Superman 1.31: Metropolis Now

Metropolis, at last! After forty-seven minutes and six weeks of blog posts, we are finally making landfall on the scene of an actual Superman movie.

Metropolis is the big time, where an up-and-coming newshound and secret frequent flyer from the Midwest can find his true calling — scoops to break, women to fall helplessly in love with, and super-villains to discourage. Complex and thrilling, the City of Tomorrow has all of the promise, danger and heartbreak that a newbie superhero needs, to discover what he’s truly capable of. Also, it’s New York.

And that’s the first thing that the movie wants you to know: after the sci-fi shine of Krypton, the idealized Americana of Smallville and the frozen fantasy zone of the Fortress of Solitude, we have arrived in the real world. Donner’s vision of “verisimilitude” — that this should feel like the true story of what happens when a powerful space angel crashes into our lives — requires a recognizable city that the audience will instantly accept.

So the sequence begins with a taxi driver making his way through midtown traffic, and a symphony of New York street sounds: cars honking, a traffic cop blowing a whistle, and the distant whine of a police car’s siren. Exiting the vehicle, we see a pushy street vendor selling fresh fruit to the bustling pedestrians passing by, and we approach the Art Deco facade of the Daily Planet building on East 42nd.

Then the camera does a slow pan upwards, until we see the Chrysler Building, or whatever it’s supposed to be called in this universe.

There’s no story-based reason for why they had to include a shot of one of New York’s most famous landmarks, and it would be a tighter scene if they just moved across the sidewalk, and into the Daily Planet building. But the director wants to make sure that we know exactly where we are, and there’s no nonsense about Delaware.

That purposeful desire for specificity continues through the film, with the sequence of the cops trailing Otis through Grand Central Station…

and the scene of Superman handing a cat burglar over to a cop outside the Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street, with the recognizable big red sculpture of a “9” in the front plaza. (Although it looks like a lower-case e from this angle, so in Metropolis this may be the e e cummings building.)

And then there’s the most obvious location name-drop in the film, the sequence where Superman and Lois fly around the Statue of Liberty for forty-five seconds. Again, they could easily have done the scene without using a New York-specific landmark, but the statue is there to reinforce the idea that the couple is actually flying around in the real world.

You might think that this contradicts the comic book continuity, which holds that the two cities are separate places, but there are lots of examples in the comics that suggest that Metropolis is another name for New York — including this 1950 Action Comics scene of Superman setting off fireworks from Miss Liberty’s torch, in order to tell some girl who isn’t Lois that he’s in love with her.

Now, we saw earlier that in the very early days of the comic, Superman was based in Cleveland, Ohio, which they used all the way up through Action Comics #11 in April 1939.

It was the comic strip that first mentioned “Metropolis, N.Y.” in June 1939, and the name made its way into the comics that fall, in Action Comics #16 and in Superman #2, which also places the city in New York State.

There are lots of little hints over the years that Metropolis is New York. Its tallest building is called the Emperor Building in 1945…

and the Monarch State Building in 1951.

The stone lions outside the New York Public Library’s main branch appear in a World’s Finest story in 1947…

and in a Superman story in 1950.

In 1951, Superman takes a horse-and-carriage ride around a park obviously modeled after New York’s Central Park…

and in 1964, Metropolis is the location of the United Nations headquarters.

In a Superman story in 1951, we find out that Metropolis even has a Lexington Avenue subway station and a Queens Boulevard Line.

So life would be easier if DC Comics just said that Metropolis is their fictional name for New York, but they can’t, because Batman ruins everything.

You see, when Batman started, Bob Kane and Bill Finger set his adventures in New York — this panel’s from a December 1939 story — and then came up with the name “Gotham City” in December 1940.

And then in 1942 — well, damn, I guess they have a Statue of Liberty, too. There’s statues everywhere! The huddled masses yearning to breathe free are simply spoiled for choice; America is lifting our lamp beside golden doors all over the place.

And they’ve got an Empire State Building, too. In 1950, they call it the Monarch State Building, just like Superman did in 1951…

and in 1964, they call it the Gotham State Building, so that Batman has something to climb when he’s temporarily turned into King Kong.

They’ve got their own set of stone lions at the Public Library, too.

So that means we have two extra New Yorks on our hands, and if neither of them can be located in New York, then we have to find someplace else to put them. In 1978, around the time of the movie’s release, the newspaper comic The World’s Greatest Superheroes located Gotham City in South Jersey, somewhere in Cumberland County, and Metropolis across the bridge in Kent County, Delaware. But that’s not a very interesting answer, so the two cities’ locations have varied over the years.

