Enter Lex Luthor, unnecessarily.
I mean, we’re already looking at a worst-case scenario for the Earth, now entirely in the possession of three bug-eyed monsters from Planet K, who don’t really have a plan for what’s going to happen next. The trio is already bored with literally everything in the world, and since they haven’t even thought of redecorating their office, it seems like they’re not very good at cheering themselves up. Honestly, the only thing that they know is destruction, which they indulge in when they’re happy and also when they’re not happy.
So sending in Lex Luthor, the greatest criminal mind on Earth and this movie’s C-plot, is not technically necessary to move the story forward. But the movie is hedging its bets on the villainy, throwing in a more engaging character as backup just in case the three Kryptonians get boring, which they have.
We’re currently three minutes into the third act of Superman II, so it’s a good opportunity to take a look at the structure of the movie. My guide in these matters is Syd Field’s 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which popularized the idea of a three-act structure. Field claimed that every successful screenplay follows this structure, which is obviously an exaggeration, but it’s a nice way of figuring out how a movie works.
According to the three-act model, Act 1 sets up the premise and the main character, and then introduces an inciting incident that changes the character’s situation, and poses a dramatic question that drives the film.
In Act 2, the rising action shows the main character dealing with the fallout from the first plot point, and the protagonist finds that they’re unable to solve their problems, unless they make some kind of important change. The second act often ends with a rock-bottom moment, where things are as bad for the main character as they could get.
Act 3 shows the result of the character’s development, resolving the dramatic question and demonstrating how the characters have changed over the course of the film.
I like this model, because it allows you to track how the main character develops over the course of the film, and to see whether all of the plot points actually lead to a satisfying conclusion.
Superman II actually has two-and-a-half separate plot tracks, which don’t come together until the end of the second act.
The major plot is the story of Superman and Lois, who spend almost all of the first two acts entirely on their own, hardly talking to anybody else in the movie. Act 1 is their trip to Niagara Falls, and Lois’ attempts to figure out Superman’s secret identity. The act ends with Clark and Lois in the honeymoon suite, and the revelation that Clark is Superman. The dramatic question at the end of the first act is: can Superman be with Lois, and still maintain his heroic identity? Act 2 is Superman deciding to give up his powers to be with Lois, and it ends with the absolute rock-bottom moment of the beat-up Clark realizing that he’s made a terrible mistake.
The B-story is the villains’ thread, and their main plot points occur around the same time as Lois and Clark’s. Act 1 is the villains discovering they have powers on the moon, and then coming to Earth to rule; their first plot point is making first contact with the Idaho police force, where they discover that humans are weak and worthless. In Act 2, they flex their muscles, and take possession of the Oval Office. Their triumph at the end of the second act drives Clark’s realization that he needs to become Superman again.
And then there’s the Luthor plot thread, which has essentially nothing to do with the rest of the movie. There are several sequences with Lex and Eve — escaping from prison, heading north, and discovering the Fortress of Solitude — which all happen while everyone else is doing Act 1. Then Lex disappears for all of Act 2, and returns forty minutes later, here at the top of Act 2.
The major structural problem with Superman II is the same problem that the first movie had: an inability to integrate the romantic story and the superhero/villain story.
Superman: The Movie worked like this — Act 1: Backstory, Act 2: Superman and Lois, Act 3: Superman vs Lex Luthor. In the second act, Superman and Lois had no idea there was such a person as Luthor, lurking underground and waiting for their opportunity to strike. Act 2 ended with Superman and Lois’ balcony interview, which is essentially the end of the Superman/Lois character development for the rest of the movie. Act 3 was all about the missiles and Superman confronting Luthor, with Lois pushed off to the side in order to put her in peril, without actually engaging her in the movie’s plot.
Superman II does exactly the same thing. The Kryptonian story bubbles under the surface, with Superman and Lois entirely oblivious to the fact that the villains are even on Earth. They’re already taking over the White House by the time Lois and Hot Clark get out of bed.
And once again, as soon as Superman confronts the villains in Act 3, Lois is left on the sidelines. She’s left standing at the window, a spectator who watches the big fight and doesn’t participate in it. When the action moves from Metropolis to the Fortress of Solitude, Lois is brought along, but she’s just a peril monkey, standing around waiting to be threatened. She doesn’t actually do anything.
And just like the first movie, when Superman wraps up the major romantic plot thread, Lois is an object rather than a participant in the resolution, to such an extent that she’s not even aware that there was a problem in the first place. Twice. They did that twice.
So the fact that Luthor doesn’t participate in any of the plot points either is hardly surprising. I like this scene, where he inserts himself into the Superman/villain storyline by force of will, because he’s doing funny Luthor shtick, and I enjoy Gene Hackman’s Luthor shtick.
But the information that he’s providing to the villains — that Superman has a relationship with people at the Daily Planet — could have been provided by literally anybody in this fictional world. This could be the kid who Superman rescued at Niagara Falls, walking in and telling them that; it wouldn’t make any difference to the plot point.
The only real contribution that Luthor makes comes at the end of the Metropolis fight, when Superman runs away, and Luthor tells the villains that he knows Superman’s address. That’s a piece of information that only he knows, which justifies the sequences in Act 1 where Luthor discovers the Fortress of Solitude.
Unfortunately, they play that scene in exactly the same way that they play this one. In this scene, the villains are leaving, when Luthor says, “First you must find him — and Lex baby is the only one who knows where he is,” which isn’t true.
And fifteen minutes from now, when the villains say they’re going to kill him, he replies, “Kill me? Lex Luthor? Extinguish the greatest criminal flame of our age, eradicate the only man on Earth with — Superman’s address?”
So they don’t really use Luthor very well in Act 3, I guess is what I’m saying, and the same goes for Lois, which is even more of a shame. One of these days, somebody’s going to write a superhero movie in which all of the plot threads actually come together, and all of the main characters are involved in the movie’s resolution, but not today, and not in this movie, I’m afraid.
Lester gets the band back together in
2.40: The Reshoots
There’s a visual continuity error in this scene: when Lex sits down, he’s got his cigar in his left hand. When the shot changes, he’s got it in his right hand.
Lester gets the band back together in
2.40: The Reshoots
— Danny Horn