Superman II 2.11: Kill the Moon

One of the central themes in 1980s American cinema is the question of how much we care about murder. 1981 is right in the middle of the Golden Age of slasher films, when franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th are just starting to establish themselves. Raiders of the Lost Ark offers us heroes who don’t mind gunning people down or pushing them into airplane propellers if they won’t get out of the way, and we’re just a year away from America embracing the depressingly quintessential ’80s hero — a Vietnam vet named Rambo, who works out his emotional issues through the medium of machine gun fire.

But so far, the Superman series has been remarkably restrained in its attitude towards death and destruction, if you don’t count an entire planet exploding, which is more of a tragedy than a crime. In the first movie’s car chase sequence, people shoot off a lot of guns — bangity bang bang bang, they go — but the bullets don’t hit anybody important, as far as we can tell. The only on-screen murder we’ve seen so far is Lex Luthor pushing a police detective in front of an oncoming train, and that hardly counts; Superman hadn’t even put on his costume yet.

The important thing is that under Superman’s administration, everybody gets rescued, including reporters, train passengers, presidents, cats, goats, schoolkids, the 7th arondissement and the population of Tinytown.

But now we’re about to see the first three victims that Superman fails to save: a trio of international astronauts, engaged in research projects on the moon. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like anybody’s going to miss them.

The sequence opens with two gentlemen attending to a bunch of consoles, and clearly they’ve been working on space stuff for too long, cause they’re sick of it.

“Somebody’s got to check up on those guys,” one of them sighs, referring to the moon explorers, and the other one says, “Yeah, I keep on forgetting about ’em.” This seems like the wrong attitude, considering they’re currently sitting in NASA mission control. What else do they have on their schedule, right now?

“They’ve been up there for forty-five days,” the other guy continues. “The whole world’s forgotten about them.” He says this like the astronauts promised they were just going to the moon for a minute, and they’d be right back. Were people really this blasé about astronauts in the early ’80s? I mean, admittedly, I don’t think about the people who are currently on the International Space Station very often, but I’m sure they’re fine; nothing bad ever happens to people on a space station.

So it’s an odd way to raise the curtain on this murder-on-the-moon sequence. I guess the idea is that this has been a routine mission, and therefore nobody’s expecting the surprise that they’re about to get, but if even the people who are paid to care about astronauts are bored with this crew, then I don’t know what we’re supposed to do about it.

But here we are on the moon! which is pretty exciting. It’s a nice little set, and they do a good job with the wire work, making the astronauts bounce around pleasingly in low gravity.

The first movie did a good job at showing us interesting places, starting with the science-fiction icebox of Krypton, and then moving on to various New York landmarks. So far, the sequel’s brought us to Paris, and this is even better: a rocky moonscape, where mysteries can happen.

The astronaut in the lander turns out to be cute, which is helpful. I don’t know when the era of cinema kicks in where everybody with a speaking line has to be some version of gorgeous, but we’re not there yet, so it’s nice to have a good-looking dude around.

He makes jokes, too, which I appreciate. He’s got a wry tone as he reports back to Houston, and he’s got the line, “By the way, Boris and I are engaged,” which as a gay joke is actually kind of friendly; we won’t be hearing a lot of positive references to queerness for another ten years. If there were more cute boys in the 1980s talking about making out with male cosmonauts, I probably would have enjoyed the decade more than I did.

And then he sees something impossible.

The whole point of a superhero movie is to show us things that we’ve never seen before, and this is the moment where Superman II starts to deliver on that promise. Yeah, Superman flew around the Eiffel Tower, but last time we saw him flying around the Statue of Liberty, so it’s old news.

Right here, we have a beautiful alien lady who appears to have her own special relationship with gravity, calmly treading across the moonscape with a quietly imperious expression. Jor-El told us that she was a baddie, before he locked her up in what I guess we need to consider an involuntary escape capsule, but we haven’t really heard her speak, and we don’t know what she’s like.

Turns out she’s not very nice. It’s never a good sign when somebody greets you with “What kind of a creature are you?” It doesn’t leave you with a lot of room, conversationally, and probably indicates that you need to go and find someone else to talk to. This poor guy figured that if any surprise guests turned up, he would be the one on the opposite end of that question.

The thing that’s chilling about this sequence is how chill the villains are. Ursa grabs a chunk of the astronaut’s outfit, suffocates him in his own spacesuit and then kicks him into the lunar horizon, and this moment of crushing horror isn’t even that interesting to her.

We’ve seen aliens before, but not like this. Everybody on Krypton flounced around in flashy space angel attire, but they acted more or less like humans who have been paid vast sums of money to appear in the movie you’re watching. This is the first time that we’ve seen an alien who acts like an alien: at ease, curious, and with no particular attachment to human life.

