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.
We check out a relevant romcom in
2.12: The Nice Guy
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.
We check out a relevant romcom in
2.12: The Nice Guy
— Danny Horn