Comics Ate My Brain

January 14, 2010

Structure, tone, and Superman

Filed under: movies, superman — Tom Bondurant @ 2:00 pm

These days I am watching movies in big chunks, usually while a certain young someone is napping. Today I finished yet another viewing of Superman, which is probably well-suited to this kind of schedule because it has pretty much four distinct parts.

The opening on Krypton is weird not just because everything is cold and crystalline, but because it all centers on Marlon Brando in a white spit-curled wig. He makes a good Jor-El, in part because he and Lara are the most friendly characters we meet. Even when he’s “interacting” holographically with Superman later, though, he plays a caring dad, eager to catch up with his long-lost son.

Of course, when I first saw Superman during its original run, I was nine years old and didn’t know Brando from Mr. Greenjeans. I had no Godfather or On The Waterfront or (yikes!) Last Tango In Paris frames of reference; and can only imagine what 1978 audiences must have thought about Don Corleone in that wig and S-shield muumuu ambling around the North Pole. (Remember, Superman‘s original script was by Godfather author Mario Puzo.) I expect Am I tripping? went through more than a few heads.

But the Brando factor is only part of the Krypton picture. While he was no longer a young turk, he still took enough chances (or so I understand) for moviegoers to rationalize Jor-El as just another one. He went from this role to Apocalypse Now, after all. I do remember Brando giving Superman much-needed gravitas, and that above all else is what we take away from the Krypton scenes. Indeed, Krypton is dying because its people are Too Serious: they are masters of all they survey, and they brook no dissent. Furthermore, Jor-El knows two ways to survive his planet’s destruction, with one described as “living death.”

Brief digression: as many of you know, when I first watched this movie on the big screen lo, those many years ago, I was shocked and appalled at the number of Earth-1 Supes elements which did not make the cut. No Kandor, no Krypto, no colorful Krypton … but here’s the Phantom Zone, made scary for the ’70s. Of course it’s in there because the three criminals are Part 2’s main heavies, but no one would have known that at the time.

Anyway, although Jor-El and Lara don’t seem especially interested in raising baby Kal as a Very Serious Kryptonian, by the time it explodes we have a good idea what Kal has left behind. This sets up the Kansas scenes, where Kal/Clark finds himself adopted by a fairly serious couple. I have been a dad for just about seventeen months now, and while I set limits for Olivia, I try to let her explore, so that she can establish her own boundaries where appropriate. I don’t let her push all the buttons on the phone, though; and similarly the Kents keep a tight lid on Clark’s use of his powers. Clark’s frustration here echoes Jor-El’s, but where it was imperative for the Kryptonians to confront their collective fate, Clark using his powers is clearly optional. Sure, he’ll have to spend the rest of his life in deep denial, but he won’t be taken away by the government.

The Kansas portion is Clark-centric, obviously; but opening and closing the sequence are a couple of scenes with Glenn Ford. Glenn Ford is always one of my favorite things in this movie, because he grounds it perfectly. His middle name might as well be “reassuring.” He is perfectly reasonable in both scenes, when he points out all the practical aspects of super-parenting; and he handles the role with such grace and charm that he never seems like a wet blanket. That said, I did like the symmetry of the Kryptonian father and Earthling mother each saying goodbye. (Lara gets shafted, but again Superman II tries to make up for it.) From Kansas we go to the Fortress of Solitude, for a gap-bridging sequence which makes sure we don’t forget about Jor-El or Krypton. Finally, at age thirty (or thereabouts), Kal-El’s dual heritage is fully integrated, and he’s ready to face 1978 Metropolis.

This third part of the movie is, I suspect, the part everyone thinks of first. It is quick and witty, and it makes Clark/Superman part of an excellent ensemble.  Of course, this is where we meet most of the main cast:  Lois (Margot Kidder), Perry (Jackie Cooper), Jimmy (Marc McClure), Otis (Ned Beatty), Ms. Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), and Luthor (Gene Hackman).  Holding them all together, though, is the “utterly fantastic” (to borrow one of Lois’ phrases) Christopher Reeve.  He still makes me believe a man could hide behind poor posture, a squeaky voice, and thick glasses.  These Metropolis scenes, from Clark’s first day at the Planet to the villains’ Kryptonite conversation, do most of the movie’s real heavy lifting.  The Krypton and Smallville scenes each established a certain mood and filled in some character details, but the Metropolis scenes start building a movie from them.

What fascinates me is the abrupt shift in tone from the two flavors of serious which have come before.  The Krypton scenes are, for lack of a better term, goofy-serious; and the Kansas scenes are corny-serious; but once we get to Metropolis, the movie really opens up to the audience.  Superman has already flirted with a wry sense of humor a couple of times in the Kansas scenes, first when the Kents do the math on unhurt baby + crash site and later with “is a bird showing off when it flies.”  In Metropolis, the jocularity is nonstop.  Nevertheless, rather than use all the comedy to distance the main cast from Brando and Ford, Superman both embraces their contributions and asks the audience to move on.

It’s hard to put into words, but I think of Superman‘s structure as a representation of Superman himself.  The character comes from a slew of different influences but doesn’t try to replicate any particular one.  It’s perhaps ironic that Superman has become an archetype — square-jawed, honest, noble, and boring — for the general public.  Without Metropolis’ tonal shift, Superman would probably have collapsed under its own weight.  However, without Krypton and Kansas both grounding the character and giving him a certain solemnity, the audience might not have taken the movie seriously.  You have to respect Superman, I think, almost as much as you enjoy his adventures; and that’s a difficult thing to ask of a moviegoer who might not start out with the best opinion of the Man of Steel.

And that brings us to the fourth big chunk of Superman:  the disaster movie.  Disaster movies were huge in the ’70s, from big-budget pictures like Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, and The Poseidon Adventure to B-movies like Swarm.  There isn’t much opportunity for comedy in this part of the movie, because it’s all about showing off Superman’s powers.  Naturally, the key elements from Krypton, Kansas, and Metropolis all converge here, especially when Supes must choose whether to follow Jor-El or Pa Kent with regard to saving Lois’ life.  Again, though, this is no doubt the kind of thing audiences expected to see in a Superman movie — indeed, it’s the kind of thing they probably expected to see in any number of movies, except this time with Superman fixing everything — and it’s been paid for largely with the movie’s accumulated goodwill.  Specifically, the “disaster act” works because the effects hold up pretty well, and because Reeve is just so right in the role.

Now, I’m pretty sure most of you have seen Superman in the thirty-odd years it’s been around; and most of you probably have pretty definite opinions on why it works (or doesn’t work) for you.  To me, not only is this movie a great adaptation of the character, but its structure and management of tone offer great insights into how superhero comics can work well.  Superhero comics can handle any number of styles, from whodunits to space operas, from comedies to romances, and various combinations thereof.  However, many of them (especially the more venerable characters) must find the right balance between seriousness and escapism; and they could do worse than looking to Superman.

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