Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Super Week, part II: So this is Planet Houston


Notice how all my themed weeks take at least two to get finished?  That's what they call a "running gag."  Anyway, Superman II: charming in its crappiness.

Directed by Richard Lester and Richard Donner
Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, and Tom Mankiewicz
With Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Sussanah York (Lara Lor-Van), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Ned Beatty (Otis), Valerie Perrine (Eve Teschmacher), and Sarah Douglas (Ursa), Jack O'Halloran (Non), and Terence Stamp (General Zod)

Spoiler alert: moderate

When we last left Superman, it was in his moment of triumph: he'd just saved Lois Lane, and probably some other people, by going back in time and changing the very flow of human history.  And yet, if Richard Donner had had his way (and, by his account, he practically never did), then Superman II would've picked up where Superman was supposed to have ended: with the IRBM that Superman had flung into space popping like a thermonuclear firecracker, and thereby blasting open the dimensional prison of the Phantom Zone, the abode of those other three survivors of Superman's native Krypton—the criminals Zod, Ursa, and Non.  Well, Superman's rarely refrained from using a trick that's worked before, so when he foils a terrorist plot to nuke Paris (saving Lois, once again!), he throws this H-bomb into space, too.  And that gets our plot rolling in earnest, as Zod and his soldiers scream out of the shattered Phantom Zone, and make their own first contact with humanity by murdering astronauts on the moon.  Having now (tentatively) identified their enemies, Zod and friends turn their eyes toward Earth, and Zod declares his intention to rule it.

In the meantime, Superman has his increasingly complicated relationship with Lois Lane to deal with: she has fallen in love with Superman; and Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent, has just as eagerly fallen in love with her (for reasons that are best explained as "that's just what Clark Kent does," rather than anything really intrinsic to the personality of this particular iteration of Lois Lane).   Unfortunately, Lois couldn't give Clark the time of day—that is, unless her suspicion turns out to be true, and the Daily Planet's crappiest reporter is, in fact, only the secret identity of the Man of Steel himself.  And so, using her journalistic wits (and Superman's own subconscious desire to be rid of the lie), Lois manages to get the truth.

Their romance blossoms fully amidst the frigid expanse of Superman's Fortress of Solitude, and that's where he divests himself of his powers in order to be with the woman he loves, in a scene that could only make any sense if a giant fucking footnote flashed on the screen during it, reading, "Larry Niven, 'Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,' Knight (1969)," an essay summed up in Brodie's famous Superman monologue from Mallrats with the pithy supposition, "I guarantee he blows a load like a shotgun."  Well, either way, Clark and Lois have soon spent their first night together.

And then I guess they walk back to Metropolis from the North Pole.

Naturally, Superman's picked the worst possible time to indulge in the inscrutabilities of alien-human pair-bonding, for no sooner than Lois and Clark return to civilization (and Clark puts his newfound vulnerability to the test in a mostly-symbolic diner brawl), they learn that Zod has taken over the planet in their absence.  Meanwhile, Lex Luthor's busted out of prison, and wormed his way into the new Kryptonian regime.  (Within the narrative, this is due to Luthor's assurances that he can deliver them the son of Jor-El, who was once Zod's jailer; but Superman II's blithe indifference to the most basic element of Luthor's character certainly doesn't hurt.)  Thus, with Luthor collaborating so enthusiastically, only one question remains: can Superman's powers be restored in time to save the Earth?  The short answer is "yes," and the long answer is "yes, trivially."

First thing's first, I guess: if for nothing else, you have to give it up for Superman II, filmed mostly in 1978 alongside its predecessor, and released in 1980, for its sheer ambition.  Just as Superman was the first recognizably-modern superhero picture, Superman II was the first with recognizably-modern supervillains—that is, a triumvirate of cosmic-level threats capable of rearranging the faces on Mt. Rushmore in a moment, or, if it came down to it, leveling a whole city with their might.  And, of course, Superman II was also the first proper motion picture that ever tried to depict what it might actually look like if gods like these were to wage their war upon our fragile Earth.

To say that it doesn't quite succeed is putting it mildly.  And the fault doesn't even completely lay at the feet of turn-of-the-1980s special effects, though obviously they do not help.  Still, Superman II does an awful lot with what it has, and what it has isn't even routinely bad, so much as it is creaky and threadbare, in the light of 36 years of technological advance.  A lot of what it does is, in fact, very cool and very fun—and in that enchanting way which our latterday superhero spectacles seem almost constitutionally unable to capture for themselves, when they screw up.  (And they often do; virtually all of them have at least one major sequence that looks like poop.)  So, please, take a moment and really behold the Phantom Zone prison that cages the Kryptonian villains.  We saw it once already in Superman, but now we see it again, and a lot more of it, to boot.  I don't even care that the effects used to realize it were actually created in '78—it's still on the short list of the most 80s things ever conceived, including the music videos of A-Ha and Feargal Sharkey.  And the fact is that every last one of us will be able to recall the Goddamned Phantom Zone from Superman II long after we've forgotten the face of our first lover.

