“This is no fantasy!” Jor-El declares. “No careless product of wild imagination.” He’s talking to a huge screen, showing a projection of oversized, grim faces surveying the scene. “No, my good friends,” the speaker assures them, stepping into the frame. “These indictments —”
At that moment, the long, thin lucite rod that he’s holding goes BLINGG!! and lights up at the end. And he looks at it, clearly saying to himself, so what the hell is this thing supposed to be?
So here we are, arriving on the scene in the actual movie for the first time in seven posts, and instead of talking about how grand and atmospheric it is, I can’t take my eyes off that wand.
In a sequence full of delightfully inexplicable sci-fi attractions — the giant projected faces, the huge dome, the hula hoop circles that revolve around the accused criminals — the thing that fascinates me is the clear plastic rod that Jor-El plays around with, to no particular purpose.
Here’s what I know about the wand:
It lights up twice during the scene, with a sudden echoing BLINGG!! sound, and both times, Jor-El seems mildly surprised by it. The first time is in the middle of his second sentence, as per above, and he regards it coldly and then keeps on talking.
He holds it up in both hands when he says, “These are matters of undeniable fact.” Then he gestures to indicate the three criminals, while he holds the rod with his other hand. When he approaches the accused and describes the charges against them, he’s got it in the crook of his arm.
The second time it lights up is when Zod threatens Jor-El, saying, “You alone will condemn us if you wish, and you alone will be held responsible by me.” It goes BLINGG!! again and everyone looks at it nervously, and then the scene keeps going. Then Jor-El holds it in both hands as he slowly exits the chamber.
The one thing that he doesn’t do with the wand is to point at anybody, which you’d imagine would be the only reason to carry it around. The erratic light certainly doesn’t seem to be connected to anything in particular; it’s just an effect that calls attention to itself, to no particular purpose.
But a prop doesn’t have to have a specific narrative purpose in order to be in a movie scene. The wand doesn’t do anything, but it means something: namely, that Jor-El is a big, important science wizard.
He’s large and stately, like an ocean liner, and always filmed from below, to make him look even bigger. The nine other people in the scene are all paying painfully close attention to every word that he says.
When he directs the council to render their verdict, they each immediately say, “Guilty!” because it’s clear that’s what Jor-El wants them to say. Then they all vanish, leaving him as the sole representative of justice and power.
Then Zod says, “The vote must be unanimous, Jor-El. It has therefore now become your decision.”
That decision has obviously been made already, because Jor-El’s the one who’s been smacking them around with charges the entire scene. Zod just says that to give us one more reminder that Jor-El is the most important person in the world.
We have no idea what’s going on, by the way. This world, which is apparently called “Kryptin” thanks to Jor-El’s unique pronunciation, has projection screens and prosecutors and defendants and a perpetual-motion hula hoop thing, but that’s about all that we know.
The other characters in the scene are about to leave the planet and the movie in ninety seconds, with no further bearing on the plot until the sequel. In fact, given that the three Phantom Zoners don’t do anything until Superman II, you might wonder why Superman I bothers to literally shine a spotlight on them for the first five minutes of the movie.
The answer is that this scene is not about them.
In the previous version of the script by Robert Benton and David and Leslie Newman, the criminals were already packed off to the Phantom Zone before the movie starts.
This is how the Newman/Benton script begins:
As we SEE this, we HEAR, VOICE OVER: the somber VOICES of different MEN, each saying, “No,” in a firm VOICE. CAMERA CONTINUES PULLING BACK until we suddenly realize we have been seeing all this from a large picture window in:
INT. COUNCIL ROOM – DAY
A futuristically designed room that overlooks the city of Krypton. The room is austere, dominated by an enormous angled, black table. From somewhere inside the table itself, a series of very complicated equations appear. Seated around the table are the twelve members of the council of elders.
But the first glimpse of the room ENDS THE PULLBACK, as we SEE the FIRST ELDER. As the last “No” is spoken, he turns TOWARD CAMERA, and speaks:
No. I’m sorry, Jor-El, but the decision of
the Elders is unanimous.
Well, apparently it’s not unanimous enough. Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote the final version of the script and is actually good at this, knows that you shouldn’t start your movie by saying “No, No, No” twelve times to the character that the audience is supposed to instantly respect.
Instead, Mankiewicz wrote this opening trial scene, with the wand and the screens and the cowering criminals, so that the audience would see Jor-El as a commanding, powerful figure, rather than a pitiful reject spluttering in protest at the council’s unfair decision. In terms of the comic strip story that we looked at in the last post, this scene is the movie’s version of Jor-L single-handedly digging his wife and newborn son out from under a collapsed building. This is his hero shot.
After all, that’s what we paid him all that money for. Marlon Brando is delivering the multimillion-dollar gravitas that the film needs right at the start, to prove that this isn’t the Batman TV series, and he’s doing it terribly well.
He sounds weary, as if arranging this entire kangaroo-court show trial all by himself has been a painful but necessary duty. He looks upon the accused with the facial expressions of an archangel regarding the unworthy, as he glides across the set, with the unhurried silhouette of a container ship about to block the Suez Canal.
Oh, and he’s reading off cue cards. That’s a thing that Brando started doing one day, because he’s Marlon Brando and people let him get away with it. He said that in real life, people don’t memorize everything that they’re about to say, so it was more realistic for an actor to search for their lines. He told the LA Times, “Reality lies in the pauses… the groping for words… the stumbling. That’s why I do it.” Coincidentally, it’s also a lot easier to not look at the script until you get to the set.
Since his early days, Brando had a well-deserved reputation as a difficult eccentric. He was one of the first actors to bring method acting to popular American cinema, which meant that he could be a pain in the ass and everybody needed to be okay with it, because that was his method. He was always “testing” and “teasing” directors and fellow actors, which was basically a way to assert his dominance over anybody who might have authority or ideas of their own.
For Richard Donner, that meant that when he first sat down to talk to Brando, the star said, “You know, I was thinking that maybe in space we don’t look like people. Maybe we look like a green suitcase, or a bagel. Maybe we don’t even speak at all; we just make electronic sounds.” And then everybody around him nodded, and Donner had to patiently explain to the room that Brando’s character is Superman’s father, and the moviegoing public might not be ready to accept a Superman movie starring bleeping luggage.
But Jor-El takes this fantasy, this careless product of wild imagination, and turns it, seemingly effortlessly, into a matter of undeniable fact. As the movie’s opening act, he takes a scene that could have easily been silly sci-fi kitsch, and single-handedly makes it seem impressive, all while wearing a white spit-curl wig and a Superman muumuu, and carrying around a stick that goes BLINGG!! You can’t just hire any bagel to do a job like that; you’re going to need a bagel with everything.
The secret origin of the Phantom Zone,
and Superboy’s typewriter…
1.8: See You Later
— Danny Horn