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The Passion of Superman (1978)

illustration by Brianna Ashby

There’s nothing cool about wearing your underwear on the outside, but I’ll be damned if that’s going to stop me. It’s 1992. I’m 5-years-old and yes, by god, this is a look I can get into. My kindergarten teacher tells us we can wear our costumes to class on Halloween, and there’s zero question in my mind who I’m going to be. In preparation, I enlist my mother for her rudimentary skills with the sewing machine. She makes the cape, just red as can be. I’ve got a solid blue sweatshirt and sweatpants. I remember that hard thump of the sewing machine as she sits in our dining room, putting the finishing touches on the last piece of the costume. Leaning over it in concentration. When she’s done, what she hands me is softer than expected, but the shape and colors are familiar. The red. The yellow. The way the top of the letter runs into the outer border. When I go to class the next day, my heart’s beating against it, this sacred shield, bright red and shaped like an abstracted “S,” held fast to my chest by three little safety pins.

I remember recess that day. Running, leaping, for what felt like forever. My arms stretched out ahead of me in my very best pantomime of flight. My legs pumping until I can’t rightly feel them, until I’m sweating through the sweatshirt—which doesn’t take long, because in Louisiana even late October is hot as hell. In the memory I am moving fast, so fast. Near weightless, because when you’re that young you practically are. Your body is still small, still new to the world. Full of surprises and capable of anything. I see myself then, bounding through the playground all wrapped in blue and red. Overjoyed, because that was the day I got to be Superman.

You already know the story. Doomed planet. Desperate scientist. A baby in a rocket headed from disaster to the safety of Earth. There, the baby, Kal-El is found and raised by a kindly Midwestern couple, the Kents. They name him Clark. He discovers he has these amazing abilities. A red cape and blue tights ensue. One pair of glasses and a move to the big city later, and he’s fighting a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.

It’s a tale that’s been told time and again, but never as well as in Richard Donner’s Superman (1978). It’s the urtext of superhero movies, the first and, to my mind, still the very best example of the genre.

What makes Donner’s film the pinnacle is its pure distillation of the monomyth. Superman’s structure flows from this archetypal foundation, something later Superman films have abandoned to their peril. The film’s adherence to the myth should come as no surprise, really. Superman has always had one red boot planted firmly in the mythical, ever since June 1938, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish cartoonists, synthesized American immigrant ideals, old world mythology, and the burgeoning pulp science-fiction aesthetics in Action Comics #1. It was baby Moses rocketing to the heartland of Depression Era America, with powers beyond those of mortal men, and the world had never seen anything like it.

It’s a legacy the 1978 film pays loving homage to in its opening, in which a black and white curtain opens over an issue of Action Comics and a child begins to read the first captions, his little hand turning the pages as we glide from panel to panel. The camera lingers on a panel of the newspaper office, that famous globe spinning atop a great skyscraper, before the image blurs, and suddenly we see it: a real skyscraper. A real globe. This is not a comic anymore. This is real life.

By the time the opening credits finish rolling, we’re soaring over the planet Krypton. Foreboding, austere; nothing but ice and crystal and scowling men with lined faces and glowing robes. One of these scowling men is Marlon Brando’s Jor-El, the frustrated scientist warning of Krypton’s impending doom. What makes the film’s Krypton scenes especially noteworthy is the mileage it squeezes out of Brando’s limited presence. His delivery and gravitas are positively Romanesque. It’s like he’s playing Marc Antony all over again; just replace the marble columns with ice crystals, and the various busts with massive holographic heads.

After Krypton explodes, and baby Kal-El is safely hurtling toward Earth in his funky crystal spaceship, we enter what is, from a narrative perspective, the most important and perilous aspect of the hero’s journey: “The Call to Adventure.” Few films handle it as well as Superman. It’s a marvel of efficient storytelling, about ten minutes of screen time altogether, in which we see the loneliness and frustration of a teenage Clark Kent; a big guy, jet black hair and blue eyes, intermittently bullied by football players. When he’s entirely alone on the field, however, he can kick the ball so far and true it disappears over the horizon. When he’s alone, he can run faster than anything, tear across miles of bare Kansas prairie in the blink of an eye, a smile plastered across his face as he leaps ahead of rushing locomotives.

