Superman II 2.27: Think Globally, Kill Locally

Well, this is going to put quite the crimp in the East Houston Cultural Arts and Ballet Festival coming up in a couple weeks. The orchestra is currently on fire, the dance studio no longer exists, and the recital hall has half of a burning helicopter in it. We’re going to have to cancel the Poetry Slam, and we won’t have time to dedicate the new wing of the East Houston Public Library, even if we manage to dig it out from under the rubble. This is going to set the local art scene back like you wouldn’t believe.

I’m kidding, of course; the population of East Houston, Idaho consists entirely of leering comedy hillbillies, and that’s why it’s okay to murder them and demolish their shitty business district.

Yesterday, we talked about the original vision that Dick Donner and Tom Mankiewicz had for the first big sequence in the movie where the three Phantom Zone criminals unleash their power on the world. In Mankiewicz’s script, the Zoners went from first contact with a couple of police officers straight into a world tour, where they toppled famous monuments to get everybody’s attention, and then laid out their domination plans.

In my view, the problem with that sequence is that it jumped too fast into a worldwide crisis, and exposed the basic weakness of the idea that three superpowered people could immediately conquer the entire Earth, just by standing on the Washington Monument and declaring victory. It gives the audience time to think about the logistics of darting around from one tourist attraction to another, wrecking stuff and running away.

So Richard Lester decided to take the exact opposite approach — the Kryptonians strut into the tiniest, crappiest little town you can imagine, and then reduce it to cinders, which in this case is a decided improvement.

So I’m going to be honest with you: I’m not that interested in talking about the stunt-heavy fight with the military, which is stagey but basically fine. There are some effective moments, like Non catching a rocket with his bare hand and twisting it in half, and there are some moments — like the jeep swerving, going up a ramp and then somehow driving all the way through the second floor of a building and magically busting through the wall, in order to flip over and land in a used car lot — that are staged like deleted scenes from Herbie Goes Bananas or The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.

The thing that I’m fascinated with is how crappy this town is. Unfortunately, this production hasn’t been documented with the laser precision that the first film was, so I don’t know if this small town already existed in the studio backlot or if they had to build it from scratch, but either way, no expense was spared to create the dingiest, most depressing streetscape they could scrape together.

Every single thing in this scene is caked in multiple layers of dust and grime. Every sign is pre-distressed. Every surface is chipped and cracked. There are old tires littered all over the place.

And if you take the time to look, there are lots of depressing details, like the billboard for the Holiday Motel, which pictures a young woman frowning, and looking like she is completely over this nowhere burg.

And I know that they had to build a big soft pit of dirt for the stunt man to fall on, but there is not even a hint of a sidewalk or a paved road anywhere. This is the main street, and the front yard of the motel is just bare dirt, all the way up to the front door.

The bar is such a piece of crap that burning it down is actually too good for it; I can’t imagine what that smoke is going to smell like, once it drifts downwind to West Houston. And right next to this hot nightspot is a lime green RV, with a random little row of broken fencing in front of it.

And this shot is just the saddest thing in the world, with a soldier ducking for cover behind a rusty coin-operated kiddie ride, which probably doesn’t work. The guy over on the right is resting his rifle on a miserable little plastic mannequin, which is displaying what looks like a stained piece of unidentifiable fabric.

This place doesn’t need Zod and Ursa to turn it into a burning pile of garbage; the Kryptonians are just accelerating a process that the residents have been contributing to for decades.

And I don’t know what they were storing in this barn, but a helicopter falling on it is clearly not the entire problem. I don’t know if they had meth labs in 1981, but if that’s what this is, then it must have been the main supplier for three or four states. It’s possible that the falling helicopter had nothing to do with it; this was going to happen anyway. Sometimes barns just give up.

So fine, if space people want to come along and do some rural redevelopment, then I don’t see any reason to stop them. Honestly, I don’t even like Mount Rushmore that much. Superman, don’t worry: There is no reason for you to rush. Just keep on doing what you’re doing.

Tomorrow:
The Kryptonians figure out how to be menacing
2.28: We Serve


Footnotes:

For the shot of Zod throwing the hillbilly through the diner wall, a facsimile of the wall was built sideways. In this shot, the “wall” is actually the floor, and the stunt man is falling down through the false floor. The next shot, seen from the outside, is also filmed sideways, and then combined with the real background using greenscreen. The sequence finishes with a third shot, which is actually the stunt man being hurled sideways through the truck and out into the street.

