It may be a strong candidate for the most hilariously misunderstood line in movie history. Turns out I’m not the only one who heard it that way.

A recent offhand mention online revealed to me that a certain famous scene in superhero movie history was widely misunderstood. And here I was thinking that I alone had misheard the line over 40 years ago.

The scene occurs early in Richard Donner’s iconic Superman: The Movie (1978). Jor-El (Marlon Brando) has to deal with three Kryptonian criminals before turning his attention back to the planet’s imminent immolation – a fate that very few think will happen, leaving Jor-El at a severe disadvantage when it comes to doing anything to save the planet.

GUILTY!

But first…the three miscreants. General Zod, Ursa, and Non stand before Jor-El and the rest of the council, awaiting judgement. They don’t have long to wait; the guilty verdicts ring out with a hollow echo.

Zod pleads for his life, while trying at the same time to sound as if he’s offering Jor-El an alliance from a position of strength, not begging for mercy from a position of weakness. “I offer you a chance for greatness, Jor-El! Take it!”

Jor-El keeps walking away. He still has to try to save his world (and his son); he’s so over the three convicts already. Zod’s ranting tirade continues: “You will bow down before me, Jor-El! You…and then one day…your heirs!

As they used to say on Dragnet: in a moment, the results of that trial.

Only…that isn’t how I heard it over 40 years ago. All of six years old when Superman: The Movie premiered in the theaters, I had yet to add the word “heirs” to my vocabulary. My mind, helpfully, substituted a three-letter word that I’d heard plenty, often in relation to my backside, especially if I was in big trouble.

And despite the fact that this scene was taking place in a stilted, stylized, formal setting, I totally accepted that Jor-El’s backside was expected to bow down to Zod shortly after the rest of him did so. (Why and how the rest of Jor-El’s body would be bowing first, I didn’t quite understand; maybe this was some kind of figure of speech I didn’t get yet.)

In six-year-old me’s defense, it’s not as if the rest of the movie remains in that stilted stratosphere of formal language and heightened courtroom drama. I mean…don’t forget Otisburg. Zod was clearly losing his grip, I could see how he might start being less formal.

This is going on my permanent record, isn’t it?

What’s even funnier is that this apparently-almost-universally-misheard line, since it does not actually contain that word that seemed like a big no-no to this former six-year-old, hit network TV and HBO uncensored. Fortunately, by the time anyone said “Yippie ki-yay” to Mr. Falcon1, warned us of the dangers of finding a stranger in the Alps, or lamented the presence of monkey-fighting-snakes on Monday-to-Friday planes2, I had already figured out that Jor-El’s heirs were expected to bow down before Zod. (If I’d spent my entire life thinking that I was hearing about the stalwart Kryptonian councilor’s backside, the odd sudden censorship of all those other lines would have seemed really odd.)

I’m almost relieved to discover that I wasn’t alone in thinking that was what had been said…though, if the misinterpretation was that universal, one wonders if the movie’s sound editors ever picked up on the potential posterior puzzlement that the delivery of that line has caused for four decades.

Zod, Ursa, and Non were banished to the Phantom Zone, and later escaped, only to be dealt with by the Last Son of Krypton in the very next movie. At no point during these proceedings did anyone’s backside bow down to Zod before the rest of them did.

1 Who is Mr. Falcon?
2 Oh wait, maybe Mr. Falcon is the name of the airline. Can it get me to the Alps?

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