Superman 1.28: Grad School

It’s a weird quirk of human nature, that we think old things are smarter than new things. I mean, when you’re talking about the course of a single lifetime, then yeah, children need to be educated by adults.

But then people generalize that to entire civilizations, thinking that people in the ancient world had wisdom, medicine and daily life practices that were better than we have now — that they were healthier, which is untrue, and they knew more about nature, which is unlikely. So people buy expensive treatments and nutritional supplements, or go on fad diets based on shaky anthropological assumptions, in order to live more like people in the past.

It’s nonsense, of course; human knowledge is cumulative, and we as a civilization know way more now than anybody ever knew before — or, at least, somebody knows it, and the rest of us can look it up on Wikipedia. The ancients were not smarter than we are; they had worse teeth, they died younger, and their pop music was dreary in the extreme.

Anyway, the reason why I’m bringing that up is because here comes young Clark Kent, wandering around at the North Pole without a scarf on, and he drops a crystal, which grows into a glittering entry hall that turns out to be the registration desk at Ice University.

There’s a jar of loose crystals on the desk, which I guess is the Kryptonian equivalent of a take a penny/leave a penny tray, and Clark picks one out of the bowl to examine. If he takes it outside and hucks it off into the distance, then he might be able to grow another ice castle; pretty soon, you won’t be able to move for all the ice castles. This is an urban planning problem that people don’t really consider.

Clark gives his crystal the once-over, and then he chooses a promising-looking hole to stick it into. This turns out to be the correct way to operate this device, or maybe the same thing happens no matter what you touch.

Against all odds, we’re still in the part of the film that’s trying to impress us with how grand and serious everything is. At some point, they’re going to have to face the fact that they’re making a comic book movie, but for now, we’ve still got John Williams leaning heavily on the glass harmonica and choir of angelic voices, telling us that we’ve got an incoming call.

And hey, it’s Jor-El. He’s calling long-distance from outer space and the past, and if what I’ve read about Brando’s salary is true, we’re paying about a hundred and fifty-six dollars a minute. This better be good.

“My son…” he says, ethereally. “You do not remember me. I am Jor-El. I’m your father.” I thought he was going to open with a joke.

Then things get very cosmic, very quickly.

“By now you will have reached your 18th year,” Jor-El predicts, “as it is measured on Earth. By that reckoning, I will have been dead for many thousands of your years.”

Clark gives him a puzzled frown. Technically, that sentence isn’t the absolute weirdest thing that’s happened to him in the last four minutes — it’s been a challenging day, for all of us — but it certainly inspires at least a couple of follow-up questions.

I suppose there must be a way that you could science up an explanation for that statement — something relativity something something — but really, it’s just a reflection of that “ancient civilizations were smarter” idea. Wisdom comes from far away, and Jor-El is already a) from another galaxy and b) dead, so why not give him a full hand, and say that he’s also thousands of years old?

Although during Kal-El’s audiobook journey to Earth fifteen years ago, the first thing that Jor-El talked about was Einstein and the theory of relativity, so if that was recorded many thousands of our years ago, then he was astonishingly up-to-date.

He also talked about early Chinese writings, although now that I think about it, maybe he meant early in the morning. It doesn’t pay to make a lot of assumptions, when Jor-El’s around.

I’m sorry, he’s still talking. “The knowledge that I have,” says Jor-El, “matters physical and historic, I have given you fully on your voyage to your new home. These are important matters to be sure, but still matters of mere fact. There are questions to be asked, and it is time for you to do so.”

Now, I have to say, I have not seen a lot of evidence that young Clark has benefited in any material way from the “matters physical and historic” download that he received in his spacefaring infancy. We didn’t see him in class, wowing the teacher with his in-depth knowledge of anything in particular. We didn’t see him puzzling over some grand project in theoretical physics. The kid wanted to kick a football and hang out with girls.

So they’re doubling down here on what I think is the weakest plot point in the movie so far. They got Krypton right, and they got the Kents right, and I’m thankful, because that was the important stuff. But this “education from space” idea is not sufficiently connected to any actual event in the movie. It’s just sound effects.

Strangest of all, Jor-El says, “Here, in this Fortress of Solitude, we shall try to find the answers together.” Which is not what the Fortress of Solitude is about. It’s for solitude, Pops, i.e., he’s supposed to be alone, just him, and his insane personal obsessions.

As we discussed in yesterday’s post, the Fortress of Solitude as we’ve seen it in the comics has nothing to do with Jor-El; it’s a means of personal artistic expression for Superman, who packs it to the rafters with absolute crazy that gets worse every time we visit.

I mean, look at this panel, from 1962. By this point, the Lois Lane Room has at least three portraits, two statues, several bouquets of rare flowers, and a lock of Lois’ hair, preserved under a glass bell and labeled Lock of Lois’ Hair. Hachi machi, that’s a lot to take in, and that’s just the one corner of the room that we happen to be looking at. Imagine Superman patiently constructing all of this in his Arctic ice castle, and meanwhile, the actual Lois Lane is sitting around in Metropolis drumming her fingers, and wishing that Superman would call and take her out to dinner. This is a deep-rooted problem.

Anyway, back to Jor-El, and whatever he’s talking about.

“Your name is Kal-El,” he announces. “You are the only survivor of the planet Kriptin.” That’s not my fault, that’s the way he says it, and as far as young Clark knows, that’s the way that the planet’s name is pronounced. I don’t know how Clark ultimately figures out that it’s actually called Krypton; maybe there’s a T.A. who has office hours after Jor-El’s lectures.

The old man continues, “Even though you’ve been raised as a human being, you are not one of them — not one of them.” This is the point where he starts to develop little echoes that help to accentuate his points. “You have great powers — great powers — only some of which you have as yet discovered — as yet discovered.”

And then it just goes full-on planetarium, with a big swell of celestial music and a journey through the space plankton. “Come with me now, my son,” Jor-El says, “as we break through the bonds of your earthly confinement, traveling through time and space.”

Which sounds pretty good — everybody likes breaking through the bonds of stuff — but the curriculum turns out to be a lot longer than you might expect. We hear a bunch of stray quotes from the class notes, for example:

Your powers will far exceed those of mortal men…

It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history… rather, let your leadership stir others to…

In this next year, we shall examine the human heart. It is more fragile than your own…

In the past two years…

And it’s, like, wait, what? Did we just spend a whole year examining the human heart? It’s like if the University of Phoenix was run by an actual mythological phoenix, who lived a full life, died in the flames, and then sprang forth resurrected from the ashes, and you’re still in the same class. How do you transfer out of this shit?

No time for questions, more space plankton.

As we pass through the flaming turmoil which is the edge of your own galaxy…

This year, we shall examine the various concepts of immortality, and their basis in actual fact…

What is virtue?

The total accumulation of all knowledge spanning the 28 known galaxies is embedded in the crystals which I have sent along with you… study them well, my son, and learn from them…

Over the past twelve years, we have reasoned out logical judgments…

So, yeah. In this sequence, we are led to understand that Clark just stands there in the same spot for twelve years, with no furniture, bathroom breaks or extracurricular activities, studying the 28 accumulated crystals or whatever, while everybody else is moving on with their lives.

At this point, he’s never going to get to Mary Ellen’s in time to listen to those records; that’s just the first of a thousand social activities that probably would have broadened his outlook a lot more than hanging out with his procedurally generated dad and talking about what is virtue.

In my opinion, this sequence is just about the goofiest idea that they have in this whole movie, and I recently read a whole bunch of Silver Age Superman comics, so my tolerance for goofiness should be at an all-time high. I just don’t see what they’re trying to get at.

This detour into the cosmos might be worth it, if there was a single moment in the whole rest of the movie where Superman is called upon to use his vast understanding of intergalactic philosophy, but for some reason, it never comes up. Twenty-nine minutes from now, a guy is going to come up behind him and hit him on the head with a crowbar, and that’s about as intellectual as things are going to get, in his line of work. Mostly, he breaks things.

So I don’t know why they’re making a big song and dance about his training with Professor Alexa here. It doesn’t make any sense, and by this point, the audience would really prefer to watch the Superman movie that they bought a ticket for, forty-seven minutes and many thousands of your years ago.

Tomorrow:
1.29: Fear of Flying.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

15 thoughts on “Superman 1.28: Grad School

  1. Thank you for skewering the whole trend of idealizing and romanticizing ancient cultures. I can understand that one may feel overwhelmed by modern society, but it’s an odd habit to comfort oneself with the idea that pre-technological cultures were paradises of herbal tea fulfillment, scholarly wisdom, and blissful social equality.

    The best explanation I have for the whole “stand-there-for-years-while-I-educate-you” sequence is that there needed to be some reason why teenage Clark suddenly morphed Christopher Reeve. It’s the classic screenwriter’s conundrum of how to show time passing without falling into the well of cliches (ripping the pages off a calendar month by month, showing our characters in an upbeat montage set to an 80s pop song). Short of flashing the words TEN YEARS LATER on the screen, this was apparently the best they could come up with.

    I see in your list of tags the wondrous phrase “soap opera rapid aging syndrome,” which is something I could write an entire thesis about. I’m hoping you’ll be mentioning SORAS in a future post, because while I doubt it could work successfully in a movie, the writers and loyal viewers of soap operas have unquestionably accepted the concept for decades, with often bizarre narrative results (i.e. characters who are 47-year-old great grandparents). I suppose it comes down to how much we are truly willing to suspend our disbelief.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I mean, besides your very good point about aging Clark up to the point where we can get the damn story going, I see what they were going for theme-wise–the idea that Clark/Superman has been thoroughly indoctrinated with Peace, Justice and So Forth, in exhausting detail, so we know why he doesn’t become a dictator in the face of humanity’s mulish idiocy, blatant corruption, infuriating hypocrisy and enraging stubbornness. Also to reassure everyone that he wasn’t going to destroy the planet with a rampaging excess of boyish high spirits and not knowing his own strength.

      It’s like a the Ultimate Grad School seminar of decency. Ma and Pa Kent were K through college and now he’s here making sure everything sticks and he can run around stopping floods and so on.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t remember the exact details (because I haven’t seen it in 40 years) but SNL did a parody of this scene featuring Belushi as Brando/Jor-El. At one point he declares that he will be returning to Earth as Charlie Rich.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The only Belushi as Jor El on SNL was a What If Superman was raised in Nazi Germany, sketch. Klaus Kent imagines Jor El and his Nazi father telling him what to do with his powers.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The combination of John Williams’ score and Brando’s voice over in the Jor-El education scene still moves me, but otherwise, I find the 12-year jump infuriating. It “cheats” and delivers a fully formed Superman. It’s as if Luke Skywalker just met a hologram of Obi-Wan Kenobi at the start of Star Wars and then he’s the guy from ROTJ after a brief montage.

    But this is the Superboy conundrum. People struggle to show us a Superman who is learning, growing, or in other words, is an actual fleshed-out character.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I repeated this part on the dvd three times to be sure I heard Jor-El properly. Twelve years! And all I could think was I hope Clark got a message to Ma Kent to let her know he was still alive during those twelve years!
    And then there’s this:
    Jor-El: “They only lack the light to show the way. For their capacity for good, I have sent you, my only son.”
    I mean, come on! There’s some serious Biblical Savior language going on there. The people involved in making this must have known how that would sound. At least we have a reason why Jor-El chose Earth out of the 28 known galaxies to send his only son to. It’s not a good reason, but it’s a reason. Luckily we also have a capacity for bad that will keep Superman from getting bored.
    And no, I don’t think even Einstein could figure out the time travel math involved here. Kal-El would have to be traveling faster than light to traverse 6 galaxies in mere thousands of years, which I’m pretty sure Einstein would have thoughts about.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. ” teenage Clark suddenly morphed Christopher Reeve.” Even more than the wig, fake nose, and dubbed voice, the fact that Jeff East was only five years younger than Christopher Reeve makes him an unsettling choice for teenage Clark.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I don’t like that idea. I think they should either leave movies alone or rework them into altogether different works, as for example they did in the 1980s with Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS. But tacking new imagery into old movies, even if it looks OK when it’s first done, never ages well. After a while people get used to the image manipulation techniques and start to notice the incongruities.

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  6. Anyway, I’m very surprised to see you saying that “human knowledge is cumulative.” I’m nowhere near as big on postmodernism as you are, yet even I would never say a thing like that.

    Like

  7. I just want to take a moment to tell you how much I admire this entire undertaking. 28 posts before we see Christopher Reeve! It’s almost like you’re watching this movie two minutes at a time and talking about it a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

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