Superman II 2.7: To Get to the Other Side

Let us speak, then, of comedy.

When people talk about the difference between Richard Donner’s work on Superman: The Movie and Richard Lester’s work on Superman II, they often say that Lester was a comedy director, and that he turned Superman II into a comedy. There’s some truth to that — there is a different sensibility between the two directors — but it’s not the difference between serious and comic. It’s the difference between two different kinds of comedy.

Donner’s comedy was mostly verbal. Basically, as soon as the film sets foot in Metropolis, everyone starts wisecracking and never stops. Everyone at the Daily Planet is funny, all of the villains are funny, the big scene between Superman and Lois is a romantic comedy sequence. Everybody talks fast, and they talk a lot.

Lester’s comedy is more visual than verbal, and the best example that I have is the scene that just happens to be coming up right now, when Superman crosses the road and causes a traffic accident. In many ways, this scene embodies Lester’s approach to the film, and the fact that it sucks does not bode well for the future of the franchise.

To start with, the visual continuity’s all wrong. The sequence opens with the same establishing shot that Donner used in Superman: The Movie, filmed on location in New York, outside the Daily News Building on E. 42nd Street. The camera is currently pointing west, with the ornate Art Deco facade of the Daily Planet on the left.

Having established that, we now cut to a set at Pinewood Studios, and we’re facing the wrong way.

Clark and Lois are on opposite sides of the street, walking towards us. Clark’s on the left, Lois is on the right, and according to the establishing shot, the Daily Planet building should be on Clark’s side. But it isn’t, which I find irritating on a level that I am not able to fully convey.

It’s not like there’s any behind-the-scenes production reason why they didn’t build the set to match the establishing shot. They just didn’t care enough. There’s going to be a lot of that, coming up.

Clark sees Lois walking on the other side of the street, and calls out, “Hi, Lois!” She returns his greeting, and keeps walking.

Then we see the following sequence of shots:

There’s something wrong with that sequence, but I’m not sure that I can explain it. It makes me wish that I’d actually read that Film Directing: Shot By Shot book that I bought several months ago, rather than put it on my bookshelf and hope that I get smarter just by looking at the spine once in a while.

I think it might be the second shot that I find disorienting. The action is a simple T shape: Clark crossing from left to right, with the taxicab arriving to meet him at the midpoint. But that second shot suddenly puts us at a weird angle that I don’t think works.

The other disorienting thing about it is that Lester is cutting around the thing that actually happened, in order to save the visual punchline for the end of the scene. So you see Clark walking, the taxi driver screaming, and something happens — but you don’t know what it is, and most importantly, nobody in the scene reacts to the event in an appropriate way.

The driver leaps out of the door, to check the front of the car…

and Lois shouts an annoyed: “Clark!

As he hurries to join her, she chides, “You ever heard of crosswalks?”

“Yeah, but, you know, I mean…” he says, helplessly.

As he reaches her, she continues, “Do you have any idea how stupid that was?”

And then we get the punchline: the taxi ran into the secretly invulnerable Clark Kent, and is now smashed up. There’s steam coming out of the wreck, and the sound of bubbling liquid.

To close the scene, the driver looks at the retreating Clark, and shouts, “Freak!” Then he looks back at the car, muttering, “That’s all I need…”

So here’s why I hate that scene.

#1) Clark has just destroyed someone else’s property, and he doesn’t care. The driver needs to drive this cab to earn his living; this is a huge problem for him — and Clark just looks down, absently notices the damage that he’s done, and keeps on walking. This is not how Superman should behave.

#2) Lois has just watched Clark get hit by a car, and wreck the car. She is looking right at him when it happens, and her dialogue makes it clear that she has taken in the entire scene. The damaged car is clearly in her line of sight. But she doesn’t notice that anything’s strange, which feeds into the annoying “superstar reporter Lois Lane is too stupid to notice what’s in front of her” concept.

#3) The driver has just had a moment of terror, an income-threatening accident and a brush with the supernatural, and his reaction is incredibly blasé. Under any circumstances, a New York cab driver would be yelling at the guy, even if it was a mild inconvenience and not an extra-terrestrial mystery. He correctly labels Clark as a “freak”, but then he allows the cryptid to walk out of his life, without asking any questions or trying to get compensation.

In other words, nobody involved in this situation acts in a comprehensible way, which in my opinion ruins the joke. Donner said that his guiding principle was “verisimilitude” — that even though there’s a crazy space angel walking around Metropolis, everyone should be reacting to it in a realistic way. I think that this scene is exactly what Donner wanted to avoid, a moment that bends everybody’s psychology out of shape, in order to justify a comic punchline that frankly isn’t worth the trouble.

I think that this is Lester’s style of comedy — setting up visual set pieces that are exaggerated and unreal. There’s a similar moment in the next scene, when Clark tries to use Lois’ juicer, and crushes his thumb with an agonizing, audible crunch — with Lois looking directly at him, and not reacting in any way. It’s not a particularly funny joke, and once again it requires Lois to be oblivious to what’s happening right in front of her.

And while I’m at it, that Daily Planet facade doesn’t match the establishing shot in any way. I could accept excuses if it was just a matter of not reproducing all of the fiddly Art Deco features, but this isn’t even close. The Daily Planet sign is in the wrong place, it’s much smaller, and they didn’t even bother putting in a revolving door. The sidewalk is way too narrow, and the fruit and vegetable seller is nowhere to be seen. Also, it’s on the wrong side of the street.

Now, the one thing that everyone says about Richard Lester is that he got things done on time. He kept to a budget, he kept to a schedule, and if something wasn’t quite good enough, then he did as well as he could and then moved on. That made the Salkinds happy, which is nice, but I think this scene demonstrates the limitations of that approach, from the audience’s perspective.

This scene has bad staging, bad visual continuity and an extremely lazy attitude toward set design and construction, supporting a joke that doesn’t make sense for the characters and isn’t particularly funny. I hate to be so  negative like this right from the jump, but we are two sequences into this movie, and I am not super optimistic at this point.

Tomorrow:
Lois makes juice in her new office in
2.8: Orange You Glad


Footnote:

We’re going to see that cabbie again at the end of the movie, reacting to the Superman/Phantom Zoner fight. Apparently, he got the car fixed, just in time for it to be blown down the street and through a plate glass window, possibly with him inside.

Tomorrow:
Lois makes juice in her new office in
2.8: Orange You Glad

Chapters

— Danny Horn

27 thoughts on “Superman II 2.7: To Get to the Other Side

  1. The biggest problem with Superman II is that it’s a bad movie that people inexplicably talk about like it’s a good movie. Which fundamentally alters your whole approach to it in the blog. You have to spend time explaining *that* it’s bad instead of just why it’s bad.

    And man, it’s just so depressing that Superman II is such a mess.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. My experience with why people think Superman II is a good movie or that it’s better than the first one, is that they like it because it’s more punchy punchy.

      According to these people, nothing happens in Superman: The Movie. He races some rockets, kisses a Playboy model, and that’s about it. Superman II sees Superman using heat vision, freeze breath, and punching bad guys in the face. Cue the fanboy erection.

      I haven’t read Film Directing: Shot By Shot either, so I won’t attempt to explain why it’s bad. But to me, it’s always just felt like it was desperately trying to be Superman: The Movie, and failing.

      Liked by 5 people

    2. People (including me) liked Superman 2 better because there’s more action. Ask someone about this movie and they’ll tell you about the battle with the Phantom Zone criminals.

      Liked by 3 people

    3. Growing up, SUPERMAN II was placed up there with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and THE GODFATHER PART II as sequels that were superior to the original. I disagree in all instances, although I think ESB/GPII are at least great movies.

      I think the reason many people preferred SUPERMAN II is that it’s all Metropolis and more Superman (though, we really don’t see a lot of him doing cool stuff. We just see him sooner). And the Metropolis battle with the Phantom Zone criminals is admittedly a COOL THING when you’re a 7 year old.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Eh, I’ve got a a whole drawerful of books waiting to make me smarter, Danny. Maybe I should crack it a bit so the information can get out.

    But yes, Lester’s “everybody act like the destruction of their most ingrained beliefs in how the universe functions is barely annoying, let alone leads to a psychotic break with sanity for all and sundry” is the exact opposite of funny, in this context. The deadpan approach can work–Monty Python would be nowhere without it–but this isn’t a heightened reality, in the context of the movie. The entire point is that it’s just another manic Monday, everybody going about their business, and *WHAM* this dope in a hat and glasses just shatters how the world is supposed to function.

    If Lester had even had Clark shrug and grin and stutter, and had Lois at least try to react while Clark hustles her inside bleating about being late, it might have gelled. But it’s like leaving the eggs out of the cake this way.

    The later example, where Clark crushes his thumb, contains my favorite Lois moment; where she’s ranting about the healthiness and natural goodness of fresh squeezed orange juice while waving her lit cigarette around. That’s juxtaposition that makes for humor, especially when you know Lois, the gutsy girl reporter who regularly jumps out windows and into terrorists’ arms to get a story. So it’s not that Lester didn’t get comedy at all–he just was putting the wrong cape on this version of the movie.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. When I saw SUPERMAN II at my campus movie theater in 1995, that moment when Lois declares, “THIS is natural” while simultaneously stabbing out a cigarette got a big laugh.

