And then there was the night when the President of the United States appeared in the sky above Metropolis, and tried to beat a guy to death with a bus.
Let us speak, then, of comedy.
When people talk about the difference between Richard Donner’s work on Superman: The Movie and Richard Lester’s work on Superman II, they often say that Lester was a comedy director, and that he turned Superman II into a comedy. There’s some truth to that — there is a different sensibility between the two directors — but it’s not the difference between serious and comic. It’s the difference between two different kinds of comedy.
Donner’s comedy was mostly verbal. Basically, as soon as the film sets foot in Metropolis, everyone starts wisecracking and never stops. Everyone at the Daily Planet is funny, all of the villains are funny, the big scene between Superman and Lois is a romantic comedy sequence. Everybody talks fast, and they talk a lot.
Lester’s comedy is more visual than verbal, and the best example that I have is the scene that just happens to be coming up right now, when Superman crosses the road and causes a traffic accident. In many ways, this scene embodies Lester’s approach to the film, and the fact that it sucks does not bode well for the future of the franchise.
I believe that I left you yesterday teetering on a knife’s edge, wondering how Action Comics ever got away with spending four months in 1978 justifying the production of a frankly disappointing die-cast toy. As you’ll recall, Corgi, one of the finest names in the British die-cast novelties market, wanted to make a Superman-themed companion piece to its successful line of Batman toys. The caped crusader had an easily merchandisable Batmobile, Batboat and Batcopter, so Superman was going to get a Supermobile, whether he needed it or not, which he didn’t.
Showing a ready willingness to bend to the needs of die-cast commerce, Action Comics produced a four-issue toy commercial, starting with issue #480 in February 1978. That first installment set up the premise of the storyline: A wave of red-sun radiation that has washed over the Earth, causing several problems.
First, it’s reactivated the deactivated Amazo, an enormous terrifying android who has all the powers of the Justice League and never lets you forget it. Now Amazo is hunting down his mad scientist creator, Professor Ivo, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Second problem: The red-sun radiation has dimmed Superman’s powers, leaving him vulnerable and helpless. Problem number three is that Amazo has tricked all of the other superheroes into gathering on the Justice League satellite, which he’s propelled into another dimensional plane.
As of the middle of the second issue, Amazo has tracked the weakening Superman to his Fortress of Solitude, where the action ace has concealed Professor Ivo, and the only way that Superman can fight the android is to jump into his souped-up Supermobile hot rod, and show the boys and girls at home all of its exciting action features.
The chilly splendor of the Fortress of Solitude interior, the glass-lined maze of the Daily Planet newsroom, the unbelievably well-landscaped jungle of Lois Lane’s balcony — Superman: The Movie is full of enormous art installations for the characters to live, work and fight in. But the most spectacular of all is Lex Luthor’s lair, two hundred feet below Park Avenue.
Overstuffed and shabby chic, this subterranean museum of crime is the perfect hideout for a villain who’s trying to convince the audience that he’s important, in a hurry. Luthor enters the film with a messy murder that immediately establishes his villainous credentials, but after that, he spends a lot of the movie just hanging around downstairs. Superman gets to fly around catching crooks and saving the day, while the villain sits in the basement, reading back issues of National Geographic. If he’s going to get any respect from the audience, then that needs to be a damn impressive basement.
Rick didn’t say “Play it again, Sam,” and Kirk never said “Beam me up, Scotty.” Darth Vader said “No, I am your father,” and Brody said “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Do you feel lucky, punk? Houston, we have a problem. I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille. Top of the world, Ma! Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?
A lot of the phrases that we pick up from pop culture as famous movie quotes are actually slight misquotes, often making them a little shorter and simpler, because on the whole people are not that good at remembering dialogue. Exact wording fades quickly, and so do plot points and character relationships.
But we’re great at remembering a striking visual, and most of the things that we consider “iconic” are compelling images, like Claudette Colbert showing her legs in It Happened One Night, or Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct, or a steam vent blowing up Marilyn Monroe’s skirt to reveal her legs in The Seven Year Itch. A lot of them involve women’s legs, for some reason.
So when Superman: The Movie introduces the new version of Lex Luthor that we talked about yesterday, there are a lot of alterations to the comic book character that for the most part audiences don’t notice. The movie version of Luthor has sidekicks and a sense of humor, which has never really happened before, and he presents himself as an eccentric businessman, rather than a mad scientist — but for movie audiences, those are details that they don’t know about.
The one thing that people do notice is that Lex Luthor is supposed to be bald, because we remember interesting visuals. The details of his characterization don’t really stick in the mind, but even people who’ve never read a Superman comic in their life know that Luthor doesn’t have any hair.
The year was 1978. With a blockbuster Superman movie on the horizon, DC Comics editor Julie Schwarz said that he didn’t plan on changing anything in the Superman comics to tie in with the movie, because a) the books were already selling well, and b) the movie would bring in new readers.
Neither of those statements turned out to be true.
In reality, the sales of both Action Comics and Superman had been falling precipitously for over a decade. Between 1965 and 1975, Action Comics lost 56% of its sales — 525,000 copies a month to 231,000 — and Superman lost 64%, going from a healthy 824,000 copies a month to an anemic 296,000 in ten years.
In 1979, when Superman: The Movie was by far the #1 box office draw in the country, Action Comics sales actually dropped, from 184,000 in 1978 to 161,000 in 1979, and they kept on going down. Superman sales went up a little bit, from 223,000 to 246,000, but then they dropped all the way to 179,000 in 1980.
It’s now an accepted fact that successful superhero movies encourage people to watch more superhero movies, but they don’t do much for comics sales. Today, we’re going to take a look at a 1978 issue of Action Comics, and see if we can figure out why.
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.
Everything is crystals, for some reason, so it’s honestly difficult to tell how much of this is the computer and how much is interior design. The way that you activate it is to take one of the crystals, and put it into one of the glass tubes, and then you take it out again, and put it down in a big stack of identical crystals. Every once in a while, one of the crystals turns green, if that helps. You know, they say that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but there’s still such a thing as a user interface.
Tracking across the limitless void, we zero in on a mighty red sun, which soon fills our view. An ancient blue planet orbits this commanding star, home to a noble civilization of powerful beings who live in a domed city carved into the mountains of pure white crystalline rock. As the music builds to a fanfare so emphatic you’d think the orchestra would explode, the camera lingers on this frozen, glittering landscape.
So here’s my question: If Krypton is so great, why is it all indoors?
I mean, I’m not an expert on civilizations that are a million years more advanced than our own, but I’m pretty sure that good planets have furniture; from what I can see, everybody on Krypton just stands around and glows.
You can tell that Krypton is a terrible planet because it blows up fifteen minutes after we get there, which is the exact thing that planets aren’t supposed to do. You had one job.
It’s a delicious fakeout. Nobody had seen a big budget movie based on a comic book before, and didn’t know what to expect. So when the movie opens with a little boy reading aloud from a comic book, it looks like all of your worst fears have come true.