But then there are the battles, and as for the battles—well, they do have their moments, don't they?  But it's hard to put yourself in the shoes of theatergoer in 1980, and say, "Yes!  These are the clumsy airborne fisticuffs I'd been waiting for all these years!"  When Superman and the titan Non crash through the streets, and take their struggle underground, you can practically see the defeat take center stage, as the filmmakers shake the camera and instruct all their extras to stumble.  "Oh, sure," they say to you, "we'd strongly prefer that you read this scene as an exercise in your own imagination, a way for you to picture in your own head the titanic grandeur of the superhuman battle raging beneath the earth, while we directly witness nothing but its effect upon the humans who can barely comprehend what's happening to them."  And, because you love Superman and you love this kind of nonense, you are willing to meet them a lot more than just halfway; maybe you're even willing to defend this decision as artistic, rather than the mere surrender to the technology of the times that it so manifestly is.  The Silver Age nonsense?  I can take that without skipping a beat: the recarving of Rushmore is an ecstatic moment, after all; and every Superman movie would likely be improved by the liberal deployment of Kryptonian super-breath.  The real problem, the insuperable problem, if you will, is when those filmmakers turn to you with an embarrassed smile, and say, "But hey, just so nobody could possibly accuse us of taking any of these awkward action setpieces remotely seriously, here's about three hundred insert shots of random citizens, each of them deeply ensconced within their own personal prison universe of nearly subhuman vaudeville."

This movie's funnier when it's in microgravity.

So, if it's a little hard to cast your mind back to a more innocent time, when the lo-fi techniques that Superman II brings to bear could nevertheless cause a heart to stop, it's even harder to imagine that the superhero aficionado of 1980 went into Superman II hoping that the unfathomably low humor of the first film would reach a new nadir.  Maybe they actually did—Superman made gobs of money!—but you definitely won't find this film's original director, Richard Donner, admitting to thinking so.

This is where we concede that there are two extant cuts of Superman II: the original theatrical cut, credited to Richard Lester, he of musical comedy fame, and whose fingerprints are indubitably apparent, even though he only directed about 25% of the film; and the "Richard Donner Cut," prepared for home video in 2006, which dispenses with almost all of the worst offenders in terms of sight gags, but (perhaps unfortunately) also cuts out much of the rather-more-enjoyable fish-out-of-water comedy that inheres to Zod and his pals when they make their planetfall in Texas.  And, okay, I'll just lay it out there: I don't like Superman II all that much in the first place, and the Donner Cut, despite Donner's admirable desire to soft-pedal the screenplay's endemic hokiness, sounds much, much worse, based upon the manner in which it reshuffles the narrative so that it's even less sensible than it already was.

You want specifics, buster?  You got' em: in Donner's preferred version, Superman and Lois fuck before he enters that "molecule chamber" and depowers himself.  Now, I can just barely tolerate this sequence as it already existed—and for all sorts of reasons, too, from its reliance on implication, and outside reading material, to make the slightest sense, to the "psst, superheroes aren't actually real" reaction I already have to anybody somehow taking Niven's satirical notions about Superman's super-penis and super-sperm seriously, to, finally, the way it requires this version of Lois to turn her whole fucking personality on a dime, from the woman who is pretty clearly attracted to Superman because he's Superman, to being someone who's not completely dissatisfied with Clark Kent, after all.

So if you subtract any rationale for Superman's self-dethronement, other than the faint and stupid injunction given to him by the hologram of his mother to live a normal life, then all you have is some plot-convenient bullshit.  And that just can't stand in a movie that's this close to borderline-incoherent already.

I mean, when it comes to the last battle, let's just agree, "it was 1980," and the whole thing doesn't even need to be discussed, deal?

And so, anyway: I've never seen the Donner Cut, nor do I especially want to see the Donner Cut, even though I technically own the thing.

Maybe it seems like I've got nothing but contempt for Superman II, but I don't want to be too badly misunderstood: for all its sins—indeed, even for all that Lester appears to be engaged in a deliberate bid to out-goofy the already too-goofy '78 original—Superman II retains an extraordinary likability.  (And please, let's give Superman II this much credit: at least it quickly sidelines Luthor's hateful sidekicks.  If the degraded sequel can be said to be unambiguously superior to its predecessor in any way whatsoever, it's that Otis and Ms. Teschmacher's replacement—Zod's simple-minded enforcer, Non, who is somehow not played by Richard Kiel—is actually funny, and not just feinting toward the abstract concept of funny in unbearably obnoxious ways.)

So it could just be the performances that keep Superman II afloat: the second leg of Gene Hackman's performance as Luthor strikes me as better than his first, because while Luthor collaborating with a gang of Kryptonian conquerors doesn't sit right with me at all, at the very least he isn't forced to spend nearly as much time engaging in dumb hi-jinx; Margot Kidder likewise gets to play somewhat more than just the 70s career bitch stereotype of the first film; and Terence Stamp's Zod, needless to say, has a frankly glorious way of repeating the word "kneel" over and over, so that his one-and-a-half-note megalomania somehow stays fresh.  As for Christopher Reeve, he remains exactly as perfect as you could hope for.

But maybe it's just that Superman II wisely recapitulates John Williams' superlative score, under the supervision of its new composer Ken Thorne.  (Evidently, the Donner Cut downplays Williams' Superman March—and that's not just one more strike against it, it's the only strike you need to dismiss it forever.)

Add in Superman II's more worthwhile grace notes—the massacre on the moon, the surrender of the President, the amusing way that boredom encroaches upon Zod when he realizes that he's conquered Earth with almost zero effort, and the game (if only half-successful) attempt to render a bona fide clash of titans onscreen—and you really do have a very lovely little matinee entertainment here.  Just never, ever think to yourself, "This must be a great movie, because it is so beloved," because Superman II is beloved for reasons that have a lot more to do with the age of its biggest fans, and the dearth of alternatives in the year of its release, than its actual level of quality.

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