After several harrowing showdowns with the forces of evil, Superman has liberated the Earth, returning all government, military and law enforcement power to the same people who had it before, which is obviously the right thing to do, and not something that anyone will regret later on.
Of course, there are some unfortunate aftereffects. There’s all the wear and tear on Mount Rushmore, for one thing, and a bunch of repair work that needs to be done around the Daily Planet building in Metropolis. Besides that, the world is going to have to figure out how to develop a new approach to global politics and international security, so that three mean people can’t take over the entire planet by blowing up a couple of monuments.
Most significantly, Lois Lane has sustained significant character growth, which will force her to make some difficult choices. She’s been following a dream that can’t come true, and understanding that truth, while painful, will ultimately help her to break out of an unproductive pattern and find a new path forward in life. So obviously we’re going to need to put a stop to that.
Because the law of conservation of narrative in long-running episodic fiction demands that the status quo is maintained at the end of an episode, so that the people who write the next episode will be able to pick up the story without having to account for any story or character development left over from the previous one.
Or, at least, that’s what the people making Superman II believed. I don’t know if it even occurred to them that they could complete the movie without resetting the premise back to the generally understood consensus view of the Superman story. That may be an idea that people just didn’t get back in 1981, when literally every television show worked that way except for daytime soap operas, which people did not yet recognize as the model for all long-running serialized narrative.
The filmmakers didn’t want to give the movie a happy ending, where Superman and Lois find a way to build a life together, or a sad ending, where Lois has to live with the agonizing daily heartbreak of working with Clark, and never being able to reveal those feelings to anyone. Either one of those endings would have been a meaningful change to what everybody thought of as the core of the Superman mythology, and might lead to confusion and unrest.
And so — denied the ability to write either a happy ending or a tragic ending — the filmmakers decided to just not have an ending at all.
So what we’ve got are two different versions of the ending of Superman II, and both of them involve turning back the clock, and undoing significant portions of the story.
The original version shot by Dick Donner and used in the Donner Cut involves two Superman/Lois conversations in a row, which feel to me like they shot two alternatives and kept both of them.
The first conversation takes place in the Arctic after Superman destroys the Fortress of Solitude with his heat vision. In this one, she tries to keep a brave face, telling him that she understands that the world needs him. And then she kisses him, and he kisses her back, because kissing isn’t weaponized in this version of the movie.
Then he flies her home and they have the second conversation, with a completely different emotional texture. In this one, tears are streaming down her face as she tells him, “You don’t have to worry. Your secret’s safe with me.”
He says that he knows that, and she keeps crying, and he flies away.
Watching him go, her voice cracks as she tells herself, “Well, there he goes, kid. Up, up and away.” And then she goes into the apartment and starts writing a story about Superman defeating the Kryptonians, because she’s a reporter and there’s always a story to write.
And then Superman flies around the world backwards, and he turns back time. We see Lois untype the story, Perry unbrushes his teeth, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument and the Times Square Coca-Cola sign all repair themselves, and the three villains return to the Phantom Zone.
This was the original idea for the end of Superman II, undoing the property damage and returning Lois to factory settings. In the script for the first movie, Lois didn’t get crushed in the earthquake, so there was no need for Superman to mess with time. He caught both missiles, and the film ended with a cliffhanger: Superman throws the second missile into space, and it hits the Phantom Zone diamond, freeing the criminals and setting up the sequel.
But the production went way over schedule and over budget, until they weren’t sure they could even finish one movie, let alone two, so they decided to stop working on the remaining scenes for Superman II and just finish the first one. With no real ending for the first movie except a cliffhanger pointing to a second film they weren’t sure was going to happen, they decided to take the turning back time sequence from the end of the second movie and use that as the end of the first.
Dick Donner and Tom Mankiewicz weren’t sure what they were going to do, once they got back to work on the second movie and had to come up with a new ending. They just said they’d figure something out, once production started up again. They’d already made lots of changes on the fly, and I’m sure they would have thought of something. But they never had the chance, so twenty years later when Donner and Michael Thau were putting the Donner Cut together, they didn’t have any choice but to use the original ending.
This turned out to be a better ending for the first movie than it would have for the second, because undoing Lois’ death is a specific dramatic choice that makes sense for that moment. It’s a bit of a cheap thrill, but at least it only reverses a couple of scenes.
Used at the end of Superman II, as originally intended, it undoes the entire second movie, which I think would have been completely unsatisfying for the audience. You’d walk out of the theater, and every single thing that happened since you walked in would be irrelevant, the dramatic equivalent of a feature-length dream sequence. And it wouldn’t even have the same emotional punch, because Superman wouldn’t be taking drastic action to save Lois’ life. He would just be trying to avoid the consequences of his own decisions, basically punching a hole in causality just to not have to deal with Lois being sad the next day. I don’t think it works.
That being said, I’m not wild about what happens in the theatrical cut, either.
Or, at least, I don’t like the way that they resolve it. The conversation between Lois and Clark about Lois’ heartbreak and pain is actually well-observed and convincing. She’s trying to hold it together, but she’s real with Clark about what she’s feeling, and she has some very effective lines.
Lois: I guess it’s sort of like being married to a doctor, you know? The doctor gets awakened in the middle of the night, and the wife has to cope with the fact that he’s gone. I guess I’m just too selfish.
Clark: No, no — you’re not selfish at all.
Lois: Yes, I am selfish when it comes to you, I am selfish! And I’m jealous of the whole world.
Clark: Lois, it may not be easy for you to hear this now, but… someday, you’ll —
Lois: Clark… look, don’t tell me that I’ll meet somebody. You’re kind of a tough act to follow, you know?
It’s devastating, and even more so because she keeps insisting that she’ll be fine. She’s Lois Lane, and she can handle anything, including the absolute hopelessness that stretches out in front of her.
There are a bunch of scenes in the movie where I think that Richard Lester added not-very-funny comic moments that broke the reality of the movie’s world, like the taxi accident and the sideways phone call. But this scene balances the emotional content with an appropriate lightness of touch — “I’m jealous of the whole world” and “You’re kind of a tough act to follow” are both lines that a funny person would say, through the pain.
And Lois is clearly still trying to be strong, trying to acknowledge that she knows this isn’t the most important problem in the world. It just happens to be the problem that’s tearing her apart, that’s all.
Lois: Do you know what it’s like to have you come in here every morning, and not be able to talk to you, not be able to — show I have any feelings for you, not be able to tell anyone that I know who you are? I don’t even know what to call you!
That last sentence is just perfect; it beats “Well, there he goes, kid,” by a mile. It’s heartfelt and specific, a little detail that carries so much weight in the scene. And then they spoil it all, with the amnesia kiss.
The problem is that the metaphor doesn’t work. A fantasy kiss can bring the dead back to life, or break a spell. It symbolizes an awakening of passion, a powerful connection made between two lovers that can overcome impossible challenges. If a character is hypnotized or time-tangled into forgetting that they love someone, then a kiss could bring them back to that awareness.
But a kiss can’t make somebody forget their lover. It just doesn’t make sense, as a metaphor. What would that even mean?
Giving Lois a hit of the Men in Black neuralyzer is unnecessary and the wrong thing to do, but if they’d used a workable metaphor, we might forgive. Flying around the planet counter-clockwise to reset time is a silly but coherent metaphor; an amnesia kiss is just a dumb idea.
Still, they had to end the film somehow, and it’s too late to go back and change it. Mission accomplished!
My ongoing podcast adventures watching
terrible non-MCU Marvel movies continues in
The New Mutants 86.1: Control Control Control Control Control and Control
— Danny Horn