Superman 1.82: The Trickster

We’re currently four minutes into act 3 of Superman: The Movie — all of the mushy love stuff from act 2 is behind us, and from here on, it’s all about the hero confronting and defeating the villain.

The missile convoy sequence is the first time we see Lex Luthor getting up out of his lair and actually doing villain stuff, and it gives us the chance to see him in a new light. So far, we’ve seen Lex Luthor as a ranting mad scientist, a Bond villain and a purple-suited cartoon superfiend, but in this sequence, he assumes his true role, as a mythopoetic trickster figure.

Trickster figures appear in the mythology of many cultures around the world, including ours. The trickster is the wascally wabbit who exists to disobey the rules of whatever situation you put him in, the double-dealing renegade who uses cunning and creativity and funny voices to rewire the world.

We know the trickster by many names — Loki, Anansi, Reynard the Fox, Groucho Marx, Alexander Salkind. They’re thieves and mischief-makers, who move the world forward through deceit and upset and surprise. That’s why Lex got so excited when he learned about Superman; finally, he has a god to steal fire from.

The first thing that we see in this sequence is the world as it should be: an orderly procession to the Danforth Missile Proving Grounds, as conducted by responsible adults.

“Motherbird to Missile Convoy,” says an official-sounding voice from a helicopter. “Everything looks good. See you at base. Over and out.”

And then, coming from the other direction, on a collision course with civilization as we know it: the trickster’s car, powered by chutzpah and operated by remote control.

At Luthor’s command, the car executes a really quite spectacular self-driving catastrophe, the kind of thing that would give Ralph Nader a couple of juicy chapters for Unsafe at Any Speed II: The Wreckoning.

And then we see the honeypot trap that the trickster has set for the military convoy personnel, who all immediately jump out of their vehicles to gather in a bunch around the accident scene, because recklessness is contagious.

Once the trickster has set the scene, disrupting and overthrowing the grown-up relationship between Motherbird and Missile Convoy, there’s no more nonsense about a helicopter keeping watch over the cargo. There’s a pretty girl on the road. Army is cancelled for the day.

This allows the trickster’s confederate, dressed in a decidedly non-stealthy outfit, to gain access to the missile and poke at the buttons.

Now, if you’re ever tired of hearing somebody talk about Richard Donner’s “verisimilitude” approach to Superman: The Movie, the easiest way to shut them down is to talk about the Major scene, which is pure 1978 sitcom.

The Major is played by Larry Hagman, who’d done a lot of different roles on TV and film, but at the time was best-known for the 1965-1970 sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, and he’d done another couple sitcoms since.

He enters the scene with on-point comic timing, barking, “All right, get on the radio and get an ambulance down here, I don’t want to hold this convoy up any more than I… have to…” And then he clocks the merchandise on display.

Here’s the joke:

“She’s having trouble breathing, sir,” says the Sergeant. “What do you think?”

Major H. licks his lips. “Well, I suggest, um… vigorous chest massage, and if that doesn’t work, um… mouth to mouth.”

The Sergeant enthusiastically says, “Yes, sir!” and is about to get started, when the Major pulls him up by his shirt collar.

“Sergeant!” he announces. “I won’t have one of my men doing anything I wouldn’t be prepared to do myself.” Then the Major gets prepared to do himself, and the visibly disappointed Sergeant has to go and call for the stupid ambulance.

So: yes, this is sexist and ridiculous, which makes it perfectly at home for a 1978 sitcom. Grown men having an exaggerated response to the physical presence of blonde bombshells was a primary source of comedy on Three’s Company, WKRP in Cincinnati, Happy Days, The Love Boat and basically everything that I watched when I was a kid except The Flintstones, and even they did it once in a while. I don’t know when this fell out of fashion, but I haven’t watched sitcoms lately; for all I know, they’re still doing this.

But we’re in the trickster’s world, now; everyone involved in this exercise is under Lex’s spell, up to and including Motherbird. Otis is pressing buttons and entering numbers that will permanently override all instructions and controls that anybody else might enter, between now and whenever Lex decides to launch the missiles. This is obviously a silly idea, and that’s why you want to put a guy in a red Hawaiian shirt in the middle of it, to distract the audience from thinking about it. This is a surprisingly effective technique.

Then the trickster himself appears on the scene, sirens blaring. He steps out of the fake ambulance with a shy, eager-to-please smile, and says, “Hi.” Then he puts on a concerned expression. “Somebody hurt?”

Now, they shot a lot more footage for this sequence, and in the Extended Cut that they sold to TV, you can see all of it. After this, there’s another minute and ten seconds of Lex talking to the army men, the Major actually doing some of the vigorous chest massage, Eve complaining about the Major’s breath, and Lex bending over Eve to let her know that she’s done a good job.

If you watch that cut, you can see how smart they were to cut it right here. The extra material is just reiterating and explaining the joke, doing callbacks to the thing that you thought was funny forty-five seconds ago.

We don’t need any more explanation of how this will play out, once the wascally wabbit shows up. That’s his magic. At this point, the audience trusts him to take care of things on his own, and we’re ready to move on.

Tomorrow:
We ask the question:
Why is Jimmy Olsen in this movie?
1.83: Superman’s Pal

Chapters

— Danny Horn

13 thoughts on “Superman 1.82: The Trickster

  1. Naturally the sitcom military are having that reaction; Eve is on the ground in the Standard Female Death Heap, which no red-blooded males are able to resist. (Vigorous chest massage, indeed! NONE of these guys noticed that she doesn’t have a drop of blood on her, despite presumably being thrown from a car? And EVERY one of the drooling apes runs to cluster around her, leaving their equipment completely unguarded. Even the men who were inside the windowless equipment trucks – – doubtless the private in the lead truck got on the radio and squawked, “It’s a GIRL! And what a rack on her!”
    Which of course caused all the blood to rush from their brains to somewhere else.)

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I get that this is Miss Tessmacher and thus a “cartoon” of sexy, but honestly, the stereotype that grown men have so little experience with sexuality that simply seeing a Hawt Chick overrides their entire adult life and professional experience was tired back in the Screwball Comedy heyday of the 1940s, let alone 1978.

      Yes, it’s shorthand and necessary for the joke setup that is Lex’s entire plan, and it’s such a common trope the audience as a whole is clued in enough to allow said setup to pass muster, but just once I’d like to see the guy in charge bark “Medics, assist the victim! The rest of you better get back on the job or enjoy being a private for the rest of your career!”

      Liked by 3 people

  2. To the list of tricksters I would add my favorite, Wile E. Coyote’s Roadrunner. All the coyote wants is a meal, but the bird can change the laws of physics. Oddly, Coyote is a trickster among the indigenous people of the southwestern US.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I thought the Roadrunner was the trickster in that cartoon. Wile E Coyote never had a plan that worked, save for the final one.

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  3. Did anyone NOT expect Otis to screw up? Lex doesn’t seem that bright to assign a critical part of the plan to him. Otis could have driven the ambulance while Lex did the reprogramming. It may be necessary for the plot but it undermines the idea that Lex is a brilliant mastermind and a danger to Superman.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. As an officer with the rank of major involved in a harebrained screwup with nuclear weapons, Hagman combines two of his best known roles. Of course Major Nelson from I DREAM OF JEANNIE is one. The other is The Interpreter from FAIL-SAFE, the 1964 film which took the same basic story as DR STRANGELOVE and played it with a solemnly straight face.

    In its make-believe versions of military procedures, FAIL-SAFE makes a painstaking attempt at verisimilitude, but it disengages completely from reality in its depiction of its main characters. Its generals and civilian leaders behave with a degree of rationality that their real-life counterparts never approached during the Cold War, while the personalities and antics of DR STRANGELOVE’s zany Generals Jack D. Ripper and Buck Turgidson were so strongly reminiscent of SAC Commander Thomas Power and Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, respectively, that senior figures in Washington were concerned that the screenplay was based on leaks of classified information. Putting a member of the cast of FAIL-SAFE in a scene where control procedures for strategic arms break down because of basic human stupidity is a way of acknowledging that DR STRANGELOVE got it right.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I recently watched a scene from another movie that reminded me of this one involving a military convoy being tricked by a hot female in distress. Of course, I am drawing a blank on the title (dooh!), but the women were dressed like show girls and I think it was featured on MST3K. 🤔

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