People are toys now, for Ursa and Zod. These guys are props that can be tossed around the sky, and there’s no expectation that Superman will save the day — at least, not this particular day, and not these moonmen.

In the last movie, the villains were motormouth con artists who skulked in elaborately decorated playrooms, scrambling to impress each other. Luthor was a psychopath, but only as a side hustle; most of his time was spent on setting up manic practical jokes.

But these exiles don’t have a single funny line. They’re amusing themselves, but their comedy is more abstract, as in: wouldn’t it be amusing if I thought of an interesting way to end your meaningless life. It’s really quite striking.

Zod is one of those helpful lead characters who cut through the excess plot points by just positing things, and whatever they say turns out to be exactly correct.

So far, Ursa’s gotten as far as “Something is happening,” and Non is busy playing with flags, but Zod’s already downloaded the intel. “The closer we get to an atmosphere with only one sun — a yellow sun — the more our molecular density gives us unlimited powers.” You have to respect a guy who’s always keeping track of his molecular density; he must have a FitBit or something.

So that was fun, but now it’s time for these terrible tourists to see if anything on Earth is worth wreaking. They’ve wiped out the entire population of this particular rock, and it was just an appetizer; they’re still hungry for the destruction and suffering to come. So off they go, sailing into the sky — the second star to the right, and straight on ’til mourning.

Tomorrow:
We check out a relevant romcom in
2.12: The Nice Guy


Footnotes:

This sequence is a mix of Dick Donner and Richard Lester footage. Everything that happens on the moon set was filmed by Donner. The NASA shots and Nate’s dialogue in the lander were scripted by the Newmans and filmed by Lester. The line “By the way, Boris and I are engaged,” is a holdover from the Mankiewicz script, but the response to it has changed.

Nate, the good-looking astronaut, is played by John Morton, and around this time, he also appeared in The Empire Strikes Back as Dak Ralter, the good-looking tailgunner at the Battle of Hoth, and in Flash Gordon as a good-looking airline pilot. After those three minor roles, he left Hollywood and ended up in public relations.

Boris is played by stuntman Jim Dowdall, who’s been in a couple hundred movies: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Flash Gordon, Octopussy, Brazil, Whoops Apocalypse, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, GoldenEye, The Bourne Supremacy, a couple Harry Potters. According to IMDb, he did stunts in Spider-Man: Far From Home three years ago, when he was 70 years old.

John Ratzenberger, known for playing Cliff Clavin in the sitcom Cheers and many voice roles in Pixar films, is one of the guys in the NASA control room scene. Ratzenberger also appeared in the first Superman film, in a similar role as a missile controller.

Finally, let’s do a quick list of things you can’t do on the moon: You can’t talk to somebody who’s not wearing a spacesuit. You can’t hear the whoosh of somebody flying, or getting kicked, or getting thrown around. You can’t stop the lunar module’s ascent stage from taking off by grabbing the legs of the descent stage, which is what Non does. There’s also some gravity-related flubs: When the first astronaut turns away from Ursa, he bounces, but the object he’s holding falls easily to the ground. When Ursa rips his suit, he falls easily to the ground as well. Same for the flags, when Non drops them.

Tomorrow:
We check out a relevant romcom in
2.12: The Nice Guy

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

22 thoughts on “Superman II 2.11: Kill the Moon

  1. “Did he say he saw a curl?”

    I take the whole apathy toward people being in space as a reference to the Apollo program. A couple missions in, it became routine and no one cared so they started driving cars around and hitting golf balls to get themselves in newspapers.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yep, the first thing people would bring up if you mentioned the Apollo program in the early 80s was that after the first landing, the networks got calls complaining when they preempted soap operas to show astronauts on the Moon.

      Ratzenberger was also a featured background player in GANDHI, where he was a driver. And he’d been on a hit show in the UK. I wonder what would have become of him if he hadn’t landed the spot on CHEERS, where he could make tens of millions of dollars by saying “That’s where you’re wrong, Doy-enn.”

      Liked by 4 people

      1. “A couple missions in, it became routine and no one cared.”

        But not for the NASA guys! I’ve met some space engineers. They would never turn down a dinner party to talk about moon rocks. This job would be their most exciting fun day at work ever! Every single day of routine six week check-ups, oh boy, we still get to work with those guys on the moon!

        The control room banter should have said that it’s time to check in with the moon crew again, even though the world’s lost interest. No journalists hanging around any more. Not like when the international astronauts arrived at the moon 45 days ago.

        It’s a lot easier to believe that journalists are the ones who’ve moved on to the next headline, who don’t care any more about last month’s astronauts.

