It’s so hard to sort out my feelings about these two movies. Because on the one hand, looked at critically, they really don’t work. The plots are all askew and inconsistent, the tone is wildly uneven, some of the dialogue is really clunky, the effects vary from really good to awful, and there are some howlingly bad science blunders (and yes, I realize it’s a comic book movie, but even then, talking on the moon is a step too far).
In addition, the generational saga plot put forth by Puzo is virtually abandoned in the second film, and Reeve and Kidder have very little romantic chemistry in the sequel. Pretty bad when the movie revolves around their romance.
This happens on big movies, when the scripts are written by one person, then rewritten by someone else, then re-rewritten by someone else, then thrown out entirely on set because the director or one of the actors has a different idea. Sometimes it works, like when Indiana Jones shoots the giant sword-wielding dude, but more often it just creates a mushy mess.
So yes, I was a little disappointed when I first watched Superman the movie, and also when I first watched Superman II. But being a genre fan is all about disappointment. It’s very rare that you’re not disappointed. I think part of what blew me away about Star Wars was that my expectations weren’t that high, and somehow the movie didn’t disappoint me. The sequels did (yes, even Empire), but that’s a totally different story.
But I came to love Superman the movie, and watching it today, even with all its many (many) flaws, I still love it. Christopher Reeve turns in an amazing performance, and the plot works on a truly super scale. This was especially true in the 70’s, when the best other comic book adaptations could do was those cheap Universal TV adaptations of Marvel heroes like Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk.
But it still holds up today as a pretty spectacular movie that pits Superman against worthy odds. Dual nuclear threats is nothing to sneeze at, and the finale where he saves the state of California is an action tour-de-force. And I love the mythic sweep of the Smallville scenes when he’s a teenager; that section of the movie is really touching and the photography is gorgeous.
And even though I don’t like slapstick Lex Luthor, I think Gene Hackman gives a really good performance in the role. Whether he’s criticizing Otis’s cat-like reflexes or waving goodbye to California, he does the material about as well as it can be done. I like a lot of the other performances as well. Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas: they all turn in good jobs with the material they were given.
Superman II I like less with every viewing. It obviously wasn’t an easy movie to make, with half of it being filmed simultaneously with the first film, and the rest having to be somehow matched to the existing footage a couple of years later. But the writing gets really lazy in the second one, and there are too many holes in the plot, the biggest one being “How the hell does Superman get his powers back?”
And of course, the answer is, “The audience doesn’t really care how he gets his powers back as long as he gets them back, because they paid five bucks to see Superman, not Christopher Reeve playing a normal guy.” And that sort of assumption runs all through both films, but especially the second one.
Characters like Perry White and Jimmy Olsen are there because the audience expects them to be there, but they aren’t given much to do. And the writers often fall back on the crutch of using the characters’ relationships in other media to paper over holes in the plot: Superman treating Jimmy Olsen like a pal in California, even though the two have never met before (and Jimmy has only shared one or two scenes with Clark), Superman falling for Lois because the plot requires him to, Lois hating Lex Luthor.
But in the end, no matter how disappointed I am in them, I’m glad they were made. If they hadn’t been made, and more importantly, been profitable at the box office, we wouldn’t have had the flood of super-movies we have now. Would Warners have taken a chance on a big-budget Batman movie in the late 80’s without Superman to prove the market? Would we have gotten big-budget treatments of Spider-man, the Hulk, Iron Man and even Daredevil without Superman pioneering the way? Probably not.
Then again, without Superman and Superman II, we wouldn’t have had Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace inflicted on us, so…