All posts by Danny Horn

About Danny Horn

Product Manager at the Wikimedia Foundation. I write a daily blog, Dark Shadows Every Day, about the 1960s vampire soap opera. Founder of Muppet Wiki and Tough Pigs, a Muppet fansite.

Superman 1.32: Murder, With a Smile

The thing to remember about Superman: The Movie is that nobody had ever made a live-action feature-length superhero movie before, so they didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what a superhero movie was supposed to be like. It could go in almost any direction: science-fiction, fantasy, drama, fairy tale, action-adventure. Should it be aimed at kids, or adults? How scary should it be?

The movie that they ended up putting together is famous for changing tones throughout the prologue: the glitter opera of Krypton segueing into Norman Rockwell in Smallville. The teen football scene could fit into a contemporary live-action Disney film with no questions asked; one of these days, I’m going to get around to writing that Superman/Escape to Witch Mountain comparison that American film criticism has been waiting for all these years.

But the most important tone shift happens right here, in our first visit to the Daily Planet. This is when the story really begins, and we find out what a Superman movie sounds like. The answer, thank goodness, is screwball comedy.

Continue reading Superman 1.32: Murder, With a Smile

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.

Continue reading Superman 1.31: Metropolis Now

Superman 1.30: After Brando

As the ground pitched and buckled, Jor-El and Lara moved together across the floor of the great hall of Kryptonopolis. There was nowhere they could go; Jor-El knew that better than anyone. He’d tried to warn them, and had suffered for it.

The dying planet was in its final spasms, rock and crystal crumbling around them. Sliding, crunching sounds, unimaginably loud. They were lost, all of them, irretrievably lost, but Jor-El and his wife ducked and flinched, as everything they’d ever known fell to pieces around them. They continued to move down the hall, looking for — what? shelter? a way out? No hope, no time, but still they kept moving. What else could they do?

The floor gave way. The population of Krypton, a proud and noble people, falling and crying and dying, every one. A great darkness. A final, splintering crunch, and then a burst of light and sound that no one was left to witness.

And then things really started to go badly.

Continue reading Superman 1.30: After Brando

Superman 1.29: Fear of Flying

And then, finally, triumphantly: Superman, revealed.

After Krypton and Kansas, after the Arctic and the Elders, after scherzos and Cheerios and Einstein and everything — here he is, looking exactly like we hoped he would. They gave us backstory and atmosphere, and possibly a little extra tedium, just to make sure that we really, really wanted him.

We are ready, and he has arrived. And he doesn’t look ridiculous at all, as we feared he would. He looks magnificent.

And he does what we’ve wanted him to do, most of all: he flies. Calm and purposeful, with his bright red cape trailing behind him, like a king.

Flying is Superman’s killer feature; it’s the thing that everybody loves best about him. When you think about Superman, the first thing that you think of isn’t his strength or his bulletproof body. You think about a man in a red cape, soaring across the sky.

Of course, it’s a clear violation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original intentions for the character. Flying is specifically a thing that he shouldn’t do. And yet, here we are.

Continue reading Superman 1.29: Fear of Flying

Superman 1.28: Grad School

It’s a weird quirk of human nature, that we think old things are smarter than new things. I mean, when you’re talking about the course of a single lifetime, then yeah, children need to be educated by adults.

But then people generalize that to entire civilizations, thinking that people in the ancient world had wisdom, medicine and daily life practices that were better than we have now — that they were healthier, which is untrue, and they knew more about nature, which is unlikely. So people buy expensive treatments and nutritional supplements, or go on fad diets based on shaky anthropological assumptions, in order to live more like people in the past.

It’s nonsense, of course; human knowledge is cumulative, and we as a civilization know way more now than anybody ever knew before — or, at least, somebody knows it, and the rest of us can look it up on Wikipedia. The ancients were not smarter than we are; they had worse teeth, they died younger, and their pop music was dreary in the extreme.

Continue reading Superman 1.28: Grad School

Superman 1.27: House of Wax

It was bound to happen; it’s how these tall tales work. When you’re telling stories about the strongest man in the world, there’s a natural narrative pressure to make him even bigger and stronger and more unbeatable, over time.