        In real life, I think there was some intentional non-publicity for the Space Shutle launches for the military. Allegedly included putting some giant spy satellites into orbit. All of that years after this movie. If those had been in place before this movie, the top secret brass could have panicked about the Kryptonians that much sooner.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. “The control room banter should have said that it’s time to check in with the moon crew again, even though the world’s lost interest.” Very true!

        “I think there was some intentional non-publicity for the Space Shutle launches for the military. Allegedly included putting some giant spy satellites into orbit.” I remember a lot of laughter about STS-4, a Columbia mission in the summer of 1982 that got round-the-clock publicity, entirely consisting of reports about how highly classified the mission was.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Growing up during the early days of the space program, I found it pretty routine. The most astounding thing to me was that manned exploration ended. As a teen, I expected us to be on Mars shortly. I didn’t understand the technological and economic problems with that then.
      I had always thought of Superman as taking place in our universe but this scene made me question that. Obviously people in 1981 would know that we weren’t doing joint moon missions with the Russians that lasted over 45 days. So are the Superman stories supposed to exist on an alternate Earth or is this our planet some time in the future? Odd that I had never thought about that question before.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. An alternate version of the present day, Mary. Even before you add Kryptonians, folks from Smallville live in the world where The Big City is named Metropolis, Daily Planet star reporter Lois Lane can afford a rooftop apartment at Central Park, Le Eiffel Cops are Le Ha-ha-ha Lacking Ze Clue, etc.

        And it’s where Danny has a hit blog, NoSuperheroesAnyDay. That version of Danny asks, “What if superheroes didn’t exist?” He writes a hilarious mind-twisting hypothetical post about that each day. Then us commenters tell each other jokes and anecdotes about such a silly, made-up alternate universe, one where Kryptonians are only fictional. We speculate on what would a movie about Superman would get wrong, in that goofy parallel timeline.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. Although this film of course wasn’t made by DC Comics directly, their heroes always existed in not-quite-the-real-world (thus Metropolis instead of NYC, and Gotham, and Star City, etc.). Marvel was supposed to be “the world outside your window,” so I’ll be curious to see how that holds up when we start hitting their characters’ movies. I don’t find the joint US/USSR space mission long before the ISS all that curious, since I don’t see this as quite our world (aside from, you know, Superman).

        Since it came up in another thread in relation to the title of the post, I’m also reminded of Britain’s advanced 1970s space program in Doctor Who.

        Liked by 4 people

      3. Maybe we’re supposed to suggest what the world might be like if Superman were around. At the height of detente in 1975, the superpowers shook hands in space with the Apollo-Soyuz mission. If Superman were on the scene, maybe detente would never have ended, and that cooperation would have extended to the Moon. Certainly his exploits, had they occurred in reality, would have changed people’s imaginations pretty dramatically, making space exploration seem a more sensible use of public moneys and warfare a sillier one.

        And lunar missions of 45 days wouldn’t have been a stretch technologically- after all, the basic Apollo hardware was supposed to be adaptable to lunar missions up to six weeks in duration, and to earth orbit missions up to six months in duration. There was even a proposal to send a modified Apollo system on a flyby of Venus, a mission that would have kept astronauts in space for at least a year.

        Liked by 5 people

  2. This is the point where I really begin to enjoy the movie! The PZ Villains bring me such joy, each in their own way. I just want to see more of them as they discover their powers and begin their conquest of Planet Houston. I’m willing to forgive the various gravity flubs and the fluttering of their clothes as they fly in an airless environment. Non is adorable in his confusion and childlike carnage. Ursa is a badass with loads of snark. And Zod is just effortlessly in control and imperious.

    I think Nate’s admission of his relationship with Boris was an attempt to actually come out, but then he panicked and said it was just a joke. Or am I just projecting my own attempts to come out in the ’80s?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. It probably stayed in the script due to the idea that it was a US astronaut joking about a Soviet cosmonaut–this was being shown as a joint effort between the two superpowers, who then (and now) were in reality at each other’s throats, so it was ironic! Ha ha! I doubt a similar jape about a fellow American would have remained in the film.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. “If there were more cute boys in the 1980s talking about making out with male cosmonauts.”
        In space, no one can hear you make ’em scream.

        The innuendo was lost on me as a kid. Sure, there was a gay couple across the street, but it never occured to me that within my lifetime, there would be same-sex marriage.

        I thought it was just an obviously corny joke about how long the astronauts were cooped up together on this mission.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Were people really this blasé about astronauts in the early ’80s?

    I’m not sure how the timing matches this movie, but I remember the launching of the Space Shuttle was sppsd to make astronaughts going into space a routine thing.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Because, let’s face it: by the eighties, it was clear there was no real practical or economic reason to go to the moon. We weren’t going to mine or terraform or run tourist shuttles up there, or anything that could really justify the outrageous, king’s ransom amounts of cash governments had to spend to achieve what was basically the same trick over and over.

