Superman II 2.16: The Fall of Man

If the Superman movies have taught me anything so far, it’s that people fall out of stuff way more often than you would imagine. We’ve seen Lois fall out of a helicopter, and get herself strapped to a plunging elevator, and if you watch the Donner Cut, she even throws herself out of a Daily Planet window on purpose.

There’s also a cat burglar falling down a skyscraper, Air Force One about to crash, and Lex Luthor hanging from a high shelf in his library, and at the moment, the Phantom Zoners are gently drifting down through the upper atmosphere. In the end, it’s all about altitude.

And here we are at scenic Niagara Falls, for a will-they-won’t-they romantic comedy scene featuring Lois and Clark going undercover as newlyweds at the Honeymoon Haven Hotel. They’re planning an exposé on the honeymoon racket, which as far as I can tell involves the fairly ordinary practice of vacation resorts charging a lot of money for things. It’s unclear where this investigation would go, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s not really part of the plot. The point of this Niagara Falls sequence is to bring Lois and Clark together in a romantic location, to establish that it’s okay for them to have premarital sex later on in the film.

Niagara Falls is striking, although the romantic ambience is undercut a bit by the fact that Lois and Clark are practically the only young couple there. We see lots of other thrillseekers gazing at the waterfall, but they’re mostly old people and families with children. There’s one young couple that walks by in order to trigger Clark to suggest that he hold Lois’ hand, but beyond that, I don’t think the background players are living up to the Honeymoon Haven hype.

Lois and Clark engage in some light dialogue, which has a different tone than their previous scenes. This isn’t screwball comedy at the moment — Lois isn’t talking fast, and running rings around Clark, as she was in the honeymoon suite. This is just regular early-stage romantic comedy banter, with Lois predicting that the happy couples who they’re pretending are nearby will head straight to their make-believe divorce lawyers.

But the point of the scene is that this is the moment when Lois starts to figure out that Clark is Superman, taking the place of the opening Daily Planet sequence that was originally filmed by Richard Donner. The new director, Richard Lester, replaced that with the Eiffel Tower sequence, and moved this crucial plot point to the bank of Niagara Falls.

And for the first time so far, I think Lester’s scene is better than what’s in the Donner/Mankiewicz script. Clark’s glasses fog up in the mist from the waterfall, and Lois cleans them for him — which means she gets a close look at his face without glasses, presumably for the first time.

The music cue then does a lot of the work: a little bell faintly chimes, indicating a new idea in Lois’ head, and there’s a gentle “up up and away” Fanfare phrase played on the flute, as she wonders if she really saw what she thinks that she did. It’s a clever moment, because they’ve managed to do the recognition plot point in a way that’s specific to the Niagara Falls setting.

Then they have some more romcom dialogue, which I might as well quote as an example:

Clark:  Here you are, standing in front of one of nature’s most awesome spectacles, and you’re thinking about food! I mean, aren’t you impressed?

Lois:  Clark, once a girl’s seen Superman in action, Niagara Falls kind of leaves you cold. You know what I mean?

Clark:  Him again, huh?

Lois:  Oh, I’m sorry. I have a one-track mind, don’t I? Well, my one-track mind’s telling me that I’m hungry.

Clark:  Hot dog?

Lois:  Hot dog.

Clark:  Hot dog.

(He turns to walk towards the hot dog stand, but she calls out:)

Lois:  Oh, could I have some orange juice?

Both, in unison:  Freshly squeezed?

Clark:  I know, okay…

So it’s not Shakespeare, obviously, but it’s cute banter, and it establishes that they have a close relationship, with shared history and private jokes.

While Clark is on line for hot dogs, we meet the rescuee: a dumb kid playing on the railing, directly above the whirling cauldron of watery doom. He’s calling out “Hey, mom! Look!” but his ignorant mother doesn’t look, which just goes to show that Canada is not sending their best.

So the kid topples, and Lois is first on the scene, screaming, “Oh, my god! Help! Help! Somebody help!” by which point obviously the child has hit the water and died ages ago, except it’s a movie so he actually experiences 28 seconds of free fall before getting caught by a nearby superhero, who flies him back up to his negligent parents and he’s fine.

The outline for this scene is the same in Tom Mankiewicz’s version, but the scene is seriously underdeveloped. There’s only snatch of dialogue where Lois mentions Superman and then tells Clark that she’s hungry, and that’s it; no further discussion.

In Mankiewicz’s scene, instead of a kid playing on the railing, the problem is a kid and a dog who are out fishing in a rowboat up the river, who get carried away by the current and head towards the falls. It’s kind of a silly threat, actually, because you have to wonder why a kid would think it’s okay to fish in a little inlet just upriver from the biggest waterfall in North America.

The entire rescue is scripted in icy silence; there’s just a description of the action shots with no dialogue. There’s the line “One ride to a customer” when Superman brings the kid back to terra firma, which is retained in the filmed scene, and then a line for Lois realizing that Clark wasn’t around, and that is it.

Now, obviously, Donner and Mankiewicz would have expanded on the scene, once they turned their attention to the Niagara Falls shoot. They were constantly working over the script as they prepared for shooting, and every other Donner sequence is filled with motormouth characters expressing their feelings, so I’m sure this would have been filled out some more. But the fact is that the finished Lester scene is a lot more lively, and the threat is more credible, than what I see in the older script.

And most importantly, Margot Kidder is having fun today. She was clearly miserable during the orange juice scene back at the office, and only a little bit lighter in the honeymoon suite, but here — especially in this moment, when she’s figured out that Clark is Superman — you can tell that she’s enjoying herself again.

