Superman didn't have any humble beginnings. Superman ate fire and shit ice from the git-go.
Sea lapping on the shore. A washing line. A white-washed house, with a seagull flying overhead. A fishing boat putting out to sea: emphasis on a young, bearded sea-man. A photo album; a child running around at a birthday party. Bearded chap walking along a desolate road with a backpack, hitch hiking. Sunset. A butterfly. Child by washing line playing with a red sheet. Clouds.
What kind of a film is the Man of Steel trailer promoting? What story is it telling? What would you make of it if you didn't know what it was about -- if you had never heard of Superman? (It's a film about fishing and underwear, right?) What do the images have to do with the human figure we see flying through the air like a rocket in the final seconds? Before answering that question, it's worth glancing back at the teaser trailer which promoted the original Christopher Reeve Superman movie, more thatn 30 years ago.
Swirly red clouds; a figure that we can hardly see in the sunset; a portentius voice-over and an extended cast list. It doesn't contain one single clip from the movie, and gives virtually no hints about the plot. But it does give a rather patronisng run-down of the history of the character:
"He began, not as flesh and blood, but as a simple line drawing.
His comic strip has thrilled millions around the world.
The magic of radio gave to his name a breathless signature and sound.
Then with television came a whole new generation to idolize his exploits.
Today at last his evolution is complete.
Brought to life by the awseome technology of film and by an extraordinary cast of stars...
Until now his incredible adventures have been beyond the power of any known medium to realise...
He has come of age.
Fairly clearly, in 1978 studios were still jumpy about the whole idea of making a film about a superhero. The trailer was establishing the film's credentials and trying to give it some gravitas. This isn't a film of a comic book – this is a film about a character who happened, many years ago, to have started out in a comic book. Comics, radio and TV were just the embryonic stages which allowed this film to come into being. It pointedly shows us stills of the A list cast, but doesn't give us a good look at Christopher Reeve in his tights. The title of the film was not Superman but Superman: The Movie. Movies are very important things. Superman is a part of American folklore which the movies – sorry "the greatest creative and technical minds in the motion picture industry" are going to take very seriously indeed."
The poster campaign betrayed a similar caution: no image of Superman, just that stylized logo, and the phrase "You'll believe a man can fly." Movie posters were doing a lot of teasing that year. All we knew of Alien was the glowy egg and the phrase "In space, no-one can hear you scream". Star Trek – sorry Star Trek Ther Motion Picture -- had some very blurry images of Kirk, Spock and a bald lady and the very jittery tag line "There is no comparison." (Between the TV series and the movie? Or between Star Trek and that new thing George Lucas had just put out?)
The full length 1978 trailer is also quite interesting. It amounts to a summary of Act I of the movie – from the destruction of Krypton to Chris Reeve's arrival at the Fortress of Solitude – which is itself simply an expansion of the one page origin of Superman from Action Comics #1 and elsewhere. "Doomed planet; desperate scientists; last hope; kindly couple" as the fellow said. A voice over – sounding this time like someone narrating a school science programme - tells us what is going on, in case it isn't clear from the pictures:
"Once there was a civilisation much like ours, but with a greater intelligence, greater powers and a greater capacity for good.
In one tragic moment, that world was destroyed, but there was one survivor.
Because of the wisdom and compassion of Jor-El, because he knew the human race had the capactiy for goodness, he sent us his only son.
His name is Kal-El.
He will call himself Clark Kent.
But the world will know him as Superman."
This is not, in fact, very far removed from the classic intro which everybody remembers from the TV and radio versions:
"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!
Look! Up in the sky...It's a bird...it's a plane...it's SUPERMAN.
Strange visitor from another planet who ho came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.
SUPERMAN who can change the course of mighty rivers; bend steel with his bare hands and who disguised as Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter for the Daily Planet fights a never ending battle for truth and justice."
"Truth and justice" was, of course, changed to "Truth, justice and the American way" during World War II and for the TV series. Earlier, the job description had been "defender of law and order, mighty champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice". Even earlier it had been simply "champion of the weak and the oppressed."
In that 1940s opening, the point of Superman is that he is Superman – that he has fantastic powers and goes on amazing adventures. His extraterrestrial origins are mentioned almost in parenthesis, as an explanation of his powers. He's the champion of a cause: he believes in something – truth, justice, America, equality, standing up for the little guy. The best adventures of Radio Superman are indeed the ones where he defends his aggressively liberal beliefs, warning us that the real threat to America isn't the atom bomb but prejudice and intolerance: "Whenever you meet up with anyone who is trying to cause trouble between people—anyone who tries to tell you that a man can't be a good citizen because of his religious beliefs—you can be sure that troublemaker is a rotten citzen himself and an inhuman being."
In 1979 the unique selling point of Superman was that he was alien and that he was good -- and, incidentally, the he could fly. The spiel takes his tragic origin as a starting point, as if that was the most interesting thing about him. There is a very clumsy Christ allegory – we are told that Marlon Brando so loved that he sent us his only son, while the Supertoddler is holding out his arms in a cruciform pose (and, incidentally, unapologetically displaying his Willy of Steel. Would you get away with a naked child in a modern film, much less a modern trailer?) But the point is that Superman, because of his alien heritage, is gooder than us. That is his superpower. And, indeed, the film drew both humour and drama from setting Superman's morality and Clerk Kent's naivety against the worldly cynicism of Lois Lane and Perry White.
