In light of the barrage of recent comic book movies that have drawn our collective bums into the theaters over the last few years, as well as the new superhero movies reportedly on their way, I figured now would be the time to set one thing straight: "Superman II" is the greatest superhero movie of all time.
I don't expect a dispute about this, and I'm more than willing to admit that there are a lot of good superhero flicks out there that stack up pretty well against the second Christopher Reeve outing back in 1980. But while "SII" easily puts down the likes of "Daredevil" and "Hulk", it also gets the nod over "Batman" and "Spiderman II". Heck, it even beats "Superman I".
Reason #10:Best pre-"Cheers" John Ratzenberger appearance.
Before he became everyone's favorite loser TV mailman, John Ratzenberger turned up from time to time on the silver screen. Die-hard Star Wars fans will point out that he played one of the Rebel officers on Hoth in "Empire Strikes Back," though it's kind of hard to catch him. He also had, believe it or not, a bit role in "Ghandi*". But his best bit was as the guy at mission control in "SII" that is on duty when the three super villains wipe out the joint-US/USSR moon expedition. It's easily his best screen time of the three, and he has the most to do. Of course, he also makes a bit appearance in the first "Superman", as a missile control launch tech, but we'll address the "II over I" supremacy later.
Reason #9: Three Super Villains.
The Batman franchise tried to mimic this concept years later in all of its sequels, and it's hard to argue that Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman doesn't beat out "SII's" Ursa, but none of the Batman combos could quite match the brilliance of those three Kryptonian bad seeds. Reflective black leather/plastic/polyurethane suits, deep v-necks for maximum macho chest definition, essential British accents, and most importantly, Terence Stamp as "Zod". These three made their first appearance in the original "Superman", but "SII" was their chance to shine.
Reason #8: Average White Band
When the super villains first arrive on Earth, one of their first stops is at a redneck truck stop somewhere in Middle America. They proceed to kick butt, and Ursa throws a chauvinist through a wall.
But that's irrelevant.
What's important here is that when they walk into the truck stop, Average White Band's "Pick Up the Pieces" is playing on the radio. Priceless. Just in case you had forgotten that this film was released at the end of the 70's.
Reason #7: French Terrorists
People (in America, anyway) love to hate the French, and what better way to do it than to point your aggression at the French terrorists that plant a nuclear bomb on the Eiffel Tower elevator? (Just read that last sentence again for effect.)
Reason #6: Windstorm roller-skating
A cousin to reason #8, one more brilliant "dated" element of "SII" is the hipster dude on roller skates during the super villain's reign of terror. When they start a windstorm to get rid of the Metropolis insurrection that thinks they can get rid of their aggressors, this guy makes his token appearance flying down the sidewalk out of control and in serious need of some chill time.
Reason #5: The Phantom Zone
Where on Earth did these guys come up with the idea for the Phantom Zone? This is the huge diamond-shaped mirror thing that the super villains are trapped in (supposedly for eternity) before Superman accidentally frees them by detonating the French nuke close by. Again, this element was introduced in the first movie, but its importance is not revealed until film #2.
Reason #4: Best Invented Powers
I'm not sure that there's a finite power index anywhere that specifies what Superman (or any other superhero) can or cannot do, but if there was ever a movie that abused that loophole, it was "SII". The film is rife with the standard superpowers, the flying, the burning lazer-vision. But in "SII" we get Super Wind Breath, Super Lift A Guy Up In the Air Beam, Super Walk On Water Power, Super Teleporting Power (along with its important cousin, Super Make Holograms of Yourself Power), and coolest of all, Super Pull the Big S Logo Off Your Chest and Throw it at Someone Like a Net Power. Of course, none of these beats the unidentified power mortal Clark Kent uses when he WALKS TO THE NORTH POLE IN A WINDBREAKER.
Reason #3: Best Use of an Illogical Disguise
Now we're getting to the heavy stuff
When the glasses are on, he's Clark Kent. But when the glasses are off, suddenly Lois Lane can recognize the love of her life. The guy that saved her from the helicopter crash. The guy she flew above Metropolis with in a nightgown. The guy that reversed the Earth's rotation to go back in time and save her from an earthquake. The only thing that makes this concept better is the fact that they have the big moment of revelation in a room with a vibrating bed and a pink bearskin rug.
Reason #2: The Super Hammock
It's one of the weirdest elements of a superhero movie, the bit where Superman decides to give up all of his superpowers to get with chain-smoking Lois Lane. And there's really no way to justify why Marlon Brando would have enough foresight to design a special booth in the Fortress of Solitude equipped with rays from the Kryptonian Sun that would do the job. But the pinnacle of this scene is nothing more than a flash in the distance. As newly mortal Superman (now wearing a white button up shirt and slacks, perhaps symbolic of the loss of superpowers and his descent into the oppressed state of capitalist man) takes Lois's hand and they go off to his bedroom to, well, to fornicate, basically, we catch a fleeting glimpse of Superman's bed.
It's a hammock.
It's a big, silver, hammock.
Reason #1: Gene Hackman
Now, the tough thing here is that Gene's presence in both Superman I and II could technically cancel him out as a deciding factor. But the simple fact is the presence of Gene Hackman can never be disregarded. Hackman's Lex Luthor is the single greatest villain in the history of supervillains. Better than Nicholson's Joker. Better than man, does anyone else even deserve to be mentioned?
Gene Hackman makes lousy movies better simply by being in them. In Superman II, he made an already good movie better. He was the best part of the first "Superman", and then he shows up in a sequel that still would have been decent without him. By including him, it became classic.
Hackman's style embodies everything that a super villain should. The villain has to be evil, but sort of quirky and likeable. Too often (see most of the Batman movies) the villain is TOO quirky, too cartoonish. Hackman is perfect. He's subtle, yet effective. Corny yet legitimate. You respect him even though for some reason he's still hanging out with Ned Beatty. By shifting him to the role of supporting bad guy, the audience is allowed to like him as much as they want to.
Heck, that's enough of a point by itself. Any movie that has Hackman as SUPPORTING bad guy has to be pretty loaded. That's one reason II is better than I. Another is the oft-experienced situation many franchises face: the first one is good, but it has to spend too much time creating the world so we can play in it. Then the sequel comes along and runs free. That's part of the reason "Empire" is better than the first "Star Wars," why "X2" is better than "X-Men", and why "Spiderman II" is better than "Spiderman II". With all due respect to Marlon Brando, his presence isn't enough to give "Superman I" the nod. For pete's sake, he blows up ten minutes into the movie! Granted, in some situations, that's a mark of coolness, but in this situation, it's not enough to beat out the greatest Superhero Movie of All Time: Superman II.
*Actually, John was one of many of what ESPN's Bill Simmons would call "That Guy's" in "Ghandi." Two guys from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" make appearances, the guy that plays Harry Potter's mean Uncle is in it, and the big one is an early appearance by 'Mr. Stein' from "The Gods Must Be Crazy". (Mr. Stein was the British poop scientist that drove around in the "Anti-Christ".)