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Nearly 40 Years Later: Superman II Still Stands Up

Some movies can not hold up over time, but that is not true for Superman 2. Read on.

The internet is stuffed full of articles ranking the top Marvel and DC movies. To a point, it’s fun and useful to see these lists, and even argue why Thor Ragnorak is better than Avengers: Infinity War, or why Michael Keaton was the definitive Batman. When it comes to DC Movies, Superman II and the Dark Knight usually come out around the top. 
But is it fair to compare them? The Dark Knight is a compelling, dystopian masterpiece, whereas Superman II is a camp romp, sometimes unintentionally funny, but just as memorable. Almost 40 years later, let’s take a look at why the film still intrigues

Anyway, let’s get some of the problems out of the way first: The cellophane ‘S’, which Superman throws on Non (Jack O’Halloran), has gone down as a legendary head-scratching moment; the special effects are up and down, but are sometimes used to good effect the comedic elements and the campy comedy have been lauded as giving the film heart and making it unintentionally hilarious, especially when watching back now, but they do detract from the dramaIt should be also pointed out that the film famously had two directors, with Richard Lester taking over from Richard Donner half-way through production. Normally, that’s a recipe for disaster, but most critics agree it didn’t hurt the film. A Richard Donner cut was also made available in 2006.  

Hackman steals the show 
As for the cast, it’s hard to find a flaw. Christopher Reeve finally made the role his own; Terence Stamp clearly enjoys himself as the main antagonist, “Kneel before Zod!”; Margot Kidder puts in (another) superb performance as Lois Lane, portraying dual feistiness and frailty; Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor steals every scene he appears in, “Think of it. Three… count them, three supervillains! Each one with the powers of Superman! They'll need a contact here on Earth! Someone with the same wonderful contempt for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Genius.  

The plot – apart from a wonky ending to the action in the Fortress of Solitude – is pretty solid, and perhaps started the ball rolling for the conflicted, ‘hanging up the cape’ theme that runs through nearly every superhero film. Superman gives up his powers, is faced with the challenge of General Zod, Ursa and Non, gets his powers back and, finally, defeats the bad guys when all seemed at its most desperate. 

Zod is perfect villain  
The main fight sequence – the battle of Metropolis – basically acts as a microcosm for the whole film. The scenes are among the most iconic, even used in the Superman II slot game which you can see on this online pokies page. Indeed, it ticks all the boxes of the film’s themes and dramatic devices: It starts camp, “General, would you care to step outside?”; pulls out the slapstick comedy (Lester’s specialty) through the medium of the public’s reaction to the battle; then, adds some really cool moments like Superman firing General Zod into the Coca Cola neon sign. 

So, how – or why – does the film hold up? That’s difficult to put a finger on, because there is a lot wrong with it. But consider that the film is the anthesis of the darker conflicts of contemporary superhero films we see today. There are no deaths in the film, despite the apocalyptic destruction teased. Its villains are pure representations of evil. There is no attempt to justify it, no conflict within themselves รก la Darth Vader. The vogue nowadays is to blur the lines between good and evil, “we are the same, you and I”, whereas Superman II clearly demarcates that line. 

A portrayal of an innocent world 
And that, one would argue, is refreshing to modern audiences. There was an innocence to blockbuster movie making in the 1980s that perhaps belied some of the real cynicism of the era. We go to watch Superman II knowing that he is not going to die in the end, or that he will have to make some dreadful sacrifice. The film is (mostly) the opposite of ambiguityThere are no, for example, corrupt governments, the public is made up of good people, society is pure – earth is good.  

Would a superhero film today end with the hero returning the US Flag to the White House, with the inference the US Government is good and untainted? Consider Superman’s final words to the US President (E.G Marshall), “Good afternoon, Mr. President! Sorry I've been away so long. I won't let you down again.” In a way, it is not with the people flying around wearing capes, but the portrayal of earth and its institutions as incorruptible and moral where we must suspend our disbelief. 

Kidder is wonderful as Lois Lane 
Yet, there is one twist that hits audiences like a sucker punch – Superman doesn’t really get the girl in the end. Kidder’s raspy-voiced, yet tough-but-vulnerable Lois Lane realizes she can’t have a relationship with the knowledge that Clark Kent is Superman. Kidder is superb in these scenes, laying out a template of how to properly portray a character’s conflict in superhero movies for years to come. 

The last word must go to Reeve. His performance as the titular hero is superb. As Clark Kent, he gets to deliver some of those brilliant campy lines: When he gives Rocky his comeuppance in the final diner scene, “Gee, that’s funny. I’ve never seen garbage eat garbage before’ and (after throwing Rocky across the diner’s counter) “this orders to go”. As Superman, he was the straight man, but the role was played with Reeve always hinting at a knowing smirk. An underrated performance. It is now 15 years from Reeve’s tragic death. Despite the pain he suffered in his later years, for some of us he will always be the Man of Steel.   

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