If Superman (1978) is the best Superman film ever made (it believes that it is) then I don’t think Superman II needed to top that. Richard Donner’s first hour – from the intellectual wastes of Krypton to Superman’s first flight – was as devotedly complete a superhero origin as anyone has made. What the sequel needed to be, what it had left to be, was the best Clark Kent film. Superman II is exciting even in its flaws: even its humane badness defies other kinds of movies, like so long as Superman is on top of this everything else will be okay. It’s an uneven and delightful ride with defiant special effects -- they defy the ambition of their practicality and also how that ambition has aged. A few key ideas push Mario Puzo’s script into that elusive and not-so-flattering category of having “great potential.” But it does have it; it even attains some of it. This phrase is just a way of saying that there could be more: Superman II contains things better than itself, as Superman contains Clark.
When the film settles into being about its people, it equips them for triumph even if they sort of run out of breath. Superman’s father (Marlon Brando) gives him a crushing ultimatum: he cannot do what he must as Superman, if he does as he wishes as Clark Kent. He chooses, it seems on a whim, to erase his powers and become Clark full-time. “Gosh, it sure takes longer when you can't fly,” he splutters to Lois (Margot Kidder) as he parks his car at a diner. Did he ever consider Lois’ reaction to his decision? What would he have done if she broke up with him? We all know that Lois loves Superman, and not even in body: she’s in love with the idea of him. She’s never shown anything but passive tolerance for Clark’s goody persona (we could call it Superman’s idea of what people are like). She brushes her hair and dreams of flying. Clark gets beaten up in the diner and instantly regrets his decision. Of course, the movie has a way out for him. This is the small chance he gives to humanness, and the chance the script gives to a concept that could have taken a whole film all by itself. What would Superman do as a person? Is it possible any of us everyday folks could be Superman? I want to see that.
The problem is that this concept is rubbing awkward elbows with two others in the crowded elevator of Superman II: the cutesy rigmarole of our favorite nosy reporter weeding out the truth of Clark’s tri-color underwear, and the invasion of three Kryptonian super-criminals. Their icy trial, you may remember, marked not only the beginning of Superman’s life but also the end of our enthusiasm for a future on a planet of frozen hearts. The three bullies (Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran) rigorously define the film’s tone, as though it needs to be taught a lesson in understatement. Make no mistake – I love its rigorous temper. They beat the film rosy with obliviousness (Stamp particularly can deliver a funny line like it’s a death threat). They provide Superman II with the chance to be a superhero blockbuster while its human struggle is taking a break. But did it need a break? Someone like Superman, who is most humane when he's not being himself, is already on break from the drama.
Superman doesn’t have much character that can’t be described by showing the iconic logo. He’s an industrial superhero, the kind made up of his ability to do recognizable work more than his flaws or his dreams. At one point, he hurls a baddie into the monolithic neon Coke sign in Times Square and it occurred to me that Superman is like a condensed version of that sign. He flies around as an advertisement for Superman.
This is of course how he sold himself at newsstands: this is the real reason for his flashy colors and enticing powers. Lois’ libido drags her into conversation with what is essentially a marketing scheme posing as a man. Why does she eat it up? Why do we?
Christopher Reeve reminds us in Superman II. The guy is a square, no denying, but the bleak charm of his dilemma to save people so flagrantly as a hero that he might remain anonymous as a human is so amusing and sympathetic and goofy that we give it our hearts. I especially like his efforts to dissuade Lois’ suspicions (she’s much savvier than Noel Neill ever was) by cautiously calling her bluffs. She’s so convinced he’s Superman that she throws herself from a building (this is in The Richard Donner Cut, a revised edition I happened to watch for this review – in the theatrical cut, she jumps into Niagara Falls). Clark has to figure out how to save her without seeming like he moved. For a while, the biggest threat in the film is the possibility of Lois learning that she owes Clark an apology for heckling him all this time. It made me think of one particular episode of The Adventures of Superman, in which Superman’s greatest threat is a scruffy little Yorkie that Superman saved from a well … and who recognizes the smell of Clark Kent. Instead of Kryptonite, Lex Luthor should have bought a terrier.
How Lois discovers the truth requires some guile on her part (though in the theatrical cut it’s more of an accident). They finally make love in Superman II, which is shunted to off-screen (the sexual act is, in many ways, the end of the whole Superman paradigm: it is the moment beyond losing his powers that he may become truly human). Puzo had no obligation to mortalize these figures, to draw human shapes with the Coke logos, and by doing so he predicts the best in the genre (Sam Raimi’s bountifully humanizing Spider-Man 2 could not exist without it, and in it we finally get to see what a superhero would do with a day as a human). There’s just something hurried in it. Superman and Lois have sex so quickly that I didn’t even remember it; meanwhile, the battle in the air over Times Square is a staged eternity. It’s beautiful but was there no more time for Clark?
The matting required is astounding. Yes, it occasionally shows its age. And it occasionally doesn’t: O’Halloran gets thrown through a building at one point and the body slides up through rubble on a cable, seamlessly through window, roof, window, and out the other side. These characters throw trucks and buildings at each other and they still find time for storytelling despite the superhuman effort backstage to realize it. Trucks are flying, and spires, and rubble. And Superman becomes notably exhausted cleaning up these tiny disasters, saving us on the ground as we editorialize it for him (“Superman Does it Again!”). The shining element is Superman’s cognizance. Donner thinks he really cares (or maybe, he just wants you to know it). None of Superman's feats of strength compare to Donner/Puzo's feat testifying to his compassion: I often think that without them, our superhero movies would be left with nothing but Zods.
Gene Hackman returns as Lex Luthor, still touting his greatness in striped suits and pocket hankies like a slurry of a used car salesman and Richard Nixon. His role is even better this time, as the representative of humanity’s greatest sleaze, trying to ride out Superman’s death in order to squeeze his way into (what else?) beach-front real estate. He betrays humanity because, unlike Superman, he’s never felt like a part of it. Hackman injects the Donner films with classy badness and fills the frame with chatter (he says everything with the tone of a pros and cons list that you’ll never benefit from). But while Puzo could see the human beneath the cape, this Luthor could easily retire back to the 50s television show he came from, and continue failing to rob banks with a wagging fist. We still haven’t discovered any humanity, if any, in Lex Luthor (not in the films, anyway: I recommend Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright and Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son for the moral expansion that the films need, even if they don’t deserve it right now).
Superman II is a toybox and The Richard Donner Cut is slightly more serious play. The ending, whichever you see, is a cop-out. Okay, but how could Superman do it differently? He is designed to have no conflict, and these early films figure out how to give him some. In the end, Superman uses his infinite powers to fix the world, sure, but it’s far more significant that he does so mostly to resurrect Clark, not because we need him, but because he does. To Superman, being Clark is a more strenuous task than turning a planet. It requires him to be real, and that’s something he needs. Yes, as the tagline went, after Superman I did believe a man can fly. The greater feat is attempted here, as well as it will ever be. You will believe a Superman can stop flying, if just for a moment. I don't think Superman II is the best superhero movie ever made. But I think all of the best ever made exist entirely in that moment.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Richard Donner (The Richard Donner Cut)
Mario Puzo (story and screenplay)
|Clark Kent/Superman||Christopher Reeve|
|Lex Luthor||Gene Hackman|
|Lois Lane||Margot Kidder|
|General Zod||Terence Stamp|
|E.G. Marshall||The President|