Monday, September 5, 2016

Clear Images, pt 2: The Problem of Lois

Man, to Hell with these script revisions...

What does Lois Lane see in Clark Kent? It's sort of obvious what she sees in Superman, the alien demigod who effortlessly saved her from a helicopter crash in the previous film. He's otherworldly, powerful, and masculine; the journalistic story of a lifetime; and a stark contrast to nebbishy Clark, who has apparently never so much as thrown a punch in his entire goddamn life. That's generally been the dynamic in the comics, and while it gets briefly upset in Superman II, everything eventually resets.

This is a problem. Of course, these are Superman movies and not Lois Lane movies, but, for a character that is arguably the most important one other than the title character in the whole Superman mythos, Lois Lane gets shockingly little to do, and a dim and foggy sense of her motivation to boot. Everyone else's motives in this film are clear: Clark wants to be with Lois. Zod and Lex Luthor both want power. The President wants to save lives. Even Perry White, Trucker Guy, and Superman's Dead Mom have recognizable through-lines in this film, whereas Lois' just evaporates around the first hour mark.

To her credit, Lois Lane starts to get the idea that Clark Kent is Superman fairly early on in Superman II. He makes a little slip-up and she becomes dogged and relentless in her pursuit of the Story of Him. And then she finds out. She confesses her love, and then...nothing. Once she uncovers the truth, the film essentially robs her of all agency. She becomes a prop, a McGuffin to be kidnapped by Kryptonian supercriminals.

Do The Thing or the Broad Gets It!

It's probably impossible to talk about Superman II without discussing the film's troubled production history, but the Lester version is superior to the Donner one in this respect: it gives Lois Lane something to do, before all her agency is drained away. Long before interlocking cross-promotional juggernaut that is Marvel Studios' superhero franchise, both Superman and its sequel were filmed back-to-back. Unfortunately, both for Superman director Richard Donner as well as the sequel itself, Donner was sacked midway through the production of Superman II. Much of his work was reshot under director Richard Lester, including the film's beginning. Donner ties the release of the film's three Kryptonian insurgents to that nuclear missile Superman hurled in to space back at the climax of the first film. Lester, instead, drops that plot thread, and, needing a new space-nuke, concocts a plot by vaguely-defined French terrorists to blow up Paris with a hydrogen bomb.

This leads to Lois Lane's best scene in the film, when she talks her way past an incompetent French policeman into the Eiffel tower, where the terrorists are planning to set up their bomb (natch). She's not quite fearless, in fact she's terrified, but she's going to charge in there anyway. Margot Kidder comes under a lot of fire for her portrayal of Lane--some of it deserved--but here, she shines.

Say it with me: "P U L I T Z E R."

Unfortunately, that's about all we get. The next time we see her, Lois and Clark are on some vaguely-defined investigation into a shady hotel at Niagara Falls, which requires them, in the tradition of many the sitcom and the softcore, to pose as newlyweds.

It's there that the movie briefly segues into the plot of any given Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane comics from the 1950's, where the Daily Planet's Star Reporter tries some ludicrous and potentially dangerous method of proving that Clark Kent is Superman. (In Lester's version she hurls herself into the river. In Donner's she shoots Clark.) Then she finds out, and it's Date Nite at the Fortress of Solitude. After having The Talk with a hologram of his dead Mom (who was presumably reading "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" by Larry Niven) Clark resolves to give up his power in order to be with Lois, romantically. At one point, Lois nearly speaks up, walking in on this Last Son and Dead Mom gab session, but she doesn't. What was she going to say?

Note that while Clark parts his hair on the right and Superman parts his hair on the left, this version of Clark/Kal wears his hair in an unruly mop, similar to Clark's old hair but also to Jeff East's as Young Clark in the first film.

The two of them get busy and head back to the States (Superman apparently stashed a 1977 Celica in the Fortress of Solitude just for this occasion, which rises to the level of preparedness usually associated with DC's other big ticket.

Who's a pirate's favorite Batman?

All the while this romance has been going on, those Phantom Zone criminals have been terrorizing a caricature of Middle America, before Zod finally travels to Washington and boredly installs himself as God-Emperor. Clark spends about a day as a Normal Man before finding this out, mere seconds after losing his first fist-fight, with an odious trucker, a small-time General Zod himself, that diner where Clark meets him his own personal Krypton. In the first encounter with a human being not explicitly in love with him, Clark Kent gets the shit kicked out of him, a scene that is a microcosm of the larger lesson General Zod was going to teach him anyway: there are bullies out there.

On a plot level, this scene is unnecessary. Clark was going to turn on the news eventually, and go back to the Fortress to regain his power because of it. The diner scene is all about themes. It's telling that Clark's first instinct in dealing with this idiot is to pick a fight with him, just like he used to do with bank robbers and would-be despots. It goes spectacularly poorly. When he returns from the Arctic, powers restored, however, he does the same thing: he picks a fight. Now: Clark Kent, a baseline human, has to be about as strong as Captain Odious, also a baseline human. His powers restored, Superman faces off against three people equally as able to wreck a city as he is. There wasn't much of a learning curve to these Phantom Zone types figuring out their abilities. He's more than evenly matched.

He wins, perhaps because he's his authentic self as Superman, and not as Clark. Indeed, by the end of the film, the balance of his life has been completely restored: through an unsettling use of his power set, Clark robs Lois of her memories of the past few days, returning everything to the status quo. This is her final indignity and loss of agency: she isn't even allowed to mourn her wrecked relationship. Lois, pre-kiss, knows they can't be together, that even if the world weren't governed by the rules of humorous Larry Niven essays, Clark will always be in and out, gone in a flash to some crisis somewhere. So, to spare her pain, he erases her memory.


This is, to say the least, deplorable, even moreso down the line in Superman IV and Superman Returns. One of the main criticisms I and other Superman fans leveled at Man of Steel is what we all felt was a level of character assassination, but that's just as well on display here. After spending the last act of Superman II as merely a cipher, Lois is arbitrarily retconned, disallowed from choosing her own path. Only the strength of the actors and a healthy, heaping dose of nostalgia rescue the film from this scene. It's completely fucking awful.

It also raises the question: What does Superman see in Lois Lane? Or in any human for that matter? Lester's version has the memory kiss, which is terrible, but Donner's version would have ended with Superman once-again reversing time and ensuring that the Phantom Zone criminals never escaped. What the hell good are any of his human relationships if they are devoid of consequence? If every slight can be wiped away with a kiss, every missed birthday taken care of with a bit of time travel, how can any meaning take shape?

The imagery of Superman is richly symbolic. Here's this guy, who keeps hidden the brightly-colored truth about himself behind a conservative, bespectacled, buttoned-down exterior. To quote Grant Morrison, who wrote probably the greatest Superman story of all time, "That 'S' is the radiant emblem of divinity we reveal when we rip off our stuffy shirts, our social masks, our nerouses,our constructed selves, and become who we truly are." I love this. It is one of my favorite aspects of the character. The problem with it, however, is its universality forces Lois Lane in to a similarly universal role: that of the Object, of She Who Reacts. It's unfair to her as a character, and the editorial mandate that returned everything to status quo at the end of Superman II is similarly unfair.

It seems clear no one at the time thought this was a bad thing. Indeed, it's shown as a sacrifice Clark is making, as is the earlier scuppering of his powers. Everyone making this film, and surely most people watching this in 1980, thought this was a tragic denouement with the hero giving up his love to return to his solitary vigil. With the benefit of thirty-six years of hindsight, however, it's a failure. Superman II utterly fails the character of Lois Lane, and in doing so damages the human core of what makes the character great.

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