Thursday, May 15, 2014

Superman II

For a movie about such morally a straight and upright character, Superman II (1980) had quite a convoluted backstory. Originally, the first two Superman movies were to be filmed back-to-back by director Richard Donner, but budget overruns and scheduling concerns forced the filmmakers to focus on first finishing Superman. A conflict between Donner and the producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, resulted in Donner being fired and replaced with Richard Lester, and a good portion of the footage Donner had filmed for Superman II was re-shot. Marlon Brando, who played Jor-El in the original, sued the Salkinds, over profits from the first film, and his footage was subsequently dropped; Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor refused to return for reshoots; and Margot Kidder spoke out publicly in support of Donner (but her punishment is a story for Superman III).

With all this backstage drama, it's something of a miracle that the first sequel to Superman turned out as well as it did, and for the most part, it maintains the thematic and narrative continuity established by its predecessor. While the emphasis is more on action this time, Superman II benefits immensely from a strong emotional arc for the Man of the Steel as well as a much stronger villain for him to contend with.

After briefly recapping the first movie, Superman II picks up with Superman (Christopher Reeve) defusing a hostage situation at the Eiffel Tower by carrying a terrorist bomb into outer space. However, when the bomb detonates, it cracks open the Phantom Zone, releasing three Kryptonian criminals: Non (Jack O'Halloran), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and General Zod (Terence Stamp), who swore revenge when Superman's father Jor-El imprisoned them. The trio, just as powerful as Superman, head to Earth. At the same time, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) has finally learned Superman and Clark Kent are the same person, and Superman decides to sacrifice his powers to be with her.

I used to be one of those people who didn't think Superman was that interesting of a super hero, that he was just bland do-gooder with too much power to ever really be challenged, but there's more to him than the cape and good deeds. Superman II really understands his existential dilemma: he is the most powerful being on the planet, the defender of humanity, and an example of good for people to aspire to, but he can never be one of them. Since the only way to join the human race is to give up his powers, he must remain an outsider, and while he would do it for a noble reason - his love for Lois Lane - it would also be selfish because it would also mean forsaking his responsibility and purpose, leaving the world vulnerable to threats such as Zod and his minions.

Zod is such a great villain, and he's wonderfully realized by Stamp, who plays him as very arrogant and ruthless; he's over the top, but it works. Lex Luthor (once again played by Gene Hackman, though he's not given a lot to do in this cut) might have brains, but Zod has the strength to challenge Superman and dominate Earth. His underlings, Ursa and Non, are also quite memorable with Ursa as a cold-blood female equivalent of Zod and Non the mute muscle. The knockout brawl between the three and Superman in Metropolis is wonderfully realized: exciting, intense, with good special effects as they lift buses and radio towers to use as weapons. The final confrontation in the Fortress of Solitude, in which Superman knows he's outmatched and must outthink his opponents, is also well realized.

Of course, there are issues. Lester, best known for his comedies such as A Hard Day's Night, can't resist a cheap joke in the middle of otherwise serious scenes. The battle in Metropolis is awesome, but did it really need the guy getting an ice cream cone blown in his face, the man talking in the phone booth after its knocked over, and the guy in roller skates? It's distracting. It's not too big of a problem here, but by Superman III, this lack of respect for the material would send the franchise into a tailspin. Also, the amnesia-inducing kiss at the end: lame.

Reeve is still phenomenal in the duel as the two alter egos of Kal-El. He imbues Superman with the right amount of heroic sincerity and Kent with the right amount of klutziness that you can really believe they're two different people. He carried this franchise on his back. It wouldn't have worked with anyone else.

The first Superma film strived to be modern myth; it moved slower, took its time, and treated its source material with reverence. Superman II strives and succeeds as a comic book movie. There's more action, more super-powered beings, more jokes, and it moves a lot quicker, but it remains a most worthy sequel. When that John Williams theme plays, it's hard not to be excited.

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