I saw the trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice this weekend, and I couldn’t help asking: Is this what they think we want in a Superman film?
It looks dark, depressing, and charmless – the exact opposite of what I would hope to see in a Superman film. Of course, trailers don’t always perfectly represent the movies that they’re trying to sell. But the fact that Man of Steel already rebooted the Superman series in such a lackluster way doesn’t bode well for this bloated-looking sequel.
It’s been 35 years since we’ve seen a truly amazing Superman film – Superman II. I don’t mean to slight Superman: The Movie at all. It is practically perfect, and somehow its sequel managed to be even better. That’s an incredible feat considering all the behind-the-scenes drama that took place with Richard Donner quitting as director, Marlon Brando demanding too much money to reprise his role as Jor-El, Director of Photography Geoffrey Unsworth passing away, and Tom Mankiewicz not returning to revise his script.
Superman II set a high water mark for comic book films that took decades for anyone else to come close to. So, is Superman II as good as it gets for Superman films? Let’s find out.
Superman II and Spider-Man 2
I should point out that Superman II has been surpassed by other comic book films in recent years. Spider-Man 2 was the first one to achieve a new level of greatness in the genre. Appropriately enough, it did that by using everything that worked in Superman II, but doing it a little better.
It’s got a fantastic love story, a hero struggling with the loss of his superpowers, his girlfriend discovering his secret identity, and some of the best fight scenes ever put to film.
The first time I saw Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus fall onto the top of a fast-moving train, I got chills because I knew I was in for an epic experience. I hadn’t felt that way about any scene from a comic book movie since the Metropolis fight between Superman and the three Kryptonians. Both of those scenes manage to build the tension by creating new challenges for the hero to overcome. The heroes and villains keep changing tactics as they learn new things about the hero. Those scenes are the highlights of their films, and they come at the perfect moment after the heroes have gone through so many struggles on their way to regaining their powers.
Now compare that to the Smallville fight in Man of Steel, which doesn’t feel earned, but perfunctory. It’s purely eye candy and there’s no real progression or point to it. Superman and his enemies pound on each other and no one gets hurt or comes any closer to winning or losing. At least Superman II took the time to acknowledge Superman’s desire to protect Earthlings – a “weakness” that General Zod attempted to exploit.
Mind Over Muscle
The best thing about Superman II is the way that Superman wins. He doesn’t just keep wailing on his enemies in the hopes that they’ll surrender. He’s outnumbered and his enemies know he’ll do anything to protect the ones he loves. Since he can’t win by simply using his brawn, he realizes the only way he can come out on top is if he uses his brain.
Seeing Superman crush Zod’s hand and toss him away like a ragdoll after outsmarting him is quite possibly the quintessential Superman moment. It’s so memorable because the movie has created such a perfect villain. Zod has been untouchable up to that moment. Every weapon that has been thrown at him has barely slowed him down, and he’s usually calm and in control of every situation. It is totally satisfying to see Superman finally put him in his place.
That is what I wish Superman would do more of. Sure, he’s strong enough to destroy almost any foe, but it’s so much more interesting to see him think his way out of problems. We see a glimpse of that in Superman III when he outwits and destroys a malevolent supercomputer, but that one great moment doesn’t make up for the film’s many shortcomings.
Tough Act to Follow
How do you make a better Superman film than Superman II? I’d really like to know. I mean, Superman II isn’t a perfect film. The first part of the film in Paris has always struck me as rather convoluted and weak. And the part in Metropolis where Clark Kent is so inept that he lets a car smash into him is bizarre. The Niagara Falls scenes are handled competently, but they’re missing that little something extra that Richard Donner always added to his action sequences in Superman: The Movie.
As soon as Zod, Ursa, and Non start causing trouble and Lois discovers Clark is Superman, the movie is pitch perfect from then on. All of the scenes with Lex Luthor are great, too.
What I want in a Superman film is wit, humor, heroics, and characters I can root for and against. I didn’t find many of those things in Man of Steel, and I worry I’ll find even fewer of them in its sequel.
It’s not that I want a continuation of the original Superman series or a film done exactly in that style. I enjoyed Superman Returns, but it felt too much like a retread of the original Superman: The Movie, instead of moving forward and telling its own story. I don’t want filmmakers to try to duplicate the success of the past, but to press on and find a new story that is worthy of this wonderful character.
No one has managed to top Spider-Man 2 in that franchise and I worry that Superman II might be the best we’ll ever see in this superhero franchise. If that’s the case, then it’ll prove Lois’s words at the end of the film to be prophetic, “You’re kind of a tough act to follow.”
Yes, you are, Superman II. Yes, you are.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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