I’ve always loved these scenes, dated special effects and all. To me, they embody the constant fluctuation between joy, vulnerability, and isolation that define your late teenage years; the need to break out of your small town, your old life, ready to make a new one, see new things, move from what Campbell called “the ordinary world” into “the special world,” where adventure awaits. At the same time, these scenes instill a certain loneliness that lies at the heart of Superman, an isolation that exists in conversation with his inherent goodness, and is in fact essential to it.

Clark Kent isn’t bullied because he’s weak. He’s bullied because he’s different, in ways no one quite understands. We can’t control how other people see us, what they expect from us. We can only control ourselves. Rather than give in to pettiness or revenge, Clark has been taught by his parents to aim for something higher. “You are here for a reason,” Pa Kent tells his adopted son. But he cannot rightly say what that reason is. It’s up to Clark to forge that identity on his own, put his gifts to use in the way he sees fit. When his father dies of a sudden heart attack, Clark comes to understand how real the limits of his powers are.

“All those things I can do,” he says, standing with his mother at the funeral. “All those powers. And I couldn’t even save him.” For all Clark’s strength, there is no cheating death, no overpowering, no outrunning it. The next morning he bids his mother farewell, heads north, deep into the Arctic. Using a piece of the spaceship he came to Earth in, he builds himself a Fortress of Solitude, a microcosm of his home planet. It is a place of learning, contemplation, peace. Once he returns, the boy is now a man.

Every time I watch Superman I favor the first half over the latter. A hero is only as strong as his origin. It shapes everything to come. We build our identities, secret and otherwise, from those values instilled in us when we’re young. If their actions and choices define them, those decisions are informed by the values put in place long before the journey ever begins. The reason I’ll always love Superman above all other heroes is that despite his power, his youthful frustration, his alienation, he always moves past it, always veers toward the good. His is an unwavering value set, rooted in love and the deepest kind of compassion.

Christopher Reeve understood this, and brings it to the fore in his portrayal. You see it etched in his smile: sincere, hopeful, whether he’s rescuing a little girl’s cat from a tree, or steadying a tail-spinning Air Force One. You see it when he’s being interviewed on a rooftop balcony by Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane. Reeve is standing tall, standing strong, still in the prime of his life. He is wearing the most ridiculous outfit in the world, and doing it with enough confidence to crush coal into diamond. Lois asks him why he’s here, this Superman, this stranger from another world with amazing abilities. He tells her, with complete sincerity, “Well Lois, I’m here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.” She laughs this answer away. Not an unreasonable reaction. Watergate had only happened six years earlier, after all. Nevertheless he replies, just a little bit firmer, “Lois, I never lie.” And we cannot help but believe him, because that is the charisma Reeve brought to the role. No irony. No wink. His blue eyes radiate compassion like it’s X-ray vision. He’s simply the finest actor to ever play the part.

There’s this persistent narrative that Superman is an abhorrently dull character; unnuanced, a boring blue boy scout. This same narrative says that he’s too powerful, that his stories don’t have real stakes, because he’s never in personal danger. It says Clark Kent disguising himself with a cheap pair of glasses makes no sense. But these arguments miss the point entirely. Because the fulcrum upon which the Superman myth turns is not his enormous power, but rather the overwhelming restraint with which he channels that power for the betterment of all mankind; the love that keeps that power in check. After all, Superman could simply take over the world with a snap of his fingers if he were so inclined, enforcing his will, his vision of how the world should be on all us mere mortals. But he doesn’t do this. Instead, what he does every day is dress up in a pair of glasses and an ill-fitting suit. He makes his voice comically high, gives himself a slouch, and acts so purposefully meek and ineffectual that his colleagues, including the woman he loves, openly mock and dismiss him. Why? Because working in disguise at The Daily Planet gives him that much more access to information, points him where he’s needed, when he’s needed, so that he can do the most good. Such is his compassion for all mankind. The secret identity of bumbling reporter Clark Kent is the disguise Superman wears over his disguise, isolating him further but giving him the space he needs to be the hero we need. He purposefully obscures his light so that it may shine all the more brightly when it’s truly needed—when the John Williams score rises, and the iconic “S” appears beneath his torn button-down shirt.

This dynamic between power, compassion, and restraint is what makes Superman the most relevant hero to our times. There is nothing easier than to be angry at the world, at each other, sneering and cynical. The challenge—and there is none greater—is to love, to continue to love; to act in selfless service of the world and its betterment, even when it doesn’t deserve it.

