Thursday, July 16, 2020

Superman II Is Old-Fashioned Fun In The Best Way Possible

Christopher Reeve's Superman will never fail to instill some warm and fuzzy feelings in my heart. However, I would say the most inspiring moment of Superman II does not come from Reeve's Superman. Instead, it comes from a bunch of civilians reacting to the apparent demise of Superman at the hands of General Zod (Terence Stamp). Watching an otherworldly figure defeat somebody as powerful as Superman hasn't instilled fear in their hearts. Instead, these mortal humans are now rallying together to take on Zod and his two goons. "C'mon! I know judo!" announces one Metropolis resident as everyone prepares to confront Zod.

You couldn't find a better testament to what an important character Superman is. He isn't just somebody who punches things hard, he inspires people to be heroes themselves. It's a wonderful moment that feels like a precedent to the "You mess with one of us" moment from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. Of course, Superman II isn't just one heartwarming moment. The preceding plot concerns the imprisoned Zod and company being freed after Superman tosses a nuclear bomb into space. Now, Zod and his minions have come to Earth. Whereas Superman uses his powerful status on Earth to protect the planet's inhabitants, Zod sees Earth as ripe for conquering.

At the same time, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) discovers that Clark Kent actually is Superman and the two begin to contemplate the idea of becoming a committed romantic couple. Also, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has broken out of prison and is on the hunt for revenge against Superman. In the first half of Superman II, the trio of plotlines feels a bit too disparate. The wackier elements of the Luthor and Lane subplots feel especially out of place against the pervasively ominous Zod storyline. It's hard to laugh at Kent stumbling onto a vibrating bed in a honeymoon suite when you know Zod and his crew are blowing up buildings somewhere in Texas.

But much of the first half of Superman II still registers as entertaining primarily thanks to a gaggle of enjoyable performances. Reeve's turn as Superman has been rightfully endlessly praised over the years but I still don't feel we appreciate just how good he is in this role. It's especially impressive how well he plays the individual Clark Kent and Superman sides of this guy. Reeves' Kent is so charmingly clumsy without slipping into a caricature. Even in the heightened world of Superman II, Reeves makes the Kent persona somebody you could buy as a real person. And as Superman, well, Reeves has all the warmth and kindness you'd want out of somebody playing this part.

Stamp also makes for a fun foe for Superman to face, especially since Stamp exudes such a delightful air of arrogance in the part. You can feel the contempt for everything on Earth just wafting off of Stamp's performance. Meanwhile, as Lex Luthor, Gene Hackman doesn't have a ton to do but what he does get makes ample use of the actor's comic chops. Hackman and the rest of the cast especially come alive in the second half of Superman II. This is when all the storylines begin to converge in a really interesting way. Especially intriguing is Superman's decision to become mortal for Lois Lane just as Zod executes his plan for world domination.

It's an interesting personal quarrel for Superman. Which does he put first? The world or the woman he loves? Though it may sound cornball on a conceptual level, the way Reeves' performance and Superman II's script fully commit to a non-ironic take on this quandary makes it work. Even a trace of jaded postmodernism would have led the storyline to collapse. Superman II realizes that, sometimes, you just need some old-fashioned wholesomeness. Like, say, a bunch of everyday citizens rallying together to stop a murderous alien. That's the sort of stuff wonderful superhero tales like Superman II are made of!

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