Following the success of 1978’s Superman: The Movie, plans went ahead to finish Superman II. However, since the departure of original director Richard Donner, it would require several reshoots and major editing under the new direction of Richard Lester. The core story would remain the same but the opening would be vastly different than originally planned.
Our story starts off with a recap of the opening moments of the first film. Criminals General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran) are captured and sentenced to banishment in the Phantom Zone by an unseen Jor-El. The absence of Jor-El is immediately noticed and felt throughout the film. Upon seeing this in 1981, I remember thinking it odd Jor-El was missing but over the years, it would become common knowledge that his high salary demands left Warner Brothers choosing not to include his already filmed footage. Instead, we eventually see actress Susannah York get an expanded role as Superman’s mother, Lara.
We quickly move into the opening segment involving a terrorist plot at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, where Superman (Christopher Reeve) once again saves Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Zod’s trio is the centerpiece of the movie as they eventually break free of their prison courtesy of the exploding terrorist bomb after it was thrown into space by Superman. We also see Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) break out of prison thanks to the help of Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), at the expense of Otis (Ned Beatty). Lex discovers the Fortress of Solitude, which becomes a major bargaining chip once Zod takes over. Noteworthy is that all of the scenes with Lex and his gang were filmed in 1977, which explains why Reeve and Kidder change appearance somewhat throughout the film. Reeve was much bulkier by the time the film was finished. Zod, Ursa and Non quickly takeover the Earth (or at least the United States) while Lois discovers who Clark really is. Clark gives up his powers, against the advice of his mother Lara, so that he can live with Lois as a human. However, he soon needs to regain his powers as the battle of Metropolis is ready to go down. In the end, Zod is defeated, as is Lex Luthor, and Superman reigns as Earth’s champion.
Superman II is quite possibly one of the best superhero movies ever filmed. Granted, some of the effects haven’t worn the test of time. But the story is great and the acting top notch. Even though John Williams chose not to return, excerpts from his previous score are heard throughout. The movie did have a staggered release schedule, starting in December 1980 in Australia but not until June 1981 in the United States. It was a huge success, becoming the 3rd top-grossing film of 1981. Superman II is universally recognized as not only the best in the series to date, but one of the best superhero movies of all-time.
For years, the rumors of what Richard Donner’s original version would have been like reached cult status. Finally, in 2006, the Richard Donner cut was finally released to home video. Unlike a director’s cut, this version of the film is quite different from the theatrical release. For starters, all of Marlon Brando’s footage is restored, which admittedly makes more sense and strengthens the connection between the first and second films. The Paris scenario is gone as it was not filmed by Donner. Instead, we get a rehash of the events in the first film prior to the credits (whereas they were interspersed with the credits in the theatrical version). Zod, Ursa and Non are released by the exploding missile from the first film. Another key difference is that Lois throws herself out of the Daily Planet office windows to try to get Clark to reveal himself. In the Lester version, she throws herself into Niagara Falls. In the Donner version, Lois shoots Clark (with blanks) whereas Clark trips into the fireplace in the Lester version to reveal his true identity. It all comes down to tone. Donner took the approach more seriously while Lester went for some more comedic moments. Having watched both versions back-to-back, I have to say that while I like Brando’s presence in the Donner cut, I prefer the theatrical version. Despite some minor flaws with editing, it is the version I’ve grown up with. I always liked the Paris scenes and really missed them in the Donner cut. Personally, I just think the theatrical version flows better.
Both versions are readily available. The theatrical version in both DVD and Blu-ray sets while the Donner cut is available as both a single DVD and Blu-ray. I encourage you to check out both versions for yourself. In the very least, you’ll have fun comparing the major and subtle differences. And yes, I still own the laser-etched soundtrack record!
Following the success of Superman II, it’s no surprise that a third movie was planned and eventually released two years later, in the summer of 1983. Dark times were indeed in store for Superman.