Superman’s first big-screen outing convinced audiences and Hollywood bean counters alike that a man really could fly — and in that pre Comic-Con culture, Superman had the skies all to himself. There was no Spider-Man movie or Batman movie to hold fans over until Superman was ready to fly again, a full three years after the original. So when Superman II was finally released in the United States — a full six months after it had premiered in Australia and Europe (!) — it was like the second coming.
In the original film, Superman (Christopher Reeve) merely had to dispatch a megalomaniacal real estate developer (Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor). But in the sequel, Kal-El faced fellow Kryptonians, the three murderous traitors that his father had banished to the Phantom Zone. General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his two minions, the sexy Ursa and the cloddish Non, escape and arrive on Earth to enslave humanity and exact vengeance on the son of their mortal enemy. Unfortunately, their arrival coincides with Clark Kent’s decision to give up his powers for true love, the ever-feisty Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Because every girl prefers average, gravity-bound, and non-bullet-proof to, you know, Superman.
The production of Superman II was a complicated mess. Director Richard Donner filmed the first two Superman movies simultaneously, and the plan was to release them quickly back-to-back. (Think The Matrix sequels.) But with about 75 percent of the sequel finished, production was paused in order to allow Donner to deliver the 1978 film on time. After the original became a blockbuster, though, Donner wasn’t invited back by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Marlon Brando’s financial demands — he demanded more money if his footage appeared in the second film — pressured the Salkinds to change the script, which didn’t sit well with Donner. So they turned to Richard Lester, the man behind two Beatles movies and The Three Musketeers. To receive official credit, he needed to direct 51 percent of the film… so he jettisoned significant sections of Donner’s cut and replaced them with lighter, more tongue-in-cheek scenes.
None of this, of course, mattered to audiences in 1981. People loved Superman II: they loved “Kneel before Zod,” they loved Gene Hackman’s quips, and they loved the two diner scenes where Clark fights a local bully. No one in the audience cared who directed it: Superman was back. Sadly, though, it was the last time he would fly so high in Hollywood.
Release Date: June 19, 1981
Box Office: $108.2 million domestic ($14.1 million opening weekend); $324.9 million in 2014 dollars, adjusted for inflation
The Competition: June 1981 was one of the most crammed blockbuster months of its era, with Superman II and Burt Reynolds’ The Cannonball Run opening up on the same date. The Man of Steel edged out Captain Chaos on opening weekend and went on to become the third biggest movie of the year. Stripes and James Bond (For Your Eyes Only) opened a week later, while Clash of the Titans and Raiders of the Lost Ark opened a week before. No one could compete with Raiders when all was said and done, but Supe II was the most anticipated movie of the summer — and it delivered.
What TIME said: “The final confrontation with Superman is a barroom brawl on a delightfully gigantic scale. Instead of heaving furniture at one another, they toss a bus back and forth. And when one of the combatants gets thrown, the trajectory is measured in city blocks. In short, there is wit, even a sort of weird plausibility, in the action sequences that was not present in the first film.” –Richard Schickel
Cultural Impact Then: Just a few bars of John Williams’ original score were enough to send children leaping off their living room sofas with a red bath towel knotted around their shoulders, anticipation that was heightened when American audiences had to wait six months after the sequel premiered in Australia to see in their local theaters. And while the 1978 film hooked audiences with then-spectacular special effects showing a man who could simply fly faster than a speeding bullet — reversing the rotation of the Earth, if need be — the sequel wowed audiences with enormous action sequences of a superhero fighting supervillains in the heart of Metropolis, hurling buses and crashing through skyscrapers. Don’t think young Bryan Singer and Zack Snyder weren’t impressed.
Cultural Staying Power: Superman eventually lost his sense of cool — beginning with Superman III — and was displaced in Hollywood after Tim Burton’s Batman introduced a darker, more complex hero who better fit the turbulent times. But every comic-book superhero who made the leap to the big screen since then not only owes the first two Superman films a debt for opening the gates, but has also
stolen borrowed extensively for their own origin tales and right-of-passage sequels where our hero can’t decide if he really wants to be super anymore. In the pre-Christopher Nolan era, Superman II was long regarded as the greatest superhero movie — so much so that when Singer rebooted the franchise with 2006’s Superman Returns, he purposely picked up exactly where the 1981 film left off. And when Richard Donner’s lost cut was resurrected and released on home video in 2006, the internet shook as the Comic-Con hordes waged war over which version was superior. Me, I simply prefer whoever’s was responsible for “Kneel before Zod!”