Superman II 2.4: Fight the Tower

Well, speaking of foreign distribution rights, here’s girl reporter Lois Lane let loose in a foreign country, and she’s about to be distributed widely across a sizeable stretch of western Europe, if the hydrogen bomb she’s inadvertently strapped to her back hits the pavement at the base of the Eiffel Tower.

The bomb — if it actually is a bomb — has been assembled by a group of inconclusive terrorists demanding nothing in particular from probably the government of France. The terrorists take the elevator up to the top of the tower, where they have the bomb (if it is a bomb) primed to explode in sixty seconds, which they don’t want to do, while the police use their own explosives to set off the bomb, which they don’t want to do either.

This is a complex and somewhat confusing sequence, and I have only arrived at my limited understanding of it by watching it about a dozen times. I will do my best to explain.

Lois arrives on the scene at the terrorized tourist attraction, having flown on the Concorde from Metropolis to Paris during the twelve hours since the story broke. A moment ago, we saw Clark arrive at the Daily Planet in the morning, which means that it’s, let’s say, 8am in Metropolis, and therefore 2pm in Paris. That means the terrorists started occupying the Eiffel Tower around 2am, so those hostages must be the hippest late-night party animals that ever managed to get past the bouncer.

Now, I am willing to waive the fact that, with the exception of the guard that Lois talks to, everybody in France speaks English with a French accent. That’s a standard technique employed for audience convenience so that they don’t have to use subtitles, and everyone in the audience has already implicitly agreed to that by only taking a couple semesters of French in high school and then forgetting it all.

As Lois approaches the base of the tower, a spokesperson is explaining to the waiting press pool that les terroristes have agreed to release the first group of hostages as a sign of good faith; if they don’t release the hostages, the authorities refuse to negotiate. It sounds to me like the authorities are already negotiating, and they’re doing an amazing job so far, so kudos to the authorities.

Lois arrives on the scene just in time to hear that the terrorists claim to have a hydrogen bomb upstairs in an oil barrel. The spokesperson says that “it’s possible for anyone to make a hydrogen bomb, if he has the proper equipment,” which I don’t think is true in real life, but in movies is a well-established fact.

There’s a cute little sequence where Lois gets to be the plucky trickster reporter, getting a guard to look up the word “stairs” in her English-to-French phrase book while she ducks behind him, and goes up the escaliers.

The cop has one of those “come back!” movie moments, where the person left behind isn’t allowed to leave the shot, so they call helplessly for the other character to return and then disappear into the wind. Nobody ever comes back.

Brushing off the gendarmes, Lois mounts the stairs and stumbles toward the story, apparently unnoticed by the police who are watching the whole event through binoculars and sharpshooter gunsights.

This may be the one completely unrealistic moment in the sequence. I don’t want to brag or anything, but I’ve been to the Eiffel Tower, and there is no way that she could get all the way up there without buying a ticket, and browsing through the gift shop. C’est impossible.

The terrorists, wearing hats and shit-stained coveralls, are ushering the hostages into an elevator, which will take them down to a lower floor, and then the hostages will be ushered into a different elevator, which will take them to the ground.

This is part of why it took me so long to come to any understanding of this sequence; I didn’t realize that they were using two elevators. There’s an establishing shot that establishes that there are two elevators running — one going down, one going up — but the shot doesn’t connect properly to their actual plot-relevant position at this moment. I figured it was all being done through quantum mechanics, where you can either know who’s in the elevator or what direction it’s going in, but you can’t know both at the same time.

Then Lois does something excessively plucky, which is to clamber into the bottom of the elevator mechanism, so that she can secretly travel up the tower along with the bad guys, and gather intel for a world-stunning scoop.

Now, I think this moment, right here, is when the audience starts to ask, wait, what the hell am I looking at? Why are we in France? Is Lois suddenly a supersoldier? Why is she spelling words to calm herself down, when we know from the first movie that spelling is not her strong point? There are no easy answers to these questions.

Then there’s some terrorist dialogue that does not inspire confidence in the development of this sequence.

Terrorist 1:  Do you think we should have let the hostages go?

Terrorist 2:  They’ll give in to us as soon as we prime the bomb. It doesn’t matter one way or the other.

Terrorist 2 is looking extremely sure of himself, for a guy who’s just given up most of his bargaining power, but my main concern is the line “It doesn’t matter one way or the other,” which is a red flag.

We are currently hosting the Lois Lane Spelling Bee approximately 800 feet above the 7th arrondissement, and the characters who are supposed to be responsible for supplying the tension don’t seem to be interested in investing any more in the dramatic situation.

We don’t know who these people are, or what they’re trying to accomplish. What could you possibly get out of hauling a hydrogen bomb up to the top of the Eiffel Tower? There’s only one exit, everybody can see everything that they do, and if they set off the bomb, they would be vaporized. In fact, the authorities have had twelve hours to evacuate the city; at this point, the people who are in the most danger are these three knuckleheads.

And if they do somehow get whatever it is that they want, then they still have to ride the little elevator all the way down to the ground, where they will be instantly captured and imprisoned. I do not see the upside for these guys.

Now, somebody who wanted to speak up in defense of the movie might say that what I’ve just written is “fridge logic”: the logical flaw in the movie’s plot that you don’t realize until you get home and open up the fridge, which is obviously not an important flaw, because it didn’t interfere with your enjoyment of the movie.

When there’s a logical flaw in a good movie, the audience doesn’t notice, because you don’t get any time to think about it — the movie distracts you by showing you interesting things, so that you don’t have time to puzzle over the backstory.

But this sequence gives you plenty of time to wonder what this terrorist threat is all about. One of the guys says that he’s going to prime the bomb, which involves fiddling with something that we can’t see for more than a minute.

So we’ve got time to look at the terrorists through binoculars, and watch the police whispering about their plans. After fifty seconds of essentially nothing happening, one of the terrorists actually says, “This is the boring bit.” Jesus wept.

The really mysterious thing is that the whisper cops are silently placing plastic explosives somewhere in the Tower’s undercarriage, for absolutely no reason that I can imagine on this earth or any other. I defy anybody to explain to me what the hell these people think that they’re doing.

The police somehow convince themselves that the guy who’s currently priming the hydrogen bomb is not actually priming the hydrogen bomb, even though they’re looking directly at him through binoculars and nobody is doing anything else.

So their plan is to cut one of the elevator cables, and plastic-explode I have no idea what, which makes the elevator and the bomb (and Lois) plunge down the shaft of the Tower in free fall, to shatter into pieces on the rocks below, and — at the very least — damage an internationally beloved public landmark, rather than just standing at the bottom with a tunafish sandwich, and waiting for the terrorists to get hungry.

There is actually an explanation for why this sequence exists, and it begins with the end of the previous movie.

The originally scripted plan for the finale of Superman: The Movie was that it would end with a cliffhanger. Lois didn’t die in the car crunch, and Superman didn’t spin the world backwards. Instead, he would save Lois just in time, and then fly off to deliver Luthor to prison. The exciting part of the conclusion was that the nuclear missile that Superman threw into the sky would hit the Phantom Zone prison in space, shattering it and freeing the trio of villains, who head to Earth with anger in their eyes.

But Donner and the producers decided halfway through that they needed a stronger ending for the first movie, so they used the “spin the world backwards” gag, which was supposed to be the ending of Superman II.

So the first movie, as released, ends with the Kryptonian villains still locked up tight in their parallelogram prison, which created a challenge for the new team, when they restarted production on Superman II.

Richard Lester, David Newman, Leslie Newman and the producers needed a new opening sequence that would accomplish the following things:

1) Superman does something exciting and heroic,

2) with an exciting countdown and an interesting visual hook,

3) which involves saving Lois and re-establishing their connection,

4) and sends a nuclear bomb hurtling into space, to free the Phantom Zoners.

So you can see how that line of thinking leads directly to the Eiffel Tower, which is a famous and interesting-looking landmark, and points directly at the sky like an arrow.

The idea of Superman flying a nuclear bomb up through the center of the Tower and hurling it out into space is easy to imagine and understand, with a pleasing visual simplicity.

If it’s the 1980s and you need a spare nuclear bomb, then obviously the scene involves terrorists. (If it was the 50s, it would have been a mad scientist.)

And then you just strap Lois onto whatever that turns out to be.

That’s a clever solution to the problem, and it should have been a really fun sequence, but in my opinion, they botched the execution.

It’s really not just fridge logic. With the exception of Lois, who’s being adorable, every single person that we see for the next five minutes is doing something that doesn’t make sense. We have no connection to the terrorists; the movie refuses to explain who they are, what they want, or why they’re doing any of the obviously pointless and suicidal things that they’re doing. The police are also acting in bizarre and arbitrary ways. The guys looking through binoculars say that the guy isn’t priming the hydrogen bomb, when the audience knows that that’s exactly what he’s doing. Setting the plastic explosives and cutting the elevator cable clearly makes the situation a lot worse in a hurry. And they give us five minutes to think about it, before Superman shows up to hug Lois and it suddenly becomes a good movie again.

But obviously that’s the only way that you could start Superman II — with a big exciting criminal-catching international caper. Right? I mean, unless somebody else could come up with a cool idea…

Tomorrow:
We consider the alternative in
2.5: The Donner Party


Footnote:

By the way, I just need to acknowledge that there is a framed picture of Bill Cosby in Perry White’s office, which you can see in the first Daily Planet scene, and later on when the villains stomp through the Planet set. This is apparently an homage to Cosby’s classic standup comedy bit about Superman, which appeared on his first album, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow… Right!, in 1963. So that’s what that’s about.

Tomorrow:
We consider the alternative in
2.5: The Donner Party

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

20 thoughts on “Superman II 2.4: Fight the Tower

  1. I seem to be one of the few who have commented on this movie who actually prefers this one over the first. But when I rewatched the movie this weekend for the first time in at least 20 years, I had absolutely no memory of this whole sequence. I could easily remember every other scene in the film, from the recap of the villains being imprisoned to the memory-altering kiss. But I had no memory of any of this Eiffel Tower business, which tells me just how pointless it is.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I very much prefer this one, but that’s in spite of this sequence. I remember being very frustrated watching it in the theater the first time, and fearing that the movie was going to be crap in spite of all the rave reviews. On subsequent viewings I concentrated about as hard as Danny describes himself doing above, only to get even more frustrated as it became clear that there really wasn’t anything to figure out.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. What gets me is that if the cops can clearly see everything they can see the hostages being herded onto the first elevator.

        So why, in the name of the Vinyl Wraparound S, would they BLOW THE ELEVATOR? Even if they think they’re destroying the cable of the other one (that the hostages didn’t get on) they have no way of knowing they’ll stay on it, per the switch lifts plan, and even if they weren’t being switched, in what way doesn’t it make sense to just wait for the hostages to be released, get them to safety, and then disable both elevators?

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I found a used copy of this movie the other day, but I chose not to buy it. Based on this entry, I’m thinking that it was a good decision.

    There was also a copy of the director’s cut. Any particular reason to get that instead? Or just wait for it to show up on Amazon Prime? Or skip it entirely and go with this vastly superior blog?

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you, Tim! I was about to pay the money to rent it but stopped to play the preview which ended with Lois pronouncing “merci” as “mercy” three times! I’d hate to see what she does with “oui.”
        Maybe Lois mispronouncing French like a cliché of an American tourist made Lester laugh. It made me put my credit card away.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. That one should have several goofy bits like Jimmy whining that his brand-new camera got smashed. I remember watching that, then my brother got it on LaserDisc, and the funny bits were missing on the disc version.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. My money would be on the blog but if you are familiar with Lester’s version there are clips of scenes from the Donner cut on YouTube for comparison.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. So any commentary about the opening credits with its clip show montage (minus Brando)? I always liked it, with Ken Thorne (who also did the orchestrations for Lester’s adaptation of A FUNNY THING) playing Williams’ score.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. “Write what you know,” the writing teachers say. Which makes me wonder if the writers were both totally confused and really bored when they wrote this scene.

    The idea of the scene, Le Bomb to shatter the world’s grooviest outer space record cover, was a good one.

    As a kid in the theater, I thought Lois’s gag with the phrase book was cute. I was impressed by her resourceful courage for her Journalism ambitions.

    The world with Metropolis and Superman in it, has a slightly different Eiffel Tower than ours. One where police on terrorist watch duty ignore brave girl reporters climbing the stairs, which lead right where you need them to go if you’re the heroine.

    And where there’s not the famous moment from the Eiffel Tower’s history, when the elevator cable was cut to prove that the safety brakes smoothly bring the car to a nice safe stop.

    And Le Cops are Le Dumbasses to help along Le Cinema Plot.

    Verisimilitude, this ain’t.

    I don’t have a problem with night owl terrorists, so you get Le Bad News with your morning croissant.

    The problem was the terrorists. Clueless and tedious as Otis, without a mastermind mastering him. And genial enough to release the hostages. And yet Evil enough to set off Le Bomb anyway. The writers didn’t know what to make of them, so we don’t either. Not much of a challenge for Superman.

    A bit of Tom Mankiewicz level script doctoring, and it could’ve been a great, memorable sequence. Maybe even with some Kryptonite tied around the bomb, or something.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Everything about the Tower sequence worked on paper, as Danny outlines: it’s a big showy set piece, it’s fun and exciting, it gets Supes front and center, cute moments with Lois, and ends with getting the bad guys on their way.

      But every single detail was botched! What is it with writers forgetting that even the small parts need a reason to exist beyond plot mechanics? If the terrorists don’t have any actual goal, it doesn’t matter what they threaten or how many lives they’re endangering (I mean, it does, but not as far as the story’s concerned.)

      Decades and decades later, fans can still recite the names of the X Wing fighter pilots in the Death Star sequence of Star Wars, because each of those guys knew why they were there. They had maybe two minutes of screen time total but those two minutes mattered.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The casting of the terrorists is probably more interesting than the scene, aside from Lois. The tallest one is Roger Brierly who would play Sir Roger Glossop on JEEVES AND WOOSTER. The portly one is Richard Griffiths, Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter franchise. Both played plenty of judges, doctors, inspectors, reverends, etc. So they’re actors who normally *were* the authorities.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thanks for the Cosby explanation. I have fond memories of those records, unlistenable now of course. But yeah, I always wondered why his portrait was on the wall and I never made the connection despite being familiar with that bit. I guess the in-universe reason was that Perry was just a fan.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I remember not liking this scene when I saw it new in the theater, too. Am I remembering correctly that Lois was spelling the wrong name of the award she was hoping to get? If memory serves, they give out Pullitizer, not Nobel prizes to journalists.

    By the way, I just need to acknowledge that there is a framed picture of Bill Cosby in Perry White’s office, which you can see in the first Daily Planet scene, and later on when the villains stomp through the Planet set. This is apparently an homage to Cosby’s classic standup comedy bit about Superman, which appeared on his first album, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow… Right!, in 1963. So that’s what that’s about.

    So it wasn’t foreshadowing Superman’s amnesia kiss? 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There is a Nobel Prize for Journalism; in 2021 it was won by Maria Ressa and Dmitri A. Muratov for their reporting on the disintegration of democracy in the Philippines and Russia respectively.

      The kind of stories Lois chases after are more short-form and showy, very much positioning them for a Pulitzer, but I can see her ultimate goal being a Nobel.

      Like

      1. In the version that was shown on abc, she begins to spell Pulitzer but doesn’t get beyond P. She’s next shown spelling Nobel. Perhaps because of her notoriously bad spelling, she went to an easier name?

        Liked by 1 person

  8. OK, let me try…Lois is in Paris covering Fashion Week. One of the big couture houses is holding a press dinner in the restaurant at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Terrorists plant a lead wrapped (to thwart Geiger counters) H-bomb in the structure (partly because fashion harms young women through unrealistic body image expectations and partly because of the whole Jerry Lewis thing). They disable the elevator(s) so no one can leave and no one can get up to try and find the bomb. Lois manages to evade the terrorists and is crawling around on the structure in an effort to get an elevator working. Of course, things wrapped in lead draw Superman’s attention because even if he can’t see through it it’s a weird thing to do, so he’ll be able to find the bomb.

    Booyah! Kneel before Zod! Fridge logic evaded, and it sets up a big set piece at the Eiffel Tower with Lois in peril and an H-bomb for Sup to launch into space. I literally came up with that while I was reading Danny’s post, yet a professional screenplay writer couldn’t do better than what we got?

    (P.S., I think I;ll make “Kneel before Zod!” my “Surrender, Dorothy!”)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. “it’s possible for anyone to make a hydrogen bomb, if he has the proper equipment,”

    Logically this would be true. It’s theoretically possible for anyone to make anything. It’s the getting the “proper equipment” that’s the hard part.

    You just have to figure that the proper equipment includes a complete hydrogen bomb making factory!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Every scene in this movie tells me that the writers flunked science class. It’s even worse in that respect than the first movie.

      Like

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