Tomorrow:
The Kryptonians figure out how to be menacing
2.28: We Serve

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— Danny Horn

15 thoughts on “Superman II 2.27: Think Globally, Kill Locally

  1. I hated this sequence in the theater. Couldn’t quite put my finger on it (unlike Zod), other than the bogus new powers… until you started ranting in earlier posts about the evil Kryptonians bringing Hillbilly Hell.

    I saw that an earlier script was even worse. It had Zod’s levitation ray as eye beams that passed through the poor kid’s dad, impaling him into the sky. Yuck!

    Villians conquering people who’ve already lost, bullies picking on the weakest pathetic victims, audience invited to laugh at the white trash. Not great storytelling. After the moon scene, doesn’t really add anything to the menace the trio bring to Superman.

    Should have seen them facing big foes right away, citizens who are feisty fighters, serious military hardware and teamwork all for naught. Godzilla doesn’t waste a lot of time stomping fishing boats at the beach, he heads right for Tokyo.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Danny, this has to be your funniest SED entry yet. You had me cracking up at the end of nearly every sentence. And it was even funnier once I realized that I probably wouldn’t have even noticed most of these things if you hadn’t pointed them out!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The depiction of East Houston brings back memories of Seattle, a place where people try to prove they belong by making defamatory remarks about Idaho. Perhaps there was an uncredited rewrite by someone who had been living in that city for about a year.

    I’m not usually glad to see towns demolished and their residents humiliated, but I make an exception here. Not because I want to go back to Seattle or because I particularly buy these scenes, but because they remind me of the unending agony Superman: The Movie inflicted on its audience in the form of its Smallville portion. The East Houston sequence felt to me like a middle finger raised to the people responsible for defiling untold miles of innocent film with that tedium, and so I cheered every act of violence the Phantom Zoners committed in it.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Now that you point out the soldier crouching behind the kiddie ride, it hits me that that shot (and this whole scene, really) has real “2nd episode of a Pertwee story, UNIT fails to stave off against some alien threat” energy.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I dunno–frankly, I could find towns exactly like that just about anywhere without even trying. The main difference is, thanks to urban sprawl, they’re not isolated. Grubby “townships” that are basically an amalgam of car lots, fast food and outlet malls all merge into multi mile nowheres with less personality than a crumbling old cement block,

    Honestly, this place actually looks rather fetching with its lime green trailers and sulky lady signs–I can see hipster stopping by on the regular for their Instagram post quotients.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The smudge-faced “Gutter Orphan” in the top photo (who, like many East Houstonians, speaks with an uncanny hint of British accent) is Marcus D’Amico, who fifteen years later played Michael “Mouse” Tolliver in Tales of the City.

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  7. When I was little I totally thought this little town they shot this in was Wellington, Utah, a small depressing town in Utah’s southeastern desert that people are forced to drive through on their way to Moab (if driving from Salt Lake City). It also happens to be the place where my dad grew up. So I thought it awesome to think that this menacing trio (and they really did scare me) would pick some podunk town to eviscerate.

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  8. This is a minor point, but that’s not a piece of fabric on the pink model form, it’s a girdle. For those of you who don’t know before there was a generation who swore they wouldn’t wear girdles and so reinvented them as spanx, women wore girdles to pull in and create a solid form to correct the line of your clothes. They are made out of rubber and you can tell it’s a girdle because of the two seem lines coming down that separate the front part which pulled the most from the side point. That’s also why the pattern looks a little different in front. There are also 2 tings coming down. They have clasps on the bottom to pull up the stocking that doesn’t have an elastic top. There is also a set on the back. It isn’t to scale so I’m guessing it was salesman sample or a point of sale display.

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  9. I realized I forgot to add this bit. Jon Pertrwee is the Third Doctor on “Doctor Who.” He’s credited with a famous quote: “”There’s nothing scarier than coming home and finding a Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec,” third Doctor actor Jon Pertwee has often been quoted as saying. A unique phrasing, but it’s the same sentiment – there’s nothing more unsettling than seeing your own recognisable world turned upside down.” https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/cult/a849413/doctor-who-monsters-aliens-villains/

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  10. The guy being thrown through the wall is one of the most effective SFX in this movie, so I appreciate the explanation of how it was done. If only they could have brought a fraction of the oomph in this shot to the Superman vs. Zod Squad fight later in the film.

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