All right, folks: we are five weeks into the blog and thirty-eight minutes into the movie, and we’re finally getting out of Smallville. We’ll spend next week in the Fortress of Solitude, and then we’re heading for Metropolis, I promise.
The structure of this movie can be fairly challenging, especially for the modern viewer, because it takes so long to get to what people expect a Superman movie to be about. We first get a glimpse of Christopher Reeve as Superman at minute 47, and even then it’s only for one shot. We don’t really get the full “Clark Kent changes to Superman and does something heroic” until 68 minutes into the movie, which is a long time to wait, if you’re not prepared for it.
The simple answer for why there’s such a long prologue is that that’s how the story is supposed to go — you have to understand that the character came from Krypton, and grew up on Earth, to know who he is and what he’s about. But in the first issue of Action Comics, that was all taken care of in the first few panels; by the top of page 2, Superman was haring across the countryside, dropping off bound-and-gagged ladies on people’s front lawns.
It’s not like the filmmakers didn’t have a choice. You could easily imagine a movie that begins with a big spectacular Superman rescue, and then the backstory is handled in a five-minute flashback. As far as the plot is concerned, this three-part prologue is just dead weight; once we reach Metropolis, nothing happens that requires the audience to know that Clark wasn’t allowed to play football when he was in high school. You could watch the entire movie without knowing about the Phantom Zone or the Fortress of Solitude — both of those pay off when you watch the sequel, but you can go from 47:00 to 2:23:00 without them, and you’d hardly miss them.
So if they could have condensed this backstory down — making the movie shorter, cheaper and faster-paced — then why didn’t they?
Well, because nobody had ever made a blockbuster-budget superhero movie before, and everyone was worried that it would look silly. Right now, 91 movies into what we recognize as an enormously popular and financially successful film genre, we take it for granted that you can put famous actors in primary-color make-believe circus costumes and fly them around on strings without anybody going bankrupt, but at the time, they were fighting against the current trend of modern thought.
In 1978, superheroes were kitschy, silly, embarrassing kid stuff. Comic books were throwaway junk culture. Imagine a movie where you dress a grown man up in a weird costume, and then he goes around and tells everybody that he’s going to fight crime. Who would want to see that movie?
In a world of low expectations, waiting 47 minutes before you show Superman in his red-and-blue union suit isn’t wasting time; it’s creating a context in which the audience won’t laugh when they see him.
The Krypton scenes are long and not necessarily plot-positive, but they’re grand and visually compelling. The Smallville scenes gradually introduce the idea that this seemingly normal young man has extraordinary powers: he lifts the car as a toddler, he kicks the football into the distance, he runs as fast as a train. He’s not silly, and the movie isn’t laughing at him, and by the time you actually see him fly, you’re ready to see what he can do that deserves all this buildup.
People sometimes say that this movie has a three-act structure — Krypton, Smallville and Metropolis — which is incorrect. It actually does have a three-act structure (although it’s a flawed one), but this is all part of the first act.
The concept of a three-act structure comes from Syd Field’s 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which describes a model for how the well-structured screenplay should work. This is Field’s ideal paradigm:
Act 1 is the Setup, which introduces the main character, the dramatic premise, the situation and the character’s relationships with the other people in the film. In a 120-minute movie, with one page of the screenplay approximating one minute of the film, the first act should be about 30 minutes/pages long.
Act 2 is the Confrontation, where the main character encounters obstacles to fulfilling their dramatic need. This involves conflict with whoever and whatever is keeping the main character from getting what they want. This act is the middle 60 minutes of the movie.
Act 3 is the Resolution, which takes the story to its conclusion, resolving the main questions of the film. This is about the last 30 minutes of the film.
Along the way, the story moves via plot points: the actions and decisions that drive the story forward. There should be a major plot point towards the end of act 1, and another near the end of act 2, which spin the narrative in a new direction. Each act should be guided by a dramatic question that the main character is trying to resolve.
Now, I’m not generally a big fan of simple models that set limits on creativity and imagination; see my recent rant on the subject of the Hero’s Journey. You can go too far with this model — Field claims that this is the structure of every successful movie, which is unlikely — but the three-act structure is a productive way to analyze how a movie works.
So here’s my take on the three-act structure of Superman: The Movie.
Act 1 (0:00 to 47:00) is all of this prologue material: Krypton, Smallville and the Fortress of Solitude, ending with Superman revealed, flying out of the Fortress for the first time. Kal-El is sent away from Krypton just before its destruction, and he’s trained by Jor-El during his space voyage; the child lands on Earth and is raised by the Kents, where he learns about love, hard work, responsibility and self-control; Clark chooses the hero’s path, and receives more training at the Fortress of Solitude, until he’s ready to go out and engage with the world as Superman.
The dramatic question is: Will Superman discover his purpose?
The plot point that changes the direction of the story is Clark moving to Metropolis, and getting a job at the Daily Planet.
Act 2 (47:00 to 1:43:00) is about Superman and Lois. Clark meets and falls in love with an extraordinary woman, and when she’s in mortal danger, he becomes a superhero. He performs a string of heroic public deeds, and earns acclaim, although he keeps his real identity a secret. Lois is determined to learn more about him, which jeopardizes his secret, but he’s so infatuated with her that he can’t resist getting to know her better in his Superman guise. They have a life-changing date, which makes him question whether he should continue to lead a double life.
The dramatic question is: Is Superman doing the right thing, leading these two lives? How can he fully connect with Lois, while he’s pretending to be two people?
The major plot point is that Lois publishes her interview with Superman, which unintentionally reveals his weakness: he can’t see through lead.
Act 3 (1:43:00 to 2:23:00) is about Superman and Lex Luthor. Once the villain knows that Superman has a weakness, he’s able to discover another: there’s a meteor from Krypton that can weaken him. Luthor organizes a complex heist that gives him control of some warheads. When he’s ready, he calls Superman to his lair, where he reveals his secret plan and then incapacitates the hero. Lois is endangered by Luthor’s plan because she happens to be where the warhead is aimed. Superman manages to escape from Luthor’s Kryptonite trap, diverts the warheads and fixes the damage, but he’s too late to save Lois.
The dramatic questions are: Is Luthor clever enough to outwit Superman, and destroy California? Can Superman save everyone, especially Lois? What are the limits of his abilities, and how can they be overcome?
Looking at the structure in this way, you can see that all of this prologue material in act 1 isn’t really as disconnected as it seems. The film’s structure makes sense: Superman becomes a hero, Superman falls in love, Superman fights a villain and protects the woman he loves.
The first act is supposed to be about the main character, and it actually is: Once Kal-El/Clark enters the picture in Jor-El’s laboratory, he’s the focus of every scene. For the audience, if you know that this is a movie starring Christopher Reeve, then it can feel like the movie doesn’t really get started until he appears — but structurally, the character is there the whole time; we just see him at different ages, and played by several actors.
But there’s also a big flaw in this structure, which is that Act 2 and Act 3 don’t really have very much to do with each other.
The dramatic question of Act 2 is whether Clark is doing the right thing leading a double life, and it ends with a scene that makes that question explicit: at the end of his flying date with Lois, he considers revealing his secret identity, but then he chickens out and doesn’t go through with it. But then that question, still unresolved, drops out of the movie completely — there’s nothing in Act 3 that even touches on whether he should reveal his identity. It’s a huge part of Superman II, so if you think of the two movies as being a continuous story, then maybe that helps, but as far as this movie is concerned, the central question that dominates half the movie is apparently forgotten, without being resolved.
Also, the two main plot threads — Superman loves Lois, Superman versus Lex Luthor — only connect in one scene: the bridge between Act 2 and Act 3. Lois writes the interview, Lex reads it, and what he learns becomes the keystone of his plan.
But Lex doesn’t know Lois, and he doesn’t interact with her. He reads her story in the newspaper, but he doesn’t consider her to be important. His plan puts her in immediate danger, but that’s completely accidental — she just happens to be in California, close to where the warhead strikes the San Andreas Fault.
I think that the structure could have been improved by connecting Lex and Lois in a deeper way: perhaps making her part of his scheme, deliberately targeting her, or holding her hostage to get Superman to do what he wants — or, best of all, she discovers Luthor’s plan with her investigative reporting skills, and takes action that puts her in danger.
The script does manage to deliver a strong emotional moment for Superman and Lois at the very end of the film, so it doesn’t feel like the Lois plot thread is forgotten, but the central questions of Act 2 go unresolved, until the sequel.
So that’s how the movie actually works. The idea that the “three acts” are Krypton, Smallville and Metropolis is an obvious misconception — that would mean they’re burning through Act 1 and Act 2 in 47 minutes, and then Act 3 would be an hour and a half.
I hate to nitpick all the time like this, but I’m afraid that I’ll have to until people stop being wrong, which I’m hoping will happen any day now. Meanwhile, if you need me, I’m headed north.
1.26: Let It Go.
— Danny Horn