Paul Bunyan, the mighty fabled lumberjack of the Northwoods, started out as seven feet tall, able to chop down tree after tree without stopping for rest. As the legend grew, Paul soared to forty feet tall. In the later tales, Paul could fell a tree just by shouting at it, and his bootprints created the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota.

The same thing happened to Superman. In 1938, he could pick up an automobile; in 1940, he demolished a house with a single blow of his fist; in 1943, he hit a baseball so hard that it circled the globe; and by 1949, he could crash a couple of moons together to make a sun for a distant planet that didn’t already have one.

So when it’s time for him to relax, he can’t sit around and watch TV. He needs to do something spectacular, and if that means creating a creepy private exploding wax museum, then the rest of us are going to have to come along for the ride.

Continue reading Superman 1.27: House of Wax

Superman 1.26: Let It Go

Man, when Clark Kent says he’s going north, he does not mess around; dude goes north. He is currently just about as north as you can possibly get, clad in a jacket comfort-rated for Easter in Massachusetts, looking for the right place to toss a magic crystal and summon his own personal snow castle.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small, except for the ice palace, of course, which is fucking enormous. Here he stands, and here he stays.

Continue reading Superman 1.26: Let It Go

Superman 1.25: Syd Field Forever

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?

Continue reading Superman 1.25: Syd Field Forever

Superman 1.24: A Balanced Breakfast

Martha wakes up, and remembers.

In that first moment just after dawn, her head still clearing from sleep, there’s a fraction of a second when nothing has changed.

She opens her eyes and Jonathan isn’t there, because he couldn’t sleep — worried about the taxes again — and he ended up dozing in the armchair in the living room, a magazine in his lap.

She opens her eyes and Jonathan isn’t there, because his leg is bothering him again, and he went downstairs to do those funny exercises the doctor told him to try.

She opens her eyes and Jonathan isn’t there, because

Because he isn’t there.

And Martha remembers.

There’s work to do. It’s a farm, there’s always work to do, and now there’s even more. She’ll get up, and get dressed, and she’ll make breakfast for Clark — a complete breakfast, the best way to start the day, with two eggs, a slice of buttered toast, a glass of orange juice and the delicious whole-grain oats crunch of General Mills’ Cheerios.

Continue reading Superman 1.24: A Balanced Breakfast

Superman 1.23: The Myth of the Monomyth

Around dawn, Clark wakes from a restless slumber and there’s a hum somewhere — some high, electric, pulsing hum coming from the general barn area, and it gets louder, the longer he thinks about it. Something’s out there, something that was buried a long time ago.

People should always dig up mystery boxes, it’s just good protocol. If somebody went to all the trouble to bury their secrets deep in the earth, then obviously it’s supposed to be dug up and exposed to the open air again. Nine times out of ten, something terrible happens, but you never know, you might be the lucky one.

It’s December 15th — just before Christmas, 1978 — and Clark is unwrapping his gift ten days early. Inside, he finds a little green lightsaber, which is literally the thing that every kid in America is hoping for this year.

This is the Call to Adventure, and if you’ve got your Joseph Campbell Hero with a Thousand Faces bingo card handy, you can cross that one off the list. This is the hero venturing forth from the world of common day, aka this wheat field, into a region of supernatural wonder, aka the North Pole, where he’ll get Supernatural Aid and/or Cross the First Threshold, and then go into the Belly of the Whale and set out on the Road of Trials, which I think is the Daily Planet typing test. Unless the Belly of the Whale was the space capsule, of course, in which case the Road of Trials was probably running faster than the train, and now it’s time to meet Woman as the Temptress. Which is probably Lois, but at the moment she’s only nine years old, so it might be somebody else.

Well, today’s the day that we get all this figured out. It’s time for us to ask whether Superman: The Movie follows Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey, as an example of the universal monomyth. The answer, obviously, is of course it fucking doesn’t.

Continue reading Superman 1.23: The Myth of the Monomyth