Directors: Richard Donner and Richard Lester
Cast: Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder
The production history of the first two ‘Superman’ films is an epic in itself, with its own heroes, villains and struggles for dominance. Even the list of rejects and almost-rans is astounding: Robert Redford, Sly Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Burt Reynolds and Neil Diamond as Superman; Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Walken, James Caan and Paul Newman as Lex Luthor; Spielberg, Coppola, Friedkin and Lucas in the director’s chair. But it’s hardly surprising they said no. When Richard Donner signed on in 1976 the script was 400 pages long and so camp it contained a cameo appearance from Telly Savalas in character as Kojak.
Donner changed all that: ‘Superman’ was the first movie to even attempt to capture the true spirit of a comic book, tipping the audience a sly wink but treating the subject with seriousness, soul and absolute sincerity. But even though ‘Superman’ was a huge success, Donner’s troubles were far from over. With about 75 percent of ‘Superman II’ shot, arguments over tone led to the director being ‘released’ from the project, and Richard Lester brought in to finish it off.
Lester junked much of Donner’s material, added the Eiffel Tower opening and reworked the movie to give it a breezier feel. But with Gene Hackman refusing to work with Lester, Marlon Brando demanding extra money and Margot Kidder shedding weight, the film as released was a patchwork guided by two very different visions. And yet it remains a fantastic piece of work, superior to the original in almost every way: Terence Stamp’s General Zod remains the gold standard of supervillainy, while Clark and Lois’s courtship is genuinely affecting.
It’s impossible to imagine the modern superhero movie without ‘Superman’ and its sequel – the costumes, the characterisation, that perfect balance of irony, fantasy and realism: it all starts here. And while effects technology may have moved on, tastes may have broadened and the iconography may have been irrevocably altered, there’s simply no substitute for Christopher Reeve in a cape, leaping tall buildings with a single bound. Look, up there in the sky... TH
Edgar Wright says:
‘What Richard Donner did with “Superman” was to treat it very seriously. He clawed the superhero genre back from the underpants-outside-tights joke that it had become. He rescued the genre. But “Superman” feels like a great pilot episode. I prefer “Superman II”. It really nailed that sense of fun and danger. There’s an amazing scene with all the supervillains on the moon, when they attack the lunar pod. I remember watching that as a six-year-old and thinking it was just astonishing, and really frightening.’
Buy, rent or watch 'Superman II'