Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Superman 2 (Richard Lester, Richard Donner, 1980)

Margot Kidder 1948 - 2018 

Supermen two

(Story and plot twists of Superman II discussed  in close detail)

Thanks to the influence of the huge Hollywood superproduction that is Man of Steel (which I happen to despise) I was finally motivated to watch the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, and while I concede the technical superiority (the effects, music and overall tone have more of an organic whole) I do think the existence of this version only confirms what made Lester's version so memorable.

The Paris sequence, for one: I love Lester's introduction of Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) as someone who absolutely no one takes notice of, his super quality hinted at only when the hat he flips catches perfectly on a hatrack; I love the scene under the Eiffel Tower where Lois Lane (trying to get close to some terrorists threatening to detonate a thermonuclear device) is caught by a police officer, and with the aid of an English to French translation book neatly sidesteps his watchful gaze. Little touches like these, 'Lesterisms' if you like, liven up the film and remind you of what Lester seems to insist on in all his films (that life is absurd) and I think insists on in particular with this film (life is absurd enough to allow for the possible existence of a superhero). In comparison, Donner's dead earnest retread of the high points of the first Superman feels just that: a retread, a longer one at that. 

Donner has Lois try prove Kent and Superman are the same person by stepping out a window; his sequence showcases Kent's ability to think quickly and work invisibly. Lester's sequence involving the Niagara River is more of an extended gag, more persuasive (Lane floats along and isn't plummeting down the side of a building, giving Kent more time to think things through), with just the slyest suggestion that on some level he's enjoying this--he's paying Lane back for all the neglect and abuse she's heaped on him. 

Then there's the admittedly well-written, well-acted scene where Lane shoots Kent (again an attempt to out his secret identity). I find Lester's version--Kent stumbles and sticks his hand in a fire--again more persuasive: in Donner's scene you want to ask "why didn't he check the gun with his X-ray vision?" With Lester the random, absurdist forces of the universe--the Lesterisms--are simply (and consistently) hard at work (one may exclaim "Superman would never stumble!" and one would be right only I suspect Kent meant to deliberately stumble and overplayed his clumsiness).

Lester has Superman confront General Zod and friends and turns New York (sorry--Metropolis) into a gigantic playground; he enhanced the impression with a few comic touches, especially during the sequence when the supervillains inflict their superbreath on the populace (a man loses his toupee; another's ice cream scoop flips out of its cone; a biker accelerates out of control; a phone caller laughs long after his booth has blown away). Possibly Donner meant a more serious, more dramatic battle, but what I submit Lester was going for was something altogether more unsettling, a vision of the world as seen through these superbeings' eyes: anything and everything is an oversized toy to shatter and crush and hurl against each other, in a shared temper tantrum the size of a major metropolitan city; Superman only really wakes up to what he's doing--endangering innocent bystanders--when Zod threatens them directly. This playfulness--this sense of childish superbeings at play, with serious consequences just slightly out of mind and waiting to happen--is muted in Donner's less humorous version.

Even more altered is Lane's parting conversation with Superman. In Donner's version they're tragic lovers forced to part ways but hopelessly loving each other; in Lester's they're perceptibly mature lovers, trying to work out a knotty, impossible relationship. There's a bitter edge to Lester's scene that's missing in Donner's, the sense of a more sophisticated sensibility trying to focus on important issues and being hopelessly distracted. Donner sees the two as Romeo and Juliet, soon to part with sweet sorrow, more adolescent than adult; Lester sees the two as Robin and Marian, a man and a woman having to deal between them with the lifelong burden of one man's legend. 

Kent's redemption scene undergoes perhaps the most radical change of all: in Donner's version Jor El (Marlon Brando--we get so much more of him here and unfortunately he's an even bigger pompous bore) has planned for his son's rebellion all along; in Lester's version a random accident saves the day. In Donner's version Jor El is the God figure who knows all and prepares for all, ultimately sacrificing for his son's sake; in Lester's version there is no one and nothing watching over events--it's only the merest luck that Lane happened to hide the crucial crystal under her handbag. 

Between an all-knowing, all-wise Kryptonian (a long-dead one at that, though there are suggestions that Jor El lives on however vicariously in the Fortress' computer) and the workings of blind chance, which is the more pessimistic and ultimately darker vision? Perhaps Lester isn't as comic as people suppose him to be, or perhaps he practices the kind of comedy that recognizes the true, ultimately despairing nature of life: that we're all molecules randomly--comically--bouncing off each other, and no one can really say what is or isn't impossible.


No comments: