Superman II 2.51: Hated the First, Loved the Second

“The original Superman,” said mean ol’ David Denby in New York magazine, “was one of the most disjointed, stylistically mixed-up movies ever made. The mystico-sublime rubbed elbows with low farce and pop irony, and everything gave way to disaster-movie squareness in the end. But now all is well.” Phew, that was a close one.

Because it turns out that Superman II is “easily the best spectacle movie of the season,” according to Denby, and he wasn’t the only convert. Richard Schickel of Time dug it too: “It is that rarity of rarities, a sequel that readily surpasses the original. This is not, perhaps, a task requiring Kryptonic levels of wit and wisdom, because the initial effort was more than a little crude.”

But the most notable turnaround was Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, who absolutely savaged the first movie. Here’s her new attitude: “Richard Lester, who directed this sequel, brings it one light touch after another, and pretty soon the movie has a real spirit — what you wish the first had had. The picture grows faster and quirkier as it moves along.”

And that’s pretty much how things went in June ’81, as far as the critics were concerned. There were a couple killjoys at the Washington Post and the Boston Globe who didn’t enjoy themselves, but everyone else who mattered thought it was, as they say in modern parlance, certified fresh.

Once again, every single human being on the planet thought that Christopher Reeve was perfect, even the people who didn’t like the film. At the Post, Gary Arnold admitted, “The only aspect of Superman II that seems calculated to preserve the good will is Christopher Reeve’s charm,” and Bruce McCabe at the Globe described the final kiss between Reeve and Kidder in reverent tones: “The moment is sublime, both cinematically and romantically.” Kael said that Reeve “brings emotional depth to Superman,” and Janet Maslin at the New York Times said, “It is Christopher Reeve, of course, without whom this movie would not be remotely possible. Mr. Reeve is so perfectly suited to the Superman role that he gives the film a warmth and energy it might not otherwise have.”

The other person that everyone had a good word for was Gene Hackman. Denby said that Hackman’s Luthor was “an effortlessly funny performance,” and Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times called it “a brilliantly orchestrated performance.” Maslin said that he “very nearly steals the movie,” which is impressive, since he’s not in most of it.

As far as the actual villains of the movie were concerned, the critics were mixed. Denby gushed with the evangelical fervor of a convert, “The three revolutionary traitors, expelled from Krypton and now eager to rule the earth, give the film grandeur and menace. What a superbly evil trio!”

But Maslin was less ecstatic: “One of the current film’s inventions is the trio of villains from Krypton, who fly to Earth threatening trouble and who dress like a punk-rock band.” Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times called out Luthor’s contribution but hardly mentioned the Krypton crew, just saying “it features the return of three villains from Krypton.”

Strangely, of the contemporary reviews that I read, Denby is really the only one that describes the three villains individually, and nobody mentioned the catchphrase “Kneel before Zod”, which I would have imagined was either worth loving or hating, as per.

The villains were the thing that really got under Arnold’s skin. “They put a creepy new complexion on everything,” he moaned. “Unlike the funny villainous trio from Superman, the invaders from Krypton are a sheer pestilence, escapees from some unimaginably nasty leather bar in a distant galaxy. You don’t want to linger around these ruthless despots. You want to see them crushed, fast.”

Last time, everybody had to reassure each other that the flying effects were in fact as lyrical as we wanted them to be, but that was three years and a Star Wars sequel ago, so fuck that. “The production suffers from a tacky veneer,” Arnold continues to rant, “symbolized most conspicuously by some hideous composite photography in special effects sequences. The impression that certain things are being done on the cheap is difficult to shake.”

Now, Arnold’s the heavy in this sequence, but he wasn’t alone on this one. Janet Maslin said, “The special effects are more abundant than ingenious, but they’re convincing enough for the cheerful, uncritical audience this movie wants to please.”

And Sheila Benson griped, “There are, of course, enough effects to fill a dozen Saturday morning serials, but they aren’t necessarily the film’s deliciousness.” I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to pinpoint a film’s deliciousness, but it’s harder than it sounds.

“Most of the Earth-based shenanigans of the Oilcloth Trio look very peculiar,” Benson continued, “as though they were placed in front of projected action.” Everybody had their own little joke about the Phantom Zoners’ costumes, and “Oilcloth Trio” was the least successful by far. Still, she’s right about the front projection in the blowdown scene.

