Superman II 2.54: The Scene of the Crime

With Lex Luthor and the three Kryptonian villains either imprisoned, abandoned or vaporized, and Lois Lane memory-wiped by an oscular neuralyzer, there’s only one problem left to resolve in the final scenes of Superman II, which is the punishment due to Rocky, a Canadian truck driver who’s mildly insulting when he orders a second plate of food at his favorite diner.

“Hey, Ron?” he grouches, midway through a mouthful. “Gimme another plate of this garbage.”

“Garbage?” retorts the crabby waitress. “That’s my number-one special, Rocky!”

“All right!” he groans, abandoning the argument. “Get me some more coffee too, will ya?” He doesn’t even say “please”. Clearly this man is a major threat to world security who needs to be mercilessly crushed before he strikes again.

So in walks our hero, Superman, champion of the weak and the oppressed, who decides that the guy who makes life at a shitty roadside diner a fraction of a degree less pleasant needs to be taught a valuable lesson about how to comport himself, through the medium of putting him in the hospital.

The last time we saw Rocky was during the territorial battle for counter space, which he tried to de-escalate several times, only to be forced back into combat over and over until he finally had to flee the diner to escape Clark and Lois’ demented persecution. This is probably the first time he’s worked up the courage to go back and have another meal, and who walks in but his nemesis, the nerdy guy with glasses who refuses to admit that the fight is over.

And then Superman — an inhumanly strong extraterrestrial star warrior who can destroy things just by looking at them — breaks all of the bones in Rocky’s hand, and then picks up the injured and visibly terrified man, sending him on a one-way trip down the lunch counter that ends in a terrific crash as his spine makes contact with a pinball machine.

Glass shatters beneath him, as he struggles to retain consciousness. He is almost certainly concussed, and it’s very likely that he’s sustained crippling damage to his neck and back.

Assuming that he pulls through, Rocky will spend months in physical therapy, trying to regain a full range of motion. He may never be able to walk unassisted again. He’ll lose his job as a long-haul trucker, driving his family to the brink of poverty and weakening the global supply chain. Plus, he never got that second helping of food, so on top of everything else, he’s still hungry.

This is an odd thing for Superman to do, especially given the commitment that the filmmakers have made to protecting his boy-scout image. Over the course of two movies, he has never struck a human being, even when a criminal hits him over the head with a crowbar. Lex Luthor tried to kill millions of people with his insane missile scheme, and Superman didn’t break Luthor’s bones, or throw him into a wall. He just picked him up by the scruff of the neck and transported him safely to prison.

But Rocky — a guy who has done nothing of any real consequence — is given a one-way ticket to critical condition.

Surprisingly, this weird violation of Superman’s core principles is not the result of someone meddling with Dick Donner’s original vision of the character. The diner scenes were written by Tom Mankiewicz and shot by Donner, during the production of the first movie. For some reason, Donner thought that lashing out at someone who you find exasperating is acceptable and even heroic. I wonder where he got that idea?

Oh, right — this fucking guy. While Superman was fighting demented space invaders and uppity truck stop clientele, Donner was fighting producer Pierre Spengler, who believed that “on time and under budget” was an actual thing. I’ve written a lot about the Salkinds and their financial crime syndicate, but I haven’t paid much attention to Spengler, who was the person that Donner actually hated the most.

Here’s what Donner said in a Summer 1979 interview in Cinefantastique:

Spengler was the liaison to Alexander Salkind, and he supposedly had this knowledge of production — but my God, I’ve been in this business long enough to know what a producer is, and it was ridiculous for him to have taken this job. As far as I was concerned, he didn’t have any knowledge at all about producing a film like that. If he’d been smart, he’d have just laid back and let us do it; instead, he tried to impose himself. So not only did we end up producing it, in a sense, we also had to counter-produce what he was doing.

Of course, you can’t actually say stuff like that about one of your producers to literally everybody who asks, and then get invited back to film the sequel, which is why Donner was removed from the production.

I’ll be wrapping up my Superman II coverage in tomorrow’s post, so I’m about to bid farewell to Dick Donner and his entertaining grudges. As a fond farewell, I’m going to give you a few excerpts from Pierre Spengler’s Cinefantastique rebuttal in the Fall 1981 issue, just to show you what Donner was up against.

Because Spengler really does come off like somebody that you absolutely do not want to work with. Here’s what he says:

You wish to reply to our interview with Richard Donner?

I found the statements Donner made in your magazine slanderous and childish. I don’t want to answer in such a childish way. I shall only say that I have proven, with Richard Lester, that a Superman film could be made more efficiently and economically. Period.

What’s left of Donner’s work in Superman II?

If we talk in screen time, 75 percent of what appears on the screen is Lester’s work. Out of the 25 percent left, 10 percent is the work of second unit directors from the Donner period, and only the remaining 15 percent, including the credit sequence which uses footage from Superman, is Donner’s.

In the Superman films, you are credited as producer. What’s your exact role in the production triad you form with Alexander and Ilya Salkind?

I know I am busy from dawn to dusk, but it’s hard for me to explain exactly what I do. Ilya Salkind and I form a kind of double-headed hydra, but, roughly speaking, we share the job this way: he is more involved in casting, promotion and publicity, while I am concerned with the day-to-day work, whether it’s the shooting, the editing, or the mixing of the film. It’s difficult to give details about that. I can’t be more specific, but I know I arrive to see the rushes in the morning, and I am busy in my office till 9pm!

Can you say how much the film cost exactly?

[After a 28 second pause] The figure was published in Screen International last year at the Cannes Festival — $109 million for the two films.

Which means…?

Which means? Which means it should have cost much less, say half of it.

Because of Donner?

No comment.

What are Lester’s qualities as a director?

Lester is a man who can make decisions and stick to them.

But that’s word-for-word what [special effects director] Colin Chilvers said about Donner!

Did he really? Well, if he did, that just shows that a technician’s point of view may vary from a producer’s! Lester does not need twenty-seven takes to shoot a scene, if you see what I mean. Lester is a man who has his editing pre-planned and can do his editing while shooting. Lester works fast.

But these are only the qualities of a good craftsman.

Lester brought much more than his craftsmanship: the Newmans did their rewrite in collaboration with him. He contributed a lot of changes to the Niagara and the East Houston scenes. He strongly helped define the relations between the villains. He came up with the idea of the kiss for the final scene. No, he is not only an adroit technician; his contribution, to a very large extent, was an artistic one.

In fact, when we had brought him in on Superman, we had not meant just to use him as a bumper between Donner and me. We had hoped Donner would accept him as a true consultant. But, as you know, Donner would not have it that way. But let’s be fair; I insist Donner’s Superman was a good Superman. Only now I have to say I hope I can do many more films with Lester.

How do you deal with technical matters on such an enterprise?

I personally am not on the set very often. But I have meetings with the technicians and the director whenever we try to reduce the expenses. For instance, Derek Meddings had thought three different models would be needed for the shooting of a scene. After a meeting with Lester, we found a way to work without the medium-size model.

May I say I am somewhat surprised that you seem to be very reserved about Superman — if not reserved, then not overenthusiastic?

Do I? Probably because I must behave in interviews the way I have to when I negotiate contracts. Do I have to support my project anyway? Its success is enough to do that now.

So there you go — as far as I’m concerned, that clears up all of my questions about Rocky and the diner. If I had to work with Pierre Spengler every day until 9pm, I’d be ready to toss people into pinball machines too.

Rest in peace, sweet Rocky. You were always my number-one special.

Tomorrow:
2.55: One Hundred and Eight Million Dollars

Chapters

— Danny Horn

8 thoughts on “Superman II 2.54: The Scene of the Crime

    1. RIP Mr Martin. It always fascinates me when a person whose name comes up in connection with something they did long ago turns out to have died very recently.

      He did a fine job as Rocky. Even though the character doesn’t actually do anything to merit the violence meted out to him in this scene, he played him with such menace and general loathsomeness that I instantly identified him as “Bully” and couldn’t relax until I’d seen him definitively stopped.

      I see that Pepper Martin once appeared on POLICE WOMAN. I’d always thought the main character on that show was named Pepper Martin, but it turns out she was Pepper Anderson.

      As a fan of 60s vampire soap DARK SHADOWS, I was interested to note that Martin was a native of Hamilton, Ontario. DS fans of course know Hamilton as the birthplace of the series’ biggest breakout star, Lisa Blake Richards, who played two characters named Sabrina. Another Hamilton native, John “Jonathan” Frid, also appeared in the series; like Lisa Blake Richards, Frid played two roles.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. “I know I am busy from dawn to dusk, but it’s hard for me to explain exactly what I do. Ilya Salkind and I foI know I am busy from dawn to dusk, but it’s hard for me to explain exactly what I do. Ilya Salkind and I form a kind of double-headed hydrarm a kind of double-headed hydra”

    Really saying the quiet part loud, there, Spengler.

    To be fair, working with the Salkinds when you’re supposed to be in charge of the finances must have been one long wide awake nightmare where you’re suddenly told you’re the ringmaster of a circus, and the tent is on fire, the elephants have broken free and trampled half the audience, and the lion tamer has gone mad and is cavorting naked in the center ring.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “Ilya Salkind and I form a kind of double-headed hydra”
    This sounds like a scarier monster from the id than an upset evil Kryptonian, or a bad bear inside of you!

    To be fair, Spengler’s description sounds exactly like any line producer. Executive producer comes up with the money and some of the major decisions like director, cast, overall tone, and promotional strategy. Exactly what Ilya and his Dad did, even if they got the money in funny ways.

    Line producer works day to day to keep the production moving along. Hopefully not running off the rails, with two dozen more takes for a scene that don’t seem to make it any better.

    Bob Justman’s book about his work on the original Star Trek series is a great explanation of the job. Also a fun history of the show.

    Without knowing more of the story, nothing at all from these quotes would make me worried about working with Spengler, if I was a film guy. “Director shows up at six to start shooting, producer shows up at ten to start making phone calls.” Spengler’s role was to push on the schedule and budget, to get the film done. It was Ilya’s job to sell the hell out of it.

    “Lester is a man who has his editing pre-planned and can do his editing while shooting. Lester works fast.”

    Well yeah. If you throw away proper lighting and camera setups to shoot a movie like a TV comedy, of course you’re going to be faster than a Cinema Artiste. No wonder Donnor didn’t want that kind of “consulting” help.

    Lester “came up with the idea of the kiss for the final scene.”
    That sure explains some things, don’t it.

    “For some reason, Donner thought that lashing out at someone who you find exasperating is acceptable and even heroic.”
    Worst scene of the original version of the story. Gotta stop a Canadian who’s so out of control they’re sassy at the diner, before anyone else gets hurt! Give ’em a centimeter and they’ll take a kilometer! Vengeance you’d expect from the Godfather’s family, not from Superman. Pointlessly cruel. Out of character for Supes.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. So, if I remember correctly, in the Donner Cut, Superman winds back the world so that none of the events of the movie ever happened… and then STILL goes back to the diner to get revenge for a fight that now never took place?

    Like

  4. “He [Lester] came up with the idea of the kiss for the final scene.”

    So the director had to think up the climax to the whole character plot of the movie. Remind me… what do the writers do, again?

    Like

  5. I’m reminded of a quote (often misattributed to Maya Angelou): “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”—Carl W. Buehner

    Superman couldn’t forget how Rocky made him feel… like a weakling. So he had to prove to himself and Rocky that he wasn’t a weakling. I’m surprised he didn’t have Lois come with him to witness it, before he erased her memory, just for the satisfaction (he probably knew deep down she wouldn’t have approved, and that would’ve ruined the moment).

    Toxic masculinity at its worst. But hey, I guess nobody’s perfect, right?

    Like

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