In an article about the filming of Superman: The Movie published in August 1977, Time Magazine reported, “One thing Superman does not have — so far as anyone with plain old 20-20 can see, anyway — is many laughs. Director Donner, convinced that it was campiness that brought down King Kong, is avoiding even the possibility of untoward giggles.” Which just goes to show how wrong a magazine can be.
Because for the last five minutes, starting from our arrival in a Metropolis taxicab, the characters have been doing nonstop screwball comedy shtick, up to and including getting stuck in a revolving door.
Extricating themselves from the architecture, Lois and Clark emerge into a sunny musical comedy New York, where everyone is quiet and well-dressed, and the traffic noise limits itself to a couple of respectful honks when nobody has any important dialogue to say.
And then there’s the picturesque fruit vendor, who I love in a way that I will never be able to fully express. He is the movie’s sole representative of Metropolis street life, parked outside the Daily Planet building. A few minutes ago, when Clark walked into the building, the fruit vendor kept up a lively patter for a full fifteen seconds: “Fresh fruit! Hey, baby, how’s it goin’? Hey, fresh fruit and vegetables, they’re so fresh they’re gonna dance in your salad! Fresh fruit and vegetables, get ’em while they’re hot!” Now, as Lois and Clark leave the building, the vendor single-handedly apprehends a thief who’s trying to make off with an apple without paying for it.
I mean, in the next scene, Superman comes face-to-face with a guy who should be charged with aggravated assault and attempted murder, and he’s going to let the guy get away, but the fruit vendor makes a citizen’s arrest, right on the spot. Turns out there’s more than one hero in this town.
One thing that Richard Donner is good at is creating focus around the thing that he wants you to pay attention to, and dialing out other distractions. When the Kents found a baby in an extraterrestrial mystery box, it was in a field so remote that you could see clear to the horizon in every direction; when Jor-El’s magic justice wand lit up and went BLING!, everybody in the scene had to stop and look at it.
Right now, he’s presenting a Metropolis afternoon that’s appropriately bustling in the background, but nobody’s being noisy, and there isn’t any visual clutter that would pull focus from the lead characters.
Setting that tone is important, because it’s leading up to a theatrical sarcasm crime spree, and you need to be in the right mood for that kind of thing.
And all of a sudden, thanks to a well-chosen backdrop, Clark and Lois are entirely alone in the world, easy pickings for a daytime street rat with a loaded gun looking for spare change.
In the 1970s, people used to think that this kind of thing happened all the time in New York, that you couldn’t walk down the street without being trapped in a web of crime. In reality, New Yorkers are far too self-absorbed to fall into this type of situation; if someone tries to attract your attention, you just keep walking and pretend that they don’t exist, which, in a certain way of looking at things, they don’t.
It must be even harder these days for late afternoon street criminals to make a meaningful connection with their victims, because everybody’s looking at their phone all the time. They must get awfully hungry, the poor things.
Facing a lawbreaker for the first time in his career, Superman emits nothing but screwball comedy stammering. “Oh, excuse me,” he says to Lois, as he backs away from the man with the gun. “Please don’t shoot me with that, sir,” he says. “You could hurt somebody with that thing.” And then he turns and says “Sorry” to Lois for jostling her again, which is utterly adorable.
Now, my question is: Did we ever have little forty-year-old turtleneck criminals like this, making a whole production number out of stealing some lady’s purse? I feel like this guy has other options for making a dishonest living, like working for an ad agency, or something in publishing.
You can tell that the mugger is on our side, entertainment-wise, because he’s willing to stand there and wait patiently for Clark to do a little real-time character-building. Moving the gun to the side with a respectful finger — a move that the mugger quietly puts up with — Clark says, “Just a minute, mister! Now, I realize, of course, that times are tough for some these days, but this isn’t the answer. You can’t solve society’s problems with a gun.”
Meanwhile, Lois, for the fourth time today, takes a hard look at this new cryptid she’s discovered, and tries to figure out what has recently landed in her life.
And then — screw you, Time Magazine — the mugger gets a little comedy moment himself.
“You know something, buddy, you’re right,” the guy admits. “I’m going to turn over a new leaf.” And he bestows upon them a beatific smile.
Clark takes a moment to enjoy his victory, before the mugger points the gun directly in his face and says, “— right after I rip off this lady’s purse.”
This leads to one of the great moments in Superman fiction, a perfectly-timed combination of action-adventure and romantic comedy. Clark, who’s fully committed to his new mild-mannered disguise, stammers to Lois that she should give the guy her purse.
Then Lois — a reckless screwball heroine who exists to make life interesting for the hero — pointedly drops the purse, and then tries to deliver a feisty kick to the mugger’s face when he bends down to take it.
There’s an excited dramatic sting, and the world slows down so that we can see the felon pull the trigger —
— and Superman catches the speeding bullet with his bare hand, before it strikes the cowering Lois.
You don’t get these very often, just a perfectly-constructed scene. A second of unexpected fear, resolved with a comic surprise that serves as Clark’s first act of superheroism and moves the romantic plot forward a step.
The mugger flees the scene, not sure what he’s just witnessed, and Lois is suddenly worried about the guy that she couldn’t remember the name of, just a minute ago. This is the point when John Williams uncorks the Love theme for the first time, introducing the melody on solo bassoon as Clark and Lois share their first fleeting moment of tenderness.
This is how it’s going to work, if anybody else ever figures out how to make a good superhero movie, which should kick in sometime around 2014, circa Guardians of the Galaxy. You surround the superhero action with a romantic comedy structure, with multi-layered character beats.
It is incredibly difficult to get this right, and in this case, it repays the audience for all the time that we spent watching the forty-five minute prologue. As we get further along in the superhero movie chronology, we’re going to look back at this scene, and wonder why nobody else can get it as right as this. There are some dark stretches coming up, once we get past Superman: The Movie. Enjoy this perfect moment while you can.
1.43: The Training.
— Danny Horn