Superman 1.22: The Death of Uncle Ben

It’s been a rough afternoon for young Clark Kent, secret teenage king of the sky. First he got left behind after football practice, and then he met the love of his life, who it turns out is nine years old and currently heading east on the Kansas Star. Now he’s getting advice from his foster father in a lengthy one-take walk-and-talk, all the way up the front drive.

“I mean, every time I get the football, I can make a touchdown,” Clark says.

“That’s for sure,” his father nods.

“Every time!”

“Yeah.”

“I mean, is it showing off, if somebody’s doing the things he’s capable of doing?” Clark asks. “Is a bird showing off when it flies?”

“No, no,” Jonathan shakes his head. He’s got about sixty percent of an answer to that question, and he’s going to bluff his way through the rest of it in real time. It’s called parenting.

“Now, you listen to me,” he says. “When you first came to us, we thought that people would come and take you away, because — when they found out, y’know, the things you could do? That worried us a lot.” He sighs. “Then a man gets older, and he thinks very differently, and things get very clear. And there’s one thing I do know, son — and that is, you are here for a reason. I don’t know whose reason — whatever the reason is, y’know? Maybe it’s because… well… I don’t know, it’s…” He trails off. “But I do know one thing: it’s not to score touchdowns.”

“Well, okay,” Clark shrugs, “but could I just score a few touchdowns while I’m waiting for whatever the hell you’re talking about?”

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Superman 1.21: Strangers on a Train

And he’s off, streaking across the screen in the film’s first true “how’d they do that” moment. Vastly underestimated teenage space monster Clark Kent isn’t allowed to kick footballs or attend age-appropriate social gatherings, so he’s expressing his frustration in a typically reckless way: using his super-speed to race with the Kansas Star, an occupied passenger train full of curious little girls with binoculars.

He hasn’t developed any catchphrases yet, so he doesn’t realize that it’s not supposed to be “faster than a locomotive” — it’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. The dumb kid’s got it all mixed up.

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Venom: Let There Be Carnage 91.1: The Murderability of Crowds

So here’s the thing: I’m currently telling the story of the development of blockbuster superhero movies in chronological order, and at the moment, I’ve only gotten as far as 27 minutes into the genre’s first film, 1978’s Superman: The Movie.

But while I’m doing that, the world is moving on, churning out new superhero movies at an unbelievable clip, and leaving me even further behind. Out in the world, this history is still unfolding, and if I ignored what’s happening right now, then this project would be a dusty museum piece, rather than a living story that’s connected to who and where we currently are.

So when a new superhero movie is released — which at this point might as well be every couple of weeks — I want to take the time to compare the new film with the movie that I’m currently writing about, to draw connections between them, and explore where this genre is headed. As of this weekend, the latest release is Sony’s Spider-Man spinoff Venom: Let There Be Carnage, which as far as tone is concerned is about as far away from Superman: The Movie as you can get.

Here we stand, on a family farm in Smallville, Kansas, where Jonathan Kent is about to deliver some inspirational words of advice about restraining our darker impulses in order to find our true purpose in life, and then along comes Venom, who encourages us to do exactly the opposite.

Continue reading Venom: Let There Be Carnage 91.1: The Murderability of Crowds

Superman 1.20: Contest of Champions

Sure, you like Superman; maybe you like him a whole lot. But did you spend six weeks in 1977 going from one newsstand to another, hunting for copies of Aquaman, Jonah Hex, Starfire, Unknown Soldier, Challengers of the Unknown, The Secret Society of Super-Villains, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth and Welcome Back, Kotter, each at 35 cents a throw, just for the chance to win a walk-on part in Superman: The Movie? There are all kinds of heroes in this world.

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Superman 1.19: Left Behind

At the end of football practice, a pretty girl walks up to Clark and says, “Listen, a whole bunch of us are going up to Mary Ellen’s, to play some records. Would you like to come?”

And he says oh, I’d love to, but I’m not supposed to interfere with human history. You have no idea how big of a crimp it puts in a guy’s social schedule, having a rule like that.

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Superman 1.17: For Unto Us

“Once, there was a civilization,” says the announcer in the Superman: The Movie trailer, over a shot of Jor-El doing science stuff with crystals, “much like ours, but with greater intelligence, greater powers, and a greater capacity for good.”

