Consider Otis: sidekick, lickspittle, punching bag, emotional support animal — and, most importantly, a ding-dong.
The ding-dong is the guy who sets off the alarm during the break-in, the one who forgot he couldn’t swim. When someone asks, “Why are we whispering?”, he’s the guy that says “I thought you knew.” His purpose in life is to stand next to a smarter character, and make them wince.
Strangely, ding-dongs still show up, even with network sitcoms on the decline. You would think that the race would die out; he seems like exactly the kind of thing that natural selection was organized to prevent.
The question of whether Otis is enjoyable or irritating has puzzled Superman scholars for decades, and I don’t expect to untie that knot by myself. All I can do is present my findings, and draw together some threads that may be of assistance to future scholarship.
The first thing that you have to reckon with when assessing Otis is the way that he says “Mister Luthor“, because he says it all the time and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. At my count, he says it 19.5 times during the movie, at an average of 2.8 Luthors per scene. He says the name five times in the ladder scene, but on a per-line basis, the most Luthor-heavy scene is Superman’s entrance into the lair, in which Otis has three lines:
I think he’s coming, Mr. Luthor.
He’s definitely coming, Mr. Luthor.
I don’t think he wants me to, Mr. Luthor.
It’s hard to account for Otis’ difficulty in saying his boss’ name, considering that Lex talks about himself constantly, often in the third person, so Otis hears it a lot, and he’s certainly had enough practice to master the skill.
Interestingly, Lex doesn’t appear to object to this particular foible. In other cases when Otis makes mistakes, Lex responds with insults, violence, sarcasm or at least a sigh, but this particular error happens more often than any other, and Lex doesn’t respond to it. It’s possible that Lex is just gathering steam for a truly epic explosion of temper still to come.
Otis’ primary outlet for ding-dongery is getting instructions wrong, often through an over-eager desire to please.
In one scene, he grabs the ladder out from under Lex and ferries it over to the opposite end of the room, without realizing that he’s left his passenger behind. In a similar moment, he’s so excited about bringing Lex his robe that he puts it on while his boss is still in the pool.
And then there’s the core ding-dong moment of the film, which expresses the paradoxical nature of the species: Otis is bright enough to open the control panel of a nuclear warhead and reprogram the launch codes, but dumb enough to get the numbers wrong, because he wrote them on his arm. Otis gets blamed and punched in the eye for this mixup, although it feels like the situation could have been avoided with a more effective pre-heist checklist.
Another key trait for Otis is that he doesn’t seem to be aware of his own limitations, and tries to imitate the stronger characters in the scene. This is mostly expressed in the way that he looks at Lex, often squinting closely at him as if Otis could understand Lex’s train of thought if he just looks at him harder.
His greatest challenge comes when Lex shouts, “Now, think, people, think! Deductive reasoning, that’s the name of the game.” Otis attempts to snap like Lex does, and then screws up his face in desperate concentration, trying to make deductive reasoning happen in a brain that doesn’t know what deductive means.
There’s also a moment in the map room when Otis looks at Superman’s chest, and tries to make himself look bigger as well, suggesting that he imprints like a baby duck on whoever he’s standing next to. If that’s the case, then getting left behind in Superman II might be the best thing that could happen to Otis, giving him the opportunity to go follow somebody with a better track record.
But the best outcome for a ding-dong, in terms of retaining audience appeal, is for them to turn out to be the wise fool, whose childlike simplicity allows them to cut through complications and come to the correct answer without realizing it. This is regular practice among sitcom ding-dongs — your Andy Dwyers, your Woody Boyds, your Joey Tribbianis — but Otis is denied any moment of transcendence.
That’s a shame, because a good “Otis, that’s it! You’ve done it!” moment can win over the audience like you wouldn’t believe. There’s nothing we like more than a character who can help us over an obstacle that’s getting in the way of the plot. In fact, we’re going to see that principle at work in a couple minutes, when Eve helps Superman out of the pool, moving the story forward and securing her place in our affections.
Ultimately, the best thing that you can say about Otis is that he doesn’t speak with a Valley Girl accent, and there is no point in the film when he says, “Oh, wow, I’m breakdancin’!” No matter what you think of Otis, nephew Lenny is still several films away, and for that, if nothing else, we should be grateful.
Eve flirts with microredemption in
1.89: Bad Girl Goes Good
— Danny Horn