If I could turn back time
If I could find a way
This is something that’s been bothering me for longer than a lot of you have even been alive.
Superman did not reverse time to go back and save Lois in the first movie.
What he did was travel backward in time to before everything happened and prevent it, knowing what disasters would happen because of, and despite, his prior actions.
The whole “earth spinning backward”, “Hoover Dam un-disintegrating” bit was a visual shortcut to illustrate this. True, it could have been made clearer, but audiences in 1978 weren’t as savvy about this type of movie plotline as we are today.
But why didn’t he go back in time to stop the second missile before it got anywhere? Why didn’t he just go further back and nab Lex before he could even start his plan to destroy half of California?
Easy. He actually did.
From the first, the spirit of Jor-El had continually warned him about interfering with human history (and, presumably, destiny). After an angry and grief-stricken Superman launches himself into the sky, he has a final vision of Jor-El, warning him again not to interfere. He also has flashbacks of Jonathan Kent telling him that he was sent to Earth for a reason, and his own words after Jonathan died, “all these powers, and I couldn’t save him”. In a supremely emotional rejection of all of the cold Kryptonian logic, he embraces his right and his destiny to become his own man, to make his own decisions, using whatever wisdom he’s gotten to do the most good.
So he travels backward through time. And it’s my contention that he had absolutely no idea that this would work. He’d never done it before, but out of grief and anger came determination. He had to at least try. He pushes himself and his powers further than he ever has before to see if he can defy science itself to save not only Lois (his primary reason), but the millions of others who would die or otherwise be affected by Luthor’s destruction. His mission on Earth is to protect humanity and save people whenever he can. And so he pulls the ultimate trick out of his super-hat to attempt just that.
And, because it’s a Superman movie, he succeeds. A decision borne of an emotionally devastating event manages to work, even if only to give us a happy ending. As for the final scene when he delivers Lex and Otis to prison? They were already wanted criminals (remember the scene when the cops were on foot pursuit of Otis when we first get to Metropolis?). After resetting time, it was child’s play to scoop up Lex and Otis and deliver them to jail. You’ll note that no one since then – even in the second movie – mention the devastation and havoc in California, because Superman set things up so that that disaster never happened in the first place. He grabbed them before Lex could even get the missiles to implement his plan. And Lois, bitching about “there’s never a Superman when you need one”? You’ll recall she was in the desert in the first place interviewing a man whose land had been bought by mysterious entities. Superman only went far enough back to save people, but not so far back as to prevent Lois from her particular investigation.
But no, he didn’t violate the laws of space-time by forcing a planet many thousand times his mass to turn backward. While something like that looked cool and believable in 1978, modern audiences don’t buy it, which is why they bitch and moan about it so much. But is it that much more of a stretch of willing suspension of disbelief – in this day and age when we accept almost as fact the ideas of parallel worlds, time travel, alternate realities and other such comic-book plot devices – to just believe not only a man can fly, but can fly backward in time?
No, it’s not. And that’s what happened. The writers of the movie didn’t just invent a new power as a deus ex machina moment. Superman discovered a heretofore unknown power, and used it for the good of all.