Superhero Month: "Superman II" Review

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The direct sequel to 1978's Superman starring Christopher Reeve as the caped superhero of the title name. The Man of Steel foils the plot of terrorists by hurtling their nuclear device into outer space, but the bomb's shock waves free the Kryptonian villain General Zod (Terence Stamp) ]and his henchmen Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O'Halloran) from their imprisonment.
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Superhero Month: "Superman II" Review

-- Rating: PG (violence)
Length: 127 minutes
Release Date: June 19, 1981
Directed by: Richard Lester
Genre: Action/Sci-Fi
Cast: Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, and Ned Beatty

"Superman II" picks up where the original "Superman" leaves off, with Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), newspaper writer extraordinaire, trying to keep the big secret that he is the caped hero known as Superman. He is also saving the world, this time by hurling a hydrogen bomb into space after a terrorist threatens to detonate it atop the Eiffel Tower. The problem with hurling it into space is that it will eventually explode, with potentially serious consequences.

The consequence here is that it explodes in what is known as the Phantom Zone, a place where Superman's Kryptonian father, Jor-El, placed Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O'Halloran) in a kind of space jail. The bomb frees them, allowing them to travel to Earth to find Jor-El and take their revenge. The problem is that Jor-El isn't there, and his son Kal-El, or Superman to humans, has no interest in fighting Zod. In fact, he gives up his powers in order to become more human and to be with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), who spends a good portion of the movie trying to make Clark admit that he is Superman. Once he accidentally lets the cat out of the bag, the two finally consummate the relationship that has been slowly growing since the first film.

Superman takes Lois to a secret ice cave, where he explains who he is and where he is from. It is there that he can give up his powers, freeing him from his superhero burdens and allowing him to try and have a normal life with the woman he loves. Unfortunately, this all happens just as Zod, Ursa, and Nod begin wreaking havoc on New York. When the no-longer-super man finds out what is happening, he knows he is the only one who can protect the humans he has grown to care about so much. He must find a way to get his powers back, though, or else it will be a very short fight. He must now race against the clock in order to become super again and save the planet. Along the way, he encounters many emotional challenges, culminating in the final confrontation, which includes the ubiquitous catchphrase, "kneel before Zod!" Superman kneels, all right, and then quickly crushes Zod's hand in what is arguably the most satisfying scene in the entire movie.

Much ink was spilled in the months following the filming of "Superman II," mostly due to the firing of initial director Richard Donner, who helmed the first film in the budding franchise. Many directors were considered to take command of the film, so it could go on for release as scheduled. Several directors passed, thinking that it would be hard to come into the middle of filming and try to carry on with Donner's vision. British director Richard Lester was finally chosen and agreed to take over what could have easily turned into a thankless job. Fortunately, he did an admirable job of steering the wayward ship back into production and arguably saving the franchise as a result of his hard work. The film is crisp, moves at a great pace, and has some levity to help even out the more dramatic parts of the script.

When the film was released in 1980, special effects were not what they are today. There was no green-screen filming to generate entire scenes or characters by computer. Big action sequences involving buses or trains had to be filmed using classic Hollywood smoke and mirrors. Somehow, these somewhat rudimentary special effects don't feel dated in this film. In fact, the effects somehow make Superman seem more realistic, even though he is a fictional hero. They make all of the action sequences seem achievable in a way that really adds to the film.

As Superman the character is rebooted for a third time on film with "Man of Steel," the three versions and the actors who played Superman in each will be heavily scrutinized and compared to each other. No matter how Henry Cavill compares to Brandon Routh, both owe a huge debt to Reeve, who brought the character into the public consciousness in a way that permanently cemented Superman into pop culture. Sure, Superman already had comic books and a black-and-white television show before the original "Superman" movie came out in 1978, but none permeated the landscape the way the film did. "Superman II" is a continuation of the charm, wit, and appeal that Reeve brought to the hero. Even as a newly depowered Clark Kent wanders the world and is initially powerless to stop Zod and his crew, viewers just know he will figure out a way to save the day. That is a true testament to how well Reeve played the role in the first film, that even at the bleakest depth, Superman was still considered to be super, just like this film.

Rating: 3 out of 5