Kal-El must battle three Kryptonian villains who escape from the Phantom Zone and now have powers far beyond those of mortal men. But how can he do so when he has given up his own powers for the sake of living out the rest of his days with Lois Lane?
Review and Analysis:
First of all, the analysis of the film will mostly cover the original theatrical release version as directed by Richard Lester. The Richard Donner film will be dealt with later on in the post.
Superman movies are the good and the bad of cinema. I keep coming back to Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Clark Kent because this is the one character that has to sell the role for the franchise to work. For the most part, Christoper gets the dichotomy of Clark/Superman.
And yet, on another, the Superman franchise is extremely lacking in many different areas. For one, it is lacking of people of color beyond simple background. Secondly, depending on the version you watch, women are just eye candy and/or damsels-to-be-rescued. People with disabilities and non-hetero sexual orientations are absent, regardless of cultural origin. And then, there is straw feminism that inhabits one of the main characters.
The Story of the Villains from Krypton:
In the original comic book series, the three Kryptonian villains were named General Zod, who looked like a typical Military Dictator-type; Jax-Ur, who looked like a circus strongman, complete with bald head and Turkish-curl mustache; and Mala, who could pass for Kal-El with a bit of disguise makeup. As a matter of fact, Superman was often menaced by Kryptonians who escaped from the Phantom Zone – but they were all men.
Until 1977, that is. Action Comics 472 introduced us to Faora Hu-ul, who killed 23 men that she imprisoned in a camp in very sadistic ways. She was sentenced to the Phantom Zone, where she developed psychic powers. She used these powers to get herself freed from the Zone, and fights Superman in combat, where her superior martial arts skills bested Superman at every turn.
Of the villains in question, only General Zod survived most of the script treatment. Mala and Jax-Ur would be replaced by Non, who was supposed to be sadistic in his love of destruction and death; and Jak-El, who was supposed to be “Joker with superpowers” (for lack of a better term). They were to be joined by a fourth, Ursa, who was to be based on Faora Hu-ul. Later re-writes would drop Jak-El.
Notes: Mala would make a move to the cartoons in Superman: The Animated Series, but as a woman. Faora will make her first appearance beyond the comics in Zack Snyder’s Superman movie in 2012.
The ultimate point here is that the same fanbase that complains about changes to the story seem to have little to say about the villains’ backstory, names, and motivations altered and created out of whole cloth here. You would think that there should be some consistency.
It’s Still All About the Sexy:
Take note of Ursa’s costume. While she is dressed in a uniform similar to Zod and Non, it does have many distinct differences. First, while all three villains wear knee-high boots, only Ursa’s boots have heels. Also, while all three wear similar black uniforms, Ursa is the only one who wears one with cut sleeves and pants legs, thus giving the opportunity for the men in the audience to ogle her while she demonstrates her powers (and her hatred of men). And Perry White describes her as a, “Broad who looks like the Queen of the Runway” (Super-Model…anyone?).
This was often a trope in the world of superhero-dom, where an attractive woman would emphasize that attractiveness while at the same time using her powers to injure, maim, and kill men – often calling them names related to “pigs” or “dogs.” Or, in Ursa’s case, attacking the masculinity of men by “feminizing” them.
It’s just one micro-aggression either by or against Ursa in one form or another.
Battle Note on Ursa:
I noted in Superman/Batman: Apocalypse that Superman doesn’t hit women, except in rare instances found in the comics. It continues here, even though Ursa is as strong and as powerful as Superman, and as sadistic and evil as Zod and Non. Ursa never really engages Superman in combat, and the few times she does, Superman does not respond physically.
As I state in review after review, Hollywood casts non-WASPs as villains all the time, and usually only when they cannot get away with casting Men and Women of Color in the roles of bad guys. Superman is no exception, here. For Zod and Ursa, their villainy is…enhanced…by their foreign accents – and by the fact that they have actual acting skills.
The Powers of Christopher Reeve:
When Superman confronts the criminals in his house, he throws an S-shield at Non, who is thrown back and momentarily stunned. When the criminals’ hand-beam attack has little effect on Superman, they use a teleportation attack. Superman responds by doing this:
To this day, there are fans who howl in disgust and contempt over movie Superman’s interpretations of his powers. I stated in my review of Superman 4 that Superman’s powers seem to have a telekinetic/mind-over-matter aspect to them. This usually explains why sometimes he struggles to lift heavy objects or move at super-speed, but then can lift mountains with little effort and fly several times the speed of light when he needs to. Also, the Superman of the comic books, particularly of the Silver Age, had powers like “Invisible Super-Speed,” “Super-Ventriloquism,” Time-Traveling ability to go forward or backward in time, and so on. In other words, if Superman needed a power or ability to solve a crisis, he could mimic one if he needed to.
And of the People of Color?
The only woman of color with an appreciable part, where she runs in the face of the Super-Criminals about to rampage the Daily Planet. Then again, with the exception of the fools who try to face down Non, knowing that he is as powerful as Superman, everyone with a modicum of common sense would run.
