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.
1.29: Fear of Flying.
— Danny Horn