Superman II (1980)
Unless you’ve been blasted into deep space from your disintegrating planet due to its imploding sun you won’t have missed the imminent re-boot of the Superman film franchise, Warner Brothers committed attempt to forge a new, profitable bout of super-heroic shenanigans following the conclusion of the Nolan brothers galactically popular Batman trilogy. Next month sees the release of Man Of Steel, the Zack Snyder helmed reformatting of the one of the most if not the most famous superheroes following Bryan Singers lacklustre 2005 outing, and early buzz is incrementally growing following the unveiling of a series of fairly impressive, cautiously tempting trailers. Within that context when the May programme for the BFI shuddered through my letterbox I was intrigued to see that a Terence Stamp season was on the cards, and it struck me that it might be interesting in a context setting exercise to revisit Superman II, probably the most fondly remembered issue of this inaugural five-part, limited collectors edition sequence of kiss curled courage. Whilst I remember quite vividly seeing Superman III at the flicks with friends I think I was a little too young for this 1980 outing, and of course Stamps barked performance has won its own cult appreciation over the years, it is probably the highpoint of the series if you find as I do the original film a little dull with Luthor’s cartoon schematics and the rather flimsy plotting difficult to swallow, although there is something to be said for the rather skilled handling of Kal-El’s origin story. When assessing the actors who have challengingly worn their pants outside their tights Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of the Jewish immigrant metaphor is still the benchmark to beat, he hasn’t been bested as the face of Superman on either the large or small screen, one wonders if this new upstart Henry Cavil is as terrified of the curse of the cape and might be shaking in his crimson, knee-high boots.
I guess the first thing to say is that this was a screening of the Richard Donner cut of the film, from the restored and re-edited 2006 re-release of the film, as you aficionados will know the second film in the series suffered from some quite significant production obstacles with producers firing directors and appointing other helmsmen, so let’s not waste space as the wiki has a pretty good synopsis of the history here. Quite unusually despite the presence of the DVD the compere announced that this was the first ever theatrical projection of this more complete cut of the film ever, thus awarding the evening a rather special halo, and Terence Stamp himself and called the CEO of Warner Bros. to assemble the film in as complete a format as possible, including soundtrack elements and deleted scenes which were culled fron the original 1980 release. I was also interested in revisiting this in line with current blockbuster aesthetics and techniques what with Superhero movies dominating the multiplexes – Iron Man III has repulsor blasted a colossal $950 million as I write this – as generally speaking this krypton averse series can be considered the first strain of ‘modern’ superhero cinema, if you disregard the campy sixties Batman nonsense or the cult contortions of the likes of Danger Diaboik, as prior to the Sixties super-screen heroics were mostly contained in the Republic serial two-reelers or Flash Gordon shorts. Of course this deviant, strange sub-genre of SF cinema eventually morphed into Burton’s broody vision of The Dark Knight before the genre really gained its momentum in the 2000’s, and now cape sporting, fetishistically garbed, freaky monologing mutants seize the screen every summer, as the purse holding executives dredge the deep waters of the Marvel and DC universes for the most peripheral of characters in order to secure a new potential money spinning franchise – Shane Black’s take on Dr. Savage could be next , plus there’s a reboot of The Fantastic Four in the works, although I personally can’t wait for the Skateman picture.
Do we need a synopsis? Really? OK then, three traitorous criminals are imprisoned in the Escheresque Phantom Zone by Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and exiled to deep space from Krypton before the planets unfortunate destruction, their dimension defying spinning prism prison shattered decades later by an errant nuclear weapon thoughtlessly hurled into its flight path by Superman as he thwarted Lex Luthor’s (Gene Hackman) nefarious plot to nuke California in the first movie – Superman eh, what a littering jerk. Like Kal-El these marooned marauders from Kryton are also blessed with superhuman powers under our alien yellow sun, and soon Supes is battling the hulking mute Non (Jack O’Halloran), the jackbooted, SS guard inflected Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and their tyrannous leader General Zod (Stamp) whom have rather less benevolent ambitions than straight laced Clark Kent, and with their newfound superpowers decide to take over the plant for a bit of a lark. The subsequent sanity deprived Margot Kidder is back as Lois Lane and Hackman reprises his role as the ‘greatest criminal mind of the planet’®, in this broadly comedic, for its time astonishgly expensive slice of caped crusading . After thirty years of age and as an action / fantastical film the film is quite a curiosity, it is postively geriatric in its pacing and dtempo when compared to today’s bewildering antics, as a starter for ten this is probably my favourite sequence;
Things have moved on somewhat when it comes to aerial fisticuffs, I think it’s fair to say. I’m not particularly qualified to comment on the alleged strengths of the Donner cut over the Richard Lester original as these aren’t films I’m particularly au fait with, but my initial impression was of a far stronger ‘epic’ opening, less emphasis on the rather tedious ‘humourous’ slapstick asides that was emphasised on the original cut, although even this iteration of the film has an underlying comic smirk which only really comes to the fore when you see it with an appreciative audience – this was pretty darn funny, although perhaps not always intentionally so. Whilst I can find John Williams syrupy scores wretch inducing at the best of times I think you have to applaud him for the soaring triumph of his triumphant theme, alongside Jaws and Star Wars this is hard to beat in terms of sonic awareness, and their aren’t many compositions that you could play to any Non, Ursa or Zod in the street and they’d instantly be able to identify the movie.
From a purely technical level a compare and contrast exercise with contemporary product is as illuminating as it is amusing, like some celluloid archeologist I found the film somewhat primitive, whillst I don’t mean that in a derogatory way it’s just that by today standards the SFX techniques have understandably dated the film and it’s really not that convincing in hoisting around the principals when its convinving us that a ‘man can fly’, and the editing speeds momentum doesn’t quite build any real sense of urgency or attention. There’s plenty of wire work, optical configurations and matte obscuration, when compared to the heavy CGI evident in the blockbusters of today then no if doesn’t fully convince, but there is an odd DIY charm to the artistry which terabytes of processing can’t surpass. I really like the Krypton footage for example, it’s just much more sparse and symmetrically alien in comparison to the visual pollution we’re subject to today, and there is a sense of density and reality to physically standing sets, there’s a solidity that even when parsed through a 16:9 frame on a 2D surface seduces the brain. I quite surprised myself at also quite enjoying the campy comic book origins of the ‘gee-golly’ dialogue, the cardboard characterisations and linear plot, of course this film was inked a few years before the likes of Alan Moore and Frank Miller reconstituted the comic book into the rather more pompous ‘graphic novel’, transforming the artform with a more adult and psychological approach to themes, drives and a more mature presentation of worlds in which such titans would actually exist, so in a relaxing sort of way this was quite a light, breezy antidote to the dour severity of Nolan’s trilogy or this current penchant for making things ‘dark’ and ‘moody’, and as I said with the special guests and a sold out crowd this had quite an atmosphere, and was consequently much more fun than I anticipated.
I was silently crossing my extremities for some potential special guests – not Stamp as I’ve already bumped into him and the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Piccadilly Apollo a few years ago if you remember – and my wishes were fulfilled by the good old BFI who evidently exerted their influence and persuaded the panther eyed Sarah Douglas to introduce the movie, a figure who may have tickled some dormant pre-adolsecence unusual thoughts about how girls aren’t always completely gross back when you were in single digit years of age. Never wanting to avoid the limelight however Stamp turned up anyway, and both figures took us through the films tortured production history, where initially both films were shooting back to back when panicking producers saw the spiraling budget and ordered Donner to complete the first film in order to get it into theatres and re-coup some money, and after he professionally obliged he was fired (without anyone on the cast or crew being informed) and Richard Lester tuned up on set when shooting commenced a few months later. They both seemed to have a genuine affection for Donner although they liked Lester as a colleague, he was just placed in a rather uncomfortable situation as the crew and cast had already bonded as an entity (which as Stamp remarked is rare but is wonderful when it happens), hence their persuasive efforts in lobbying Warner Brothers to get Donners original cut out there for fans to digest. Stamp was also quite amusing when recounting how the movie turned his career around, after a decade of the phone not ringing after his Sixties heyday he had retreated to an Indian madrassa, and was completely shocked when one fateful morning the local telegraph office announced they had a comminuqe from Hollywood asking if he would consider flying back to London in order to star in a movie with Marlon Brando. So that is as they say that, I must be some kind of superhero as I can’t believe I got through a full retrospective review of Superman II and I didn’t mention KNEEL BEFORE ZOD once and – oh fuck…
For the record as a cinephile I can die happy as yes he did say it for us, and added the slightly more 15 certiticate sobriquet by yelling ‘KNEEL BEFORE ZOD YOU BASTARD…..’