Richard Donner’s Superman managed to present some crazy silver age comic book material in a grounded context. Superman II does the same….except without the grounded context part. I mean, they try for grounded – Superman gets beat up at a truckstop! – but on rewatching the film, I don’t think they pulled it off.
There are two major plotlines here: a group of Kryptonian prisoners are freed near Earth and try to conquer the planet with their Superman-like powers, and Superman tries to make a relationship with Lois work by revealing his identity to her and giving up his own powers. Any comic book fan will tell you that Superman vs. an equally matched opponent is the way to go with these films (it certainly makes more sense than reviving Lex Luthor’s bizarre real estate plans, as Superman Returns did in 2005), and this film is a consensus favorite among the fans for this very reason. I’ve never understood why you would depower Superman in the same film that you have reasonably strong opponents for him (other than that it gives him an excuse to take his powers back and give up Lois), and the result is that we barely get the epic battle the film’s premise suggests. And, of course, when we do get it, the effects aren’t quite there yet (and there are ridiculous slapstick elements added…more on that in a second).
There are good ideas here, but the execution doesn’t quite cut it, and the tone just feels wrong. Richard Donner began work on this film at the same time as the previous one, but left over creative differences before the film was finished. The film hangs together pretty well anyway, but I can’t help but feel that it would have been a bit better with Donner’s humanistic touch rather than replacement director Richard Lester’s slapstick humor. The lengths to which the film goes to reestablish the status quo at the film’s end rival the first film’s in ridiculousness.
At least it’s better than the next three Superman films.