Superman 1.98: Turn the World Around

Lois Lane is dead.

Now, you and I know that this is a comic book movie, and in superhero comics and other soap opera narratives, almost nobody dies permanently. Superman died in 1992, Spider-Man died in 2013, Wolverine died in 2014, and here in 2022, DC has just announced that in an upcoming issue of Justice League, they’re going to kill off all of their popular superheroes, and Zatanna. They always come back.

But Superman was the first comic book movie, and they hadn’t established any ground rules yet. The film has been ping-ponging from one genre to another, including psychedelic space opera, screwball comedy and James Bond villainy, and over the last ten minutes, it’s taken a strong swerve into disaster movie.

And if you watch 1970s disaster movies — The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno — then you know that there’s always one personable character who gets sacrificed, in service of the drama.

And Lois Lane is dead.

At least, if she’s not, then they’re doing a damn good imitation, because getting crushed in a car is rough. It’s not a graceful swan dive off a cliff, where there’s some possibility of tragic romance. This is you and your shitty rental car falling backwards into the ground, and getting pummeled by aftershocks until your lungs are filled with pebbles and broken glass. This is you realizing that you’re dying, and trying to fight your way back up to the surface, and you keep on trying with absolutely no chance of success, because you are now fully aware that these are your last moments and they suck. 

This is you being murdered by the world, for no reason. You’re not sacrificing yourself so that others could live. You’re not being punished for making a bad choice. This is not even about you. But here you are, helplessly drowning on dry land, in pain and in darkness.

So, yeah, a little respect, please, for the death of Lois Lane. If anybody thinks that this is a cheap stunt because of the way that it gets resolved, then they’re not focusing on the important thing, which is these two people that we’ve fallen in love with, suffering.

Which is to say: yes, the ending works. It’s fine if you want to pretend that there’s some rational adult inside of you that looks logically at the end of movies and says things like, “Well, if he could travel backwards in time to fix all of his mistakes, then nothing bad would ever happen and he would always win,” and you think that’s some kind of critique.

He’s Superman. Nothing bad ever happens, and he does always win. That’s why you’re watching a movie about Superman.

So what they’re doing is giving us a situation that is so sad and dirty and awful and unacceptable to us as members of the audience that we will accept pretty much any goofy thing that they need to do, in order to undo this. At least — sorry — also, it needs to look cool.

As we’ve seen, the purpose of blockbuster movies is to pack as many people as possible into a movie theater, preferably on a hot day in the summertime, and produce a shared emotionally cathartic experience. Spending an hour making us fall in love with Lois Lane, and then pointlessly, painfully murdering her in front of our eyes, is guaranteed to stir us up. Hot blood, in other words, cries for vengeance, and that’s when you are lifted by the hair and go crazy.

And Superman says: fuck it, this is not the end of this story. I will personally punch reality in the face, if I have to. This will not stand.

This isn’t how they originally planned to end the movie. The idea was that Superman and Superman II would be a two-part story, with a cliffhanger at the end of the first movie.

In the shooting script, Lois falling into a crack in the earth was no big deal, just a minor moment of temporary peril. Superman saw her in time, picked the car up out of the crack, got her out, dropped her on top of a mountain, and then went off to fix other stuff. The big emotional thing that we were supposed to care about was that the missile that he pushed out into space hit the swirly Phantom Zone mirror, and then Zod and Non and Ursa emerged and yelled “Free! Free!”, and then: to be continued in Superman II.

Flying around the world and turning time backwards was the big finish for the end of Superman II; that’s how Superman would make Lois forget that she found out he was Clark Kent. But while they were shooting, they decided, screw it, let’s actually give the first movie a real ending that makes people feel something.

Now, there are people who contend that Superman flying around the world really fast wouldn’t make the Earth spin in the opposite direction — and if it did, then that wouldn’t turn time backwards. It would just, I don’t know, knock everything over and annoy people, or something.

Those people are obviously wrong. It would absolutely turn time backwards. I mean, how else could you explain why Lois Lane is still alive?

So, yeah. This is how we solve problems now. Like, let’s say you’ve spent the last five months writing about Superman: The Movie, and looking back on it, you probably could have cut about 25% of these posts and it would have been tighter and more interesting, and possibly more successful, and by now a whole bunch of people have given up reading your stuff, and you’re probably never going to get them back, and thinking about that makes you feel like you’re on a movie set inside a car crusher with stagehands dropping dirt on your face while you try to battle your way to the surface.

Do you give up? Do you move on? Fuck, no. I’ll tell you what you do. You fly around the world backwards, you turn back time, and you do it again. I can’t believe I never thought of this before.

Tomorrow:
The final Superman: The Movie post!
1.100: One Hundred and Thirty-Four Million Dollars

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

38 thoughts on “Superman 1.98: Turn the World Around

  1. Yeah, there are the criticisms and they do have points, but DAMN does Reeve really sell that scene of Superman’s anguish. For its time it was the most serious dramatic scene in a Superhero movie. When I was a kid I was discomforted by it. As a late teen I liked it. So regardless of the resolution I stand by that part.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Yes! The death of Lois scene was nearly too much for this little kid. It also suddenly turned Lex from a clown with a gimmick, into a nasty mass murderer to really hate. And another genre flip, out from 1940’s Fast-Talkin’ News Broad, Ya See, and screwball comedy, to heavy, heavy stuff. I hadn’t seen any disaster movies, but I got how heavy this scene was.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. And this is what killed the story for me. It was the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. It was the day Superman reversed Earth’s spin to save his girlfriend’s life. Of course, the scientific elephant in the theater kept shouting “That would have killed every human on the planet. But this was a love story now, so logic didn’t matter (as shown earlier in the film). But logic had left Superman years ago on the day he learned how to defy the laws of gravity. So the elephant and I left the theater together for a cold beer and I felt cheated that the writing department had stooped to using a cheap trick to save the day. But that’s cinema, especially when based on a 20th century god.

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  3. It’s still amusing that 44 years later we’re talking about how Superman reversing the rotation of the Earth wouldn’t turn back time and how it would actually kill everyone on the planet, etc, etc.

    Except that’s not what happens. I don’t think the creatives on Superman: The Movie thought that’s how these things worked and I don’t think they thought they would get away with saying, “well, comic book logic.”

    We all know from every time travel movie we’ve ever seen that the closer you travel to the speed of light, the more your perception of the passage of time changes. Superman is using the gravity of the Earth to propel himself faster and faster through space and moving himself — not the Earth — back in time. The reverse spinning we see, and things falling in reverse on the surface, is his perspective on traveling back a few minutes. Once he gets back far enough, he repeats the process in the opposite direction to get back to the point in time where he needs to be.

    tl;dr this is a time travel scene, not a physical moving of the planet scene.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. I don’t think they were thinking about it logically. They were just going for the visuals.
      What’s on the screen is the planet going in reverse and then moving forward. In 1978, there was some audience laughter at that. When I watched a few months ago, I was distracted by the sound of Cher singing in my head.
      If he was just using the planet to go back in time, why was it necessary for him to fly in the other direction as if he was starting time up again? What conclusion would one draw from those visuals?
      Here’s my problem: I don’t understand the do-over. I expected him to arrive in time to save Lois from the crack. Instead, the crack is erased from the timeline completely. And yet, Lois remembers the earthquake and the gas station exploding, so that sequence of events happened. I just found it confusing.
      I actually think it would have been much better if the missile freeing the Krypton criminals had been included at the end. Maybe the first end credits scene?
      Also, when Superman lifts a dead Lois, she’s covered in dirt. When Superman takes off to undo her death, her clothes are pristine white.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. scarecroe: “The reverse spinning we see, and things falling in reverse on the surface, is his perspective on traveling back a few minutes.”

        I’m sure it was all explained well in Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz’s rewrite.

        By the time Donnor was done, like Mary says, all that mattered was that it looked cool. Superman had so much angry angst that he used all his power to make time back up for the whole world. That was all I needed to get from it. (I think I hadn’t encountered the theory of relativity yet.)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There are a lot of dissolves in that sequence after he puts Lois on the ground. Through those dissolves she goes from dirt-covered to clean and white. I have always figured that some amount of time, maybe hours, has passed and Superman has spent that time actually cleaning up Lois’s clothes and face, doing the only thing he can do for her now. After that is done, the grief really hits full force, leading to the scream and the trip back in time.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. @maryfromdsed “What’s on the screen is the planet going in reverse and then moving forward.”

        Yes, unfortunately this is undeniable. It’s nice that some people here are giving the writers the benefit of the doubt — that they understood the theoretical concept of traveling backward in time by moving faster than the speed of light — but the movie shows us Superman changing the Earth’s rotation by flying really fast, and then putting the rotation back to normal after time has reversed sufficiently. Otherwise he wouldn’t have flown in both directions, as you said. The first transit around the Earth CCW would have been sufficient to place him back in time. The fact that all this is 100% nonsensical from a scientific standpoint doesn’t enter into the equation.

        The intriguing thing is that his furious loops around the Earth seem to go just over seven revolutions a second, which is the speed at which light would travel around the Earth. So that part actually makes sense. It’s almost as if there was a huge disconnect somewhere in the effects department between a person who actually understand the concept of achieving time travel by exceeding c and the people who created the final shot.

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  4. Last summer I rewatched all the Reeve Superman movies, and my son came in at this point and watched a bit with me. Later that night, my wife found a drawing in his room of Superman flying around the earth and written underneath it said “IMPOSSABLE.” In case you were wondering what 9 year olds thought of this ending

    Liked by 5 people

  5. “He’s Superman. Nothing bad ever happens, and he does always win. That’s why you’re watching a movie about Superman.”

    It’s why every superhero movie nowadays cacks a love interest, and why it never works.

    We KNOW they’re going to be fine–some witch or alien or Power Glove is going to show up and shatter reality so the rom-com part of the movie can happen. It’ll be fine. More CGI! Bring on the space centipedes!

    But here, when this movie came out, we didn’t know that. We knew the Rules of the Love Interest had just been violated–Lois is supposed to get into scrapes and be rescued, not indifferently crunched flat by forces that were unleashed by insane, selfish megalomaniacs on the other coast–but we didn’t know how it was going to made fine. When he first finds her body, even Superman doesn’t know. His literal punching of time comes out of a spontaneous eruption of grief and helplessness in the face of death; it’s the same feeling anybody who’s lost a loved one knows. Nothing bad is supposed to be happening! It’s supposed to be okay! He’s supposed to win!

    This is the only time in the film that Superman performs a selfish action, in that he is doing this out of grief and rage instead of to save Lois. It’s too late to save Lois, she’s dead and he wasn’t there to stop it. When he grabs the hands of the universal clock and shoves, it’s the first time he’s doing the really impossible.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. The ending “works” in the sense that, when I was 8 and was watching it, it carried me along. But by the time I’d left the theater, the anger the first sight of Lois being crushed had prompted me to feel towards fate/ the universe/ Luthor/ whatever had redirected itself against the filmmakers. It is simply not acceptable to set the audience up with something as heavy as the death of Lois and then resolve it with something as cheap and stupid as the time reversal bit.

    The ending isn’t the worst part of the movie- that’s the Smallville sequence with the inexplicable casting of Jeff East as Clark and all those visually dead shots of wheat fields. It isn’t the second worst part, which is the “Can you read my mind” garbage. It probably isn’t even the third worst part. But it’s definitely in the top five things that make this movie so much less rewatchable than other blockbuster action films.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t think it’s a young child-friendly movie. It’s too long for one thing. I wonder who the filmmakers viewed as their target audience? They probably didn’t care as long as they brought cash.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I think kids are as likely to enjoy the movie as is anyone else- I certainly can’t imagine anyone liking it as much as my 8 year old self did. Not that I wasn’t bored by all the padding, which includes the entirety of the first 47 minutes and several sequences afterward, but I forgot all that every time something great happened. By age 9, I had grown sufficiently old and crotchety that I resented movies that wasted my time.

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      2. Their target audience was the most lucrative demographic; males aged 18 to 29 were assumed to have the most disposable income.

        Obviously they hadn’t asked ME…

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      3. mary, agreed. i wasn’t bored, but there was quite a bit in there that was unnerving to a kid—when krypton exploded, or when pa kent dies. maybe eight year olds are very sophisticated these days; i certainly was not. for a comic book movie it took itself very seriously, which made it feel even longer.

        it wasn’t until in my teens that i realized there was a lot of stuff going on in the movie that was fairly adult, for a comic book movie. the books i read were ones like the superman family, with goofy stories about superbaby, and krypto, the super dog, and supergirl’s pet cat streaky, and her pet horse, who turned out to be not a horse, but a shapeshifted guy who was in love with her, and…yeah. maybe a lot of comics are just plain weird.

        Liked by 3 people

  7. It’s a sign of his encroaching regretful _esprit d’escalier_(*) regarding how many posts he’s dedicated to _Superman: The Movie_ that Danny barely takes the time to kvetch about time travel — just one measly sentence, no “you get the consequences first; that’s the whole point” or any of his usual complaints on the subject from _DSED_. That derailed much of what I would have otherwise commented on when we got to this point in the movie — perhaps not a bad thing. Nevertheless, as the guy who talked about the physics of time travel on _DSED_, a quick point about time travel and Special Relativity because I’m “that guy” and can’t help myself:

    If faster-than-light travel is possible, then so is time travel into the past (at least under some conditions) (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/can-you-really-go-back-in-time-by-breaking-the-speed-of-light/, or, if you’re into Minkowski diagrams, https://www.physicsmatt.com/blog/2016/8/25/why-ftl-implies-time-travel). Take a look at Superman’s face in those screencaps — dude is seriously straining. He’s either traveling FTL due to some sort of hand-wavey timey-winey ability of Kryptonian matter to turn into tachyons, or he ate lunch at Chipotle and is desperately trying to find a men’s room (hot burrito reflux cries for vengeance, and he’s been lifted by the hair and gone crazy).

    (*) _L’esprit d’escalier_ is one of those wonderful foreign expression everyone should know and work into conversations. Literally, it means “the spirit of the staircase” (and I once read a translation of Balzac that actually rendered it as that :-<); a better definition I once read is "the things you think of as you climb the stairs when you're returned home from a party" — the witty remarks and rejoinders you should have made, the opening lines you should have used on the attractive people you wish you'd had the courage to walk up to and try to strike up a conversation with, etc.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. goddess: “the Rules had just been violated… even Superman doesn’t know.”

    Yes. Have to remember that just like listening to the Beatles now with all those standard rock themes, Donnor invented this whole idea.

    The premise that a superhero film could have great acting, earnest serious tragedy, some heavy heavy moments… and then… the impossible, and impossibly cool looking, solution from the hero’s magic… to deliver the unfulfilled wishes of all us normal Earth humans.

    This wasn’t the cliche. This was where it all began.

    Danny’s post and this discussion helps me appreciate that in a brand new way. That, and having lost loved ones, which hadn’t happened yet when I saw the movie as a kid.

    “some rational adult inside of you that looks logically…”
    I stand corrected, Sir. You’re right. GREAT explanation, Danny.

    So my idea about ending with the Phantom Zone breakout wasn’t original. Maybe I read it in an earlier post here, or in some other review of the film through the years.

    I agree that messing with time itself carries a lot more punch to undo the death of his beloved, than to just keep his secret identity.

    “There are 2 posts numbered 98.”
    There’s that moment when the planet starts to spin the other way again.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. spinning the world the other way worked for me in the same way that it would have worked were it a comic book. when you’re a kid, you don’t think about it all that much. all i knew was that he was (hopefully) doing something to save her. oddly though, (or maybe not, considering how horrified i was) it didn’t have the effect which i think they probably intended, not for me, anyhow. it wasn’t until i was a teenager that i thought oh, she’s alive. she’s okay again.

    somehow as a kid, after watching her die (the parts that i really cannot bear, even to this day are the moments where she’s gasping and trying to cry out, and then at the end, when all you can see are her fingers, just above the silt and the mud, pale and not moving) i just couldn’t buy that she was actually alive again. even if he did reverse time and magnetic north and other important stuff like that.

    there’s a moment that i love though, and it’s after he picks her up and takes her out of the evil car coffin, and he lays her on the ground and her head turns slightly to the side and he makes a horribly sad, hurt sound, almost a whimper. something very precious to him has been hurt, broken in the ugliest, worst possible fashion, and he wasn’t careful enough in the act of lying her down, even though she’s already gone. he doesn’t want to hurt her anymore. even though she’s already gone. it’s a very small moment but a beautiful piece of acting on christopher reeve’s part that for me, more than anything else in the film, tells the viewer how much he loves this woman.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I agree at how emotionally powerful and intense this filmmaking was. And along with the length Mary mentioned, making the movie a bit much for young kids. Is this what you meant by “THAT scene” that was inappropriate for children, in your Mom’s opinion?

      Liked by 3 people

  10. “DC has just announced that in an upcoming issue of Justice League, they’re going to kill off all of their popular superheroes, and Zatanna.”

    Damn, Danny. That’s cold. tahW did annataZ reve od ot uoy?

    My prediction: by the time you finish all 100+ movies on your list plus new movies that will have come out by then, Zatanna will have appeared in one of those movies and will be the new favorite character that no one had ever heard of before. Just like Rocket Racoon and Groot.

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  11. Well, I was a tender child of 28 when I saw this, and I easily recognized it as just the movie’s new way of expressing Superman’s time-travel power. In the Silver Age comic books, his travel back in time was expressed by flying through multicoloured rings; in the movie, it was expressed by his flying so fast the earth APPEARED to reverse itself for HIM. Okay! Just as long as the desired result was achieved! I’m glad everybody here recognizes that this is what he was doing, not actually reversing the earth’s rotation.

    Though it did violate a Silver Age sacred precept, which was that history could not be changed. When anybody went back in time, they always ended up paradoxically fulfilling, not altering what was on the record. I especially remember when Lois turned out to be the original of the Mona Lisa’s smile because Leonardo was inspired by her enigmatic smile after her victory over a baddie. At one point Superman had to solve a dilemma while shackled by the “fact” that “History cannot be changed, even FUTURE history.” Oh, indeed?

    Maybe, like the tree falling in the forest, it isn’t history until someone knows about it. Therefore, since Lois’s death had not been noted in recorded history yet, it could be changed. Except that Lois knew and Superman knew. Oh, well, er…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I didn’t really see time travel as a cheat, but the part I got upset about – and maybe I didn’t understand this the way they meant – is that IF he went back in time and there weren’t 2 Supermen there for a while which they never say there were – that he couldn’t do both things. So IF he went back to save Lois that means all the other people he was originally saving didn’t get saved and the death toll just shot way up. And he could have saved her and gone off to try to save as many of the others that he could and he just STANDS there. Sure Lois is fine, but other people are dying and he just STANDS there. Also, yes, water doesn’t scale. It’s never going to look right they way they were doing it.

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    1. Why did he only go that far back? Why not further back, to where he confronted Lex in his lair and kept him from opening the box of Kryptonite?

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      1. Perhaps he got tired and that’s as far back as he could go 🙂 Which would actually be an acceptable explanation — that he can only go back a few minutes — except that Superman never looks tired in this movie, even at the very end after he’s done all that work. This is part of the reason that the ending feels like a cheat: because it seems like Supes could do this stuff all day (including re-sealing the San Andreas fault line while standing in magma!). He’s never tired out and doesn’t seem to have made any sacrifice or endangered himself in any way in order to accomplish all of this.

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    2. We have to assume that there WERE two Supermen because there’s no reason why one would disappear when the other travels backward in time, unless Superman had gone back far enough to prevent his other self from even being in the area (i.e., from having to rescue people from the effects of the earthquake), which he didn’t.

      This creates a huge problem for the story. First, if he only went back far enough to save Lois then the other Superman should be showing up at some point, late, and then they have to have an awkward conversation about how he got there too late for Lois and the only way to fix things was to punch time in the face and travel backwards.

      Regardless of how far back he went, if Lois is rescued now then there’s no reason for Superman to have gone backward in time in the first place, which depending on your understanding of time travel either creates a causality paradox, or else there’s just permanently two Supermen hanging around now, one a few minutes older than the other. I guess the latter case would be good news for Earth, plus now Clark Kent doesn’t even need a robot clone to convince Lois that he’s not secretly Superman.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The 1 Superman versus 2 Supermen would depend on what’s actually happening. Is Clark going back in time as if a different time were
        a different place or is he unwinding time for everybody and undoing past actions? I always took it as he was unwinding time for everybody, but from these posts other people have thought about it a lot more than I have and believe the opposite, so I’ll take the 2 Sups and have him not being a jerk here. 🙂

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