History, Legacy & Showmanship
Thursday, 15 July 2021 15:25

Battle on Planet Houston: Remembering “Superman II” on its 40th Anniversary

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“Clark Kent’s alley transformation into Superman and Superman’s flight to the White House to return the American Flag are two of the best moments; they are just as chill-inducing and magical today as they were 40 years ago!” — Jim Bowers, CapedWonder.com

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this multi-page retrospective commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of Superman II, the 1980/1981/2006 follow-up to 1978’s Superman: The Movie and featuring Christopher Reeve reprising his legendary dual role of Superman and alter ego Clark Kent.

Taking over from Richard Donner midway through production, Richard Lester (The Three Musketeers, Help!) directed and re-shot much of the Saturn Award-winning sequel, which focused on the three Kyptonian outlaws (Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran) breaking free from their cosmic imprisonment and seeking revenge on the Man of Steel.

The first Superman sequel—also starring Clifton James as Sheriff and E.G. Marshall as The President—featured reprisal performances by Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Ned Beatty as Otis, Jackie Cooper as Perry White, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Valerie Perrine as Miss Teschmacher, Susannah York as Superman’s biological mother Lara, and Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen. [Read on here...]

Superman II was released to movie theaters in North America forty years ago this summer (after debuting in other regions of the world months earlier). For the occasion, The Bits features a package of statistics and box-office data that places the movie’s performance in context, along with passages from some of its original film reviews, a reference list of its 70mm showcase presentations, and, finally, an interview segment with Super fan Jim Bowers who reflects on the movie four decades after its debut.

A scene from Superman II (1980)



  • 0 = Number of Academy Award nominations
  • 1 = Rank among top-earning sequels released during 1981
  • 1 = Rank among top-earning movies during opening weekend
  • 1 = Rank among top-earning movies released by Warner Bros. during 1981
  • 2 = Box-office rank among Christopher Reeve Era Superman movies
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning movies released during 1981 (calendar year)
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning movies released during 1981 (summer season)
  • 3 = Rank among top-earning movies released during 1981 (lifetime / retroactive)
  • 3 = Rank among Warner Bros.’ all-time top-earning movies at close of release
  • 4 = Number of weeks nation’s top-earning movie (Weeks 1-4)
  • 5 = Number of months between theatrical and home-video release (rental in test markets)
  • 9 = Number of months between theatrical and home-video release
  • 12 = Number of 70mm prints
  • 15 = Number of weeks longest-running engagement played (in a single-screen theater)
  • 15 = Peak all-time box-office chart position
  • 24 = Number of weeks longest-running engagement played (in a multiplex)
  • 39 = Rank among top-earning movies of the 1980s
  • 1,395 = Number of opening-week theaters
  • $4.3 = Opening-day box-office gross* (6/19)
  • $5.6 = Highest single-day box-office gross* (6/20)
  • $14.1 million = Opening weekend box-office gross*
  • $24.0 million = Opening week box-office gross*
  • $34.7 million = First ten days box-office gross*
  • $64.0 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/81)
  • $64.5 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/82)
  • $65.1 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/83)
  • $82.2 million = International box-office gross
  • $101.4 million = Domestic box-office gross (summer season)
  • $108.2 million = Domestic box-office gross
  • $109.0 million = Production cost* (I + II + II re-shoots)
  • $190.4 million = Worldwide box-office gross
  • $192.5 million = Domestic box-office rental (adjusted for inflation)
  • $243.4 million = International box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
  • $320.4 million = Domestic box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
  • $419.7 million = Production cost (I + II + II re-shoots; adjusted for inflation)
  • $563.9 million = Worldwide box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)

*established new industry record



Superman II is a marvelous toy. It’s funny, it’s full of tricks and it manages to be royally entertaining, which is really all it aims for. This hasn’t been a good year for real people or recognizable situations on the screen. But it’s a fine time for cardboard heroes, and none of these are as enjoyably two-dimensional as the omnipotent Man of Steel. Superman II doesn’t break new ground in the thrills-and-chills realm, the way Raiders of the Lost Ark does. But the makers of the 1978 Superman have set out to build a better mousetrap, and they’ve succeeded.” — Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“It is that rarity of rarities, a sequel that readily surpasses the original.” — Richard Schickel, Time Magazine

