Archivist Spotlight: Lara Lor-Van
One of the stickier aspects of researching depictions of archives and archivists in popular culture is the lifespan of that designation within a medium or franchise. Comic book characters, for example, might have a history spanning six decades, but there is no truly agreed upon canon save for the current version being published. Depending on the time period in which the story was written, the writer, and the editorial requirements, a comic book character's origin, personality, occupation, and moral center can change within a generation of readers. And given the Hollywood grind for adaptable intellectual property, it's a miracle if a comic book character looks remotely recognizable by the time audiences see the final product.
This is all a way of saying that there are a lot of iterations of one character and, sometimes, that character is deemed an archivist under a very specific set of circumstances.
Such is the case of Lara Lor-Van, Keeper of the Kryptonian Archives, and Superman's biological mother as portrayed by Susannah York in Superman II (1980).
As a character in comics, television, and movies, Lara's role in the Superman mythos has changed depending on who's telling the story. Sometimes she's a scientist equal in genius to her husband, Jor-El. Other times she's a passive, almost cold presence embodying the old ways of Krypton. There was also that time in the New 52 era of comics where Lara was a warrior to make her relationship with Jor-El a more obvious "opposites attract" trope that the short-lived show Krypton utilized. The most common factor in Lara's ever-changing backstory is how it relates to or contrasts with Jor-El's singular role as Krypton's scientific Cassandra. And if you want to get super cynical, then look no further than Man of Steel (2013) where Lara (Ayelet Zurer) was reduced to birthing vessel while Jor-El (Russell Crowe) got to ride alien dragons, fight people, and plopped his own consciousness into the Kryptonian sigil key for future exposition dumps but neglected to add his wife.
With Superman II, however, Lara was given a more "prominent" role after the producers decided to cut all of Marlon Brando's Jor-El scenes in order to avoid paying him the cut of U.S. box office takings he demanded for his performance. This was also in the midst of tensions between the producers and Richard Donner who'd shot all of Superman and 75% of Superman II before he was replaced with Richard Lester. Unfortunately, it's only in Lester's version of Superman II that Lara exists as a character, which is still being generous given that she only appears on screen for two minutes. The Richard Donner Cut, a 2006 re-edit of Superman II with Donner's remastered footage, eliminates Lara in favor of the previously shot scenes with Brando as Jor-El.
Okay, so what does Lara contribute as an archivist in Lester's version? Well, we get the scene in which Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) infiltrate the Fortress of Solitude - like ya do - and activate the crystals Superman used to educate himself about Earth and Krypton. One of these crystals shows Lara who announces herself as keeper of the archives before going into the creation of the Phantom Zone and the criminals sent there for crimes so heinous even Krypton couldn't passively overlook them. Her second, and last, scene involves Clark inquiring about becoming a regular dude to be with Lois. Lara shows him the chamber that will suck out all of the Kryptonian juices (because science?), but it's a far more effective scene when Lara warns Kal-El that he'll no longer be super human. He'll be "mortal," prone to pain, suffering, and possibly death. She then steps out of the crystal and approaches her son, hand outstretched but not quite able to touch him and asks if he's sure about his decision.
Fun fact: there are actually crystals called Record Keepers based on the striations in the quartz forming a triangular pattern, or trigons. They're largely believed to be psychic transmitters of information, not that the crystal itself stores anything. I think there's also supposed to be a link to Atlantis? No one fact check me.
Like I said before, Lara has never gotten a lot of character development, or consistency, over the decades, but it's nice to see that even a sentient hologram of Lara feels compelled to reach for her son out of concern and fear for his life. The conversation itself began with Lara stating, "Your father and I feared the day you'd ask this question." Meaning Lara and Jor-El knew it was always possible that their son might want to become a regular human, yet they still provided the information and technology to do so despite the ramifications it would have for Kal-El. Why? Because they loved him and wanted him to be happy on Earth, even if it meant making him vulnerable. That or they were really banking on Clark never finding someone he loved that much!
From an archival standpoint, Lara doesn't give us much in the way of what she did as an archivist. She serves the purpose of your typical artificial intelligence in science fiction in that the hero need information and it's easier to get the exposition from one source that could conceivably have or extract the information with minimal effort. Lara provides information, but the audience is never privy to how that information was compiled or organized because it's a superhero movie and only people like me care about that stuff. I'm sure no one knows the reasons why Lara was designated the Kryptonian archivist other than as a way of providing key pieces of information for Luthor and Clark, but I wish more Superman properties had explored this concept. I get why she's usually made a scientist, but there are so many storytelling opportunities with an archivist of a destroyed world communicating through holograms and crystals with her son on a planet that could easily follow the same trajectory.
This is also one of the rare instances of having an archivist who's a parent. A lot of depictions of archivists like to emphasize the lonely and isolating aspects of the job. That usually means no significant others (none that last, anyway), no children, and barely any friends. Because to be an archivist is to only live in the past, so no fun or lifetime commitments for you beyond the stacks. History is your only friend. History will never abandon you. The only other archivist parents featured on this site have been in Enough Said, She-Ra, Kentucky Route Zero, and The Museum Mysteries books. Worth noting that, except for Kentucky Route Zero, the archival parent in these other properties were men. So now we have the even rarer instance of an archivist who's a mother amounting to two articles in total!
But I'm happy to inform you that the Kryptonian holographic parent program is a time honored tradition carried on by Supergirl and Superman and Lois on the WB, the latter of which has featured Lara (Mariana Klaveno) as a recurring character to offer advice and exposition when needed. Some distant parental figure turned artificial intelligence tropes never go away.