Movies That Hate You: Superman

The Story:

An alien orphan with superpowers is raised on Earth as a human being.  Using his powers for good, he must stop a master criminal from completing a diabolical real estate scheme that involves destroying the state of California in the process.

Review and Analysis:

Let’s get the praiseworthy parts out of the way first.  This is one of the few movies that I can say that I can like to an extent.

Done Right – Third Act Tied to First Act:

Facing a Crisis of Moral Conscience. He Must Choose Which Path to Follow.

This moment here was the pivotal moment for the film, because it tied the personal tragic moment in the First Act, which was the death of Jonathan Kent (and Clark’s lament of not being able to do anything to save him) to the Final Battle of the Third Act, which was Clark’s struggle between his Kryptonian heritage and American upbringing.

For Clark/Superman, Lois’ death hit him as hard as it did when his adoptive father died.  With Jonathan, Clark saw a fragility of life that he himself can not experience on Earth.  What makes it even more painful is that after the disaster began, he repaired the San Andreas fault-line, saved an Amtrak train from disaster, rescued Jimmy Olsen and the residents of a nearby town from Hoover Dam breaking open, a bus full of people on the Golden Gate bridge, AND the people of Hackensack, New Jersey from a second missile…

…only to arrive too late to rescue the woman he’s been infatuated with since the start.  Remember, he has never been able, in either guise, to tell Lois that he loves her.  It is almost like being asked to pay a price that is too high regardless of which path to take.

The Moment Superhero Comics Books Chase:

Leave it to Superman to Show How "Dead Girlfriend" is Done.

One of the interesting aspects of Superman: The Movie is this scene in question.  When you think about many of the stories of Superheroes, one of the most familiar aspects of the genre is always that of hero’s love interest actually dying at the hands of villain’s schemes.  Usually, however, you would find this more with “dark, gritty” franchises, like Batman (Kathy Kane), Wolverine (kinda numerous), Daredevil (Karen Page), and even Spiderman (Gwen Stacy).  The idea, of course, is that the so-called “emotional impact” is supposed to make us hate the villain even more – so when the hero shows up and exacts revenge, we as an audience will cheer when the villain is killed.

The “Death of the Hero’s Love Interest” is a pretty old and well-worn trope, and one that is disproportionately Male Hero/Female Victim in terms of demographic.  In the Superman franchise, however, moments like this don’t exist.  For the women that mattered in Superman’s life to this point, none of them actually died (Lyla Lerrol is a notable exception, although she dies because she had died already when Krypton was destroyed).  As such, the scene above was uncharted territory for Superman.

It is also why the actual “turning back of the world” is filled with Lois Lane’s theme instead of Superman’s; this moment was to convey his grief, not his heroism.

But, what separates Superman from his contemporaries is the fact that he simply delivers Lex Luthor and Otis back to the prison.  Although changing history so that Lois lives again helps.

On Christopher Reeve and his performance:

This scene left its own mark on the franchise. Too bad no one noticed its impact.

One of the reasons why I look at Christopher Reeve’s performance as Superman in a positive light is because of the work he does in making Clark and Superman two different people.  You see this most tellingly in the scene just after he finishes taking Lois on a flight around Metropolis as Superman, when he shows up as Clark Kent moments later.  Many people remember the scene (and Lois’ monologue) as the moment Lois Lane “falls in love” with Superman.  What is usually missed, however, is that Clark had fallen so head-over-heels in love with her that he had considered telling her his secret.

However, when he gets cold feet, the glasses go back on.  Most people believe that this the beginning and the end of Clark Kent’s identity (*cough*Smallville *cough* LoisandClark *cough*).  Lots of people miss the changes in his voice as well as his uncertain stammer; even more people fail to note that Clark hunches and walks with shorter strides, nervous about his next move.

In other words, Clark is supposed to be a full-on wimp, but a kindhearted one at that.  And that is how Christopher played him, which is why the production staff was bowled over by his audition for the role.

The Most Important Rescue:

Find a Moment Like This in Non-Animated Superhero Films. I'll complete my Ph.D in "Shakespeare's Influence in Klingon Philosophy" in the meantime.