After forty years, Superman: The Movie was the first to locate Smallville in Kansas, rather than a suburb of Metropolis, and that idea caught on. Kansas feels right, for a homespun fictional farm family, especially because it resonates pleasingly with Dorothy’s home in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy Gale and Clark Kent both fell out of the sky, and if you spend your childhood in Kansas, then I suppose Metropolis and the Land of Oz are pretty much equally exotic.

So the 1978 movie’s choice of a location for Smallville was picked up by the 2001 TV show Smallville and the 2011 film Man of Steel, and now everybody assumes it was set in Kansas the whole time, which it wasn’t.

But dropping Metropolis in Delaware feels unsatisfying, because in our hearts we know where it should be: in the same town as the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the stone lions at the Public Library. It makes sense to have Gotham City in New Jersey, as the tarnished sister city across the bridge, but Metropolis is the most exciting city in the world. Of course that’s New York; where else could it possibly be?

Tomorrow:
1.32: Murder, With a Smile.


Footnote:

For anyone who wants to know, here’s the list of comics I referenced in this post:

  • Metropolis’ Statue of Liberty — Action Comics #143 (April 1950): “The Bride of Superman!”
  • Evening News in Cleveland — Action Comics #2 (July 1938): “Revolution in San Monte”
  • Still in Cleveland — Action Comics #11 (April 1939): “Superman and the ‘Black Gold’ Swindle”
  • First mention of Metropolis — Superman comic strip (May-June 1939): “The Most Deadly Weapon”
  • First mention of Metropolis in the comics — Action Comics #16 (Sept 1939): “Superman and the Numbers Racket” — also Superman #2 (Sept 1939): “Superman Champions World Peace!”
  • Emperor Building — Action Comics #80 (Jan 1945): “Mr. Mxyzptlk Returns!”
  • Metropolis’ Monarch State Building — Superman #70 (May/June 1951): “The Life of Superman!”
  • Stone lions #1 — World’s Finest #28 (May/June 1947): “Superman’s Super-Self!”
  • Stone lions #2 — Action Comics #146 (July 1950): “The Statues That Came to Life!”
  • Central Park carriage ride — Action Comics #163 (Dec 1951): “The Girl of Tomorrow”
  • United Nations — Action Comics #311 (April 1964): “Superman, King of Earth!”
  • Lexington Ave subway — Superman #70 (May/June 1951): “Lois Lane Meets Annie Oakley!”
  • Batman in New York — Detective Comics #31 (Sept 1939): “Batman vs the Vampire”
  • First mention of Gotham City — Detective Comics #48 (Feb 1941): “The Secret Cavern”
  • Gotham City’s Statue of Liberty — Detective Comics #63 (May 1942): “A Gentleman in Gotham”
  • Gotham City’s Monarch State Building — Detective Comics #165 (Nov 1950): “The Strange Costumes of Batman!”
  • Gotham State Building — Batman #162 (March 1964): “The Batman Creature”
  • Stone lions in Gotham City — World’s Finest #138 (Dec 1963): “The Secret of the Captive Cavemen!”
  • Map — “The World’s Greatest Superheroes” Sunday comic strip, 8/13/78
  • Superman beating up the Statue of Liberty — World’s Finest Comics #227 (Feb 1975): “Death Flaunts Its Golden Grin”

Tomorrow:
1.32: Murder, With a Smile.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

16 thoughts on “Superman 1.31: Metropolis Now

  1. When the Statue of Liberty was ready to ship to the USA, there was a period when it looked like New York wouldn’t accept it. The French had to send it somewhere, and Cleveland, Ohio expressed interest in it. The idea was that it would stand on the shores of Lake Erie. The idea of losing out to Cleveland stung Joseph Pulitzer into using the New York World to drive a campaign to raise the money and get the political cooperation necessary to get the statue to its current location.

    These facts were still fairly well-known in the 1930s. So who knows, maybe in some story conference in the early days of the comics, when they were still thinking of basing Superman in Cleveland, they might have toyed with the idea of a narrative universe where the statue had ended up in Cleveland.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. And there ARE copies of the statue in other cities: hell, my tiny hometown had a small one in a park. So you could posit that some of the statues are just that.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. It only recently occurred to me that Smallville wasn’t always set in Kansas. I started to look into the history of when it was first established there, but I got distracted and never figured it out. I’m kind of astonished to learn that it was the 1978 movie. So, thanks for that detail history; it feel very much like a well-cited wiki article. Time to up your game, superman.fandom.com

    It’s kind of interesting that this movie establishes that location, and then the 2001 Smallville series — which was heavily influenced by the Reeve movies — went one step further by placing their Metropolis four hours away from Smallville in Kansas. Four hours is the earliest reference to the two cities distance from one another, which was easy enough to do because of course pre-cape Clark could super-speed (not fly) there in minutes. As the series went on and it became necessary for more normal-speed characters to go about their business in Metropolis while still getting up to meteor rock nonsense in Smallvile, the distance shrunk significantly.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. One of my favorite things about Smallville (the TV show) was that Metropolis was basically Chicago. That feels right to me, and it’s something the comics would do well to lean into, I think. Gotham is New York and Metropolis is Chicago. Sure! Why not?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I had forgotten about the revelation of Smallville being in Kansas in the Movie. I did know that it was established in the comics by John Byrne in the 1980s.
      Back in the Superboy days, it seemed like Smallville was a practically a suburb of Metropolis. It was certainly the nearest big city.

      As to the locations of Metropolis and Gotham, I think in post Crisis it was established as being an hour or so away by plane.

      Whimsically, there was a well-known writer (although not well-known enough that I can recall the name) who said Metropolis was New York in the daytime and Gotham was New York at night!

      Like

  3. As surprising as it is to learn Smallville wasn’t located in Kansas until 1978, I was even more surprised to learn that, in 1950, people still said “Jeepers!” and “Golly!”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Slang is always hilarious in popular media, because while verbally it’s always evolving, writers tend to use whatever they happened to remember from when they were feckless youths and rapscallions. With the Superman comics it inadvertently gave it even more of a wholesome feel. Even the most dastardly of villains never, ever used a four letter word.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “Just to make sure that we know exactly where we are, the camera does a slow pan upwards, until we see the Empire State Building, or whatever it’s supposed to be called in this universe.”

    I’m not sure what it’s called in their universe, but in ours it’s the Chrysler Building.

    Speaking of Gotham City (which is way more interesting than Metropolis), who remembers that Batman had to share it with Green Lantern (Alan Scott version) back the very earliest days?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “who remembers that Batman had to share it with Green Lantern (Alan Scott version) back the very earliest days?”

      I do. And in more recent times too. I remember a comic scene with a couple of crooks pulling a job, terrified they’d be spotted by Batman. Then a light shines on them and they cower, whimpering “It’s HIM!”
      Then Alan Scott flies down saying “No, it’s the other ‘HIM’!”

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s one of those ridiculous trick covers where they put an extra scene in, just to have an interesting cover. On the first page, Superman is carrying the Statue of Liberty away, with random spokespeople yelling, “Good heavens! Has he gone bananas?” He carries it to a cliff and beats the hell out of it. “He socked it — right in the face… it’s disintegrating!”

      When a police helicopter shows up, Superman says it was just a duplicate — the real S of L is still on its base. He heard that “a foreign freighter… a ship owned and used by organized crime!” was bringing a duplicate S of L into the country, as a smuggling operation.

      But there wasn’t anything inside this S of L, oops, so he’s given a summons for destroying private property and creating a public nuisance. He should have been able to see there was nothing inside with his X-ray vision, but try telling Superman not to destroy other people’s propery, and see how far it gets you.

      That’s the first two pages + one panel on page 3, and then they start the actual story, which has nothing to do with any of that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Because what could be a more perfect object to conceal contraband in than a full-sized replica of The Statue Of Liberty?

        For myself, I feel that Batman turning into King Kong stretches my credulity to the breaking point. Holy Bat-shit bonkers!

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I read it, John E! I couldn’t resist. You’ve described it perfectly. Someone was smoking something when they came up with that one! Batwoman captures the criminals with her Hair Net, there’s an appearance by Bat-hound and the Bat Creature tosses a rhino into a tiger! Fun times were had by all!
    GRRROOOOW!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Since Gotham has been a nickname for NYC since 1807 it really couldn’t be any other city, whereas Metropolis could easily be any major American city. One workaround though could have Metropolis refer to the entire New York Metropolitan Area, and Gotham specifically to the Five Boroughs. Or alternatively, Gotham could be Brooklyn, which was once a city in its own right before it got assimilated into NYC. Now, I lived in Manhattan for much of my life and I’ve been all over Brooklyn, and I have to say it still feels like a different city from the rest of NYC, even Queens which is practically Long Island anyway. And you can see the Statue of Liberty from parts of Brooklyn, as well as the Empire State Building. But Brooklyn is my favorite borough of NYC so I’m a little bit biased. 😉

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s