[NOTE: I wrote this review originally back around 2002. I don’t think it’s online anymore so I am reprinting it here on my blog.]
I have long known that the original Superman (as well as its sequel) is a “perfect” movie (perfect casting, perfect directing, perfect music, perfect dialogue, etc.). Recently I was bored out of my mind and rented it. And I was stunned by how much wisdom it contained.
Everyone knows that Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather. But most people don’t realize that he also wrote the screenplays for Superman (and its sequel). I have a pet theory (based on no further facts, so don’t yell at me if you can prove it wrong) that Puzo was horrified at how his sober analysis of the nature of the Mafia was completely missed, and that mob violence and vulgarity was in fact glorified by subsequent imitators. I believe that Puzo felt guilty for his pivotal role in creating this sad replacement for the Cowboys & Indians genre and attempted to rehabilitate himself by creating something noble which could not possibly be so perverted.
With this parallel in mind, let us take a whirlwind trip through Superman . Due to the reader’s assumed familiarity with the plot, this review will focus on subtleties which most people—including me until this most recent viewing—probably missed.
* * *
The movie opens with the introduction of the Superman character in the original comic book. The year is 1938, and we are informed of the Daily Planet’s dedication to truth and integrity in news reporting. One wonders whether the creator of the character Superman was doing the only thing he could to inspire hope in an era when truth and, indeed, human civilization, were losing ground to the forces of evil.
The next scene is the planet Krypton. Superman’s father, Jor-El (played by Marlon Brando…) is prosecuting three criminals charged with treason. (Notice that the Kryptonians have symbols on their chests—an insignia to designate family? In any event, this is a clever “explanation” for the bold “S” on Superman’s costume, since obviously there is no reason for Kryptonians to have the same alphabet as English-speaking Earthlings, nor would they call one of their normal boys “Superman.”) With Jor-El’s vote, the criminals are convicted and sentenced to the Phantom Zone. General Zod, their leader, offers Jor-El a high place if he will only join his insurrection, but of course Jor-El refuses such temptation.
The next scene shows Jor-El being ridiculed and scolded for his warnings of Krypton’s imminent demise. He asks the Council if he has ever been anything but reasonable in the past, but they denounce him for causing needless worry among the population. He agrees that he and his wife will remain on Krypton. (Notice this leaves open the possibility for his son’s escape.)
As Jor-El loads his young son, Kal-El, into a rocket ship, he explains to his wife that he is sending their infant son to the planet Earth. His wife objects that the Earthlings are a “primitive” people. Jor-El responds that this will give Kal-El the advantage he needs to survive. His wife continues to stress how isolated and different their son will be in such a world. Jor-El gently reminds her of what extraordinary powers he will have.
* * *
The rocket crashes in a rural Midwestern prairie. An older couple stops their truck to deal with a flat tire. They see the young boy—naked and unashamed—in the ship. The woman, Martha Clark Kent, “knows” that this is a gift from Heaven, an answer to her prayers for a child. The father is more skeptical. This curiosity changes to amazement when, as the jack slips and the truck falls, the young boy lifts up the rear end, effortlessly. (I used to think Superman saved his foster father’s life in this scene, but after further review it appears that Martha Kent pulled her husband away before he would have been crushed.)
We are then shown how badly the teenaged Clark Kent is treated by his schoolmates, in particular Brad, a star football player. He complains to his father that he is never included, even though (in pickup games) he can score a touchdown “every time” he gets the ball. The father smiles knowingly and says (not an exact quote), “Son, when we first found you, we were afraid people would come and take you away….But a man gets older and his fears pass away….Son, I do know this: You were put here for a reason. And it wasn’t to score touchdowns.”
After his father dies of a heart attack, Clark is crushed. (“All those powers…and I couldn’t even save him.” Recall that Michael Corleone saved his father once [from gangsters outside the hospital],but couldn’t, despite his cunning, save him from a heart attack, either.) Clark takes a crystal from his ship and goes to the North Pole, where it constructs Superman’s headquarters, the Fortress of Solitude.
