Joe’s $1-a-week cinema: Superman the Movie (1978)
Spoiler alert: Life is complicated.
The finest, noblest and most powerful motion picture ever made, with the obvious exception of Weekend at Bernie’s, is without doubt Superman: The Movie.
Superman: The Movie is not just a work of staggering scale and genius, it was also the pioneer of movies identifying themselves as movies so as to avoid any confusion among the lower end of the demographic, who may have mistaken it for, say, Superman: The Stepladder.
Superman of course stars Marlon Brando, who took the role of Jor-El in part because he was paid $1 million per minute of screen time and in part because by 1978 he was too fat to play characters who wore pants.
It also stars Gene Hackman, who plays Lex Luthor, and – winning the much coveted third billing spot – Christopher Reeve, who plays a minor character called Superman.
The character of Superman was created Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster along the basic premise of “What would Jesus look like if he shaved?” Perhaps for this reason Superman is almost as popular as Jesus throughout the English-speaking world and even more so among the Jewish community.
Like Jesus, Superman had a heavenly father, an earthly family and went missing for 12 years. Then both appeared from nowhere and saved the world.
However there do remain key differences between the two. For example, while Jesus was outspoken about the concepts of truth and justice, He never pledged to fight for the American way - despite George W Bush’s repeated claims to the contrary.
Superman on the other hand is very much on the record as fighting for all three, leading to some recent awkwardness about his exact position on the Iraq War.
We will skip the part about Superman’s home planet exploding, his adopted father dying and his abandonment of his Earth mother in the sparse wheat fields of Smallville because to dwell on such things is to tear open one’s soul and pour in a universe of sorrow. Anyone who does not break down sobbing at any of these events is a sociopath.
Rather let us commence from Superman’s first day on the job at The Daily Planet and Perry White’s appraisal that: “Clark Kent may seem like just a mild-mannered reporter, but listen, not only does he know how to treat his editor-in-chief with the proper respect, not only does he have a snappy, punchy prose style, but he is, in my forty years in this business, the fastest typist I’ve ever seen.”
This is widely considered to be evidence of one of Superman’s lesser known superpowers, namely the ability to extract praise from a newspaper editor.
The early scenes also establish the Man of Steel’s attraction to Lois Lane, another area in which he differs from Jesus, who has never even met Lois Lane.
While other men may demonstrate their affection for a woman by buying her flowers or just cleaning up around the house, Superman does it by rescuing her from a falling helicopter. This is both physically impressive and terribly unfair to other blokes – one of the many emotional complexities of the film.
Another of these is Superman’s curious prioritisation of his affairs. For example, when he first emerges from a revolving door in his resplendent red and blue, he is greeted by a jive brother with the immortal words: “Say Jim, that’s a bad outfit.”*
This prompts Superman to pause, turn to him and say “Excuse me” before taking off. His decision to do this indicates that while he may indeed love Lois Lane very much, he loves good manners even more.
After a string of adventures, Superman decides to do a tell-all interview with Lois, a surprising gesture for a man with a secret identity. The ensuing scene is so incredibly intimate and steamy that I would advise sending the kids out of the room. Among other things Superman literally undresses Lois with his eyes, which personally I do not find to be appropriate behaviour for a superhero.
Thankfully Superman is soon confronted by Lex Luthor, who displays far more understanding of his role as supervillain by clearly detailing his plan for world domination and then giving Superman ample opportunity to escape.
When he inevitably does, Superman again shows an interesting set of priorities by failing to rescue Lois just so he can keep a promise he made to a gangster’s moll with big knockers. Thankfully he is able to reverse this error by turning back time, thus violating a direct order from his father and potentially jeopardising the entire future of humankind.
Again, while some of the blame for this can be attributed to Miss Teschmacher there are also legitimate questions about where Superman is getting his advice from.
But that is of course at the very heart of the movie and of Superman himself: That life is a constant battle not just between good and evil but also between good and better – and sometimes evil and lesser evil.
Life is rich and complicated and often contradictory and it falls upon all of us to somehow try to negotiate the best way through it, not just for ourselves but for others too. Superman does not just forsake Lois but also his own love for Lois.
He turns away from self-interest to pursue what’s right. Then in the face of her death and enthralled by agony he risks the world for his desire. He is both divine and human, perfect and flawed. For him, like for all of us, life is a struggle, not an achievement; a series of choices, not answers; a Holy Grail we strive for, yet which lies just out of reach.
*For anyone who doesn’t speak jive, “bad” in this context means “very good”.
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