Continuing with the superhero theme from last time, today I'll be dissecting the only good sequel from the vaunted Christopher Reeve franchise, Superman II!
In 1978 Richard Donner was tasked with directing two epic Superman films back-to-back. Unfortunately budget and schedule issues would force him to shelve the second movie and focus on delivering the first, lest producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind fail to see a return on their massive financial investment. Released in December 1978, Superman: The Movie was a huge commercial and critical success, ensuring the intended sequel could now be completed. But after months of creative tension during the incredibly long shoot, the Salkinds opted not to bring Donner back to finish the second movie (It was estimated that about 75% of the footage was already completed). Instead comedy director Richard Lester (of A Hard Day's Night fame) was brought in, and in order to officially receive directorial credit he'd need to not only complete the remaining 25%, but also reshoot a third of the already-completed footage.
The result was an immensely entertaining but horribly inconsistent sequel, featuring very divergent visual styles from two completely different directors. This coupled with obvious continuity problems stemming from the principle actors' appearances noticeably changing between 1977 and 1980 gave Superman II a rather disjointed feel.
So let's take a look at what worked and what didn't, about this beloved Superman sequel!
As with the first movie, Reeve embodied the perfect fusion of wholesome farmboy shyness and statuesque physical presence to bring to life what is still thus far the best cinematic interpretation of the Man of Steel. This is one of those roles that a particular actor was born to play. Reeve just captured the essence of this iconic figure and his alter-ego so brilliantly I'm not sure anyone will ever match his performance.
I have a hard time picturing anyone else in the role of General Zod. That's how fantastic Terence Stamp's portrayal was of this elitist, power-hungry Kryptonian czar. In retrospect the character probably could've been given more to do in the script than simply destroy stuff and take over the White House, but Stamp made a phenomenal foil to Reeve's Big Blue Boy Scout.
|I mean the costumes are wretched, but these are three badass villains.|
Opening Credit Flashbacks
I liked that the filmmakers used the rather excessively long opening credit sequence to catch us up on the events from the first movie. Adding flashbacks in between the titles was a genius move, especially for someone like me, who saw the second movie first.
Molecular Chamber Sequence
While I don't agree with the plot device of a chamber that strips Superman of his powers (Why would his Fortress of Solitude have such a contraption?), the scene where Kal gets converted into a weak-ass mortal was visually pretty neat, depicting his body being broken down and rebuilt via dated but unique animation.
Sure it's clunky and the effects look very quaint by today's standards, but Superman's downtown melee with Zod, Ursa and Non is a tremendously enjoyable comic-booky battle that shows off the Kryptonians' super powers wonderfully and, unlike the 2013 version, is easy to follow and exhilarating rather than depressing. I always got a kick out of the bit where Zod employs heat vision to try and blow up an oil truck, only for Supes to reflect the lasers back at Zod using the truck's side mirror before freezing the truck with his breath. Is it a silly action sequence? Sure. But I'd still watch it ten times outta ten before suffering through Man of Steel again.
|I'd still rather see this clunky action than more disaster porn.|
It's Just Fun!
Along those same lines, Superman II is chock-full of dated-but-fun moments and sequences that capture the mood of the old DC Comics. Superman is the ultimate good guy we can identify with and admire, watching in awe as he combats his three super-powered adversaries. If the first film demonstrated just how powerful the character was, the second tests his limits by squaring him off against three beings of equal strength and ability. Together they make a terrific one-two punch.
Alas, now it's time to discuss what didn't work about Supes 2....
Lester vs. Donner
As I mentioned before, this movie consists of about 50% Richard Donner footage and 50% Richard Lester, and sometimes it jumps back and forth between the two directors several times within the same scene. This wouldn't be such an issue except that Lester's visual style is quite different from Donner's. Richard Donner's footage featured diffused lighting to soften the image and give the movie an old-school Norman Rockwell look, whereas Lester took a much more standard approach to his visuals. Worse, some of the actors appear significantly different in the two versions. Terence Stamp's complexion is darker in the Lester footage, his hair is longer, and for some reason his voice sounds much lower. Christopher Reeve put on a fair amount of additional muscle mass by the time Lester rolled film and thus looks jacked in the 1980 footage. But the most glaring change in appearance goes to Margot Kidder, who in the Lester footage looks positively gaunt, aging her a good ten years. I just find all these jumps back and forth very distracting.
