Monday, June 10, 2013

It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's... Superman II (1980)

    Countdown to Man of Steel, Part 3, in which we lean to kneel…

THE SUPER-FILM: As we learned yesterday, the original script for Superman by Mario Puzo came in at well over 200 pages - enough material to make two movies, let alone one. So the Salkinds proceeded to do just that, embarking with Richard Donner on the unenviable task of filming both parts in one mammoth shoot. As the release of the first film drew near, it was decided to halt all production of the second part, to be completed after Superman was released. But while the first film was a massive success, Donner decided he’d had enough - his relationship had soured with the Salkinds to such an extent that he refused to even speak with them towards the end of his shoot. So A Hard Day‘s Night alum Richard Lester was brought in to finish the Superman II shoot, which also saw massive reshoots of scenes Donner had already completed (to receive the full directorial credit, Lester had to be responsible for 51% of the footage). What resulted is a rather uneven and half-hearted film; somewhat enjoyable, but a far cry from the grandeur found in the first film.

    As you’ll recall, the beginning of Superman saw the Kryptonian traitors General Zod, Ursa and Non being tried and sentenced by Marlon Brando’s Jor-El (of whom the film awkwardly cuts around, due to the high fees Brando required for the use of his likeness), sent to spend the rest of eternity in the Giant Spinny Pane of Glass in Space, AKA the Phantom Zone. The three are unwittingly freed after Superman sends a hydrogen bomb into space, and immediately set their sights on planet Earth. Meanwhile, while on assignment at Niagara Falls, Lois Lane is becoming increasingly suspicious of Clark Kent, and eventually deduces that her bespectacled coworker is Superman. Falling in love and consensually losing his powers so he can be with Lois, they begin a romance that was a long-time coming. Unfortunately, the three Kryptonians have simultaneously begun causing havoc all across America, with Zod tearing the roof of the White House and declaring himself ruler of the planet, and everyone wondering just where in the holy heck Superman is.

    What’s most immediately apparent after viewing Superman II is how uneven the whole film feels. It is literally a patchwork, alternating between scenes Donner originally shot and those Lester was brought in to finish - resulting in a movie that’s filled with starts and stops, characters dropping in and out of the story seemingly at random. The tone is all over the place, variating from serious to slapstick as the film ambles on. It’s not wholly unsatisfying, but is still frustrating to watch, as some fairly interesting elements of the plot are simply dropped or resolved in the simplest of ways.

    Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder return to the roles that made them famous, and continue the fine work they started in the first film. The most crucial element of the movie is the blossoming romance between Clark and Lois, and Reeve and Kidder sell the relationship wonderfully, giving them several wonderful bits to explore their characters. But the final film just doesn’t spend enough time to make it all feel natural. The central driving theme that should be running through the film is Clark’s internal struggle: does he do what he wants to do or what he should do? By taking away his powers, the film sets up the conflict, but there’s so much going on elsewhere the theme gets lost in the noise. Lois discovers Clark is Superman, Clark finds out a way to lose his powers to be with her, Clark realizes he needs them back in order to stop Zod, and then he promptly gets them back; the film races through these events without taking the time to let them breath, thus stripping them of all effect or consequence. In other words, if it’s as easy to lose and regain his powers as the film makes it seem,  it doesn’t really feel like much of a hard decision for Superman, now does it?  

    Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran also return as Zod, Ursa and Non, although here they get to do more than stand around between swirling hula hoops. Stamp’s General Zod is a fantastic villain, a megalomaniac with an appetite for power. You can see it in his eyes: he views the humans around him as little more than cockroaches to be stepped on in his quest for total domination, and Stamp plays the role magnificently - giving Zod an eerie otherworldliness. Sarah Douglas also makes quite an impression as Ursa, the bad girl who seems to get off on the damage she causes. And Non? Well, O’Halloran plays him well enough, but he’s essentially Jaws - the silent thug who acts as comic relief in a film that already has enough of that in the first place. The fact that they have Superman’s powers means that the Man of Steel finally has a worthy threat to face, and it’s nice to finally see a superhero battle staged in a big-budget movie, but the final showdown is awkwardly staged, limited by the special effects of the day.

     Gene Hackman refused to take part in the reshoots out of respect for Donner, which results in Lex Luthor dropping in and out of the movie at random. He also brings Otis and Miss Tessmacher along with him, although thankfully they seem to disappear after their brief introductions. Hackman continues his version of Luthor well enough, but his inclusion ultimately feels so minor you wonder why the filmmakers’ bothered to leave him in. He starts off the film by breaking out of prison and gaining access to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, which feels like a set-up for something later on, but is never really followed up on. Luthor then disappears for roughly an hour of the film's run-time, only to show up later on by waltzing into the White House and trying to shmooze his way into the Kryptonian’s good graces. None of it adds up in the end, and Luthor’s character feels the most hurt by the reworking of the film.

    Every element of the film feels like a vain attempt to capture the magic of the original. But without Donner calling the shots, Superman II ultimately winds up feeling like a dull echo of the first.

SUPER-THOUGHTS: Donner’s version of the film, or the closest approximation of Donner’s version, was finally released in 2006 as The Richard Donner Cut. I’ll be taking a look at that one later on in the week.

    The film has one of the strangest and nonsensical transitions I’ve ever seen: we start in the White House, where Luthor tells Zod he wants control of Australia in his new empire, and the film cuts to Australia on a globe in Perry White’s office in the Daily Bugle. There’s no narrative reason to cut between the scenes in that way, other than as a throwaway visual gag (of which the film has several).

    Superman gets some strange new powers for this outing, which include the super-kiss he gives Lois at the end to make her forget he’s Clark, and the strange S-shield contraption that he uses to entrap Non, which - try as I might - I can’t make any sense of whatsoever.

    It wasn’t enough to rip-off Jaws from the James Bond series - they also had to bring in Clifton James to play a yokel sheriff. James played J.W. Pepper, possibly the very worst recurring Bond character.

    John Williams is replaced as composer by Ken Thorne, and although the same themes are present, they lack the passion and energy found in the original - much like the rest of the film.

BEST USE OF POWERS: Using his super-smarts to trick the untrustworthy Luthor, who inadvertently convinces the Kryptonians into losing their powers.

THE LAST WORD: Although entertaining, Superman II is far too messy a narrative to work as a complete film.

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