Jor-El touches the machine, and the starship rises to the ceiling, and then everything goes to hell. We see people fall into the red pit of their doomed civilization, and then: BLAM! the whole planet explodes.

“In one tragic moment,” the announcer resumes, “that world was destroyed. But there was one survivor.” We see Kal-El in the star bubble, a brief clip of the crash landing, and then Pa Kent is kicking at his tire. Ma taps him on the shoulder, and they look at the wreck of the spaceship.

As they gaze in wonder, the announcer says, “Because of the wisdom and compassion of Jor-El — because he knew the human race had the capacity for goodness — he sent us his only son.”

The music swells, and we see little K, standing up with his arms outstretched, and we wonder: if Jor-El was so all-fired wise and compassionate, maybe he could also have sent some pants?

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Superman 1.16: Passing Motorists

Sure, Superman was popular in 1938, but a lot of things were popular back then, like Mickey Rooney and Betty Boop and the Spanish Civil War. Being popular in the late 1930s does not guarantee that your story will still be told in the 2020s. Pop culture is a competitive environment, and for any popular idea, there are a dozen copycats trying to get their own share of the audience’s attention and affection.

It’s a process of natural selection, and the characters and stories that survive for decades in the popular imagination are the strongest and most adaptable. Sherlock Holmes, the Wizard of Oz, Mickey Mouse, Dracula and Superman — all of the long-lasting pop culture icons have overcome dozens of challengers, continually finding a niche in the changing cultural landscape that keeps them alive for another generation.

One thing that these pop culture champions have in common is that they managed to jump out of their original medium, and often out of the reach of their original creator, inspiring plays and parodies and sequels and pastiches and comic strips and films that strengthened the concept by passing on the story-productive details, and removing the parts that didn’t work as well.

Superman is the perfect example: a story that started in comic books, but very quickly expanded into a comic strip and a radio show, then a cartoon, a movie serial and a TV series. Each version of the story is an opportunity to tweak and expand, and figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Over time, Superman ended up with a core set of characters and ideas that are practically bulletproof. The concept “Superman and Lois” was there in the first issue of Action Comics in 1938, and it worked so well that 83 years later, there’s a TV show called Superman & Lois.

The concept “Ma and Pa Kent”, on the other hand, took a while to find its place in the cultural conception of Superman. The details that worked, like running a farm, stick around forever. But sometimes a concept’s evolution takes a weird turn, and you end up drugging a crowd of elderly people at a lemonade party. Here, I’ll show you what I mean.

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Superman 1.15: Journey Across the Gulf of Space!

Well, if little Kal-El thought he could stretch out and relax during the journey from there to here, then he was mistaken; his dad has prepared a three-year-long audiobook for him to listen to on the trip. We see the boy traveling through clouds of space plankton in his star bubble, and above the sound of a passing scherzo, we hear extracts from Jor-Audible.

The first fragment that we hear is “… which Einstein called his theory of relativity.” I don’t know if that’s chapter one or not; I would hope they’d ease the kid in a bit before jumping straight to Einstein. This is a weird belief that science-fiction writers have, that you can learn things more efficiently if you’re being brainwashed by a computer, because education is basically a data download, and actual engagement with the material just gets in the way.

So I want to take a look at what kind of schooling is going on here, and try, for at least a couple minutes, not to talk about Beppo.

Continue reading Superman 1.15: Journey Across the Gulf of Space!

Superman 1.14: Music from the Hearts of Space

All right, here’s the situation: we are currently three weeks in on this new format that I’ve invented for myself, where I try to comment on every element of Superman: The Movie that I can think of, and today is one of those “face the music” posts, both literally and figuratively. At some point, I have to write about John Williams’ orchestral score, because it’s an important part of the movie and people who like movie scores are entirely obsessed with it, but I don’t know much about music and I am utterly hopeless on the subject.

I mean, I have this booklet that came with the Superman: The Music box set, and here’s what it says about the score during the “space capsule flying across the galaxy” sequence:

“Scherzo for the starship’s three-year journey. A swirling woodwind line suggests the speed at which the spacecraft is traveling while high-register violins sing a lofty melody exclusive to this cue; statements of the Fanfare are overlaid skillfully.”

My issue, obviously, is that I don’t know what scherzo means; I even went and read the Wikipedia article on scherzo, and I still don’t know what scherzo means.

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