Some years before, on the planet of Krypton, three criminals led by the evil mastermind General Zod (Terence Stamp) were tried and convicted for crimes against society and banished into the Phantom Zone forever. Now, down on planet Earth, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, alias Superman (Christopher Reeve), arrives for work at the Daily Planet to hear that terrorists have taken hostages at the Eiffel Tower in Paris and that fellow journalist Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) has flown there to pick up the story. Making his excuses, Kent rushes out, transforms into Superman, and flies to Paris himself - only without the aid of an aeroplane. Lois has hidden away underneath an elevator which the terrorists are using to transport a hydrogen bomb which could devastate Paris - will Superman get there in time to save everyone? Of course he will, but he makes one serious mistake...
Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman and Leslie Newman, the sequel to blockbuster Superman divides viewers: which one is better, the first or second? The third and (especially) the fourth instalments don't usually rate a mention. The advantage that the sequel has is that its predecessor had all that setting up to do and here we just get on with things; nevertheless it does take a hell of a long time for the story to take shape, almost half the movie in fact. This could be a reflection of the two films' troubled production, as they were intended to be shot back to back, but original director Richard Donner left over creative differences and Richard Lester was brought in to finish the job. Not only that, but while a fair amount of Donner's footage was employed, Lex Luthor star Gene Hackman had left the project as well (you can spot his double once you're aware of this), meaning he appears mainly at the start and at the end.
Despite all this, there are sufficient elements that play very well indeed, continuing the first film's skill at portraying the heroes and villains. Reeve is as excellent as before, convincingly making Kent and Superman two different characters in the same body so it's believable that nobody would connect the two. That is, until now as Lois finally notices that, funnily enough, Clark is never around when Superman appears - fancy that. They go on an assignment together to Niagra Falls to check out the facilities for honeymooning couples and the comic possibilites aside, Kent must be pretty anguished at the irony of not being able to tell Lois how he feels. But Lois is convinced after accidentally seeing Kent without his glasses and eventually he has to admit the truth. Off they go to for a romantic tryst to Superman's Fortress of Solitude where he accepts he must make a great sacrifice for the woman he loves.
Oh dear, what bad timing. For who should make his entrance but General Zod and his henchpersons, the cruel ice queen Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and the musclebound thug Non (Jack O'Halloran)? They make their presence felt by killing a moon landing party (the casual crushing of man's greatest achievement is presented with cold-blooded flair) and flying down to an American small town to delight in their new found powers - powers that until now only Superman possessed. From there it's on to the White House and world domination. All three actors are superbly witty in their roles, striking a keen balance between the comedy and the wickedness, but special praise must go to Stamp for his imperious performance, sneering out lines like "Why do you say these things to me when you know I shall kill you for them?", and generally being a baddie you can really relish. You can see why Zod reached the position he did.
It's not all good, however, as the plot moves in fits and starts, important characters disappear for long stretches (there may be too many people in this film) and the effects and design have a tendency to look tacky or even ramshackle in certain instances. Fortunately, the performances save it, as Superman is made to accept his responsibility to humanity - after all, it was he who freed Zod and company - and, somewhat tragically, realise he can never have a normal, contented relationship with Lois. This all comes about through a couple of extravagant action sequences, notably the one where Luthor brings Zod, Ursa and Non to Metropolis and a massive brawl breaks out between the Kryptonians, with vehicles flying, walls collapsing, and the product placement going overboard. Never quite hiding the upheaval behind the camera, Superman II still succeeds as pure entertainment, and provided the template for future superhero movies; it's no surprise that Spider-Man 2 took a similar route. John Williams' music was reworked by Ken Thorne this time around.