Superman II 2.39: Lost in Place

Enter Lex Luthor, unnecessarily.

I mean, we’re already looking at a worst-case scenario for the Earth, now entirely in the possession of three bug-eyed monsters from Planet K, who don’t really have a plan for what’s going to happen next. The trio is already bored with literally everything in the world, and since they haven’t even thought of redecorating their office, it seems like they’re not very good at cheering themselves up. Honestly, the only thing that they know is destruction, which they indulge in when they’re happy and also when they’re not happy.

So sending in Lex Luthor, the greatest criminal mind on Earth and this movie’s C-plot, is not technically necessary to move the story forward. But the movie is hedging its bets on the villainy, throwing in a more engaging character as backup just in case the three Kryptonians get boring, which they have.

We’re currently three minutes into the third act of Superman II, so it’s a good opportunity to take a look at the structure of the movie. My guide in these matters is Syd Field’s 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which popularized the idea of a three-act structure. Field claimed that every successful screenplay follows this structure, which is obviously an exaggeration, but it’s a nice way of figuring out how a movie works.

According to the three-act model, Act 1 sets up the premise and the main character, and then introduces an inciting incident that changes the character’s situation, and poses a dramatic question that drives the film.

In Act 2, the rising action shows the main character dealing with the fallout from the first plot point, and the protagonist finds that they’re unable to solve their problems, unless they make some kind of important change. The second act often ends with a rock-bottom moment, where things are as bad for the main character as they could get.

Act 3 shows the result of the character’s development, resolving the dramatic question and demonstrating how the characters have changed over the course of the film.

I like this model, because it allows you to track how the main character develops over the course of the film, and to see whether all of the plot points actually lead to a satisfying conclusion.

Superman II actually has two-and-a-half separate plot tracks, which don’t come together until the end of the second act.

The major plot is the story of Superman and Lois, who spend almost all of the first two acts entirely on their own, hardly talking to anybody else in the movie. Act 1 is their trip to Niagara Falls, and Lois’ attempts to figure out Superman’s secret identity. The act ends with Clark and Lois in the honeymoon suite, and the revelation that Clark is Superman. The dramatic question at the end of the first act is: can Superman be with Lois, and still maintain his heroic identity? Act 2 is Superman deciding to give up his powers to be with Lois, and it ends with the absolute rock-bottom moment of the beat-up Clark realizing that he’s made a terrible mistake.

The B-story is the villains’ thread, and their main plot points occur around the same time as Lois and Clark’s. Act 1 is the villains discovering they have powers on the moon, and then coming to Earth to rule; their first plot point is making first contact with the Idaho police force, where they discover that humans are weak and worthless. In Act 2, they flex their muscles, and take possession of the Oval Office. Their triumph at the end of the second act drives Clark’s realization that he needs to become Superman again.

And then there’s the Luthor plot thread, which has essentially nothing to do with the rest of the movie. There are several sequences with Lex and Eve — escaping from prison, heading north, and discovering the Fortress of Solitude — which all happen while everyone else is doing Act 1. Then Lex disappears for all of Act 2, and returns forty minutes later, here at the top of Act 2.

The major structural problem with Superman II is the same problem that the first movie had: an inability to integrate the romantic story and the superhero/villain story.

Superman: The Movie worked like this — Act 1: Backstory, Act 2: Superman and Lois, Act 3: Superman vs Lex Luthor. In the second act, Superman and Lois had no idea there was such a person as Luthor, lurking underground and waiting for their opportunity to strike. Act 2 ended with Superman and Lois’ balcony interview, which is essentially the end of the Superman/Lois character development for the rest of the movie. Act 3 was all about the missiles and Superman confronting Luthor, with Lois pushed off to the side in order to put her in peril, without actually engaging her in the movie’s plot.

Superman II does exactly the same thing. The Kryptonian story bubbles under the surface, with Superman and Lois entirely oblivious to the fact that the villains are even on Earth. They’re already taking over the White House by the time Lois and Hot Clark get out of bed.

And once again, as soon as Superman confronts the villains in Act 3, Lois is left on the sidelines. She’s left standing at the window, a spectator who watches the big fight and doesn’t participate in it. When the action moves from Metropolis to the Fortress of Solitude, Lois is brought along, but she’s just a peril monkey, standing around waiting to be threatened. She doesn’t actually do anything.

And just like the first movie, when Superman wraps up the major romantic plot thread, Lois is an object rather than a participant in the resolution, to such an extent that she’s not even aware that there was a problem in the first place. Twice. They did that twice.

