Superman II 2.21: First Contact

“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.

Tomorrow:
George Lucas shows us how to make a sequel in
2.22: What Really Matters


Footnotes:

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.

Tomorrow:
George Lucas shows us how to make a sequel in
2.22: What Really Matters

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

35 thoughts on “Superman II 2.21: First Contact

  1. “that Southern-sheriff comedy vibe”

    Which would have been reinforced for an audience at the time by actor Clifton James’ role as the redneck sheriff in the James Bond movie LIVE AND LET DIE, which has its own stupefyingly bizarre racial politics.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve always assumed that Clifton James’s presence here – playing essentially the same role he played in those two James Bond movies directed by Guy Hamilton – was leftover from when Guy Hamilton was attached to direct Superman I & II.

      I’ve never heard anyone say that on the record, but it sure seems likely.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. What has bugged me about the Phantom Zone villains is there complete unfamiliarity with other planets and species. But all evidence so far is that Krypton is so advanced that they residents are aware of other planets and perhaps have visited them. Jor-El/bald Krypton know the poem “Trees” but Ursa doesn’t know what snakes are?

    MAN OF STEEL, to its credit, at least treated Zod and his henchmen as actual soldiers, members of an advanced military. Stamp’s Zod doesn’t behave like a general. Honestly, it would make more sense if Zod was like Scar to Jor-El’s Mustafa and is effectively royalty, while Non and Ursa and the Duke and Duchess of whatever.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I can see Jor-El researching Earth specifically since he was planning to pack his infant pride and joy off there and needed to load the learning bed, whereas Zod and his army of two were cultural chauvinists who only cared about Earth because they happened to land on its moon after escaping the Phantom Zone, and lo and behold, the guy who banished them’s progeny is there! What luck!

      Zod, as you say, is much more “disaffected sociopathic noble younger son” and Ursa and Non his followers; I see his General status as “this was supposed to be a ceremonial position, dude.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think there are scenes that Lester filmed just to make his directing credit quota and I really feel the snake scene is one of those.
    The need to reach the magical percentage may also explain the slapstick padding, though physical humor seems to be a Lester hallmark.
    The continuity problems were possibly due to Lester’s need to film quickly and cheaply. He may have just grabbed some longshots while filming by the water–hence more vegetation.
    But to Stephen’s point about how familiar the people of Krypton were with Earth, it may be that academics knew more than the general populace. The villains find their powers totally unexpected. Joe-El knew that his son would be virtually invulnerable and Lara said he would defy gravity. The Council on Krypton discounted Joe-El’s scientific predictions. Perhaps a respect for scientific knowledge was not common.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. It’s more interesting for the overall narrative for them to continue to learn their powers in a small town with minimal effective resistance. That levels them up to be ready to face Superman. It also withholds the pleasure of the fight in Metropolis, which wouldn’t be as interesting if they had first rampaged through another big city like Houston.

    A friend of mine says he likes the sheriff and deputy, but I never did. I’m more than happy to see them humiliated by the villains. As ever, it brings me such joy to watch the PZ villains do their thing and continue to learn about Earth and their powers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is another good example of downbeats, as acilius outlined in the last post. It’s more fun (albeit creepy once you realize, as Danny says, that you’re putting yourself on the side of the colonizers) if they show up with nothing to declare but their arrogance and take it from there.

      Like

    2. There’s nothing to like about the deputy, who is cowardly and incompetent, or the sheriff, who is mean and lazy and also cowardly. It’s not that they’re uneducated or lower-class that makes us feel superior to them. There are plenty of working-class characters in fiction that we have no trouble respecting; Jonathan Kent is an obvious example that comes to mind.

      The reason for the humor in the portrayal of the sheriff and his deputy is that Lester is apparently fixated on making farcical comedy even when it’s totally dissonant with the fact that Donner just had the trio kill hapless astronauts for sport; the humor in their portrayal is not a signal to the audience that they don’t matter or we shouldn’t like them — but their lack of qualifications to serve and protect the public certainly is such a signal.

      Like

  5. I always remembered the PZ villians landing in TX en route to Houston, after getting its location offscreen. I also remember Ursula instinctively recoiling from the rattlesnakey, not realizing she was now invulnerable on Planet Houston and was unharmed.🤔

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s how I always saw her reaction too. Like when you bump into something or are hit by something and expect it to hurt so you wince or swear, but then it doesn’t actually hurt.

      Either that or the yellow sun hadn’t yet powered them up to full invulnerability.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I find the villains boring. I love a good villain, but these have nothing going on but jerkiness. A mad scientist will have an elaborate plan, the more cockamamie and verbosely-explained the better. A monster may show up and be a jerk, but there’s usually more to it — Frankenstein’s monster has a bad brain, The Creature From the Black Lagoon is trying to date above his level — that gives it an extra frisson.

