Superman 1.9: Staff Meeting in Space

It’s basically like Footloose, if everybody in Footloose was a glowing space angel, and instead of dancing it was saving your civilization from a global cataclysm. I suppose when you think about it, it’s not really that much like Footloose.

But it’s striking, after a first scene that was specifically constructed to establish that Jor-El is the primary representative of the Krypton way of life, to go straight into a scene where all of a sudden he’s the wild one, a teen rebel trying to get through to the jive turkeys who are running the place. They refuse to listen, of course; that’s standard practice for jive turkeys. Everything on Krypton seems to be either crystalline or circular, but if there’s such a thing as a square on this planet, then these people are the squares.

And this appears to happen immediately after Jor-El’s successful prosecution, when you’d think everybody would be high-fiving him. But he’s changed out of his black executioner gown, and into his white heavenly-host staff meeting gown, and now he’s in trouble. Jor-El does not get a lot of downtime.

It’s the gowns, really, that elevate this scene into the realm of art. The comics pictured Jor-El a bunch of times between 1939 and 1978, and he was usually dressed in a sci-fi tunic with a cape, in some combination of red, green and yellow. The 1948 version pictured above was an outlier in having a red shirt with a yellow circle; the many late-50s appearances were remarkably consistent, with a green tunic, yellow circle and red accessories.

This look is obviously intended to reflect Superman’s circus-strongman costume, but tweaking the bold primary colors by replacing the deep blue with a more alien green. It looks standard-issue outer-spacey, as seen in Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and the thousand copycats that followed, with accents at the shoulder that evoke a military uniform.

In contrast, the impossibly shiny white costumes worn by the film’s Kryptonians look like nothing on earth. I’m just going to go ahead and assert that the whole point of a superhero movie is to show us things we’ve never seen before, and so far the movie has delivered spectacularly. There’s the revolving hula-hoops machine, the black-box-theater projected faces, the diamond Phantom Zone effect, and now these incredible costumes.

The material is used for cinema screens, and it’s made out of miniscule balls of glass. When the flying unit was testing front projection — having the actor holding still, while they project film on a screen behind him — they noticed that this material lit up with a blinding reflection when the light hit it in a specific way.

So they cut the material into little strips and made the costumes, and mounted a front projection box on each of the cameras. The light from the projection box bounces off a mirror and hits the glass beads, and then the beads reflect that blinding flash back to the camera. It’s both literally and figuratively brilliant, and it’s the kind of trick you can only use once.

They had to use cotton gloves to handle the material, because it would lose its shine if you touched it by hand — and unfortunately, now that I know that, I get nervous when I see the shot of Jor-El putting his hands on the other guy’s shoulders, because I’m thinking, dude, don’t touch the material! But maybe Marlon Brando’s hands are made of star stuff, and it doesn’t matter.

Another remarkable thing about this scene is how still Jor-El is. He knows that everyone on the planet will die if these science quacks don’t listen to him, and if there was ever a moment for spluttering frustration, this would be it. But Brando moves slowly through the scene, absolutely assured of his facts.

“This planet will explode within thirty days, if not sooner,” he patiently explains, not raising his voice. Asked to be reasonable, his response is, “My friend, I have never been otherwise. This madness is yours.”

He’s not yelling at them, because he knows how this meeting is going to end, and how their world will end. He speaks the truth, knowing that it won’t change anything. These people are already dead. He’s just sad about it.

This atmosphere of stillness and resignation is a break from previous versions of the scene, which often have the council either laughing (as in Superman #53) or shouting (as in the 1940 radio show). There’s usually some kind of uproar when Jor-El goes into his Cassandra routine.

But these people aren’t laughing. These people are terrified of him.

As in the previous scene, Jor-El is the most important person in the room, the man who commands all available attention. Whether he’s the hero or the goat, everything else exists in relationship to him.

It’s not clear what they think he will do, if defied, but they are desperately worried about it. They act as if a single word from him could bring down the planet’s entire power structure. When they all stand together on the opposite side of the room, it could look like they’re threatening him. Instead, it looks like they’re huddling together for safety.

And that’s why you need a real A-1 bonafide movie star in this role, even if you have to pay him ridiculous money to do it. You need a guy who’s spent the last three decades actually being the most important person in any room he’s walked into.

The heavenly host is arrayed against him, and he concedes the point. And then their entire world is consumed in fire, as they feared it would be, if they crossed him. Stay tuned for the biggest “I told you so” in galactic history.

Tomorrow:
1.10: Crazy Little Thing Called Love.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

9 thoughts on “Superman 1.9: Staff Meeting in Space

  1. You’re so right to focus on the costumes. Looking at the still images you’ve selected, I see the faces and hairstyles of the other council members, and I see 1978. But on screen, it’s those luminous shapes that dominate your vision, and you’re on an alien planet.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. It’s important that Jor-El goes right from triumph to not being believed because it shows that heroes are only important contextually–yeah, you preserved our way of life by getting rid of those dastardly criminal pervs, but honestly, can’t you just *relax*, J? Why are you always so “planet is doomed” and “we will be consumed by fire?” You’re bumming us out! We don’t want to wear masks in restaurants or get a highly effective vaccine, okay? We don’t have to do *everything* you say, jerk-face!

    One second you’re the hero, the next, they don’t wanna know.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Also, if Krypton is going to blow up in a month, why bother sending Zod and Company to the Phantom Zone at all? If I were Jor-El I wouldn’t say a word; just build my little family rocket sedan and blast off from his dictatorship, leaving behind a note saying “Is it hot in here or is it you?”

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  4. I see from the panels you’ve reprinted that Wayne Boring was already working on the Superman titles by 1948. For some reason I mistakenly thought he didn’t start until the ’50s.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Again with the Earth! I understand that Superman needs to end up on Earth but was it always the stated intention to evacuate all of Krypton to Earth? They couldn’t find an uninhabited planet with the right atmosphere? They must know what the likely outcome of their arrival will be if they’re so advanced, right? Apparently Jor-El is fine with it. Good thing for us all we got was one baby.
    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this movie. Did Jor-El suggest an evacuation to Earth in the movie, too?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I seem to remember John Byrne’s Man of Steel series showing what would have happened if they were able to evacuate Krypton and move to earth. It wasn’t good for Earthlings. Basically, they turned Earth into Krypton 2.

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  6. This is one of the scenes that stayed with me over the years, and now I realize it’s mostly because of the costumes, the lighting, and what you accurately call “the atmosphere of stillness and resignation.” It is visually and tonally so unlike the expected “comic book” adaptation that it’s quite a jolt when the setting switches to Earth and Kal-El slides into the Kansas farmland. As you said, “the whole point of a superhero movie is to show us things we’ve never seen before.” I think we should fall back to that assertion as we move forward through the next few decades of superhero movies. (And yes, I meant that in real time; I hope to be reading this blog when the fourteenth remake of the Spider-man origin story is released in 2053.)

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  7. We’ll have plenty of time to talk about Zack Snyder later, but one of the many reasons that Man of Steel doesn’t work as well as this movie is that its version of Krypton is (visually) an ugly, muddy mess. It’s just Russell Crowe sounding bored, muttering “Codex” over and over while some crummy CGI dinosaurs wander around.

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