thomas Stockel

        If I recall that was how John Byrne explained Superman’s powers in the eighties reboot as well. Superman also had a force field which explained how his costume never got trashed yet his cape was always suffering (Hence Ma Kent was always making him more.).

        • Chris Palmer

          The one thing I don’t really get is that the chamber seems to change form between appearances.

          The bit about the actual plan was probably more like this: if Superman was so overwhelmed (as he was) by the trio, he would fly away and hope like hell they wouldn’t fuck around with looking for him. So of course, he could then lure them into the Fortress, where he’d trick them into putting him in the modified chamber. Getting Lex and Lois was just an added bonus.

          And still, the ending of the Donner Cut makes less sense: The reversing the earth bit was stupid the first time around, and this time he undoes THE ENTIRE FUCKING MOVIE.

          • Wizkamridr

            And even if he had that chamber in mos, people still would have complained. Or turned back time again.

      • Wizkamridr

        Or they were just ripping off star wars. Vader has these powers, so let’s give them to Zod.

        • Well, yeah. Thanks mister cynic. We were trying to play in the DC playground, but if you want to be that guy.

  • Brian O’Connell

    I’m sure that mind eraser kiss has contraindications we won’t know anything about for another 20 years.

  • Immortan Scott

    The film has a lot of flaws, but Superman II is overall amazing. Terence Stamp was a great villain.

    Can’t wait for the Donner’s Cut review.

  • Thomas Stockel

    I still love Superman II, both versions. And you raise an excellent point in how people blame Lester for the film’s “flaws” and yet many of those “flaws” are in the Donner cut. I think Lester was given a tough job with the cards stacked against him in every way, and performed it to the best of his ability.

    Anyway, I loved your review and I’m looking forward to The Donner Cut analysis.

  • Marla

    And Star Wars was just ripping off Flash Gordon!!

  • Jett

    And they forgot to film a scene where Superman fixes Mount Rushmore. Also,I’m pretty sure only Lex Luthor got arrested by the Arctic police. I never saw Zoe Non and Ursa. I just saw Superman and Lois looking on amused as Lex is taken away, still desperately trying to make S deal. “60-40….50.ll
    50.Alright 80-20…””Sold”Superman quips as the police drive Lex away.