Superman II came out in 1980 and I saw it back home in Manchester. I liked its breeziness, I liked how it focused on the superheroing to a much greater extent than the original film, without the long introductory sequence that told Kal-El and Clark Kent’s origin, and I liked that it put Superman up against opponents capable of giving him a good fight.
I wasn’t unaware of its faults, such as the plot-holes you could drop the Fortress of Solitude down, and the way it cheated on the ending, but I loved its relaxed nature. It was fun.
Unfortunately, it’s now forty years ago fun, and all the things it set out to do and achieve have been done far better, far more often and far more convincingly in the Marvel films. The effects in Superman II just don’t match up (hell, they don’t even match up to Superman I!) and the inability to generate any pace in the film because of the laborious natue of those effects, not to mention the way everybody struggles visibly with the walls they knock down or the things thrown at them, now leaves it looking very feeble indeed.
And a large part of my loss of pleasure at the film is down to the controversial decision to replace Richard Donner, Director of I with Richard Lester as Director of II.
The two Directors have opposing approaches to their material. Donner was heavy on the mythology of Superman. No matter how far his depiction of Krypton and its destruction varied from the comics’ visual canon, Donner is faithful to the spirit of Jerry Siegel’s original, as is his vision of the paradoxical grandeur of Kansas, the open spaces in which Clark grows, and which gives the film such a grandiose structure that the later loss of confidence and descent into silliness can’t quite spoil.
Lester, on the other hand, was actively looking for silliness from the outset. Yes, he ditches Otis (Ned Beatty) quickly, and makes minimal use of Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine, mostly covered from head to toe) before letting her slip, forgotten, into the first of what is not so much a crack as a cavern, but Lex Luthor is still the bombastic clown of both films, playing both ends against the middle unavailingly.
The three Kryptonian villains are slightly better. Terence Stamp, as General Zod, phones in a generic peformance of unperturbable command, Sara Douglas, as Ursa, camps it up wonderfully in a performance of Batman TV show slinkiness, looking hot in leather slit up and down all limbs (Douglas has spoken of how, to get the right effect, she was constantly sucking her cheeks in), but Jack O’Halloran, as the dumb brute Non is just daft and not half as tough as he ought to be.
But everywhere, if there’s a cheap option that undercuts any dramatic aspect to a scene, Lester heads for it like a bloodhound scenting a man on the run, and insists on cramming it in. It creates an imbalance that, to my eyes in 2019, leaves the film feeling uncomfortably close to the atmosphere of the Batman tv show: Lester can’t take his material seriously enough to layer the humour into it instead of faintly pointing it up. I feel condescended to for my enjoyment of the subject.
Naturally enough, the movie’s biggest plot hole is the most obvious one. Clark subconsciously gives his secret away to Lois, because he loves her and wants to share with her. The genuine love between the two is evident in the scenes that follow this, despite Lester’s desire to load things up with banality (‘I’ll just go and slip into something more comfortable’, forsooth).
But the plot, as conveyed to us by Susannah York as Lara, Kal-El’s mum (they couldn’t afford Marlon Brando twice) means that if Superman wants to shag Lois Lane as much as she wants to shag him, he has to lose the powers: we have all read Larry Niven’s ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex’, right? Though Phil Foglio found a way round that in his Inferior Five mini-series. And he has to lose them permanently, as in permanently permanently.
Unfortunately, whilst Clark Kent is losing his virginity, Zod’s taking over the world. Clark and Lois discover this whilst still under the afterglow of bonking their brains out, calling in at this roadside diner as they travel south in the hire-car they had delivered to them at the cracked and broken Fortress, way in the Arctic Circle, along with Lois’s complete change of outfit. Lester’s way of playing the scene makes it look as if Clark is determined to recover his irrecoverable powers less to deal with this earth-shattering crisis and more because he’s decided that dipping his wick is less meaningful than it not hurting when loudmouth shitbags punch him out.
So Clark walks back (walks back in a short jacket and bare hands where it takes fully-wrapped-up Lex a snowmobile to arrive) and retrieves his powers offscreen in a manner we’re left to infer from the fact the green crystal was lying on the floor and didn’t crack up.
Where the film does rise above itself is in the first part of its ending. Clark’s Superman again, the Kryptonians have fallen down ice-chutes and been forgotten like Eve Teschmacher, and Lois has got to learn to live with the knowledge that she can’t even let on to Clark Kent how she feels about him, let alone ever sleep with him or even kiss him. And she loves him, oh how she loves him. Kidder portrays it in every quaver and attempted calmness of that delicious husky voice, in the haunted eyes that look everywhere but at Clark, in the words that the scripters, for once in the film, have chosen well. And Clark/Superman is for once helpless to prevent this private but altogether real tragedy, the pain he has brought to this one person who means more to him than anyone else, that he can’t let mean more to him than anyone else, this one person that he cannot save.
So toss in some fucking mumbo-jumbo about kissing Lois and she’s forgotten everything, including loving Superman and the audience is so fucking dumb they won’t spot that we’ve just shat on them.
I dunno. I used to like this movie. Now, all I can see is where the ridiculous Superman III is coming from, and why the franchise failed after IV, which I’m not looking forward to watching for a second time in case this time it starts to resemble Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice….