Tag Archives: long-overdue national conversation about race

Superman 1.87: The Other Movie About Black People

I want to check back in about the history of blockbuster movies, which I’ve been doing sporadically so I can figure out how they work. So far, I’ve talked about the first blockbuster, the 1912 Italian epic Quo Vadis, which set the bar for the kind of large-scale spectacle that audiences could expect from the high-prestige movies. We’ve also discussed the first American blockbuster, the 1915 Ku Klux Klan recruitment film The Birth of a Nation, which pioneered most of the foundational principles of narrative filmmaking, and also made the case for the continued oppression and second-class status of Black people in the United States.

And today, we’re going to look at Gone With the Wind, the flabbergastingly successful 1939 four-hour film epic about the death of the Old South, and… well, the birth of a nation, I suppose.

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Superman 1.69: The Chief

“Now, look!” Perry shouts, slamming down a copy of somebody else’s newspaper on his desk. “The Post: It Flies!” He drops another: “The News: Look Ma, No Wires!” And another: The Times: Blue Bomb Buzzes Metropolis!” I don’t know how he has time to do all this extra reading; doesn’t he have a paper of his own to put out?

Then he picks up today’s Daily Planet, with the long-admired banner: Caped Wonder Stuns City. This headline is way better than the other three, so I’m not sure why he’s upset about it.

“We’re sitting on top of the story of the century here!” he barks. “I want the name of this flying whatchamacallit to go with the Daily Planet like bacon and eggs, franks and beans, death and taxes, politics and corruption!” And then he keeps on snapping at his terrified reporters, in a scene that’s supposed to be funny but isn’t, because Jackie Cooper is terrible.

Part of the problem here is that this isn’t really Perry’s job. In all of the previous versions of Superman, he hardly needs to ask; Superman stories just start piling up on the editor’s desk before he even knows that Superman exists.

Really, this behavior is more the purview of J. Jonah Jameson, the editor of the Daily Bugle, who’s always demanding that camera-clicker Peter Parker bring him more photos of Spider-Man. Those are the two heroes that get the most press coverage in comic books, Superman and Spider-Man, because they have secret identities that work for the paper.

I wonder what all the other superheroes do, when they want some earned media? I don’t think DC’s Metropolis is as chock full of caped wonders as Marvel’s New York City is, but still, there must be dozens of masked vigilantes who never make the front page at all. I guess it’s who you know.

Continue reading Superman 1.69: The Chief

Superman 1.68: Nineteen-fifteen

I’d like to get back to the history of blockbusters, because it’s going to help us understand how big movies like Superman work, and what audiences respond to. A few weeks ago in “Dawn of the Blockbuster“, I wrote about the 1913 Italian epic Quo Vadis, which was the first feature film specifically designed to amaze the audience with grandeur and spectacle. Today, I want to talk about The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 American movie which was more popular and more profitable than any other film in the first three decades of motion pictures.

The Birth of a Nation is one of the most influential films ever made, an eye-popping, jaw-dropping spectacle that invented most of what we know as the language of cinema. It’s also one of the most evil films ever made, a grotesque three-hour Ku Klux Klan recruitment film that grievously damaged race relations in America, in ways that we’re still feeling today. Sometimes movies can be several things at the same time.

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Superman 1.64: Human History, and How to Not Interfere With It, part 2

I was talking yesterday about human history, and so far I’m only up to World War II, so I’m afraid there’s quite a bit left.

In Superman: The Movie, Jor-El tells Superman that he must not interfere with human history, which may have seemed like a good idea in the abstract but is pretty hard to achieve, especially for a guy who can fly and blow things up with his eyes. That kind of thing tends to make a noticeable dent in the arc of history, one way or another.

Superman first encountered this problem just a few years after he was created, when everybody expected him to go and fight on the front lines of World War II, which — given the inherently unstoppable nature of his character — would have led to a limited set of story options.

As we saw in the excerpts from WW2-era Superman comics yesterday, the common American understanding of the war was that there were three or four bad people in the world — Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito and maybe Stalin — and if we could apprehend those individuals and bring them to an international tribunal for justice, the war would be over and everything would be fine. It was basically a battle with a handful of powerful supervillains, and that kind of thing is right up Superman’s street; he could just leap over to Europe and head east, collecting dictators as he went along.

So let’s say that Superman gets his hands on Hitler, and serves him a hot slice of comeuppance. Then what?

Continue reading Superman 1.64: Human History, and How to Not Interfere With It, part 2

Superman 1.55: The Bad Outfit

It’s a moment of celebration — after all this time, with Lois Lane in terrible trouble, Superman emerges triumphantly from the magic revolving door. The music explodes with pleasure: it’s SU-PER-MAN!

And then we see the only Black character in the movie with a speaking part: a criminal, who rents out women for sex. “Say, Jim!” he cries, entering the frame with a hat and an amazed expression. “Whooo!

Superman lifts a finger in response; our hero has no time to hobnob with the locals. “Excuse me,” he says, and moves on to something more important: a white woman, in trouble.

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