Superman IIReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/17/05 20:06:27
Friends and family have long known of my obsession with the 1978 “Superman” and, by extension, the 1981 sequel “Superman II.” These are, in my mind, the greatest comic book movies ever made, grand adventures full of wonder, excitement, and, most importantly, fun. This is entertainment at its best.The successes of “Superman II” come despite a series of mishaps and personnel switches that would have sabotaged a less lucky production. The movie was originally filmed simultaneously with “Superman” by director Richard Donner, although work on the sequel was eventually postponed in order for the filmmakers to focus more on the first picture. When filming finally resumed in 1979, Richard Lester, the director of such varied classics as “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Three Musketeers,” was called in to take over for a disgruntled Donner. Lester reshot a few scenes and added some broader comic touches (and worked around an absent Marlon Brando, who was bumped from the project following money issues, and a no-show Gene Hackman, who refused to reshoot with a new director), and the final product is a movie credited to one director but in reality the work of two individuals with two separate visions. It’s like two movies edited into one.
So how did “Superman II” get so good despite itself? Well, for starters, the “vision” wasn’t too diverse; Lester served on the first movie as something of a go-between for Donner and executive producer Alexander Salkind, so he knew the ropes of the franchise from the very beginning. Secondly, despite the various rewrites that occurred as production resumed on the sequel, those rewrites were done by David and Leslie Newman, who also worked on the original picture and therefore had a feel for the characters and action.
But above all, the basic story - originated by Mario Puzo as part of one epic work - kicks so much ass that it kind of saves itself. Consider the plot: three Kryptonian villains arrive on Earth and tear the joint up, just after Supes gives up his powers to be with Lois Lane! That’s just great stuff, people.
We get all the great comic adventure flourishes, from a nail-biting opener involving a hydrogen bomb and the Eiffel Tower to the sort of supervillain rumbles we’ve come to love from the comic books to the glorious showdown at the Fortress of Solitude (!) that lets the Man of Steel unleash every trick in his superpower bag. (For you purists out there, please remember that this takes place before the 1986 overhaul of the character. When this movie was made, Superman was a guy who could do anything the writer wanted, so the teleportation and that weird “S” net thingy isn’t out of character.)
The movie’s best assets are its baddies, including one of the all-time greats, General Zod. Played by Terence Stamp with scenery-chewing gusto, the obsessive, sinister Zod (a general of what, exactly?) becomes Superman’s greatest cinematic foe, outshining even Hackman’s Lex Luthor (here appearing more as comic relief, but what a delicious role!). The screen crackles every time Stamp appears; his commanding presence defines the character as the guy who honestly deserves a shot at defeating the Man of Tomorrow.
Along with his cohorts - the devilishly sexy Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and the silent hulk Non (Jack O’Halloran) - Zod’s challenge to Superman results in arguably the finest moment in the franchise: the Metropolis street brawl. Buses and cars are tossed around like paperweights. People get hurled through brick walls. Insurance claims go through the roof. If you want to pinpoint the precise moment in movie history when the superhero/supervillain action showdown began, I’d bet on this scene.
And Superman’s grand entrance! “General, would you care to step outside?” I’ve seen this movie a good hundred-plus times, and I still want to cheer at that moment. Here’s a movie that, like its predecessor, gets Superman. The aw-shucks sincerity, the cornball patriotism, the knowledge that it’s OK to be cynicism-free, the sly, arrogant bombast. (Credit this to Donner, who understood how to interpret the story as American myth, not just as some campy comic book movie.)
What we also get in “Superman II” is a depth of character often absent in sequels of this sort. In between the Zod plotline, we get Lois Lane finally discovering the truth about Clark Kent. You know, why he’s always disappearing whenever Superman shows up. The first movie showcased a brilliant performance by Christopher Reeve, who had to balance the grandeur of the superhero with the slouchy nerdishness of his alter ego, managing to switch characters with just a minor adjustment in posture. He does the same here, and it’s still a fabulous acting trick. But this time it pays off: with his character finally getting to properly admit his love for Lois (played again by Margot Kidder) as well as question whether or not he can be a superhero and have a workable relationship (resulting in the heartbreaking decision to give up his powers), Reeve is allowed to do even more this second time around. For a genre that’s often skimpy on characterization and attention to performance, “Superman II” is such a welcome change of pace.
If the first two Superman movies are nothing else, they’re grand entertainments. These are movies that make us cheer, make us smile. We’re thrilled, wowed, engaged, won over. It’s epic mythmaking with a human touch and a great comic sense, storytelling with wit and verve and nonstop magic. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite of the two; I prefer the first one’s vision of neo-Biblical epic, and the second’s juggling of grandiose action and intimate drama.
I watched “Superman II” on the Fourth of July, and watching Reeve’s Superman stand behind that waving flag as he addresses a grateful president, I recognized once again that this character - and these films - are perfect Americana. Bold, brash storytelling. Larger than life bravado, triumph over tyranny. Superman, apple pie. Truth, justice, and the American way. “Superman II” made me cheer when I was seven years old, it makes me cheer now that I’m thirty, and it’ll make me cheer when I’m ninety.Way to go, Superman! What a nice man.
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