The late Blake Snyder wrote a book on Hollywood Screenwriting called “Save the Cat,” in which one of things that he describes as being necessary for the protagonist/hero to become sympathetic to the audience is a “soft” moment; an incidental moment that generates the proverbial “awww” from the audience.  In Superman, this is the proverbial “Save the Cat” moment, where Superman rescues a cat from a tree.

I often barrage the superhero genre of writing and film making, because these films are usually filled the standard bevy of “superhero antics,” such as:

  • Stop the armed robbers, usually after they have driven away in the getaway car;
  • Stop a house or building fire.  Failing that, rescuing a mother and her child; OR
  • Preventing a wayward child from being hit by a speeding vehicle;

There are usually a maximum of 3 or 4 of these moments in the film before the superhero runs into the villain, super or otherwise.  But the latest batch of these films do not offer any real “Save the Cat” moments.

Truth, Justice, and the “American Way”:

He fights the "Never-ending Battle," but whose "American Way" does he fight for?

If there is one area where the Superman mythos should be dropped on its head like a bag of bricks, it is in the ideal that Superman fights for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”  When peeled away from its surface sheen, you find that the American Way as touted by Superman only covers WASP-Americans.  Even there, you’ll see that it is usually limited to middle- to upper middle-class people, who are usually cisgender/hetero, and “God-Fearing” (Born-Again) Christians.  Superman/Clark Kent’s story leans more towards one of the [European] Immigrant attempting to assimilate into [White] American society; the fact that the alien Kal-El can “pass” for WASP shows how much he is dependent upon both White and Male Privilege for his position.

Additionally, the Superman Family, like the majority of stories of Super-Heroes, was devoid of People of Color until the late 1960s; only introducing tokens for “Very Special Issues” regarding things like “Racism.”  Even now, the only characters of color that are acknowledged as being part of the family are John Irons (Steel) and his niece Natasha.  And it also here that Superman’s history shows its exclusivity towards middle-class Suburbia; the majority of Kal-El’s rescues and adventures take place in sections of America that are idolized in shows like Leave it to Beaver; the only time Kal ever ventures outside of this sphere is when he is looking to save a famous European landmark.  His adventures on the African continent are as bigoted as any one of Captain Marvel’s (formerly of Fawcett Comics) stories.  And the only time Superman ventures into East Asia or South America is when he travels there as Clark Kent to “keep an eye” on Lois Lane.

But, even more indicting, Superman rarely ventures into neighborhoods populated by People of Color.  While Superman seems to have no problem in showing up for crimes in greater Metropolis, places like “Harlem” and Suicide Slum seem to be almost off-limits for him (However, this part is true for 98% of comic-book and movie superheroes).  Superman (Volume 2) Issue 179 has him face-to-face with Muhammad X, a vigilante hero who lives in Harlem and acts as its protector.  When Muhammad X accuses Superman of ignoring places like Harlem, Superman attempts to figure out why that bothers him so much.  In the end, however, it’s clear that Superman learned the wrong lesson that day.

Looking at the Superman Family, the lack of heroism in Neighborhoods of Color plays as benign neglect at best; Heroism Redlining at Worst.  This also plays into superhero fantasies, even when being inclusive of [White] women, are continuously hostile towards People of Color of all genders.  The reason why Superman’s “neglect” stings is because he sees himself as being “an inspiration”; someone who leads by example.  Thus, his inspiration for people to be “better than who they are” leaves much to be desired for the people in the United States who have been mistreated and neglected, not to mention oppressed.

Patriarchal Society:

And, like most alien societies, Krypton is male-dominated in the same ways as Anglo societies on Earth are, except when scapegoats are needed.

One of Krypton's Greatest Scientists? Really?

Vond-Ah, shown above, is supposed to be a scientist whose intelligence is on par with that of Jor-El.  Always keep that in mind when you hear her make her assessment on the readings that the Kryptonian instruments gives off.

