ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Superman II’ (1980), Part 3
As we continue our in-depth look at super-hero movies, Chris Sims and David Uzumeri take on the Superman film franchise.
David Uzumeri: Welcome back to the final chapter in our triptych of reviews discussing the half-Richard Donner half-Richard Lester cinematic chimaera known as Superman II. As we left off, Zod, Ursa and Non were going to go find the President, and a depowered Clark Kent was gently guiding Lois Lane to his silver Kryptonian bang-hammock. The only question is: IS Clark Kent a bad enough dude to save the President?
David: Lay it on me, Chris.
Chris: When we started, I said that I think movie is just fundamentally bad, and this scene is where it all starts to go wrong. It just boils down to the fact that Superman quits. The movie tries its best to show that he’s making a sacrifice for love, but what’s explicitly happening on-screen is that he zaps away his powers so that he can get laid on a shiny space futon, and either way, it’s selfish. He’s putting his own desires above his ability to help others, and for me, that just flat-out breaks the character. And it gets worse as the film goes on.
David: What gets me isn’t even that he did it, it was the rash way he did it. He didn’t even hesitate, and it’s not like Lois would have been averse to talking it over.
Chris: Exactly. I have no problem with the Superman/Lois romance, and in fact I think it’s one of the most beautiful romances in comics when it’s done right. But it’s never discussed, and we’re never even really told why he can’t keep his powers and still have a girlfriend. I guess the assumption is the whole “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” thing, but if we’re going to believe a man can fly, I think we can believe that he can get his bone on without it turning into a Brad Meltzer comic. The only thing we know is that his mom’s computer ghost tells him what to do, and Superman immediately caves.
David: This is clearly the scene which inspired all of Smallville.
Chris: No kidding. It’s just such a blatant example of Superman doing something purely for himself that’s so at odds with the altruistic core of his character, especially with the Silver Agey way they’ve been playing it so far. Seriously, this movie goes right off the rails when Clark “accidentally” shoves his hand in the fire, even with the great performances surrounding it.
David: “Even with the great performances surround it” describes most of the problems with this movie, though. That’s one area where neither Superman nor Superman II falters. But while Superman and Lois cuddle and make pillow talk, Zod, Ursa and Non decide to fly-by vandalize Mount Rushmore with their own faces and then smash up the White House to get to the President. And man, Terence Stamp is fantastic.
David: He doesn’t even get angry, he’s just… confident.
Chris: It really is a recurring theme with these movies that the worst scenes are always followed by the best. Zod’s talk with the president is legitimately amazing.
David: He confronts the President, and one of the President’s aides claims to be the President to throw Zod off the trail, but Zod notes that no leader would bow before him so easily. The real President tells him about Superman, and then bows with a great exchange — “Oh, God.” “ZOD.”
Chris: After the President tells him there’s one man who will never bow before him, Stamp’s delivery on “Who is this imbecile? Where is he?” is phenomenal, the little sarcastic look around he gives.
Chris: It’s just a shame the president’s confidence in Superman’s resilience comes right after he chucks all of his powers to get laid.
David: Unfortunately, next up is the diner scene.
David: Lois and Clark, on their way driving back from the North Pole (!?!?!?!) stop at a greasy-spoon diner, where some octogenarian trucker puts the moves on Lois, steals Clark’s seat while he’s in the background, and then beats the living s* out of a super White Knighting Clark Kent, who is now completely and utterly unable to know when to pick his battles.
Chris: Look. I will give you the car driving back from the North Pole. Like I said, we can believe a man can fly, so, whatever, I guess the Fortress of Solitude is just five miles north of Halifax or something. But the rest of this scene…
David: After Clark attempts to stand up and just gets belted twice, it leads to Lois straight-up jumping on his back and stabbing at him with what looks like a knife. Or just her fist, apparently. Either way.
Chris: Again, there’s this huge misunderstanding of Superman. The entire deal with that guy is that it’s not the powers that make him great, it’s that he does the right thing. But for Movie Superman, it turns out that, nope! If he doesn’t have his powers he’s just an overly aggressive wimp. He really is the bumbling, ineffectual Clark Kent that he used to pretend to be.
David: I think it’s more that Clark doesn’t really know his strength now that he’s depowered, and just assumes he can still pick fights like that, but now just show off like a normal dude. I took it that he didn’t realize how much he depended on his powers.
Chris: Yeah, but still: Picking fights. Maybe it’s just a conflict with the modern portrayal as opposed to to the prevalent interpretation of the ’70s, but I’ve read a lot of old Superman comics and I’m pretty sure they had him figured out better than this. We have no reason to like this guy at this point.
David: I mean, “would you care to step outside?” is a pretty classic Superman line. Put him in costume and it all works until he gets belted across the room. He’s pretty aggressive. With good right, as this asshole is specifically disrespecting both him and his girlfriend. I mean, it’s not what I’d do in that situation, but I believe that the Superman of these films would do this. It feels perfectly in character. He’s just standing up for himself against a bully, and for the first time, the bully wins. And this is a huge shock to him.
Chris: I disagree. It feels like they were trying to underscore his powerlessness, but the only way they could think to do it was by chucking Clark under the bus.
David: That’s really not at all how I saw the scene, man.
Chris: Well, you’re an idiot.
David: You’re a towel.
Chris: There: The conflict our readers have been waiting for. Pistols at dawn? Maybe I’m just lumping this in with the scene where he comes back to the diner, but the whole thing leaves an awful taste in my mouth.
David: The scene where he comes BACK is, to me, absolute crap. But I have zero problems with this first scene.
Chris: See, I can’t separate the two. They were clearly written as mirrors of each other, but I guess we’ll get to that one when we come to it.
David: It’s worth mentioning that the diner sequences were holdovers from the Donner footage. So yeah, right after Clark gets the crap beaten out of him, the TV switches to Zod yelling at Superman to COME AT HIM, BRO on national television. Stamp’s great here, especially the way he just screams “ZOD!” right at the end before the feed cuts out. Then Clark decides that he shouldn’t have ignored his parents’ advice and he needs his powers back, so it’s time for him to go to the North Pole completely solo.
David: So yeah, right after Clark gets the crap beaten out of him, the TV switches to Zod yelling at Superman to COME AT HIM, BRO on national television. Stamp’s great here, especially the way he just screams “ZOD!” right at the end before the feed cuts out. Then Clark decides that he shouldn’t have ignored his parents’ advice and he needs his powers back, so it’s time for him to go to the North Pole completely solo.
Chris: So in addition to having Ghost Mom make his decisions for him and getting into fights that he can’t win, Clark sticks to his decisions for…. what, five minutes? Seven? The world’s greatest super-hero, everybody!
David: He somehow drives and walks there which must have taken days again (so the three Kryptonian criminals have been chilling in the Oval Office for quite a while now), and then finds the green crystal that fell out of Lois’s bag earlier, the magic Plot Hole Crystal that somehow lets Superman become Superman again for absolutely no damn reason since Lara said the process was completely irreversible. Comic Movies, Everybody!
Chris: And again, the stuff around it is great. The president breaking out into “Superman can you hear me! Superman!” and Zod’s response are so perfect. I mean, I will live quite happily if I never see another “kneel before Zod” reference in my life, but I can see why it’s so tempting to evoke this stuff. Stamp is a treasure, man.
Chris: Also, how amazing is it that Clark tries to hitchhike to the North Pole? Was he expecting Santa Claus to drive by and give him a lift? Because if he had, all this movie’s many sins would be forgiven.
David: So a bored Zod is now hanging out in the Oval Office, with Ursa and Non just fidding with desk trinkets…
David: …when Lex Luthor shows up to tell them all about Superman. What’s interesting about the role Lex plays in this second movie is that he’s basically to Zod what Otis was to him; a somewhat helpful but bumbling sycophant. Except while that’s who Otis actually is, here it’s clearly Lex playing a role. This is Lex Luthor as Columbo.
Chris: You said that Columbo line last week. Just FYI.
David: I’m sticking with it.
Chris: Also do you think the average age of our readers is like 73, and that is why you keep going with a Columbo reference to get them excited? “Lex Luthor is truly Columbo to Clark’s Matlock.”
David: It’s true, though! Even the specific way in which Luthor plays the fool. But fine, be that way. In any case, the Phantom Zone Krew is about to ice Luthor when he tells them that A) he can give them the son of Jor-El and B) the son of Jor-El is Superman, all of which he knows because of the scene earlier in the movie when he and Tessmacher went to the Fortress of Solitude and talked to Ghost Mom.
Chris: Luthor just cold walking into the occupied White House is pretty great, too.
David: He’s the best there is, and he knows it. This is the exact moment when I start actually really liking Hackman’s Luthor.
Chris: It’s fantastic to watch him straight up running a con on three evil Supermen, and Hackman does a predictably amazing job with it.
David: I also love how he makes fun of his own obsession with beachfront property when they ask him what he wants in exchange for Superman’s location. So he asks for Australia, which is basically all beachfront. It’s like the “Otisburg” sequence in the first movie, except way funnier and more believable. Mostly because, unlike Otis, Luthor is a real character.
Chris: Folks, if you take nothing else away from these reviews, please let it be that David Uzumeri f***ing hates Otis.
David: So back at the Daily Planet, the Phantom Zone Krew and Lex Luthor show up to smash up the place because Luthor told them Superman was here. Superman, of course, is not here, and Luthor points out that while he isn’t Lois Lane *is*, and that putting Lois Lane in danger brings out Superman. Which is fairly true, but he didn’t really tell Zod this beforehand, so Zod’s still pretty pissed. This leads to a great moment as Superman actually shows up just as Zod’s about to kill Luthor, leading to an absolutely fantastic Hackman Luthor moment: “thank God, Superman. I mean — that’s Superman! GET HIM!” Or when Lois drops a passed-out Perry White on his head so she can pick a fight with Ursa.
David: Also, note that Superman uses the same line on Zod that he used on the trucker: “Would you care to step outside?”
Chris: Except that here, it actually works and isn’t just an excuse to have Superman reduced to a sobbing bloody mess because that’s what happens when he becomes a regular person. I really hate that scene. This one’s pretty great, though.
David: What follows is, oh my God, the slowest-paced battle between four Kryptonians in the history of Superman stories. Everyone just stands around and waits while anyone else does anything. The entire thing feels like a turn-based DC Heroes scenario, like Puzo and the Salkinds just wrote this scene by sitting around with some d20s and a copy of the DC Heroes RPG.
Chris: We do get the pure beauty of Jack O’Halloran flying, though.
Chris: I would airbrush that on the side of a custom van in a heartbeat.
David: He just bares his teeth like a vampire, it’s amazing. As Superman saves a bunch of people from a falling radio tower (which he later somehow uses to trap Non?!), Zod realizes that Superman actually cares about the people of Earth, rather than just, as Zod does, treating them like colonial serfs.
Chris: For all that this movie gets wrong about Superman’s character, Zod’s discussion with Ursa about Superman’s weakness is a really great bit.
Zod: I’ve discovered his weakness: He cares. He actually cares for these Earth people.
Ursa: Like pets?!
Zod: I suppose so.
David: They just can’t at all comprehend that Superman actually thinks of other Earthlings as *equals*. So yeah, that’s when Zod decides to go full-out domestic terrorist and start blowing up cars with his heat vision. He’s going to blow up a huge tanker, but Superman reflects his heat vision with a mirror like Link with a Mirror Shield and then freezes the gas tank to stop it from going kaboom.
Chris: So we can agree that Superman getting chucked through a Marlboro truck is basically the single worst piece of product placement of all time, right?
Chris: Movie Superman was sent to Earth on a rocket from Flavor Country™.
David: The rest of this scene is pretty ridiculous — the Zone Krew start using cold breath to blow away an entire flood of people in the street, and Superman just bails with everyone calling him a coward even though he’s really trying to draw them away to the Fortress of Solitude. Which is weird, since I don’t know how Superman knows that Lex knows where it is, because Lex is the only reason the Krew is able to follow him there.
Chris: The citizens of Metropolis all deciding to take on the PZCs after they think they killed Superman is a pretty great touch, too. Mark Waid used that in Birthright with Jimmy Olsen at the head of the mob, and it worked really well there.
David: Well, because it shows that Superman’s actually inspring people to stand up for themselves, instead of just being a token guardian protector.
Chris: The weird physical comedy bits that they do as the Kryptonians stand their blowing hurricane winds at the crowd for like three solid minutes are a little out of place, though.
David: I was reading on Wikipedia, and apparently those little bits were one of Donner’s biggest complaints with Lester’s cut.
Chris: I can see why. It goes on forever and really undercuts the message of that scene. It’s hard to make a case for Superman inspiring the crowd to action when you have a bunch of shots of dudes getting KFC (second-worst product placement of all time) or doing wacky pay-phone pratfalls.
David: It feels like Lester just had way too much fun with this scene, in a rare bad way.
Chris: It’s the story of this movie in a nutshell: For every great idea or scene or performance, there’s something right next to it that’s dumb or awful. One step forward, two steps back.
David: So yeah, after Superman’s bailed, they go and threaten Luthor again, who now gives them the location of the Fortress of Solitude. They fly there, with Lois on Non’s back and Luthor on Ursa’s, which seems like a terrible idea if you’re Ursa and don’t want to get felt up by Gene Hackman for like twenty minutes in midair. The next, like, five minutes of this film make absolutely zero sense.
Chris: I think they actually make negative sense.
