It’s the ultimate battle between good and evil, or if not quite that, then at least the ultimate battle between cheerful and cranky. I don’t know if anybody’s in the market for one of those, but here it is happening anyway.
Three Kryptonian supercriminals from the other side of a twirling parallel hell have descended upon New York City, where they’ve challenged Earth’s greatest hero to a game of three-on-one grab-ass, hurling each other into things and engaging in general endangerment.
Caught between glam rock and a hard place, Superman has been knocked off the playing field for a moment, so the nearby movie New Yorkers — once again demonstrating that they’ll do anything for a good time — have turned on their snooty overlords, armed only with sticks and traffic cones.
And then the villains start to blow.
What follows is a two-minute sequence where three shiny supervillains stand in a line in front of a front-projection screen, blowing people down the street for far longer than you would ever expect. Pedestrians tumble, cars go flying, umbrellas flip inside out, takeaway purchases are taken away. And still they blow.
This celebration of exhalation is played almost entirely as comedy. The victims’ reactions are exaggerated and often inappropriate, even for movie New Yorkers. The crowd has been ridiculously blasé about the perils of remaining in the combat zone, continuing to gawk and goggle as the skyscrapers fall to pieces around them, but now — fully eight minutes after the start of hostilities on the street where they’re standing — residents are still eating ice cream, buying fried chicken and making personal phone calls. It is a triumph of shtick over sense, and it lasts approximately forever. I think this scene may be its own unique genre; I can’t think of a single thing in the history of cinema that’s even remotely like this.
None of this is in the script, by the way. Here’s what it says on the page:
EFFECTS — It’s a hurricane force wind, wreaking incredible damage. Before the mighty, relentless gale nothing can hold. Cars, trucks, people are blown down the street, smashing, tumbling. An amazing spectacle.
Superman flies in the face of the gale force – trying to reach the people.
Enough! It’s enough!
ON THE VILLAINS — Paying him no mind, they continue.
ON SUPERMAN — Staring up at them as he stands immovable in the path of the great wind. All around him is devastation. A terrible struggle is going on inside him.
ON PEOPLE — gathered in doorways, trying to protect themselves from the wind, they watch fearfully.
And then Superman flies away. It doesn’t even mention Kentucky Fried Chicken once.
What’s happening here is that director Richard Lester is enjoying himself. Here’s what he says in the Making of Superman II TV special:
“Once we got onto the street, I found that it was very much like ordinary action filming. For example, there’s a whole sequence where the villains use their super-breath to create a kind of tornado that sweeps people down the street.
“Once you know how to do that specific effect with one stuntman, it’s very easy to ad-lib, and in fact, in a period of three nights, we ad-libbed that whole sequence. It wasn’t something that had to be written out in advance, and therefore, for me, it was a delight. It was a joy to be able to go and invent gags on the spot.”
That’s why this scene goes on for two minutes, far beyond its useful lifespan. When you spend three days in enjoyable creative collaboration with a film crew and a set of lunatic stuntmen, coming up with as many variations on a theme as you can, you’re inclined to keep some shots just because they were fun to shoot, even if they’re not necessary or effective.
So there’s a mix of different tones in the sequence, which change from one shot to the next. There are some sensible shots, like the firefighters who have been trying to put out the car fires struggling to keep control of their hose.
Then there are shots that are vaguely sensible, but show somebody trying to do something that they should have stopped doing on this block a while ago, like the guy walking his dogs.
There are shots of people who clearly haven’t noticed the noise and destruction happening right outside, like the people walking out of Kentucky Fried Chicken with their dinner, followed by the waitress trying to bring them their change.
There are shots of people who haven’t noticed the noise and destruction while they’re in the middle of it, like the guy making a phone call and saying, “What? What sound?” while trying to hang onto the phone booth.
There’s some 60s comedy shtick, like the wife losing her wig and shouting, “My hair!” while her previously toupeed husband cries, “Your hair, what about mine?”
And then there’s the guy who stays on the phone after getting knocked over and blown down the street, continuing his conversation, and laughing hysterically as the world disintegrates around him.
There are some very effective miniatures shots showing cars getting blown around that are actually scary…
followed by a guy in a shiny red sequined vest on roller skates, trying to keep his balance in the gale…
followed by even scarier car destruction shots.
So here I am, metaphorically trying to keep hold of my umbrella, struggling to stay upright long enough to explain why I don’t think this is entirely successful.
Because obviously I can’t just say that it doesn’t work because it’s comedy. I’m the first person in line to say that a sense of humor is absolutely essential to good filmmaking, and making a joke in the middle of a tense situation increases audience attachment to the characters. Having a mixture of styles is often good for a film, because it makes things less predictable and more interesting.
But I have to go back to Dick Donner’s watchword, verisimilitude — that the events of the film should feel like Superman exists in a real world, populated by real characters with some indication of an inner life.
A funny scene like Lois and Clark’s screwball comedy walk-and-talk through the maze of the Daily Planet office in the first movie still works as verisimilitude, because while the dialogue and timing are obviously heightened, it doesn’t shake you out of the idea that these are supposed to be real people with feelings and common sense.
But the characters in this windstorm scene are acting in ways that are on the spectrum from implausible to impossible for the sake of making a joke, which means that they’re not real people.
Honestly, the thing that breaks it for me is the guy on the phone. He’s not only ignoring the dangerous situation that’s happening around him, he’s cackling maniacally in a way that would be insane under any circumstances.
This is also the second telephone gag in forty seconds, which I think demonstrates why you shouldn’t just ad-lib your entire action sequence. My guess is that they would have cut the first telephone booth bit, but it’s in the middle of the Kentucky Fried Chicken bit, which they liked, and besides, they couldn’t cut it on account of the product placement. But I suppose Lester really liked this one too, probably because it was so much fun to shoot, so they kept both.
The real problem here is that this sequence undercuts the idea that any of these battle scenes actually matter. They’ve established that none of the combatants can ever be seriously hurt, because they’re superstrong and invulnerable, so the drama of the scene depends on the risk to the civilians. When Superman sees Non and Ursa pick up the bus, he cries, “No! Don’t do it! The people!” which explicitly tells us what we’re supposed to care about.
But the cluelessness of the people in this sequence indicates that they’re not affected by the battle at all. The Kryptonians had already been fighting for eight minutes before the windstorm even started, and everyone in the area could feel the aftershocks of Superman’s underground punch-up with Non… but the KFC waitress hasn’t noticed that anything is unusual yet.
There are some shots in this battle sequence that are legitimately exciting and scary, but we can’t believe in it, because they keep showing us people who hardly notice that it’s happening.
Obviously, the one exception is the cleaning lady at the Laugier Bureau, who continues vacuuming while the world falls apart, entirely unbothered. She is real to me. We’re about to see a whole taxicab smash through that window in a minute, and I’m not worried about her at all. She is a badass, and the rest of the movie should be about her.
2.47: The Snowdown
— Danny Horn