WIJDW: Superman turning the world backwards
June 26, 2017/3 Comments/in Basic: Movies & TV, BLOGS, Chris Langs Commentaries /by Chris Lang
Hello and welcome to Why It Just Doesn’t Work (or WIJDW), where I take a look at moments within movies, television, comic books, or other media and explain why they just don’t work.
Okay, I’m running the risk of beating a dead horse here. As you’ve probably guessed from the title, this article is about the controversial conclusion of the 1978 classic Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve as Superman. And I know what you’re thinking: Hasn’t this already been talked about enough? Maybe, but there are a few points about it that I don’t think people have talked about enough. Mainly the fact that they get so carried away discussing the visual representation of the event that they don’t discuss the meaning of it.
Okay, first of all, let’s put it into context. Lex Luthor, with the assistance of a nuclear missile, has caused a devastating earthquake in California with the intention of causing California to sink into the sea so that he can purchase beachfront property on what becomes the new West Coast. Because Superman was distracted by stopping another missile, the earthquake still happens and Superman has to swoop in, save people, lessen the damage, and prevent the earthquake from being anywhere near as destructive as Luthor predicted.
However, while he is mostly successful, there is one person Superman fails to save from the disaster. Lois Lane is smothered to death by dirt when her car falls into a fissure caused by the earthquake. Superman pulls her car out, and then pulls her out of the car, but it is too late. He stands there over her body for a long time, in silence, until it’s too much. Letting out an anguished scream, he flies into the air and does the one thing he knows will save Lois: Break the rule against interfering in human history.
So, with his father’s edict “It is forbidden for you to interfere in human history” echoing in his head, Superman rewinds time to before most of the damage occurred, and we see a lot of the earthquake scenes backwards. He returns to find Lois Lane in her car on the road, perfectly fine, complaining about her car running out of gas.
Now, what most people talk about in regards to this scene is the way he turns back time, or rather the visual representation of it. We see Superman flying into Earth’s orbit, flying around the Earth and causing the Earth to spin in the opposite direction. This is highly regarded as silly and illogical. Making the Earth spin in the other direction would not turn back time. All it would do is make the sun rise in the west and set in the east, and probably cause more geological disturbances that Luthor’s missiles ever could.
So yes, if you take the visual representation of that scene literally, it’s ridiculous and nonsensical. But it could be argued that it’s supposed to be symbolic – Superman is not actually making the world spin backwards, it’s just a visual representation to convey to the audience that he is moving backwards in TIME. What we see is happening in time, but not in space. Or something like that.
But still, even with this in mind, the whole thing still doesn’t quite work, and here’s why.
First off, Superman has an accepted range of powers: Super strength, super speed, flying, invulnerability, X-Ray vision, heat vision, super cold breath, super powerful breath – that sort of thing. Sometimes he can do variations of those powers, and special tricks with them. And generally, we get to see him use those powers more than once, and so we’re comfortable with them.
However, rewinding time doesn’t seem to fit in with them. And rewinding time is exactly what we see: We don’t see him actually traveling back in time (and Silver Age to pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Bronze Age Superman did use his super-speed powers to travel through time on many occassions in the comics, only to become an invisible phantom observer in any time period in which he was already living) – no, instead we see him reversing time.
And this leads to the question: Why hasn’t he done this before, and why hasn’t he done this since? (And no, the Richard Donner cut of Superman II doesn’t count in this context). We’re led to believe that the only reason he hasn’t done it before is because the hologram of Jor-El (his Krypton father) told him that it was a no-no. (“It is forbidden for you to interfere in human history.”). And when he can’t save Lois any other way, he breaks that taboo, and he suffers no real unpleasant consequences for it.
Of course fan theory could run wild here, and people could even claim that he HAS done it dozens of times only we didn’t know about it. But I’m sticking strictly to what we see on-screen. As far as we know, this is the first and only time he has reversed time to get a better outcome than the one he was initially presented with. (And yes, we ALL wish we could do that. That’s part of the escapist fantasy. But I digress).
The ‘out of universe’ answer, of course, is that it would be just too easy. It’d be a cheap and easy way to resolve just about anything. Giant asteroid hits Earth? Reverse time. Metropolis wrecked by General Zod? Reverse time. Forget to pay a phone bill? Reverse time. And so on and so on, you get the idea.
But as far as we can tell, there’s no in-universe explanation for why he doesn’t do this trick again. He broke the rule just that once, and never again, and it’s never explained why he made the exception just that once. Is it simply because we never saw Lois get THAT close to dying again, and he only did it for Lois? It’s not as if this was some special ability that could only be used once and never again, after all.
So yes, reversing time still is a super-power that came out of nowhere (the line about it being forbidden for him to interfere in human history is not really adequate enough foreshadowing), and never used again. Much like the ‘rebuild the Great Wall of China vision’ power in one of the later (and much more derided) installments in the franchise.
And that, to me, is why the super-time reversal thing doesn’t quite work. Still, the movie holds up fairly well even though nowadays it’s an Unintentional Period Piece. Its depiction of life in the city, and the Daily Planet’s newsroom (where everyone uses typewriters and thus Lois is worried about spelling things correctly) certainly places this in the late 70s at least. But all in all, it still holds up as one of the better Superman films, despite the bizarre time reversal thing in the ending.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.
Tags: Lois Lane, Superman: The Movie, WIJDW
When originally posted, this blog received the following replies:
June 27, 2017 at 3:52 am
Hi Chris Lang. Excellent synopsis of the event. I’d have to put this down as an unknown superpower he has, as flying close to the speed of light in the real universe wouldn’t put you backward in time, it would put you forward into the future. My 10 year old self accepted it when I first saw it, and I’ve never wavered since. It’s like Steven Spielberg said about the last 10 minutes of “Jaws.” He remarked that if he had the audience hooked for 95% of the film, he could get away with anything(including have Brody shoot a scuba tank in it’s mouth to make it explode) at the end and the audience would buy it. He was right, too. I accepted Superman spinning the world backwards because the rest of the film had been perfect, my friend. Peace.
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June 27, 2017 at 3:56 am
Ah, yes. Mythbusters tackled the ‘shooting the scuba tank’ thing. They couldn’t get the tank to explode if I recall correctly.
June 26, 2017 at 5:09 pm
A subject talked to death about and very much a culture thing even now. In maybe another kind of film this could have worked, yet it just doesn’t quite fit what Superman is like. So this was a very on par of how it faired out. Good read this was, nicely done.