Chapters

Introduction: The American Way
My history of superhero movies begins in the obvious place: with singing cowboys.

Superman: The Movie

1.1: Jesus Saves But Mostly He Saves Lois Lane
The first superhero movie starts out in an old-timey June 1938… but the Superman of ’38 was entirely out of his mind.

1.2: It Was Ilya’s Idea
Introducing executive producer Ilya Salkind and his crime syndicate family, through the medium of his lunatic DVD commentary.

1.3: Brando and the Money
In the behind-the-scenes mythology of Superman: The Movie, the most important tale is the legend of Marlon Brando’s salary.

1.4: The Kojak Moment
From lollipops to Kleenex, or: why it took five writers to make a decent Superman script.

1.5: The Discovery of Fire
It’s the end of the credits! The Salkinds leave Rome and get a new director because everyone they know is under investigation, and the director of The Omen gets an omen of his own.

1.6: We Built This City
It’s Jor-El vs the anti-roxxers in a battle to save Krypton, an objectively terrible planet.

1.7: Jor-El and the Magic Wand
In which Jor-El glides around a dark set, reading cue cards and carrying an inexplicable lucite rod.

1.8: See You Later
Presenting the secret origin of the Phantom Zone, a spooky ghost dimension of numbskulls and failures, which was originally created so that Superboy could talk to an electric typewriter.

1.9: Staff Meeting in Space
Jor-El and the science council get together to talk things over, with catastrophic results.

1.10: Crazy Little Thing Called Love
A sci-fi society remembers what “feelings” are, and we learn why they needed four writers to turn the Superman: The Movie script into a good movie.

1.11: A Misuse of Energy
Doomed investigator Jiffy Pop the Science Cop heads for Jor-El’s laboratory, in the several unhelpful alternate versions of Superman: The Movie.

1.12: Glass Houses
And that’s a wrap on the home planet, as Kal-El becomes the first Kryptonian infant to break the glass ceiling.

1.13: … Except for Star Wars
Superman was the most exciting spectacle of its time… except for Star Wars, which did the same stuff but bigger and eighteen months earlier. Why did a sci-fi serial overshadow the first superhero movie?

1.14: Music from the Hearts of Space
I attempt to write about John Williams’ music, which I am absolutely not qualified to do.

1.15: Journey Across the Gulf of Space!
Little Kal-El travels through the trackless depths of the cosmos, listening to audiobooks, and accompanied by a stowaway super-monkey.

1.16: Passing Motorists
Presenting the true and actually canonical story of how Ma and Pa Kent changed their names, opened up a general store, drank spiked lemonade, and died of a pirate fever after opening a treasure chest during their Caribbean vacation.

1.17: For Unto Us
Okay, so Jor-El sent to Earth his only son. Does that mean that Superman is retelling the story of Jesus?

1.18: Opening the Box
Childless couple Jonathan and Martha Kent pick up an unearthly creature that looks like a human baby, and take it home with them… just like the parents in Richard Donner’s previous film, The Omen.

1.19: Left Behind
Young Clark Kent arrives from the uncanny valley, as the origin story enters yet another phase.

1.20: Contest of Champions
Meanwhile, at the newsstand, the American child is tested to the limits of their knowledge, patience and fiscal capacity, in a head-to-head competition that is not for the weak.

Venom: There Must Be Carnage 91.1: The Murderability of Crowds
We interrupt the story of Superman to look at another movie about a powerful, dangerous space monster in the guise of a newspaper reporter, who beats people up and wrecks their homes in the service of fighting crime — Venom: Let There Be Carnage.

1.21: Strangers on a Train
Clark dashes by a passenger train, which carries a reminder of his black-and-white past.

1.22: The Death of Uncle Ben
As Jonathan Kent grabs his left arm and sinks slowly in the west, we ask the question: Is his death really necessary?

1.23: The Myth of the Monomyth
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.

1.24: A Balanced Breakfast
As the grieving widow pours her son a bowl of great-tasting, heart-healthy Cheerios, we take a look at some vintage Superman product placement from 1941.

1.25: Syd Field Forever
We finally shake the dust of Smallville off our shoes, and talk about why the film’s three-act structure isn’t what everybody says it is.

1.26: Let It Go
The snow glows white on the mountain tonight, as young Clark Kent walks out into the wilderness and summons an ice castle.

1.27: House of Wax
The true story of how Superman got his creepy private exploding wax museum and super-gymnasium, in his extremely pregnable Fortress of Solitude.

1.28: Grad School
Clark Kent attends a twelve-year standing-room-only seminar on the subject of nothing in particular, led by his father, who’s been dead for many thousands of our years.

1.29: Fear of Flying
Everybody knows that Superman can fly; it’s what we love most about him. So why did it take five years for Siegel and Shuster to understand that?

1.30: After Brando
The fall of Krypton was the easy part; now they have to film five people flying on three sets of wires, and the producers think there’s such a thing as a schedule.

1.31: Metropolis Now
It should be simple — Metropolis is New York, end of story — but, as always, Batman ruins everything.

1.32: Murder, With a Smile
Arriving at the Daily Planet, we find out what the tone of Superman: The Movie is going to be — and it turns out to be screwball comedy.

1.33: The Coming of Clark Kent
The key to getting the audience to like a new character is to make a friend, make a joke, and make a plot point. So how does the movie get us to warm up to an awkward, clumsy Clark Kent, when everybody else in the scene gets all the funny lines?

1.34: Meanwhile, in the Comics
Everybody figured a blockbuster Superman movie would bring lots of new readers to the newsstand, but the sales of Action Comics actually dropped in 1979. What was happening in the comics, that didn’t appeal to the people filling up seats in the movie theaters?

1.35: The Dentist
The casting process for the multi-million-dollar blockbuster Superman: The Movie involved Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, an Olympic gold medalist… and a dentist from Beverly Hills. How did they end up making the perfect choice?

1.36: When the Shooting Starts
It’s dysfunctional relationships week on Superheroes Every Day, kicking off with the moment that the Salkinds declared war on the director that they were currently employing to direct their movie.

1.37: The Invention of Lois Lane
When Lois Lane was first introduced, she could hardly stand to be in the same room as Clark Kent. How did she become Clark’s friend, and why did the radio show figure it out before the comics did?

1.38: Unattainable You
A bitter critique of Superman and Lois’ complex relationship over its first three decades, thanks to The Great Superman Book.

1.39: Chasing Lois
To cast Lois Lane, Richard Donner did screen tests with six intelligent, funny and attractive actresses. What did he see in Margot Kidder that made her his perfect Lois?

1.40: Everyone Looks Like Lois
After eight decades, it’s time for us to investigate that mysterious year when every woman in Action Comics looked like Lois Lane… and finally uncover the terrifying truth that’s been hiding in plain sight all this time.

1.41: Levitate Me
Clark and Lois demonstrate how his human being costume works, separating the two of them by erecting a barrier of transparent glass.

1.42: Another Sunny Day in Comedy New York
Lois and Clark fall victim to a theatrical sarcasm crime spree, which leads to a perfect moment that sets a standard for other superhero movies to aspire to.

1.43: The Training
Even when we’re in Metropolis, the style of the movie keeps changing every few minutes. Here’s how the movie walks us through the transition from the sunny streets of comedy New York, through a cop movie and then downstairs into a Bond film.

1.44: The Man Behind the Curtain
Introducing Lex Luthor, self-described criminal mastermind and mythopoetic trickster figure, who fills the world with chaos and distraction.

1.45: Hair Today
In this post, I reveal the true explanation for why Lex Luthor lost his hair, which everybody gets wrong except for me. And I have the receipts.

Eternals 92.1: The Adventures of Fancy People
This weekend, I interrupt my history of superhero movies to reflect on the newest addition — Eternals, the story of rich people from space who have been gradually gentrifying human history for thousands of years.

1.46: Criminal Minds
The inside story on how Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor lost his mustache and kept his hair, temporarily.

1.47: Lair Life
Today, we take a tour of the enormous and complicated fantasy space that we call Lex Luthor’s lair.

1.48: Feed the Babies
There’s one more area of Lex’s lair to explore — his pit of ravenous creatures, who didn’t make the final cut.

1.49: The Look of Luthor
Lex Luthor’s down-at-the-heels con artist costume is perfect for the movie, but in the comics, the toys and the cartoons of the time, his fashion sense was very different…

1.50: Dawn of the Blockbuster
What did a blockbuster movie look like when they started, all the way back in 1913?

1.51: The Long Walk
Clark and Lois walk through the Daily Planet in a remarkable two-minute tracking shot inspired by a 1944 screwball comedy.

