Superman II was, for the longest time, the best superhero film never made. Richard Donner, who directed the first Superman, had filmed about 3/4 of the sequel before he was fired. He was replaced by Richard Lester, best-known for A Hard Day’s Night, who turned the film into a semi-spoof of itself. Superman II in its final form is a hodge-podge of chopped-together scenes and mismatched tones. Gene Hackman refused to return for reshoots, leading to the use of a Lex Luthor body double. Stars Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder noticeably lose and gain weight between scenes. Serious romance mixes with goofy farce. (The Donner cut was later released on DVD, but we opted not to watch it to preserve the sanctity of the original theatrical release. Also, we were too busy.) In the end, one of us loved Superman II for all the wrong reasons, and one of us hated it for all the right ones.
Keith Staskiewicz (Hated It): Superman II was one of the VHS tapes at my babysitter’s house that originally got me into movies and pop culture in the first place. Watching it now, I don’t hate it. Hate is a strong word for such a silly movie. I just don’t see what sets this goofy, poorly plotted romp apart from any other goofy, poorly plotted romps.
Darren Franich (Loved It): To me, Superman II is an exquisitely well-produced movie that takes itself not at all seriously, whereas a movie like Fantastic Four is poorly-made and take itself very seriously. It’s sort of like the Roger Moore version of Superman. And I hate the Roger Moore Bond movies. But I would’ve liked them if they featured Gene Hackman playing Lex Luthor as a proto-Royal Tenenbaum.
KS: The story’s a mess, and both Clark Kent and Superman are ineffectual characters, so there’s not much else but the visual spectacle of it all, and the look is just so outdated now, so it doesn’t even have that anymore. It’s like a sad, aging debutante.
DF: But what about the comic spectacle? Like when Zod and the evil Kryptonians blow their super-breath, which leads to five minutes of sight gags. For a brief but wonderful moment, Superman II becomes a Harold Lloyd comedy.
KS: Ice cream in the face! Roller skates! “Hey mister, you forgot your change…AAAAAHHH!” It’s fun, I agree. I think I may be reacting more to the reputation. It’s generally considered one of the best superhero sequels, right?
DF: That’s so confusing. I would assume that, if you’re a fanboy, this movie is basically Batman & Robin. I mean, Superman throws his “S” and it covers a bad guy in cellophane. Lex Luthor escapes from prison in a hot air balloon. Clark Kent walks to the North Pole.
KS: And the villains are underdeveloped. The imposing Neanderthal-looking Kryptonian is just comic relief. Zod’s motivation is kind of lame, other than his weird fixation on kneeling. But they are all dressed amazingly, like the bad guys in Karate Kid if they did modern dance.
DF: I kind of love Margot Kidder. I can’t think of another interpretation of Lois Lane that’s so…bizarre.
KS: She’s not a damsel in distress. She doesn’t take much B.S. And she smokes like a chimney. I’ll admit, Teri Hatcher and Kate Bosworth have nothing on her.
DF: I think one reason why I legitimately like this movie — not just through ironic appreciation — is that the romance feels like it could be put into a more straight-dramatic version of the movie. The scene where powerless Clark gets beaten up by a truck-stop bully is surprisingly affecting.
KS: Can we just mention here how strange it is that the movie was plotted by Mario Puzo?
DF: Apparently, he wrote the original draft of Superman II, which was then re-written by David and Leslie Newman. And Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote a lot of the Roger Moore James Bonds, was also involved as a “Creative Consultant.” This movie seems like a money pit.
KS: The financial stories of Superman movies are always fascinating. I believe the producers of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace wasted the movie’s money on other projects, and then tried to make it on the cheap. That’s why it’s considered one of the worst movies ever. I think Superman Returns was something like $20 million or more in the hole before there was any shooting at all, with Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage and Kevin Smith and every human being in Hollywood on and off the project for years.
DF: I’m a major defender of Superman Returns, but it’s really obvious where Bryan Singer went wrong. Superman II has no respect for the Superman character at all, but Singer had a ludicrous amount of respect for Superman II. So he ended up recreating this incredibly farcical world and then shooting it like a solemn passion play. It’s like someone remade Blazing Saddles and tried to film the fart scene for pathos.
KS: I do think a more light-hearted approach is the way to deal with Superman. He has so many powers that a gritty version is like asking people to feel bad for the rich kid. But I don’t think that precludes having some standards. Like, say, no toupee jokes.
DF: Speaking as someone who read an embarrassing amount of Superman comics growing up, I think it’s totally possible to make a darker Superman story. And bless the Nolan brothers for no doubt working on that very movie as we speak.
KS: As someone who watched almost all of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, I disagree.
DF: Have you ever watched Smallville? I’ve never watched Smallville, but it’s been on for a decade, so clearly something is going right there. Or terribly wrong.
KS: I like to view the CW as the Phantom Zone. Shows won’t die there. But they’ll never get out, either.
Next week: David Fincher directs The Social Network, a movie about slimy, predatory Harvard students. In 1992, he directed Alien 3. We’ll discuss Fincher’s boldness and Sigourney Weaver’s baldness.