      But otherwise, yes, Lester’s humor doesn’t work for me because it’s not character driven. He does a lot of visual humor in this and SUPERMAN III and that just feels cartoonish and not in a good way.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I’m just waiting for you to reach the opening of SUPERMAN III, Lester visual gagging at a crescendo and enlisting a motley group of slapstick folks as nameless dupes just for that sequence. Benny Hill foil Bob Todd, utility player Graham Stark of the PINK PANTHER movies, an actual clown who moved into Britcoms, the guy who would later be Napoleon in BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURES, a serious stage actor who alternated doing sketch stuff with Eric Idle and David Frost, and a mime. Visual over verbal indeed.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. In other words, nobody involved in this situation acts in a comprehensible way, which in my opinion ruins the joke. Donner said that his guiding principle was “verisimilitude” — that even though there’s a crazy space angel walking around Metropolis, everyone should be reacting to it in a realistic way.

    Speaking of realism, it always bugged me that Clark violated the laws of physics when that cab struck him and he wasn’t budged. Maybe Lois didn’t think it the cab hit him when she saw him still standing, but surely she saw the front of the cab was staved in?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, when I saw this as a kid, I just accepted it as the joke it was intended to be.

      Now ….

      1. This Superman seems to have a force field around him like a skin. The force from the moving vehicle hit the field and the field may be channeled it right back into the moving vehicle … and seems to have multiplied the energy since it caused a lot more damage than an impact at that speed should have done. I’m leaning toward it being something that would happen if he didn’t consciously control it. Could be a nifty biological survival feature. If a predator attacks, it would be great to have an automatic defense that magnified and flipped the energy back at the predator.

      2. Clark’s general distraction might be real. Pair bonding can make people pretty unfocused and he seems to have that behavioral pattern even though he’s Kryptonian.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m reminded of how defining Lester’s visual approach to comedy is in the one film of his I truly like, A Hard Day’s Night. For that film, screenwriter Alun Owen followed the Beatles around on tour for a week and wrote down as many funny things that they said as he could, which he then tied together into a storyline resulting in a script loaded with verbal wit.

    Lester then takes the dialogue, funny but often part of thoroughly mundane situations, and adds spices of surreal visual humor. The film works because Lester only gets a few of these moments in the film, so they don’t get tiresome. On the other hand, by the time of Help!, the Beatles were now smoking pot almost constantly, and had no interest in contributing any ideas to the film, letting Lester run riot with wacky visual gags. A Hard Day’s Night is regarded as one of the classic British comedies of the Sixties…Help! isn’t.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. > But it isn’t, which I find irritating on a level that I am not able to fully convey.

    I did go to film school and read a bunch of film books and what I think you’re sensing is what’s called “crossing the line.”

    The easiest example is an interview set where the guest is on the left and the host is on the right. The two people create a line and the cameras need to say on the audience side of that line. If you cut to a camera behind the speakers (it “crosses the line”) they would appear to be on the wrong sides. This would be disorienting.

    If you notice a shot in a movie that seems to have been flopped backwards (hair part on the wrong side, a sign with backwards letters, etc.), it’s usually to get an actor facing the “proper” way to not cross the line.

    Liked by 6 people

  7. I always thought of “Superman II” as a good movie not because of the action sequences but because of the progress, till it was negated, of the love story of Lois and Superman. And because of Luthor’s line about doorknobs.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. There are script problems, and then there are production problems.

    They couldn’t use what should’ve been the best lines for Lester World.
    Clark, to driver: “Hey! I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”
    Jim’s Friend the Bystander Pimp, to Clark: “Actually, that ain’t a bad way to pick up insurance, you know.”
    Lois, to Clark: “With proper management, you could be taking home a hundred bucks a day, easy.”

    Donner’s cinematographer died after the first movie, right? Even if Lester had wanted to continue with the same look, it wasn’t possible any more. He had to start over for this sequel with a brand new person in the single most important crew position of a film.

    Lester probably also had to scramble like mad, to instantly assemble the rest of a crew and cast. That is, out of those who hadn’t quit in loyalty to Donnor getting thrown down the bottomless pit of the Fortress of Salkindism.

    All while perhaps Lester wondered if he really would get paid in full this time. Meanwhile, punching up the script with more surreal wacky comedy, his famous forte.

    And all this after Donnor flat out refused Lester’s offer to share the credit. Which we already learned, forced needless alternate shots of perfectly usable Donnor footage.

    Art director, script supervisor, editor all among those who should have said to Lester, “Hey Boss, these shots don’t add up to show what’s in the script.” It was their job to have read the book and know how to line up a shot that feels right.

    Maybe John Williams also felt that sense of unease, and didn’t want to try to patch over bad-film-mistake nonsense with some catchy tunes.