You also see 2 black men in the diner where Kal-El gets pummelled, with no lines and no actions except to stare at Clark getting beaten.
Spiderman Treads Lightly on Movie’s Moral Theme, Still Throws a Track:
I spend an inordinate amount of time lobbing cannon shell broadsides at the Spiderman movie franchise as produced by Sam Raimi because it’s been clear to me since the beginning that the screenplays that Raimi worked to produce were were simply thematic retreads of Superman movie scripts, only tailored to Spiderman’s story. Yet, in posting after posting, fans talk about how the story of Spiderman is “relate-able” to themselves as people, despite the fact that the only thing Peter does in many of these films is whine about what he can’t have.
I post this image of a depowered Kal-El having been beaten down by a mere mortal for the first time in his life for a reason: You will not find a similar moment in Spiderman. The only fights Peter gets into is when he is super-powered. In Spiderman 2, the equivalent scene for the above image is, not surprisingly, this:
No phone call to the police. No call for local help. No intervention whatsoever. In essence, a reflecting mirror on fandom: No help for the weakest of us when we’re in trouble, unless it is someone we are attracted to.
[And they happen at around the same time frame between Spiderman 2 and the Donner cut of Superman 2.]
Speaking of the Diner’s Ownership:
Of all the diners in Metropolis to go to, he picks the one owned by a Conservative/Libertarian. The mantra of the “US out the UN” was one espoused by Republicans and their Libertarian allies, based on the premise that the US was “spending too much money on Foreign Aid.” This opens up the can of worms regarding American Exceptionalism, as most of the same members of the GOP had (and continue to have) little problem with having American military bases on the soil of other sovereign lands. Expenditures for those run past the several hundred billion dollar per year mark.
Truth and Justice? Only in the movies…and even then, it is not enough.
And now, a Public Service Announcement on the Donner Cut:
Superman 2: The Richard Donner Cut shows exactly why rabid fanbases should never, ever be pandered to, for any reason whatsoever. The tinkering of this movie is on the same level as that found in any of the Star Wars Special Edition movies – and make about as much of the same level of necessity. Which is to say: None.
First, the Donner version removes much of Lois’ quest for a news story other than wanting to find out if Clark is indeed Superman. The French Terrorism plot in Lester’s version, while ultimately serving to act as the explosion that frees the Kryptonian criminals, gives us another measure of Lois doing anything and everything she can to get the story on hand. The Donner version goes straight to the Niagara Falls angle, with Lois bantering with Clark about “Superman.”
The next note about Superman II: Special Edition is that dialogue changed unnecessarily. Superman’s “General, would you care to step outside,” is now replaced with, “Haven’t you heard of Freedom of the Press?” as an example. Other lines that survived the Lester-to-Donner version are now said with different inflections, which were supposed to be more dramatic than the theatrical version, but fails to enhance the scene at all. When Superman kneels before Zod in the movie, the Lester version had Zod simply use his hand to command him to kneel. Now, Donner’s Special Edition has a voice say, “Kneel.” And it is not even Stamp’s 1980 voice, either.
Then there is Lois’ “trick.” Ultimately, the problem with Lois’ methods here is that no endgame is ever considered. No one never gets the sense that she was looking for anything in particular, other than to satisfy her own base curiosity which seems to have gotten the best of her. When you think about she ignores the assignment on hand because of it. Frankly, she is fortunate that Clark/Kal-El is head-over-heels in love with her, because something like that stunt would be a real relationship-killer.
But, do you know why this scene ultimately fails?
It’s because Kal-El catches a bullet with his bare hand AND fakes a fainting spell at the same time one movie earlier. And, this was at point-blank range. This means that both his vision and eye-hand coordination are far beyond those of human norm. Remember kids, Donner DIRECTED this scene. In other words, Kal-El would have seen that there was no bullet fired from Lois’ gun.
Thus, chalk up another point for Richard Lester and his “Clark trips and loses his glasses in a fire” to reveal his secret to Lois. At least it doesn’t diminish Superman/Clark/Kal-El and make Lois…well…something other than completely selfish.
Meanwhile, everything else in this movie is reduced in scope and scale; Where the Mt. Rushmore monument is defaced and virtually destroyed in Lester’s version, the Washington Monument just…crumbles with the Kryptonian villains flying by. Even Kal-El’s decision to become mortal seems much less of a sacrifice emotionally. Now, if the Lester cut of Kal-El’s depowering (with Suzannah York) had been combined with Donner’s version of how Jor-El restores Kal-El’s powers, then the requisite knife-twisting would have been what this film needed.
The Law of Unintended Consequences:
Besides the fact that the Donner cut seems to reduce everything in scope and breadth, Donner’s “vision” also seems to reduce the roles that women played in this film.
