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Vol 1, Issue #5
"Stand By For Mars!"
April 2006
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Christopher Reeve starred in four Superman movies. In the following pages, Ryan Brennan provides an examination of each of these movies. Click on the title:

Superman (1978)
Superman II (1980)
Superman III (1983)
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)

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Superman II (1980)
Directed by Richard Lester

When Superman II opened in 1980 (1981 in the U.S.), it had been two years since the premiere of the first film. Under a plan that had worked successfully for Ilya and Alexander Salkind when shooting The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers the first and second films would be shot together under the guidance of director Richard Donner. Donner had, in fact, shot a good deal of the second picture before the money ran out.

At that point it was decided to cut and release the first film to generate some cash flow and see if audiences accepted this new incarnation of the classic comic book character.

Between that time and the return to filming, though, Donner was unceremoniously dropped by the Salkinds. Donner had fought with the Salkinds repeatedly over his vision of Superman. His replacement was Richard Lester, who had directed the Salkind's Musketeer pictures and The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night. The Salkinds still owed Lester some money resulting from a lawsuit brought about by the Musketeer's cast who, at the time, didn't realize they were making pictures. No such problem here, the only surprise for the cast being the new director.

When the decision was made to finish the first picture, some changes were made in the storyline. Originally, Superman was to rescue Lois from her car and the San Andreas Fault. The missile that he sends into space was to collide with the three villains introduced at the beginning of the film and free them from the Phantom Zone. Their appearance at the end would set up the second movie. The second film was to end with Superman erasing Lois' memory of his secret identity by reversing time to a point before she knew that fact.

But they felt that the second ending was stronger and so they grafted it to the first film so that Superman must reverse time in order to save Lois' life. The super villains were saved for the second film. By eliminating their means of escape it was necessary to invent a fresh method for them to achieve freedom. This resulted in a new sequence set at the Eiffel Tower where terrorists threaten to destroy the venerable architectural landmark with explosives. When Superman flings the bomb into space, it collides with the super villains.

It also became necessary to provide a recap of earlier events at the top of the film. So, at film opening, we are treated to the three super villains in the commission of their crime. It is handled rather glibly and for super villains they are caught rather easily. As in the first film they are banished into space via The Phantom Zone.

After the bomb Superman flung into space frees them they proceed to the Moon where they rather callously kill the astronauts who are there on a Moon mission. Since General Zod's ambition is to rule an empire, he rather likes the weakness he encounters in these inferior creatures. He (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O'Halloran) head for the blue planet in the distance.

There is a rather amusing, but mechanical slapstick montage of accidents and near accidents happening in Metropolis as we make our way to the Daily Planet and learn that Lois is in Paris covering the terrorist story. Because of her single-minded determination to get the biggest stories, Lois finds herself clinging for her life to the underside of an Eiffel Tower elevator. Further, the terrorists have placed the bomb in the very car under which she is riding. Naturally, this calls for Superman who rescues Lois and flings the elevator and bomb into deep space where it frees the villainous trio.

Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and Otis (Ned Beatty) stage an improbable escape from the prison of the last film. Only Luthor manages to get away, though, plotting his revenge against Superman. He realizes that Superman often travels north for some reason and sets out with Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) to see why.

What follows is another of those convenient constructs found in these films that allows the plot to progress as the writers wish. Somehow, Luthor is able to reach Superman's Fortress of Solitude, a place you'd think would be unreachable by mere mortals. To further up the coincidence ante, Luthor also happens to select the one Memory Bank crystal that recounts the tale of the three super villains. Luthor deduces that they will be as strong as Superman. Immediately, he leaves the Fortress of Solitude and sets out to find the villains and use them to destroy the Man of Steel.

The Lois and Clark relationship takes further shape. Lois' suspicions that Clark is Superman grow. She takes a huge gamble, risking her life to prove her point. However, there never is a need for Superman to save her so her plot fails. Later, though, Clark admits that he is Superman. Originally, we were captivated by the romance between Lois and Clark and enjoyed watching their relationship develop. Where would it lead? But, now, it seems to slow down the movie and keeps us from seeing more of the super villains.