1.52: Clap Your Hands
The movie performs a Ritual of Summoning disguised as an action sequence, willing Superman into existence with the power of anticipation and desire.

1.53: The Heights
Lois’ rooftop helicopter crash is the most complex effects sequence in the movie, involving a helicopter that can’t fly, a rooftop that isn’t a rooftop, and a building that’s only about two-thirds of the building.

1.54: The Stupid Question
They say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but then somebody asks what happens to Clark Kent’s clothes when he changes into Superman, and you realize that there might be an exception. How do you solve this problem, without killing the character?

1.55: The Bad Outfit
Say, Jim: it’s time to talk about why the only Black character with a speaking part in the movie is a pimp. Whoo!

1.56: The Catch
When Superman catches Lois in the helicopter rescue scene, the one thing that would ruin the moment is if she was grateful, rather than horrified.

1.57: A Man Can Fly
Getting Superman to soar across the screen was crucial to the success of Superman: The Movie. How did they make it look real in the first movie, and then get it wrong in the sequels?

1.58: The Alternative
While Richard Donner and the Superman crew were struggling to get Christopher Reeve up into the air in 1978, the Action Comics team provided an alternative — the Supermobile, a flying die-cast sensation introduced with a four-issue toy commercial.

1.59: The Alternative, part 2
The second half of the thrilling story of the Supermobile, a skirmish in the neverending battle between Art and Commerce that took up a full four issues of Action Comics in 1978.

1.60: Stop the Steal
“Oh, Superman, I’m glad you’re here,” the superintendent of police might say to the glowing, radioactive archangel that’s manifested in his office, holding a blazing sword. “We’ve got a mystery on our hands, and you’re just the one to help us figure it out.”

1.61: Thrill of the Chase
Eight reasons why the car chase in Superman: The Movie isn’t a very good scene, and why it doesn’t matter.

1.62: Catching the Cat
Superman can change the course of mighty rivers, and bend steel in his bare hands. Why did it take him two days to not get a cat out of a tree?

1.63: Human History, and How to Not Interfere With It
Jor-El says that Superman must not interfere with human history, but how does a hero who loves smacking dudes in the face hold himself back from punching the ultimate supervillain, Adolf Hitler?

1.64: Human History, and How to Not Interfere With It, part 2
Superman stayed away from the front lines during World War II, but in 1969, he paid a visit to the jungles of Vietnam, to help a troop of American soldiers deal with an inscrutable dragon lady villainess, and teach a cowardly G.I. how to kill like a man.

1.65: You’re Doing It Wrong
Superman goes home and gets a deleted lecture from his dad, which is the last thing we need.

1.66: So Below
As the new king of the sky reveals himself to an admiring public, Lex Luthor does the backstroke, and unilaterally declares war on the sun.

1.67: The Gauntlet
The first half of Superman: The Movie is very close to the script that Richard Donner was given — but they drastically restructured the second half. Why did they cut the gauntlet and the volcano, and keep Superman and Lex apart until the end of the movie?

1.68: Nineteen-fifteen
Today, we look at the 1915 blockbuster The Birth of a Nation, a groundbreaking film that electrified America, in the wrong direction. What can the most racist film ever made teach us about how blockbuster movies work?

1.69: The Chief
The 1940s Superman radio show turned Perry White into a starring role, as soon as he opened his mouth. Why did it take so long for the comic book to get him out from behind his desk? Also, why is Superman so bad at poetry?

1.70: The Other Balcony Scene
But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is Central Park West, and Juliet is the sun.

1.71: The Workout
The process of building Christopher Reeve’s body was a major feature in the pre-release marketing of Superman: The Movie. Why are we so interested in the superhero celebrity workout?

1.72: The Color of Underwear
Lois Lane has a enormous extraterrestrial on the terrace, made out of barbells and steak dinners. How does she manage to take control of the scene?

1.73: The Takeoff
Superman trains a new co-pilot, in a five-minute sex scene disguised as a special-effects spectacle.

1.74: Frequently Asked Questions
True confession: I love musical numbers, but I hate “Can You Read My Mind” like I hate cancer and World War II.

1.75: The Other Stupid Question
Why doesn’t Lois recognize that Superman and Clark Kent? Because every time you try to talk about it, the story just gets weirder.

Spider-Man: No Way Home 93.1: The Big Deal
This weekend, I interrupt my history of superhero movies to talk about Spider-Man: No Way Home, and consider whether having too much continuity is a burden or a gift.

