Superman II

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I don’t know anything about Superman comics. I’ve never read a single one. Not even The Death of Superman when it was a big deal in middle school. I always thought his powers were boring because he was practically invincible and I didn’t think his villains were as compelling as Batman’s. I did see “Superman II” (1981) as a child, probably on cable in the late 80s, and my conception of what Superman is, or is “supposed to be,” comes entirely from this film.

The plot of “Superman II” is about General Zod’s attempt to take over the Earth. But the story is really about Clark and Lois and how Superman fits into their relationship. What I like most about it is how crystal clear the characters of Clark Kent and Lois Lane come through. Sure, they’re one-dimensional, but at least they have a dimension. And it’s a fun dimension. It’s a dimension where I don’t mind spending two hours. (Here begins my veiled criticism of “Man of Steel” (2013), which I loathed.) These two characters are so broad, it’s almost as if they were plucked from a Broadway musical. This is as it should be.

Clark is naive and idealistic. He’s fiercely compassionate. He always tells the truth. He always tries to do what’s right. He’s a total farmboy. These fundamentals are crucial because he was Clark before he was Superman, and Clark’s character fully explains why he becomes a superhero. No elaborate origin story is required. He becomes Superman because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. That’s Clark.

Lois is a cynic. She can be cruelly unfeeling. She’s harried and overworked. She’s a chain smoking city girl. It’s obvious that someone like her would have no interest in the pitiful affections of someone like Clark. She’s too busy and on the trail of too many important stories to give him a second thought.

But Lois and Clark do have some things in common. They’re both passionate about justice, and they both see journalism as a means to that end. She shares traits with Superman too; they’re both fearless and would both put themselves in danger to help others.

And here’s where “Superman II” opens. Lois begins to suspect Clark’s secret and she uses her investigative skills to pry a confession from him. Clark admits both his secret identity and his love for her. Now he has a problem, having apparently concluded that he can’t be a good superhero and a good boyfriend at the same time. (This seems rational.) So, which should he give up? Superman or Lois? What’s the right thing to do?

It’s almost like the writers created a dilemma for the main character based on his established character traits. Yes, it’s good old-fashioned screenwriting, and it’s where “Superman II” succeeds where “Man of Steel” failed miserably.

But “Superman II” is not without its flaws. Much has been said about studio meddling in such recent films as “Fantastic Four” (2015) and “Suicide Squad” (2016), both of which were purported to be ruined by reshoots, but “Superman II” was the original case of studio meddling in a comic book movie. The director, Richard Donner, was fired in the middle of production and replaced with Richard Lester, who reshot several of Donner’s scenes so the studio could avoid giving Donner directorial credit.

With Donner out of the picture, “Superman II” began to take a very different form. The studio had been squabbling with Marlon Brando and was eager to cut his scenes from the film, which Donner had refused to do, but which Lester merrily agreed to, replacing the hologram of Superman’s father with a hologram of his mother. She served the same purpose to the plot, but Brando’s gravitas was sacrificed.

Lester’s reshoots also stand out. In some cases, the actors look so different from one scene to the next that it gets distracting. This is particularly true of Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, who looks sickly in the reshot scenes, as if she wasn’t given enough notice before being recalled to play Lois and she starved herself to get back into shape.

The biggest problem for me in the film is the unexplained (or under-explained) method by which Clark regains his powers. Earlier, he takes Lois to the Fortress of Solitude and after conferring with his holo-mom, chooses to give up his powers so he can be with Lois. His mom warns him that the process cannot be undone, but he steps into the magic chamber and is turned into a regular human. This is one of the best moments in the Superman films, when Clark chooses Lois over Superman.

But later, with three evil Kryptonians running amuck, he realizes this was a poor choice. He returns to the Fortress of Solitude (never mind how mortals keep traveling back and forth from the North Pole to Metropolis in this movie) and finds some random crystal that for some reason reverses the process and restores his powers. Well, okay, but that kind of undercuts the whole “giving up your powers” thing.

The magic chamber was a neat device though, and led to another of the best moments in the series, where Superman outwits both Lex Luthor and General Zod during the film’s climax.

While “Superman II” delivers some great moments and some appropriately broad characterizations of Lois and Clark, the Greatest Superman Film has yet to be made. Some might say that it’s the original, “Superman: The Movie” (1978), but I think that film, like its sequel, suffers by making its villain too comedic.

Someday we’ll get a bright, idealistic, patriotic Superman who must face a genuine threat that challenges both his strength and his values. Maybe Hollywood will never embrace such corniness again… but there’s always Broadway.

My Dad, the Muppets & Me

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My lifelong love of cinema began with my dad when he took me to see “The Great Muppet Caper” in 1981. I was two years old and already a devoted Muppet fan.

I have wondered whether my memory of this experience is wholly accurate. Can you be a devoted fan of something at two years of age? I recently asked my dad for confirmation. I called him up, catching him before he headed outside to do yard work, and our conversation spanned from comparative meteorology to veterans’ affairs to that time he accidentally swallowed gasoline as a kid. Somewhere along the way, we came to the Muppets.

I asked if it were possible that I could have been two years old when I made him take me to see that movie, wondering if maybe we’d seen a reissue at a later date.

His reply: “Oh, yeah. You loved the Muppets as a little guy. When I’d come home, the first thing you’d do is tell me the Muppets were on. You were so excited you’d run around and around in little circles. That’s why we had to go see that show.” (He said “show” but meant “movie,” one of his adorable colloquialisms.) As to the details of our Muppet caper, he was quite confident.

He must have been excited to take his son to the movies for the first time. He too has been a lifelong movie buff. In the 60’s, he worked as a projectionist in one of the old-time movie palaces. His friends filled the auditorium but paid more attention to their girlfriends than the movies. To them, the theater was an air-conditioned oasis, away from obtrusive parents and the dry heat of California’s Central Valley. But to my dad, it was serious business, and as the hours spent in his projection booth multiplied, he began to develop a sophisticated appreciation of film.

So maybe his love of movies made him jump the gun. My dad seems like a sane person, but only a maniac takes a 2-year-old to a movie theater. Maybe I was very persuasive, or insistent. In any case, off we went to see the new Muppet movie. I imagine my dad buying me popcorn and candy, trying to provide a complete moviegoing experience. I imagine myself wide-eyed, absorbing all the details of the theater, marveling at number of seats and the enormity of the screen. The previews likely included Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound,” and I no doubt made clear my desire to see that movie next.

Finally, the film itself. “The Great Muppet Caper” opens with Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo riding in a hot air balloon as they make knowing comments about the opening credits. (Fozzie: “Nobody reads those names anyway, do they?” Kermit: “Sure. They all have families.”) The magic of this scene is that these three characters are so fully realized in our minds that we don’t think of them as puppets, and therefore we don’t wonder how each of their performers fit into that little basket. Jim Henson and company always slip in these tricks to make you forget that any puppeteers were involved. You simply see the Muppets.

Such tricks work especially well on children. As my dad said, I loved the Muppets so much that I lost all bodily control when their show came on TV. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why they were so special to me, but it had something to do with that magic of their existence. It’s clear that the Muppets are real. They have physical forms of fur and felt and cloth and plastic, and yet, they are unreal and impossible. Children can’t reconcile that contradiction. Their existence is subconsciously attributed to some sort of magic.

But when you kinda believe that the Muppets are real, there is a down side: the scary ones are really scary. Like every once in a while I’d catch a glimpse of Uncle Deadly in the background on The Muppet Show, and a chill would shoot up my spine. Sweetums was my biggest fear though. You know him. He’s the shaggy, 9-foot-tall Muppet with the big nose, the mean-looking eyes, the huge mouth, and the sharp teeth.

This brings us back to the movie. After the credits roll, the hot air balloon lands on a busy street and a raucous musical number ensues, replete with car accidents, explosions, and a horrifying shot of Sweetums running toward the camera, growling and grumbling. Typical Muppet stuff, yes, but it was all too much for me to bear. I was overwhelmed. We had barely reached the five-minute mark and I was screaming and crying. My dad had to carry me out of the theater for the benefit of the other patrons.

I wouldn’t be consoled. Not only had I endured the trauma of a 40-foot-tall Sweetums, I’d also missed my chance to see the Muppet movie. My dad promptly figured out a remedy. He took me to Toys“R”Us and let me pick out anything in the store. I selected a puppet. A cuddly, furry creature of indeterminate species, whom we named Beaver-Bear. I felt better, and I had a new friend.

