Superman: The Movie Part 3 – Metropolis

After a solid hour of prologue, at long last we get to watch Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent arrive in Metropolis.  Clark is the newest reporter for The Daily Planet, a major metropolitan newspaper.  Clark meets the core Daily Planet supporting cast:  Perry White, the paper’s managing editor, Jimmy Olsen, a cub reporter, and Lois Lane, the paper’s star reporter. 

While Lois is, of course, crucial to the narrative, Perry and Jimmy are not given much to do during the course of the film, despite being presented as significant characters.  They are in the movie merely because if you tell a story about Superman, it must have Perry and Jimmy in it. It is part of the mythos.  However, I wish those characters could have been given enough storyline to better justify their presence, especially because Jackie Cooper makes for a fantastic Perry White.  And it hardly needs to be said that Margo Kidder’s Lois is fantastic and Christopher Reeve’s Clark is beyond fantastic, and so when those characters are on screen together it is just wonderful.  Honestly, I would love to watch a movie that was nothing more than Margo Kidder, Christopher Reeve and Jackie Cooper as those characters, working at the Planet. 

In the midst of all this talent, there is nothing quite like Reeve’s Clark.  What sort of man is Clark Kent in this film?  He’s polite. he bumbles. he stammers.  He says words like "gosh" and "swell".  He’s the sort of guy people can’t help but walk all over.  He’s exaggeratedly weak and cowardly, yet Reeve presents a guy that is very likable, magnetically so.  Of course, we know from this film’s earlier acts that "the real Clark" is nothing like this, that what we are seeing is a complete masquerade, but this knowledge only makes this incarnation of Clark all the more compelling. 

The performance also works because even though "Clark" is a pose, he does possess actual personality traits.  He has a punchy prose style.  He has a distinct worldview.  And, of course, he falls in love with Lois Lane, his new co-worker and friend.  From day one he makes awkward but sincere advances toward her, although she deflects them without breaking stride and without being mean. 

What kind of woman is Lois Lane in this film?  She’s aggressive.  She’s obsessed with violent crime.  She’s a top-notch reporter.  She’s relentless in what she does, and won’t slow down for anyone, or at least no one of terrestrial origin.  She seems to have genuine affection for Clark, but she’s moving so fast she barely notices him.  When they are together, Lois is constantly charging forward, with Clark trailing after her, trying to keep up. 

So having introduced our protagonists, we cut to an irritatingly unnecessary that ends with our finally meeting the film’s antagonist, Lex Luthor.  What kind of man is Lex Luthor in this film?  He is vain, obsessed with his own intelligence.  He grants no value to human life.  In fact, in a complete violation of the rule that states that no character should view themselves a a bad guy, Lex positively delights in deliberate acts of immorality.  He wears a series of bad toupees.  His only associates are Otis and Miss Teschmacher, a pair of buffoons that are unreliable, but whom he can bully and belittle.  His lackeys reinforce his worldview that compared to himself, everyone is a simpleton.

Lex has a crazy plan to sink western California into the ocean in order to turn worthless desert property that he owns into a valuable beachfront.  The thing is, it is clear that Lex doesn’t really care about being rich.  He has nothing but contempt for society’s rules, and is happy enough living in an abandoned, half-submerged subway station, which is, in fact, a totally sweet-ass lair.  No, he just wants to have fun executing his plan. 

The idea of the guy who’s only ambition is to be as corrupt as possible is a fun one, and serves as a decent contrast against the innate goodness of Superman,  Unfortunately, the Luthor scenes end up being the weakest link of the story.  Hackman gives a solid performance, but his Luthor is a campy throwback. His plans lack the verisimilitude present in most of the rest of the film. Even worse, he totally lacks menace as a foil.  He doesn’t have a criminal empire, and he doesn’t have a superscience arsenal.  Although we know the police are looking for him, we don’t have any indication of his past criminal exploits.  Ultimately, he’s little more than a blowhard with two idiot hanger-ons and a goofy scheme. 

After introducing Luthor, the film finally gets down to business.  Due to one thing and another, Lois finds herself on a snared helicopter, teetering over the edge of the roof of The Daily Planet.  When Clark sees this, he vaults into action, ripping off his shirt to reveal the crest of Superman underneath.  He launches himself into the air, saving Lois, the pilot, and the helicopter.  The transformation is startling.  He doesn’t look at all like Clark, and despite the wardrobe, he doesn’t look silly.  He looks strong, reassuring, and otherworldly.  And watching him, yes, you really do believe that a man can fly.

I do consider it to be crucial that it is Loisbeing found in danger that prompts Clark to change into his colorful pajamas and start performing acts of do-goodery.  There is a strong indication that inventing superheroism was not on his to-do list, but when he saw the woman that he loved in peril, he was compelled to act. 

Of course, once his heroism cherry was popped, he can’t stop.  He goes on a spree, saving the president, stopping crooks, and rescuing a kitten.  Despite the cringe-worthy moment where Superman dumps a giant freaking boat full of criminals in the middle of the street in front of the police station, I do love this sequence.  These scenes aren’t about the feats that Superman can do, instead they are about ordinary people reacting to the marvels that Superman is performing.  This is a man who can do impossible things, and he has chosen to help people  The sense of joy and wonder amongst the crowds is palpable.  There is no cynicism, merely elation.

Yet the film includes some ugliness, which slyly keeps the film grounded.  Superman ends his debut night rescuing a little girl’s cat from a tree.  This is pure saccharine, and the filmmakers know it.  After Superman flies away, the girl rushes inside (and offcamera), to tell her mother what happened.  The cruel punchline comes when we hear the mother violently slapping the girl for telling lies.  It is perversely funny, and it nicely contrasts the purity of Superman with the ugliness of mankind.

Next:  California, and Beyond the Infinite

Superman: The Movie Part 2 – Smallville

 The second part of the film starts with an amazing sequence.  A man and wife, Jonathan and Martha Kent, are driving down a dirt road in Smallville, Kansas when something crashes out of the sky, startling them off of the road.  Investigating the crash, the couple find a small child, naked, with a red blanket, arms outstretched.  He’s superman, he’s the messiah, and he is reborn as a human.  It is all loaded into that one moment.

Martha and Jonathan discuss what is to be done with the child while Jonathan changes his truck’s tire, damaged in the commotion of the ship crash.  Martha wants to keep the child.  She is middle aged and childless, and has always prayed that the Good Lord would send her a child, and now we have this clear implication: Maybe God sent this child to the Kents.

While they discuss this, the carjack tips, and the truck begins to fall on Jonathan.  Amazingly, before the truck lands on Jonathan, the child lifts the truck above his infant head, beaming with childish innocence.  And now we have the essence of Superman, reduced to its simplest.  His is stronger than us, and he saves people. 

Following that big moment, the film jumps forward a number of years, skipping past the logistics of raising a small child who can fly and bend steel with his bare hands.  Kal-El of Krypton has been raised as Clark Kent of Earth.  The teenage Clark that we meet is a frustrated young man.  He’s abused by the football team despite secretly being able to kick a football into the stratosphere.  He can run really fast and jump really high but his need for self-restraint seemingly cuts him off from his peers.  This is all communicated in a wonderful sequence where Clark runs through the fields of Kansas as he secretly races some jerks that left him behind at school.  The scene nicely showcases Clark’s powers but more importantly, it builds audience empathy for the character.  He is thrilled at what he can do, and we are too.

At home, Clark talks to Jonathan about his feelings.  Jonathan gives him a moving speech about how Clark is special, meant for something greater than football.  The implication is straightforward:  Clark is more than just a man, he is meant to save us.  Except… immediately after Jonathan gives that speech, his heart gives out and he dies.  Clark, for all his power, couldn’t save his adoptive father.  Now the message seems to be that Clark isn’t God. 

The question of whether it is Clark or Superman that is the "real" man has been one of the most interesting aspects of the character throughout its 70 year history.  In Superman: The Movie, this conflict between Superman’s pseudo-divine origin and his human upbringing is the central theme of the film.  It echoes the similar conflict in the Christ narrative.  I find it more than a little amazing that a Hollywood superhero film would tackle these religious motifs at a time when superhero stories were considered campy power fantasies for children.

1978 was years before The Man of Steel, before Lois and Clark.  This movie created a Superman that was more human than he had ever been written.  To suddenly portray a frustrated, grieving Clark Kent was a quantum leap forward in Superman technology.  It makes what happens next all the more bizarre.  Clark leaves his adopted mother and his home behind and spends the next twelve years of his life isolated in a sterile, Kryptonian fortress that he builds in Antarctica, with Holodeck Jor-El his only companion. 

I should probably have more to say about that but, um, every single time I watch this movie I fall asleep for that part.

Next: Metropolis.+

Superman: The Movie Part 1 – Krypton

I’ve always been enamored Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie but truthfully I’ve always thought it was a pretty bad movie, and that I was enjoying what was actually a pretty dull and hokey film.  However, I recently watched it on Blu-Ray and I was shocked by how good It truly was.  I’m guessing the higher fidelity allowed me to see this film I’ve been watching all my life with fresh eyes.  At any rate,  I was totally impressed by the film’s sense of grandeur. 

The movie takes its time to unfurl.  Superman, the persona, does not even appear for the first hour of Superman: The Movie, which is a pretty gutsy choice.  I don’t know if this slow pace was set in order to create an epic sense of scope, or if  maximize the film’s Brando-ness but I think it pays off.

After a truly rousing opening credit sequence, the movie begins on the planet Krypton where Jor-El, a scientist and politician, is sentencing three revolutionaries to the Phantom Zone, a dimension of eternal living death.  At first glance, this scene does not seem to add much of anything to the film we are watching.  It is merely laying pipe for the sequel, which is kind of crazy to do this early in the game.  In fact, what it does is begin the weird religious themes woven throughout the film.  The Phantom Zone is a sort of hell, and Jor-El has chosen to cast the rebels into this hell. 

So does that mean Jor-El is God, and Krypton, which is seemingly decorated entirely in white luminescence, Heaven?  Maybe, but this Heaven is in trouble.  Immediately after the Rebels have been banished, we discover that Jor-El, who is the most important scientist on Krypton, believes that the planet is going to explode.  However, in spite of the evidence he has uncovered, there is a "not going to blow up lalala can’t hear you" theory being propagated, and the Council has sided with that theory.    So Jor-El maybe isn’t God, but merely Al Gore. 

Unlike Al Gore, not only are Jor-El’s findings dismissed, but he is forbidden from promoting his stance, and he and his wife are furthermore forbidden from leaving the planet.  If he fails to abide by this ruling, he is informed that he will be tossed in the Phantom Zone.  There is a definite suggestion that Kryptonians only have one punishment for every crime.  This again is kind of Bibley.  It’s also a little like that episode where Wesley Crusher stepped on a plant on the planet of sex-havers, but only a little bit.  Krypton doesn’t seem to be filled with very many sex-havers. 

Krypton is a darkly interesting place.  One one hand, we are asked to believe that it is a paradise filled with enlightened people possessing a deep cosmic wisdom that far surpasses that of the people of Earth.  On the other hand, we are shown a cold, sterile world where dissent is crushed, crime is punished with torment, and scientific research is stubbornly, fatally suppressed due to politics.  So the question hangs in the air:  Are these gods or merely men?

The next bit is amazing.  Krypton is a bleached, lifeless world.  In all that we’ve seen on Krypton so far  we’ve seen  nothing alive excepting people, and absolutely no colors but black and white.  So  when we meet Lara, the wife of Jor-El, holding her baby swaddled in primary red, blue, and yellow, the effect is profound.  Of course we understand that these are "Superman’s colors" but more than that, this sudden burst of color indicates that this baby possesses a vitality in a world otherwise dead.  This baby is Krypton’s salvation. 

And things play out as they must.  The (ugly-ass) spaceship is outfitted with a holodeck simulation of of Jor-El.  The baby is sent into space, toward Earth.  Krypton explodes. 

Tomorrow: Part 2, Smallville. 

FYI

Hey comic book reading people:  Amazon is selling several volumes of IDW’s Terry and the Pirates series for $14.99 apiece.  These books retail for $50 and are worth every penny of that price.  Anyone with an interest in adventure fiction, or comic strip history should check these books out, and I can’t imagine this price will be around for very long.