In the Fortress, the recorded Jor-El explains Kal-El’s origins and instructs him in all of Krypton’s knowledge. Listen carefully to his teachings (use Rewind if you have to). He says, “It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history. Rather let your leadership stir others to.” (If even Superman, with his incredible powers and advanced knowledge, is not allowed to force other people to live morally, then human intellectuals are certainly not.) And then Jor-El utters what are perhaps the most profound commands ever given in a secular age:
“Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and power are needed. And always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason, above all—their capacity for good—I have sent them you, my only son.”
After these moving words, Jor-El disappears, and we see, for the first time, Christopher Reeve in his wonderful costume. Now that he knows his purpose, the confused Clark has been replaced by the confident Superman. It is clear that the forces of evil are in for an unpleasant surprise.
* * *
We next see Clark Kent in his first day at the Daily Planet. (Notice that Lois Lane, although a great reporter, has trouble with spelling. This is because she is too hurried and inattentive to details. This no doubt explains why she can’t make the connection between Clark Kent and Superman.) Perry White explains to Clark that a “good reporter doesn’t get great stories, a good reporter makes them great.” (Jimmy Olsen finishes the chief’s sentence, showing that White must say this a lot.)
Clark asks his new boss if half of his salary can be forwarded to a certain address. The cynical Lois “knowingly” asks if it’s for his bookie, then sarcastically wonders that maybe it’s really for his gray-haired mother. The “naïve” and honest Clark corrects her on the color of his mother’s hair (for whom the money is in fact intended).
We then see Otis, Lex Luthor’s bumbling yet charming henchman. (Notice he can’t even steal from a blind vendor.) Otis is returning to Luthor’s hideout underneath a train station, unaware that detectives are trailing him. (Notice that the trains are heading for such destinations as Buffalo and Syracuse, meaning of course that “Metropolis” is New York City.)
We then meet Lex Luthor (played fabulously by Gene Hackman). Notice that Luthor, though certainly evil, is a perfect gentleman. (E.g. he always refers to his companion as Miss Tessmacher. We also see, a little later, that Luthor, though the smartest human alive, is ashamed of his baldness and so wears a toupee.) We learn that it was Luthor’s cynical father who taught him his distrust of the common man. Otis (just like Jimmy Olsen) is obviously familiar with his boss’ lectures.
(This is actually an interesting point. One the one hand, we have Perry White, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen. Their foils are Lex Luthor, Miss Tessmacher, and Otis. Space does not permit me to do so, but the interested reader is encouraged to consider how similar these pairs are. The biggest similarity, of course, is that all absurdly underrate Kal-El whenever he is in their presence; the former underrate Clark Kent, while the latter underrate Superman.)
* * *
Superman makes his debut when Lois is in a helicopter mishap. (Notice that Clark first picks up litter before changing.) As Superman grabs the falling Lois, we hear a female onlooker proclaim, “I just cannot believe it. He got her.” (As if that’s an appropriate thing to say when a guy dressed in a strange costume flies up the side of a building and grabs a falling woman!) Then the copter soon follows, heading straight down for the hovering pair. Seeing this, the crowd panics. (As if someone who can fly is not capable of taking care of a falling helicopter!) Through it all, Superman just smiles. (Especially when Lois exclaims, “You’ve got me?? Who’s got you?!?!”)
Superman performs random acts of kindness, including rescuing a little girl’s kitten from a tree. (The girl tells her mother, who slaps her and scolds her for “lying.”)
A few scenes later, Lois is waiting for Superman on her balcony. Their rendezvous was for 8, yet it is 8:05 and he has still not shown up. Lois concludes (incorrectly) that he isn’t coming.
During his interview with Lois, Superman says, “I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way.” Lois thinks he’s crazy. “You’re gonna end up fighting every elected official in the country.”
The movie then embarks upon a particularly mushy flying scene, which my brother and I always Fast Forward. However, I should note that Lois—the wonderful journalist—thinks in poetry when she’s not even trying to be a wordsmith. It is clear that Lois thinks he’s too good for her, and in some sense he thinks she’s too good for him.
* * *
We then switch to Luthor’s hideout, where he’s reading Lois’ expose on the new visitor to Earth. Luthor concludes, “It’s too good to be true.” Miss Tessmacher, reading the same article, agrees with this conclusion. “He’s 6’4’’, black hair, blue eyes, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and tells the truth.”
(This description reminds me of an interview with Margot Kidder in which she pitied the physical training that Reeve went through for the role. She said that he was “the most gorgeous creature ever.” Not that I’m jealous or anything.)
Luthor explains to his minions how he knows that kryptonite will hurt Superman. “Deductive reasoning, that’s the name of the game.” (During this lecture, watch Otis “follow” Luthor’s thoughts. He’s hilarious.)
Luthor then engages in a plot to reprogram Navy missiles to facilitate the greatest real estate swindle in human history. (Yes, the sexually frustrated military commander is played by Larry Hagman. Also, notice that Otis has a black eye after blundering in his task and suffering Luthor’s off-screen wrath.)
Superman is led to Luthor’s lair by an ingenious lie. (Notice Luthor’s outrageous outfit when meeting his nemesis for the first time.) Luthor explains to Superman his plot to use a nuclear missile to sink the entire west coast, rendering the previously worthless land (bought up by Luthor) immensely valuable. (After the missiles launch, we learn from the military personnel that they can’t be shot down, since they have a new avoidance system. Is this Puzo’s warning about the dangers of overzealous defense spending?)
Superman rejects Luthor’s plan as the work of a diseased mind. (Thus, at this point, Superman is still naïve; he can’t fathom that someone with the intelligence required to actually implement such a scheme would take the time to plan it.)
Luthor then tricks Superman into exposing himself to the kryptonite. Luthor places it around Superman’s neck, smugly proclaiming, “Mind over muscle.”
Superman asks, “You don’t even care where the other missile is going, do you?”
Luthor responds that he knows exactly where it’s headed: Hackensack, New Jersey. Miss Tessmacher interjects, “Lex, my mother lives in Hackensack.” Luthor looks at his watch and wryly shakes his head no. (That’s my brother’s favorite part.)
With the missiles headed towards their targets, and Superman incapacitated by kryptonite, all seems lost.
* * *
Miss Tessmacher rescues Superman, but in order to save her mother, not millions of innocent people. It is clear that she is attracted to Superman but, like Lois, feels he is too good for her. Thus, Superman’s initial underestimation of Luthor (which will not be repeated at the end of Superman II) is not fatal, not because of his super powers, but because of his integrity. It is this that inspires Miss Tessmacher to save him.
As Superman races to contain the damage wrought by the nuclear explosion, notice how efficient he is in deploying his powers. (E.g. he first fixes the San Andreas fault, he first turns off the power at the dam, and he uses boulders to stop the flood. These are all indirect uses of his powers. His primary weapon is his knowledge of how the world works.)
As Superman brings Luthor and Otis to prison, he says to the warden, “These men should be safe here with you now, until they can get a fair trial.”
The warden says, “This country is safe again, Superman, thanks to you!”
Superman responds, “No sir, don’t thank me, Warden. We’re all part of the same team. ’Night.”
What a fantastic ending.
(At the end of the credits, notice the message, “Next Year: Superman II.”)
* * *
Unfortunately, I think that, once again, Puzo’s message was overlooked. People dismissed Superman as pure fantasy, unrelated to the “real world” where “everyone knows” truth and justice will never win. Sure, if you could fly and leap tall buildings in a single bound, adherence to the principles you learned as a child would lead to success…
But that’s not Puzo’s moral, I don’t think. Do you know who today’s Superman is, the person who—once he stops worrying about the insults of people like Brad from the football team—can accomplish “superhuman” feats and vanquish evildoers?
That person is you.