Note: This review is based upon the 2006 director’s cut rather than the original theatrical version. I have not seen the original version, I will view it at another time and if I find any significant differences I will do a different review addressing them.
I did not like Richard Donnor’s original Superman.
I will let that sink in for a minute. Fact of the matter is, I found it to be a mawkish, cloying venture that failed to address the Superman mythos to any significant degree. “You will believe a man can fly” the posters boasted. Yes, but will I know what it is like to be such a man? No, I will not. In addition, Gene Hackman chewed so much scenery I am surprised that no one had to give him the Heimlich Maneuver. It was a B movie from beginning to end that offered nothing.
Luckily sequels are (at best) a time to correct mistakes. And Superman II addresses everything that was wrong with the first one. The result is that Superman II is actually a really good film.
The film follows the first one directly, in which a missile launched by Luthor ends up freeing General Zod from his prison in the Phantom Zone. (If you are not smiling while reading the preceding sentence, then you are not the audience for this film). They come to Earth and gain similar powers to Superman. Lois Lane becomes more convinced that Clark Kent is Superman and launches a series of elaborate tests to prove it. She finally succeeds, and Superman must choose to live his life as a human caring for Lois or living his life for everyone as Superman, unable to find true personal happiness.
Now, I feel that Superman himself has always been a boring character. He has no motivation to do good except for the fact that he wants to “right” the “wrongs” of the world. This actually can be used to incredible effects. The graphic novel Superman: Red Son addressed what would happen if such a being actually existed. In addition, maybe the whole “outsider” status of Superman could be exploited. After all, how would such a being deal with their emotions. What if they found they could not love everybody? What if they found their amazing abilities were a hindrance? That would make for a good film.
The first Superman did none of those things. The second one does all of those things. Superman briefly loses his powers so that he may be a more suitable partner for Lois. Of course, in doing so, he loses everything that made him unique to begin with. In addition, Clark Kent is not merely surrounded by low watt bulbs who cannot figure out he is Superman. Lane figures it out fairly easily – to the point where Kent must come up with increasingly bizarre excuses as to why he disappears when Superman appears. Even Gene Hackman…well, it’s not a substantial improvement, but it still is an improvement to the first one….maybe because this time around Luthor is given clearer motives. Zod is also a far superior villain – he is the foil of Superman and shows how easily those powers can be abused.
This was one character who continued to improve as time went on. Originally, there was no interest in the character. Or at least, he gave no reason that we should be interested in him. Yes, I know he can fly – so can Peter Pan, but you will not find anyone who claims that Peter Pan is some sort of cultural icon who helped influence an entire sub genre and pretty much reinvented the concept of folklore. I did believe a man could fly. And for once, I cared.
This time around, Superman is actually used to better ends. I finally understand the hype surrounding the franchise – it actually did take an American icon an attempt to explain its appeal.