Look, Margot was fine in the first movie. I never totally bought into her as the one woman Superman would prize above all other puny mortals, but her performance in Superman '78 accomplished what it needed to. She and Reeve had strong chemistry and she played against Superman's dual identities with two sets of responses - dismissive cynicism with Clark and school-girl infatuation with Kal. But in the second film she just comes off as a total burnout. She looks haggard and seems almost a ditzy caricature of her former self. Also the stakes for Lois are raised in this film because Superman actually elects to give up his powers to be with her, but by this point in the story I just didn't believe Supes would do such a thing.
|I think Lois is on a nod.|
Blue Screen Effects
The first Superman made extensive use of front projection for the flying scenes. For those unfamiliar, front projection is an old-school technique involving a two-way mirror placed at a 45-degree angle in front of the camera. The side facing the camera is see-through, while the other side is a mirror. Opposite the mirror side is a film projector that shows a background image filmed previously. The mirror reflects this image onto a movie screen set up behind the actors, which then reflects that image back to the camera, creating the illusion that the actors are flying over mountains or cityscapes or what-have-you. The result is a nice, crisp, clean illusion, and the first film's flying scenes looked quite believable, particularly for 1978.
For the second film however they went the cheap and easy route and used traditional blue screen compositing for the flying scenes, and they look simply awful. Like, not even adequate for 1981. Like, David Lynch's Dune bad. Mat lines bleeding out every which way, shaky camera work, hell there's even a shot at the end where Superman is flying toward the White House and the background image is a still photo. Know how I can tell? The fountains out back aren't moving. Jesus H. Christ, Lester, we're not stupid! Everyone who worked on these shots should be mortified to have this gig on their resume. I would've expected shitball effects like these in the third and fourth films, but not in this one.
|This image won't tell the story, but yeah that's a still pic of the White House.|
Giving Up Powers
The idea that this paragon of unequaled good would make such a selfish decision to forsake his powers and self-appointed responsibility just to get some Earth nookie is really quite a staggering betrayal of the character. Superman's whole existence is defined by protecting his new Earth family and fighting evil. Why would he throw all that away, and why would the process be ostensibly irreversible if he's got a molecular chamber in his house? Couldn't he just temporarily deSupify himself anytime he wants a little woman action?
Giant Plastic S
This might be the stupidest weapon ever used in a superhero film, and it was definitely not Richard Donner's idea. During the climactic sequence in the Fortress of Solitude, Superman pulls an S logo off his chest and whips it at Non, and it somehow turns into a giant mylar net that momentarily subdues the big oaf. I dunno what they were drinking when they came up with this idea.
|What. The hell?|
After the Salkinds had Donner removed from completing the second film, Marlon Brando managed to sue them for a sizable portion of the first movie's profits. In retaliation the Salkinds excised all of Brando's Superman II scenes which left a pretty big hole. Suddenly Supes only talks to his mom? What'd Dad's ghost run away from home? Also Jor-El is now not present at the opening trial. Now it's some kinda prerecorded voice laying out the case against Zod and his accomplices. Maybe Jor-El was supposed to be pinching off a turd during this part, and he left his robot assistant in charge? Come on, guys, work out your petty shit so the movie doesn't suffer.
Previously known as a quirky comedy director, Richard Lester crammed a little too much goofy humor into this movie. Case in point is when the Kryptonians use their super breath to keep the citizens of Metropolis from attacking them, and there's a shot of a dude talking in a phone booth who gets knocked over but continues his conversation on a now-disconnected phone. Was the movie so hurting for laughs Lester needed to shoehorn them into intense scenes of menace?
After double crossing the villains by exposing them to red sunlight (Again, how and why would the Fortress be capable of depowering Kryptonians?), Superman knocks the two male villains into apparently bottomless pits while Lois dispatches the now-vulnerable Ursa. Umm, didn't the Fortress sorta build itself atop a glacier? Where did these pits to nowhere come from? And why would Supes murder his three adversaries now that they're Earthling-weak and no longer a threat? This is a terribly anticlimactic end to Superman's three great rivals. Couldn't they have devised a plot device wherein the Fortress can dispatch bad guys back to the Phantom Zone? I mean why not, there's a red-sun molecular chamber in there!
