Saturday, October 26, 2013

Superman II (1980)

Writing seems to be the only area where my morbid persistence fails me.  I'll watch all the superhero movies, even the ones everybody knows stink - I can't stop myself - but as soon as I set myself the task of writing about them all, it's all over.  I can't get started.  If I totaled up all the pages I've written
on unfinished novels since high school I'd have...well, a lot.

I start with the Superman movies because they're the first superhero movies I can personally remember, but also because they're usually accepted as starting a new era in superhero movies.  Once Hollywood could make you believe a man can fly, it could do anything, and any superhero story was possible. 

I've long realized this, but as I think I hinted before, Superman is such a problematic myth for me (how do you make perfection interesting?) that I never revisited the movies until now.  So I'm only now coming to the realization that, for all their historical importance, they're really a botched job.  Even the first one - and in many ways, I love it - is less than what it could have been.  The story of why is well told here, so I'll just summarize.  Richard Donner was hired to make two Superman movies at once:  he was doing the Peter Jackson thing of filming it all at more or less the same time, but finishing the first one first to make the money to finish the second one.  But Donner's bosses lost their nerve and wouldn't guarantee the second one until they saw that the first one was a hit.  So to hedge bets Donner put the second movie's ending at the end of the first one.  It was a hit, but the bosses sacked Donner anyway and brought in Richard Lester to finish up the second film. 

Decades later Donner went back and put together his own version of Superman II, and really, if you're at all interested in the character, you have to see both of them.  Which is kind of sad, because the Lester version really is bad.

It's bad because it doesn't take the character, the story, the mythos seriously.  His Superman does what so many of the Bonds around this period did, treat the whole thing as an excuse for a romp.  It's a fun movie, and very much in tune with the times, but it mostly fails to make anything of its materials.  It's as if Lester was embarrassed to be making a movie about a guy in tights.

Donner wasn't embarrassed:  his first Superman movie succeeded because he (and his team) believed.  Respected the material, and brought it to the screen with a conviction that poetry out of it.  So one might expect his Superman II to be better than Lester's and it is - there's hardly any comparison.  I only have one objection:  it's incomplete.  I understand the desire to minimize the amount of Lester-shot footage in the final Donner product, but so much is cut out that unless you've seen the Lester version you don't really understand what the villains are up to.  The Donner version depends on the viewer having seen the Lester version. 

I guess I have one other objection, although there's not much that could be done about this.  The Donner version of SII ends the way Donner had originally meant the film to end - meant it, that is, way back at the beginning of the project.  The problem is, Donner used that ending for the first movie;  it really wasn't available for the second movie.  In other words, both Superman: The Movie and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut end with Superman turning back time.  What needs to happen is for somebody to go back and cut a version of the first movie that ends the way the original project meant for it to end, so that the two films match up as the big two-part epic they were meant to be...

Unless/until that happens, what we're left with in these first two movies, and two versions of the second, is kind of a mess.  A noble, promising, at times glorious mess, but still a mess of loose ends, inconsistencies, and half-realized ideas.  Which, in an odd way, fits:  since Superman is about perfection, it's kind of right that it was unrealizable, at least in this first go-round.  I think one perfect Superman movie did get made, and maybe I'll get around to explaining why I think it's perfect someday, but for the moment I'll just observe that it embraces incompleteness - it starts as if in the middle of a story, rejecting the idea that it can achieve perfection in itself.  Maybe the best way to glimpse completeness is through incompleteness?  Not a new idea, certainly, but a nifty innovation for a superhero movie.

So what does Donner do in his version of the second movie that's worth doing?  Present The Last Temptation of Christ - in tights.  I.e., he argues that if Superman is perfect, then part of his perfection is to recognize that he belongs to everybody, and therefore to nobody in particular - and to accept that, he has to deny himself happiness, or at least whatever happiness he thinks a normal human relationship would bring him.  Superman must be self-denying.  And that's the only way we mere mortals can even begin to identify with him as a hero.  Without that he's just a child's fantasy.

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