Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: Superman II

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, March 19, 2010

“But jeepers Mr. White, that–that’s terrible.”

“That’s why they call them terrorists, Kent.”

Special features

Cast Information4
Trailer4

A respectable enough sequel, although it threw away character development in favor of big fights. The big fights were pretty cool. Superman II took the weird science at the ending of Superman: The Movie and really went wild. Superman gives up his powers so that he can have sex with Lois Lane. And then gets beat up by a trucker (with a payback that is in retrospect eerily reminiscent of Superman III, a movie best avoided).

RecommendationPossible Purchase
DirectorsRichard Lester, Richard Donner
WritersMario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman
Movie Rating6
Transfer Quality6
Overall Rating5
Formats
  • Enhanced Widescreen
Changing to Superman

I read All*Star Superman recently; it was so evocative I’ve been having Superman dreams. Last night’s was a bad movie that I only watched because it supposedly had a good commentary track. Superman was still Superman, but he was turning evil—this was Warner’s dark reboot. Superman’s father was still alive, an alcoholic in a one-room apartment played by Paul Reiser. To symbolize the merging of Superman with Batman’s darker universe, Michelle Pfeiffer played his mother; she was an author; I awoke before I found out what her role was, but she was working with the FBI to try to rein in Superman.

It was not a good dream. Superman’s best stories haven’t been the dark ones. Not the Death Of or the Goes Crazy. They’ve been Last Son of Krypton; Miracle Monday; Superman: The Movie; Superman Returns, All*Star Superman; The Sandman Saga. They’ve been Superman Uplifting.

Superman II is a bit weird on that score. It’s a rambling movie, due mostly to political machinations in Hollywood. Superman is still Christopher Reeves’ smiling hero from the first movie, but the nebbish is taking over. In the good stories, a Superman who loses his powers will retain a Super outlook on life; will retain the Super confidence. Not here. Clark Kent isn’t an act. Clark Kent is who Superman wishes he was.

The Salkinds had always wanted more camp, and Kent’s incompetence is emphasized even more here than in the first movie. While Superman II doesn’t go as far into slapstick as the third movie would, it does begin the slide, especially during the blowhard section of the fight scene.

Lois Lane

Nuclear weapons figured prominently in both movies, mainly because of the decision to drop the original director and change the ending of the first movie. Specifically, they ended up using the ending of the second movie in the first movie. The movies were originally set back to back, with the nuclear explosion in Superman I freeing the criminal Kryptonians to wreak havoc in the second movie. Parts of the second movie were already filmed—including some expensive parts—so they made up the terrorists with nukes story.

The new scene did, however, show us two things: Superman can withstand a nuclear explosion. And thus, so can the other Kryptonians. No human power can defeat them.

Some of the scenes were reshot due to the director switch. Due to guild rules, Donner had to have shot at least 51% of the movie to get his name on the credits. So they reshot much of the film, changing the story as they did so. (Some of the Donner shots were cut back into television versions over the years.) The director switch was made odder by their names; Richard Donner was replaced with Richard Lester. It was like the Dick for Dick replacement in Bewitched.

This is also still in the era when sequels refused to believe that people had seen the previous movie, or that, even if they hadn’t, that they could figure out that the movie was about Superman. So the opening five minutes repeat what happened in the beginning of the first movie, and then continue on for another three minutes under the opening credits. Ending with Luthor’s nuclear plot, which might have made sense if the second movie was still the second half of the first one and Luthor’s nuclear plot was what set off the events of this movie; instead, they then introduce the new nuclear plot in Paris.

Dialog, on the other hand, is generally very good, with Terence Stamp and Gene Hackman delivering it perfectly. The best dialog came from scenes with Hackman in them; not surprising, because all of Hackman’s scenes were filmed by Donner. Hackman refused to return to reshoot with Lester. So all of his scenes are from the Richard Donner/Tom Mankiewicz pre-camp era. Even the bad dialog is good when delivered by these actors. “Kneel before Zod” is the “Release the Kraken” of the eighties.

