Superman 1.78: The Reading Room

It’s one of the silliest party tricks in fiction. A contestant appears at the door of 221B Baker Street, and the great detective observes, “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”

This appears to be a brilliant act of deduction, but Holmes waves it away. The client’s right hand is bigger than his left hand, which is apparently a thing that happens when you do manual labor; he’s wearing a Freemason tiepin, which is apparently a thing that you wear when you’re a Freemason; his shirt cuff is shiny, which is apparently a thing that happens when you do a considerable amount of writing lately; and he’s wearing a T-shirt that says Spring Break China 1891.

These are just sound effects, obviously, because it’s all a setup. Arthur Conan Doyle deliberately festoons these chumps with splashes of mud from a specific area where the clay is a unique shade of ochre, just to impress us with Sherlock’s amazing ability to deduce things from the clues that Doyle put there to be deducted upon. The author already knows where the treasure is; all the character has to do is dig.

But Lex Luthor needs to head for higher ground, because he’s just suffered an extensive gutpunch to the ego, and he needs to prove, to himself and to all of us, that he’s still an interesting character. It’s important to Lex to be famous and admired, and now some goody two-shoes spaceman is grabbing all the headline space.

“It’s too good to be true!” Miss Teschmacher chirps, consulting the spicy and informative interview written up in the Daily Planet. “He’s six foot four, has black hair, blue eyes, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and tells the truth!”

The thing that hurts, obviously, is that these are all qualities that Luthor doesn’t have, and in the narcissist zero-sum game that he plays with every other living human, any compliment given to somebody else is an attack on him.

Reaching the top of the hill, Luthor delivers a brief sermon.

“Miss Teschmacher, some people can read War and Peace, and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper, and unlock the secrets of the universe.”

It’s a great line, but it doesn’t land. He’s purposely surrounded himself with ding-dongs, and that has conversational consequences.

In a willful act of ding-dongery, Otis eagerly grabs the ladder that Lex is standing on and moves it over to the other side of the room, stranding his boss up in the rafters. This is uncomfortable for Luthor, because it’s another reminder of his inadequacy: Superman can soar through the air at will, but Lex needs people to push ladders under him.

Once that’s settled, Lex makes with the Sherlock Holmes impression, and like Sherlock, it’s not actually based on very much evidence.

“In the interview, he says that the planet Krypton exploded in 1948,” Lex sighs. “The ridiculous little freak. It took three years in a rocket ship to get to Earth. Ergo…” There’s a little break for another moment to make fun of Otis, and we never do find out ergo what.

“Now, think, people, think!” Luthor barks. “Deductive reasoning, that’s the name of the game.” It usually is. “Fragments from the planet Krypton exploded, and went into outer space. It is reasonable to assume that some of those particles of debris drifted to Earth.”

Eve gets very excited about the word “Meteorites!” and Luthor nods, “Jawohl.” I have no idea why he says that. I like this scene a lot, but it is eccentric to the point of incoherence a lot of the time.

“And voila!” he smirks, ripping a page out of an old issue of National Geographic. It’s passed on to Otis and Eve with supplementary voilas, and we see a guy in Addis Ababa holding a big green chunk of somebody else’s planet.

Correctly, Eve asks, “So what?” and that’s when we get the big deduction.

The vital plot point that follows does not make any logical sense. Lex is about to reach into hammerspace and pull out some information that is not based on National Geographic, or anything at all. And we are expected to believe what he says, and admire how clever he is.

That’s why he has this crazy-looking library area, stocked with information on who knows what. Sitting up on high with the accumulated knowledge of the world arrayed behind him, he is in a position — visually, if not logically — to deliver an astonishing insight.

“To us, they are just meteorites? Fair enough. But — the level of specific radioactivity is so high to anyone from the planet Krypton, this substance is lethal!

And then there is the symbolic awakening of the ding-dongs.

“Wait a minute, Mister Luth-or,” Otis attempts, “you mean fire and bullets can’t hurt this guy, but this stuff here —” and then Eve joins in as well — “will kill him!

