Guest Star

If You Could Turn Back Time

supermanreeve 80.jpgYou remember the ending of the original Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve, directed by Richard Donner: Superman, too late to save Lois Lane, flies around the world at tremendous speed, reversing events so he can have another chance to save her. The facts seem straightforward, but I find that people do not agree on the interpretation of this scenario – and, in particular, what it means to spin the world backwards.

For the purposes of this article, I am going to dismiss the idea that Superman is just physically making the earth spin backwards and making events physically run backwards, rather than reversing time. Although that may be as plausible as the magical memory-erasing kiss from Superman II (directed by Richard Lester), I will work on the assumption that Superman is actually making time go backwards, or is actually going back in time.

I personally favor the idea that he is propelling himself backwards through time (perhaps by flying faster than the speed of light) rather than making time go backwards (perhaps by creating some kind of space-time vortex.) But this is where most people start to take sides. When Superman goes back in time (or makes time go backwards) does he go back to a past where he gets to relive these events and make different decisions (like in Groundhog Day, or Donnie Darko, or like returning to a saved point in a video game)? Or does he go back to a past where his past-self is still busy trying to save the world and he is free to do other things such as saving Lois Lane (following the time travel logic of movies like Back to the Future, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and any number Star Trek episodes)? Some people are averse to any suggestion of two co-existing Supermans.

supermantrain 250.jpgThere are compelling arguments on both sides. While the two-Superman time-loop theory explains why Superman is so nonchalant and apparently unconcerned about stopping Lex Luthor’s missiles (let alone saving the children on the bus or keeping the train from derailing) it does present a paradox if the earlier Superman is still supposed to go back in time. Once Lois Lane has been saved, what is his motivation for turning back time? And if he doesn’t go back in time, then how does Lois Lane get saved? For this to work, we have to assume other things are happening off-screen: the original Superman is doing pretty much all the same things we saw before (including being late to save Lois) and the Superman who traveled back in time will have to convince the original Superman to do the same (in order to complete the time-loop and avoid a temporal paradox.) Maybe that’s what he’s going to do when he tells Lois “I have to go.” He has to go intercept his past self and explain how he was too late to save Lois and will have to go back in time in order to rescue her.

Of course there are other possible permutations, none very satisfying: That Superman goes back in time, saves Lois, then goes back in time again in order to complete the time-loop (leaving his original self free to go forward in time.) A terrible sacrifice indeed. No wonder he hangs around for so long after rescuing Lois – what else has he got to look forward to?

Or perhaps once Lois has been saved, there’s no need for the original Superman to go back in time, so the Superman who went back in time ceases to exist. In this theory of time-travel, you can erase the cause of your own action without erasing the effect your action. So when Superman tells Lois, “I have to go” it’s because his time really is up and he is about to fade out of existence – as a direct result of having saved her life!

In contrast to the two-superman time-loop theory, there’s a simplicity to the singular Superman who goes back in time and gets to make different (and presumably more time-efficient) decisions so that he arrives in plenty of time to save Lois Lane. Furthermore, if for some reason he didn’t get it right the first time he went back, he can reboot this “do over” until he does get it right without worrying about running into other incarnations of himself. This model of time-travel doesn’t suffer from any obvious paradoxes, but it also isn’t as well grounded in the logic of serious science-fiction – and we still have to assume Superman does a lot of things off-screen before showing up to rescue Lois and exchange pleasantries.

I don’t know if the writers actually debated the mechanism of Superman’s backwards trip through time, or if they bothered to work out what else Superman would need to do differently after going back in time. Perhaps they were clever enough not to try. Or perhaps they didn’t care, simply satisfied at having found a narrative means to show how deeply Superman cares about Lois Lane.


This week the Gutter welcomes Guest Star, David Ferris. David Ferris spends a more than average amount of time considering the paradoxes or debating the logic of time-travel , though by day he is just another mild-mannered insurance administrator in the metropolis of Toronto, Canada.

7 replies »

  1. I’m fairly sure the writers of the increasingly lame Superman film series didn’t think about much at all. In fact, Dave, you’ve probably now offered more time and energy to the subject than any of the actual screenwriters. (Remember, these were the artistes who posited Luthor’s “evil genius plot” to steal nuclear missiles should hinge on a U.S. military convoy stopping at the sight of a prone Valerie Perine.) The question that always dogs my mind – and actually dogged my mind when I saw the film as a kid – is why Superman didn’t reverse time to an earlier point; perhaps a point at which he could more conveniently stop Luthor’s plot?


  2. Hi John,
    You idea about Superman reversing time (or flying backwards through time) to an earlier point isn’t a bad explanation of what Superman could have done to buy himself more time with Lois. He goes back in time, stops the missiles before they launch, then waits around for Lois’ car to stall so he can provide some roadside assistance.
    For your suggestion I’d give you a “No Prize” except this is DC, not the Marvel Universe.
    Although I have to admit, having recently re-watched that part of the movie on TV, it doesn’t look like Superman turns the world back any farther than the point where the ground cracks open under Lois. Also, if the nuclear missiles don’t explode in space, that plays hell with the continuity for the next movie, where that explosion is what breaks Zod & Co. out of the Phantom Zone.


  3. I’m inclined to agree with John, considering how many plotholes and lousy writing went into those movies, that the writers obviously spent little, if any, time considering the implications and requirements of their story’s ending. I’d be willing to bet that some committee of non-writers who ran the movie studio had something to do with alot of the lameness of those movies.
    I’ve never been able to reconcile time travel with causality, much less what we understand of our universe’s structure. Time paradoxes like in “Terminator” are fun to write, but I’ve got real doubts about them ever being possible. I wonder if time travel would be more like dimensional travel? Not necessarily like “The One”, but where you seem to be traveling back in time, but actually are visiting another dimension? I’d think a fun story could be written out of someone who thinks he’s fixing the past, but every time he returns to his own time, nothing’s changed.


  4. Hi Dave,
    I’m very amused at what a strong reaction your ponderings provoked for me. It turns out I am very sure that Superman made the world spin backwards and that reversed time. Then he got to save Lois in addition to all his other doings. It doesn’t mean that I think that’s in any way logical or practical, just that I am fairly certain that’s what happened in the context of the film. I had no idea I had any opinion on the subject whatsoever. Whaddaya know?


  5. I think the both bombs go off and that Superman doesn’t go far enough back in time to stop them – only far enough back to better deal with the consequences of the explosions and earthquake.
    It is puzzling why he wouldn’t have gone back the extra 10 minutes to stop the bombs going off – or even stop the bombs from launching in the first place. Maybe he was too focused on saving Lois and so didn’t think it through logically before he flew backwards through time. Maybe it hurts going back through time so he only went back as far as he had to in order to save Lois.


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