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 happy arrogance and charming perversity that allows him to flicker over Lois Lane’s nightgown and blurt out the color of her panties without arousing anything except Lois Lane. He always apologizes for embarrassing her, and always does it again. “Unflappable” is a good word for it. Watching the original Superman, I was not filled with awe so much as a kind of quiet calm, as though a wise person had just reminded me of a well-worn truth. Modern DC is not wrong for trying something new, but terribly wrong if the reason is simply a rejection of the things we used to love. After all this time, the old myths still soar.
The reason is in the nature of fatigue, which applies to fads and not to truths. The hit band when Superman came out was The Commodores and their music sounds like a faded trend pumping out of the stereo of a car you used to own; meanwhile, John Williams’ score for Superman, which doesn’t sound like the 70s but does sound like Wagner, plays as well in any era. DC comics are about the grand myths of the human journey, the ultimate 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. This is how Superman still works just as well after decades, and also how Man of Steel can change the idiom and remain relevant: the icon is timeless, adapting the likes of Homer and Joseph Campbell with a contemporary splash of astounding sound and color. Its heart is a fairytale.
Every phase of Superman’s life is a journey. He begins life 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 a visual form, an equated structure of hubris and rational power with no room to practically store warmth or color. Marlon Brando speaks in a numinous simmer as Jor-El, Superman’s father – he could give you directions to the bathroom and you’d listen as though humbled by a cosmic truth. Though Jor-El fancies himself a dying god, sending humanity his only son and packaging him in what novelty Christmas shops sell as a Star of Bethlehem tree-topper, it is essential that producer Alexander Salkind and director Richard Donner knew that Superman could not also believe in this idea. Though the alien baby is the godsend of 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. From now on, saving one person and not another is a choice, as people make; he cannot atone for the sins of all mankind. The Christ allegory stops here, as a sentence fragment dreamed up by an almighty dead guy. Jesus is Jor-El’s half-eaten dream.
This is the first time that Superman accomplishes its goal: to elevate not religion but Americana into its most essential truths (in many ways, it’s what our modern superhero films are still trying to do). 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 put Superman in his boy scout blues. But when he says, “Goodnight” or “Hope I’m not intruding,” he becomes the version of himself that would rescue a cat, and thus, the one worthy of saving the whole world. Today, we're wary of recreating the old demigods. Donner makes them seem like a good idea.
Many of the heroes today have too much personality to be Superman, who is chummy but not relatable (compared to Iron Man, Superman’s a well-meaning lump – he smiles like he’s always posing for a billboard). He’s a good person in the most generic sense, without ambitions or faults, motivated by a moral compass composed of old wisdom and cosmic stories, like if Don Quixote had the power to fulfill his grand promises. In fact, it becomes a bygone conclusion that Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is attracted to the superpowers only. Superman himself is unreachable.
The decision to cast an unknown as Superman makes him like a materialization of the source material, rather than an actor'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 his allure in other parts, is not lying when he plays Superman: we get the impression that he really is not like other men.
Donner was right to believe that Superman needed to have no personality. If he did, then his heroism would have been the prerogative of a social or personal need, and the character would start to wallow in our inherent disbelief of him. We would automatically accuse such a person of seeking glory, and any personality at all would allow us to try and convict him on the grounds that there are no nice people anymore. By making him a symbol of himself, a smile in the shape of a man, he may become the hero we need him to be as an introduction to comic books on film: a prerequisite, a fact. Superman endures in this ambiguity, as extant to himself.
Gene Hackman is the perfect villain for him. This rendition of Lex Luthor is a dribbling ham of self-surety and television-era slapstick. The sidekicks are bumbling and brusque (Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine) and Luthor’s subterranean lair looks like a train tunnel crashed into a casino and no one cleaned it up. In a Bond film, Luthor would be a campy disaster, and this almost happens in Superman (less Beatty would be a positive change, even though no Beatty would be a negative one). But Luthor allows Superman to stay classic, to keep radio serial villains alive through a lot of eye-rolling and monologuing, while Reeve gives us a truly new creation in the form of his alter ego, the ultimate lie, the proof that Superman really is like other men.
All the personality goes to Clark, Superman’s interpretation of people in a person. 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. He reserved his ambitions only for the audience, winking now and again after a clean fade-out and a job well done. Superman takes Clark’s confidence from him but leaves the winking. Now we are privy to an even greater con – of the clutz.
Reeve’s Clark works because he lets us in on the joke, and he works better than the old TV show because there is a joke (a common answer to the question of how Clark got somewhere so fast used to be, “I dunno Lois, maybe I’m Superman”). To the old comics, this Clark couldn’t possibly be Superman because he bumps into people in the hallway; to us, he has to be. Clark melts even Perry White (Jackie Cooper) with some good manners (and exquisite typing). We used to see the Superman in Clark: Donner and writer Mario Puzo made us see the Clark in Superman.
Lois ignores him because she doesn't care about his body; if she did, she’d be able to see it under 6’4” of reporter’s suits, no matter how mild-mannered. She’s aroused by the idea of Superman himself. The Donner film works because it agrees with her: it doesn't show us how Clark balances his double life, just that he does. Reeve has the perfect balance for Clark – making him such a difficult performance to keep up that you forgive him for the lie. Superman is so capable that his devotion to Clark is almost meta: he seems persuasively devout to being a comic book character, or, to the responsibility to keep Superman from becoming too real. He, and Lois, and Donner are all conspiring to keep us hoodwinked. They want us to still believe in the fairytale.
If Reeve's Clark is a man reveling in being temporarily real, Kidder's Lois seems dragged into it. She's charming, with a tint of affectation, 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 to TV's Noel Neill (I particularly like the spunky Lois from the Fleischer cartoons), but she’s redeemable by 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. 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 (this would seem to be the case even in the film’s most diabolically bad sequence, in which the couple’s romantic flight over Metropolis becomes the hammy internal monologue of a middle-aged tween). In new superhero movies, we’re always looking at the people and trying to pick "our favorite heroes." We assign them a balance of flaws that lets them stay in the Goldilocks zone of character development for as long as possible: not so few characteristics that they come off as cold and not too many that they’re too hot to handle. We want that just-right middle of believable sass and reluctant heroism. The result is usually cyclical development, where the heroes outgrow their powers and get them back, solve their flaws and then default on them. They act too flawed to be Superman, by acting like they're too good to stoop to him.
But Superman is just a fact of the human condition, if we can accept it, a creative obsession that is newer but not different than ones we have held for Hercules or Jesus. To be so, he could never think that of himself. 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 the cogency of spacetime. This is the moment he becomes a person. I’ve noticed that the new heroes have a lot of abilities not present in Superman: to argue politics, to metacognize, to feel guilt. But none of them have love figured out. It must belong to the fairytales. Superman help us, if we ever really do get fatigued for them.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Mario Puzo (story and screenplay)
|Superman/Clark Kent||Christopher Reeve|
|Lois Lane||Margot Kidder|
|Lex Luthor||Gene Hackman|
|Perry White||Jackie Cooper|
|Eve Teschmacher||Valerie Perrine|