Superman 1.19: Left Behind

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.

Tomorrow:
1.20: Contest of Champions.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

22 thoughts on “Superman 1.19: Left Behind

  1. This is fascinating stuff! I had no idea about poor Jeff East, though I always wondered why he was never mentioned in any promotional info about the movie. I’m guessing either he was too angry about the dubbing, or the producers didn’t want him going around and revealing the truth from behind the scenes. And thank you for the link about the “uncanny valley” theory; it’s a new term to me, and seems increasingly applicable as we witness more CGI, virtual reality, and robotics in our daily lives.

    I never minded the overly-long focus on teenager Clark, even though his personality seemed unremarkable, given the person he would become. And the comic book Kents calling him “Superbaby” is so laughable, but I suppose it’s preferable to them yelling, “You’ve been naughty, Alien Monster!”

    (P.S. Danny — I have a totally unrelated Muppet Show question for you. Can I ask it here, or do you have another Muppet-specific blog or email?)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. If there’s anything that proves that an actor is at the mercy of the Fates from first to last, it’s Jeff East as young Superman: we want you for this huge-ass movie! But not your hair, nose or voice! Surprise!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As a kid I knew that the intention of Superboy was to create a character readers of my age could identify with, and I resented that intensely. I may have been seven, but I was already insulted by the idea that Superman was in any sense too adult a concept for me to relate to. After a few years, I’d caught on to the point you make so well, that a Superman who was never non-Super isn’t much of a character.

    When I first saw the movie, I was eight. The unsettling image of Jeff East put me on edge, expecting to have to sit through a Superboy sequence and making me wonder if Superman would also look subtly wrong. Big relief when neither of those materialized.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’d also heard the rumor that DC was trying to mimic the success of the Marvel family (Captain Marvel Jr, Mary Marvel, etc).

      Superboy as a character *does* have the narrative advantage of *not* being Superman yet so he can screw up, learn, and grow. This is why SMALLVILLE is effectively more of a stealth Superboy series. Once angsty teen superheroes became popular with Spider-Man and later the Teen Titans, you could see DC trying to leverage that with Superboy.

      Of course, DC often forgot that Superman is supposedly in his mid-to-late 20s not his 40s, as he was often played in the Silver Age. He could still screw up, learn, and grow but DC was resistant.

      Also: Smallville as a primary setting has had enduring appealing, arguably because of SMALLVILLE the series but now even the current SUPERMAN AND LOIS show is set in Smallville. Arguably, there are ways that middle-American Smallville feels like a more appropriate location for Superman than a major city. He’s not Batman.

      And finally, Superboy had Martha and Jonathan Kent as regular characters, who shared Superboy’s secret.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lana Lang. Lois Lane. Lex Luthor.
    What is the deal with the double Ls?
    Did a fortune-teller tell Clark that someone with those initials was going to be important in his life so he kept seeking them out? Did the writers just think it was funny?
    All of my knowledge of Superman comes from tv shows and movies so when I saw an episode of Smallville my husband had to explain that, yes, before Lois there was Lana. The significance of a Lana character in the movie was lost on me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lana Lang. Lois Lane. Lex Luthor.
      What is the deal with the double Ls?
      Did a fortune-teller tell Clark that someone with those initials was going to be important in his life so he kept seeking them out? Did the writers just think it was funny?

      There are a lot of double-L names! I don’t think I’ve seen an official explanation, but I read these theories:

      It’s related to his name, Kal-L
      The author had a girlfriend whose name began with “L”
      Someone thought it would be funny to make them match Los Lane.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks! Yes, I googled it before I read your answer. The Superman Wiki site has an article about double L names! You’re right–there’s a LOT more characters with L L as initials. No good explanation for it though. I did find a free online copy of Superman #157 which rather amusingly centers around some important LLs in his life. The site was comiconlinefree.net and it’s Superman (1939) #157. (Hope it’s ok to put that in here, Danny.) I think it was probably a joke the writers started that just became a Thing They Did.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. For a somewhat more successful version of Superbaby, check out Wonder Tot – it’s Diana as a toddler, in her Wonder Woman costume, talking baby talk. They did 24 Wonder Tot stories, and they’re all bananas. My daughter was really into them for a while, so we read most of them out loud. Highly recommended, for when you get to the opening scenes of the Wonder Woman movie in 50 years!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The super weird thing about Wonder Tot is that I think there was some confusion about whether she was a separate character. If I remember it right, there are some places where Wonder Woman, Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot were all involved, possibly through time travel? And then Wonder Girl became a separate character?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, there were huge inconsistencies with the various Wonder Women. The biggest I recall was Wonder Woman not being a human (being animated clay) but the others being human.

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      2. Originally, Queen Hippolyta “stitched together film clips” of Wonder Woman, Wonder Girl, and Wonder Tot to create a story starring all three. But then Bob Kanigher just started writing stories about them teaming up without that weird explanation.

        But then in real life, Bob Haney saw one of those covers and decided Wonder Girl must be a sidekick who existed, and used her in Teen Titans without checking.

        The Silver Age!

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      3. At some point if the hardcore comics people find this blog, they’ll start making fun of me for loving the Silver Age as much as I do. I plan to pay no attention. Radio Superman, Silver Age Superman and ’78 Superman are the best versions, and there’s no way around it. I will dodge the lightning bolts if I have to.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. The Double L’s aren’t always initials: SmaLLviLLe; DaiLy pLanet.

    IIRC, Lois Lane in the comic books had a kid sister named Lucy Lane, who became Jimmy Olsen’s sweetheart.

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  7. Gerard Christopher and Tom Welling are also good, but in a different way.

    But that cartoon panel with the inspector is deeply disturbing in ways that go far beyond poor drawing skills.

    My only problem with Jeff East was that he didn’t look enough like Christopher Reeve. What was Parker Stevenson doing? I’m sure he could have got time off from Hardy Boys. (No, he doesn’t look that much like Christopher Reeve either, but who cares?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Christopher Reeve was I think younger during filming of the movie than Gerard Christopher when he started playing Superboy and was not much older than Welling when he started playing Clark on Smallville.

      I tend to think Reeve could’ve played young Clark. And that would’ve made a great “trio” of performances (Smallville Clark, Metropolis Clark, and Superman, each distinct).

      Reeve’s voice over work is quite good. He’s heartbreaking when he delivers that classic line: “All those things I can do … all those powers … and I couldn’t even save him.”

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  8. “Liisten, Lana, this business is much too dangerous for a girl!”?!? Is Superboy’s Kryptonite Twitter cancellation? #NotAllMaleSuperheroes.

    Is puberty-era Clark too early in the blog to bring up “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” (“One can imagine that the Kent home in Smallville was riddled with holes during Superboy’s puberty…”)?

    Liked by 1 person

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