At the end of football practice, a pretty girl walks up to Clark and says, “Listen, a whole bunch of us are going up to Mary Ellen’s, to play some records. Would you like to come?”
And he says oh, I’d love to, but I’m not supposed to interfere with human history. You have no idea how big of a crimp it puts in a guy’s social schedule, having a rule like that.
So Kal-El has journeyed across the gulf of space and landed himself a sweet arrangement where he gets to live on Earth rent-free, and we’re twenty-five minutes into the movie, so obviously we’re clear of the origin story, and we can get into the plot, right?
Okay, maybe not. Our hero is still a teenager, and there’s twenty more minutes worth of origin story before the movie actually starts. And for a lot of that time, we’re going to be looking at young Clark, which personally I find a bit trying.
I don’t know if anybody else feels this way, but in my opinion, young Clark is too close to the uncanny valley for me to be fully comfortable with him. I’ve always had a weird feeling about him, but it wasn’t until I started working on this blog that I learned why: that’s not his hair, his voice or his nose.
The actor’s name is Jeff East, and he’s a good-looking guy, in his natural environment. He was a child actor who broke into film at age 16 as Huckleberry Finn in a 1973 musical adaptation of Tom Sawyer, and then headlined a year later in the sequel, a musical Huckleberry Finn. He’d also been in a few TV-movies for The Magical World of Disney.
In 1977, East had the starring role in a film called The Hazing, where he played a college athlete whose fraternity brothers strip off his clothes and make him find his way down a mountain in a jockstrap, which I suppose is somebody’s idea of a good time. His fellow fratboy has an accident and dies of exposure on the mountain, and the rest of the movie is about how they cover up the death so the fraternity doesn’t get shut down. I think it’s a romantic comedy.
That’s where Richard Donner discovered East; Donner saw the film, and decided East should be the young Clark Kent.
So this is what it looks like when you take a guy with a big mop of curly hair, and you try to balance a wig on top of him. I don’t love it, but I think they would have gotten away with it if they hadn’t done the nose piece. Apparently they thought that this nose made him look more like Christopher Reeve. It doesn’t. I’m not sure what it makes him looks like.
At least the voice sounds right, because it’s Reeve dubbing the lines. They didn’t tell East that they were going to do that; it was a late decision, made after the shooting. He didn’t actually know that his lines were dubbed until he saw the film at the premiere, which is a rough blow for a guy who’s getting his big break in a blockbuster movie.
Anyway, this is Clark, and at the moment his job is to be lightly bullied, and left standing on the sidelines while the football players drive off with all the girls for a debauched record-player party at Mary Ellen’s. If he wanted to, he could pick up young Brad here and hurl him into the sun, but he’s promised his parents that he wouldn’t act like an angry extraterrestrial when people are around.
This is the first time that we see the filmmakers making the deliberate choice to ignore something from the comics — i.e., his career as Superboy, the half-portion hero who took up the cape and tights somewhere around middle school, and appointed himself the pint-sized champion of truth and light.
We talked a few days ago about the history of the Kents, who were pure backstory in Superman’s life until 1944, when National decided to broaden the character’s appeal by cutting him down to child size and having him work the birthday party beat.
It’s a silly idea, having a little kid running around with extrahuman powers and perceptions, and it easily could have run its course and been forgotten — but it worked, somehow, and Superboy became so popular that he got his own bimonthly title in 1949. At the time, the only other National superheroes to have their own books were Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman; Superboy was at that level.
So there it sits, this extra period in Superman’s life that got filled up with its own cast of regular characters and recurring villains. At one point, they even decided that Clark knew the young Lex Luthor when they were kids, and Superboy was accidentally responsible for Luthor losing all of his hair.
Somehow, they managed to wait all the way until Superboy issue #8 before they introduced a flashback of Superbaby. Fortunately, this is as far back as they could possibly go — although there were a couple Silver Age stories where Clark traveled through time and visited Krypton before he was born, Back to the Future style, so it’s possible that for a brief moment we actually had Superembryo.
The above panel is from the Beppo story which I discussed last week; I love that in this story, both of the Kents just straight-up call the kid Superbaby when they’re alone at home. “That was naughty, Superbaby!” they say. The kid isn’t even wearing his costume.
The movie doesn’t include any of that. There’s a little nod to the tradition — the cheerleader is called Susie in the script, but in the movie she’s Lana, named after the supporting character Lana Lang in the Superboy comics.
But it’s clear in the film that Clark hasn’t spent his adolescence flying around town, solving mysteries and performing heroic feats to the acclaim of all. He’s been keeping his powers on the down low, and he doesn’t get a costume until he’s all grown up.
It’s obvious why they made that choice: dramatically, Superboy is a dud. The first third of the movie is about how Superman came to be — the joys and heartbreaks and hard-won wisdom that made him a man worthy of putting on the outfit and saving the world. The journey to find that identity, to understand who he is and what he’s for, is the emotional throughline of the movie.
That structure was there from draft #1. The Puzo and Newman/Benton scripts were insufficient in a lot of ways, but they knew from the first that the story should be: Krypton, Smallville, Fortress of Solitude, and then he becomes Superman. Having the guy act like Superman from a toddler on up denies him any kind of mature character development.
Overall, the film is remarkably faithful to the collective cultural understanding of Superman as we all knew him in 1978, but this is one element that they couldn’t include. Superboy had to die, so that Superman could live.
1.20: Contest of Champions.
— Danny Horn