With the 2006 DVD issue of the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, its been very popular lately to badmouth Richard Lester‘s theatrical cut of the film. Donner favored a more serious, straightforward approach, which some purists find more appropriate.
Frankly, Donner’s 1978 Superman was often times ponderous and needlessly pretentious, while Lester’s approach in the sequel was a little darker and more satirical, yet somehow it retained a classic slapstick feel in certain scenes. Lester’s version is also very reflective of its time and is a pretty cool window into the early 80s. Simply put, it’s one of the best superhero movies ever made. I’ll start today’s Overlooked Movie Monday with a little background…
When the legendary comic book superhero Superman finally found his way to the big screen during the Christmas season in 1978, he was perfectly embodied by unknown actor Christopher Reeve in a blockbuster movie directed by Donner. Following the film’s immediate box office success, it was just a matter of time before work on the sequel (which was partially filmed during the shoot for Superman to save money) would resume.
When the cameras continued rolling for Superman II, however, producers Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind fired Donner over budgetary concerns and replaced him with director Richard Lester. Donner hadand had already filmed many sequences for the sequel on the original shoot, but the hiring of Lester meant that Superman II would now reflect more of the personal stamp of the man who gained fame with the groundbreaking Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night and the Salkind-produced epics The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers.
Lester managed to pull together many disparate elements to form a darker and, under the circumstances, fairly cohesive slice of Hollywood entertainment.
Superman II, released overseas in 1980 and in the United States in 1981, uniquely reflected cultural and social issues of its time such as the fear of nuclear war and terrorism, with a renewed lease on Cold War tensions. The film also criticized U.S. machismo and “superpower” status in both visual iconography and central themes.
Originally, the ICBM rocket that exploded in the first Superman was supposed to do so in outer space, triggering the release of three villains from Krypton, and creating a cliffhanger that pointed towards Superman II. When completion of Superman was hastily finished, this idea was not used, and a new beginning needed to be written to allow the evil trio’s release from The Phantom Zone.
Without really going into any depth on the subject, the screenwriters delved into a current crisis for the answer. Ever since the televised terrorist attack on Israeli Olympic athletes at the Munich games of 1972, terrorism had been a hot-button world issue. In 1979, the United States had fallen victim to its own first highly-publicized hostage crisis, as 66 U.S. citizens and diplomats were held hostage for 14 months inside the embassy in Tehran.
In order to fulfill the requirement of an opening explosion in outer space, the issue of terrorism is exploited in Superman II’s opening scenes. Unspecified “terrorists” wearing white jumpsuits stand atop the Eiffel Tower with hostages and an H-Bomb, threatening to level Paris. Preying on the public’s knowledge of attacks like Munich and the Iran hostage crisis, the story takes Superman II farther outside of the fantasy realm that the first movie resided so comfortably in, but really only uses the tactic as a device to get an explosion in space.
Lester throws in a subtle jab at a symptom of selective American blindness when Daily Planet editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) says cluelessly upon hearing the news, “Get me everything you have on terrorism!” It’s as if he never paid attention to the issue until a reporter from his paper was on the scene with a scoop. Once Superman apprehends the bomb, it is already activated, so he flies it safely out of the Earth’s range before it explodes.
Cold War Fears
Besides the Iran Hostage crisis, the fear of possible nuclear war appears as a social reflection of the times in this scene as well. The fact that terrorists have access to a hydrogen bomb is a scary possible real-life situation to begin with, but there is no Superman in real-life to fly it to space. In the movie, when that happens, even that act has horrible repercussions. The cultural pulse of America’s relationship with nuclear weapons is revealed even more specifically when the fearful President later abandons nuclear weapons as an option for fighting Krypton’s conquerors because just the nukes are just “too powerful,” despite their being the only solution to ridding the planet of the evil alien trio of General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran). In addition, nuclear paranoia takes a more direct form during the climactic battle in Metropolis when one man is seen walking the street with a placard reading “The End of the World is Nigh.”
The uneasy truce that the U.S. held with the other nuclear superpower in the early 80s is referenced in Superman II as well, in a scene where the terrible three, very intimidating in all black uniforms and dark, stylized eye make-up, descend upon a joint U.S./U.S.S.R. space mission on the moon.
A controller at the command center in Houston jokes of a little “détente humor,” but the nonchalant way in which Zod and his team dispatch the astronauts and cosmonauts that is truly frightening. Humankind’s greatest achievement, something our country spent almost 20 years racing the Soviets for the lead in, is all destroyed in a shockingly casual manner by the evil aliens from Krypton.
On their journey towards Earth, Ursa comes upon an astronaut, encased in his huge bodysuit with attached breathing apparatus, and taunts him for being slow and weak before a kick to the groin sends him careening off into space. The Kryptonians marvel at the ease in which they are able to kill the puny humans and disable their silly spacecraft.
Scenes like this are both chilling and darkly funny at the same time, using a parallel between the arms race and the recently-ended space race to poke fun at the Earth’s two “superpowers.” It serves as a warning that the use of bigger forces like nuclear weapons could end in the devastation of either or both countries. When the evil trio flies away from the moon, they toss the two countries’ flags, their greatest symbols of pride, dismissively aside. The flags land symbolically side by side, on the ruins of the team’s lunar module.
This attitude leads us nicely to two of the major themes or motifs that Lester ties into Superman II, both of which are unusual in that they are fairly critical of the U.S., despite the fact that this is such a flag-waving mainstream piece of entertainment.
Macho, Macho Men
First, the movie contains a subplot concerning Clark Kent and a man at a diner that is rich with subtext. After Lois learns of Superman’s secret identity, he takes the vow to lose his powers and becomes human just like Lois. The timing is bad, considering Zod’s recent conquering of the world, and when the bully at the diner picks a fight with Clark, he loses, and tastes his own blood for the first time.
This thinly-veiled criticism of U.S. machismo warns that we as a country “may become painfully aware of the limitations” of our powers. (156) In a post-Vietnam era, however, we just cannot let it end there. As a country, we must have our revenge, so a re-match at the end of the movie provides Clark an opportunity to beat the bully up right there in the diner with the silent approval of the other patrons. On one hand, the theme of a petulant America is clear, but another subtext that can be read here is that the other countries around the world rely on the United States to be powerful, and even if they pretend to disapprove, they also secretly support us.
Lester also takes easy aim at the stereotype of the American redneck (like the bully), celebrated in such recent hit movies as the Every Which Way But Loose and the Smokey and the Bandit series. When Zod and company reach Earth, they arrive in a small Idaho town and immediately face a yokel sheriff and his slack-jawed deputy, as well as a ton of other simple rural types, represented by cowboy hats and western-style shirts.
The police are so out of touch that they mistake the villains for “hippies,” and yell at them to get off the road. Ironically, the small-town residents strike at the weird trio first. The Kryptonians don’t start all that much trouble themselves, but when they experience human aggression, it is turned back “against itself with redoubled force.” (159) The choice to have Zod and Ursa speak with British accents (Non is basically a mute) makes them even more “alien” in this part of the country.
Team America: World Police
The bomb going off in space helps to illuminate the second major theme of the film, a criticism of the U.S. as a watchdog for the rest of the world. At first, it looks like a grand slam for Superman to take the H-bomb to outer space for a safe detonation. This event, however well-meant, can be seen as an “allegory of American global interference, noble in intention, but which actually unleashes an alarming situation that leads to ignominious American surrender.” (157)
Superman also embodies America’s struggles with global responsibility when he tries to figure out a way to balance his earthly desires for Lois with his moral devotion to the cause of “truth, justice, and the American way.” His decision to lead a happy personal life has dire consequences for the planet. The dilemma is effective on that personal level, partly due to the mature direction from Lester, who brings his experience with similar themes of loyalty and friendship from his swashbuckling Musketeers epics.
