Superman II 2.9: From Original Material

They stole his freedom, they took his wigs, they impounded his wardrobe and back catalog of National Geographic. They dismantled the criminal empire that mostly existed in his mind, and left him with nothing but memories.

But there’s one thing they couldn’t take away from Lex Luthor: his theme song.

And here it is, as we pick things up with Lex and his little buddy Otis: tum-tumty-tum, that jaunty little woodwind march backed with an anxious string section, which we know from the last movie. Pretty much everything on the soundtrack sounds familiar, because it was assembled from processed John Williams pieces, rearranged and left under a heat lamp for a while.

John Williams composed the score for the first movie, and he filled it up with as many catchy motifs as he could think of. There’s the Fanfare and the Superman March, the Krypton theme, the Kryptonite/Crystal theme, the Smallville motif and the Personal theme. The most memorable is the Love theme, also known as “Can You Read My Mind?” and then there’s the Villain motif for Luthor, and if there were any other characters then Williams would have written motifs for them too. The man loved his motifs.

Everybody wanted him to come back and write the score for Superman II, but he had some kind of mysterious falling-out with the new director, Richard Lester. Williams enjoyed working on Superman with Dick Donner, and I think that if Donner was still working on the sequel like he was supposed to, Williams probably would have as well.

Executive producer Ilya Salkind says that Williams came to London, and went into a theater with Lester to watch a cut of the sequel. Then Williams came out of the theater, and told Salkind, “Ilya, I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can work with him,” and that was that. I don’t know what Lester said to upset him. He probably made some joke about scherzos, and he didn’t realize that was a sensitive subject. Some people are just touchy about scherzos.

So Lester brought in his own musical henchman, Ken Thorne. They’d worked together on most of Lester’s films, starting with the 1959 short The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film, and continuing with It’s Trad, Dad! (1962), the Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) and The Ritz (1976).

When Thorne was hired for Superman II, he was given a very specific brief: to adapt Williams’ score from the first movie, so that the two movies sounded like they were two halves of the same story. Thorne had all of Williams’ original score to use, including unused and alternate music cues, and he adapted them to fit the timing of the new film and the size of the orchestra.

The credits read, “Music composed and conducted by Ken Thorne from original material composed by John Williams”, and when Thorne’s name appears on the screen, the orchestra does the big “Sup-erman!” flourish, which I’m sure is just a coincidence.

So we hear the Love theme when Lois tells Clark that she cares about him, and the Villains march in the prison laundry, and the Krypton trial music when the Phantom Zone trio attacks the astronauts on the moon. The helicopter rescue music is used for Superman saving the kid at Niagara Falls, and you can hear the spooky female chorus from the “Council’s Decision” cue when Superman talks to his mom in the Fortress of Solitude.

Thorne used a smaller orchestra to record the new score, another cost-cutting measure by the Salkinds. I’d like to say that my ear is sensitive enough to tell the difference between them, but I can’t; it sounds basically the same to me.

But there were some problems with the sound mixing, which is described in the booklet from the Superman: The Music box set:

“Unfortunately, choices made somewhere in the dubbing and mixing process for the film resulted in the music attaining a muddy quality and an overemphasis of winds and percussion. In some instances, the placement of the center and right channels of music was even mistakenly switched. These mishaps have led to an assumption that these inaccuracies were inherent in the scoring masters.

“The presentation of the score here lays all of those points to rest. Working from the original 35mm magnetic film mixdowns of orchestra, percussion and ambiance, the score for Superman II is now preserved in its entirety, its true quality revealed for the first time.”

That’s all very nice as far as the box set is concerned, but appreciating the “true quality” of the score is kind of an abstract pleasure if you couldn’t hear it in the actual movie that people watched.

So the Superman II soundtrack is a pastiche, rather than an original work. We can’t know what Williams would have added if he’d scored the film from scratch, but there would definitely be a catchy new General Zod theme.

Thorne did write a little collection of notes that the Superman: The Music booklet describes as an original General Zod motif, but it’s not particularly memorable. You can hear it in a couple of places — when Zod plays with an astronaut on the moon, and when he lifts a guy up with his mysterious finger laser. You wouldn’t really notice it as a motif, if you didn’t go and listen for it — it took me a couple times listening to those scenes to say, oh, that’s what it is. It basically just sounds like tones.

After this film, Thorne went on to write the score for Wolf Lake, The House Where Evil Dwells and the TV-movie version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and if you’ve never heard of those films, then that tells you how successful Thorne turned out to be. Meanwhile, John Williams went on to more Star Wars films, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, several Harry Potter movies, and so on, getting stronger and more powerful all the time.

For Superman III, the Salkinds and Lester hired Thorne to write a brand new score, which apparently he did not enjoy… but that’s a story for another movie.

We check out what’s happening in the comics in
2.10: Meanwhile, in 1981


As we go along, I’ll be flagging the Richard Donner footage that appears in the film. All of the Gene Hackman material was shot by Donner — Hackman was asked to come back for some reshoots and dubbing by Lester, but he said no, because he was pissed that Donner was fired. Any time you see Hackman’s face, it’s Donner footage.

There’s some extra Lex Luthor dialogue later in the film that’s performed by a Hackman impersonator, but only in shots where the character is far away, or turned away from the camera. I don’t know if anybody in the audience noticed that the voice was different, but if you listen for it, it’s really obvious which lines were performed by the impersonator.

Naturally, being a nerd, I tried to find out who the voice actor was who doubled for Hackman, but I couldn’t find his name anywhere.

We check out what’s happening in Action Comics in
2.10: Meanwhile, in 1981

Movie list

— Danny Horn

13 thoughts on “Superman II 2.9: From Original Material

    1. I likewise have no musical talent and normally don’t notice motifs and such unless they’re pretty obvious. In this film, however, I didn’t notice that the score was a Williams knockoff that just sounded . . . cheap. It’s like after Disney comes out with a big animated film about a public-domain property like Aladdin, and then a cheap direct-to-video version would come out of the same property to try to trick buyers into thinking it was the real, Disney version. Thorne’s score is that knockoff.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I’ve always found that Hackman impersonator disconcerting too. “North, Miss Tessmacher, north!”

    Part and parcel of the kind of missteps that you are so effectively elucidating.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “that jaunty little woodwind march backed with an anxious string section”
    At least the crescendos are motivated here. Or did Paulene Kael complain about this score too?

    “I don’t think I can work with him”
    Yet another theory. Maybe Lester described a Cut & Paste approach to film music that he’d used with the Beatles, and Williams didn’t want his musical ideas to get randomly tossed around like a salad, shuffled like a deck of cards.

    A scherzo is a fun little piece of music that makes you smile and feel happy. Appropriate for whimsical dance of Daddy’s Little Girl and proud papa of an eight year old. Often used in big classic symphonies to help the audience just relax a moment, before the heavy duty intricate thematics of the big finale.

    “Music composed from music composed” sounds like, today’s lunch special at summer camp is leftovers stew. Made from whatever didn’t go into day before yesterday’s leftovers stew.

    “a muddy quality”
    “the placement of the center and right channels of music was even mistakenly switched”
    What a perfect fit for the shots of people on the wrong side of the street, taking the wrong door into the wrong building with the wrong lighting for the wrong reason.
    This film sounds more and more like Minor League Amateur Hour work, for Big A-Movie Prices.

    “lifts a guy up with his mysterious finger laser”
    As a kid, I loved the moon, arrival, fry the snake, walk on water sequence. But I thought that the finger levitation ray was AWFUL. Supposedly Kryptonian. But came from nowhere, only one of the villians, not used again, doesn’t matter. Do we get to start ranting about that yet? Is a whole takedown of Stupid Bogus New Powers coming?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It really does feel like Take Your Kid To Work And Let Him Mix The Sound Day, because stuff like switching channels on the mixing board is pure amateur hour–that’s really, really basic-level skill set, there, that apparently was not only not done properly but never caught or corrected–just sent out into the world as the sountrack to the sequel of this big hit movie. Way to go, Ilya.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m going to assume that the Hackman voice was Rich Little, because it sounds terrible and also because people inexplicably hired him for that kind of stuff all the time back then.

    I have no evidence to back this up, but I’m going to go ahead and say there’s a 75% chance that it’s Rich Little.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ilya: Hackman won’t come back. We still need him for some scenes.
      Alex, dismissively: Get a double.
      Ilya: Yes, but he has lines.
      Alex: Use an impersonator.
      Ilya: People may be able to tell.
      Alex: Get the best. Who’s the greatest impersonator there is?
      Ilya: Rich Little is pretty famous.
      Alex: Fine. Get him.
      Ilya: He may be expensive.
      Alex, staring at his son incredulously: It’s not like we’re ever going to pay him!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. “Linus and Lucy” from Peanuts could be considered a scherzo.
    From the Beatles, “8 Days a Week,” “Lady Madonna,” “Ob-La-Di.”
    From the Who, “Magic Bus” and “Squeezebox.”
    “Happy” by Pharrell.
    “I’m Yours” by that stoner guy.
    “U Got the Look” by Prince.
    From Phish, “You Enjoy Myself.”
    Recently, “I’m Levitating,” “Can’t Stop the Feeling.”
    A comedy guy like Lester would want plenty of scherzos.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. If we’re going to play ‘guess who looped Gene Hackman’s voice,’ I’m betting on Phil Hartman. That was the kind of work he was in demand for circa 1980.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. If you’ve watched the YouTube Channel “How it Should Have Ended” they point out things in a movie that should have gone ahead and ended the story. For example, the Avengers use portals to chop off the arm of Thanos’s henchman and even though what they need to do is get it off Thanos’s arm they forget all about it. I think the finger zap is one of those things that they completely forget about later that looked cool in the moment.


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