Franchise Expansion Or Implosion: Superman II

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

2018 marks the 80th Anniversary of when the medium of comic books changed forever when the creation of Superman gave readers the world’s first superhero. After Superman flew through comic book pages, the superhero became an absolute staple of comic books. December 15, 2018 also marks the 40th Anniversary of Superman: The Movie (1978), the film that created the comic-book movie genre. To honor this occasion, I will be examining The Original Superman Film Franchise! This time around I’ll be looking at one of the more beloved, and for some, divisive sequels in comic book movie history: Superman II (1981)!

I love movies and the process that goes into making them. However, I’ll also be the first one to tell you that filmmaking may well be the most illogical art form ever. Think about it, making a movie, in this case; a big-budget one requires getting hundreds of people together and spending millions and millions of dollars; all for the sake of telling a moving story. As complicated as getting a movie made can be, it’s impressive that any of them ever make it to the screen and if they’re good, well that’s a miracle. Superman II is indeed an example of a film going through an arduous making-of process; only to eventually find its different forms and places in the respective hearts of audience members.
In theory, Superman II should have had a much more simple production. This is despite the fact that the productions of Superman: The Movie (1978) and the film in review are among the most ambitious in movie history. If you’ll recall from the previous column, producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind, along with their producing partner Pierre Spengler, hired Richard Donner to direct Superman: The Movie and this sequel for the then astronomical amount of $1 million. Donner, along with his cast and crew agreed to shoot the two films simultaneously; as using this approach, the producers got more bang for their buck.

Not only was this an economical idea, but it was also a genius one as Superman would prove to be a massive hit. Alas, the simultaneous shoots eventually became too difficult. Donner and crew were falling behind schedule and were going to be unable to complete Superman by its initial Summer release date; pushing it to a December 15, 1978 release. As a result, it was decided that finishing the first film should be focused on before doing any further work on Superman II. Thus, despite having around 70% of this sequel shot, Donner set it aside and delivered the masterpiece that is Superman: The Movie. After the critical and financial success of that film, it was only logical that Donner would return to complete filming.
Alas, that was not to be the case considering the tensions that had developed between Donner and the producers, specifically Pierre Spengler. In the end, the producers and Donner could not rectify their creative differences, as Donner gave The Salkinds an ultimatum. That is, they could work with himif they would dismiss Spengler; who the director refused to work with again. Ultimately, the Salkinds stuck with their own as Spengler remained and Donner walked; as did creative consultant and uncredited co-writer Tom Mankiewicz. Donner’s departure from Superman II uneased much of the cast; specifically the leads of the picture, Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. Furthermore, Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando were not available for further filming due to scheduling conflicts. Not that Brando would have shown up anyway, as he had sued the producers of the film for the $50 million he felt he was owed for his work on top of his salary.
Such upheaval left the producers in a pinch as they were contractually obligated to deliver Superman II to Warner Bros. within a certain amount of time. Thus, the Salkinds went back to the well, once again offering Guy Hamilton directing duties. History repeats itself though as Hamilton doubly declined the gig. Changing tact, the producers decided to hand the reins to  Richard Lester, who had worked with them on The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge (1974). Lester was more than happy to take over the task of completing production on Superman II; but not without putting his directorial stamp on the sequel.

Production resumed on Superman II with Richard Lester at the helm in September 1979. After taking over as director, Lester completely scrapped some of what had been done by Donner and reshot much of it. In doing so, the director hired a new cinematographer, Bob Paynter to reshoot most of what Donner’s director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth had done. Lester did not care for the cinematography that had already been established.  Citing that he wanted to abandon the “Epic” look of the original film and replace it with cinematography that was more in line with the look of the comic books which birthed Superman.  This is one of the many differences in the stylistic and tonal approaches between Donner and Lester.
Of course, some elements remain the same between Lester’s theatrical cut and The Richard Donner Cut of Superman II which I’ll get to shortly. Though, no matter which version you see, the narrative is essentially the same. This sequel picks-up shortly after the events of its predecessor. The world seems safe, as the villainous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman)is locked away in prison. Even so, Superman / Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) is struggling with his duel-life and the love he feels for Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Soon though, Superman faces a new threat to Earth. Having escaped from The Phantom Zone, Kryptonian criminals General Zod (Terence Stamp), and his cohorts, Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran) have come to wreak havoc and rule the world!

Which version of Superman II you prefer mainly comes down to tone. However, before I get into all that, let’s look at what both versions of this film have in common. In many ways, Superman II does exactly what a sequel should. That being, it attempts to raise the stakes, expand the characters elements of an already established world, and hopefully tell a new story while doing so. Much like its predecessor, this follow-up captures the spirit of the comic books on which it’s based. This spirit is brought to life once again, by an excellent cast. All of whom shine like the sun, ever-empowering The Man of Steel.
Alas, Superman II will always slightly pale in comparison to the original. After all, it’s the sequel to what I consider to be a comic book movie;  and comic book adaptation for that matter. Despite this sequel being a continuation of the events from the previous film, portions of Superman II’s story feels forced. The prime example being the movie’s romantic B-story that leads to Clark Kent’s struggling with being Superman. Sure, I was a kid it all worked fine; after all, Superman and Lois Lane were married in the comics at that point.
However, as an adult, the pace at which Lois and Clark’s romance blossoms seems a bit rushed. Granted, I know that some people are smitten on sight with one another. However, I would say there’s no more than 3-6 months between Superman: The Movie and this sequel. Therefore, I entirely buy the romance and chemistry between Lois and Clark; I just don’t buy into the rapid rate at which their relationship develops. Yes, I know the romantic subplot is necessary to propel the latter half of this flick. But Clark/Superman making the dramatic and romanticly-predicated choice he does in this sequel.
Rewatching this film now, Superman making such a choice is tantamount to Batman taking a self-imposed 8-year sabbatical in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). In other words, it seems a bit out of character for Superman. Or, at least the version Supes that I know and love. Then again, maybe I’m in the minority as the current cinematic iteration of Superman, as played by Henry Cavill, seems to be nothing more than a superhero who struggles with being one. Carrying around emotional and god complexes like their invisible briefcases filled with Kryptonite. Furthermore, all of the current DCEU’s Superman seems to be romantically based and as opposed to being driven by heroism. I’m not a fan of this current filmic version, so it stung a bit to see shades of it looming in the subplot of Superman II.
Despite my issues with the romantic B-plot of Superman II, it’s still an entertaining movie. However, not all entertainment is masterful or even necessarily that good.

Calling Richard Lester an incompetent director would be harsh and inaccurate. To the contrary, Lester possesses the technical savvy to direct a flick. Looking at his filmography, Lester seems to be journeyman of the movie business. A filmmaker who will take the work; turning in a movie on time and under budget. Thus, from that standpoint, this director was the perfect one to salvage the troubled production of Superman II. Indeed, in some ways, Lester did just that. He finished this film and delivered it by its desired release date.
Alas, many of the director’s sensibilities about and choices made on this movie are misguided in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, as a kid; I loved this movie, and Lester’s version of it was the only one I knew. I watched Superman II countless times on TV and enjoyed it with every viewing. As much as I hate to admit it, at that time in my life I preferred Superman II over the original. Why wouldn’t I? Superman II seemed to move at a locomotive pace, it has action, super villains, and a groovy silver bed in the midst of fortress of solitude turned love nest. In other words, all the elements that would keep a comic book loving kid entertained.
Sadly, upon rewatching this Theatrical Cut of the film for this column, I learned that sometimes you can’t go back to that not-so solitary fortress of your youth. Richard Lester’s theatrical version of Superman II is a pretty messy movie. While some of the aforementioned action entertainment value remains after all these years, most of this just didn’t work for me. Lester brings a comedic sensibility to this picture. Gone is the idea of taking Superman seriously. Instead, Lester’s version presents a light-hearted romp of a sequel; leaving the Donner’s already established tone far behind him.
I understand Lester wanting to do his own thing with this movie, which is why he reshot much of what had already been filmed by Donner. However, bringing such a light tone to the story and the visuals of this sequel was a mistake. More to the point, the misguided narrative tone is enhanced by the visual tone and vice-versa. Lester and cinematographer, Bob Paynter forego the look of Superman: The Movie in favor of what Lester felt was “A comic book look.” While the director and cinematographer may have had the best of intentions in bringing such a four-color panel look to the screen, it doesn’t work. Instead, what we end up with is a soft, almost dreamlike look. One which to my eyes, make the movie look cheap.
Watching it as an adult, this version of Superman II does not fly for me. Heck, even much of the pacing doesn’t hold-up with vast stretches of the runtime feeling flat. Frankly, if you didn’t grow up watching this version of Superman II, don’t try doing so now. (However, if you did grow up watching it, you might find it to be a mildly nostalgic rewatch.) I hate to say it, but while this theatrical version of Superman II isn’t terrible, it is a bit painful to watch as an adult. Richard Lester’s Theatrical Cut of Superman II is an uneven and misguided picture, and is Most-Definitely A Franchise Implosion!


Thankfully, the theatrical version of Superman II that myself and many of you grew up with is no longer the only one in existence. In 2001, Richard Donner was initially approached about releasing a version of his original cut on home video. Alas, all the legal red tape couldn’t be cut through at the time; much of which revolved around Marlon Brando’s lawsuit over fees which the actor felt he was owed. However, it was Superman Returns (2006) that finally got Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut off the ground. After Superman Returns director Bryan Singer cleared the rights to use some of Donner’s footage in Returns, Donner decided to finish what he started.

Warner Bros. and Donner making that decision to release this version of the film was a real gift. The Richard Donner Cut of Superman II rectifies most of the issues that this sequel possesses; thus, making it a largely different experience.  Appropriately, the narrative and visual tone of Donner’s version are in tandem with his original picture. As a result, this version of Superman II may be the best Superman sequel we could ever hope to get. Sure, there’s humor in this version as well, but no more than was in the Superman: The Movie; thankfully avoiding Lester’s pension to embrace silliness. Donner understands Superman and its source material, whereas Lester does not. Due to Donner’s understanding of Superman that influenced his choices on this sequel, Superman II is A Franchise Expansion for sure!
I recommend passing on the theatrical version of Superman II in favor of embracing The Richard Donner Cut. Granted, either way, this sequel doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. For me, the romantic subplot of Superman II is always going to feel forced. Plus, it would just be hard to top Superman: The Movie. Such a feat would have been nearly impossible considering that the original 1978 film is not only a true epic; but also the prototype for the comic book movie.

Even so, like its predecessor, Superman II made history in two ways that would affect movie marketing for the remainder of time. Firstly, a TV spot for the film was the first commercial ever aired on MTV. Although, I would argue that all of MTV in its nascent and current forms is one big commercial. Other than that, this sequel propelled one permanent change in product placement in movies.
Nowadays, if you stick around to the end of a movie’s credits (which we’ve all been trained to do by The MCU), you’ll see a notice that no compensation was received by companies; nor are tobacco products endorsed. Believe it or not, this notice exists because of Superman II. One of the world ’s leading cigarette companies, Marlboro, paid $43,000 for two scenes of product placement in the film. After such product placement, a congressional investigation concluded that tobacco companies could no longer advertise in movies aimed at younger audiences.

More importantly, though, Superman II was a hit; earning double its $54 million production budget in the U.S. alone. Thus, Warner Bros. and The Salkinds did what studios and producers have a bad habit of doing. That being that they decided to try to repeat the success by repeating the formula. Hence, Richard Lester would return to direct, and Richard Pryor would co-star in the third Superman installment, to up the comedy quotient. Join me next time around when I review Superman III (1983)!

Want to check the other reviews in this franchise?:
Superman: The Movie

Need more Supes? Read my other Superman articles-
Justice League:

The Death of Superman:

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