Do you know what my favourite film was when I was 7 or 8? Superman 2. Bloody loved it. And what 7 or 8 year old boy wouldn’t? Superman facing off against three super-powered villains, special effects, flying, explosions, giant cellophane ‘S’ symbols being hurled about… oh hang on. Yeah, there were a few things wrong with it, weren’t there?
Brace yourself; things are about to get geeky.
Of course many of the things that cause me to hate the film now only started to bother me over time; I kind of accepted the atmosphere-sapping plot holes when I was young, but there was always something a bit ‘off’ about the film that I couldn’t articulate until I became a fully grown geek.
Now I know the history behind Superman 2; that Richard Donner was hired to direct both the original and the sequel back-to-back and that he did a fucking amazing job. Together with his creative collaborator Tom Mankiewicz (who essentially re-wrote the script for both films) he created a solid, believable world that despite falling well within the realms of fantasy adhered to the rules of both storytelling and logic. Anyone who’s watched the behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD will remember the mantra behind everything they did: verisimilitude. This was going to be played straight – no winks to camera, no cheese, no camp. If the world, despite its fantastical nature, were treated seriously, the viewers would more readily accept the fantastical elements and become engaged in the story.
And it worked. Superman was a triumph. More than that, it set a template for all the best superhero adaptations that followed in the years to come.
The problem was that the producers hated the director. Richard Donner was 75% through filming all the stuff he needed for Superman 2 when they halted production. And after the first film was released, they fired him. Mankiewicz went too. They brought in a guy called Richard Lester who was better known for his cheesy, camp sensibilities and perhaps predictably he treated Superman, and his world, in the same way. Most of the film was already in the can, but that didn’t stop him from putting his putrid mark on the sequel. He got new scenes written and re-filmed others.
Superman taking a cellophane ‘S’ shield from the symbol on his chest and then throwing it at an opponent as it gets bigger and bigger is small fry compared to some of his other creative decisions. It’s not one of Superman’s powers (I don’t think it’s one of any superhero’s powers) but that doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s just a silly comic book movie! Look, I’m even going to give General Zod a zero-gravity finger beam! That’s fun, isn’t it? How about giving Superman the amazing new ability to create lots of copies of himself? Yeah, fuck it, why not?
I know what some of you might be thinking: come on, it’s just a superhero film – what’s wrong with giving him a few new powers? Fine, you’re obviously not fans of the genre. You like Conan Doyle? Let’s make Sherlock Holmes a cross-dressing Italian. You like Jane Austin? Let’s have Emma marry Frank Churchill instead. You like historical war epics? Let’s have the Americans recover the Enigma machine from the Germans instead of the Brits (oh hang on, Hollywood actually did that). You get the point. Don’t change shit for the hell of it; you piss off the fan base if you do it for no good reason.
But it goes beyond faithfulness to the source. Lester actually wrote in new scenes that MAKE NO NARRATIVE SENSE.
Take the aforementioned Superman duplicate scene at the end of the film. Remember what one of the Super-duplicates says to Lois about him and General Zod?
“We use to play this game at school. He never was any good at it.”
Eh? I mean it’s one thing not to bother learning about the character, but you’d think Richard Lester would at least have watched the first film! But he couldn’t have, because when filming this scene he was apparently oblivious to the fact that when Superman was just a baby on Krypton, General Zod was a fully-grown man on trial for treason (for which he is banished into space in a giant Rubik’s Magic). And that when Superman was old enough to finally go to school IT WAS ON EARTH and General Zod was still floating around the galaxy in purgatory. It’s all in the first 10 minutes! He didn’t even watch the first 10 minutes!!
Then there’s the worst lapse in story-telling logic, because it flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught, makes no sense in terms of character motivation, and flat-out breaks the rules established in the first film. And all for the cheap gag of a man falling over.
Remember the bit where clumsy Clark trips over a bearskin rug and accidentally falls into a fireplace, allowing Lois to deduce his real identity due to his lack of injury?
WHAT THE FUCK?!
Clark isn’t clumsy. He’s Superman. He can catch a bullet, I’m fairly sure he can avoid a stationary bearskin rug. Even if he did trip on it (which isn’t possible) he has superhuman reactions, super-speed and the ability to fly; he could easily re-orientate himself in milliseconds without Lois even noticing. But it’s painfully obvious that Lester DOESN’T GET IT. He thinks Clark is clumsy. He’s missed the entire point: that Clark Kent is a disguise – he makes people think he’s clumsy and useless so that they won’t suspect he’s really Superman. You’ve undermined and made a nonsense of his entire character FOR A CHEAP GAG!
As originally written, that scene should have been Lois firing a gun at Clark because she was so sure he was Superman. When Clark acknowledges the truth after the gunshot, Lois reveals that the gun contained blanks. How lovely is that? It shows Lois to be resourceful and clever, it gives Clark good reason to reveal his identity*, and it has a more sophisticated gag at the end. More importantly, it’s entirely faithful to the characters. But no, let’s jettison all of that so there’s a bit with a man falling over! The kids love it when a man falls over!
I can’t watch Superman 2 anymore because all these glaring issues sap any enjoyment I would otherwise feel.
And how can I be so sure that the only reason Superman 2 didn’t completely suck was because of all the stuff that Donner and Mankiewicz had already done? Because Lester was in complete control for Superman 3. That’s the one where Richard Pryor skis off a building wearing a tablecloth.
* Of course, technically speaking, Superman would’ve been able to ascertain that a blank was fired rather than a real bullet using his amazing powers and act accordingly, but I’m not going to pick holes. I’m not that kind of person.