Lex nods, and the pair of students emit little vocalizations for a while. Otis says “Oh!” and Eve says “Oh!” and then Otis says “Ah!” and Eve says “Yeah!” and then Otis slaps his hand against the ladder and Eve says “Yeah!” again.

All of that noise is there to distract you from the fact that this conclusion came out of entirely nowhere. Lex sees a picture of a guy with a green meteorite, and somehow knows that a) it came from Krypton in the first place, b) it has a level of specific radioactivity, and c) that level of radioactivity will be harmful to Kryptonians, and nobody even knew that Krypton existed before Lois published her interview this morning.

But Lex is acting like this is the obvious conclusion to draw, and Otis and Eve are indicating to the audience that this is true and makes total sense.

Then they do the same routine over again, this time explaining that Luthor is going to hide the kryptonite in lead, which was correctly planted in the previous scene and is actually clever. Eve does the same performative appreciation of this part of the plan, which seals up the scene and encourages you to stop wondering how Lex figured out it was kryptonite.

And we forgive the scene for this leap in logic, because everyone in the audience who’s lived in America for very long is already aware that there’s a thing called kryptonite and it’s Superman’s only weakness, and we agree that it would be more interesting to have a Superman movie with kryptonite in it. Movies don’t actually need logic; they just need to set up situations where they give the audience what we want. We will accept any coincidence, last-minute miracle or impossible act of deductive reasoning, as long as we agree that a given plot twist would make the movie more interesting or emotionally satisfying.

So, sure, if going to Addis Ababa finally gets the villain up out of the basement and into the sunlight to go play tricks on army men, then screw it; let’s get going. I’m not a Freemason and I haven’t been to China, but I have definitely been doing a considerable amount of writing lately, and I could use something new to write about.

Tomorrow:
The true history of Kryptonite!
1.79: K-Rock

Chapters

— Danny Horn

5 thoughts on “Superman 1.78: The Reading Room

  1. “In the interview, he says that the planet Krypton exploded in 1948.”

    Wait a minute – didn’t Jor-El say that the rocket had left Krypton thousands of years before?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I don’t remember what I thought about Lex as a villain back in 1978 but this is where I started having problems with the movie when I rewatched it several months ago. I have to keep reminding myself that this was the first real Superhero movie villain and I should not compare his level of threat to the later Jokers, Thanos or even Loki. This is thoroughly in the Adam West Batman tradition. I doubt that I took him any more seriously than Romero’s Joker or Gorshin’s Riddler the first time I saw it either. After what has come before in this movie, it’s a problem for me. He is so obviously not a match for Superman and his plot is played for laughs which just undermines him more.
    Where is Hans Gruber when you need him?
    Jawohl.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. What gets me is the idea that radioactivity can be specific to supervillain/plot needs. Any radiation that can knock Superman for a loop should kill any and all regular yellow sun life forms within a fifty mile radius, but apparently any ol’ guy in Addis Ababa can scoop it up and start juggling.

    And frankly, any handy dandy debris that managed to get all the way from exploded krypton to Earth should have come in the gravitational pull of baby Superman’s rocket and landed right in the same spot, rendering him helpless, right? Why is it scattered across the globe and if it is, why hasn’t he run into it at least once before? And why didn’t Jor-El warn him about it? If he’s going to go to the trouble of downloading ancient Chinese philosophers into his kid’s brain he could at least mention the deadly peril thing in passing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. If memory serves, they explained the unusual amount of Kryptonite that followed Kal-El to Earth was pulled along but didn’t travel as fast.
      Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. In this scene is a mashes up two fictional characters of the era before the First World War. Sherlock Holmes is of course one. The other is Professor Henry Higgins. The movie of MY FAIR LADY was a big hit in theaters in 1964, and played frequently on television throughout the 1970s. Curved bookcases with a wooden ladder were Higgins’ visual signature in that movie. So seeing Lex in that setting would surely have brought MY FAIR LADY to the minds of a big chunk of the grownups in the audience in 1978. They would see Otis as a somewhat more buffoonish Colonel Pickering, Lex as a self-consciously evil Higgins, and Miss Teschmacher as an Eliza more actively complicit in the leader’s twisted schemes. That satire is a touch worthy of the 1966-1968 Batman series.

    Liked by 1 person

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