With all the talk of the impending Superman movie, there’s been a lot of accompanying talk about the good or bad elements of previous Cinema de Clark. One point that seems to generate near universal agreement is the idea that the Metropolis fight scene in “Superman II” remains one of the best representations of super-heroic action ever captured on film. Taking that as our cue, I’d like to direct this Flashback to the dawn of a decade . . .
Hey, is it ’80 or ’81?: While 1980 is properly credited as the date of production, and while the film did get a 1980 release by a thin margin in other countries (December 4th in Australia), the U.S. release didn’t come along until June of 1981. Most sources do list the date as 1980. The underlying punchline of that is there had been scenes that were shot simultaneously with the production of Superman: The Movie, which arrived in 1978. Also complicating matters in consideration of the film is the fact that it had two directors. Richard Donner, director of the first film, was directing this one. However, due to producer conflicts over a variety of reasons, Richard Lester finished it (it’s estimated that Donner probably finished about three-quarters of “II”). So, for our purposes, we’ll look back at 1981.
1981 in General (Zod): Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president of the United States. The Iran Hostage Crisis ended minutes later. Reagan also went on to survive an assassination attempt in March. The Space Shuttle program begins with Columbia. Sandra Day O’Connor becomes the first woman nominated to the Supreme Court. Ric Flair wins his FIRST world title.
1981 in Music: MTV launches. Metallica forms and Wings breaks up; we believe these to be isolated incidents. Other bands to form include The Bangles, Motley Crue, Sonic Youth, Slayer, Wham!, Pet Shop Boys, Ministry, Tears for Fears, and Front 242. The biggest hit singles are “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes, “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins, and “Woman” by John Lennon. Other huge hits include “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield, “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John, “The Tide is High” and “Rapture” by Blondie, “Just Like Starting Over” by John Lennon, “Arthur’s Theme” by Christopher Cross, and “Keep on Loving You” by REO Speedwagon.
1981 in Film: The biggest movie was . . . almost this one. Superman II was third at the box office for the year, behind "Raiders of the Lost Ark” at number one and On Golden Pond at number two. Other big hits were Arthur, Stripes, and Cannonball Run. Best Picture went to Chariots of Fire; its innovative slow-motion running on the beach photography would later be put to an equally iconic use in “Baywatch”.
Superman II: “II” manages to be that most interesting of super-hero films. Apart from wild divergences from source material on occasion, it’s remarkably faithful to the spirit of the whole enterprise. The film is immediately most notable for pitting Superman against worthy antagonists, the three Kryptonian criminals led by General Zod. As played by Terence Stamp, Zod is over-the-top in all the right ways. His scenes probably remain the most memorable elements of the film.
However, the controversial subplot involving Lois discovering that Clark Kent is Superman has merited enormous discussion over the years. In fact, the discovery is less controversial than the “super-kiss” that puts the genie back into the bottle. I think that it’s fair to say that this film softened the way for the eventual comic-based identity reveal that would happen later in the decade.
Probably the greatest moment, though, is the battle in Metropolis. For the first time, we saw what super-hero combat was supposed to look like. Remember: even in the animated series of the day, like the “Super Friends”, there was no actual punching. In this one, however, you saw buses thrown. You saw building damaged. You saw cleverly placed Coca-Cola billboards explode in a shower of sparks. It was a showdown that you hadn’t seen before. Even though it was a sequel, “Superman II” managed to show you something new.
Of course, there’s a follow-up fight in the Fortress of Solitude that solidifies a few things. One: Lex Luthor will always, ALWAYS try to screw you. Two: Lois isn’t as funny as she thinks. Three: When he want to be, Superman is a crafty bastard. The power-stealing reversal is a great moment, particularly when Superman satisfyingly crushes the outstretched hand of a supremely cocky General Zod.
So what say you, readers? What’s your favorite part of “Superman II”? Is it your favorite Superman film? And where does it sit in your total comic film pantheon? Let’s talk. For my money, it remains one of the best. It’s Superman II, and it’s your Friday Flashback.