The end of Superman

Everyone rolls their eyes at the end of Superman The Movie (1978), but I don’t think many people see past the ridiculous implausibility of spinning the earth backwards. The problems with Superman go far beyond that artless device.

As you probably know, at the end of Superman, Superman is so overwhelmed with grief at the death of Lois Lane that he is moved to fly around and around the earth at impossible speeds, causing the earth to reverse the direction of its rotation and thereby reversing the flow of time. All of the damage wrought in California by Lex Luthor’s nuclear missile is undone and Lois Lane is resurrected. When Superman is satisfied, he does a 180 and flies around and around the earth in the other direction, reversing its rotation once more so that time can flow forward.

Now, the obvious criticisms go like this: Superman clearly exceeds the speed of light, which is impossible; something the size of a man, even exceeding the speed of light, couldn’t appreciably alter the earth’s motion simply by swooping around and around it for several seconds; and altering the speed or direction of the earth’s rotation, far from affecting the flow of time, would wreak tremendous havoc as oceans slosh out of their basins, etc.

The whole sequence is so laughably ludicrous that it’s understandable if most people look no further for flaws.

But we’re talking about a man who can fly, see through solid objects, and lift the continental shelf over his head. Those things are impossible. It’s hardly sporting to suspend disbelief for those things and not for the others. So let’s grant Superman the ability to reverse time by flying around the earth. There are still big problems with the events in the latter part of the movie.

  • When Lex Luthor explains his plan to Superman, he says one nuclear missile is targeted for New Jersey and one for California. “Even you, with your great speed, could not stop both of them.” And it turns out Luthor’s right — Superman fails to stop one from hitting California because he’s busy chasing the other one. But just a few minutes later he can circumnavigate the entire globe multiple times in less than a second, so why didn’t he pour it on earlier? He knew the stakes. Was he slacking?
  • In choosing to reverse time, Superman expressly contravenes Jor-El’s stern admonition: “It is forbidden for you to interfere in human history.” In storytelling terms, making the choice to disobey this clear edict needs to have dire consequences, both for Superman (because it’s his father he’s disobeying) and for humanity (because its history is being interfered with). But there aren’t any repercussions at all. Quite the opposite. So why does Jor-El intone his warning so gravely? Why mustn’t Superman interfere with human history? Is Jor-El all wet?
  • When time is flowing in reverse, the many calamities caused by Lex Luthor’s missile rewind: the bursting dam unbursts; the San Andreas fault heals itself; etc. All the rescues that Superman performed must also rewind — the school bus dangling over the edge of the Golden Gate bridge, the train about to derail, etc. But in order for those to rewind, Superman has to be present — and he’s not! He’s busy swooping around the world.
  • After reversing time and then restoring time, what prevents the exact same calamitous events from unfolding once more?
  • At the very end, Superman deposits Lex Luthor and Otis within the walls of a penitentiary. On what legal grounds can they be held? By reversing time, Superman undid the crime we witnessed. No one but Superman has any memory of what happened.
  • Having discovered the efficacy of reversing time, Superman is morally obliged to reuse the technique whenever he fails to prevent a disaster, such as when the Kryptonian outlaws devastate Metropolis in Superman II. But he doesn’t.

I could never have put these observations into words when I was 12 and first saw Superman, but I was vaguely aware of these problems all the same. That awareness chafed. I understand how bad scripts get written. The thing I don’t get is how I overlooked these flaws so readily, because at age 12 I was a huge fan of the film.

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