David: So they show up, Clark gives a line about them being crappy guests, and then he… throws a… cellophane… S-shield… flag… at… Non? Which… makes him… trapped for a second?
Chris: And then it dissolves, and then Zod, Ursa and Non counter with their telekinesis fingers! Which are now heat rays!
David: Which he resists until he… disappears… and… teleports… and then splits into four different Supermen, three of whom are Holodukes?
Chris: They’re all TELEPORTING AROUND. They have new super-powers! This sh** is seriously like a five year-old wrote it. It’s like they got the script pages mixed up with Axe Cop, but then cut out all the charm.
David: “I used to play this game in grade school. I never was very good at it.” What, decoys of yourself? How?! So after a completely nonsensical fight, Clark gets Zod in a headlock, and then the three of them overpower Superman, at which point this switches from nonsensical to completely awesome.
Chris: This movie would have to literally give you candy and a five-dollar bill to make up for how dumb this fight scene is.
David: Standing down, though, Superman takes Luthor aside and whispers to him that he needs to get Zod, Ursa and Non into the molecule chamber, because if he does, they can use it to remove their powers.
Chris: This bit is really good though, which is amazing considering what comes right before it. Zod’s matter of fact “The son of Jor-El will be my slave, forever” and then the way he slides down the crystal bannister almost, almost make it worthwhile.
David: Luthor, of course, completely turns on Superman, and Superman flips out — “you poisonous snake!” — at which point, they force Superman into the molecular chamber and Zod flies Luthor to turn on the power. He does, and red light fills the Fortress of Solitude. When Superman exits — notably not in a poet shirt, and I’m disappointed Zod, Ursa and Non didn’t get poet shirts as a result of this — he kneels before Zod before taking his hand and crushing it to show that he’s still a badass and Zod, Ursa and Non are screwed. He, Lois and Luthor then kick them into the bottomless pit in the Fortress, strand Luthor in the arctic and fly home.
Chris: I realize that they were preserving the big reveal that Superman had tricked everybody, but I do think that we got ripped off pretty bad by not being able to see the PZCs separated out into dudes who were wearing, like, Dockers and polo shirts instead of their silken space-jammies. We do get Terence Stamp’s O-Face, though, so…
David: It would be great if Clark rigged it to give them all, like, Star Wars T-shirts.
Chris: Can we talk for a second about Superman’s bottomless pit?
Chris: Like… He straight up kills those dudes, right? They are definitely dead.
David: Why does that exist, and why is he so totally okay with them dying? He even gives Lois a grin when she socks Ursa into it.
Chris: So yeah, Superman’s Murder Count stands at 2, with one accessory-to-murder from letting Lois punch Ursa into oblivion. We’ll be revisiting Superman’s Murder Count when he throws Kal Penn into space in a few months, so keep your notes handy!
David: The best part about that is that Krypton didn’t have a death penalty. Straight-up killing them is the ultimate “f* you, dad.”
Chris: Now you know why I hate this movie, but we’re not done yet!
David: Oh God, yeah. Clark drops Lois off at her gorgeous apartment rooftop patio, where she promises not to tell anyone Superman’s secret. The next morning, Clark goes in to Lois’s office to talk to her, and Lois breaks down at how astonishingly unfair it is that she fell in love with Superman and Superman fell in love with her but they can’t be together and she’ll never be able to beat being with Superman. So Superman does the totally logical thing and mindwipes her completely with a kiss. O… kay. I’m very disappointed that of all of Superman’s nonsensical new powers in this flick, not a one of them was the ability to shoot a little Superman out of his hand.
Chris: But then the soft focus of Lois’s sadness gives way to the scene that just completes the total ruining of this movie.
David: Now, this scene is an unfortunate byproduct of the fact that originally, Superman was supposed to turn back time at the end of THIS movie, not the last one, because the Eiffel Tower sequence wasn’t supposed to be in it at all; the nuclear missile Superman diverted from Tessmacher’s hometown was supposed to free the Phantom Zone criminals. But when they used the time-turning-back trick at the end of I, they couldn’t do that anymore, since the missile had effectively never been fired. Actually, I guess it had been, hadn’t it? Since it was diverted before Superman saved Lois? God, I don’t even know anymore.
Chris: So instead, we finish off this movie with Clark Kent going back to that trucker diner and picking another fight. Which, by the way, he does with the hilariously Elementary School style “I’ve never seen garbage eat garbage before!”
David: Alright, Imma let you rant from here.Because this scene is just… like, how is it any better to be a BIGGER bully?
