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 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 American one, a Norman Rockwell rockstar. The more pressing (and more difficult) journey for him than whether he can or "should" be Hercules is the more personal one of whether he will ever feel like one person again.

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 (even more than its literal runtime; it has a feeling of infinity in it, as though Krypton might have vanished a million years ago). Once on earth, the film drives home 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. But this may be as much a truth of the expectations of being a mid-century man as a problem in 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 for 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, which is crucial to both Lois's and the audience's belief in him. Of course, Superman himself is a lie, a constant one. He's the lie required to convince people of the truth of his worthiness. To answer the previous question, yes, Superman is a complex character, not less so because he's full of positivity. More so.

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 that conflicts with some other sense of duty, and the character would start to seem unlikely. It would have been as hard to condone him for exercising his power as to forgive him for the times he doesn't. This would make the viewer disbelieve him inherently, automatically accusing such a person of seeking glory or doing a public disservice, with nothing between. By making him a symbol of himself rather than of any specific philosophy, just a smile in the shape of a man, Donner's version of the character becomes the hero he needs to be, as an introduction to comic books on film, proof that someone might just be that well-meaning, no rationalization required. 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 suddenly makes her wish she had been Lois Lane instead, as though the lack of him is the only reason she ended up being Miss Teschmacher). The character's inherent sadness makes even her most dated scenes forgivable. Is it on purpose that after casting the two leads on chemistry alone, Perrine gets the most classically romantic scene in the film? ("Why did you kiss me first?" "It's ... I didn't think you'd let me later.") Maybe they wanted to say that the time for those kisses has passed. The villains may recall the character's small-screen origins, but they never stop informing the viewer how to think of him.

They give Reeve the room to present a truly new creation in the form of Superman's alter ego, the ultimate lie, the one he hopes doesn't prove that he is "like other men," as all good men do. 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 (1978) takes Clark’s confidence from him but leaves in the winking. The viewer witnesses an even deeper 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, the posture, the persona. 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. Later iterations do not seem to 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. The off-balance feeling isn't all Kidder's fault though. She's 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 Phyllis Coates in the television version. As Superman's girlfriend, Kidder 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 maybe that's part of the point. He's supposed to be out of her league. Thankfully, she's redeemable through her scenes 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. Her treatment of him is the kind of abuse that's easy to take lightly, like being nudged by a superior playmate. It's Kidder's specialty. The fact that it's Superman getting nudged is the irony that keeps the viewer on the verge of a grin the whole time.

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 anyway, in an idea that Superman most easily represents by being the least inhibited by its limitations. Many modern superhero films try to avoid this question in favor of placing superhero heroes in "reality," but as a result, they lack the ability to examine the consequences of the extreme. 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. They have just enough sass, not too much to be a bully, and just enough redemption, though not too much to avoid repeating it. For modern producers, this is "just right." Nothing stops it from being endless.

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.

The greatest trick that Superman plays on the whole genre is that he is the most alien character yet relies most heavily on his humanity. As a concept, he's as ingrained as religion. Cultures have always had a "Superman." For this version, his journey ends when he chooses his earth father's example over his space father's sermon. He performs his most godlike feat, yet does it on his most basic human instinct, to protect the one he loves at the expense of the cosmos. This is the moment he becomes human (far more so than the moment in Superman II when he literally does). Of all the new abilities superheroes have gained in movies since Superman, such as arguing politics and referring to themselves as comic book heroes, none makes up for the loss of this ability to follow their basic humanity so clearly (they are often preoccupied only with discovering their powers, whole film series devoted to what this one called "act 1"). It sometimes feels like that messy, screaming, grinning, kissing, nudging, sparkling humanity is part of a fairytale we no longer believe in. 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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