I kinda feel sorry for Superman II. As a film, it’s overshadowed by the enormous controversy over the firing of director Richard Donner. Donner, who directed the original film, had begun work on the follow-up, when he was dismissed by the producers – reportedly for resisting the “campy” direction that the Salkinds where trying to force on the film. Richard Lester (who worked with the Salkinds as producer on The Three Musketeers, The Fourth Musketeer and as an uncredited producer on the original Superman) stepped in to fill the vacant position, and was ultimately credited on the finished product. While the film works relatively well, it suffers from the simple fact that Lester is nowhere near the craftsman that Donner was.
In the years since, Donner has returned to the film to produce his own “director’s cut” consisting mainly of footage he filmed for the movie, but which suffers from the fact that his material simply hasn’t been through the same post production as Lester’s. So, the movie is trapped between a slick and stylish (but campy and empty) theatrical cut, and a more tightly-focused director’s cut (that lacks the same quality finish as the theatrical cut).
There are very obvious problems with Richard Lester’s film, most of which seem to arise from the awkward transition between directors. Seeking to assert his own position as director, and needing 75% percent of the finished film to claim the “director” credit, Lester seems reluctant to use any Donner footage, which is insanely counter-productive, given that the two films were originally developed together (with some scenes shot while filming the first movie). It’s especially obvious during the awkward opening scene. The movie opens with a credit sequence that recaps the events of the last film in an affectionate homage to the old cinematic serials, hinting that this is a continuation of the same story rather than a follow-up – something Donner seemed intent to do. However, Lester seems to miss that intent.
The opening sequence in the original Superman tied directly into the sequel, as the three Kryptonian criminals were launched into space for an attempted coup. The nuclear bomb from the end of the previous film would have set them free. It would have provided a neat little bridge – and a demonstration that Donner had a long-term plan for the adventure, before planning a franchise became a hobby of Hollywood executives. Despite the fact that Lester uses an opening sequence recounting the events of the last film in insane detail (including the occasional visual joke), he seems intent to offer his own explanation for the nuclear detonation that frees the three criminals.
And this introduces the first of the awkwardly campy moments in Lester’s sequel. Donner never took the franchise too seriously, but Lester simply isn’t trying. While Donner cleverly constructed a serialised, yet accessible, narrative for the story, Lester seems intent on disowning everything his predecessor did. So we get a crazy opening scene with Superman dealing with some French terrorists holding the Eiffel Tower hostage with a nuclear bomb. Ignoring the ease with which they seem have acquired a nuclear weapon (it couldn’t have been too hard, given how Lex stole one the last time around), it does raise all sorts of logistical problems.
How long have they been holding the tourists hostage? Apparently long enough for Lois to book a flight from Metropolis to France, and get from the airport to central Paris. And yet Clark somehow misses the whole thing. It feels strange, given how Clark missing Zod’s invasion of Earth is a huge plot point later on, and illustrates he can’t be with Lois because she distracts him. Here, Lois didn’t distract him, and he somehow missed terrorist plot involving nuclear bombs on the Eiffel Tower.
The other major problem facing Lester is the fact that a lot of the cast don’t seem to have wanted anything to do with his version of the film. Indeed, Sarah Douglas was the only cast member who toured to promote the film, due to the controversy. Gene Hackman wouldn’t return to shoot any more scenes, so his footage from the Donner version (and a bodydouble) were used. Marlon Brando has been completely cut from the film, due to his outrageous salary demands. It’s hilarious, because the film doesn’t even try to address it – it just cuts him out of the recap of the earlier film, and even reshoots the trial of Zod and his cronies so it doesn’t involve Brando. However, Lester doesn’t seem to care that this creates several rather glaring problems with his film.
The most obvious of these problems being Zod’s vow to avenge himself on the House of El. “You will bow down before me, Jor-El,” he yells, “You and your heir.” Without the involvement of Jor-El in the trial, the line makes no sense. Similarly, it seems strange when Clark returns to the fortress to find that everything inside has died, only to yell, “Father!” It plays into the Christ-imagery Donner was fond of, but it kinda ignores that Clark was actually dealing with his mother when he was turned into a human.
Of course, this ignores the most obvious plot hole in Lester’s cut of the film, and one that illustrates that the replacement director didn’t seem to care about the film he was making. When Clark treks back through the Arctic to reclaim his power, there’s little or no explanation offered for how he suddenly becomes Superman again. He literally just finds a green glowy thing, and then suddenly he’s flying to Metropolis and the fortress is in working order again. In the Donner version, the explanation that Clark somehow “merged” with the presence of his father at least makes thematic sense, tying into a line from the earlier film, and playing into the Christian imagery that Donner shrewdly used.
That said, there are some elements that work, and work really well. Indeed, Superman II kinda set the benchmark for superhero sequels – as well as defining the storytelling template. Here, we see Superman, the most iconic and heroic of the superheroes, questioning who he is and why he’s doing what it is he does. Spider-Man II used a similar theme, as did Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – both movies seeing a hero’s romantic life leading them to contemplate giving up their double life.
And, as usual, Reeve is in fine form. I think that Reeve is really the only person who truly sold me on the idea that Superman could walk around with nothing but a pair of glasses and convince people that he was Clark Kent, Smallville farmboy. His body language, style of delivery and even posture are all wonderfully different between the two identities, and he plays both versions of the character remarkably well. I never felt that Reeve ever truly got the recognition for the work that he did here, bring an icon perfectly to life.
Also, I do quite enjoy some of the campy elements. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that superheroes need to be played entirely seriously. After all, Superman is a character who wears his underwear on the outside of his pants. Which, by the way, are tights. Lester never pushes the campy elements quite as hard as Adam West’s Batman!, but the movie – at its very best – evokes some of the iconic Silver Age weirdness of classic Superman comic books, where Superman would develop new powers as the plot demanded. Here, for example, we see Superman:
- use a “kiss of forgetting”
- deploy some weird “S-logo net thing-y”
- use telekinesis
- create several seemingly independent holographic copies of himself (a reference to the “Superman robots”?)
None of these are quite in the range of powers we traditionally associate with the Man of Steel, nor are they foreshadowed within the narrative itself. They just tend to get used when it would be handy for Superman to be able to do that sort of thing. It isn’t good storytelling, but I look at it as an affectionate homage to some of the sillier moments in Superman’s long publication history. Besides, Superman lends himself much better to this style of story-telling than Batman does. That said, Lester would push things too far when he returned for Superman III.
On the other hand, the story does bring some of the more unpleasant facets of Superman into focus. I know that these elements are present in Donner’s cut, but they don’t seem to make the character seem like such a petty and vindictive teenager. There’s the famous “kiss of forgetting” bit, where he decides that Lois shouldn’t know his identity. (Made even more of a dick move by the fact he may have gotten her pregnant and thenwiped her memory.) Also, his return to attack the bully at the end of the film seems pretty vindictive. For a Jesus Christ metaphor, he doesn’t seem particularly good at turning the other cheek.
Of course, these moments are still present in Donner’s cut, and I have problems with them there, but Lester seems to exaggerate the problem. While using the kiss allows him to avoid replaying the deus ex machina from the previous film, at least turning back time makes it look like Lois forgetting wasn’t the primary focus of Superman’s plan. I think it’s not that steep road from the Superman presented here to the emo-teenager and deadbeat dad of Superman Returns.
Still, Lester does some things remarkably well. The battle of Metropolis, between Zod and his cronies and Superman, remains an impressive spectacle, and the kind of scale of destruction that we see all-too-rarely. Of course, Lester can’t resist the urge to camp it up a bit too far (the guy on skates or the Singin’ in the Rain reference), but there are moments when it gives a wonderful perspective on this type of confrontation, as the emergency services try to fight the flames and help survivors out of crashed vehicles. I do think that Donner’s cut does well to tone down the camp, but it loses some of the scale.
I have to admit, I’m a sucker for the relationship between Lois and Clark as portrayed here. I like the fact that Clark’s romance with Lois is portrayed as a part of his growing up – in the same way that marrying or settling down represents an end to childhood. Perhaps, he accepts, it’s time for him to put away childish things. “This is a very special place for me,” he confesses as he shows her his “Fortress of Solitude”, which sounds like the definitive “boyz only” clubhouse. It’s telling that his dinner with Lois here is one of the few times we see the big blue scout consume alcohol, an adult beverage. “I thought we’d avoid the orange juice this one time.”
While the status quodemanded (at the time) that Lois and Clark couldn’t live happily ever after, there’s still a notably different tone to the endings of the two cuts of the film. Donner’s cut suggests that Clark has grown from the experience, and matured a little bit. He’s moved though his final rite of passage, and has become a man – discarding the safety net his parents built for him and laying waste to the Fortress of Solitude, as if to suggest he’s outgrown it. Donner’s two films feel like the same story – a definitive origin story for the Man of Steel.
In contrast, Lester’s ending doesn’t suggest growth. Ironically, given the fact that doesn’t use time-travel to resolve his plotting difficulties, Lester actually manages to reset everything back the way it was. There’s no sense that his time with Lois has made Clark better or stronger, only that he’s learnt it isn’t workable. He hasn’t grown up, he has simply made a foolish mistake that he won’t make again. He was a fool to give up saving the world for icky girls, the ending seems to suggest. “Sorry I’ve been away so long,” he says to the President, returning the flag. “I won’t let you down again.” Basically, he’s saying, “it won’t happen again.”
It feels somewhat at odds with the final conversation between Superman and Lex Luthor, in which Superman seems much wiser in the ways of the world than he did at the end of the last film. In the last film, he was bound to a promise as to which missile to stop first, made to a villain. In this film, he lies to Luthor and manipulates him, tricking the criminal mastermind who was working on the assumption Superman always tells the truth. It represents a growth in the character, and a suggestion that he has become more human, as well as more divine. Of course, as with all of Luther’s scenes, this was shot by Donner.
There are other strange moments. It is weird, for instance, to see Lois chain-smoking. Apparently Marlboro paid a substantial portion of money to get into the film – it’s the kind of thing that almost seems like a parody of product placement. It’s cigarettes… in a family film! Man, they really were different times, were they not?
Lester’s Superman II is an incomplete film, much as Richard Donner’s cut of the same film is similarly incomplete. if you were to put the two of them together, you’d get an idea of how incredible a follow-up this could have been. Instead, it just feels strangely disappointing.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | art, Brando, Christopher Nolan, Clark, clark kent, dark knight, Donner, Eiffel Tower, film, Filmmaking, jor-el, Lois, Lois Griffin, marlon brando, Movie, non-review review, paris, review, richard donner, Richard Lester, superman, superman ii, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace