They could not have been more clear about this.
“Once exposed to these rays,” Lara said, “all your great powers on Earth will disappear forever.” He said he was okay with that. “But consider,” she said, “once it is done, there is no return.” He did it anyway.
And now here he is at customer service, with his receipt for one slightly used mortality, and he’s asking to speak to the manager. He’s got a green crystal powered by pure narrativium, which comes with an “all his great powers”-back guarantee.
So now I don’t know who to trust. What else did the crystal machine lie to him about? Next, you’re going to tell me that you’ve seen a poem lovely as a tree.
So we’ve decided to hike all the way back to the North Pole, because we saw a really mean episode of The West Wing.
In an emergency broadcast, the President of the United States announced on behalf of basically everybody that he’s handing over the keys to a very angry man wearing a very shiny suit. But then he interrupted his own concession speech to scream, “Superman, can you hear me? Superman, wh—” and General Zod grabbed the mic, to issue a personal challenge to a person who doesn’t exist anymore.
So it’s a good thing the waitress turned on the TV, just in time to deliver this critical information to the one person who needs to hear it. This must be one of those Gilligan brand TVs, with lead character detection.
Now, while we’re crossing through Norway on foot and en route, we should take a moment to figure out who this new character is.
This is someone that we haven’t seen before, an unsuccessful composite of two characters who hasn’t properly integrated his personas yet. This isn’t Clark Kent — the guy with the slicked-down hair, the eyeglasses, the stammer and the full-time job. But it also isn’t Superman, the indestructible guy in the cape who rescues cats for a living.
He’s not wearing Clark’s suit, or Superman’s tights. He’s also not adequately dressed for a one-man hike through the polar wastes, but we can leave that aside for now.
The important thing is to ask why this new creation — for the sake of discussion, I’ll call him Hot Clark — has been such a failure. I was rough on him in the previous post for harassing a guy who had already stopped fighting with him two punches ago, but it’s not surprising that Hot Clark doesn’t know how to behave. If he was regular Clark, he would have stammered and touched his glasses, and then he would have sat down meekly at a table, problem solved. If he was Superman, it wouldn’t have come up in the first place. Hot Clark is the third option, and he’s not working out.
The only way to describe him is to talk about the things that he’s not. He’s not cowardly and self-effacing like Clark was, but he’s not strong and resilient like Superman was. He doesn’t have any attributes that we know of; he doesn’t even know what he wants to order at the diner. We can only consider him a person by process of elimination.
Back in the diner, Lois said, “I want the man I fell in love with,” and Hot Clark said, “I know that, Lois. I wish he were here.” The common interpretation of that moment is that Lois fell in love with Superman, and this isn’t Superman.
I think it’s more accurate to say that Lois fell in love with someone who had two personalities — Superman and Clark. They were kept separate from each other, but it’s the interplay between those two personas that she loves. Clark knows her, and spends a lot of time with her. She’s not sexually attracted to him, but he’s a very important person in her day-to-day life. Superman is the one that she recognizes as attractive, but he hardly knows her, outside of one date and a couple of rescues.
So when she admits that she loves him, it’s because she’s discovered that he is Superman and Clark, not just one or the other. This is a radical new interpretation that I just thought of on the spot.
So this is the ill-fated Hot Clark who reaches the Fortress, this unsatisfying melange who can’t do anything right. He goes and stands on the platform, and gives the least convincing speech of all time.
Kal-El: Father? Mother? Boy, I really wish you could hear me. Cause I need you. You see, I — I, uh — I failed. FATHER!
And then — logic be damned — he notices the magical green glowy crystal that Lois dropped on the floor a couple scenes ago, and he goes and picks it up, and everything’s fine.
It’s not a very satisfying way to end this storyline — Hot Clark picks up the green crystal and looks at it for a few seconds, and then there’s a transition to a different scene, and later on, Superman arrives in full regalia at the dramatically appropriate moment.
Now, in the competition between the Donner Cut and the theatrical cut, there’s a lot of room for disagreement. Some people prefer Lois throwing herself into the river instead of jumping out the window, and it’s a judgment call between Lois pulling a gun on Clark vs Clark falling into the fire.
But this is the one moment in the Donner Cut that is just objectively better than the theatrical version. This scene as filmed by Richard Donner involves the artificially intelligent ghost of Jor-El appearing once more to his defeated son, giving up the last shreds of his existence in order to heal Superman and fix the world.
It starts with the apology.
Kal-El: Father? If you can hear me… I failed. I failed you, I failed myself, and… all humanity. I’ve traded my birthright for a life of submission, in a world that’s now ruled by your enemies. There’s nobody left to help them, now… the people of the world… not since I… FATHER!
Hearing no answer, he turns to walk away… and that’s when the green crystal starts to glow. He picks it up, and inserts it into the remaining shard of the crystal control center.
There’s a closeup, showcasing his battered and bruised appearance.
And in a blast of radiant light, the outline of a face appears as a mask…
… and resolves itself into a ghostly image of Jor-El.
Jor-El: Listen carefully, my son, for we shall never speak again. If you hear me now, then you have made use of the only means left to you — the crystal source through which our communications begun.
Jor-El: The circle is now complete. You have made a dreadful mistake, Kal-El. You did this of your own free will, in spite of all I could say to dissuade you.
Kal-El: I, uh…
Jor-El: Now you’ve returned to me for one last chance to redeem yourself. This, too, finally I have anticipated, my son. Look at me, Kal-El. Once before, when you were small, I died, while giving you a chance for life. And now, even though it will exhaust the final energy left within me…
Kal-El: Father, no…
Jor-El: Look at me, Kal-El. The Kryptonian prophecy will be at last fulfilled: the son becomes the father, the father becomes the son. Farewell forever, Kal-El. Remember me, my son.
Then there’s some optical effects as the mask rushes by…
and Jor-El appears. He reaches out to touch Kal-El’s shoulder.
Jor-El: My son…
Kal-El shakes as white energy moves from Jor-El into his son. This increases until there’s a blinding flash…
… and we see Kal-El, alone, lying face-down in the ruins of the crystal.
So that’s great; there’s no way around it. It completes the father/son theme from the first movie. It shows that Superman isn’t just flipping a switch; he’s giving up something important in order to reclaim his destiny. The visuals are great, it’s memorable. I won’t hear a word against it.
Of course, the reason why they “couldn’t” use it in the finished film is that the Salkinds decided to cut Marlon Brando out of the sequel, so that they didn’t have to pretend they were going to pay him any more money than the amount that they were already not paying him. In the earlier sequences where Jor-El appeared, they replaced him with Susannah York as Superman’s mother, delivering mostly the same information that he would have.
But they didn’t reshoot this sequence, and I’m not sure why. It’s possible that they just figured it wouldn’t have the same emotional resonance without Jor-El, or they couldn’t do it for some production-related reason. Maybe they didn’t think it was important. So the film shows him picking up the green crystal, and then Superman’s magical return to Metropolis.
But it doesn’t really matter, in the most basic storytelling sense. This green crystal is an expression of narrativium, the all-powerful force that bends events in a direction that produces a story which the audience finds satisfying.
We’ve seen Lois finding out about Superman. We’ve seen Superman and Lois on a romantic date. We’ve seen them in bed. We’ve seen them try, and fail, to move on as a normal couple. So there’s nothing left to show us that would be interesting to look at.
Hot Clark slinking back to civilization for a lifetime of servitude is not going to make anybody happy. We want to see him become Superman again, and go fight the bad guys.
It doesn’t matter if this is a cheat, which contradicts dialogue from previous scenes. The only thing that matters is that the audience wants Superman, and we are willing to go along with pretty much any coincidence or lunatic plot contrivance that gives us what we want.
All successful stories work this way. Details are erased and glossed over, coincidence powers the plot points. It turns out that we like it that way, whether we think we do or not.
So… Hot Clark? Go and get changed. We’ll wait for you.
We look at a failed blockbuster in
2.37: Another World
I’ve borrowed the word “narrativium” from The Science of Discworld, a companion book to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Pratchett doesn’t actually use it himself in the Discworld books, but in Witches Abroad, he uses the phrase “narrative causality” which basically means the same thing. Witches Abroad is excellent, by the way, and you should read it, if you like thinking about how stories work.
We look at a failed blockbuster in
2.37: Another World
— Danny Horn