Superman III 4.9: The Wizard

I mean, these days Gus Gorman would probably be the hapless head of a secretly bankrupt crypto exchange, breathlessly spinning imaginary plates and having no idea why people even believe in him.

“You start with a company that builds a box,” he would explain. “And of course, so far, we haven’t exactly given a compelling reason for why there ever would be any proceeds from this box, but I don’t know, you know, maybe there will be, so that’s sort of where you start.

“And now all of a sudden everyone’s like, wow, people just decided to put $200 million in the box. This is a pretty cool box, right? Like, this is a valuable box, as demonstrated by all the money that people have apparently decided should be in the box. And who are we to say that they’re wrong about that? Like, you know, this is, I mean boxes can be great. Look, I love boxes as much as the next guy.”

And there he flies, bold Icarus, flapping his waxen wings en route to the sky, and then the sea. We are strangely vulnerable to know-nothing hucksters, it appears, especially in tech, where people remake the world by typing things. And there’s Gus Gorman, fast-talking his way to illusory riches, and everybody marvels: look at all those pretty red flags, waving in unison.

As Gus Gorman and his fellow techbros know only too well, some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some just kind of randomly have greatness that comes out of nowhere, as a plot device in a story that they probably think they’re the heroes of.

“Hello,” chirps the Webscoe Payroll Division, and who says user interfaces were unfriendly back in 1983? I don’t know how it works at any other multinational, but the Webscoe Industries computer interface is unbelievably eager to please. You just type “Overide all security”, and it goes ahead and overides it for you. Consider it overided, is the instantaneous response.

This is the moment where the movie hacker is supposed to rub their hands and announce, “We’re in!” but it’s 1983 and they haven’t discovered the concept of “in” yet.

Here in the tech space of 1983, almost anything is possible, except a color monitor and a readable font. Master the command line, and the world is yours to command. You can plot two bilateral coordinates at the same time, direct a weather satellite to create bad weather, analyze the composition of an unknown imaginary space mineral, and reconfigure payroll operations, even if you’re not an expert in those fields and you don’t even know how your paycheck works.

In fact, if you can speak computer, then it doesn’t matter whether you know anything at all — the computer knows how, and all you have to do is ask, often in plain English. The first time we see Gus Gorman sitting at his instrument making the numbers dance, the dazzled data school instructor asks him, “How did you do that?” and Gus answers, “I don’t know. I just… did it.” And then he does it again.

There is a tension in Superman III between Gus’ apparent intellectual demeanor and his uncanny abilities at the keyboard. This tension is not resolved in any way, and your reaction to that can color your view of the film considerably.

You can easily imagine the exact same plot structure with a know-it-all whiz kid, some kind of impishly neurodivergent spindly guy with coke-bottle glasses who actually knows what bilateral coordinates are before he starts plotting them. That character would suit this movie all the way down to the ground, reducing things to an easily recognizable cliche that the audience doesn’t have to think very hard about.

But they cast Richard Pryor for this role, and they want some kind of approximation of his stand-up persona. That character, the on-stage “Richard Pryor”, is not a highly educated guy. He’s a street-level striver, a trickster who learned how to stay out of trouble through painful trial and error. He imitates winos and junkies, and talks about sex and money and systematic injustice as experienced by himself and the people he knows. He doesn’t talk about going to college and getting an engineering degree.

So the joke is that they’re taking that guy, and dropping him into the know-it-all whiz kid role with no advance notice. The smart-person stuff pours out of his fingers somehow, while he stands by, just as stunned as everyone else. You could describe Gus as an idiot savant, but he’s more like an apprentice wizard, decreed by destiny to wield great power that he currently can hardly control.

Because that’s how all this computer mumbo-jumbo feels, for the technically un-savvy producers of this film. Computer code is a collection of magic spells, and a facility for making the machines dance could manifest spontaneously, even in deeply unlikely places.

When the audience knows what Gus is trying to accomplish — steal all the half-pennies, or define a target in longitude and latitude — then he talks to the computer in plain English. When he’s doing something that sounds tech-y, like reprogramming a satellite to shoot lasers at the clouds over South America, then he types a series of impenetrable runes and sigils, like *S# A1 E9 PJC { V 2T2 S 00 {

oh. I just typed that, and now my computer is telling me that I’ve bypassed the firewall, and hacked into the mainframe. Oh, my gosh. We’re in!

Tomorrow:
4.10: The Big Fire


Footnotes

The quote at the beginning of this post is scam artist Sam Bankman-Fried, who was heralded as the lead character of cryptocurrency until November 2022, when his company FTX shattered spectacularly and exposed him as the fraud that he obviously always was.

The quote is from an April appearance on Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast, where he described “yield farming” in a way that made it unbelievably clear that his business was a Ponzi scheme based entirely on hype. This was seven months before the collapse, and apparently nobody realized that it was a confession, except for me and everyone else on Reddit. Here’s a transcript of the interesting part.

Tomorrow:
4.10: The Big Fire

Chapters

— Danny Horn

10 thoughts on “Superman III 4.9: The Wizard

  1. There’s definitely tension between how Richard Pryor acts and how brilliant his character as soon as he sits down with a computer. But somehow I don’t have a big problem with this. Sometimes a person is just a natural at something. It’s rare, but once in a while a novice will leapfrog trained professionals in just months of practice because it turns out they had an undiscovered genius for one particular thing. Another thing you’ll notice about prodigies is that they can’t verbalize how they do it; they’re actually baffled as to why others *can’t* do that thing as easily as they can.

    The novelization (which I used to have, but can’t find now) has a remarkable passage which describes the inner workings of Gus Gorman’s mind as he walks around Metropolis and flicks his yo-yo up and down, making it clear that there’s way more going on upstairs than one would expect. He actually does have (going by the book’s depiction) a neurodivergent and hyperactive brain, and it’s spinning in circles just begging for something to challenge it. The yo-yo he always has with him (visible in one of your pictures above) is a way to release some of that mental energy in the form of nervous physical action. Whether this is made clear in the *movie* is a whole ‘nother matter.

    Of course you’re right that the depiction of how Gus talks to computers is typical Hollywood technobabble, and it tends to make the whole situation seem childish and implausible. Unfortunately that’s just setting the tone for the rest of the movie….

    P.S.: Gus is one of two secret geniuses in this movie, and we’ve already seen the first one briefly.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Wwlcome back, Danny. As always, we missed you.

    I get my news from Fark, and they’ve been characterizing crypto as a scam from near the beginning. The underlying idea, blockchain, seemed sound, but then it turned into “currency.” As soon as money becomes a factor, the hustlers show up. As they did with programming.

    Some things shouldn’t go together, like Pryor and a nerd, or computers and crooks. But money makes people do stupid things.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Richard Pryor’s standup bits felt like they were improvised, but if you study them you can see that he achieved that effect by polishing them endlessly. So I’m sure he spent a lot of time typing. But you know, that isn’t the part of his work that I actually want to see on screen. Kind of like putting Bob Todd in the movie to play the part of a man who does nothing but wear a suit and walk down the street- Todd was a real pro at those two things, no doubt about it, but you expect a bit more from him.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “And there’s Gus Gorman, fast-talking his way to illusory riches, and everybody marvels: look at all those pretty red flags, waving in unison.”
    It seems that Gus bears a certain similarity to Ilya Salkind.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Maybe Gus is a technopath, able to communicate with machines and computers. So while we only see him typing a few things, he actually in deeper communication with the computers and letting them know what he really wants so the typed commands don’t really matter.

    Or, again, that was a hell of a computer class he took!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s also possible that Gus discovered an incredible hack by accident, seeing as he didn’t even spell “OVERIDE” correctly. It could be that the computer’s command parser wasn’t designed well, and the invalid word caused a buffer overflow which overwrote his user account’s permissions with all ‘1’s.

      If you watch the scene, the computer screen freaks out after he types this, printing random gibberish in a manner that’s familiar to any old-school programmer who has gone out of bounds with their memory access. After this, the computer informs him that access is permitted.

      P.S.: Do I believe a word of what I just wrote? Nope. But it’s entertaining to consider.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Danny! Welcome back!

    The uncanny valley is a phrase used most often to describe the weirdness of F/X and computer images that almost but noooot quite look realistic—the small, granular difference rubs the eye and troubles the mind.

    I think the same can be said for Pryor and others’ wild abilities–everyone at the company is a computer nerd, way before those were cool, when Silicon Valley was just a bunch of beaten-on-in-school angry young men with dreams and the freakish patience needed to construct and control these machines. Everyone there understands the basics of what they’re doing, of course. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there at all. So it’s not like they don’t get the theory, in theory.

    But it’s like knowing how to tie your shoes, and then running into someone who routinely uses their shoelaces to weave golden webs that catch the stars, and is bewildered that nobody else can do that, that they’re actually envious and afraid of him for being able to.

    It can be done; he’s there doing it, you’re watching him do it, he’s using a skill you have, not some arcane lunacy. But you can’t do it. That secret is invisible to you. It’s not fair, why can he do it and not you?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Unfortunately the writers of the film failed to understand that this is a comic book story. Gus needed to have one of the following:

    1. Gus, while jaywalking, is struck by a cab. He wakes up in the hospital with amazing new mental faculties.
    2. Gus is walking and reading a newspaper when he falls down a manhole into a puddle of purple goo. The goo is quickly absorbed into his skin.
    3. Gus wanders away from the tour at the Metropolis Natural History Museum and finds himself in the Egyptian Room. He opens a sealed chest and is enveloped by a cloud of orange dust.
    4. Gus gets a night job at NeuroQuest Laboratory, and accidentally spills a beaker of something labelled “INTELLECTIUM”. He mops it up with a towel and some gets on his skin.
    5. Gus is walking late at night and is abducted by a UFO. He is subject to weird tests, and zapped with a blue electrical discharge.

    Any one of these scenarios would be more than enough to explain his amazing abilities with computers. Even being bitten by a radioactive nerd would go a long way.

    Liked by 4 people

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