From the Vaults: ‘Superman II’ (1980)

Sorry to be late this week! I got into the spirit of a new decade and started playing Pac-Man over on Google's homepage and, well, 16 hours later….

Superman2 We veer almost too close to modern times for comfort this week! Larry has begun featuring content from 1980, so I am experimenting with watching films from that year… it's a little disconcerting, but not unpleasant. I saw all the "Superman" films as a tyke but had forgotten pretty much everything about them. I did remember one in which Superman gets rid of his powers to be with Lois Lane, and then there's an excruciating scene where he's beaten up — I just hated that. Turns out it's in this one. Doh!

I still hate that scene, but "Superman II" isn't bad; it's a cult classic and there are many excellent reasons why. You actually don't NEED any reasons beyond Terence Stamp, magnificently stone-faced as the villainous General Zod, standing around in a black ponytail with arms akimbo, shooting laser beams out of his eyes. But the movie also gives you lots of fantastically crackling repartee between Lois and Clark Kent, with lots of Margot Kidder rolling her eyes and Christopher Reeve mumbling "Aw, gee, Lois." They're hilarious. Despite her dated wardrobe and typewriter (and insistence on carrying her purse everywhere, even to the Fortress of Solitude), Lois the character feels very contemporary. She's fab.

And finally, famously, there's the Richard Donner factor behind the film's cult status. Donner directed the first "Superman" film, and had finished filming big chunks of this one when he was fired and replaced with Richard Lester. ("Hero Complex" blogger and staff geek Geoff can fill you in if you want more backstory.) "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" was released on DVD in 2006, incorporating original footage and even screen tests to re-create Donner's vision. While this sounds pretty interesting, I figured I should start with the theatrical release, so that's what I watched.

SupermanzodSo what happens in this movie? We begin with a minimalist-style flashback to Krypton (a set I initially  mistook for the Fortress of Solitude), where a trio of nasty villains is being sentenced to an eternity of spinning through space in a flat panel: this would be Stamp's Zod, with his nattily attired girlfriend Ursa and mute servant Non. Their sentencer happens to be Jor-El, Superman's dad. Flashing forward to the present day, Superman performs some Eiffel Tower heroics, rescuing Lois from a nasty fall and pitching a nuclear bomb into space — where it collides with the Kryptonians' flat-panel prison, setting them free. (Apparently the Donner version skips all the Eiffel business, instead having the prison get broken by an explosion from the ending of the first movie. I'm not taking sides, but that does seem a bit tidier to me…)

While Zod & co. land on earth and begin wreaking mayhem, Clark and Lois are developing their relationship; most notably, Lois is figuring out that some people only wear glasses for cosmetic purposes. After some high-camp hijinks at Niagara Falls, he sweeps her off to the Fortress of Solitude so he can strip himself of his, ah, powers, and enjoy human-style happiness with Lois. Meanwhile, all of Zod's victims are wondering where Superman has gotten to. And Zod himself is looking forward to getting some revenge on Jor-El's son.

I realize it's all supposed to be campy and it doesn't all have to make sense, but the way the Clark-Superman-Lois situation develops here just bugs the living daylights out of me. I love the Clark-Lois repartee and I love the contrast with how mushy and doe-eyed she gets around Superman; so when she finds out they're the same person, I really want to know what's going on inside her head! I'm not interested in Superman flying off to what looks like Costa Rica to get exotic flowers for their romantic dinner. I mean, this woman's one of the best reporters in the world — doesn't she have any questions for him?

And how come he has to get stripped of his powers anyway? I don't want to be vulgar here but, I mean, I thought Superman could do anything. And then how do they even get out of the Fortress of Solitude? Does he keep an emergency "in case I get lucky and have to get rid of my powers" four-wheel drive up there or what?

OK, deep cleansing breaths. Let's focus on the good things. Like the late Christopher Reeve, who was just breathtakingly beautiful and soulful whether in glasses or not. And Gene Hackman, who's a blast in all his scenes, even if Lex Luthor turns out to be pretty superfluous to the plot. The climactic battle of the superpowers in the streets of Metropolis is a lot of fun. And I loved Lois and Clark's last scene (right up until the memory wipe, which is totally cheating — cleansing breaths, cleansing breaths). Yeah, I'm pretty curious to see the Donner cut now.

One last word: Watching this film only strengthened my love for the 2006 "Superman Returns." Brandon Routh was just adorable, and the Lois-and-Superman relationship had just the right amount of ambiguity and tone of elegiac regret. The film did not get nearly as much love as it deserved, if you ask me.

A side effect of watching this film is that you will have "Can You Read My Mind?" stuck in your head for many days running. I'm off to see if a little more Google Pac-Man will drive it out. We'll be back to a more mature vintage next week, I think.

— Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images: Christopher Reeve invites Margot Kidder up to see his etchings (note the ubiquitous purse); Sarah Douglas, Terence Stamp and Jack O'Halloran (Ursa, Zod and Non) arrive to unleash some chaos on planet Houston.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Film, From the Vaults, Hollywood. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to From the Vaults: ‘Superman II’ (1980)

  1. Jose says:

    Read the essay “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” by Larry Niven, and the reason that Superman had to give up his powers will become extraordinarily clear.


  2. AED says:

    Oh dear, now I’m scared! Thanks Jose, I will look that one up …


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