The last shot of Superman II is one of the hero flying towards the camera, around the entire planet, the protector of the Earth. If he represents the U.S. in a political allegory, then the country portrayed in the movie has similar problems.
In the movie, the White House is unquestionably presented as the power center of the world, as Zod, Ursa and Non fly there from the rural U.S. to speak with the leader of the planet—the American President. In another subtle Lester comment, he is portrayed as weak, donning an awful toupee and relying almost exclusively on Superman to come and save the day. When the trio arrives, the President first hides while a lackey offers up surrender immediately. When he does come out, he kneels before Zod as a gesture “for the sake of the people of the world.” The President even speaks for the entire world, and not just the country, on a television broadcast, when he gives all authority and control of the planet over to Zod. Then he breaks down and screams for help from Superman.
Both the United States and Superman are under a lot of pressure. Superman II makes the case that America is like the Man of Steel, “emasculated by adulation and expectation, which makes demands on him he knows he cannot fill and induces an impotence that leads to violence.” (156) This country mirrors Superman’s problems when the citizens of Metropolis turn on him so easily while he is missing, and again later, when it appears that he is fleeing the climactic battle. There are numerous lines heard on screen from extras in the crowd, such as “he chickened out!” “phony,” and “don’t leave us!”
Although the quick comic timing and fast pace of the film may recall Lester’s earlier work on Help! And A Hard Day’s Night, Superman II is by no means a wholly campy film. It shows the superhero as flawed and human, while poking an accusing finger at the public’s need for hero worship and their consequent rush to judgment when the hero displays too many human characteristics. Like The Beatles, Superman’s status forces him into a role (as planetary watchdog) that prevents him from leading a normal life. (155)
Landmarks and flags are used in no small measure to root the movie, despite the fictional city of Metropolis, in our reality. Besides the threat to the Eiffel Tower in the beginning, the Empire State Building’s antenna is snapped right off by Non and Mount Rushmore is permanently altered by the evil Kryptonians to bear their likenesses. Like the first Superman’s Lois/Superman flight around the Statue of Liberty, no attempt has been made to disguise Metropolis from its obvious doppelganger in real-life, New York City.
The choice to destroy these iconic monuments (15 years before “Independence Day”) brings the terror of the drama a little closer to home, and further connects Superman as one-in-the-same with his adopted country. When Zod takes over the White House, he is a towering figure, shot from below, as the U.S. flag falls symbolically from the dome behind him. After Zod’s defeat, of course, the dome is returned and re-attached by Superman, who promises directly to the President that he’ll never let him down again.
Tonight the Streets Are Ours
This kind of obvious connection and patriotic rhetoric takes a backseat, however, once the battle between the trio and Superman hits the streets of Metropolis and Lester takes on a capitalist society gone amok. The location is a dead ringer for Times Square, complete with giant billboards and logos advertising big corporations like Kentucky Fried Chicken and JVC. It is a fight that Superman, outnumbered by three superhumans with identical powers to him, must forfeit.
While it rages on, though, the fight demolishes a huge neon Coca-Cola sign and a Marlboro truck in spectacular fashion. While this may be the beginnings of corporate placement, one cannot help but laugh at the visual irony that powerful beings from another planet basically destroy our capitalist icons in a fight so brutal that our country’s super-powered ambassador must retreat in order to survive.
Certainly the setting of Richard Lester’s movie is a darker, more cynical view of the world than Richard Donner had in the first Superman. If anything, Lester was freed from the origin story of the famous all-American superhero to explore and reflect cultural issues of the time such as the fear of nuclear war and the threat of terrorism.
He cast a shadow over the United States’ relationship with the U.S.S.R., suggesting that grave danger may lie ahead, while criticizing the country’s arrogance and machismo. The central themes of the film were also brought out through visual iconography that both celebrated and mocked the U.S. status as a world superpower and watchdog.
Richard Lester wrapped it all up with his trademark wit, making it a uniquely entertaining film that is definitely a product of its time.
Sinyard, Neil. The Films of Richard Lester. London: Croom Helm, 1985.