I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time, it turns out. I had a feeling I might be. I’ve spent the last six months writing an endless series of little articles about the Superman movies, and none of them have started like this:
I remember taking a car ride with producer Ilya Salkind to Pinewood Studios when Superman: The Movie was just in its final stages of post production.
That’s how Mike Munn started his article in Starburst about The Making of Superman II, and the thing that I love about it is how casual he is about dropping an unspecified “car ride” into the conversation.
There’s no need to get into whose car it was, or why he was in it with Ilya. It just happens to be a thing that he remembers, that’s all. Sometimes people remember things. It’s no big.
Now, Starburst, as I expect you don’t know, is one of those long-running professional fan magazines about science-fiction/fantasy/horror TV and movies that are just managing to hang on to print by their fingertips. Starburst was the British equivalent of America’s Starlog, and between them, they were a lifeline for internet nerds who didn’t have access to the internet yet. Starlog sadly passed from this Earth more than ten years ago, but Starburst is still in the game, bless them, as a print/digital hybrid.
In spring 1981, when Superman II came out, Starlog didn’t really pay a lot of attention: the American magazine was much more committed to specifically covering the sci-fi world, so they were engrossed in Star Wars, Star Trek and Buck Rogers. Over in Britain, Starburst had a wider brief that also included Universal Monsters, contemporary horror and pure fantasy — including, in the issue pictured above, a five-page article on The Wizard of Oz, which would have made Starlog readers as angry as… well, you know how the internet behaves. As angry as that.
So I’ve gone and looked up Starburst’s contemporary coverage of Superman II, to get a little taste of how the fans were feeling at the time. The first real coverage is a four-page “Making of” article in March 1981, which begins with a car trip to Pinewood Studios, and includes quotes from Richard Lester, Christopher Reeve, Terence Stamp and Sarah Douglas.
The part that I find interesting is near the end of the article, where Munn says:
The studios also housed the hotel set where the film’s most sacreligious moments are enacted… when Lois Lane discovers Superman’s identity and the two fall head over heels for each other, to later wind up in bed in the Fortress of Solitude.
The love scenes are an integral part of Superman II and are its biggest flaw. Still, it gave Margot and Chris the opportunity to actually go to Niagara for some location shooting.
And then it just goes on, with more Reeve quotes, and some speculations about how much of the film was directed by Lester, as if that was a normal thing to write in a magazine.
That feels to me like such an internet moment — it’s one and a half tweets long, and it draws a clear line between mass-market appeal and fan wisdom. It just states the critique as a fact, among all the others: the Metropolis battle set is 800 feet long, Marlon Brando is replaced by Susannah York, and the honeymoon hotel scene is sacreligious. And the movie hadn’t even come out yet!
In the April issue, John Brosnan wrote a four-page review of the film, and he’s not shy about expressing his feelings either. It begins:
After a year of cinematic disappointments — culminating in the dreadful Flash Gordon — it comes as a real pleasure to be able to say that Superman II is a winner on all counts and is even better than Superman I. It doesn’t patronise the younger members of its audience, as does Flash Gordon, and it treats its superhero star with respect and a reasonably straight face, which is the only approach that works with this sort of movie.
There’s some more received fan wisdom when he talks about the opening Eiffel Tower scene:
For a James Bond movie, say, these sequences would have served as an adequate climax, but for Superman II it’s only the beginning. Are they going to top that, you wonder, or is it going to be all downhill from them on (as was The Empire Strikes Back after the ice world section…)?
I didn’t realize that fans were casually hating on most of The Empire Strikes Back, in 1981. That comes as a complete surprise to me, but in Starburst, apparently, it’s a well-understood fact.
Brosnan liked the film very much, and you can tell, because he describes literally every major plot point in the movie — the Eiffel Tower, the moon sequence, Lois jumping in the river, Superman losing his powers, Zod forcing the President to kneel, the diner scene, returning to the Fortress of Solitude to get his powers back, and so on. He only makes one mention of the possibility of spoilers, and he dismisses the concept:
There’s a final confrontation between them all, including Luthor, in the Fortress of Solitude, and I guess I’m not giving anything away if I say that Supey ends up victorious.
And then he goes on to describe the final scene of the movie, in detail:
There’s even a satisfying tag sequence where he goes back to the diner as Clark Kent, and gives the trucker his come-uppance. “I’ve been taking a course in muscle-building,” he tells the startled owner of the diner after he has sent the trucker hurtling down the length of the counter.
So I guess spoilers are something that happens to other people, as far as Starburst is concerned. I suppose the readers should be grateful that Brosnan doesn’t describe the credits, and where you’re going to go for dinner afterwards.
Brosnan’s one real criticism is about the special effects, which I find difficult to believe. He didn’t even like them in Superman: The Movie, and I thought everybody did.
The special effects, I’m afraid, are at times something of a disappointment and as in Part I it’s the optical effects that are the main problem (the physical effects are excellent), particularly those involving, as usual, travelling mattes. As I said way back in Starburst #7 when discussing the effects in Superman I, no matter how technically accomplished a travelling matte shot may be, using the blue screen process, there’s always something about it that doesn’t look right. It’s difficult enough using it with an inanimate object like a space ship but with a human figure like Superman, complete with fluttering cape, the loss of realism is even greater.
So I guess if those are Brosnan’s standards, he’s got a couple of difficult decades ahead of him.
But the part of the review that I like best is Brosnan’s wide-eyed treatment of the sacreligious romantic storyline:
Now a normal human being, Superman is able to actually consummate his relationship with Lois, an event of some historical importance to us old readers of the comic book. (I mean, I never thought that… well… gosh!) The scene is, of course, handled very discreetly and wouldn’t even bring a blush to the cheek of [British censorship-advocate] Mary Whitehouse.
Two months later, we finally get to hear from the fans, in June’s letters column. This is basically the entirety of Twitter, Tiktok and Reddit, as far as the nerds of 1981 were concerned.
The mag published four letters about Superman II, and all four display the usual mix of general approval and furious, nitpicky complaints that we’ve come to know as the way that fans process everything.
Here’s one from a man with the astonishingly appropriate name Philip Atack:
The only flaw I found in the film, other than a few awful travelling matters, was the music which sounded as if it was simply a compilation from the first film. The main title was spoiled by simply not being loud enough and the credits were a great disappointment. (Why couldn’t they have used slit scan for the titles as they did in the first movie?)
But apart from those flaws I found the film totally enthralling and it’s by far the most enjoyable film I have ever seen.
So I have to imagine Philip sitting in the theater, simply seething over the greatly disappointing opening credits, with his girlfriend next to him hoping that he’s going to calm down once the movie actually starts. Still, she knew what she was getting into; you don’t end up next to Philip at the theater unless you’ve heard several anticipatory pre-movie critiques in the weeks leading up to the release.
Three of the four letters criticize the flying scenes, which must have been part of the membership fee to be allowed into the sci-fi nerd club. J. Rivas basically says it all:
I am a camera operator myself and I must admit I liked the camera angles and Lester directing techniques. The effects I thought were just as bad as the first film, I am not saying they don’t deserve any credit, what I am saying is that they were not perfect and for that sort of film they need to be pretty near it. I specially disliked the matte shots and taking off techniques. Above all I enjoyed the film very much.
And then there were nitpicks about the moon from W.J. Flanagan, who pointed out that Ursa and the astronaut shouldn’t be able to hear each other in a vacuum, and that the astronaut should have exploded, once his suit was breached.
Finally, let’s hear from P. Douglas, who was disappointed with the ending:
I don’t think that a kiss and a dizzy spell is a satisactory end to the emotional relationship built up between Lois and Clark during the film.
I agree with P. Doug, and he also says that he liked the Krypton scenes and thought the first movie was better than the second, so he’s the one that I’d want to go on a date with.
I know, you probably didn’t realize that we were playing Smash or Pass, but it’s 1981, and these are the only four people that I know in the English-speaking world who are interested in talking about superhero movies. You think I’m going to pass up that kind of opportunity?
The villains go on a world tour in
2.26: The Preposterous Invasion
The villains go on a world tour in
2.26: The Preposterous Invasion
— Danny Horn