To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, the Flickering Myth writing team are looking back over Superman’s previous screen adventures; next up is Simon Columb with a review of 1980’s Superman II….
Watching Superman Returns, you imagine that Marlon Brando is integral to the original four films. In reality, the original theatrical cut of Superman II, he was ignored to save money. This type of strange decision was only one issue that plagued the production of Superman II. To utilise the previously shot Richard Donner footage, sequences were filmed years apart; Gene Hackman refused to re-film scenes forcing director Richard Lester to use a stand-in – and watching the film back-to-back with Superman means that you notice, in one instance, the exact same establishing shot outside The Daily Planet. With all these serious faults, it is surprising that the film manages to raise a few interesting points with a plot involving General Zod (Terence Stamp) landing on Earth to cause havoc…
An extended opening credits sequence shows the entirety of Superman in small, bite-size clips. Merely a contextual issue, it is worth reminding yourself that audiences had not seen the film since 1978 – something completely different to this “cinema-to-DVD within six months” world we live in now. But, harking back to the previous film, and then ignoring the top-billed actor (Marlon Brando) is never going to go unnoticed.
In a strange shoe-horned scene, we move to Paris to set up a convoluted story whereby terrorists (amongst them a young Richard Griffiths) threaten to set off a nuclear bomb from the Eiffel Tower – and Lois Lane simply “happens” to be covering the story. This nuclear bomb, when thrown into space, is the catalyst that sets free Ursa, Non and General Zod from the sheet of glass they were trapped inside at the beginning of Superman. Despite a four-star review from Roger Ebert, Superman II seems equally bogged down with the problem of Superman. It’s a brilliant concept forcing Superman to lose his powers – something his mother tells him is “irreversible” – but it is reversible and Superman manages to save the day simply enough.
As noted earlier, all of Gene Hackman’s scenes were products of Richard Donner’s original footage from the aborted back-to-back creation of both films – and even Gene Hackman remains top-billed despite his lack of participation under Lester’s direction. The story is clearly about Superman defeating the three escapees Ursa, Non and Zod; Lex Luthor is merely a side-kick or, dare I say it, henchman to the three villains. This is the top-billed actor – playing a henchman!
Or maybe Terence Stamp manages to out-act Gene Hackman? The ‘campy’ attributes of Lex and his sidekicks often jarred and portrayed Luthor in a manner that undermined his intelligence. He seemed to tell us how clever he was, but in comparison to General Zod, he is only someone simply after a quick-buck. (Maybe that is the point – Superman representing the decent American against Lex Luthor representing the corporate money-obsessed American)
In contrast, General Zod has the presence and power to demand others to “Kneel before Zod” and, shockingly, we witness the President of the US kneel down before him. Considering Bryan Singer would go on to direct Superman Returns, the break-in at the White House in Superman II must be a source of reference when writing and filming X2. General Zod appears as the true threat to America – the power-obsessed dictator rather than Lex Luthor’s corrupt capitalist.
This is a flawed sequel. Akin to Superman: The Movie, Christopher Reeve remains the driving force towards anything credible. General Zod seems to be awkwardly shoe-horned into a plot whereby Superman fights his own demons and desires to be human (but this theme is not weaved into the various other strands in the story) – all themes that were part of a different story set-up by Richard Donner.
We have come a long way since 1980 and it is clear that Superman II was only beginning to understand what audiences expect from a tent-pole comic book film. Moments, as Superman loses his powers, are brutal and heart-breaking but these are undermined as he quickly regains the powers he lost. I adore the characters and thoroughly appreciate the intentions but it is a mixed bag and therefore difficult to truly enjoy. As a comic book film, the genre is in its infancy – and the flawed production, again, destroys any chance of fluidity in the narrative. And then, afterwards, he plants the Super-Kiss whereby he can erase Lois’ memory completely. So, after all that, it seems that the new dynamics and ground-breaking ideas are completely erased too and we are sent back to where we were at the beginning of the film. You have to question whether it was worth watching at all.