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November 25, 2013

Movie Mondays: Superman II

"If you've only seen the first part, you haven't seen the best part!" Best tag line ever!

“If you’ve only seen the first part, you haven’t seen the best part!” – Best tag line ever!

Title: Superman II
Director: Richard Lester
Writers: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Tom Mankiewicz (based on Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster)
Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Terance Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure, Susannah York, Valerie Perrine, E.G. Marshall, Ned Beatty
Release Date: June 19, 1981
MPAA: Rated PG

Welcome back MOVIE MONDAYS readers, to another look back at the Man of Steel’s big-screen adventures!  This week we take a look at Superman II, the action-packed sequel to 1978’s Superman: The Movie.  Does Superman II live up to its predecessor?  Well, yes and no.  Superman II is a very mixed bag, with a lot of great moments.  So, let’s get right down to it, shall we?

The film starts with a montage of the events of Superman: The Movie set to the opening credits, and finishes off the introduction with General Zod (Stamp) and his cohorts Ursa (Douglas) and Non (O’Halloran) being captured and placed in The Phantom Zone, an inter-dimensional void designed for life imprisonment (their sentencing, witnessed in the first film).  Cutting back to present day, Clark (Reeve) is wandering around The Daily Planet looking for Lois (Kidder), who just happens to be in Paris, covering a news story about some terrorists who have taken over The Eiffel Tower.  Superman arrives to rescue her, the hostages, and all of Paris by hurling the terrorists’ bomb into outer-space.  The shock wave from the bomb comes into contact with the portal to The Phantom Zone, shattering it and releasing the three evil Kryptonians.  Zod decides to set up shop by conquering the nearest planet, which happens to be Earth, and upon finding out that Superman is the son of Jor-El, the man who imprisoned him, an intense battle ensues, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

One of the most iconic images is comic book history

One of the most iconic images in comic book history.

Let’s address the bad elements of this film first, since they happen to be few and far between, yet still big enough to really detract from the film. 

Lois sees these  complaints about the film...

Lois sees these complaints about the film… she is not amused.

First and foremost: the random super powers given to the Kryptonians in this film that don’t seem to have a basis anywhere in the source material.  During the film, our baddies project telekinetic beams from their hands.  At another point, all of the Kryptonians display the ability to teleport, and Superman shows new ridiculous powers like projecting fake images of himself, and the infamous cellophane “S” scene where he throws an image of his “S” logo onto his opponent, briefly wrapping him up like a net, only to have it instantly dissolve, leaving his enemy (and the audience) stunned and bewildered.  Last but not least, we have a scene where Clark uses a super-kiss to make Lois forget his secret identity.  In the 1960s comics Superman used hypnosis for the same effect, and has given Lois a “super-kiss” that left her on the verge of fainting, but never before had these elements been combined in such a way, and the scene itself just sort of leaves viewers scratching their heads.

Those complaints may only really bother purists, who don’t see any need for pointless tampering with the source material, but they also add nothing to the film, so even from a filmic standpoint those ridiculous superpowers are unnecessary.  These following complaints, however, are aimed solely at the film and not toward its merits as an adaptation:

Yay! Susannah York as Lara (Superman's birth-mom)

Yay! Susannah York as Lara (Superman’s birth-mom).

Throughout the villains’ attack on America, every character they meet has an American accent as one might expect, except for one child actor who has such a prominent British accent that it stands out and bothers this critic more than any other fault found within the movie.  It wouldn’t bother me as much if it weren’t for the fact that this child’s one scene is given more focus than any other  in this sequence, speaking directly to General Zod, and making matters worse, the scene is absolutely superfluous. 

Another complaint is only a minor one and has to do with the characterization of our primary villain.  Zod is rather one-dimensional, being evil for the mere sake of it.  While never hindering the film itself, it’s only really an issue when compared to later portrayals of villains, whether comic book oriented or otherwise.  Villains are generally more interesting when they think they have a cause or motivation.  This being said, being bad for the sake of being bad makes Terance Stamp’s take on General Zod no less engaging, and his charismatic performance is still very entertaining.

Superman deflects Zods heat vision with a side-view mirror... how?

Superman deflects Zod’s heat vision with a side-view mirror… how?

The final issue comes from the epic battle in Metropolis.  During all of the chaos and destruction, director Richard Lester includes several moments of random slapstick humor for comedic relief.  Fan and critic reactions to modern superhero films like the more light-hearted Avengers and the more serious and somber Man of Steel seem to indicate a strong desire for comedic relief amidst the action, but this critic feels that one does not necessarily need to pause for a chuckle every few minutes during an intense sequence.

Let’s move on to bigger and better things.  The action this time around is ratcheted up to the Nth degree, wherein the first film featured Superman performing feats of daring-do, this film features more of the same and benefits from finally giving Superman villains he can go toe-to-toe with.  This film has a super-sized portion of cross-country disaster and city-wide battles.  Thankfully the action never gets in the way of strong characterization from all of our major cast members.

Finally, the pay-off for the "Kneel before Zod" scenes

Finally, the pay-off for the “Kneel before Zod” scenes.

The acting from everyone involved is top-notch, with Gene Hackman returning as the charming and conniving schemer Lex Luthor, and all of the supporting cast members giving terrific performances.  Sarah Douglas lays the groundwork for femme fatales in later superhero films with her role of the evil Ursa, who is equal parts alluring, dominating, and malicious   Even roles pushed to the sidelines this time around, like Perry White (Cooper) and Jimmy Olsen (McClure), still garner memorable portrayals. 

The two standout performances go to the leading man and lady.  Christopher Reeve as Superman gives an even better performance in this film than in the previous.  His emotional depth is on full display as he plays a man torn between obligation and love, as he yearns to live a human life with Lois, yet realizes his duty to a world that needs him is more important than any of his own needs.  The scenes after Clark becomes human are the most touching and moving moments in the film, where Reeve exhibits an impressive vulnerability, then later he showcases real tragedy and despair as he realizes all too late the error of his ways. 

The emotional core of the film

The emotional core of the film.

Margot Kidder’s performance as Lois Lane is quite possibly the best part of the film, given more to do here than just fawn over Superman or get in trouble.  She’s the emotional anchor of the film.  She figures out Superman’s secret identity, and the two explore their relationship in the light of this uncovered truth.  Kidder expertly plays a woman at odds with herself.  She finally gets the man of her dreams, worried for him and the sacrifice he makes for her, and filled with anxiety about the horrible consequences their decisions will have.

At its core, this is a film about making a choice between what you desire and what you have to do.  And when the film is exploring this dilemma and focusing on the emotional repercussions that surround this scenario, it is at its strongest.  Despite some of the more humorous moments of the film, which are in no way a negative element, the serious parts of this movie are where it truly shines.  The scene where Clark is caught off-guard and unfamiliar with life without powers, getting brutalized by a bully in a diner, is terrific.  Clark comes to grips first-hand with the frailty of human life and realizes that he needs to become Superman again to protect humanity, forsaking all else. 

Clark is shocked as he learns that General Zod is free and on Earth, just after giving up his powers

After giving up his powers, Clark is shocked as he learns that General Zod is free and on Earth.

V-necks! V-necks for everyone!

V-necks! V-necks for everyone!

The visual effects of this movie are quite good, and while they don’t really hold up to the test of time, one must look at them contextually to form an appreciation for them.  And the costumes are spectacular, in every sense of the word.  Reeve’s Superman costume is unchanged and is still the wonderful spandex get-up from before, complete with flowing red cape, perfectly capturing the look of the comics.  Zod and the Kryptonians sport crazy black uniforms with low V-necks and thigh-high vinyl boots.  Despite how silly that may sound in your head, it works on screen, making them instantly look alien, militaristic, and scary.

Superman - An American Icon

Superman – An American Icon.

One must also bear in mind that Superman is an icon not only of America, but a representation of the American ideal.  Superman is a symbol of that naïve aspiration of Americana.  An image of American wholesomeness and hope that should bring to mind all the warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia associated with Apple pie, Baseball, and that old-fashioned American cultural aesthetic.  More than any other film in the Superman franchise, this is represented here. 

Two scenes are perfect examples of this.  When Superman finally gets his powers back, he interrupts Zod’s attack on The Daily Planet, landing on an American Flag, crossing his arms and stating: “Excuse me General, would you care to step outside.”  He is equally wholesome and intimidating in this moment.  And at the very end of the film, Superman visits the partially destroyed White House, bringing back the dome and flag that had been torn off the roof by Zod.  He plants the flag, apologizing to the President as well as the audience and says: “I won’t let you down again.”  These scenes are great in their own right, but when masterfully delivered by Christopher Reeve, it’s enough to give you chills.      

This film is not without its faults, but as a representation of the comics of the era, and as a film in general, this reviewer feels that Superman II earns a score of 8 out of 10.

Aaron Nicewonger
Aaron@comicattack.net
aarongni@gmail.com

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