Superman II 2.47: The Snowdown

“Scruffy,” sniffs the leader of Earth, alighting at his worst enemy’s palatial polar beach house. “So morbid. A sentimental replica of a planet long since vanished. No style at all.” This, from a guy who’s still in the same outfit he was wearing in Idaho.

Superman leaps out and takes them by surprise, because this was a clever ambush and not just running back to his dad’s place. Then he stands there and waits for the bad guys to make the first move. I swear, these stuck-up Kryptonians may know a lot about early Chinese writing and Joyce Kilmer poetry, but military strategy is not their strong suit. That’s why they’re the only intelligent species in the universe to go extinct because their planet got tired of listening to their bullshit.

Non decides to use his signature move, which is to jump towards Superman with his arms outstretched going rraaagghooarrrrr, and our hero counters with a move of his own: peeling off a strip of his ectoplasmic essence and force-projecting it toward his opponent, who gets quantum-tangled in the coruscating biothermic semi-optical energy wave, rendering him temporarily fibrillated with artron energy and freak weather conditions. Yeah, I have no fucking idea what he does.

This is a brand new superpower that nobody had ever thought of before, and nobody ever will again. I know that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but this is even more indistinguishable from that. It implies that Superman’s costume is… I don’t know, tactical fruit leather? autonomous hypno-vinyl? It doesn’t make sense.

Now, fantasy superpowers are always handwavy expressions of narrative dream logic, but I just can’t muster the energy to mount a defense of this obviously dumb effect.

This is in the script, too; it’s not even one of Richard Lester’s on-the-spot ad-libs, like the hurricane comedy in the Metropolis street fight.

EFFECTS: Quickly, in a dazzling display, Superman puts his hand to his chest. Magically, the “S SHIELD” emblazoned there becomes a literal object in his hand while its “original” remains on the costume. It shimmers and shines with an energy force that clearly connotes immense power.

Superman flings it like a discus.

ON NON — The effect as the “S SHIELD” hits him and wraps around him.

ON ZOD — He looks worried. He is beginning to realize that Superman, on his home turf, has powers and devices at his command beyond their comprehension.

Yeah, mine too. The problem with this gag is that you can’t really fashion a mental model to help you think about it. As silly as it is, flying around the world to make time go backwards actually makes sense on some gut level, because the metaphor is that traveling in time is like traveling in physical space — you just “go” to another place, which happens to be yesterday. But this ecto-shield is “an energy force that connotes immense power”, and like any time that people use the world “energy” in fiction, it doesn’t mean anything.

And then they use finger lasers again, like they did in the Idaho sequence, except that time it was telekinetic and this time it’s just heat vision coming out of their fingers. I’ll actually allow this one, because heat vision doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense anyway, and the mental model for finger lasers is easy: you point at somebody, and stuff happens. Then Superman takes that stuff, and grimaces, and pushes it back at them using the I’m-rubber-you’re-glue gambit, and they all fall down and act momentarily defeated.

And then we get another new power straight out of the package: teleportation via soundtrack. There’s some eerie musique concréte synthesizer noise, and the villains wink away from existence with a little whoosh, and then return five seconds later with a corresponding whissh, surrounding Superman.

So that’s a thing they can do now: non-instantaneous teleportation, which is ominous but takes longer than it would to just fly over there, because of buffering.

Superman counters by doing one of the weirdest things that he could do besides put a bear trap in his mouth and pretend to be a female Tasmanian Devil: he does the teleportation trick too, but splits himself into four illusory mind-mirror projections, each one operating independently by remote control. This accomplishes hardly anything.

Ursa attempts a tornado roundhouse kick at one iteration of her opponent, but he’s just one of those fragments of underdone potato that you see sometimes around Christmas, no more yielding than a dream.

Non’s version is even stranger, because it crumbles into jade styrofoam shards when he leaps on it. You know, for a guy who leaps as much as he does, Non doesn’t have a very good leap-completion record.

And then Superman looks Lois Lane straight in the eye, and delivers one of the dumbest lines in movie history: “I used to play this game at school. Never was very good at it.”

This is bizarre for the following reasons: a) How is this a game, b) You’re clearly amazing at it, c) Kids on Krypton don’t have superpowers, and — most importantly — d) You didn’t go to school on Krypton, because you left the planet when you were a baby. What the fuck are you talking about?

So the question is, why does this sequence rely entirely on fake superpowers that they just made up?

Well, for starters, the whole point of superhero movies is to show you things that you’ve never seen before, and we’ve just seen all of the regular Superman powers in the 14-minute Metropolis battle sequence that immediately precedes this one. This is maybe why you don’t have two ultimate showdowns between good and evil in a row.

They’ve already done strength, flight, heat vision, super-breath, cold-breath and general stick-to-itiveness, which means they’ve run out of useful powers, and unless they figure out a way to have an ultimate showdown based on listening really hard, there aren’t a lot of other places to go.

The real problem is that basically there’s no way for these people to ever come to any meaningful agreement. They’re all indestructible, which means that they can’t hurt each other, no matter what they do. Superman can absorb all the finger laser power that he wants, and then shoot it right back at the bad guys, but at the end of that shot, nobody is weak or injured, or even tired. Everything that’s happened so far has had no visible effect on any of the characters.

So fighting doesn’t work anymore, and by this point, there’s nothing in the normal box of supertricks that would even be interesting to see again. And now they’ve exhausted their supply of bizarre new powers, and everybody’s still just as strong and healthy as they already were.

To get out of this situation, Superman’s going to have to think laterally, and come up with a way to trick his opponents. Luckily, these three knuckleheads can’t think of anything besides kicking and leaping, so that shouldn’t be too hard.

Tomorrow:
The strange thing they published instead of the novelization
2.48: The Miracle

Chapters

— Danny Horn

22 thoughts on “Superman II 2.47: The Snowdown

  1. I’m starting to think that Steve Ditko was onto something when he created The Odd Man for DC in 1979. The Odd Man was a costumed crimefighter whose whole thing was that he was so peculiar that his opponents were disconcerted by the sight of him. That may not seem very promising, though look at the success they’ve had with a guy whose whole thing is “wears a costume featuring a picture of a bat.” But in this scene, where the battling Kryptonians find themselves having to reach beyond violence for a solution to their difficulties, what they find is disconcertingness. Maybe in his emphasis on that quality, Ditko had discovered something at the heart of superhero storytelling.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I only learned about the Odd Man very recently, but I wish DC had gone somewhere with him. Apparently he also uses low tech tricks to disorient and confuse his foes. Imagine how well that could work on film! They canceled him after one issue, without getting to see how popular he might be, because it was a low-hanging fruit in the midst of the DC implosion when they were desperate to cut some comic books from their bloated lineup. His character still exists in the DC universe but rarely appears.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was such an intriguing concept. I think you would have needed a very clever writer in absolute control of the character to make it work. Which you could have, nowadays, but it may have been hard to ensure that at DC in the mid-1970s.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “And then Superman looks Lois Lane straight in the eye, and delivers one of the dumbest lines in movie history: ‘I used to play this game at school. Never was very good at it.’”
    My theory is that he made duplicates to sit in class while he played hooky and chased trains.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. My theory is that he used to play in the Hall of Mirrors at the Smallville County Fair, and his friends(?) [or maybe bullies he was trying to avoid] had to figure out which was the real Clark.

      Liked by 5 people

    2. Considering how damn dumb he’s presented as being here, this is a good theory.

      I mean:

      Superman leaps out and takes them by surprise, because this was a clever ambush and not just running back to his dad’s place. Then he stands there and waits for the bad guys to make the first move.

      I’m not saying I could win the battle of Thermopylae, but that’s really not strategic thinking.

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  3. “That’s why they’re the only intelligent species in the universe to go extinct because their planet got tired of listening to their bullshit.”

    Wait a bit.

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  4. “So that’s a thing they can do now: non-instantaneous teleportation, which is ominous but takes longer than it would to just fly over there, because of buffering.”

    I always assumed it wasn’t teleportation but rather superspeed–moving so fast even the camera can’t see you so it appears as if you just, well, appear.

    It’s a pity the Fortress didn’t have Kryptonian Perptual-Motion Rings that he could have just dropped over them to immobilize them.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I am really curious about what the writers had in mind here. (Did they have anything in mind?) Momentary bursts of super-speed are frequently used in anime to get the drop on an opponent, but needless to say the writers of this movie would not have been familiar with whatever anime was doing around 1980.

      Unfortunately, the fact that no technique in this scene seems to be effective at actually injuring or hampering the opponent, as Danny pointed out, is a fatal flaw, and it’s a total self-own by the writers, because no one ever said that Kryptonians are truly invulnerable and can’t get injured in a fight.

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  5. You touch on something that has long bothered me about the movie: Superman and the PZ villains are treated as indestructible rather than evenly matched. Hot Clark gets his ass handed to him by a guy who’s far less imposing than Non! The implication is that Hot Clark is useless rather than Superman can manage against three villains with the exact same power set. Superman vs. Non should be like Batman vs. Bane with Catwoman and the Joker also getting in some licks.

    Imagine if the Metropolis battle was in the middle of the film and Superman was decisively defeated (a la Batman in Dark Knight Rises). Then the rest of the film is about how he uses his head to beat the bad guys (which sort of happens in the original).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, the basic odds of a three-on-one fight should be a much bigger problem for Superman than they seem to be, and yet Superman doesn’t have any more experience fighting a super-powered opponent than they do. If the scene was able to demonstrate that Superman’s years of experience with his powers gives him an edge, it would be be much more satisfactory. As it is, there’s no apparent reason why those beams they shoot at Superman can be deflected back at them. For the most part, the Zod Squad fails to fight effectively as a team, but that’s one moment where their combined powers should have been a much bigger problem for Supes, and he just shrugs it off.

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  6. I figure if there was any precedent in the comics for any of this nonsense, Danny would point it out. But… oh no… he didn’t!

    There’s only one good thing about this post. And that’s we get to groan together about how awful, awful, awful this whole scene is.

    Apparently this film was written by people who thought, “Comic book stories are all about getting really high and making up totally random s**t, and you don’t even need any consistency in the story. I brought the typewriter ribbons today, did you bring the funny mushrooms?”

    “we’ve just seen all of the regular Superman powers in the 14-minute Metropolis battle sequence that immediately precedes this one.” If that’s the way Lester and the writers thought, they were SO WRONG about that.

    The first Superman movie had scene after scene with Supes flying, and the audience didn’t get bored of that. Nobody shouted at the screen, “Enough with all the flying already! We need to some some other kind of magic right now, or I’m walking out of this theater!”

    The good superhero movies show heroes and villians doing their signature super-thing over and over. It’s what the characters do, their speciality, what they’re good at. It’s a part of them, just like their morality or veniality, their intelligence or stupidity, their ambition or contentment, their intensity or sense of humor.

    Throwing in one random power after another, with no consequences to the powered, means there’s no unique characeristic to a character! It’s no different in storytelling then a scene where the same character’s a hot head medial genius, then a scene where he’s a sensitive romantic fool, then a scene where he’s a perverse spy, then a scene where he’s a frenetic martyr, then a scene where he’s an arrogant dancer… Buckaroo Banzai tried this trick a few years later. Despite a lot of funny moments, it failed as a movie. How can you really root for Mary Sue’s brother and all his buddies, who never really face a challenge, let alone ever fail?

    I think you’re right that Lester’s attitude must have been, “This is all random nonsensical hijinks for the kiddies. So let’s just make up some more goofy moments to make ’em laugh and gasp.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I could almost–*almost*–buy the S-shield trick, if it had some actual effect on the battle. The Family Guy clip above is so true. It just mildly inconvenienced Non. If it had taken him out of the battle for even a couple of rounds, I could handwave it being some Kryptonian cellophane made out of a variant of the material the Rings were made of.

      I will say though, it’s nice to see Superman having some fun. Christopher Reeve has such an infectious smile that it’s nice to see it, even in the heat of battle.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Love the Bugs Bunny shout-out! Maybe animation is the best venue for superheroes. Batman & Superman have done some of their best work there. There are limits in a comic book, none in a cartoon.

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  8. I always thought the s-shield thing was cool, even if it made no sense, as a kid. It doesn’t hold up as well.

    I only noticed it when I watched it in November shortly after this blog was started. I actually noticed a lot of things that stuck out in II and III. (We’ll not speak of IV.)

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  9. Oh man, “he’s just one of those fragments of underdone potato that you see sometimes around Christmas” is perfect. Well done, bravo, encore, etc.

    The cellophane S-shield haunts my dreams.

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    1. I thought the shattering effect was caused by them hitting the fortress wall instead of the phantasmal Superman.
      Didn’t Da Flash do a trick like that to appear simultaneously in different places?

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I had successfully suppressed the vinyl S. I do remember the played at school line. Which would be the perfect line if 1. We the audience didn’t know Superman’s backstory (this would be best) or 2. He was deliberately trying to confuse Lois because he was still trying to keep up the illusion that Clark and Superman weren’t the same person. It’s a shame because this is the other thing I strongly remember (other than the car hitting him and Clark ignoring it – which I still am not over) is that line because it’s hilarious. If only there was any kind of set up backup. He COULD have said, “My father told me about this game. I never had a chance to play it before. I hope I’m good at it.” which is not AS funny but would still be a good laugh and it would make sense in world.

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  11. To explain the vinyl ‘S’ trick, it would have been easy to insert a moment earlier in the film (or even the original, since my understanding is that they were written together) where Kal-El is learning from the crystals about some sort of super-strong material that can be manufactured in the Fortress of Solitude. Or even for Superman to say something in this very scene about the Fortress of Solitude having a whole bag of tricks which it’s provided him with. Of course this fails to be believable if the Fortress is as empty as it looks in the movie, instead of the alien wonderland we see in the comics and animated series.

    It’s disappointing to see such a total lack of thought by the writers in this scene. Granted, the comic books of the Silver Age (which wasn’t long behind us in 1981) did just as many absurd things, so perhaps the writers looked at those and thought that any childish idea could be inserted into a superhero movie and no one would question it.

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