Superman: Superman: The Movie part 5
Ninety minutes or so into Superman, Lex Luthor, in his luxurious basement, puts together a chain of logic that leads to a chance to murder Superman.
Here is his chain: Superman is from Krypton, which exploded. Exploding planets create debris. Debris, drifting through space, becomes meteorites. Meteorites from the exploded Krypton would have specific radioactive signatures. Ergo (his word), a meteorite from Krypton will kill Superman.
Let’s examine this a little more closely. Lex Luthor, by his own admission the most brilliant man in the world, has a plan to kill Superman that involves exposing him to a rock from his home planet. Let’s set aside, for the moment, the fact that no aspect of his chain of logic makes any sense whatsoever. The first question is, why does Lex Luthor need a plan to kill Superman? We know at this point that he has some kind of diabolical scheme in play, but why does that create a pressing need to kill Superman, indeed, a need that supersedes all planning for his nefarious plot? For that matter, why, if Lex Luthor has a diabolical scheme, do we never see him actually executing any aspect of that scheme? Ninety minutes into the movie, all we have seen Lex do is lounge, swim, proclaim his greatness, insult his underlings and bitch about stuff. Whatever his evil plot is, its implementation takes up not one second of his time.
Okay. So, Lex Luthor has a plan, which he doesn’t need to do any work to pursue, or at least any work that the cinematic narrative needs to examine, and he’s suspending whatever non-work he has to do in order to hatch a more pressing scheme to kill Superman. Why, again, does he need to kill Superman? Supeman doesn’t even know Lex exists, much less know anything about his evil plan. Lex is “worried” in a vague sense that Superman might foil his scheme, but he has no evidence whatsoever that this is a genuine threat to his activities. Then, on top of that, his plan to kill Superman involves this thing with a meteorite, which makes sense on no level at all. In Lex’s mind, meteorite = rock from Krypton, and rock from Krypton = death to Superman. The fact that this turns out to be true is coincidence, the opposite of a conclusion brought about through deductive reason.
What is going on here? Why does the screenplay for Superman, ninety minutes in, at a point where most movies are wrapping up their climaxes, suddenly, and without any narrative logic at all, create a plot to kill its title character? The answer, I think, is that the filmmakers think that the audience expects that to happen. They think that the audience expects from a superhero narrative a cartoonish, blustering buffoon of a villain, one with nothing better to do with his time than plot evil schemes to foil our hero. Where does this come from? I don’t know. Even the dumbest villains from the Batman TV show still did things in pursuit of a goal, not just because they’re evil. “Because he’s bad” is the laziest motivation for a villain. No villain in real life is motivated by “Because I’m Bad.” Even Satan has a legitimate beef against God. The narrative of Superman snaps like a twig here, all the stuff about who Kal-El is, what his father wanted, what Jonathan Kent wanted, what choices Kal-El will make now that he’s a man, all those worthwhile narrative concerns are thrown right out the window when the movie needs to find a “plot” for Superman to address. It settles for the most generic kind of dualism: “I must kill Superman because he’s good and I’m bad.” It’s that moment when the filmmakers betray their audience because, deep down, they don’t like their source material, don’t think it’s worthy of serious attention, think it’s for indiscriminate children.
(PS: a bad-guy plot that revolves around “Because I hate the protagonist” is only one step up in its worthlessness.)
In any case, ninety-seven minutes into the movie, Lex actually sets about putting his primary evil scheme into motion, which involves locating nuclear missile convoys and changing the programming on the missiles. Because the army and navy are, for some reason, practicing a joint nuclear-missile test that day. While Lex re-programs the missiles, Lois interviews a Native American about the crazy guy who’s been buying up worthless desert land.
What’s Superman doing during all this? Nothing. He’s not out rescuing cats, he’s not stopping jet planes from crashing, he’s not foiling criminals. He’s just kind of wandering around like a doofus in his Clark Kent getup, wondering what to do next. It’s almost like we’ve suddenly entered into a much different, much dumber movie, more like Batman: The Movie, something much campier and low-stakes. For all its spectacle, the final act of Superman chucks all the gravity and mythos-building of its first half and settles for a plot better suited for a low-budget serial.
So Lex lures Superman to his lair, to have him trapped while his plot goes into motion. His re-programmed missiles are launched (apparently no one in either the army or navy would bother to check the coordinates before launch) and he calmly explains his plot to Superman. Superman, with all his powers, is apparently a complete idiot with no detective skills whatsoever. He can hear things from miles away, but he doesn’t know when Lois has gone on assignment, he can see through anything move with the speed of light but has to stand and listen patiently for a villain to slowly explain his plot. This, alas, is, I think, how America likes its heroes: physically impressive, not too bright.
Luthor’s plan, for those not in the know, involves dropping one of his re-programmed missiles on the San Andreas fault, which will plunge California into the sea and create a new West Coast, owned by Lex. Settting aside for the moment that none of Lex’s ideas are factually based, his plan creates an enormous Monday Morning problem: on Monday, after California has plunged into the sea, millions of people have been killed, hundreds of cities have been lost, why does Lex think he’ll be able to keep his land? Why does he think that the US government will just say “Well, he bought the land fair and square, he owns it now, maybe he caused the greatest loss of life in human history do it but a contract is a contract?”