-Just after escaping the Phantom Zone the three villains land on the moon and wreak havoc on a NASA lunar mission, destroying the Excursion Module and killing the astronauts. The moon set is so tiny however that most of this scene looks completely unbelievable.
|That's no moon. It's a soundstage.|
-Also Non demonstrates his newfound super powers by ripping the Lunar Excursion Module apart with his bare hands. Only problem is LEMs were partially built from a material no thicker than aluminum foil so they'd be light enough to take off again once it was time to rejoin with the orbiting spacecraft. So congrats, doofus. You just crumpled up the NASA equivalent of the foil goose you get when you take home leftovers from a fancy restaurant.
-Early in the film Lois and Clark go on assignment in Niagara Falls, where Lois attempts to prove her theory that Clark and Superman are the same person by throwing herself over the falls. Clark manages to save her without changing into Supes, and she finally accepts that she must've been mistaken. Then later in their hotel room Clark blows his whole cover by tripping over a bearskin rug and falling hands-first into the fire. Isn't Superman above this sort of clumsiness? Methinks you've buried yourself too far in the role there, Kal. Side note: the Donner Cut has a much, MUCH better version of this scene, albeit in screen-test form, where Lois tricks Clark into divulging his identity by shooting him with a pistol, only to later reveal it was a blank. Why couldn't Lester have reshot this version?
-After Clark opts to become a regular old Earth human so he can bang Lois, they begin their long trek back to Metropolis, IN A CAR. Ummm, where'd the car come from, is there a Ford dealership down the block from the Fortress of Solitude? They were in the Arctic for God's sake! They both would've frozen to death well before reaching any kind of civilization.
-By the same token, after realizing he has to get his powers back, Clark WALKS back to the Fortress alone, wearing only a windbreaker. Yeah, sorry Clark. You're an easily bullied block of ice now.
-The ghost of Kal's mom warns him that the process of giving up his powers will be irreversible, and following the procedure his crystal control panel explodes in a bevy of sparks (I guess the crystals were as angry with Supes as we were?). When he gets back he tries in vain to talk to Jor-El's ghost, pleading for his powers again. Suddenly he finds the green crystal lying on the floor, where Lois had accidentally knocked it off the control panel earlier. So two questions: a) how did the control panel work at all without the master green crystal being present, and b) just because it was on the floor when the console blew up, now it can simply repair the entire thing and repower Superman?
-During the big Metropolis battle, Ursa picks up a sewer lid and throws it, Frisbee-style at Superman's gut. The force knocks Supes into the air and he lands on top of a car.....with the sewer lid stuck to his belly at a 90-degree angle. It's quite possibly the most ridiculous-looking bad special effect of all time.
-At the end of the movie Supes goes back to the diner to get some payback on the trucker douchebag who beat him up during his few hours as a human. Now, I'm all for seeing justice done, but would Superman really be so vindictive as to lay down a revenge beating on an ordinary human? I could maybe see him lifting the guy's truck off the ground or displaying some other superhuman feat, just to show him who he was fucking with. But to actually beat up someone with little more significance to Superman than an ant seems a bit like bully behavior. Of course there's a bigger issue - why would he display his Superman powers while dressed as Clark? Doesn't that constitute revealing his secret identity to a total stranger?
Superman II was the first superhero film I ever saw as a child, so it will always hold a special place for me. It's a light-hearted, silly romp born of a simpler time when film audiences didn't expect a comic book film to contain much in the way of intense drama or dark story concepts. In 1981 we had a pretty scant selection if we wanted to watch live-action adaptations of our favorite costumed heroes, so as long as the imagery was nice to look at and the characters were likable, that's all we really needed. This movie, like its predecessor to a lesser degree, has certainly not aged well, but it has going for it a quality the recent Superman adaptations forgot to include: it's fun to watch.
That's all for this edition of ASM. Join me again next time, here at Enuffa.com!
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