President Lex

President Lex

Some of the plot problems are more difficult to deal with. The language barrier is a bit of an issue; Superman grew up speaking English. The Kryptonians didn’t. They exit the phantom zone able to speak perfect English, which could be explained away as some sort of superpower if you want to work at it—but the movie put a Russian astronaut on the moon as well as American astronauts, and makes a specific point that the Kryptonians don’t speak Russian.

Lois Lane’s obsession with who Superman is comes out a bit here, and Superman comes off as a bit of an ass reacting to it. It’s worth reading Kurt Busiek’s Astro City: Local Heroes for another take on the Lois Lane question.

The truest statement in this movie comes from a stereotypical backwoods sheriff talking to his deputy. “You gotta learn to kick ass, you wanna be a peacemaker.” Which, as it turns out, is true. For all its flaws, Superman does kick some ass in Superman II.

What’s really interesting about these two stories is that they put Superman in the position of being an even worse overlord than Zod and crew. Superman plays with time for his own personal needs; he plays with memories to avoid the painful scenes that we all have to go through. Lois was well on her way to coping; rather than work it out, he just takes away her memory of the most important days in the world since “god talked to Moses”. Kinda sucks for a reporter to not remember the time all of the countries of the world were forced to kneel to a dictator from another world.

This isn’t technically much different than the originally-intended resolution of having Superman use time travel to fix everything, after he’d defeated the villains. But the Donner team intended to revisit the time travel solution and have it cause further problems.1 Mom was right about not giving up responsibility; that’s what the second movie was about. Dad was right about not interfering in human history, and that’s what the third movie was going to be about. That, however, is a story we really will never see.

Superman Angry

Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

If you enjoy the first movie, I recommend taking a look at the Superman II Donner cut. Unfortunately it’s a bit of a mish-mash, taking the release Superman II and recutting it as best as they could to match what they’d planned to originally do, but some pieces are missing and some scenes were never shot by Donner so he had to recut Lester scenes. Some of the scenes are even recreated from screen tests. Still, you should especially watch the Donner cut if, like me, you enjoyed Bryan Singer’s take on Superman Returns.

All in all, the first Superman movie is the best of that series, and it’s perfectly reasonable to watch it and only it. But Superman II is a good movie and a worthy part of the movie canon. If you can get past the minor elements of camp inserted into it after Donner and script consultant Tom Mankiewicz left, it’s a great movie.

The version I’m reviewing here is no longer available, so I’m linking the two-disc special edition. Since there are no extras on the version I’m reviewing except a text-only cast info screen and the trailer, the latter of which is also on the newer version, that shouldn’t be a problem. The only things I’d worry about being different are the languages; if they are important to you, you’ll want to double-check; if Amazon is right, all of the languages are in the newer version except the Portuguese subtitles. The “special edition” is cheap enough as I write this, under $10 on Amazon. The new version also contains commentary by executive producer Ilya Salkind and producer Pierre Spengler, some documentaries, and some of the 1940s Superman cartoons.

  1. I have no source for this other than my memory. I might have read it in an on-line interview, but I can’t find it. Or I might have heard it in either the Superman I commentary or the Superman II Donner cut commentary.

Recommendation: Possible Purchase

DirectorsRichard Lester, Richard Donner
WritersMario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman
Length2 hours, 7 minutes
Spoken languagesEnglish, French
SubtitlesEnglish, French, Portuguese, Spanish
Special FeaturesCast Information, Trailer
More links

If you enjoyed Superman II…

If you enjoy David Newman, you might also be interested in Superman: The Movie.

If you enjoy Leslie Newman, you might also be interested in Superman: The Movie.

If you enjoy Mario Puzo, you might also be interested in Superman: The Movie.

If you enjoy Richard Donner, you might also be interested in Ladyhawke and Superman: The Movie.

If you enjoy superhero, you might also be interested in Superman: The Movie and The Complete Superman Collection.

If you enjoy Superman, you might also be interested in Superman: The Movie, The Complete Superman Collection, Superman vs. the X-Men, Superman Returns is a great movie, and Superman: Last Son of Krypton.