Given that it was both a sequel and suffered a shoot so tumultuous that it made the filming of Apocalypse Now seem like a model of organisation and planning, Superman II really shouldn’t be as blindingly brilliant as it is.
Surely, no film that sees its director dramatically sacked three-quarters of the way into shooting can ever truly recover? Yet Superman II, in spite of the fights and the scraps and the ego wars that raged behind the scenes, would prove every bit its exalted predecessor’s equal.
Richard Donner had already shot 75% of Superman II when he was given the boot in March of 1979. Not that his sacking was completely unexpected. He was butting heads on an almost daily basis with producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind and their associate Pierre Spengler on the set of both Superman The Movie and its concurrently lensing sequel.
When production on Superman II was paused in October 1977 to allow Donner to focus on finishing off Superman The Movie, it was hoped that tempers might cool. But when Spengler, at a party following the release of the first film, told Variety columnist Army Archerd that he looked forward to working with Donner on the sequel, Donner later retorted, “If he’s on it, I’m not!”
Read more: Directors who were fired on set
Illya Salkind, unwilling to sacrifice his partner and childhood buddy, simply fired Donner instead, bringing in Help! and A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester to get the film over the finish line. When the cast returned to continue filming on Superman II in September 1979, they were greeted by a different Richard than the one they’d said sayonara to two years previous.
“I didn’t understand it when I came back and suddenly it wasn’t Richard Donner, it was Richard Lester,” remembers Sarah Douglas, who played the dominatrix-like supervillain Ursa in the movie, alongside Terence Stamp as General Zod and Jack O'Halloran as the silent, but brutish Non. “It was very strange.”
Unlike the American members of the cast, Douglas, who was just 27 at the time, had little inkling of the skirmishes between Donner and the producers.
“Because I was English, and because it was shot in England, all the Americans, well they were on location, so they all went home in the evenings to their respective hotels and they all hung out with Donner,” she says. “I just went home to Shepherd’s Bush and so I didn’t socialise in the way they all did. They were all very aware of what was going on, but I can honestly say I was completely oblivious.”
So what about the producers? When stories are told of the making of Superman II, the Salkinds and Spengler tend always to get cast as the villains, money-fixated chancers who were blind to their original director’s creative genius.
“I didn’t have much interaction with them,” Douglas says. “I found them all a little bit intimidating. There were all sorts of stories that were running around, though. You’d hear about Jack O’Halloran getting hold of Pierre Spengler and threatening him because of money not coming in. I witnessed a bunch of guys coming on the set late at night who all looked like they’d walked off The Godfather…”
Though roughly 75% of Superman II was already in the can, under Directors Guild of America rules, Lester needed to have shot at least 40% of the movie himself in order to secure a directing credit (Donner refused to have his name alongside Lester’s, saying, “I don't share credit.").
A new opening sequence was written and filmed, and other scenes reshot, often with a more humorous slant, to suit Lester’s comic sensibilities. Gene Hackman, still seething at the producers’ treatment of Donner, refused to return for the reshoots.
For Douglas, going back to Pinewood Studios simply meant more time working alongside Terence Stamp and Jack O’Halloran, both of whom, she says, she got along with famously.
“I’d adored and worshipped Terence Stamp from afar as a young teenager, so I was just in seventh heaven,” she enthuses. “And O’Halloran I see and speak to all the time. He’s a very, very dear friend.”
One cast member Douglas was less enamoured of was Supes himself, Christopher Reeve. Her co-star Jack O’Halloran recently described the actor as “a bit of an ass” on set, and things reportedly got so bad between the two that O’Halloran, an ex-boxer and, at 6’5” an inch taller than the already skyscraping Reeve, had the star pushed up against a wall, before a panicked Richard Donner rushed in to break it up.
“I’ve always chosen my words very carefully, because Christopher is, and will remain the greatest Superman,” says Douglas. “But by the end of filming, I think we all got very tired. I had about nine separate injuries from the flying and various different things and we were pushed very, very hard.
“Chris was less than understanding toward me at the end. He definitely changed in his persona, I think, from the beginning, when he was just a bit of an innocent.”
Superman II was released in Europe and Australia on 4 December 1980, and was rolled out to the rest of the world throughout 1981.
Given how disgruntled most of the cast were with Donner’s ousting, Warner Bros were apprehensive about exposing them to a gaggle of scandal-sniffing journalists, so it was decided that Douglas, who had remained the most neutral about the behind the scenes dramas, would instead be sent round the globe on a one-woman publicity tour.
“It was nine months in the end,” she remembers. “The studio put me through some rigorous tests to see how I would handle situations around the world.”
On its opening weekend, Superman II smashed box office records with a first day gross of $4.3 million, winning gushing reviews for its dynamic action sequences, kiddie-friendly humour and particularly for its triumvirate of badass supervillains. But the Superman II story doesn’t end there.
In the early 00s, Superman fan and professional film editor Michael Thau decided to seek out Donner’s original footage and, with Warner and the director’s blessing, assembled Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.
In 2006, 27 years after he was given the pink slip, Richard Donner’s Superman II finally saw the light of day, screening at the Directors Guild of America building in Hollywood in front of an invited audience, including, somewhat surprisingly, the director’s old nemesis Ilya Salkind. For Douglas and some of the cast, however, seeing this alternate version was a bittersweet experience.
“I was deeply disappointed we didn’t get any money for that,” she says. “As far as Warner were concerned, that was another film, it was another DVD. It just seemed a money-making venture for Warner Bros and not for Sarah Douglas or other members of the cast.”
Read more: The best and worst Director’s Cuts
Not only was Superman The Movie the first truly great superhero film when it was released in 1978, but Superman II was the first exemplary superhero sequel. Even Christopher Reeve called it "the best of the series".
And 40 years on from its UK release, it’s still the gold standard for every spandex-drenched blockbuster that was made in its wake.
Superman II is streaming on NOW TV