Sequels rarely overshadow the original, but this one does a good job. I should specify that I’m speaking of the Richard Donner cut. There does exist another version, which was directed by Richard Lester, and it’s good in its own right, but the Donner Cut is my favorite version.
Superman was a genre trailblazer, but Superman II is a more coherent picture with a consistent tone and a more mature sensibility that brings out the characters’ personalities more. It still has the optimism of the first film, but it doesn’t descend into 60’s style slapstick comedy as much as the first film (or at least the Donner cut doesn’t. Lester likes the slapstick comedy much more). It feels more like a superhero epic rather than an uneven kid’s movie.
Now, the Richard Donner cut was more or less filmed at the same time as Superman, but it was abandoned three quarters of the way through in favor of focusing on the first film. When it was a success, work on the sequel continued, but with Richard Lester at the helm. He couldn’t get a director’s credit unless he directed at least 51% of the film, so a lot of the Donner sequences were re-shot or cut out, including all of Marlon Brando’s scenes since he was involved in a lawsuit with the producers over the first film. It wasn’t until 2006, around the time Superman Returns was being made, that Donner was able to reassemble his original cut.
In terms of story, this one has a much more comic book feel in terms of its tone. It’s also aged pretty well. Zod (and friends) are a much greater threat, and the action sequences are bigger and badder, which is wonderful. The White House invasion scene is crazy brutal and tightly choreographed. Building up to the final battles in Metropolis and at the Fortress of Solitude, we genuinely feel that the dastardly trio is a match for Superman (whereas Superman’s greatest foe in the first film was a Kryptonite necklace).
Lex Luthor finds his character here as well, which is great. He’s still got a playful streak to him, but he fits into this world much better. In terms of influence, he doesn’t do much, but I really like how he tones down the overacting and plays up the sarcastic sense of superiority.
And I’ve got to say I love Lois Lane as always. It’s sad she’ll be edged out of the series after this, but this one really shows off her best moments. I love the restored scene in which she figures out Clark is Superman by shooting him with a gun and then revealing that it’s filled with blanks when he tips his hand. Nowadays, we’d be more inclined to play the reveal as a dramatic, sentimental exchange, but having Lois essentially bully Clark into revealing his secret because she hates being treated like she’s clueless really gives her a lot more agency. In the original cut, he stumbles and falls into the fireplace and doesn’t get burned, but the Lois-with-a-gun version makes her a much more active part of learning his secret.
Also, I like how the Donner cut reverses Superman’s execution of Zod and Non (Lois gets to punch Ursa into a pit, remember) by having him turn back time and change events so they stay in the Phantom Zone. In the original, he just straight up murders them and doesn’t feel a whole heck of a lot of remorse (I mean, they were dangerous and had to be stopped, but they WERE also the last survivors of Krypton).
There are still a few things that would be improved in the future, but to be honest, this is probably one of the most perfect Superman films ever made. After this, it’s sort of a downward spiral that Warner Brothers is still trying to correct. So, we should enjoy this one because the next three are…less than stellar, but I will watch them and I will write about them. Because.
Next up we have Superman III, which is…not great, BUT it features (oddly enough) one of the most iconic fight sequences in the series, so that’s fun!