Saturday, May 11, 2013

Supermarathon: Superman II - Theatrical Cut

Common wisdom states that Superman II is the better of the first two Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, and I'd posit that wisdom is based mostly upon half-remembered screenings by kids who last saw the movies sometime during the Reagan administration.  It's not that I don't like the movie, but I think from a storytelling and filmmaking perspective, the first of the two is vastly stronger.

Yes, Superman II is the Superman film where he fights Zod, Ursa and Non.  Yes, it is exciting, and a decent movie, but it back-pedals the Superman films into campy territory and gave the producers license to engage in the slow decline of the Superman franchise that would ultimately end in the half-assed Superboy TV show that was the capstone on the Salkind era of Superman filmed media.

I like Superman II, but knowing the history of the film explains so much about the uneven texture of the movie that watching the original theatrical cut - the post-Donner version - that you sort of want to cringe during many parts of the movie, and watching them in quick succession very much highlights the weaknesses in the sequel.

The cast has gone on record (especially the actors who played the Kryptonian villains) with their displeasure with director Richard Lester, who replaced Richard Donner after the Salkinds removed the first director from the picture after Superman: The Movie (and despite its tremendous success).  And you can really tell.  Whole scenes are shot with a television set-up, and the lighting, make-up and even hair seems to shift dramatically throughout the film, with some parts showing the care Richard Donner put into the first film and others showing the characters genuinely looking a bit rough.  Really, watch the lighting and Margot Kidder from one scene to another (and in one case - within the scene).  You can see where the film is treated with care and where it seems everyone is walking through the motions.

Really, not much of the plot of Superman II makes any sense - from Lara's insistence that Superman lose his powers to love "a mortal", to the decidedly not-Superman-like powers shown by the Phantom Zone villains, such as the finger blasts and telekinesis.  And the movie is incredibly slap-sticky.  That battle we all remember from Superman II is full of some oddball gags by the actors on the street that just don't work very well.*

Despite all this, the movie works.  It set the stage for the pattern most certainly Marvel has relied upon - of the "evil opposite" facing off against their hero - especially one that's tied directly into their hero's past or origin story. It also features the "loss of powers and need to regain them" that's so familiar to sequels in superhero franchises.  There's a clear threat and the villains aren't buffoonish.  Superman shows terrific humanity, even if the options provided him by the plot don't always make sense.

Clearly the Kryptonian villains are effective, and the attack on both small-town America and the White House is what set Zod as the villain the public associates with Superman as much as Lex Luthor despite being a minor character in the comics.  And, in many ways, it's arguable that the new movie, Man of Steel, is the version of the first two movies crammed together to make the one movie with none of the awkwardness and live up to the way we want to remember it from 1980. 

It's worth noting that Superman: The Movie and Superman II have a long and convoluted production history.  The two films were planned together after Mario Puzo (yes, THAT Mario Puzo) handed in a 500 page draft of a screenplay to the Salkinds.  The time travel bit from the end of Superman I was originally slated for the end of Superman II, and the end of both movies was somewhat improvised.  Instead, we get an ending where it seems Superman and Lois jointly straight up murder the Kryptonian villains - something movie audiences are used to, but not something very satisfying in the world of Superman.

I still think it's a fun Superman movie to get someone into the idea of Superman, and it does fit reasonably well with Superman: The Movie, but these days I prefer the Donner cut of the movie which was released circa 2006.

*There's a guy in a sequined vest on roller skates who rolls backward down the street as Zod and Ursa cow the crowd of angry Metropolitans with their super-breath.  It's all family friendly and in good fun - but it's not exactly the stuff of high art.

No comments: