Superman II 1.98: Here We Go Again

Mission accomplished!

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!

Next:
My ongoing podcast adventures watching
terrible non-MCU Marvel movies continues in
The New Mutants 86.1: Control Control Control Control Control and Control

Chapters

— Danny Horn

23 thoughts on “Superman II 1.98: Here We Go Again

  1. Why was the simplest solution so impossible that it wasn’t even considered? Why couldn’t Clark and Lois be in love and get married? Just because he’s Superman too? I think the “wedding bells” ending would have been more satisfying than the one(s) we got. Even if it didn’t reset the story back to the beginning.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I think because the creators were still in Comic Book Mind, where everything has to start from scratch with each new installment. It’s okay to carry vague, squishy things like Love over from story to story, because that’s supposed to be Lois’s factory setting; she loves Superman and gives Clark a hard time.

      But carrying a relationship, beyond the broadest of sketched outlines, throughout an entire creation? Nah. Unless it’s an art form like commedia del’arte where the lovers are already an established couple at the beginning, a bonded pair is considered boring, with no more story to tell.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Just like that comics marriage symposium Danny posted about earlier, the filmmakers just couldn’t imagine a marriage, a marriage of equals who can actually talk to one another like adults. Or even a relationship. Imagine SIII deepening their relationship and possible ending with an engagment, and then SIV could be the wedding, with Superman wanting to make a better world for her or their kids or just so he could retire.

        When the Superman/Lois marriage is written well in comics, I love it and love that comics were eventually able to progress to that point.

        Liked by 4 people

    2. The He Man Woman Haters Club mentality was that Superman could never actually marry Lois and have kids with her. Who would watch that? It could never result in a successful TV series that is significantly better than most Superman movies made in the past 40 years.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Even if breaking up was not covered in the lecture series, he’s lived over 30 years on earth. How would he think this was a grown-up way to deal with this situation?
    His goodbye kiss is the ultimate kiss-off.
    There was something about him after the kiss that made me think that he wasn’t feeling too broken up about it. I think Reeve was a good enough actor to get feelings of regret and loss across so I guess Lester told him not to play it that way? I wasn’t sure if Superman kissed Lois to save her pain or himself the guilt from seeing her moping about while he was over it.
    Still, I enjoy post 1:98 every time.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I agree with Danny that the kiss fails as a metaphor. I think if Lois kissing Clark had given him back his powers, it would make no narrative sense but audiences might have appreciated the metaphor. This is a disaster.

      The story ages terribly bc anyone under 30 is used to superhero movies where the male hero has a mature relationship with the woman he loves. This just feels like an artifact.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Superman couldn’t just leave a girl standing in a room CRYING. Women are weak and need a man’s protection, so he stepped up and did what a gentleman would do. /s

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Hey, he’s already a bully and a murderer, why not a heel too?
      I’d say it’s Lester’s fault but Donner started it with the diner scene that Lester inherited. I read an interview with Donner where he complained about Lester claiming he filmed the diner scene. I can understand Lester misremembering that if his vision of Superman was inspired by it. Then all the comedy bits are there to distract from the fact that his Superman is not really an honorable guy.

      Liked by 7 people

  4. I said it before: if it’s this hard to resolve a plot point, it’s a bad point. When you’re not sure you’ll get another installment, tie off your loose ends but do it in a way that leaves room for more.

    I hate hate hate this type of plot, where they hit the reset button and erase it all. It means there are no stakes, no consequences, no change. That’s the opposite of verisimilitude.

    Liked by 7 people

  5. One thing that always bugged me about the Donner cut is how perfect it would have been to end it on the balcony scene. It’s moving, Kidder is at her absolute best, and the fact that the last line is the famous “up up and away” phrase is the icing on the cake. How is that not an ending?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The worst part of the Kiss of Forget is that it’s, as presented by the movie, supposed to be Lois’s REWARD for putting up with all this!

    Sure, it’s presented as a romantic-yet-heartbreaking moment where you’re supposed to see Superman oh so heroically giving up his one chance for romantic happiness, but really, it’s saying that it’s completely okay to erase the memory of the person you supposedly love.

    But if it’s shown as just that (what it totally is), if Superman had simply stared into her eyes or waved a watch on a chain or shaken her hand or zapped her with one of his Eye Laser Settings, it would be a little too obvious that this is more for his emotional comfort than hers. With a big romantic smooch, he’s giving her one last precious moment with the man she’ll always love the most, BEFORE ERASING THE ENTIRE THING from her memory.

    But she doesn’t lose her feelings for Superman, and move on and actually meet someone who could be a partner to her. No, no. She’s stuck pining after something she actually had, but was taken from her so completely she doesn’t even get to keep the experience of having it. But that’s okay; Superman gets to be nobly heartbroken without the pesky demands of a relationship, and be a love object for a woman who could have had so many better options had SHE been allowed to pick one.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Then there’s Superman IV! A friend wondered if Superman did this to Lois once a week or whenever he’s feeling low.

      And the next movie features Clark pursuing Lana Lang, who he also can’t have a mature relationship with so why is he tormenting different women?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. On a totally different more superficial level, one somewhat plot hole or inconsistency created by the memory-erase “Kiss of Forget” is that Superman and Lois, earlier in the film in the Fortress of Solitude, did apparently make love and sleep together. Most people, myself included, who make love also kiss each other as part of foreplay and also part of the actual process of making love. So presumably, during their time of apparent love making and sleeping together, they probably did kiss.
    So this would suggest that maybe Superman has different kinds of kisses — there’s regular kissing in the heat of foreplay, passion, and even after-play — and then there’s a special “memory erase” kiss that Superman could turn on whenever he wanted to? Maybe he even has other types of kisses which have different super powers associated with them?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. My friends and I always assumed that during this kiss he sucked out enough oxygen to give her brain damage and cause the amnesia. It was the best we could explain it.

      It makes me sad to think about all the lost true loves I might have out there who gave me a kiss like that and made me forget them. I mean, Chris Evans might very well have realized that we couldn’t be together and so sacrificed his happiness to make me forget that we ever had been. That’s my story anyway.

      Liked by 7 people

  8. What’s KISS supposed to stand for again? “Keep It the Same, Stupid!” – is that it?

    When we talked about the ending of the first film, I had the same concern as Ralph. A hero who can simply undo all his mistakes and try again? No challenge and no consequences. Given that, no stakes and no reason for the audience to care.

    It was many years until I was this disappointed again with the Serial Story Reset Button. (When Star Trek Voyager’s “Year of Hell, Part 2” clicked Undo on what could have been a stunning, stark new direction for the series.)

    Yet another bogus new power made up here on the spot by this film’s writers. Purely to unravel things being really different for a main character after the film’s events.

    I guess that for this version of Perry and Jimmy, the Prez and bored NASA, smashed-taxi driver and giggling phone booth hurricane survivor, parents of Niagara Falls brat and Metropolis Mom with a saved baby, National Parks Service workers in South Dakota and the National Mall, Lex and Miss Techmacher, kid-losing hicks of Idaho… and all the rest of the world… picking up the pieces after the evil Kryptonians’ rampage is just another dull day at the office. Only Lois would actually have any feelings about all that’s happened. Oh, really?

    The Forgetfulness Kiss doesn’t even work on its own terms. Lois is an ace investigative reporter, who always digs up the story! Unless the kiss also implanted a fully plausible set of false memories too, going deep into very uncomfortable Mind Control Manipulation territory for the big Boy Scout, wouldn’t she investigate her own mysterious amnesia about her own immediate past? Wouldn’t she want to continue learning all about Superman? Retrace his steps to save Earth from the Evil Trio?

    I’m familiar with the first pair of Superman films. Loved the detailed scene by scene coverage, Danny. Never saw Swamp Thing, but I’m confident that I’ll be able to easily follow along as you explain it.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I remember being annoyed at Lois for being so hysterical the next day and thought at this point in their conversation

    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!

    he realized she’d call him the wrong name or blab about his secret to someone, but yeah, the amnesia kiss was a bad way to resolve it.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. In the Superboy comics there was a character named Pete Ross, a high school classmate of Clark’s who discovered his secret identity but never told anyone, not even Clark himself. He tried to help out the Big Guy where he could but had to be very careful not to give himself away. It might have been interesting to put Lois in that position, in possession of the world’s greatest secret but unable to share it and having to suffer in silence. But that would’ve required a complete re-write of the script.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. I think you explained why the movie couldn’t give Lois and Clark/ Kal-El/ Supey a happy ending when you referred to “a cliffhanger pointing to a second film they weren’t sure was going to happen.” Pair those two off at the end of this movie, and you commit yourself to explaining in the next movie how they sort out their relationship. Since it’s probably going to be two or three years until they can get that next movie into the theaters, assuming that this one is a big enough hit to justify making it and they can get the actors to come back, that’s a long time for people to be sitting around making the old schoolyard jokes about the dangers of sex with Superman.

    And of course by renouncing his superpowers and his connection to Krypton in order to choose a human life he could share with Lois, Clark was acknowledging that to he can’t be a whole person if he scatters himself among his three identities. He has to commit himself to one of them. Lois’ last name fits this situation well, since by choosing her, he is “picking a lane,” as the saying goes. Once he finds that he has to undo that choice, that Superman has to be his real identity and Clark Kent just an alias, a happy ending is foreclosed.

    What he really needed in Superman III was another superhero to bond with. I remember when I first saw that Richard Pryor was going to be in the movie, thinking that Richard Pryor was something like a superhero- I mean, he was VERY funny- so maybe Superman would find meaning in a friendship with him.

    As it turns out, Pryor was the last person who should have been in that movie. The first movie dwelt at elephantine length on the loneliness that faces Superman on Earth, and this movie, in its deft way, gives us just enough of that theme to make us uncomfortable. Since Pryor was a great artist of loneliness, who time and again took the moments when he was most alone and turned them into impossibly hilarious stories, seeing him next to the Big Blue Cheese when neither of them can find any companionship in the other strands each member of the audience in the most desolate solitude this side of the Smallville sequences in Superman: The Movie.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I may have to watch Superman Returns now I understand where it started from. I was thinking it was actually the way forward would have been the 3rd Superman-Lois story being Lois discovering she was pregnant and not have a memory of how. Then Lois would rediscover the story and tell him, none of this crap. That would have been an interesting story. I’d especially like the memory wipe not to continue to work on Lois as she figured stuff out she could have flashes remembering more and more.

    Like

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