Film 2019: Superman

We begin Phase 2 of Film 2019 here: for the remainder of this series I’ll be watching and commenting on films I have in box sets of differing numbers. Some of these box sets are of films that tell a complete story between them, trilogies if you want to call them that without giving away the least clue, oh no, gollum. These will be watched over consecutive weekends. Others, like the film that starts this sequence, are part of compilations, and these I will dip into serendipitously, at random. Let us begin.

For me, Superman, the Mario Puzo scripted, Richard Donner diected, Alexander and Ilya Suskind produced, Christopher Reeve starring film, is a glory and a nostalgic dream. It’s not perfect, it’s not impervious to criticism, but it represents something that goes deep inside me and for that it will always soar above its flaws.

Superman was released forty years ago this year, on January 1, 1979. It had been promoted for months, and the tag-line was You will believe a man can fly. And we did. I saw it within a week of it arriving in Nottingham, on the ABC1 screen, a big, old-fashioned cinema that foresook the intimacy of today’s multiscreens for the gigantic spaces of old and was thus the best ever venue for a film like this. I took my best friend, the woman I was in love with and from whom I was concealing my feelings (I thought) because she was in love with someone else. We both loved it. And despite the occasional green screen mismatch, of colours, usually, we believed.

Superman was the big daddy of them all, the first big budget effort at putting a superhero on screen and taking him seriously. You look at it forty years on and see the roots of what is present in the Marvel Extended Cinema Universe films. You see the relatively primitive special effects, you see the naivete of many elements in the film, you see where the courage of convictions wears thin and the film just has to resort to silliness because, after all, we’re grown-ups, aren’t we? And you watch the film take a time over things that would have audiences poring over their smartphones long before the scene is over. And if you are me, you say a great big flaming So What?

Because this was the great big validation. This was all of us who loved comics and who kept that love, or even the very merest mention of interest, concealed from everyone we worked with. This was Superman, first of them all, and this was Superman being taken seriously, in a way that let us openly celebrate what we otherwise hid, without being exposed. Before I got to see the film, I was hearing Barristers in their Robing Room discussing the film delightedly.

Speaking of slowness: the film opts for a very long introduction/origin. We begin on Krypton (after that glorious John Williams theme has played out to its full) with Jor-El conducting the trial of General Zod and Co.  This is very much a teaser for Superman 2 which Donner, in the manner that he’d taken with The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers, was filming simultaneously. But it also establishes Krypton for us, or a film Krypton, of a massive and frozen aspect, an ice and snow planet with elegant crystal technology (a controversial departure from the comics Krypton, a planet of glorious, abounding life and wonders). And it establishes Jor-El for us, in Marlon Brando’s massively expensive, impassively composed performance, as the classic story plays out and baby Kal-El is placed in a star-shaped rocket to be sent to Earth where, as we are told twice round, his Kryptonian metabolism will make him super-powerful.

Then we cut to Smallville, Kansas, childless middle-aged couple Jonathan and Martha Kent, who adopt the baby that crashes in a falling satellite, raise him, teach him honesty, humility and a sense of purpose that will be built upon doing good. It’s old-fashioned, it’s hokey, but it’s unashamedly presented as natural, and it captures an essential part of the superhero DNA that’s so badly overlooked in these cynical times when everything is insistent on exploring the dark heart of the myth, that these brightly lit fantasies of superiority are about being good and doing good, because that’s what is important.

All of this is seen through the life of Clark Kent aged 18, and played so far by Jeff East (with dialogue redubbed by Christopher Reeve), and but for an unrealistic scene where the Special Effects aren’t up to convincingly showing you Clark running faster than a speeding locomotive (it had to be) it’s superb. The Kansas setting is evoked wonderfully in its sheer massiveness, a spaciousness that subconsciously echoes the grandeur of Clark’s powers.

Then, after Jonathan dies of a heart attack, Jeff East goes away for twelve years, to the Arctic, his Fortress of Solitude, and further holographic education from Jor-El, and, forty five minutes in, yes, a whole forty-five minutes, we get a brief glimpse of the Superman costume, and then it’s a cut to Metropolis, to the Daily Planet, and finally Christopher Reeve comes onscreen, not as the hero, but as Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter.

Christopher Reeve, poor damned Christopher Reeve. He is the movie. A more or less complete unknown, at first rejected for the part for being too young and too skinny, Reeve is Superman, and he is Clark Kent, and he is two completely different people and he brings total authority, complete conviction and massive authenticity to both. As Superman, you believe a man can fly not because the Special Effects show it but because Christopher Reeve shows it: he’s brilliantly adept at working with the machinery that supports him, and when we watch him in flight, we believe we are seeing this, because Reeve treats it as the most natural thing on Earth.

And as Clark, he is funny, clumsy, klutzy and sincerely outdated to the exact point before his performance could turn into parody. His posture changes, his apprehension of an unkind world increases, his voice is higher-pitched and light without sounding unnatural. To demonstrate my point, there is a scene in Lois Lane’s apartment that condenses Reeve’s performance into about sixty seconds: Reeve has just left Lois as Superman and returned as Clark Kent for their ‘date’. She is still in a haze of distraction. As Clark, he looks at the room into which she has just disappeared, to fix her hair. He takes off his glasses, straightens up, his voice drops in register. With no make-up or effects, he has turned from one man into the other. Then doubt affects him, he restores his glasses, shrinks and dissolves into Clark. All in one scene, no cuts.

Margot Kidder, poor damned Margot Kidder, plays Lois Lane. There’s an early and nasty attempt to undermine her by portraying her as obsessed with violence and sex and unable to spell properly, and she ends the film as the classic victim, dependent upon the hero to rescue (please bear in mind that this version of Superman is based on the pre-1986 John Byrne reboot), but she’s perfect in the role, mixing the character’s underlying independence and forthrightness with the effect of being thunderstruck in love (and lust). Kidder was a lovely woman then, with a wonderfully throaty way of speaking. Like Reeve, she was an unknown, but the pair have chemistry that leaps off the screen at you, and the film was so right to cast unknowns in these two vital roles, since that enables us to see them as Clark/Superman and Lois, instead of actors.

These two carry the film. There are, as I said, flaws. Gene Hackman plays an ebullient, imperious, self-congratulatory Lex Luthor (the original Luthor, the openly criminal scietist). He gets the two best lines in the film, one of them the justly celebrated “Everyone has their faults. Mine’s in California”.

The other’s a bit self-referential, “Why does the world’s greatest criminal surround himself with nincompoops?” which, having already seen Ned Beatty’s face-stuffing Otis, is surely being said before the audience can ask the same question. His other assistant is Valerie Perrine as Miss (Eva) Teschmacher, and we all know why Luthor keeps her around: Miss Teschmacher is a cartoon sexpot (if she were a real cartoon, she’d be a Hentai).

The ending to the film was also very controversial. Luthor’s nuclear missile hits the San Andreas Fault, causing massive earthquakes, collapses and a lot of work by Superman in saving people. So much so that by the time he realises Lois is in a car being swallowed up by the Earth, it’s too late, she has been crushed to death.

Comes the moment. Superman struggles with his loss, his grief. He looks into the sky, screams, “Noooooooooooooo!” and takes off faster than at any time in the film. He flies into space. He is challenged by the image of Joe-El, reminding him that it is forbidden to change the course of human history (isn’t he already doing that, the way all of us do, just by being here day after day?), he recalls the words of Jonathan Kent, that he is here for a purpose and that is to use his powers to help people. Two fathers, two philosophies, two cultures. Kal-El chooses Earth. He spins round the planet so fast and persistently that it begins to turn backwards. Footage rolls backwards. Cracks in the earth close up, dams heal themselves, boulders roll uphill. Superman lands by Lois’s car and she’s alive. They’re about to kiss when Jimmy Olsen turns up.

I don’t care. I loved it, then and now, the eucatastrophe. Of course it’s a cheat. It was called as such then, the action of a big baby, stamping his widdle foot and screaming, and I don’t care. Above all else, this is a peculiarly comic book film in a way none of  the modern breed are. It plays by comic book rules, not cinema rules. It has a sense of wonder unpunctured by too much realism. The DC Cinema Universe may one day run to 100 films, and I still won’t have watched Man of Steel, but this will still be greater than all of them, because we do believe a man can fly, and we can go fly with him and feel that first thrill over and over again. It can even tell us that Superman fights for Truth, Justice and the American Way and not have us laugh with embarrassment.

One final comment. My DVD has the amended credit sequence. When I saw this in Nottingham in January 1979, there was no line crediting Superman as the creation of Jerry Seigel and  Joe Schuster. Truth and Justice did, eventually, triumph over the American Way.

Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero

Though it was published in 2012, I’ve just discovered Larry Tye’s biography of Superman, though I’m a bit disgruntled to have paid £19.99 for a copy of the import edition when I could have picked it up through Amazon for less than £3.00.
Tye is an experienced journalist and writer of non-fiction who’s best known for his previous book, Satchell, the biography of Satchell Paige, the first black pitcher in American baseball. In his Introduction he explains why he wanted to write about the Superman story, and how this book would be different from those that came before it, and would follow.
The outcome is an interesting and decently comprehensive of Superman’s career, from his birth in comics to his expansion into other media: cartoons, radio, movie serials, television, big budget films. Tye has researched thoroughly and presents a clear picture of each stage of Superman’s career.
That’s the thing about this book, though. Tye is interested in the phenomenon of Superman, in his colonisation of so many different spheres, and his study is about them. The first three chapters deal with Superman’s background: his creators Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, their background and personalities, the artistic influences that they synthesized to create the Man of Steel, and the route by which he took into first publication.
There is even a chapter upon how Superman, despite his assumption of Christian characteristics, is at heart, and not even secretly, Jewish, like his creators, his publishers and virtually the entire Comics industry.
So far, so simple. But once Tye has gotten this background out of the way, his concerns are solely with Superman’s colonisation of succeeding differing media: radio, cartoons, Saturday morning serials, television, the Broadway stage and blockbuster films. What happens to Superman in his only truly natural home, in the comics, becomes a matter of indifference to Tye, a subject to which he returns only intermittently and, except in one instance, with faint distaste.
Because from start to finish, it is clear that Tye has little or no time for creative individuals. Tye only respects success, which is measured in dollars and cents, and to him the true heroes are not those who create stories, who exercise their imagination to thrill, enliven, astonish or move, but with those who exploit a property to its fullest commercial sense.
The standard narrative, which hones to the truth, portrays Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster as naive, inexperienced, lacking in social skills, full of dreams and desires that they have no means of fulfilling. Out of their shared needs and inadequacies, they create Superman, the great adolescent wish-fantasy, the more than man, perfect, brave and strong, the idealisation of everything they would want to be, who hides his light under the bushel of a mild, meek, Caspar Milquetoast coward, especially from the woman he loves, who loves the superman and despises the alter ego. It’s a very deep well of psychological urges and fears and is a fundamental reason why Superman spoke to so many people from the very beginning, and why he is still relevant and popular seventy five years later.
So Seigel and Shuster, these nebbishes and proto-geeks, invent a near-Universal symbol that has expanded through nearly every medium there has been created, and made uncountable billions of dollars in every conceivable format and licencing product.
But at the very outset, Seigel and Shuster – young innocents without legal advice – are given no option but to sell their character to two practiced sharks in Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz, who take ownership and control for a mere $130. That Donenfeld and Liebowitz were sharks is beyond disagreement: they own the comic book company that will publish Superman because, though it was a profitable enterprise for Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, they manipulate him into a cash-flow crisis at the wrong moment, that forces him into bankruptcy, out of which they buy his company for a song.
At the hands of Donenfeld, Seigel and Shuster, who have created this money fountain, who have created not just Superman but the superhero per se and the entirety of the comics industry that has existed for seventy years, get a fixed pittance of that income. They cannot control their own creation but have to follow the orders of people who do not have even the creative capacity the boys possess. Though they have an exclusive contract to supply Superman pages, from almost the beginning DC try to get round that, undermine and undercut them. Eventually, they are dismissed from consideration at DC, without even the page rate they were earning. Much of their lives are spent in poverty and misery.
As comics writer and historian Mark Evanier perceptively noted, Seigel and Shuster’s story is the contravention of the American Dream.
Tye acknowledges all this as a matter of historical fact. But throughout this book, it is plain that his sympathies lie not with the exploited but the exploiters. His enthusiasm lies in what Donenfeld and Liebowitz – actually, the more chummy sounding Harry and Jack – did to promote Superman (at the least possible cost and most profitable terms for themselves). And in due course, he is equally awed by legendary Superman editor and all round offensive human being Mort Weisinger, who completed the job of levering Superman out of Seigel and Shuster’s hands and into his own.
Indeed, it’s clear that Tye holds Seigel and Shuster in contempt. He cannot bring himself to mention Shuster – who was next to legally blind throughout his entire career, who found drawing physically difficult and who increasingly directed the work of assistants who he paid from his own income – without sneering about his ‘work ethic’.
And though he recognises that advantage was taken of the pair, Tye is dismissive of Jerry Seigel’s insecurity and fear of being exploited by those with more power than him, which the historical record demonstrates was very real. Seigel was paid a comparative pittance compared to the money Superman brought in, and Tye’s attitude is clearly that he should have been grateful for it and stopped bothering Leibowitz.
And he shouldn’t have kept bringing lawsuits.
This displacement of sympathy towards the excessive winners instead of the exploited losers runs through all the book. Even Weisinger ranks higher in Tye’s lexicon than Seigel and Shuster, because despite being a truly monstrous person, he made Superman sell. Tye tells stories of Weisinger abruptly sacking Wayne Boring after nearly thirty years and callously dismissing him with “Do you want a kick in the stomach to know when you’re not wanted?”, and condescendingly crediting Seigel as being the best Superman writer (after originally forcing him out by claiming Seigel had so little idea about his creation he would destroy it).
And these stories are told with approval fo Weisinger.
When he has to, Tye acknowledges the comics career of Superman. He covers the Wertham-inspired attacks of the early Fifties, the rebooting of Superman under John Byrne, and the early Nineties Death of Superman sequence, but even then he can’t but sneer at the fact that Superman’s audience in comics is very tiny in comparison to his reach in any other media. He describes the comic book world as insular and dependant upon detailed knowledge of characters and history that drives away new readers (which is true, but which Tye sweeps away as unworthy of consideration).
Overall, Tye acts as if he would really rather that the comics Superman might disappear and let me concentrate upon more important things.
Good as it is, well-researched and comprehensive, especially with regard to the non-comics Superman, I really can’t get on with this book because of this essential dichotomy. Tye’s respect lies in too many wrong places for me and his fawning over Jack Leibowitz in particular is too much for me.
There’s a genuine argument to be made for a dispassionate study of Leibowitz’s business success, which would be interesting, but this isn’t it. Tye’s contempt for creative individuals cannot be ignored (there is a passing reference to writer Harlan Ellison, author and social activist, writer of short stories, screen and teleplays, columns and commentary: Tye refers to him as a ‘pop culture maven’). It’s an attitude that wholeheartedly describes the attitude that comic book professionals have had to their freelance minions throughout the entirety of the industry: businessmen who couldn’t write or draw a line are far more important than those who provide the comics people read.
Not to me.