“For a film written by Mario Puzo and directed by Richard Lester, Superman Redux is surprisingly bland and funless…. It lacks the ironic pop quality of Lester at his best or the pulp feel of Puzo at his pulpiest; his space rogues would be booted out of the Mafia. It misses both as high adventure and high camp…. The special effects are super car wrecks basically, but with lots of Crunch’s, Zap’s and Whoosh’s. It’s sort of an expensive Saturday morning serial, which is fine if you’re 12. The saving grace of a serial, though, is that it had the sense to come and go in 20-minute chapters. If there’s Superman III, they better chop it into 10 episodes. Two hundred minutes of this stuff requires superhuman endurance.” — Gerald Nachman, San Francisco Chronicle

“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s a sequel! Christopher Reeve is back to fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way, leaving producers free to fight a trio of lawsuits filed by Marlon Brando, writer Mario Puzo and Richard Donner, who directed Superman I. Brando proved so costly and cantankerous he was dropped from Part II and Donner has been replaced by Richard Lester, who last fooled around with guys in capes in The Three/Four Musketeers. But back to support the Mighty Man of Steel are Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine and Jackie Cooper. By the way, Reeve plans to keep flying those friendly skies—Part III—is already in the works.” — Eleanor Ringel, The Atlanta Constitution

“Lester has given the film more than consistency in style and tone. He is a filmmaker whose comic gifts protrude even when the subject at hand is quite serious. He can stage action such as the rescue of Lois Lane from the Eiffel Tower and the clutches of atomic terrorists with great aplomb and wit. And he is not above throwing in a dash of slapstick in the midst of the various firestorms and tornadoes unleashed by the three Krypton rebels who come to Earth to have it out with Superman.” — Desmond Ryan, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The summer movie season is now in full swing with three terrific pictures: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clash of the Titans, and, now, Superman II.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

“[T]he whole film has more smiles and laughs than the first one. Maybe that’s because of a change in directors. Richard Donner, who made the first Superman film and did a brilliant job of establishing a basic look for the series, was followed this time by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers), and this is some of Lester’s best work. He permits satire to make its way into the film more easily. He has a lot of fun with Gene Hackman, as the still-scheming, thin-skinned, egomaniacal Lex Luthor. And he draws out Christopher Reeve, whose performance in the title role is sly, knowing, and yet still appropriately square.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“They just couldn’t leave super enough alone. The first Superman film, with its whammo charm, stunned modern audiences with such shock of wholesome, naïve, good-humored virtue that all that was required for a sequel was more of the same…. [T]he thrust of the film is to escalate the Superman idea to the point where the charm is no longer visible. A snide and knowing viewpoint has left a cloud of smudge over the original clean satire…. This is a sad spectacle for audiences waiting to cheer virtue triumphant. If Superman has succumbed to sleaze, who’s going to save the world?” — Judith Martin, The Washington Post

“For all the production halts, setbacks, personnel changeovers and legal wrangling that paved its way to the screen, Superman II emerges as a solid, classy, cannily constructed piece of entertainment.” — “Step,” Variety

“The only thing really wrong with this film is that it’s not the first one. Part of the amusement of the first feature was discovering how the filmmakers were going to handle this great icon of American popular culture. We watch them take the first giddy step onto the high wire, see them approach decision points and grin with pleasure and admiration both as, time after time, things were done dead right. You can’t go home again. We can’t wait again to see how the filmmakers are going to handle the phone booth schtick, because it’s been done. We can’t discover whether or not the filmmakers have solutions, because we know they do. II is quite good, but I expected it to be, and I’m greedy. Superman II pleases, but it doesn’t delight. This is not in censure of its makers, who are talented, but simple recognition to temporal law. There’s only one first time.” — Jeff Millar, Houston Chronicle

“The first Superman played like the promising first half of a good movie. Superman II fulfills the promise, but it still seems like the second half of a good movie. It’s a pleasant diversion but hardly a galactic sensation.” — Philip Wuntch, The Dallas Morning News

“’John Williams’ familiar score has been reorchestrated by Ken Thorne, and while it’s less skillfully done this time, you can’t stop humming it when you come out of the theater. The special effects, as before, are competent but hardly spectacular enough to explain the $109 million the combined movies are supposed to have cost.” — John Hartl, The Seattle Times

A scene from Superman II (1980)

“’How better to say it than simply… Superman II is purely super. Smashing. Sensational. And, just as indicated in press reports from Europe where the film has been in release for some months: It’s considerably more entertaining than Superman I.” — Tom McElfresh, The Cincinnati Enquirer

Superman II has a slight edge over the original, an amazing feat considering the relative merits (mostly demerits) of sequels, and the improvement comes from Richard Lester, who replaced Richard Donner as director. Lester has a fine touch with comedy, and it comes through, in a very campy manner, in many situations. Some of it descends into silliness, but then, so comic strips…. Hackman is wonderful, finding the comic overtones that make Luthor not only evil, but consummately so, though never smart enough to outwit Superman. His dialogue with Ned Beatty, during a jailbreak, is exquisite, and there’s a nod to a whole series of old movies in that Hackman and Beatty are working in the prison laundry, the starting point for hundreds of escape scenes.” — Joe Pollack, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Director Richard Lester keeps the troops working valiantly to milk a few laughs for the benefit of the adults roped into taking kiddies to the show. Sometimes even the elaborate disaster effects are played as diligently for laughs as they are for thrills. The movie is rated PG. And anyone who comes away from it not agreeing that Lois is PG, too, can go take a flying leap at a tall building.” — Will Jones, Minneapolis Tribune

“Christopher Reeve, with his chiseled, totem pole features, and super blue eyes, returns as Superman. The handsome actor appears to be the male equivalent of Kim Novak. Beautiful to look at, with the acting range of a coffee table. Returning, too, is wisecracking, spunky Margot Kidder as Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. Despite her appealing personality, Lane ought to be demoted to writing obits, considering how long it takes her to figure out that if you remove Clark Kent’s glasses he flies.” — John Stark, San Francisco Examiner

“It’s an odd film visually. It doesn’t have cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s serene, broad painterly landscapes that gave the first film its look of distinction. This is another of the posthumous releases Unsworth worked on which bears his name and some percentage of his work, but also the work of Bob Paynter. Most of the earth-bound shenanigans of the Oilcloth Trio (or whatever the villains’ costumes are patched with) look very peculiar, as though they were placed in front of projected action. Other sequences are quite handsome, Superman’s icy retreat, and much of the Far North footage.” — Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times

Superman II may be the ultimate summer entertainment movie for those of us who had a debilitating time with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Is it better than Superman I? Better, indeed—far better. The new movie, directed by Richard Lester, is gleefully lighthearted. It snaps, crackles and pops with thrills, spills and all manners of general excitement. Best of all, the pompous tone that surfaced in the first Superman has been exchanged for keen humor and wit. Lester’s flair for surreal slapstick comedy that glowed in earlier films such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Help and The Three (and Four) Musketeers finds its way into the Man of Steel and turns him into a marvel of bright sparks.” — Carol Olten, The San Diego Union

Superman II has a clever plot that is filled with twists and suspense. It even tosses out its share of amusing lines. Add to this the spectacular special effects and you should have a smashing sequel. You would, too, if the acting matched the story and the gimmicks. However, the cast suffers from Richard Lester’s pedestrian direction that causes camp lines to come out bland and flat. Kidder never makes her passion for Superman believable, and Reeve as the man of steel sometimes comes off wooden instead. As the conniving Lex Luthor, Gene Hackman seems unable to decide whether to act powerful or pitiful; instead he just flounders. Sarah Douglas, Terrence Stamp and Jack O’Halloran s the three villains make the most striking impression.” — Donna Chernin, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“This sequel is clearly superior to the original. Under Richard Lester’s action-packed direction, Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel grows up. It’s faster than a speeding bullet and sure to please the summer escapist crowd.” — Bruce McCabe, The Boston Globe

“Director Richard Lester puts the accent on humor as Episode 2 in the Superman series pits the Man of Steel against a trio of equally powerful Krypton outcasts in a colossal battle over the skies of Metropolis. It will be remembered best, however, as the one in which Superman got lucky with Lois Lane.… As the dyspeptic Gen. Zod, Terrence Stamp creates an appropriately menacing caricature of evil, and Sarah Douglas is fun to watch as the man-hating Ursa, dressed from the Nieman-Marcus catalog of outer space S&M-wear. Giant Jack O’Halloran’s performance as the moronic Non, a flying Frankenstein with a cosmic growl, wins the Ned Beatty award as the worst supporting Superman character, adding an overdose of comic relief to a film that is hardly anything more.” — Jack Mathews, Detroit Free Press

“Now that it has been proven that a movie like Superman can fly, the chief interest in Superman II is can it rise above the curse of being a sequel? Almost without exception, follow-up films have been a letdown. The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back are among the few exceptions. Add Superman II.” — George Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A scene from Superman II (1980)

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