In yesterday’s post on the workout, I talked about the process of transforming Christopher Reeve from stringbean to superhero as a core part of the behind-the-scenes mythology of Superman: The Movie, which was widely discussed during and after release.
Partly, the description of building Reeve’s body was another way for the Salkinds to secure more funding — a story that they could tell potential investors in order to convince them that this was going to be a high-quality movie. It was also a marketing tool, meant to assure the ticket-buyers that they’ll see a real Superman on the screen, not just a guy in a padded suit.
This is an act of objectification, making Reeve’s musculature an object of discussion and concern. Reeve talks about building his body as a way of mentally getting into the character, but for everybody else, it’s a mechanical process: insert steak dinners and protein shakes, mix with barbells and squats, and out comes the result — 24 more pounds of muscle mass.
So the workout is a story about Christopher Reeve as meat, with the happy ending being an increase and redistribution of that meat into a shape that we like better. But the interesting thing is that nobody talks about Margot Kidder that way, and here I was, thinking that women were usually more objectified than men.
I mean, obviously a large part of these casting decisions are based on the actress’ physical appearance: Kidder is a beautiful, thin woman who’s in good shape, and she looks nice in a dress. But she’s not presented to us as a physical object up for inspection, in the way that Reeve is. She wears skirts, but there aren’t shots specifically set up to focus on her legs, the way that there are for Mariel Hemingway’s legs in Superman IV.
It’s Eve Teschmacher, the movie’s other major female character, who gets the objectification treatment. The first costume that we see Eve wearing is comically revealing, with a hole in the top specifically designed to showcase her cleavage in a manner that’s willfully eccentric, like the rest of the set dressing in Luthor’s lair. In another scene, she’s lying under a sunlamp in a skimpy bathing suit, essentially laid out on a display case.
There’s also a scene coming up, during the missile convoy sequence, where there’s an entire comedy routine built around Eve’s unconscious body splayed out suggestively on the ground, with a squad of soldiers bickering about who gets to put their mouth on her.
Lois isn’t treated like that at all. She’s a screwball comedy heroine, whose power derives from her confidence, her wit and the pace of her dialogue. In this balcony interview scene, she gets flighty and flustered, but that’s played as a direct response to the enormous piece of extraterrestrial meat that just landed on her terrace. Superman doesn’t ogle Lois that way; he looks her in the eyes, and adores her just for being Lois.
So Lois is definitely leading, in this will-they-won’t-they dance; she’s the one that initiates the discussions about romance and sex. She starts the interview/first date by asking if he’s got a wife or a girlfriend, and then moves on to “how big are you?” After that, her next question is “How much do you weigh?” which is basically a way of gauging his recommended serving size.
And it’s Lois who makes the not-very-sub subtext even less sub, in the middle of quizzing him about his superpowers. “What color underwear am I wearing?” she asks, focusing his attention on the matter at hand.
He hesitates, and there’s an adorable will-they-won’t-they moment where she thinks that she’s pushed too far, and she apologizes. Naturally, the only possible response to that is for Superman to lean in even further on the flirting, to show that he’s not embarrassed.
This is also the moment when Tom Mankiewicz skilfully deploys a plot point that needed a new home, after they decided to cut the Gauntlet sequence. In the shooting script, the Gauntlet was the way that Lex Luthor learned that Superman can’t see through lead, so when they cut that scene, Mankiewicz planted the information about Superman’s weakness right here, so that Luthor could learn about it in tomorrow’s newspaper.
That was an extremely clever idea, because using the lead planter helps to set up an adorable moment of pure screwball comedy dialogue.
Lois: What color underwear am I wearing?
Superman: (looks down) Hmm.
Lois: Oh, I’m sorry, I embarrassed you, didn’t I?
Superman: Oh, no!
Lois: I did…
Superman: No, no, no, not at all Miss Lane, it’s that — this planter must be made of lead.
Lois: Yes, it is. So?
Superman: Well, you see, I sort of have a problem seeing through lead.
Lois: Oh, that’s interesting! (writes in her notebook) Problem seeing through lead… Hm. Do you have a first name?
Superman: What do you mean, like, Ralph or something?
Lois: (pacing away from the planter) No, I mean, like, uh —
Lois: (turns around) Huh?
Superman: (nods at her underwear area, and raises his eyebrows playfully) Pink.
(She looks down, understands what just happened, and blushes a little.)
Superman: I’m sorry, Miss Lane, I didn’t mean to embarrass you.
Lois shrugs and chuckles, and says, “No, you didn’t embarrass me,” and then he looks at her, and he is desperately, helplessly in love with her.
A moment later, while she’s trying unsuccessfuly to spell Krypton, she slips in the question, “Do you like… pink?” She’s looking down at her notebook as she says it, and she hesitates as she looks up, not sure how he’ll take it.
He looks her straight in the eyes — with the pure, honest, loving stare that only Superman is able to use — and says, “I like pink very much, Lois.” And the music, which had been taking a break for the last few minutes, strikes up the Love theme.
This moment is specifically structured as a reward for Lois’ boldness. If she had kept up the pretense that this was just an interview, she wouldn’t have gotten a declaration of love like this. Through the scene, it is her expression of desire that moves the story forward.
Superman — as an enormous, indestructible slab of steak dinners — couldn’t possibly be the one making the moves here. The dynamic would be off-putting, clouding the scene with the lingering feeling that she could just be going along with what he wants. Instead, she’s the one who poses the question, and all he needs to do is just be honest about how he feels.
That’s how she earns a flight on First Date Airlines, a five-minute sex scene disguised as a blockbuster special-effects spectacle.
Lois: Clark… said that you’re just a figment of somebody’s imagination. Like Peter Pan.
Superman: Clark, uh… who’s that, your boyfriend?
Lois: Clark? Oh, Clark! No, he’s nothing, he’s just a —
Superman: Peter Pan, huh?
Lois: Uh huh.
Superman: Peter Pan flew with children, Lois. In a fairy tale.
And with a knowing smile on both of their faces, they rise into the air, and put some distance between themselves and a children’s movie.
Superman trains a new co-pilot
1.73: The Takeoff