The scene would not really have bothered me as much if there were a number of scientists who stepped forward and said the same thing that Vond-Ah said.  But, of course, they just leave it to her to take the fall.  Although, how can you mistake an Alpha Ceti V (from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) style orbital shift for something like this:

Note that the Red Sun of Krypton explodes first. Meanwhile, somewhere across another galaxy, Tarkin is smiling. Khan, on the other hand, is about to experience a radioactive Sahara Planet.

Where not only does Krypton the planet is destroyed, but the destruction is caused by Krypton’s red sun exploding only moments before.  Further, as you watch the aftermath of the explosion, take note that as you hear the crystals chime and clang, you’ll see that some of those crystals will turn green, acting as its own foreshadowing for later in the movie.

Brando's salary commands you to shut up now.

Watching this scene, where Jor-El giving Kal-El his last moments of love, gave me a headache.  Why?  Because during this whole time, Lara, Kal-El’s mother and Jor-El’s wife, doesn’t say word one to her own son…even though she, too, is about to perish, never to see her son anymore.  The ‘financial’ reason was that Brando signed on to do Superman at almost $4 million AND nearly 12% of the gross.  In 70s money, that was $22 million.  Adjusted for inflation, in present dollars, Brando’s salary is a shade over $87 million.

For parts in 2 movies.

Now, in this movie, this is the last time that you’ll see Susannah York.  If Richard Donner had his way, you would never see Ms. York as Lara ever again.

Krypton.  Just like Earth, only denser.

The Timeline…and What’s Lex Got to Do with It?

When the script attempts to introduce Kryptonite to menace and threaten Superman, Lex Luthor mentions that Krypton exploded in 1948.  Continuing, the rocket ship lands outside of Smallville in 1951.  However, when Kal-El finally meet the visage of his birth father, Jor-El mentions that he has been dead by thousands of Clark’s (Earth) years by the time Clark/Kal turned 18 in Earth time.

And thus, the problem with trying to apply the physics of time and space to superhero films comes front-and-center.

Plus, like my review of Superman 3 delves into, the distance between Earth and Krypton is somewhere between several hundred thousand to 15,000,000 light years, crossing several galaxies and the massive voids between them.  Now, understandably, Jor-El’s rocket ship would reach Earth, since it was designed for that purpose.  The Phantom Zone floating window?  That is a reach.

A chunk of a planet that becomes a substance that can hurt and even kill a native of that planet reaching his new adopted world?  I’ll take Gus Gorman’s use of the Vulcan Satellite, instead.

And What of People of Color…in Metropolis?

Frank Miller could not have done this better. But he does try.

Moments like this is why I eschew the false divisions of Liberal and Conservative “values.”  Because, where people of color are concerned, there is little difference between them.  What does it matter if the producers, actors, and movie studio are involved with “Liberal” causes and supposedly believe in “equality” if their products are rife with the same stereotypes, bigotries, and gender and sexual dominionism as their “Conservative” counterparts?

In the case of Superman, [The Black Pimp] is as big a role as People of Color play, until we get the First Nations people selling land to Lex Luthor, Inc., as part of his Earthquake Scheme.  When you read and hear about Black people, Hispanic/Latino people, and East Asian people having to “Work Twice as Hard for Half the Credit,” this is what we are up against.  These are the kinds of images that People of Color are bombarded with about themselves time-and-time again.

And remember, while the Pimp gets a stereotypically “Black” line, none of the Black women shown in the same scene get even a sliver of a voice.

Thus, Superman, like nearly all of superhero-dom, runs on the belief that a world of superheroes should be and is nearly totally bereft of people of color.

There is, however, one more thing:

I did a double-take at this moment.

There is a suspension of disbelief, and then there is tokenism.  Since this is supposed to be 1963, and in Kansas at that, it posits that this moment is supposed to be some kind of Hollywood tokenism.  Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education is less than 9 years old, and the subsequent court cases and events surrounding the Civil Rights struggles were still going on.  When you hear the stories of the life experiences about the people of color who lived in the United States during this period, it makes the frame posted above with a token black woman sitting in Brad Wilson’s car a moment that while not entirely impossible, is highly unlikely to have actually taken place.

Ignore the Military Experiment:

Read the Headline. Then read the byline below it. Understand the implications of them.

One of the things I tend to note when examining these movies is the reactions that the fans and the fanbase has with the new media releases.  In the case of Superman, much ink and much enmity has been expended on the “Turn Back the World” moment, and on Superman’s expanded (not really) powersets.  Yet, watching this movie now reveals a moment that no one seems to really talk about – and that is the use of the Nuclear Missiles themselves in the test.

According to Luthor, these missiles contain the explosive power of 500+ megatons.  The US Army and the US Navy ran joint development on this super-missile, with the US Navy firing the “Submarine-Launchable” version of the same weapon.

So, first and foremost…WHO WAS THE CLOWN WHO SUGGESTED THAT PUTTING A 500 MEGATON WARHEAD ON A MISSILE WAS GOOD IDEA FOR A LIVE TEST?  And then, WHO WANTED TO LAUNCH TWO OF THESE MISSILES…AT THE SAME TIME?

I could continue there, but there are some more items about this plotline that I still don’t really understand.  These missiles were equipped with “low-level avoidance systems,” which means that instead of acting as your standard ballistic missiles, which launch into space, orbit the earth, and drop on the target from above, these XK-101s launch like standard “cruise” missiles, skimming the surface before appearing over the target and detonating.  As I mention in Wargames, nuclear-armed nations were engaged in developing Anti-Ballistic Missile technology, the most promising at the time being Anti-Missile Missiles (Missiles designed to intercept ICBM or Sub-Launched missiles – Think “Missile Command“).  These missiles were designed to defeat such ABM-style weaponry.  And their self-destruct options were malfunctioning.

Thus, when you think about it, the US develops a doomsday weapon that had no failsafe, no means of recall, and no means of destruction other than killing the target in question.  This is why playing with those kinds of “super weapons” is always a very bad idea.

John Williams Borrows from Himself:

Young Clark waving to his future girlfriend...only they don't know it yet. Movie foreshadowning at least is better than comic book foreshadowing.

This scene where we see Clark enjoying his powers is played with a lighthearted theme from John Williams.  However, one has to realize that all composers, not just the “hacks” (such as fan-derided ones like James Horner and Danny Elfman) borrow themes, motifs, and even whole compositions from one project to another.  Usually, nearly every composer has a movie soundtrack that acts as a focal point (where nearly all of his/her motifs, themes, riffs from their other scores are used here) or as a source branch (where the motifs/themes/riffs are used in other scores).

For John Williams, Superman: The Movie may be one of his source branch AND focal point scores.  You can here bits and pieces of this soundtrack that would find its way into his other movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Jurassic Park, and a few others.

In this case, Williams pulls the theme played for Luke’s speeder from Star Wars and drops it here with a few modifications (the extended theme is on the soundtrack; it is cut short in the film).  Some of the softer themes of Superman, such as the theme played during Jonathan Kent’s death, are borrowed (and modified) from Midway, which Williams also composed.

Lois Lane, World Weary…:

A personality mod that makes sense. Or doesn't.

Lois Lane has evolved over the years since her introduction.  One thing that has always remained constant is the fact that she has always been a top-notch reporter.  She has always gone after the “big” scoops, like political corruption, mafia involvement, smuggling operations, and the like.  Lois was never portrayed as being simply a “girl reporter” reporting on “women’s topics” (like fashion or gossip).

Because she is as aggressive as she is in going after a news story, her personality outside of this could be interpreted in a number of ways.  Most of the time, however, stories regarding Lois’ personality never delve into why she does what she does until after she’s met both Clark and Superman.  In Superman: The Movie, you get the sense that Lois runs on cynicism; having seen the worst the world has to offer up close, she refuses to believe that men like Clark/Superman/Kal-El could exist.  Watch her reaction when she sarcastically suggests that the address Clark gives Perry (to have half of his paycheck sent to) is for his “Sweet Grey-Haired Old Mother,” only to find that it’s true (except that she’s silver-haired).

In screenwriting terms, Lois is supposed to be a personality opposite of both Clark and Superman at the same time.  Where Clark/Superman is kindhearted, and always looks to see the “good” (relatively) in people, Lois does not.  Where Clark has an almost bright-eyed enthusiasm about the “Big World of Metropolis,” Lois seems like she has seen too much of it’s dark underbelly to enjoy its marvels.  But it is through both Clark and Superman that Lois decides to give it one more go, at least where living life is concerned.

But, this movie does have a few moments of Female Incompetence where Lois is concerned.  The first is the fact that she has a tendency to misspell words that the average person [college educated White Male usually] does not.  She also foolishly attacks an armed robber before she cowardly ducks away as he fires his pistol.  Then there is her “distracted driver” moment in California when she is interviewing the Native American about the overpriced land deal (not called Whitewater).  You can usually find such moments in Hollywood releases during this time frame, making their own arguments against passage of an Equal Rights Amendment whether they were intentional or not.

I post the shot of Lois with a cigarette in her hand because this action almost encapsulates Lois’ world-weary cynicism.  Unlike Perry’s cigar-smoking ways from back in the Superman comics, Lois’ smoking habit here in this (and Superman 2) is seen as more of a “nervous” tick.  There were also accusations of Tobacco companies using the Superman movies as product placement – entirely plausible considering that Donner had gone well over-budget and the Salkinds had to get additional funding from Warner Bros. to finish this film.

Ignore the Fanbase:

Ignoring Previous Continuity and Backstory? Only when the result is popular...

The curious thing about internet slapfights about story and continuity is the fact that many people who delve into this segment usually have little clue as to what they are actually fighting for, much less knowing what they are really speaking on.  This is especially true of comic book franchise fans.  And Superman is biggest example of this.

Before this movie, the comics of Superman (Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superboy, Supergirl, The Superman Family) all described Krypton as being your typical alien world that would be a cross between “The Jetsons” and “Forbidden Planet,” with advanced space technology and exotic creatures that look like they walked off the set of the latest Italian Hercules film.  The society of Krypton is a very utopian version of the United States, where Science is respected, and the arts are rich with all kinds of works.  Superman’s Fortress of Solitude was an Ice Mountain with a super-heavy key (meaning you had to be “Super” just to open the door), but the inside looked like any museum on Earth, only with rooms containing all kinds of Super-Computers.  And the Phantom Zone was filled with all kinds of criminals.  And Lex Luthor has been trying to defeat Superman because Superboy once saved his life, but Lex lost his hair during the rescue.

And now?  Since Superman: The Movie, Krypton is an Ice Planet, which was supposed to reflect how ancient, arrogant, cold, and “logical” (a slam on the Vulcans from Star Trek, maybe?) the society of Krypton had become.  The technology is all crystalline-based.  The 3 Kryptonian villains, General Zod, Jax-Ur, and Mala, have undergone a revision.  Superman’s fortress becomes an Ice Palace.  And Lex Luthor creates a scheme here that will actually kill people – Superman being menaced is simply because he would get in the way of it.

There have since been further revisions of Superman’s origin and backstory, but none of the complaints regarding them center around the complete revamp since 1979.

The Christian Messiah Story:

It's Hard to Miss the Subtext When They Make it Front-and-Center.

Much has also been written about the story of Superman: The Movie has roots within the stories of the Christian Bible.  However, much like Superman’s “Never-Ending Battle,” Jor-El’s words to his son Kal-El both in this movie and in Superman 2 can be construed as borderline fascism.

Where most stories tend to have their protagonists take on the Jesus Allegory, Superman actually takes on more the God Allegory with Jor-El as opposed to a full-throttle Jesus Allegory with Kal-El.  He sends his only only son to a “backward” planet whose atmosphere grants him unlimited power…with a purpose to serve mankind “in secret.”  By following his (Kal-El) example to help people, Humanity will see a better way to live, and work towards a brighter future.

Unfortunately, without seeing a rejection of the worst aspects of this (forced compliance, subservience, eugenics, thought crime, “future crime,” and so on), it can leave people wondering about Superman’s motives.  Those who dislike Superman’s methods and manners (like your Frank Miller types) will take this ball and run towards Superman as being a tool for Oppressive Tyrants working in the name of Forced Utopia.  Others would take away that Superman/Clark Kent is a naive Boy Scout type (although this is more true of Billy Batson’s Captain Marvel).  And because most of the writers of the Superman mythology never fully considered this dark underbelly, the conclusions become inescapable…and legitimate.

Eye Candy:

We never learn why she teams up with Luthor, or why she left him after they broke into Superman's house in the next movie.

Because the Evil must come in threes, Lex Luthor hires 2 underlings, a portly guy named “Otis,” and a woman named Eve Teschmacher.  Like all token women in the service of villainy, Eve is supposed to be both beautiful/attractive AND untouchable for male consumption in some way.  For Eve, this is because her boss is Lex Luthor, a criminal so depraved that he thinks of nothing about killing those who stand in his way.  In films like this, while she is not extremely intelligent, she is not a bimbo (or pulling a bimbo act, as Lorelei Ambrosia does in Superman 3).  She is slightly more intelligent and a little more dependable than Otis is, although Otis is played to be stupid, but affable.

The failing for Eve Teschmacher is that we never truly learn why she joined with Lex Luthor to begin with for his scheme to destroy California.  She gets the requisite change-of-heart many women in the service of the bad guys have – although it is not for altruistic reasons.  And she also falls for The Hero; she goes as far as to save his life from the Kryptonite that Lex uses as a trap for Superman.  It is also odd that Superman lets Eve go after that, since we don’t see her being remanded to police custody, nor does anyone mentions if Eve ever sees time behind bars.  This reinforces a stereotype that women in the service of Evil have no agency, nor do they enter into the game of their own compunction.  The change-of-heart is supposed to be a sign that a woman’s compassion never truly leaves, but it cheapens her character rather than strengthens it.

In Conclusion:

There is both good and bad that comes from Superman: The Movie.  The movie itself can serve as a lesson for screenwriters on how to stay consistent with the theme and the message of the film.  It is also a lesson on how to scale your Antagonist to match your Protagonist.  It also serves as a movie that shapes the mythology for the next several decades.

Unfortunately, this movie – like the others of the genre – follow the same American failings of non-Superhero movies.  People of color are mere tokens or background props.  The only memorable Men of Color are the First Nations man Lois interviews, and the Black Pimp, who looks like the precursor to the one seen in Robocop 3.  Women of Color don’t even get any lines and have minimal screen time.  The leading and supporting women in this film are simply romantic foils, except when they are called forth for moments of Female Incompetence.

There is alot of subtext and allegory in many levels in this film.  They can and should be examined in detail to draw your own conclusions.

Watch this movie as an antidote to Smallville.  Then go watch Justice League: Unlimited in peace.

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7 Responses to Movies That Hate You: Superman

  1. Jenny says:

    I didn’t know people considered Danny Elfman a hack, I’ve heard about the plagarism of the 8 1/2 score,but not the labeling him of a hack entirely.
    And are there any superhero movies you’ve enjoyed?

    • Heavy Armor says:

      Jenny,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Here’s the thing:

      Many of the movies I’ve reviewed (including this one) are ones that I’ve enjoyed – and in some cases, revered (like this one) for a long time. Unfortunately, lots of these movies have racial and gender issues which go ignored by-and-large by their fanbases. My enjoyment for the story (like Superman) is tempered by its portrayal of people of color (the only black person with any speaking lines is a stereotypical Black pimp; women of color are completely silent). These cannot be separated simply because the movie offers something I like. Handwaving or turning a blind eye does everyone a disservice.

  2. German Gibbings says:

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  4. Andrew says:

    “There were also accusations of Tobacco companies using the Superman movies as product placement – entirely plausible considering that Donner had gone well over-budget and the Salkinds had to get additional funding from Warner Bros. to finish this film.”

    The accusations were denied but proven years later and even resulted in a congressional investigation about the practice in Hollywood. Philip Morris paid the producers over $40,000 to embed Marlboro into the Superman films. Read the agreement between Philip Morris and Pierre Spengler for yourself: http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/cxz55e00/pdf;jsessionid=D8FAFEF356EBF0EB4A3CBEA30A57D57B.tobacco04

    Spengler and the Salkinds literally sold their child audience to Philip Morris. A shameful episode in cinema history.

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