        Even now, when it’s the hot new billionaire trend to have a rocket, it’s proving insanely difficult to achieve low-altitude orbit for any real length of time, much less any Cool! Sci-Fi! premise of Mars missions and the like.

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    1. The movie based on the Apollo 13 mission addresses this topic. We see in the early part of the mission, that there is very little interest in live broadcasts from the Apollo 13 crew. It’s only after the problems / danger begin developing, that TV networks consider it worth interrupting their programming to cover the mission more ardently.

      That was just two missions after the historic Apollo 11 moon landing and already the public was becoming blase about a ‘routine’ lunar mission.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I liked the cool look of this sequence in the theater. Very eye catching design for mission control, moon, and villians. Jio, I agree it was a great introduction for each of the villians. Terrifying foes of humanity!

    “let’s do a quick list of things you can’t do on the moon” (even given magic Kryptonian powers)

    If we saw Lois’s trip down to the sidwalk fruit cart, we already know super-breath comes out impossibly more than oxygen goes in. No problem for the Kryptonians to miraculously generate their own sound wave carrying mini atmosphere as they talk. With a puff of super breath on the outside of the helmet, now the poor guy inside the helmet can have a little chat about his impending doom.

    As for detachable rocket ships and falling objects? Superman redirects aeronautical vehicles by touching any random part. Let’s just say the Kryptonians are still getting used to defying gravity, just like they defy every other necessary rule of civilized life.

    In Raiders and Rambo, weren’t the badass heroes wiping out people who would’ve killed them first if they had the chance? Totally different than wacky space demons.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “In the last movie, the villains were motormouth con artists who skulked in elaborately decorated playrooms, trying to impress each other. Luthor was a psychopath, but only as a side hustle; most of his time was spent on setting up manic practical jokes.”

    This is a large part of why I prefer this film to the first. I hate this portrayal of Luthor, and I despise bumbling Otis. And I’m not all that fond of Miss Techmacher unless she’s feeling up Superman or wearing fabulous Arctic wear. So getting rid of Otis early in this film and minimizing Lex or putting him under the heel of the PZ Villains does a lot to add to my enjoyment. And did I mention just how much fun I find the PZVs?

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I’m not sure if it’s in the theatrical release or one of the alternate versions, but while Lois is in Paris and Clark is talking to Perry, he mentions he doesn’t watch tv because there’s so much violence. I thought of that comment during this scene. Those poor innocent, defenseless astronauts! I guess NASA didn’t train them for an encounter with hostile aliens. It was pretty brutal.
    Loved the Doctor Who nod in the title of this post, even though I didn’t care for that episode.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. “Maybe we’re supposed to suggest what the world might be like if Superman were around.”

    Love this insightful comment, Acilius. Sorry I didn’t see how to respond to it directly.

    Once you point it out, I can see the implied continuity bridge with the first film.

    As soon as humanity knows that outer space included a planet from which the powerful space angel came? Wow, that would destroy any whining. “There’s no point spending billions to get people up there. We already have Teflon and Tang. We’re probably alone in the universe anyway. Why bother?” That’s all gone in the world of this film.

    It would also get the governments and the militaries to think. If there’s a powerful space angel who’s friendly, maybe we’d better team up to find who and what else is out there.

    For a start, let’s send some guys to thoroughly explore the moon. Hey Ivan! We’ve got Nate. Who’s your best space geologist who’s free to leave the planet for a few months?

    But after a week or two, “space explorers measure even more moon rocks” is a boring headline. The media moves on. Didn’t you hear about Le Bomb Threat?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. “Right here, we have a beautiful alien lady who appears to have her own special relationship with gravity, calmly treading across the moonscape with a quietly imperious expression.”

    Of course she carries her own gravity with her, all Kryptonians do. They established that in the first movie, when Supey stands on the side of the glass building looking down at the guy climbing with the suction cups, but his cape is hanging as if he’s standing upright.

    Like

  9. “But now we’re about to see the first three victims that Superman fails to save: a trio of international astronauts”
    If Donner had been left to his own devices, would those astronauts have been saved by Superman’s turning back time trick that was supposed to be the ending to this film?

    Like

  10. We’re not going to comment on the whole thing with the Kryptonians’ lack of need for oxygen then? I mean, they go straight from the Phantom Zone to outer space with no warning, so it’s not like they just held their breath for a few minutes and desperately flew towards Earth to get some air (and how did they immediately know how to fly, anyway?). I said it once before and I’ll say it again: every writer on this movie clearly failed science class. Apparently Hollywood is a good second career opportunity for those who can’t understand basic concepts such as gravity, respiration, space travel, and the passage of time.

    Like

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