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 it should have cost much less, say half of it.
Because of Donner?
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.
— Danny Horn