Chris: Exactly. Clark is no better than the trucker. He goes and hurts someone that he knows can’t fight back because he can. That is the literal definition of being a bully. Superman – SUPERMAN – goes and gets revenge. F*** this movie.
David: This one scene hurts a lot. Like, cut it out and it’s a substantially better movie.
Chris: It breaks it. It breaks the entire movie. I’ve said it before, but Superman has to be better than us, because if he’s not, then he’s terrifying. This movie forgets that in an effort to pander to the lowest common denominator of wanting to see our “hero” shut up some low-rent jerk – and this is after he f***ing murders Zod! No amount of great performances from Reeve – and he is great, even in this scene – can fix the fact that he’s playing a bad character.
David: At least Lester added the scene where Superman flew back to say hi to the President and help fix the White House, so beating up a random dude isn’t how the movie ended. And it is with no small relief that I say that that wraps up Superman II. That movie was long.
David: Every single actor.
Chris: Seriously, the cast is amazing. We talked about Reeve and Hackman at the end of the first film, but Terence Stamp steals the show here.
David: When it comes to pure acting ability, this is on par with Dark Knight, I’m serious. Sarah Douglas is underrated and Terence Stamp is absolutely superb.
Chris: Stamp could’ve easily played this way over the top, but he really commits to the role, and his sneering boredom and superiority are just amazing. Everything he says, no matter how ludicrous, works. You believe him. Also, there are a lot of really strong individual scenes. Clark and Lois’s “honeymoon” at Niagara Falls is a really solid bit of Silver Age adventure, and even though it’s surrounded by nonsense, the actual Molecule Chamber triples-cross is really clever, and pulled off perfectly by the cast.
David: Yeah, I love the molecule chamber triple-cross, it’s a perfect Silver Age Superman outsmarting.
Chris: I really like Jimmy Olsen’s one shining moment, too, where he’s the only guy who believes that Superman will come and save them from the Phantom Zone Criminals. If that’s the only Jimmy we get in this movie, at least it’s a good bit.
David: All of the totally bizarre, nonsensical Krptonian powers, definitely. I have no idea what anybody was thinking there.
Chris: Superman is a bullying murderer. F*** this movie.
David: This whole thing is like a sine wave, it just goes up and down and up and down… You get one totally fantastic scene followed up by an absolutely dreadful one. And most of the dreadful ones are Richard Donner. Well, some of them. At the end of the Donner cut, Superman took Zod, Ursa, Non and Luthor to jail.
Chris: It’s inconsistent as all hell, and in a way that I don’t think you can blame entirely on the two directors, though. There’s stuff that’s bad because it’s too serious, stuff that’s bad because it’s too silly, stuff that’s bad because it’s just bad. I guess it’s a point in Donner’s favor that pretty much all of the scenes with Lex Luthor are great, and we know Hackman only worked with him, but still. The first movie was the same way.
David: There’s a lot to love here, and a lot to dislike. It’s more cohesive than the first one on average, but the parts that aren’t cohesive are DIZZYINGLY so.
Chris: Exactly. When it is good, it is really damn good, but when it is bad, it is bad in the worst possible way. I remember really liking it as a kid, but when I watched it again as an adult a few years ago, I realized that I’d completely forgotten so much of the bad stuff. Except, of course, for the Cellophane S. I think we all remember that bit of nonsense.
David: I didn’t at all.I had absolutely zero recollection, and distinctly remember yelling “what the F***!?!?!??!?!” at the screen.
Chris: This movie’s record of being the Superman film to inspire the most swearing would stand until 2006.
David: At least this movie has good moments. Oh God, Superman Returns. But before we get there, we’ve got a lot of flat-out silliness to get through in the form of Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and, yes, Steel.
Chris: Don’t forget Supergirl!
David: Oh man, yeah! That one’s going to be a … fascinating experience. For all its flaws, Superman II is super enjoyable. It’s not boring. I had fun. Even the dumb parts are fun.
Chris: If you thought this was fun, I’d hate to see what you think is bad. Superman II is not only awful by its own merits, it’s responsible for a lot of really awful Superman stories. Every dumb comic where Superman cries, every one of the five completely different Generals Zod that we got over the past two decades, they all start here.
David: Yo, I’m pretty sure Alan Moore would have had Superman cry whether or not Superman II existed.
Chris: I said dumb comics. And interestingly enough, there’s a John Byrne story right after Crisis where Superman actually does execute the Phantom Zone criminals that I think is really strong. The difference, of course, being that he actually thinks about it and feels bad instead of just smirking and cheerfully throwing a dude off a cliff. So yeah, I hate this thing.
David: I think I kind of caught that.
ComicsAlliance Reviews the Superman Films: