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Anticipation was high for the celebrated sequel, but fans didn’t know that behind the scenes, things were in chaos as producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and Pierre Spengler and director Richard Donner clashed over filming schedules and final cut rights back before the original was even finished as both films were in production at the same time. Part 2 was put on hiatus for two years and when the producers returned to the series, they replaced Donner with Richard Lester, even though much of the film had already been shot. Reshoots were scheduled but some of the principal actors, including Hackman didn’t come back, forcing body doubles to be employed. Meanwhile, Marlon Brando, who had filmed all his scenes for both films sued the producers for lost profits from the first and ended up having his entire presence cut from the second with Susannah York (Jor-El’s wife and Superman’s biological mother) filling in. The shift in directors meant a shift in tone as well, as Donner’s version was a natural continuation of the first, remaining somewhat dark and grounded while Lester took the film in a more comedic, slapstick direction. While this was not so noticeable in the final cut, viewers could note a difference in the actors as more than two years had passed between the first shots and the reshoots.
Leading up to its release, people went to theaters to catch the latest trailer for the up-coming film and were thrilled with the promised action and romance. Christopher Reeve was back in the blue tights and red cape. He had three new enemies to fight, just as physically powerful as he, and his romance with Lois Lane was going to the next level. So imagine it’s early 1981. You’re sitting in the darkened cinema with your hot buttered popcorn, waiting for the whatever movie you came to see (Bustin’ Lose? Nighthawks? Raiders of the Lost Ark?), and then this trailer flickers on the big screen:
Try to imagine a time when Superhero movies weren’t 8 of the 10 movies playing at the local cinema. Back when Hollywood was just learning that people would pay good money to see a man in a cape fly around on screen. Sure, superheroes had been around in theaters since the 1920s with Zorro pleasing crowds in black & white. From then, comic book characters found their fame in 12-15 part serials until the early 1950s when Superman and the Mole Man made his debut in a black & white pilot for the television series. Then a campy Batman found its way to theaters in 1966, but it wasn’t unit 1978’s Superman that audiences finally got a movie that seemed to get the genre right. Fun and full of adventure, the story and characters were believable, even identifiable. Christopher Reeve was Superman, the very embodiment of him in every way. People wanted more.
In the 1980s, trailers weren’t on the Internet. The Internet wasn’t even a thing yet. Well, at least the one we’re all using right now. You couldn’t turn on your phone and watch it as many times as you liked on YouTube. To see a trailer you had to go to the movies. You watched it on the big screen and when it was over, you had to go buy another ticket to see it again. For Superman II, you bought another ticket. Here’s why:
Early in the trailer, General Zod (Terence Stamp), and his two cronies Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran) arrive in a small dusty town where the Kryptonian criminal points a finger at a man, a light thin beam of light projecting straight at him. With it, he lifts the person straight into the air as if he is controlling gravity. While the effect is substandard by today’s expectations, the image is still pretty strong. We’re supposed to be frightened by it, but looking at it now, I can’t help but wish I was the guy getting zapped: “Weeeeeeee!”
By now, we’ve seen enough movies to know that even at the slightest alert, the President is whisked out his office by a team of yelling and shouting Secret Service guys and tossed in some secret panic room or whatever, but back then, an attack on the White House was shocking to think about. So yes, looking only at the trailer, it seems that Zod and his powerful friends are smashing into the building. There we see some security officers in white and army personnel in a sandbag gun nest ready to face off against the invaders. One of them has a bazooka, an M20 Super Bazooka to be accurate, and he’s hilariously inept at using it. Putting aside that the White House is perhaps the most significant historical architectural landmarks in the country and shooting off explosive ammunition from inside, despite the reason, it probably frowned upon, the trailer seems to indicate that the worst a fired anti-tank, armor-piercing explosive round could do anyway is knock out the chandelier. If you look carefully, even the cop next to the soldier can’t help but smirk. It’s pretty awesome.
One of the cooler powers shown in the trailer is the alien’s incredible lung capacity, which all Kryptonians possess and is used in the clip. It might look a little silly, but they pull it off because the special effects are really great for the time. It’s all practical, obviously models to our trained eyes now, but really convincing back then. The best use of it comes toward the end of the trailer as Zod clears a Metropolis street, tossing people cars about with his breath like everything was made of paper. The sight of cars flying about the crowded city streets is thrilling, and back before CGI made everything possible, this was some stunning stunt and effects work. Plus, the guy with the umbrella is a movie extra goldmine. Please, please, someone tell me he went on to amazing things.
Christopher Reeve is most famous for his Superman because, perhaps ironically enough, considering that Kal-El is in fact an alien, he brings the most humanity to the role. That’s apparent in a lot of what he does with both Superman and Clark Kent. There is an interesting moment in the trailer though that might get by those not watching closely though, a moment that doesn’t quiet reflect what a ‘Superman’ would do, but certainly a ‘man’. During a scene toward the end of the trailer, as he is embroiled in a mighty battle against Zod, the General uses his heat vision to melt the coupling on a massive piece of concrete and lets it fall into his hands, which he redirects at his enemy. Superman, with the block hurdling at him, uses his own heat vision to explode the block, shattering it into a splash of fire and bits that sprays in all directions, Superman, in the path of most of it, winces and turns his face, seemingly affected by the debris. Of course, this is entirely unnecessary for the Man of Steel, but shows he’s really adopted the personal mannerisms of the fragile beings he’s living with. Plus it looks cool.
Maybe not so much today as in the 80s, but Coca-Cola was an iconic American symbol of capitalism, the very taste and look of freedom and pursuit of happiness. Superman is about protecting that way of life and at the end of the trailer, he’s sent reeling head first into the electric logo, a feat no one expects to happen to our planet’s hero, let alone to one of our most cherished national symbols. By the time the clips ends, we’re pumped with excitement (and a little rage). Who are these Kyptonian monsters and how dare they come here and challenge not only Superman, but now, our very way of life?
Movie making has changed a lot in the decades since Superman II and trailers are practically mini-films themselves now, but back when they were meant to be seen only once or twice in a theater, the impact had to be big. No one was poring over them frame by frame as we do now. People took away what they saw in one sitting and spread the word. Superman II is a fun adventure and great superhero movie. The trailer is a treasure of the time and still has influence today.
Richard Lester, Richard Donner (uncredited)
Joe Shuster (character created by: Superman),Jerry Siegel (character created by: Superman)
Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp