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Superman II is considered by many to be one of the greatest sequels ever made, a superior mix of story and action that improved upon the original and established star Christopher Reeve as the true Man of Steel. Directed by Richard Lester (and an uncredited Richard Donner who was let go early in the production), the special effects were state of the art but the character-driven plot was what really sold it. Still, it’s not perfect and there has always been one moment that really stands out as weird.
After General Zod (Terrance Stamp) arrives on the planet with Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran), they eventually make it to Metropolis to face the son of Jor-El (Marlon Brando). Superman obliges and soon an epic battle begins on the streets and atop the skyscrapers. This was long before CGI made such things look far more authentic, and much more destructive, but at the time was some of the most convincing effects in film. The battle is staged well and is still fun to watch, despite the obvious blue screen and projection effects. While it pales in comparison to the citywide devastation of modern superhero films, it has a more grounded, personal feel, especially as it was all practical. All that is great but . . .
At one point, Zod perches on the framing of a building under construction and taunts Superman, calling him a coward because it took so long for him to show up. When Superman says he’s not, Ursa swoops in and challenges him to prove it. Zod, looking above him, sees a molded concrete emplacement for the building, a large slab about the size of a car. Using his heat vision to explode the rigging, it falls and Zod catches it, balancing it above his head. He then curses his nemesis to “Die as you deserve to,” tossing the concrete wall at Superman who is standing across the way.
Superman uses his own heat vision to blast the incoming projectile. It explodes in a huge fireball, and as it does, Superman turns and winces as the debris rains in all directions.
Wait. What? He winces? Why is Superman wincing? Superman has shown time and time again that he is impervious to such things. Now admittedly, Reeves as always given his Superman a touch of humanity, expressing himself in very human ways, especially concerning Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). There was that time he discovered her buried under mounds of dirt after her car sunk in a fault line in the first film. He screamed his way to orbit and turned back time. But that was emotion. This is physical. The wince is reflexive, an involuntary muscle contraction in response to pain or distress, either through experience or in response to seeing it in others. It is a physiological response to unwelcome stimuli that tenses the muscles and protects the eyes. Superman has lived his entire life as a demi-god on Earth, oblivious to physical pain, able to endure and deflect injurious attacks and bodily inflictions that would kill a normal man. Look. Here he is acting as a missing railroad track. No wince there. That’s a steely-eyed stare. And there’s a full on train barreling toward him.
But then there is Zod’s throw. Two major problems pop up. One, look at the placement of the concrete slab again:
That slab is hanging over one side of the structure and would not fall straight down without smashing on the frame below. But even if we let that go, there is the issue of the crossbeam.
The way Zod is holding it, half the wall is behind the steel beam above him. There is no way he could throw it as he does without it hitting the beam. But more importantly is physics. The wall is about twice as tall as Zod and he is holding it at the base balanced above his head. When he hurls it at Superman, it flies in the same position, upright and accelerating. In truth, the force of his push would actually send the bottom forward and the top swinging behind and down, giving the slab a strong rotation. Science. Phfffft.
Also, as Superman realizes what Zod is up to, he gives a quick glance down to the street below, clearly concerned for the debris that is about to rain down on the people gathering beneath them (a clue that Superman knows full well he can totally destroy this wall).
The camera cuts to the street and the panicked citizens below. Well, mostly panicked. One construction guy only seems to be thinking that he’s got a real mess to be dealing with tomorrow. He looks about as worried as . . . hey. Why is every sign backwards?
Back to the wince. It’s a strange reaction to the relatively small blast, and while it was probably meant to humanize him and give the audience a sense of danger, it always felt like the wrong choice. No doubt the makers wanted to give the impression that Superman was up against great odds, yet having him stand unmoved by the attack, glaring with no wince at Zod, would have really changed the dynamic and motivated the three criminals to up their attack. As it is, Superman comes off a little weak looking and not so super.
To be sure, the fight between Superman and Zod is a classic and a lot of it spectacularly done, considering the limitations of the time. Ultimately, it is the characters that make it so effective, and the deliberate joy the producers and actors injected into the film to make it so memorable. The film is a lot fun and even if it is dated, remains a classic adventure. We may pick on this one moment, but we love Superman II.
Richard Lester, Richard Donner (uncredited)
Joe Shuster (character created by: Superman),Jerry Siegel (character created by: Superman)
Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder