Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, Superman held an odd corner of my heart hostage. I never got into Batman comics, not sure why, but Superman comics were the only DC Comic I wanted to keep up with. There was something special, something mythical and primordial about Superman that stirred up the same feelings I got when I watched Star Wars or played with GI Joe. At the core of Superman was a hero who knew the right thing to do and was going to do it not only for justice and what is right but because he did so out of love for the people he was entrusted to protect. As a kid and now an adult who always had a bleeding heart for people and friends in need, with a strong sense of justice I have passed down to my stubborn, everything-has-to-be-fair son, Superman was my kind of hero and the kind of hero I want my kids to love.
Superman II, after this most recent viewing, stirred up those same feelings I had when I was a kid. It is widely considered the best in the series of 70’s/80’s movies and, among most fans, is the best-loved adaptation to this day. While I cannot remember which one I liked best as a young fan of Supes, I fondly remember this movie more than any other, so I would imagine it is my favorite. And while most of us grew up and are familiar with the Richard Lester-directed theatrical cut, for this viewing I watched the Richard Donner cut. The original material for Donner’s version of the movie remained dormant and under lock and key at Warner Bros. until it was finally restored and released in conjunction with Superman Returns in 2006. Famously, Donner had been kicked off the project when he butt heads with then producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and the director mediating the disagreements, Richard Lester, was brought in to finish the movie and then controversially cut, edited, and reshot the movie to be comedically silly and an ill-fit to the aesthetic of Superman.
From what little I remember of the original theatrical cut is irrelevant. Starting now, into eternity, the Richard Donner cut of this movie shall be the movie I remember and love. Clearly carrying the same feel as the first movie and being less of a sequel than a Part 2 to the original Donner-directed film, Superman II returns all your favorites from the first movie, including “the greatest criminal flame of our age” Lex Luthor. However, despite the great cast of characters in this movie, including Jackie Cooper as Perry White and Ned Beatty as Luthor’s bumbling sidekick, Otis, the introduction of our new, more powerful villains is what makes Superman II somewaht campy but always memorable.
After being banished to an eternal imprisonment in The Phantom Zone by the Kryptonian Council and done so by the hands of their jailer, Jor-El, father of Kal-El aka Superman, three criminals of Krypton, General Zod, Non, and Ursa, are freed from the prison. Their freedom is obtained when the nuke Superman hurled into outer space at the end of Superman explodes and breaks them out. After a brief stop on the moon to discover their powers and locate a habitable planet, the three now super-criminals, imbibed with the same powers as Superman because of Earth’s yellow sun, fly to Earth to, “rule, to finally rule.”
Meanwhile, on Earth, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is determined to prove Clark Kent is Superman. After failing to do so by throwing herself out of the window, an attempt thwarted by Clark/Supes using his super speed, she succeeds during a Donner scene cut from the theatrical release. This scene where Lois tricks Clark into admitting he is Superman using a blank-loaded pistol was actually a screen test from the original Superman. It’s a pretty great scene, and while being inconsequential to the larger whole of the movie, Kidder’s feisty portrayal of Lois Lane and Reeve’s brilliant metamorphosis from geeky, tame Clark Kent to self-assured, heroic Superman definitely sold me and certainly sold the makers of both films.
Free to be Superman in front of Lois, the two of them grow in their love for one another to the point of Superman having to make an impossible choice; to give up the mantle of Superman to be with Lois or remain a detached loner but the hero of all mankind. Against the urgings of his father, Jor-El, Superman gives up his power to be with Lois. Thinking the Earth to be rid of super villains with Luthor in prison, unaware that Luthor has broken out of prison with the help of Ms. Teschmacher, Kal-El enters a chamber that imitates the rays of Krypton’s red sun and permanently removes his powers. A choice that brings Jor-El grief and slight anger at his son making an apparently selfish choice, but it is a sign of Clark/Kal-El/Superman’s devotion and commitment to Lois, as well as his desire to be loved in return.
However, after quickly receiving a reminder of his new humanity when taking a beating at the hands of a surly, mean diner patron, reality quickly returns when the diner TV shows the President and world leaders acquiescing to a new threat to Earth, General Zod. And these intermittent cuts to Zod and his fellow criminals is some of the best material in the movie. Terrence Stamp plays Zod with a stony candor of one bent on revenge and power, but also not being from this planet. Truly, if a foreign invader arrived here, they would observe things as plainly as Zod does but also lack the guile and savvy of someone like Luthor.
And the repartee between the two super villains; General Zod and Luthor, is like a world-class tennis player practicing his form on a brick wall. Luthor throws out a witty remark or an exaggerated adulation to his own criminal genius, only to have it bounced back unenthusiastically or ignored by Zod. But every once-in-awhile, like any pock-marked brick facade, the ball will bounce in an unpredictable direction, such as when Zod multiple times will order the death of Luthor. Hackman is my favorite character in this movie for how he plays the odds, manipulates the field, and does whatever he can to ensure he comes out on top. And when you throw Superman into the mix, the deadpan cruelty of Zod and the sincere justice of Superman are equally baffling to Luthor. While he comments on his love of “knowing where he stands” with Superman, he cannot help but try and gain the upper-hand by siding with Zod at every opportunity.
When both villains and our hero come together, the movie moves from being okay to very good. Superman has regained his powers when the AI of The Fortress of Solitude sacrifices it’s remaining Kryptonian energy to Kal-El and becomes obsolete. He rushes to face Zod, who wants revenge against the son of Jor-El, and it leads to two different confrontations between Zod and Kal-El that lead to Superman’s eventual victory from a clever ploy. But, it is the reveal of Superman’s motives for fighting, as well as his eventual decision at the end of the movie, which are the most poignant and true-to-Superman sequences in the movie.
When Superman breaks off his fighting to rescue in-distress citizens, it belies the decision he made just a little while ago to give away his powers to be with Lois. At his core, Superman gives of himself to protect and serve the people of Metropolis and the whole world. This is the core of Superman. A commitment to truth, justice, and the American Way. Partly why Donner’s cut is so great is it addresses the necessity for Superman to be Superman; the hero and champion of all people, but it also meditates on Superman’s adopted humanity. He desperately wants what every human being wants, to love and be loved in return. All you need is love, he thinks, and life on planet Earth is worth living.
But what Superman II ultimately celebrates is true, super-human love is love that is sacrificial. It is in keeping with Superman as a Christ-allegory that, “Greater love has no one than this; to lay down one’s life for his friends,” (John 15:13). Once Superman regains his powers out of necessity, he realizes both the virtue of sacrifice and his mission on Earth. His decision to take away his powers is almost like fan fiction for what would have happened if God had listened to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and taken “this cup” from Jesus. General Zod, Non, and Ursa are like an unholy Trinity of evil, wreaking havoc on Earth and functioning as a wake-up call to reality. We close the book on speculative fan fiction and return to who Superman really is, protector of the weak and champion of truth and justice. The final scene in the Donner cut, where Superman returns things to they way they were through reversing-time, is an apt and comic book-like ending a lot more in line with Superman than the original ending. The only way for Superman to continue as Superman is to reverse everything, to give up Lois’ affections and remain in the duality of Clark Kent and Superman. Only then can we continue to love Superman, get new adventures (still waiting on those), and trumpet a hero long revered in our culture. For me, this movie remains the last Superman movie until proven otherwise.