For a film like this to work, our hero must be matched by an equally impressive villain. And while I don’t think Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor can be realistically labeled “impressive” in any conventional sense of the word, his character nonetheless represents a deliberate choice, one that serves a very real purpose within this particular narrative. I’ll be honest, as a kid I absolutely hated him, hated his sections of the movie. The tone always seemed off, weighed down by awkward attempts at humor, all of which fall flat. Rather than raise the tension, they just seemed to drag. Often, I’d fast-forward right through them.

Watching the film in 2017, the Luthor scenes still drag just as much as before, but I find myself dumbstruck by a slew of bizarre parallels to this very strange moment in which we now find ourselves. To be clear, Lex Luthor is still a shitty, mediocre villain, but we are living in an age of shitty, mediocre villains. Let’s take a second to examine him more closely: As played by Gene Hackman, Luthor is a two-bit real estate swindler; a smug conman with delusions of grandeur; a bloated narcissist with a penchant for monologuing; he’s got weird hang ups about his hair, or lack thereof; he resides in the heart of New York (Metropolis, sorry) in a fortress decked out in gauche, rococo trim. There, sealed off from the world, he schemes away in the company of yes-men and an extremely beautiful woman, whose only feeling towards him appears to be open, visible contempt.

Feels like I’ve seen this somewhere recently.

If Superman is love and fortitude, Lex Luthor is greed, solipsism, and ego; the self blown up to a fetid absolute. He is late capitalism on two legs, stuffed into an ill-fitting suit and unconvincing wig. Of course he is oafish in comparison to Superman. Of course his scenes feel like they go on forever. There’s nothing more exhausting than being trapped in the presence of a buffoon convinced he’s a genius. A more overtly menacing villain would have infused the film with more energy, certainly, but only in the shallowest sense (I’m looking at you, Man of Steel). But that’s not what this movie is about. This isn’t pro-wrestling with powers, like so many superhero stories. Rather, it’s deeper, more spiritual. It’s a passion play.

As the film draws to a close, Luthor fires two nuclear missiles in opposite directions, one toward the East Coast, the other to the San Andreas Fault. The challenge Superman faces is not one of physical aggression, but inner fortitude. He must push himself past his limits if he’s to catch them both, and save the people he cares for. This is why I’m ultimately an apologist for the film’s famously absurd climax. It works, despite its flaunting of the basic laws of physics, because it represents the monomyth completing its circle.

Superman can only catch one of Lex Luthor’s missiles, and California is hit along the San Andreas Fault. As a series of massive earthquakes threatens to plunge the West Coast into the sea, Superman burrows into the Earth, rights the damaged fault line, and saves millions of people in the process. But he fails to reach Lois Lane in time. She is dragged under the rubble, killed choking on dust and entombed in metal. Pulling her lifeless body from the earth, Superman lays her on the ground, kisses her, then erupts into flight. As he enters the upper atmosphere, Brando’s voice booms with the maxim he has given three times now throughout the film: “It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history.” The sky cracks, a peal of biblical thunder. Forbidden. But then, the voice of Superman’s other father, his human father: “You are here for a reason.” And our hero makes his choice.

Flying around the Earth at such speed as to reverse its rotation, he begins to turn back time along with it. Suddenly, the ground opens up, the sunken rubble rises, and with it Lois Lane, alive and well. This is the final step of the hero’s journey, what Campbell calls the “Return with the Elixir.” It flies in the face of even a rudimentary understanding of how planetary rotation works, but this is myth, after all. It’s just a fairy tale. It’s Cinderella, only the glass slipper is a pair of thick-framed glasses, and under all that soot is a bright red “S.”

Superman continues to see me through the rough patches. I draw something essential from it. I did when I was a kid, running through the schoolyard with that “S” pinned to my chest. And I do the same today, when the world looks ready to tear itself apart. Because there’s no surviving tragedy without hope, without reminding ourselves that there is always good in people, that that light is still there and worth pursuing. Superman embodies that hope for me, personifies that light. I feel it in every note of that John Williams theme, the way it builds, gloriously crescendoes into the sonic equivalent of flight. And I see it, plain as day, in that final frame of the film, as Christopher Reeve, young and strong and unaware of all the trials life will lay before him, looks straight into the camera, straight at 5-year-old me, smiles, and banks gracefully out of frame. Like a bird. Like a plane.