    None of which excuses making a megamillion dollar B movie, for scenes like this. But at least I can have some sympathy for Lester.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Regarding Donner sharing credit, that isn’t possible under DGA rules, even if Donner was willing to make nice. AFAIK, dual director credits are only allowed for ‘official’ directing teams (e.g., the Coen Brothers, Daley & Goldstein). Writing credits are a different story.

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  9. I’m a fan of this film, but I agree these comedy bits don’t work. Danny nails it dead-on when he says Superman wouldn’t do this. He’d at least find some way to reimburse the cabbie, like he does with the truck stop owner at the end after he reestablishes his dick size by beating up the trucker.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I just figured out the biggest problem with this scene.

    Kryptonian super-awareness is supposed to make Superman and his fellow crazy space angels know exactly what’s in motion around them. Only another flying Kryptonian has any chance at the element of surprise.

    Oblivious, distracted, caught unaware by rush hour traffic: these are human qualities, not Kryptonian.

    While waving at Lois, Clark would have been aware of EVERY car on the street. And in the next fifty blocks.

    Twice in a row, Lester shows an indestructible, but easily confused, outwitted, dumbfounded, bewildered Clark. That’s an undigestable mixed message for anyone who’s heard about Superman.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could see the taxi scene as part of a greater theme of how hard it is for Clark to be part of this fragile world, where he constantly has to watch his every interaction so that he doesn’t destroy things or hurt people with his amazing strength. But that’s more of a god among men approach that wasn’t being done quite yet with superheroes, though I think Alan Moore’s Marvelman is on the horizon.

      Liked by 3 people

  11. My husband always said I was geographically challenged and I guess he was right because I don’t see that Lois is on the wrong side of the street from those pictures and I didn’t notice that problem when I watched the movie. Of course, there was the sight gag to distract me. I did recognize the fruit vendor scene from the original movie and I did note that the rest of the scene looked different so I’m not totally unobservant. How can you tell it’s backward? Is the traffic going in the wrong direction?
    You notice things when you go scene by scene that someone may not find as obvious while watching.
    The only scenes I found amusing were some with Gene Hackman. I’m afraid that Lester’s physical humor does nothing for me. I can’t imagine many viewers over 6 enjoying this gag.
    I had criticisms of Donner’s Superman but watching Lester’s made me appreciate Donner more. Lester’s movie gets the job done. It moves along well. The New York battle scene is suitably showy. I can imagine that a good portion of the audience would find it a fun movie. Maybe. It didn’t elicit much emotion or enthusiasm in me but I didn’t hate it. Just sort of okay.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Should a could a would a – –

    Lois has just time to see the cab too close to Clark but a van blocks her view as it drives past; she doesn’t see the impact. Nobody else sees it because it’s New York City, erm, Metropolis and nobody seen nothin’, and now a sedan is partly blocking Lois’ view and she doesn’t see the damage. Just dumb old Hicktown Clark doesn’t know about traffic. Mimicking the scene from the first movie where she thought he was shot but he ‘fainted’. And (ooh, foreshadowing…) the cabbie’s fare is Richard Pryor!

    OR…
    Clark uses his superspeed to instantly repair the damage and leaves the driver confused in his stalled cab. And didn’t nobody see nothin’.

    Or something like that.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I honestly loved the screwball comedy feel of Superman, but Lester takes almost all of that out of this film, thereby messing it up. It’s really a godawful movie and frankly pretty cringe inducing to watch.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. After reading, “Superman II 2.7: To Get to the Other Side”, I’m wondering if you know that there’s a reference to this scene in SUPERMAN. It occurs in the pool scene when Miss Teschmacher is yelled at by Lex to turn off the TV; the reporter is cut off mid sentence: “A cab driver rode down a pedestrian today—“. Donner might have filmed some of this scene, don’t you think? Where he intended to place it, I don’t know.

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  15. If you asked me out of the blue to describe something out of Superman II this scene would be it. I can remember the other scenes you pointed out with the reminder, but this scene I’ve never forgotten. I think it’s the scene that completely ruins the movie — and I didn’t even notice the crossing the line (which I did know about) or the changes in the set because what I remember that moment when Clark gets hit and then he shrugs and walks off. Clark is a helper. The whole reason he moved to Metropolis is to find more people to help – I mean do you really think he has that ambition to win a Pul–Noble prize? Clark wouldn’t shrug and walk away. He’d have fixed the car or at least turned into Superman and moved the car or paid the guy or SOMETHING! My Clark wouldn’t cause trouble and walk away. I’ve never gotten over this scene. I hate it with far more passion than a scene in a superhero movie is worth because I love Clark and this isn’t him so what’s the point. But it’s still Christopher Reeves who is still amazing and I still watched the movie, but I never got over this scene.

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