The big dance number got another rave from New York‘s David Denby: “In a true Lester touch, cars, people and refrigerators are swept up in the rush of air, while one man, talking on the phone, continues his conversation lying on the curb, even after the phone booth has blown away. Few movies have made the confrontation of man and supernatural power so astonishing and so funny.” That’s how much Kool-Aid Denby was drinking; he specifically liked the sideways phone booth gag. Also: what refrigerator?

Richard Schickel in Time also liked the scene: “The final confrontation with Superman is a barroom brawl on a delightfully gigantic scale. There is wit, even a sort of weird plausibility, in the action sequences that was not present in the first film.” But Benson said, “The final aerial battle among the four superpowers, including that too-long windstorm, is something of a ho-hum.” Which is exactly what I should have said, when I wrote about it. More than 25 paragraphs, and it never occurred to me to say it was something of a ho-hum. Well, we all have regrets, I suppose.

One thing that got people confused was the mid-stream director switch, so the reviewers weren’t sure what was Donner’s work or Lester’s. For example, Roger Ebert said, “This is some of Lester’s best work. He permits satire to make its way into the film more easily. He has a lot of fun with Gene Hackman, as the still-scheming, thin-skinned, egomaniacal Lex Luthor.” Donner actually directed all of the Hackman scenes.

Richard Schickel also gave Lester the praise: “Since the major change in the credits is the substitution of Richard Lester for Richard Donner as director, it seems logical to single out the man who did A Hard Day’s Night and The Three Musketeers as the one responsible for making Superman soar.”

But the no-prize goes to the NYT’s Janet Maslin, who said, “Ken Thorne’s music is perfect for a marching band, but too loud and starchy for this movie; John Williams remains the only movie composer who can do this sort of thing well.” Which just goes to show you how wrong Janet Maslin can be, when she puts her mind to it.

Maslin did call out the toupee, though, so she gets bonus points for that: “The villains capture the White House and bring the President (played by E.G. Marshall, who wears a toupee that looks like a Davy Crockett hat) to his knees.” Gary Arnold noticed it too: “They force the president (E.G. Marshall in a ludicrous toupee) to kneel and pledge allegiance.”

There’s just a couple more notes from the balcony before I close. Describing the moment when Superman reveals himself to Lois, Sheila Benson wrote: “A look around the audience at this moment found wish-fulfillment reflected on more than one rapt, upturned face.” Girl needs to keep her eyes to herself.

And I don’t know what to do with Richard Schickel’s rant about ’80s superhero masculinity, so I’m just going to tell you about it and then it’s your problem: “What the…! Clark Kent admitting his real identity to Lois Lane after all these years? And then, in full Man of Steel regalia, flying her back to his place, pouring her champagne, cooking dinner and egad! — taking her to bed? The mind boggles — is nothing sacred? But let’s face it, times change, and Superman and friend have sweetly embraced the spirit of the ’80s as well as each other. They have become — no other phrase will do — swinging singles (PG division) willing to talk things out, show their vulnerability, be mutually supportive in their careers. In the next film they will doubtless negotiate a prenuptial agreement and buy a co-op together.” Oh, for Pete’s sake.

Christopher Reeve gets his second big break
as a guest on The Muppet Show!
2.52: Light the Lights


The reviews cited in today’s post are:

Christopher Reeve gets his second big break
as a guest on The Muppet Show!
2.52: Light the Lights


— Danny Horn

14 thoughts on “Superman II 2.51: Hated the First, Loved the Second

  1. “Superman II is ‘easily the best spectacle movie of the season…'”!?
    Google tells me that Raiders of the Lost Ark was released June 12, while Superman II was released June 19. I’m pretty sure that’s the same season so the problem must be that we differ on the definition of spectacle movie. Or best.
    The top grossing movies of 1981 were: Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond, Superman II, Arthur, Stripes, The Cannonball Run, Chariots of Fire, For Your Eyes Only, The Four Seasons and Clash of the Titans. I’ve seen half of them and enjoyed them. I think I would have the same opinion today about them as I did in 1981.
    So why is the reaction to Superman II so negative now? It was a popular, well-reviewed movie in 1981. Do we hold superhero movies to a higher standard now? Or did the release of the Donner Cut make people disappointed with the Theatrical release in comparison? Have tastes changed? Or were those good reviews simply wrong?
    I don’t disagree that the first Superman film suffered from changes in tone. I do think Superman II moves along better but they are both flawed. Yes, Reeve and Hackman are fine in this one but I think the reviewers are a bit harsh on the villains, at least Terence Stamp. But how Roger Ebert could say this was some of Richard Lester’s best work is beyond me. He had already made A Hard Day’s Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Robin and Marian and the Three Musketeers. An argument could be made that any of them are better than this. To be fair, he was presented with the task of incorporating a different director’s vision into a movie he was hired to finish. It’s unfortunate that Donner’s version seems like it might have been more interesting but the fact that this is at all watchable has to count in Lester’s favor. I’ve seen worse movies. I have a feeling that after the next few movies on the list, I may look back on Superman II with actual affection, or at least nostalgia.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. “Do we hold superhero movies to a higher standard now?” We sure do! Especially after Iron Man and The Dark Knight opened the floodgates to films with an earnest respect for the mythology.

      In 1981, we were still a few years away from Watchmen. I remember how it redefined comic books as serious, philosophical/mythological storytelling. Not just a little diversion for kids and nerdy adults (a socially disreputable thing to be back then). Now, they were “graphic novels” for many thoughtful grown-ups. We were also a couple of decades from films taking that tone (and being huge hits). Donnor was ahead of his time in taking Supe’s mythology so earnestly.

      The magically telepathic Paulene Kael reported on the thoughts inside the heads of the movie-going audience (“what you wish the first had had”). Per her mystical vision, the general public wanted “astonishing and funny” kid stuff in a comic book film. Lester delivered more of what the mind-reading goddess of criticism reflected to her public.

      Trained by a decade and a half of the MCU, comic book film fans now expect all the details to matter. That they are put in the script and brought to the screen with caring crafstmanship, for fans to discuss and admire the chess masterplan.

      SII’s writers and director obviously didn’t have that goal. They were just moving the audience along from one gee whiz moment to the next. It was a roller coaster ride for the fun of it. Nobody expects any deeper meaning from a roller coaster. Who cares if there’s no narrative flow to that surprise loop past the second hill? Who cares if you see a few rough edges behind the Wizard’s curtain as the Ozmobile tram swings your around for a glance?

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I think I know why Danny’s reaction to Superman II isn’t more favorable- he explicitly said that he wanted to follow Dark Shadows Every Day with another look at intricately serialized narratives. That’s a description that certainly fits today’s superhero-themed Cinematic Universes, but this movie was very deliberately made to stand alone. Not that they don’t leverage memories of the first movie here and there, and of course there are things you can always take for granted that a US-based audience will know about Superman, but all of the intertext is kept to a minimum.

      I’d also mention Lester’s THE BED-SITTING ROOM as one of his superior productions, and as a qualification to make a superhero movie. Surrealism was several years past its peak in Paris when Superman debuted in 1938, but it was the very definition of avant-garde art for the sort of people who were working in comics in NYC in those days and for some years after. So you can see its influence everywhere in the first decades of superhero comics. Superman is so familiar that it’s hard for us to see him as a novelty, but sophisticated grown-ups who looked at the comics in the first twenty years must have seen the influence of the Surrealists every time he defied the laws of physics.

      THE BED-SITTING ROOM is a major work of neo-Surrealism. Like the Surrealists of the 1920s, it uses bizarre transformations and juxtapositions to disorient the viewer and jar loose the contents of the subconscious mind. This was an idea that Steve Ditko would try to explore in the comics in the 1970s, with his character “The Odd Man”; he was a crimefighter whose approach was to look so weird that the bad guys would be stunned at the sight of him. The Odd Man was originally supposed to have a regular feature, but after DC had to cut back its expansion plans he only appeared once as the lead character of a story. Still, with this character Ditko had zeroed in on the influence of Surrealism imprinted in the DNA of superhero comics, and the same awareness of the affinity between Surrealism and superheroes made the director of THE BED-SITTING ROOM a logical choice to direct a Superman picture.

      But in those days, cinematic Surrealism meant, first and foremost, Luis Bunuel. Bunuel’s movies are as far from serialized narrative as you can get- they barely have stories at all, in any conventional sense. And Lester, not only in THE BED-SITTING ROOM but also in the Beatles movies and in THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT had made extensive use of Bunuel’s techniques for disrupting narrative structure and severing particular images and themes from any broader context. Indeed, it wasn’t until TWIN PEAKS premiered in April of 1990 that it became clear that a Surrealistic approach to film-making could serve a serialized narrative.

      I’ve gone on way too long with all this, but my point is, the movie is a lot of fun and I like it better than the first one.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Count me among those who prefer the second to the first. Even now that I see more of the flaws in the film after the last 10 weeks of analysis, I still enjoy it. I love the PZ Villains–they just bring me glee when they’re on screen, even when they’re bored with their conquest. I find them riveting to watch, funky costumes and rips in Ursa’s and all. I also hated Otis in the first movie and so his diminished role here also helps my enjoyment level. Similarly with Lex himself.

    My admittedly biased memory confirms what the quoted reviews say–that people at the time generally did like it better than the first as well. It also seems that it lives in pop culture memory more than the first. The quotable “Kneel before Zod” aside, it feels like it’s better remembered. At the time in the comics there was a General Zod, but no Non and the female in the Phantom Zone was named Faora. That continued, but as the generation that saw this movie as kids began writing comics, they brought Non and Ursa into the comics as well. Now, no one remembers Faora, it’s just Ursa. Granted Miss Tessmacher was brought into the CW’s Supergirl (basically in name only), but was Otis ever used anywhere? Was this version of Lex?

    I won’t fight someone to the death over the idea that the second is better than the first like I would over my feelings for Flash Gordon. But I still vastly enjoy this one more than I do the first.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. “I won’t fight someone to the death over the idea that the second is better than the first like I would over my feelings for Flash Gordon.”

      Why do I get the feeling that you have a big antigrav turntable with retractable daggers out in your yard?

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Yeah; I had an Arboria Treehouse with reach-in stump, complete with stinging creature, but the neighbors threatened lawsuits and I had to take it down.

        Liked by 5 people

  3. It always confuses me as to why the “better/worse” distinction MUST be made for a sequel, as if the only reason for going to the next installment is because it makes the last one look “better/worse” by contrast. Somehow it’s never enough just to critique a sequel on its own merits. Maybe it’s just that my tastes are unsophisticated; I so often disagree with movie critics.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. “It always confuses me as to why the “better/worse” distinction MUST be made”

      Welcome to The Internet!
      Our next orientation webinar is at noon on Thursday.

      Loose clothes and a good warm up first are recommended, because we’ll cover
      dodging the issue –
      ducking the question –
      inflaming the conversation –
      escalating the confrontation!

      You’ll then be an officially qualified opinion provider, licensed to explain at length why anything is better or worse than anything else. We recommend that newly licensed drivers on the Information Superhighway start with Twitter’s short but angry format, intermediate users rally the troops on Facebook, and advanced users generate a hundred post blog that attracts a reliably snarky community.

      Enjoy your visit!

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Will the following be discussed?

        1. Alternative facts and how to generate them.
        2. Conspiracy theories and how to make them so implausible that they are believable.
        3. Doing your research by ignoring anything that might disagree with 1 and 2.

        Liked by 4 people

  4. When it came out, I certainly went along with everyone I knew who liked this sort of movie (most of my friends) in thinking Two was better than One. Not because One was bad, but because Two went further into the relationship between Clark/Superman and Lois Lane, and gave him a tragic arc. So, we thought, it was deeper. This did not involve downgrading the first one! The second just continued the story and got us into more intense places! Now I have read and enjoyed this extremely detailed and deep analysis of why we should disapprove of the deterioration of Lois’s character in Two, and as a feminist I approve of the reasons given, but I still think it’s excusable because love makes idiots out of people. Lois is as great as ever; she was just having a bad week.

    So the critics seem to want to raise the one by putting down the other, but my crowd’s canon was and is that this was just a deeper part of the forest we were glad to get into.

    Danny, is your link to the New Yorker review working? The first time I clicked on it, I got a Captcha page that I’ve never seen on the frequent occasions I’ve been to the New Yorker site, and the second time I think it tried to take me to a porn site. Is this just my computer having an episode, or what?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wait…didn’t Kael complain that the first film wasn’t “gritty” enough because the Metropolis version of New York wasn’t Panic in Needle Park or whatever? Lady, make up your mind!

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s