Superman 1.76: The Stupid Answer
1978’s answer to the question that we shouldn’t have asked: Does Superman know how stupid his Clark Kent disguise is?

Superman 1.77: The Center Cannot Hold
Today’s post: Why Superman: The Movie wrapped production a year before they actually wrapped production.

Superman 1.78: The Reading Room
Lex Luthor does a Sherlock Holmes impression, and pulls a plot point out of his Addis Ababa.

Superman 1.79: K-Rock
Kryptonite is a magical plot generator from outer space that was introduced on the Superman radio show in 1943, but it took six years to make its way into the comics, in a clumsy introduction that got retconned almost immediately.

Superman 1.80: The Silver Age of Kryptonite
The story of Red Kryptonite, and how it took over Superman comics in the 1960s.

Superman 1.81: Nevermore
Kryptonite is a productive story generator for Superman comics, but in the 1970s, they tried to kick the K habit, unsuccessfully. Why was that experiment doomed to fail?

Superman 1.82: The Trickster
How mythopoetic trickster figure Lex Luthor disrupts the grown-up world, using 1970s sitcom sexism.

Superman 1.83: Superman’s Pal
Jimmy Olsen is the only character to appear in all five of the original Superman movies, but he doesn’t actually do anything in them. Why is he even in this movie?

Superman 1.84: Overtime
The battle between Art and Commerce heats up, as the Salkinds lie, Richard Donner builds a cathedral, and Warner Bros. chooses a side…

Superman 1.85: An Oral History of Christopher Reeve Being a Dick During the Filming of Superman: The Movie
He’s not here to make friends. He’s here to play the game.

Superman 1.86: Another Day, Another Door
Superman gets hit with Lex Luthor’s supersonic Grindr profile — 1.3 miles away, 48 years old, looking for Chat, Dates, Gloating and Comeuppance.

Superman 1.87: The Other Movie About Black People
Continuing my series on the history of blockbuster movies, I look at Gone With the Wind, the most popular movie of all time, which doesn’t openly shill for the Ku Klux Klan but it comes pretty damn close.

Superman 1.88: Toward a General Theory of the Ding-Dong
Asking the crucial question: Is Otis enjoyable or irritating? Also, why can’t he pronounce Luthor’s name?

Superman 1.89: Bad Girl Goes Good
Supercrime vixen Eve Teschmacher “reforms” for a total of two minutes, and during that period, she commits sexual assault. How does she stay out of prison?

Superman 1.90: A Man Can Buy
Presenting the highs and lows of Superman: The Movie merchandise, from lunchboxes to pogo sticks, cookie jars and the baffling LiteWriter.

Superman 1.91: Defining Disaster
As Superman tries to chase two missiles in opposite directions, we see the fault lines opening up that will ultimately destroy the franchise.

Superman 1.92: The Curse of Jerry Siegel
In 1975, Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel put a curse on the Superman movie, in another skirmish in the never-ending war between Art and Commerce.

Superman 1.93: The Fish Movie
Watching the 1975 killer shark movie Jaws, I finally answer the question: what are blockbuster movies for, and how do they work?

Superman 1.94: The Shakedown
Just a few weeks before the premiere of Superman: The Movie, executive producer Alexander Salkind tells Warner Bros. that he won’t give them the completed film unless they give him an extra 15 million dollars.

Superman 1.95: Speak Truth to Power
Everything that’s wrong about the San Andreas Fault sequence, in as few words as possible.

Superman 1.95b: A Small Amount of The Exciting Original Story of Superman: Last Son of Krypton
A special weekend post presenting the book that Warner Books published instead of the Superman novelization, three sentences per chapter.

Superman 1.96: Mixed Messages
From pure delight to tedious ice show: how do the critics’ reactions to Superman: The Movie help us understand how superhero movies work?

Superman 1.97: Man of Steal
The story of the Man of Steal, executive producer Alexander Salkind, who missed the premiere of Superman: The Movie because he was in Mexico, hiding from Interpol.

Superman 1.98: That Dam Scene
Here at the end of Superman: The Movie, the miniatures suddenly get less convincing. What does the dam-bursting scene tell us about how the production wrapped up?

Superman 1.98: Turn the World Around
Today, we discuss why making the world spin backwards is an acceptable way to solve your problems.