So the fact that Luthor doesn’t participate in any of the plot points either is hardly surprising. I like this scene, where he inserts himself into the Superman/villain storyline by force of will, because he’s doing funny Luthor shtick, and I enjoy Gene Hackman’s Luthor shtick.

But the information that he’s providing to the villains — that Superman has a relationship with people at the Daily Planet — could have been provided by literally anybody in this fictional world. This could be the kid who Superman rescued at Niagara Falls, walking in and telling them that; it wouldn’t make any difference to the plot point.

The only real contribution that Luthor makes comes at the end of the Metropolis fight, when Superman runs away, and Luthor tells the villains that he knows Superman’s address. That’s a piece of information that only he knows, which justifies the sequences in Act 1 where Luthor discovers the Fortress of Solitude.

Unfortunately, they play that scene in exactly the same way that they play this one. In this scene, the villains are leaving, when Luthor says, “First you must find him — and Lex baby is the only one who knows where he is,” which isn’t true.

And fifteen minutes from now, when the villains say they’re going to kill him, he replies, “Kill me? Lex Luthor? Extinguish the greatest criminal flame of our age, eradicate the only man on Earth with — Superman’s address?”

So they don’t really use Luthor very well in Act 3, I guess is what I’m saying, and the same goes for Lois, which is even more of a shame. One of these days, somebody’s going to write a superhero movie in which all of the plot threads actually come together, and all of the main characters are involved in the movie’s resolution, but not today, and not in this movie, I’m afraid.

Tomorrow:
Lester gets the band back together in
2.40: The Reshoots


Footnotes:

There’s a visual continuity error in this scene: when Lex sits down, he’s got his cigar in his left hand. When the shot changes, he’s got it in his right hand.

Tomorrow:
Lester gets the band back together in
2.40: The Reshoots

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

13 thoughts on “Superman II 2.39: Lost in Place

  1. The more you know about storytelling structure, the more you discover how poorly constructed this film is. The storyline and characterization fall apart like Ursa’s outfit.

    It’s like we all already knew the dollar tacos weren’t very healthy. And then the Executive Chef takes a bite and tells you an additional hundred ways the junk food’s all wrong, that you never even realized could go wrong in a kitchen.

    “One of these days, somebody’s going to write a superhero movie in which all of the plot threads actually come together, and all of the main characters are involved in the movie’s resolution.”

    It’ll be nice when you get to have posts that point out how the tasty food came out of a clean kitchen, where organic ingredients were expertly combined.

    Meanwhile, Lex here is like the triple-MSG Spicy Sauce. With no actual tomatoes or onions inside.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We’re told that it’s bad Zod has conquered the Earth (or at least the US) but aside from some monument vandalism, we don’t *see* that people are suffering. Hell, Zod apparently lets the press continue to function. He’s quite the softy for a tyrant. Maybe he likes the crossword.

      This is a serious decline in stakes from the first movie where all of California was threatened. We saw Superman saving lots of people, not just beating up other Kryptonians.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. In Mankiewicz’s script, Zod says upon taking over, “There is no longer a need for separate nations in this world, no need for petty squabbles between one group and another.” So apparently he plans to eliminate borders and stop any wars that break out between peoples. With a lack of any sort of counterbalancing “Yes, but the people are suffering under Zod because…”, this only sounds like a win for humanity. Tell me again who the bad guy is in this movie? 🙂

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  2. I agree with your overall point, but not with the claim that “Superman II does exactly the same thing” that kept Superman: The Movie from having a viable plot structure. The main character’s identity crisis runs throughout the whole movie; he’s trying to be three people at once- Clark Kent, Kal El, and the Big Blue Cheese, and he’s discovered that he isn’t really anyone. He’s just created three puppets, three Pinocchios. In order to become a real boy, he’ll have to choose one of those personae and commit himself to it. “Pick a lane,” the saying goes, and of course the first lane he picks comes with a capital L.

    That story is connected to the supervillains by Jor El’s absence. Clark-Kal El-BBC has never met another Kryptonian, and the one whose absence he feels most acutely is his father. Here the filmmakers are turning Marlon Brando’s celebrity, and the audience’s disappointment at not seeing him again, to their advantage- if we’ve seen the first movie, we share Clark-Kal El-BBC’s feelings. And when Zod learns that the son of Jor El is on the earth, his mad desire for revenge on the missing Jor El gives him a purpose. Not only is this purpose evil in the abstract, but more importantly Zod’s lack of any constructive plan threatens the audience with the end of all interesting stories about Superman.

    The White House setting gets us into a frame of mind where this thematic similarity can do work that in another movie might require story logic. For the most part, fictional US presidents show up in three types of movies. They appear in fairy tales, where they take the role of the virtuous monarch who solves the characters’ problems by saying the magic words or making the magical gesture. They appear in satires, where they show that the ridiculousness of the political system goes all the way to the top. And they appear in nightmares, where their helplessness shows that there are no authority figures who can rescue us.

    E. G. Marshall’s character is a fine example of the president of nightmare-land. Of course, the movie is full of elements appropriate to dreams, so that seeing him play that part and then seeing the villains in the Oval Office ensures that the only logic we will apply to what follows is dream logic, in which association and suggestion take the place of cause and effect.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. “Then Lex disappears for all of Act 2, and returns forty minutes later, here at the top of Act 2.”

      Shouldn’t that second 2 be a 3?
      Your OCD proofreader,
      JEC

      ps you can delete this and we’ll never speak of it again… 🙃

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Continuing a theme from the last post, I guess if this is a sitcom Lex is the wacky neighbor that pops in uninvited. I always hate that character. Here too. The only point Lex has in this movie, as Danny points out, is to tell Zod where the Fortress is. Surely that information, like Superman’s connection with the Daily Planet, could have been communicated in another way without wasting all this time with Lex.

    This also feels like the beginning of the trope that each sequel to a superhero movie has to bring in more and more villains. The PZ Villains aren’t enough so we need Lex, too. Joker is enough for the first Burton Batman, but Penguin AND Catwoman are needed for the second, and so on.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think Lex is here because he was Donner’s comic relief guy. Lester added all sorts of slapstick that made Lex superfluous but the Salkinds had already paid one actor who doesn’t show up in the sequel and I imagine there was no way they weren’t getting their money’s worth out of Hackman.
      I actually enjoyed Lex more in this movie than the original.

      Liked by 5 people

    2. I think the filmmakers knew they were leaking goodwill and see Lex as the Little Dutch Boy, there to schitck and dazzle and be entertaining about this leaking dyke, which is what the audience and the Terror of Three both need at that point.

      The Kryptonians are bored, which is always a bad movie choice, because it makes them boring to watch. Zod’s supposed to be here for revenge against the son of the man who condemned him to the Phantom Zone, but it’s like all three of them got hit in the head and forgot that in the excitement of blowing up East Huston and now they just sit around pissing and moaning all day. What’s the point of being a god among ants? It’s not like it requires any effort, and even if the ants are prostrate before you it’s not like you can see them doing it, or hear their tiny ant voices proclaiming your greatness. Boooorrrrr-ing.

      And so the filmmakers send in their trickster bomb, Lex, Professional Ringer and Madman, at your service. He never bothers with being afraid of anything, it’s a waste of time. If these three can get rid of Superman, hey, great! Lemme point you in the right direction, stick with me kids, we’ll make beautiful music together! And then you can quit destroying Earth, which holds all my favorite toys, and we both get what we want! Win-win!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. To be honest, I think this movie is ‘absolute shite’ on the basic and well-known film scale of ‘one to lousy’, so I always appreciate it when Gene Hackman is on the set. His Lex is such a charmer of a bad guy—even if I squint, I can only see him as mischievous.

    It’s almost like they finally realized the film was coming to a dead halt, what with the prolonged roasting of the rubes and creation of a number of minor inconveniences by the black hat trio, and realized they desperately needed to liven up what had become, in the parlance of the times, ‘a savage bummer’. At this point, Lex is a sight for sore eyes, even if the movie itself never accounts to much.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Seems to me that Zod & The Villains are bringing their boredom by themselves. Here they are with limitless power, and what do they do? Check out some of the other landmasses on the planet? See if there’s a few other armies of puny humans to crush? Maybe find a building with a decor that suits them better?
    Nope. Just park their collective keisters in the White House and do NOTHING. Except whinge about how dull that is. And for what? Why is it necessary for the truculent trio to hole up in the Oval Office? Zod hasn’t even bothered to reshape the bust of Lincoln into his own likeness. If they’re not having fun it’s their own fault; go on outside, it’s a nice day!

    Liked by 5 people

  6. From what I have seen of people from Krypton, I do not believe they are so far ahead of us. They seem to have typical human reactions–attack people who are different from you and be disappointed and lost when the thing you’ve desired turns out not to have made you happy like you thought it would.
    I would have expected creatures from an advanced civilization to have found better ways to deal with this than sitting around waiting for something exciting to happen. If nothing else, they could have watched Luke and Laura on General Hospital!

    Liked by 5 people

  7. They could have made Lex more crucial to the plot by having him team up with the 3 Ks earlier. He should be their “handler.” He’d be the one to tell them to go to Washington, D.C. He’d be the one organizing things for the humans below. He could be critical explaining how the middle part of the villains story.

    Liked by 3 people

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