Three lunatics have come from beyond the stars to exert their will on the indigenous population, and I think it’s fair to say that they’re still getting the hang of it.
They come from Krypton, this trio of voracious demons, a planet where everybody stands around under a giant ice bubble wearing spectacular gowns and arguing about the pronouncements of the Science Council. I imagine that the first thing the conquerors are looking for is the nearest depository of glowing crystals, to snap them all in half and then stand around looking smug.
Earth has come as something of a surprise to the vanquishers; the first thing that General Zod noticed on planetfall was the curious existence of bodies of water, just lying around on the ground being wet. So that’s going to be a problem, vanquishing-wise. If you plan to rule the Earth and you’re unfamiliar with the concept of water, there is a fairly steep onboarding process ahead of you.
And so, as they begin their reign of terror by taking command of a diner in Idaho, the big question is: How dangerous can three people be?
This question of what to do, as a culture, with a single unstoppable individual has been haunting Superman media for decades. In Superman II, the trio’s reign of destruction expresses a concern about the damage that a person with Superman-level powers could wreak on the world, if that power isn’t grounded in the values of Smallville, Kansas. And clearly that point is not settled to anyone’s satisfaction, because it comes up again in Superman III, with the battle between “good” Superman and “evil” Superman, and it even shows up to some degree in Superman IV, with Nuclear Man as another surrogate “evil twin”.
That question didn’t go away, and thirty years later, the danger of superheroes slipping out of societal control was raised in two different movies released only two months apart in 2016: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in March, and Captain America: Civil War in May. Clearly, this is an issue that still fascinates and worries us all.
But how much damage can one superpowerful person do? Someone could be the strongest individual that the world has ever seen, but the world is big, and in 1981, there were more than 4 billion people available to rule, spread out all over the place. Is it actually feasible that the entire world could be taken over by three individuals, especially if they come from space and have no direct connection with any political or economic structure?
It’s a tough plot point to get across, and as is often the case with Superman II, we have two different approaches to compare and contrast. Dick Donner didn’t have the chance to film his version of the alien takeover, but we’ve got Tom Mankiewicz’s shooting script, which outlines how they were planning to get this done. So today, I want to look at Mankiewicz’s original version of the sequence, and figure out whether it would have worked or not.
In the script, at this point, Lois has already discovered Superman’s real identity, and they’ve had time to get settled in for a romantic evening at the Fortress of Solitude. Then the Kryptonians land on Earth and have a confrontation with some representatives of Texas law enforcement, which goes pretty much the same way as the theatrical version. There’s another sequence of Arctic smooching, and then this…
EXT. WASHINGTON MONUMENT – DAY
The cruel face of Zod fills the screen. His voice booms out with a deep, penetrating quality.
I am General Zod!
Listen to me, people of the Earth!
CAMERA PULLS BACK: Zod is perched on top of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. He stands erect on the pointed apex of the tall, needle-like edifice, his voice echoing across the landscape as terrified TOURISTS below scream, run away in panic.
Today I bring a New Order to your planet!
One which shall last until the end of time!
Each of you…
INT./EXT. LINCOLN MEMORIAL – DAY
PEOPLE stand petrified inside and out of the Lincoln Memorial and reflecting pool beyond as ZOD continues.
… each man, each woman, each child —
all will march proudly together in this New Order!
EXT. JEFFERSON MEMORIAL – DAY
CAMERA LOOKS THROUGH the Jefferson Memorial, across the Potomac River.
Your lands, your homes, your possessions,
your very lives…
EXT. WASHINGTON MONUMENT – ANGLE LOOKING DOWN
CAMERA LOOKS DOWN PAST ZOD. Police cars with flashing lights begin to converge in the distance.
All of this and more
you will gladly give to me!
And then we see some of Ursa and Non’s vacation photos, as they travel around the world and burn stuff up.
There’s a shot of the Kremlin in flames, Japanese people fleeing through the streets of Tokyo, the Eiffel Tower melting under the heat shooting out of Non’s eyes. Then Ursa comes to Mount Rushmore, which she defaces with her heat vision, turning the sculpture into a monument to the three Kryptonian captors. They’re counting on the heat vision to do most of the heavy lifting here.
Through all of this, Zod continues his rant:
There is no longer a need for separate nations
in this world, no need for petty squabbles
between one group and another…
Boom, bang, crash…
There is now one law, one order, one ruler
who alone will determine your collective destiny!
One force before which all of you
shall kneel forever!
Then some police arrive at the base of the Washington Monument, and start shouting at Zod through bullhorns. He’s unimpressed, and topples the monument, shouting that from this day forward there is only Zod!
And then back to Lois and Superman making out in the Fortress.
So that’s one approach: a quick trip around the world, to incinerate some popular tourist attractions. I’m not sure how the terrible trio managed to pick up a Zagat guide on their incoming flight to help them identify the hotspots, but maybe they just flew around until they found something eye-catching.
Both the original script and the finished movie are headed to the same place, after this sequence: a battle to take the White House and occupy the Oval Office, as the ultimate demonstration of their power over the world. But this scripted version does it as the culmination of an international bad-will tour, to show that they can spread their malign influence around the world.
Now, I have to say, I think the dialogue is compelling. In the theatrical cut, Zod never lays out any kind of plan for Earth; he just starts beating up on it. Here, the lines about the New Order, about marching together and working on Zod’s behalf, are legitimately chilling. Saying that we don’t need any borders anymore, because we’re all under the rule of a dude who doesn’t care what we call ourselves, has some promise as a scary theme to explore.
That being said, I think it’s a little thin. Yes, they can fly around the world and burn some things down, but showing Ursa destroying Mount Rushmore and Non melting the Eiffel Tower reinforces that there’s really just three people trying to establish dominion over the planet, and the picture-postcard nature of the terrorists’ targets cheapens things a bit.
There’s also the problem that everyone on Krypton apparently speaks English, so Zod’s message is a little lost on the people of Moscow, Tokyo and Paris. That nitpick is probably just “fridge logic” — something that you think of once you’re at home opening the fridge, but that didn’t occur to you at the time, because you were swept up in the action of the movie. But it’s just another piece of the problem with the film’s assertion that these three superfreaks could subjugate the entire world, just by yelling and knocking some things over.
I think to really have power as the trio’s first targets, it would have to be something like the United Nations or the Pentagon — a symbol of political, military or economic strength, rather than a pretty building. The most significant target here is the Kremlin, but other than that, it’s all show. They’re not taking control of significant natural resources or supply lines; they’re just ruining some tourists’ day.
The other problem with this version is that Lois and Superman are having sex, while all this is going on. In the script, they hit the sheets before Superman gives up his powers, so all of this mess is happening around the world while he’s still on the clock.
You can imagine that Superman wouldn’t be able to tell that there’s trouble in East Houston, Idaho, but if there are terrified people screaming in Washington D.C., Moscow, Tokyo, Paris and wherever Mount Rushmore is, you’d think that his spidey-sense would be tingling like crazy, even if he has very good reason for being distracted. I think it would feel weird for the audience, to see such full-scale worldwide chaos, intercut with private romance time.
So in the Richard Lester version, they went in the opposite direction for the start of the Kryptonian reign of terror: from scenes of global souvenir shop meltdowns to the three villains focusing their energy on a single American small town. I’m not sure that version is compelling either, but let’s come back tomorrow and we’ll take a close look at it.
2.27: Think Globally, Kill Locally
So I’m very aware that this moment — when Russian forces are currently invading Ukraine, which is fighting back so bravely — is a weird time for me to be writing jokey posts about invasions and world domination. This just happens to be where we are in the movie, as part of my entirely frivolous project. I hope that this doesn’t come off as making light of the real-world events, which are so much more important and heartbreaking and terrifying for the world. When I’m not thinking about silly superhero movies, my thoughts are with the incredibly courageous people in Ukraine, and all of the people who are hurt and displaced.
2.27: Think Globally, Kill Locally
— Danny Horn