My dad has always been a tough guy, a muscular, ass-kicking, shit-disturber. He was an ex-army paratrooper. And now he had a new son who was terrorized by a puppet musical. Some dads might have taken this as a cue to sign up their son for the first little league team that would take him. Instead, my dad wrote me a letter. He said he knew I wasn’t going to be a tough guy. He said he knew that I would grow up to be sensitive. He said that was okay. He tucked the letter away in the basement for delivery at a later date.

In the intervening years, the letter was lost. He delivered it verbally though, around the time of my 18th birthday, after I came out of the closet. He said he had always wanted me to be me. It was okay.

*  *  *  *  *

Last week, the Museum of the Moving Image screened “The Great Muppet Caper” for its 35th anniversary. The film has a special place in my heart, so I made the journey up to Long Island City to see it. When I arrived in the auditorium, I sent my dad a photo and a message.

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Thanks, dad, for taking me to the movies. Thanks for carrying me out. Thanks for letting me be me.


Here is the opening musical number from “The Great Muppet Caper.” Viewer discretion is advised.

The Empire Strikes Back

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It’s December 31st, 2015, and by now everyone in the galaxy has seen “The Force Awakens.” I thought this would be a good time to revisit “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), aka the first sequel to “Star Wars” (1977). “Empire” is most notable for its originality – a rare quality in a sequel – and for taking some major risks.

Here’s where Lucas’s independence worked in his favor. If Disney had owned Lucasfilm back then, “Empire” might have mirrored “Star Wars” more closely. It might have been about the Rebels discovering a second Death Star under construction and Yoda would have been played by an elderly human who, like Obi-Wan, would have accompanied the heroes on their mission and dispensed occasional wisdom/Force training. (And incidentally, it probably would have been called “Star Wars 2.”)

Instead, the heroes were split up; Han and Leia were pursued by an obsessed Darth Vader and Luke traveled to a swamp for long, slow scenes in which a puppet taught him about the mystical workings of the universe. And the movie ends with one hero captured and another dismembered. This was the sequel to the biggest blockbuster of all time.

But it worked beautifully. It gave fans what they wanted, i.e. the characters they loved, but it scattered them throughout these worlds and situations we never would have imagined.

If you’re sensing a veiled criticism of “The Force Awakens,” you’re not far off. I loved a lot of choices that J.J. Abrams made, especially the return to practical effects and real sets. Story-wise they played it safe and basically mirrored the plot of “Star Wars” but, to be fair, the film had the weighty task of establishing a lot of new characters and conflicts. Its main objective was to make us care about the new cast of characters, and in this “The Force Awakens” succeeded where “The Phantom Menace” (1999) failed miserably. Rey, Poe, Kylo, and BB-8 all have their admirers now. I don’t recall legions of fans being won over by Qui-Gon, Amidala, and that CGI rabbit who shall not be named. So, much like “Star Wars,” “The Force Awakens” provided some fun visuals and introduced a host of heroes and villains that fans loved; mission accomplished. Some laziness in the plot can be forgiven. (This time.)

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Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back”

And while we’re on the subject of risk taking, I want to point out again that Yoda was played by a puppet. This was unprecedented. While the Muppets were hugely popular by 1980, and performed alongside humans regularly, there was never any attempt to make them lifelike. The conceit in the Muppet universe is that these characters are just accepted as normal people even though they look like crazy puppets. Yoda, on the other hand (*wink*), was meant to be taken seriously as a living, breathing creature. The fact that they even tried this is commendable, but his enormous success as a character is astonishing.

“The Empire Strikes Back” is well regarded as one of the best sequels of all time. It reunited the characters from the first movie and tossed them into new territory. It introduced new characters that would come to be beloved. Most importantly, it took some major risks. Let’s just say, Episode VIII has a lot to live up to.

 

Star Wars

Star-Wars-Movie-Poster-1977-originalSomehow I managed to not see “Star Wars” (1977) until I was in high school, sometime in the mid-90s. Even at that late date it, watching it for the first time was like receiving a blow to the head.

Here is a film that grabs you by the shirt collar and hurls you on an interplanetary adventure that is, above all, fun. And somehow it was plunked into the middle of the 1970s. Its closest cinematic relatives, the “Flash Gordon” serials, existed forty years prior, and by 1977, fun and adventure had all but disappeared from the movies. “Star Wars” can be credited for reviving them.

That begins to explain its importance in cinematic history. But why does it continue to connect with audiences? I grew up in the wake of its release, and my childhood was packed with fantasy adventure films that were inspired by it. If anything, it should have appeared dated, even slow-paced, by the time I got around to seeing it. Instead, it became one of my favorite films.

I think the reason has something to do with the film’s “used future” aesthetic. That is, it places us in a fully realized alien galaxy. Technology is worn and battered. Locations are dirty. Each alien has a unique culture. In the “Star Wars” universe, each object, each location, each character, and the galaxy as a whole, has a history. At each moment it teases the imagination with glimpses of these stories left untold.

“Star Wars” tells of how young Luke Skywalker left his family farm to pursue the legacy of his starship pilot father. This unfolds within the context of a galactic civil war, of which we only learn about obliquely. For all its expansiveness, “Star Wars” is indeed only a small “episode,” if you will, of a larger saga. It raises tantalizing questions. Who is the man behind Darth Vader’s mask? Who is the Emperor, and how did he come to power? What exactly happened to Luke’s father? What is Hyperspace? What was Alderaan like? Who is Jabba? And on and on.

Of course, the success of “Star Wars” resulted in sequels, comic books, novels, video games, TV series, encyclopedias, and databases that provide officially licensed answers to any question about any minor character, ship, or location. But what a magical time it must have been when all you had was your memory of this two-hourlong movie, your handful of action figures, and your imagination.

It’s no wonder so many fans felt personally betrayed by the prequel trilogy. They spent two decades dreaming up stories about Anakin Skywalker and the twisted Senator who rose to power and became Emperor. Even if it had been a competent motion picture it would have disappointed many fans, but its spectacular failure on the most basic levels sent a shockwave of despair through the nerd-space continuum.

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One small example: C-3PO, my favorite character from “Star Wars.” A sensible backstory for him would have included: 1) his manufacture, or at least the mention of his manufacture, by a galactic robotics corporation, 2) his original owner, who would have been a wealthy individual or business, i.e. someone who could afford cutting edge technology and who would have need for a protocol droid, and 3) the development of his persnickety personality as a result of this privileged lifestyle.

If we accept the existing plot of “The Phantom Menace” for the time being, it would have been much more satisfying for C-3PO to have been the property of Queen Amidala, or even the Trade Federation. In fact, one of the first characters we meet in Episode 1 was a protocol droid in the employ of the Neimoidians. What a perfect role that would have been for C-3PO, especially since he was the first character we meet in the opening scene of “Star Wars.”

Imagine that he somehow gets caught up in the Jedis’ escape from the Trade Federation and is dragged from his comfortable, climate-controlled ship on this adventure into space and onto the wild, dangerous, muddy swamps of Naboo. He would hate it, and complain endlessly, as he should. Then he would meet R2-D2 on the Naboo cruiser and learn something about bravery from him. Over the course of the film, 3PO would develop a repressed admiration for the little droid and we would see the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

As a bonus, C-3PO’s presence in the sidekick role would have completely eliminated the need for Jar Jar Binks.

But instead of this, C-3PO was built by a slave boy on a poor, remote desert planet. For some reason, the boy wanted to build an exact replica of a protocol droid. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t capitalize on the character’s established traits. That’s the prequel trilogy in a nutshell.

We can hope that J.J. Abrams makes better use of his opportunity. Here again, the fans have been imagining the future of these characters for three decades now, and in very few months we will finally see the official story of what happened after the fall of the Empire.

So what will happen to 3PO? Well, he’ll be a 70-ish-year-old droid at this point. His hardware is probably obsolete. Newer protocol droids can probably translate 6 billion forms of communication and have sleeker designs with more fluid limbs that allow them to perform more tasks. Perhaps they’d be programmed to be more friendly and easy-going. This would infuriate 3PO even more. The antagonism between 3PO and his newer model could make a great comedic subplot.

I imagine the offspring of Han and Leia having varied reactions to him. One would be baffled, another would gush over his retro design. When the time came for their adventure, they might even consider leaving him behind. Their grandparents’ quaint robots are fine to keep around for nostalgic value, but on a dangerous mission they would be an encumbrance. But somehow or other, he’d get involved with the story and would eventually get a chance to triumph over his replacement.

We will see. One thing is certain: the endless stories thought up in the imaginations of countless moviegoers will continue for decades to come. All thanks to George Lucas and his silly space adventure film.