“Hmm, a primitive sort of lifeform,” Ursa muses, as she assesses the rattlesnake. Ursa’s just arrived on the planet, and she doesn’t know that you’re not supposed to pick up unfamiliar lifeforms. That snake probably had other things on its schedule for today.
Annoyed by the interruption, the snake strikes, burying its fangs in Ursa’s supposedly impenetrable skin. Wincing, she throws the reptile to the ground, and then sets it aflame with her magical heat vision.
“Did you see that?” she calls to her friends. “Did you see what I did? I have powers beyond reason here!”
Yeah, it’s called white privilege. A lot of us have it, unfortunately.
I mean, how else would you interpret the Kryptonians’ arrival on Earth, except as a metaphor about colonialism? Three rich white people with fancy accents arrive somewhere that they’ve never seen before and know nothing about, and instantly decide that they own it.
The colonizers have better technology than the current occupants, which is how it always works. All we have are guns and nuclear warheads; they have heat vision and power breath. They’re also impervious to harm, thanks to their molecular density which protects them from anything, except apparently snakes.
They consider themselves better than us, and they’re not entirely wrong, if your judgment is based entirely on who has magic space powers. So now they’re going to take control, as per white people down through the ages. The only thing they don’t have is a flag to stick in the ground.
So their first scene with residents of the planet Earth is a meeting between the colonizers and the soon-to-be-colonized, and the weird thing about the scene is that we’re actually expected to identify with the evil white people.
The two representatives of humanity making first contact are a sheriff and a deputy from East Houston, Idaho, and the beginning of the scene sets up how we’re supposed to feel about them.
Technically, the comedy trope of the grouchy sheriff and his ding-dong deputy is usually set in the South, but the filmmakers have decided to set this sequence in Idaho, which is in the Northwest. So these two aren’t talking in Southern accents, but they’ve got a vaguely lower-class rural accent and they’re playing twangy country music on the radio, which gives the scene that Southern-sheriff comedy vibe.
When they approach the line of extra-terrestrials blockading the dirt road, the deputy says, “From the look of ’em, I’d bet ten dollars they’re from Los Ange-lees,” which is the key to us understanding the scene that we’re in: a collision between fancy people and unsophisticated hicks.
The other important thing that the scene establishes right away is that the sheriff and the deputy don’t like each other very much. When they enter the scene, they’re in the middle of a frustrating conversation. The sheriff is trying to explain something simple to the deputy, who’s acting like a ding-dong, and the dialogue ends with the deputy contradicting himself, and the sheriff doing a slow-burn.
This is important because it signals to the audience that we’re not supposed to like these characters, either. When a writer wants the audience to like a newly-introduced character, there are three steps: make a friend, make a joke, and make a plot point happen. Having a friend establishes that the character has value in the narrative, and we’re naturally drawn toward characters that other characters like.
But if the sheriff is just as irritated by this ding-dong as we are, then we don’t assign any value to him. Then when they’re facing three fashionistas from outer space, the sheriff hands the deputy a shotgun, and opts to sit in the car while Dwayne deals with the potential hazards. This signals to us that the deputy is expendable, and we take that cue.
So all of these things add up to an invitation to identify with the villains. The cops are rural, aka lower-class. The audience is mainly middle-class, so we feel slightly superior to the cops, imagining that we’re smarter and more powerful, and therefore it’s comical to watch the deputy struggle to comprehend what’s suddenly going on in his life.
The deputy doesn’t know that these three are powerful supercriminals from another planet, but we do, which means that we have more in common with the villains than the police. So we end up agreeing with the villains that it would be amusing to toy with these lower-class, foolish weaklings.
This dynamic of the strong comically dominating the weak allows the film to pull some sleight of hand on us, introducing a new superpower that we haven’t seen before.
The deputy brandishes his shotgun, and Zod casually uses his heat vision to turn the gun red hot — a power that we’re familiar with. But then Zod apparently uses some kind of telekinesis, floating the gun through the air to his hand.
We’ve never seen Superman do that — in fact, according to the established lore, he can’t do that. This is just the first of many extra superpowers that Richard Lester creates in this film, and honestly I’m not sure that he’s even aware that it’s new. While making the first movie, Dick Donner felt some urgency around sticking to the comic books as a source of truth, but I get the sense that Lester doesn’t really know the rules and doesn’t really care. We’ll see more of this, coming up.
But in this scene, the audience doesn’t really notice the introduction of a new power, because it’s part of the humiliation of the ding-dong deputy, which we’ve already agreed to.
After that trick, the conversation is basically over, and the rest of the scene is just showing the privileged people trying out some of their powers. Zod shoots himself in the chest, and throws the gun on the ground. Then Non picks up the car in order to get the gun, revealing the cowardly deputy who’s trying to hide.
The puny humans are basically just punching bags at this point. The deputy is discovered, and shrinks further into the background. The sheriff is intimidated by Zod’s gaze, and then Non drops the car, knocking the sheriff around like a ragdoll.
The humans just kind of stop being important, and the end of the scene is just Non playing around with Earth stuff. This is what happens in the colonial narrative: the people who live on this land are easily overpowered, and after a while, they don’t matter anymore. The main characters are the colonizers, and the conquered become background extras.
The problem with the colonial narrative, as far as the structure of this movie is concerned, is that the first three space invaders to land on a planet are usually the vanguard of an entire civilization that plans to move in as soon as they subjugate the population and install some amenities. But in this case, there’s no civilization backing these three, and that means that plotwise, we’re going to hit a wall about half an hour from now that the story won’t really be able to recover from.
Still, it’s fun to push hicks around, so stay tuned for a lot more of that.
George Lucas shows us how to make a sequel in
2.22: What Really Matters
There are a couple of shots in this sequence that were filmed in a completely different location, which creates a visual continuity error. Most of the scene was filmed in a fairly open space with some scraggly trees along the road, but there are two long shots — when the sheriff sticks his head out the window to tell the trio to get off the road, and when the deputy gets out of the car — where there’s suddenly a lot of greenery, as seen in the screenshot below.
Also, the placement of the gun changes between the shot of the gun landing, and the shot of Non picking up the car.
The trio landing in East Houston, Idaho doesn’t make a lot of sense. (We know that’s the location, because it’s printed on the side of the police car.) The joke is that the first people that the villains met were astronauts, so they think the name of the planet is Houston. And then I guess the idea is that they landed here, because they thought that this place was called Houston. But there’s not really any way for them to know the name of this town, or why they would be drawn here instead of the more populous place called Houston.
George Lucas shows us how to make a sequel in
2.22: What Really Matters
— Danny Horn