She gets some more snappy dialogue here, and she delivers it with that playful tone that I like so much from the Donner material: “Superman was here, and you weren’t, as usual. So whattya got to say about that?” They’re giving Lois fun remarks today, and a plot point that allows her to be smart, which she clearly appreciates.

If you ever need to know how you’re supposed to feel in one of these Superman movies, then you look to Lois. When she’s happy and talkative, it’s a funny scene; when she’s scared, it’s an exciting action sequence. And here, for the first time in the theatrical cut, Lois smiles, and the world smiles with her.

Tomorrow:
Kal-El completes his student evaluation form in
2.17: The Curriculum


Footnotes:

Lois spends a lot of the scene taking pictures with her Polaroid One-Step camera, the first of the movie’s many product placement moments. I don’t know if young people even remember what Polaroid cameras are, but in the late 70s and early 80s, they were very popular and instantly recognizable. A lot of the blocking in this scene is built around Lois taking pictures of mostly the hot dog stand, which gets so much attention that it makes me wonder if the Salkinds also made a deal with Big Hot Dog.

This scene also includes a kid in a Grease T-shirt, which you can see when the crowd gathers as Superman drops off his passenger. Grease happened to be the only 1978 movie that made more money than Superman did, $160 million to Superman’s $134 million.

Tomorrow:
Kal-El completes his student evaluation form in
2.17: The Curriculum

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— Danny Horn

16 thoughts on “Superman II 2.16: The Fall of Man

  1. I remember several shots of the Maid of the Mist boat, too, that made me wonder if part of the deal for filming at Niagra included advertising the excursion boat.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. If you were the kid, would you have jumped off again to get rescued again by Supes?
    Anyhoo, the kid was played by Hadley Kay, who appeared in MEATBALLS and has done voice acting. I knew him best in the first two CARE BEARS Movies: the poor friendless, soon-to-be-corrupted Nicholas in the first one and the evil, soon-to-be-redeemed Dark Heart in the second.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Having just seen both cuts back to back I like this plot point being delayed. The Paris action sequence gives us a big opener with real Superman action (in mid-’81 we’d been waiting over two years for this), which leads to the villains and their villainy, then we start to focus into the more personal story here with Lois and Clark, with another quick Superman-springs-into-action scene with the kid. When we get to Lois’s jump-in-the-river gambit (I know I’m jumping ahead, but not too far) it’s delightful and unexpected to see Superman dial back his powers and make a surreptitious save. We’ve gone from a wide action canvas down to one-on-one interaction.

    Incidentally, I’ve always though this is a great location. It puts the strongest man on Earth next to one of nature’s most powerful displays.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. The sneak-save also shows that Superman can think on his feet (or his cape) quickly enough to outsmart Lois, which is important. Big Smart Dumb Guy can be fun for a while, but Superman, while never marketed for his brains, was never sold as a moron, either. If he was Lois would have cracked him like an egg before now.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I agree with Ricardo, this was a great setting for this part of the film.

    Lois and Clark checked into the Macguffin Suite, built to the demanding specs of frequent scenery enjoyer Alfred Hitchcock. Featuring Checkov’s Fireplace.

    Agree that this is a better reveal spot for Lois. Her insight comes out of the natural flow of the plot. Or, the spray of the banter on the foamy cliffs, or whatever.

    I like the contrast between Lois’s snappy vibrant fun-80’s colorful outfit, and Clark’s “nothing to see here, folks” gray-and-brown 70’s-civilian look.

    Lois with the hot dog stand and Jimmy with Hoover Dam were competing for the Planet’s photo contest. This month’s theme: Places Most People Just Don’t Notice Much.

    This scene was a totally satisfying bit of superheroing!*

    * And product placement

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Yeah, if it weren’t for the Magic Gravity of movies, a lot more people would go splat a lot faster. The fairly simple physics of terminal velocity of a falling object in Earth’s gravity are so inconvenient to dramatics.

    My favorite example of this is actually the anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, in which the pro and an-tagonists are supposedly fighting/yelling at each other while they plunge downward through a burning mansion.

    This scene lasts something like FIVE full minutes. While they just keep falling, never hitting bottom (or catching themselves on burning timbers or getting beaned by debris, for that matter.) The only way that would be possible is if the mansion was actually the Tower of Babel, or its basements went clear to the Earth’s core.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My favourite example is from Arlo Guthrie’s monologue in The MotorCycle Song. After he accidentally drives off the cliff on his bike, he says:

      “I knew I didn’t have long to live in this world
      And in my last remaining seconds in the world
      I knew it was my obligation to write one last farewell song to the world

      Took out a piece of paper
      I pulled out a pen
      And it didn’t write
      I had to put another ink cartridge in it
      I sat back and I thought a while”

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Fridge logic here I know, but I just realized. Lois snapped her Polaroid pics and stuffed them in her purse without examining them all, right? I don’t remember the scene exactly there. Suppose she does.

    Back in the hotel suite’s living room, while she wanders around, Clark could notice something. With his X-Ray Vision into her purse. One of her snapshots is incriminating! It shows him flying up behind the hot dog stand, while still dressed as Clark. Too quick a blur for the eye, but not for the camera.

    Then he sneaks the pic out of her purse and into the fireplace, to melt it into ashes. This could be the reason he has his hand in the flames. Much to her worry, when she turns around! So the attempt to hide what she shouldn’t have seen but not noticed with the camera, is what causes her to see what she shouldn’t see in person. No need for a Pratfall of Steel.

    They call me the script doctor. They also say I’m a quack.

    Liked by 3 people

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