Superman: Mythic Origins

If we’re fatigued with swell origin stories about extraordinary powers and well-meaning parents, then Christopher Reeve’s smile must be the most fatiguing thing of all. He encapsulates the optimistic fluttering of the old superheroes, that charming arrogance that allows him to flicker over Lois Lane’s nightgown and blurt out the color of her panties without arousing anything except Lois Lane. It's the kind of scene that can't be made anymore. Only unflappable people can pull it off (they can do it without meaning to). Watching the original Superman returns you to a frame of mind where people can handle being attracted to each other in superhero films, something that has gone out of them in favor of very upstanding (and very uptight) assembly line movies, aimed with an action figure commercial's precision at the twelve-and-unders. The change has only improved the original myth in retrospect. Originally, Superman was made to make you "believe a man can fly." Today, it's more impressive that it makes you believe a man can smile.

Richard Donner, whose few credits up to this point had been as diverse as Lola (1969) and The Omen (1976), strikes a perfect balance between the filmmaking potential of the 70s and the feel of the comics of the 40s. The score is an example of this balance. Nothing in the film sounds like a faded memory of the 1970s, with John Williams’ score giving more of a Wagner impression, with reflective French horns and zinging trumpets. It brings an even older era into the mix, a unique timelessness. DC comics are about the grand myths of the human journey, the truths of being people as seen through the eyes of outsiders. It works in Superman because “superhero film” was not yet a genre, and not based on the time in which it was made. It had the freedom to combine ancient mythology with the feel of a 1940s office and the special effects of a 1970s blockbuster. This is also how Superman as a character still works just as well after decades. He's a Homer poem built up with sound and color into a new fairytale, as much about bristling dames and toady office managers as an ancient palace of knowledge in the far corner of the earth.

Every phase of Superman’s life is such a journey. He begins his story propelled by his father’s wisdom from his dying home planet. Krypton in this version is a barren world, grown out of cruel ice and cliff faces. It is mathematics in visual form, a structured honeycomb of hubris and knowledge with no room to practically store warmth or color. Marlon Brando plays Jor-El, Superman’s father, and never rises above a godlike simmer – he could give you directions to the bathroom and you’d listen as though humbled by a cosmic truth.

Though Jor-El hopes to be a dying god, sending humanity his only son packaged him in what novelty Christmas shops sell as a Star of Bethlehem tree-topper, it is essential that Donner (and producer Alexander Salkind) knew that Superman could not also believe in his father's pretensions of holiness. Though the alien baby is a godsend to a barren woman on earth, the death of his earth father, Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford), allows Superman to come to an essential discovery: he cannot save everyone. He cannot atone for the sins of all mankind. That is the moment that he stops being a Christ figure and turns into an unmistakably old American one, a Norman Rockwell rockstar, which is something that modern filmmakers can't seem to come to terms with. The more pressing (and more difficult) journey for him is that he has to deal with being a regular guy.

Superman is stuffed with well-meaning provincial wisdom. It boils down a lot of mid-century rambling into basic truths, something that many modern superhero films are trying to remember how to do (or praise themselves for forgetting). Thousands of years of science and literature inform Jor-El of Superman’s abilities, but Jonathan Kent has the harder task, to raise a god as though there’s a person in him. Feats of strength are clearly not the focus of a film that waits an hour to show the world a Superman. Instead, the film spends a huge expanse of time on Superman's youth and the emotional context of the scenario that everyone knows, as though it was always there, hiding behind a backstory "as powerful as a locomotive." If there is one crucial flaw with the film, it is that the person the film invests so much time in seems to vanish when he grows up into Superman, though this may be more a truth of being a mid-century man than a truth of the film's pacing.

Is Superman a complex character? He's chummy, if not relatable. Man-wise, he's a well-meaning lump, who smiles like he’s always posing for a billboard. He can say "Hope I'm not intruding" in that particular way that would make you forgive him of anything. More than any other incarnation, Donner makes Superman seem like a good idea. He’s a generically good person, motivated by a moral compass composed of old wisdom and cosmic stories, like if Don Quixote had the power to fulfill his grand promises. Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) seems to be attracted to the superpowers at least as much as the man since Superman himself, the person, is an unreachable unknown. Beginning their relationship with an interview is one of the script's genius strokes. It gets everything we're "supposed" to know out of the way, to ask what's left.

The decision to cast an unknown actor as Superman makes him like a materialization of the source material, rather than a celebrity's power fantasy (it reminds me of the credits of The Adventures of Superman from the 50s, where Superman was billed as “himself”). When Reeve flies or gives Lois her interview, he’s beautiful hardware, programmed for niceness and subtle power. “I never lie,” is his most frequent re-assertion that he’s not like other men. Reeve, who does not retain this allure in other films, is not lying when he plays Superman: he gives the impression that he really is not like other men.

Donner was right to realize that Superman's simple ambitions are the most complicated thing about him. If he was broodier or grander, his heroism would have felt like a prerogative, a social or personal need, and the character would start to seem unlikely. It would be as hard to condone him for exercising his power as to forgive him for the times he doesn't. We would disbelieve him inherently, automatically accusing such a person of seeking glory, since the idea that anyone could be that well-meaning is far less likely. By making him a symbol of himself, a smile in the shape of a man, he may become the hero he needs to be, as an introduction to comic books on film. Superman is his own prerequisite.

Gene Hackman is the perfect villain for him by playing up every need and ambition that Superman lacks. This rendition of Lex Luthor is a dribbling ham of sureness and television slapstick. His subterranean lair looks like a train tunnel crashed into a casino and no one cleaned it up. His sidekicks are bumbling, but they add allure to the mythology by lowering the standards of what people can be in comparison to Superman (there is no one more opposite the impression of a superhero than Ned Beatty). Luthor's henchwoman, Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), is one of those forgivable bad girls, played off as someone who "lost her way" (the existence of Superman makes her wish she had been Lois Lane instead). The character's inherent sadness makes even her most dated scenes forgivable. The irony of the script is that after casting the two leads on chemistry alone, Perrine gets the most classic romantic scene in the film ("Why did you kiss me first?" "It's ... I didn't think you'd let me later"). Even the villains give the film a backdrop that matches its classic small-screen origins.

They give Reeve the room to present a truly new creation in the form of Superman's alter ego, the ultimate lie, the proof that he really is like other men, in this one sense. Superman may not seem to have a complex personality, but it all trickles down to Clark Kent, Superman’s interpretation of people in a person (and Donner's biggest addition to the mythology). In him, Superman both preserves and refocuses the character’s heritage. The 50s version portrayed a strong-chinned reporter who confidently defended his friends with his bulky frame; George Reeves interpreted Clark Kent as Superman in a suit. Maybe he was who Clark Kent wished he could be. Superman takes Clark’s confidence from him but leaves in some of the winking. The viewer witnesses an even more complex con this time since Donner gives Clark the ambition, not only to be a person, but to be bad at it.

This Clark works because he lets the audience in on the joke, and he works better than the old TV show because there is a joke (in the 50s show, Clark might answer Lois' suspicions about how he got to a place so quickly by saying, “I dunno Lois, maybe I’m Superman”). To the old comics, the Donner Clark couldn’t possibly be Superman because he bumps into people in the hallway. Yet to us, he has to be. We used to clearly see Superman in Clark: Donner made us see Clark in Superman.

Lois ignores him around the office and in doing so reveals several clues about her taste in Supermen. If the attraction was purely physical, no suit could hide all 6'4" of it, no matter how mild-mannered. Her position with Clark makes it clear that she’s aroused by the idea of Superman himself. Reeve has the perfect balance for Clark, making him such a difficult performance to keep up that you forgive him for the lie. Being Clark may be the most strenuous thing that Superman does, a devotion that shows a greater responsibility to the allure of his story even than to his desires. He, Donner, and Puzo are conspiring to keep us hoodwinked. They want us to still believe in the fairytale, not that Superman might exist, but that he might be anyone around us. The newer films do not see the value in Clark (they may not even believe that he could keep up the act). It directly reflects the value they miss in Superman.

If Reeve's Clark is a man reveling in being temporarily real, and comfortable in the contradiction, Kidder's Lois seems dragged into it. She's charming, with a tint of trying too hard, pretty, with a tint of tobacco. Her scream is so hoarse it almost isn't cute. Kidder is ably playing a compromise between a need to refer to an established character now considered froofy and a desire to match her liberation across the forty years she’d been around. She feels sloppy for Superman compared not only to what we think of him but even to TV's Phyllis Coates (it's a cruel trick of movie history that Karen Allen never played this character). As Superman's girlfriend, she leaves room for improvement (their starry-eyed flight above Metropolis, where she mentally talk-sings the movie's 70s lovenest ballad, is the film's most painfully dated creation). But she's completely redeemable through her association with Clark. He’s the truth of her affection since he’s the real version of the man she loves, and the truth of their relationship since he’s too real for her to ever notice it. She has room to be exaggerated since he's pretending so hard not to be.

Superman is the idea of what she has always preferred to love over real people. Seeing him was why her head was in the clouds to start with. The film asks what the impact would be of a man who seems to be perfect, which is the natural result of comic books at their stylistic extreme. Modern superhero films try to avoid this question, but as a result, they lack the ability to examine its consequences. This is how they end up with characters that have a perfect balance of flaws to keep them in a Goldilocks zone of character development for as long as possible. The new goal seems to be a just-right amount of believable sass and reluctant heroism so that they are never too irredeemable but also never too redeemed.

The result is a new hero's cycle where they outgrow their powers and get them back, solve their flaws and then default on them. They lack a moment like Superman sacrificing the natural flow of human history to save the woman he loves. Modern superhero writers act like their characters are too flawed to be Superman, but that this makes them too good to stoop to him. Yet, I can say with certainty that none have ever shown the amount of emotion that Christopher Reeve does after the death of Lois. His anguished scream, the scream of an actor with no professional career to endanger by going for such an extreme, is one of the most harrowing in movie history.

What so many imitators of Donner's film have failed to realize is that Superman is just a fact of the human condition, if we can accept it, a creative obsession as ingrained as Hercules and as impactful as any mythology. He never thinks that of himself, but at the end of his journey, he chooses his earth father’s advice over his space father’s warning. He loves one woman more than he loves the sanctity of history or spacetime. This moment is his most impossibly godlike feat in the film, yet by acting on his most basic human instinct to selfishly protect the one person he loves, it's also the moment he becomes human. I’ve noticed that the new heroes have a lot of abilities not present in Superman. They argue politics and social justice. They even reference their own identity as comic book characters. But none of them have love figured out. It has completely vanished from this cinematic genre (it must belong to the fairytales). Superman help us, if we ever really do get fatigued for it.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, October 19, 2018

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Columbia-EMI-Warner Distributors/Dovemead Ltd.

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