Originally, Marlon Brando’s Jor-El was supposed to be the one to deliver the awful news to Kal-El. However, since Donner had been fired, Warner Bros. did not want to pay Brando his extraordinarily high price a third time to play Jor-El. When Richard Lester took over, the scenes in the Fortress were reshot and Susannah York takes over as “Primary Caretake of the Archive.” Looking at the scenes in question, it clear that while Lester’s version spends less on visual effects, the emotional impact here is far greater than in Donner’s version. Maybe it is because Susannah drives the point home better than Brando’s version of the same sequence. Also, Kal-El is played more as a man who is ready to give up everything for Love in Lester’s sequence as opposed to his ‘rebellion’ against his father’s know-it-all ways in Donner’s version.
Also, take note of the emotional reactions of Lois Lane in both versions – there is a marked difference between the two.
Finally, Lester’s ultimate depowering of Kal-El held a symbolism, which is why you saw Superman in full costume in his version go in…and “Clark Kent” (sans glasses) come out.
Ursa. Based loosely on the Action Comics Faora Hu-Ul, she was supposed to be a man-killing straw feminist; She holds all men with the exception of General Zod with such low contempt that she would kill even young boys to satisfy this urge.
In Sarah Douglas’ case, the Donner version removes the arm wrestling fight in the small American town, many of her working lines and scenes from the battle in Metropolis, and her fighting parts in the battle at the Fortress. Even though in the grand scheme of things she doesn’t do nearly as much with her powers as Zod and Non, Donner’s vision has her doing even less. She does get an “additional” line where she makes a crack about Men wearing “ribbons and jewels” which was not present in Lester’s version – but the end result of that line was shown. The line added nothing to the scene – which was about the President surrendering the US (and the World) to Zod.
Meanwhile, Ursa fulfills the other trope of “Beautiful but Deadly,” where an attractive (usually white) woman in the service of evil is often shown killing or injuring men in ways that men in the service of evil do not do.
Lois Lane. As I stated earlier, Donner’s vision of Lois relentlessly pursuing the idea of exposing Superman’s secret identity at the expense of everything else diminishes Lois’ newshound behavior, especially since she never really seems to consider the endgame of such an action. However, one thing is clear – it wasn’t for a news story.
But if you really want to know what the impact of the Donner cut has on Lois Lane, watch Margot Kidder’s final scene at the Planet (the one with the Super-Kiss-of Forgetfulness) in Lester’s version. Then, watch Margot Kidder’s final scene at the Planet in Donner’s version, where it more about Clark resuming his “bumbling idiot” routine and the status quo returning to normal. Thus, we come to this:
No One Learns A Thing:
Because Donner goes back to the well:
None of the events in Superman 2 ever take place. Zod and company are placed back into the Phantom Zone – and the Hackensack Missile does not explode to release them this time. Lois never deduces that Clark is Superman, nor do they go to Niagara Falls. Which means that they never make it to the Fortress of
Eternal Love Solitude.
This also, by the way, makes this action moot:
Superman heat visioning the Fortress, destroying it. Then he travels back in time, which would completely undo the very action, minutes later.
We also lose this:
Superman apologizing for his absence that allowed the Kryptonian criminals to rampage the US. This was a very important moment in the annals of Superman, because it allowed the audience to acknowledge both Superman’s failure and his “responsibility” to uphold “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”®.
Funny thing is, it becomes clear that Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns follows the movie as released by Richard Lester, because the plot cannot follow Richard Donner’s version, as it was all undone.
More visual effects and modernized versions of old scenes do not make a movie better. The reason is because they call undue attention to themselves far too often. As has been the case with most fantasy-based special editions, the roles played by women are downplayed, sometimes considerably. Adding more pointless cutaways does not help Donner’s version, nor the removal of most of the overdubbing/ADR (mostly of the female roles) in favor of the new voice work.
There was a lot of infighting on the set of Superman, and Richard Lester had to salvage the debacle caused by the fight between Warner Bros. and the Salkinds over this movie, which had the collateral damage passed on to Hackman, Kidder, and others. Considering that no one but the “purists” really hated the Lester/Theatrical version of Superman II, it should have meant that a pause was needed to think over what the purity fight is all about. Gene Hackman’s comments about Salkinds diminishing the quality of the Superman franchise were ultimately both misguided and correct at the same time.
[Sidebar: I realize that have not really been analyzing the racial and gender dynamics of popular movies in some of the previous reviews with my usual fervor. In all honesty, it feels like I’m retreading ground most times because the movies themselves indict their lack of diversity of roles. Maybe I need that cold water blast…]
Richard Donner’s cut was a answer to a question that was never really asked, and was used to exploit a property in anticipation of a movie release that would, in the end, not be very well received. Rabid fandom of every stripe is never helpful.
Superman 2, on some levels, is fun. But on others, it is very disappointing. If you like Lois Lane as a character, avoid the Richard Donner version. If you must, treat this movie like the Star Wars special edition movies: use the discs for coasters.