    These villains just show up and be jerks. When Tarkin and Vader want to show strength they blow up a planet. When Zod and co want to show strength they rough up some bumpkins. There’s no comparison.

    Re: telekinesis: Since the expected superpowers were already well-trod in the first one, I think the telekinesis is simply an attempt to show something new.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think Leston didn’t know or care what their powers were spssd to be, since he invented new ones in the next two movies. Wait, doesn’t Superman later claim to use the mirror image power as a childhood game? 🤔

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Used to place this game at school. Never was very good at it.” – Superman during the Fortress scene

        That line has always puzzled me. I have a hard time thinking of any kids’ games that involve making multiple holographic images of yourself to trick people.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ll try for a No-Prize (oops, wrong company). At the Smallville County Fair, among the other attractions there was a Hall of Mirrors. Clark and his friends would play inside, trying to find the real person rather than one of their reflections. How’s that handwaving?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Perhaps it wasn’t a children’s game at all. Maybe he made duplicates to sit in class while he played hooky. The game is fooling people to think you are where you are not.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. For me, it doesn’t matter if they’re fighting bumpkins or if they have some master plan, I just find them compelling to watch. I’m never bored when they’re on screen, even when they’re not facing any meaningful opposition.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Still remember that as a kid in the theater, I liked the lake arrival scene, but HATED this Dukes of Hazzard segment. (Not a fan of that show.)

    “I get the sense that Lester doesn’t really know the rules and doesn’t really care.”
    REALLY hate that about this movie. It’s supposed to be that comic book superheroes and villians have certain powers, which must come from the origin story. Then the question is what do they do with them.

    First movie was the origin story, so there are the rules. This movie is so inconsistent about that. Too many places for it be just a little mistake. Lester’s writing room proved they don’t care.

    East Houston – maybe intended to give observant audience members a laugh, or set up a line that got cut.

    No problem with the villians’ ignorance, though. Ursa was the kind of gal who cut class a lot, don’t you think? While Baby El’s pod with cruise control got NPR playing, all the Phantom Zone crooks had were their endless power-mad rantings about being trapped.

    I’m from Los Angeles, but it’s a stormy rainy 50 degrees with high winds today. My neighbors and I will need to disappoint each other, by wearing something warmer than our usual space fashion tunics. Got to get out the sweater and fleece jacket. Might not need to even iron the space fashion tunics until spring arrives. Heat vision would be handy for that.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes, the white privilege/colonial metaphor works perfectly. But I’m very curious, and look forward to seeing your concept of the plot wall in half an hour caused by the fact that no civilization is backing them. I thought when it first came out, and continued to think on my recent re-viewing, that the radical inequality of powers between the Kryptonians and the Earth people made it all terrifying and zero percent comic. Our lives would all be thrown into a permanent state of uncertainty and tension if there were just three people of badwill with powers like this (including telekinesis, phooey, that one you really can’t justify by the red sun thing) living among us. As opposed to our present state of tranquil happiness, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It does seem that the details of other planets would have been fairly arcane on Krypton; since a Kryptonian would be a super being on a planet with a ‘yellow’ sun, why wouldn’t someone like Zod or his cohorts want to go there and lord it over the puny denizens?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s basically part of a Superman-related question mark that floats around in my mind where I keep the rest of the Superman stuff. Krypton is supposed to be technologically advanced. Did Kryptonians routinely travel in space? Jor-El had very recent Earth knowledge available to load into his baby Superman’s spaceship. Yet the Kryptonians don’t seem to be all that interested in sending their physical selves out for interstellar expeditions. Does that mean they didn’t bother with it or that Jor-El was the only one who figured out how to do it before the planet came to an end?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Or possibly a Federation-style ‘Prime Directive’ that didn’t allow them to do that? Krypton seems to have had lots of rules.
        Not that it would have stopped Zod & them from going.

        Like

      2. I think that was answered in part by John Byrne’s Man of Steel Superman in the post-Crisis 1980’s, who portayed Kryptonians as being cold and unemotional isolationists, to the point of never meeting each other in person. I remember the Phantom Zone criminals eventually showed up and Superman executed them for their crimes, but I forgot the details.

        Like

  10. I think – if they still wanted verisimilitude – this is where you bring Luther in. As world overloads they don’t know how any of the system works and with only 3 of them. They can’t instantly build their own system and they don’t know about water. No way they are going to intuit 3 balancing branches of government with a bicameral legislature. If they are so limited in their focus how do they even know that nation states are a thing? If you literally come in with no background knowledge you can kill a lot of people, but you can’t take over without building an organization and that takes time.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Did you know that every part of the world was originally inhabited by native peoples that were displaced by colonizers, including Africa and Asia? If you want to publicly self-flagellate, you should do so on account of being human, not white.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s