Superman II 2.36: The Do-Over

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 in 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

Movie list

— Danny Horn

23 thoughts on “Superman II 2.36: The Do-Over

  1. I should read another Discworld book. I read “Guard! Guards!” a while ago, and I laughed a whole lot. But man, there’s just so many of them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I keep seeing recommendations for Discworld. Never read any of the books. Where to start? Do you need to begin with Book One, whatever that is, if you don’t like all your plots pre-spoiled?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. No, there’s a bunch of sub-series and you can follow them independently. I would suggest starting with “Guards! Guards!” (the first City Watch book) or “Wyrd Sisters” (the first Witches book). There are a number of Discworld books that have significantly contributed to the way that I look at stories and the world in general; there’s a ton of wisdom in there disguised as jokes, as wisdom usually is.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. “This is a radical new interpretation that I just thought of on the spot.”

    If you were the Newmans, you could write ten pages of screenplay that way…

    Great takedown of this movie’s greatest hole. Original version was very compelling!

    There should have been something to go from the glowing crystal, to Supe’s return. A dozen good ways to tell that story, even without Brando. Lester’s writing team failed to include any of them. They didn’t even include a bad way to tell that story…

    LARA: Oh, you found the green master crystal? It’s got Reversarium in it. When I said losing your powers was irreversible, I thought you had lost the Reversarium.

    CLARK: Waaaaahhh!

    LARA: Oh shut up, kid. Pop in the crystal and let’s get you powered up again. But this time I mean it, there’s only enough Reversarium in that crystal to undo ONE power loss.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Agreed that if the Salkinds had not been rascals, thieves and ne’er do wells, this scene would have really sealed the deal for the sequel. It’s got everything needed for emotional and narrative satisfaction.

    But since we can’t have nice things in this fallen world, fine, green crystal. It’s SOMETHING, and really, SOMETHING is the bare minimum needed, like those five ingredient recipes that still pretend they’re for a dish rather than throwing rando ancient noodles and that can of beans from 2004 and the last of the butter and whatever in a baking dish because otherwise you aren’t having any dinner at all. SOMETHING is not only better, but necessary to the story.

    And really, anybody in the twentieth century western world that wasn’t raised in a Skinner box by Amish kittens knows that Superman is coming back. Normally we’d expect a big reversal of reality showdown, like in the cut scene, but hey, Brando’s being pissy about being paid in actual money, and Zod’s hanging in the Oval Office getting bored and huffy, and there’s no other way to wrap this up and get to the third act fight scene. So, green crystal and five ingredient dinner, let’s do this.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Brando’s there in spirit. Reeve’s “Father!” made me think of Brando’s “Stella!”
    Clark walking back to the Fortress was just….odd. He’s really not dressed for an Arctic excursion.
    The problem I have with Donner’s version is that when Joe-El reacts to Kal-El, I start wondering what is this thing that is speaking? More than a hologram. Less than his actual father. Some kind of artificially intelligent avatar? He tells Kal-El to look at him. How would a recording know he had turned away? So he’s more than a recording, but what?
    I don’t mind that my questions never arise in the Lester version.
    I like Pratchett. I’m a fan of his Death character. I also enjoyed “Good Omens”, which he wrote with Neil Gaiman.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I wondered about that, too. And I think it holds true for every iteration of Kryptonian hologram parent since these films. The Lara hologram in SUPERMAN AND LOIS acts very much in the moment and is treated as if she’s actually Kal-El’s mother standing there. There’s clearly some sort of advanced AI system programmed with the knowledge and emotions of the parent. I find the tragic loss of Superman’s parents in the explosion of Krypton much less tragic when he can interact with them on a regular basis.

      Liked by 4 people

  5. The Donner version is Reeve’s first days of filming. You can tell it’s very early in the production with his mannerisms and delivery. You can see how much he matured with the Lester. His “FAW-THAAAAAA!!!” in Donner’s version isn’t as impactful as the one he did for Lester.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. My question is purely a nitpicking one (so, what else is new?)
    Mere mortal Kent has made his way on foot in a light jacket to the Arctic locale of the Fortress. Several days at least. Yet the blood on his face is still paint-bright. Are we in fact mistaken? Is the diner right down the street from the Fort?

    I’m even willing to give the “can’t undo/okay, undo” plot hole a pass, since that already was put in the first film with “It is FORBIDDEN! FORBIDDEN!” (Okay, FORBIDDEN… or else WHAT? How were the recorded afterimages of Krypton going to punish the transgression?)

    But the blood thing’s been bugging me since I watched the movie.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Even if the diner is just down the road…why didn’t Clark bother to wash the blood off his face? That would take, at most, 5 minutes. Most people would probably not want to embark on a long walk back to the Fortress with a bunch of crusty old dried blood all over their face. Wait…there’s something else…they had a car. Why is Clark walking anyway? I mean…getting his powers back is the priority here, so he should be taking the car back to the Fortress, as far as he can. Lois can take the next Greyhound bus back to Metropolis. I know, I know…the blood is symbolic and the walk is more dramatic. I get it. But still…

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Liking the idea of a two lane blacktop all the way to the parking garage at the Fortress of Solitude, kept free of snow and ice thanks to the Krypto-Plow & Salt Service… 🙃

        Liked by 2 people

  7. I can still remember how frustrated I was with this scene when I first saw it in the theater more than 40 years ago. After Lara specifically told her son that there would be no going back, it was a plain cheat, as bad as the ending of the first movie.

    I don’t think the Donner version is any better. It’s the same cheat, and putting Brando on screen nerfs the whole contrast between, on the one hand, Superman’s resolve to live with his never-to-be-fulfilled longing for his absent father, and on the other Zod’s maniacal refusal to give up his never-to-be-accomplished revenge on his absent tormentor.

    Reshooting the scene with Lara in place of Jor El might have achieved something- if Supey has to give up his connection with his mother at the same time he gives up hope of a human wife, it’s making a statement about his resigned acceptance of a celibate life. But that theme has already received a complete exposition, it doesn’t add anything to the structure of the movie, and dwelling on it slathers a layer of glumness over what the audience hopes will be an upbeat, light-hearted romp.

    The only solution would have been a rewrite of the no-turning-back speech. I suppose Lara could have said that once he’s given up his powers he won’t be able to get the back without a terrible price. Then, when he sets off to get his powers back (as of course everyone knows he eventually will,) they would have us in suspense wondering what that price will be and who will wind up paying it. Maybe as a result of Superman’s re-powering, an ecological disaster takes place that causes Perry White to die and Jimmy Olsen to be transformed into a giant balloon from the Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Superman and Lois have a moment where they feel really bad about these tragedies.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. As Baby Kal is put into the space ship, Lara is mourning that he will be so different from the Earth people. Yet here she’s got a way for him to become a standard issue mortal! Why wasn’t this information given during the twelve-year long lecture?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Or why didn’t they make him mortal to begin with? It could have happened automatically when the spacecraft landed. Lara was so concerned about him being different. Wouldn’t that have been a solution? Since the planet blew up, I’m assuming this was not a later upgrade to the system, that the mortality option was available from the beginning. Or did Jor-El overrule her on this, too? For a supposedly advanced civilization, men still seem to have the deciding vote.
      The more time I spend thinking about this movie, the more problems I have with it.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I was thinking that they could have put in a “red sun converter” so that after the ship landed the baby got changed over; but maybe they didn’t have time to make the necessary changes? Those crystals probably take a while to grow or something… and Jor-El was still finishing up the lecture series.

        Liked by 3 people

  9. Really long walk to the Fridge of Solitude here for me to finally think of it, thanks to Mary’s and John’s comments.

    What if the explosion of Le Bomb in space, that cracked the Phantom Zone’s Long-Playing Record of Banishment, had another effect? Some kind of Wave of Plot Convenience, de-powering any already present Kryptonians, which hits the Earth a few scenes later?

    Maybe, as their molecular density makes them increasingly powerful, Phantom Zone Shockwave means Yellow Sun Narrativium is absorbed by the released criminals, not available to also power up Supes. Or something.

    Supes could rescue Niagara Falls kid, have identity revealed, take Lois to the Fortress. Maybe they spend the night, apparently prove Niven wrong. But next day, he starts getting tired. They discover his powers quickly evaporating. Soon he can’t even fly. Attempt to put Nasty Diner Guy in his place reveals Clark’s weak and hurt. Then, even worse, TV report shows Zod and crew have arrived!

    During desparate return to the Fortress, Lois worries about his Super-Weakness. Now she has to rescue him!

    Consultation with Parental AI provides explanation, plus Diagnosis: Hopeless. Well kid, might as well enjoy being an ordinary man who can love an ordinary woman, that’s all that’s left for you now. Lucky for her you were already powering down, a human can’t be loved by an undamaged Kryptonian. Too bad to hear about Zod conquering Earth. Oh well!

    Lois goes off to cry in the corner. Meanwhile, Parental AI says, Oh, you found the green crystal? That means this is reversible, at the cost of Parental AI, and you gotta do it to save humanity. Get your powers back and give up on love. Lois overhears, just in time to find that he’s already done it.

    Needs some fix-up, but already maybe a better start than what Lester provided.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Plot hole, shmot hole. There’s an answer for everything.

    Jor-El is the one with the Secret Invisible Power-Up Mushroom. Lara doesn’t know about it. It’s a guy thing to need backsies.

    How did Clark get to the Arctic? Hitched a ride with Santa, of course. How did he get hurt? Punched by an elf. “No more Superman merch?!”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. It’s true that the specifics of how Superman gets his powers back aren’t that important and the movie can hand-wave its way through that part, but in the end, all these incredibly sloppy bits of writing add up to an incredibly messy story. The audience knows instinctively when they’re watching a solid story versus a messy one, and there’s not a single moment in this movie that feels well thought-out. So despite the nice bits of it which are stuck together by chewing gum, the whole is just not a good film.

    Now if the movie was written purely for the entertainment of children, we might cut the writers some slack, but then why all the romantic and lovey-dovey stuff with Lois? The movie wants adults to take it seriously but it feels like it was slapped together in a terrible rush. How did it take three years to release a film that had already mostly been shot by 1978, only for it to come out so half-baked?


  12. I’ve often wondered they didn’t just recast Jor-El. This was around the time when Olivier was playing Zeus for Ray Harryhausen, right? He would’ve done it. Orson Welles would’ve done it. Gregory Peck would’ve done it. James Mason would’ve done it. Christopher Lee would’ve done it. Hell, stick an extra in a white wig and hire Rich Little to do the voice. There was almost literally no reason Jor-El shouldn’t and couldn’t have been in this movie one way or another.

    Liked by 1 person

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