Fortunately, it's right at this point that said villains finally land on Earth and make their way to a small town. The local Sheriff (Clifton James, who played the redneck lawman in two Bond movies) has his hands full as Zod and followers literally begin to burn up the town. It doesn't take long for the news crews to get there and Zod learns that the man he needs to see is the President of the United States. The three villains set off for Washington, stopping by Mount Rushmore to re-sculpt it their images.

Superman and Lois are unaware of these startling developments. Lois has been transported to the Fortress of Solitude where Superman introduces her to his mother (Susannah York)-- via a Memory Bank crystal. The news isn't good. If Superman wants to love a mortal then he must live life as a mortal. Superman is willing to make this sacrifice. He enters a device and undergoes what appears to be a fairly painful process that saps him of those qualities that made him superhuman. Now, as Clark, the romance with Lois is consummated.

Zod wreaks havoc at the White House and humbles the President (E.G. Marshall). Now that he's taken over the country he seems at odds about what to do with his vast authority. On cue, enter Luthor with a plan he knows will appeal to the new dictator: Destroy Superman, the son of Zod's old enemy Jor-el.

When Clark and Lois return to the city they find their new life may have its difficulties. Clark is beaten up by a truck driving bully in a diner. It's actually very disturbing to see the man we know as Superman humiliated in public in this manner. It's as uncomfortable as a similar moment in Giant when Rock Hudson gets into a fist fight in a diner. And then they learn that these menaces from Krypton are searching for Superman. So Clark sets off on foot, improbably trudging through snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures until he reaches the Fortress of Solitude again. He manages to reverse the process that sapped him of his super powers and returns to Metropolis.

The film really picks up at this point and explodes into the full-blown comic book of its origins as Superman and the villains duke it out over Metropolis. The action is truly spectacular as Metropolis becomes the arena for the grudge match of the century. Billboards, buses, anything can become a weapon or a defense. But Superman's weakness always remains his love for Lois. She is kidnapped and taken to the Fortress of Solitude in order to draw Superman to his doom.

It is there that Luthor betrays Superman, revealing to Zod that Superman intends to rob him and his cohorts of their super powers. Instead, Zod forces the Man of Steel into the small chamber once more. The Caped Crusader grimaces and squirms as if undergoing a transformation. But it is the villains who have been transformed. Superman knew Luther would betray him and reversed the effects of the device so that anyone outside the chamber would lose their powers. In a matter of minutes the threat hovering over the Earth is ended. Luthor is taken back to his prison rock pile.

All that remains is what will happen between Clark and Lois. This is answered when Clark gives Lois a long, loving kiss, the effect of which erases her memory. She no longer remembers that Clark is Superman.

In a movie world where America can stand without irony as the greatest nation on Earth, it is quite a stirring image to see Superman returning the huge American Flag to the top of the White House. He tells the President, "I won't let you down again," and we truly wish this fantasy were real life. Then it's into space and the reassuring knowledge that Superman is again patrolling the planet, watching out for us all.

There have been reports that a Donner cut of Superman II is on the way. It would be interesting to see this version where Lois tricks Superman into revealing his identity by firing a pistol at him. "If I hadn't been Superman you would have killed Clark Kent," he says. "Not with a blank," Lois retorts. "Gotcha." There was to be more footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-el, who gives his life for his son.

This Richard Lester version is still a lot of fun. It is bright and colorful and even with its coincidences and inconsistencies (Superman suddenly exhibits new powers and abilities without any forewarning) has some clever plot twists. Ken Thorne re-orchestrates John Williams' original themes and, frankly, it sounds a bit thin, lacking the rich fullness of the first film. It should be noted also how beautifully Canada substitutes for the United States in the Americana sequences again. For a long time these two Superman films were the best adaptations from a comic source put on film. That honor now must go to Spiderman. But Superman will endure -- Superman Returns is due soon and picks up from the end of this film and ignores the next two films in the series -- and these Superman films will always have their fans.

The special features on this Warner Bros. DVD are virtually non-existent except for a trailer and lame "bios" of only a couple of the stars. It is hoped that Warners will one day remedy this oversight with a truly special edition of the film. It would be of intense interest to hear Richard Lester's comments on how he came to direct the film and what footage belongs to him and which to Donner.

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