Now, the 21st century reboot involves a different kind of sell. We already know that movies can be adapted from comic books. In fact, it is sometimes hard to remember a time when movies were adapted from anything else. Journalists, granted, have not yet heard about Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton or even Frank Miller, but the rest of us know that superheroes are not necessarily for kids -- we're probably watching the trailer in the middle of a very long, very serious treatment of the fellow who lives in a cave and dresses up as a bat. (Holy Reboot!) We don't need a teaser which tells us who The Man of Steel is or convinces us that a film about him isn't a ridiculous proposition. We need one that tells us why, in a world which already has the Avengers and Thor and the X-Men and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles and Judge Dredd and Peppa Pig we should care, particularly, about a fellow who can change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel with his bare hands.
"Show, don't tell" is a good rule, but you can take it to excess. The trailer is aimed firmly at those of us who can be relied on to draw inferences from very small hints. The 1978 trailer told us absoluely everything; this one tells us nothing and shows us very little. It's evasive tone (the camera doesn't point directly at anything) positively encourages over-interpretation. Is that washing line a sly hint that this Superman will not wear his underpants outside his tights? Are we meant to look at the seagull and think "Is it a bird?"? The trailer's only really striking image, of a small child standing with his hands on his hips with a red blanket round his shoulders only makes sense if you already know the iconography of the comic book. Which (partly as a result of the 1979 movie) pretty much everybody does.
Do the images add up to anything? Presumably the man with the beard who is hitchiking somewhere and travelling somewhere by boat is the same person as the little kid with the washing line. Maybe Beardy is remembering when he was Kid, or Kid is looking forward to being Beardy. So we can assemble a sot of narrative: "This is a story of a little boy who grew up to be a man with beard who left his home and family, went on a journey". What has that got to do with Superman?
The trailer is, I think, intended to remind us of the scene from Superman Ther Movie in which (right after his father's funeral) Clark Kent leaves Smallville and heads North, guided, so far as we can tell, by the crystal which was salvaged from his space ship. When he gets to the North Pole, the crystal grows into a Fortress of Solitude. In the comic book, the Fortess was nothing more than a secret base where Superman hangs out, does experiments and keeps souvineers of the old country. Here it has became a Kryptonian temple where Marlon Brando reveals the secrets of his origins and his destiny.
Not insignificantly, the first question Clark / Superman / Kal-El asks his father is "Who am I?"
Why has this relatively minor element in the Chrisopher Reeve movie -- which doesn't really feature in any other version of the mythos -- been singled out and presented as the whole of Man of Steel – or at any rate, the only part of Man of Steel which we are prepared to talk about at this stage? Mr Snyder has fixed on it because it is the one place where Superman goes on a journey? A sort of kind of quest in which Clark Kent finds out who he is?
Trailers can be misleading. The trailer for the Amazing Spider-Man implied that the film movie would be all about Peter Parker finding out what happened to his parents and in doing so discovering the truth about himself. In the trailer, Curt Connors asks Parker "Do you have any idea what you are?" This scene isn't in the film. In the trailer a Mysterious Figure who will turn out to be Norman Osborn asks Connor whether Spider-Man has worked out the Great Secret about his family. That scene is in the film, but only in the closing credits, as a teaser to the next film. (Is this the first time we've ever seen a post-cred in the trailer?) Hardly any of the Parents of Peter Parker stuff makes it into the movie, which is a pretty faithful conglomeration of the Ditko-Lee origin of Spider-Man, the Ditko-Lee Lizard storyline with a dollop of the Lee-Romita George Stacy storyline worked in for good measure. But someone evidently decided that the story could only be sold to us as Spider-Man's quest to discover his identity -- because that's the only story that there is. In the final scene of the movie, Peter Parker's English teacher tells him this in so many words. "We're sometimes told that there are only ten stories in the world. But there's really only one: who am I" (*) At least since Mr Keating, school teachers have had a very bad habit of offering kids homespun philosophy rather than Lit. Crit. (The fictitious Prof. Lewis in Shadowlands asks an undergraduate to comment on the proposition that "we read to find out that we are not alone", rather than, say, Anglo-Saxon vowel shifts.) We've seen how Joseph Campbell's relatively complex map of the various hero myths was reduced to Vogler's silly diagram of the One True Story. There is something positively Orwellian about seeing Vogler's diagram further reduced to the single, meaningless phrase "Who Am I?"
The Man of Steel teaser also has a voice-over, which helps us understand what the pictures mean. It's not the voice of a generic story-teller, like the 1978 trailer, nor of a cultural historian, like the '78 teaser, not of breakfast cereal salesman, like the radio version. It's a character, presumably Jonathan Kent, speaking from inside the story:
"You're not just anyone.
One day you're going to have to make a choice.
You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be.
Whoever that man is, good character or bad, he's going to change the world."
Now, I can be reasonably moved when Bud Collyer tells me that everyone is an American regardless of what colour their skin is or what kind of church they choose to go to. But I have to say that I find this stuff makes me want to puke. It harkens back, indirectly, to the Christopher Reeve movie, in which Superman's human father has a little heart to heart with him just before his own heart gives out. Clark wants to know why he has to keep his powers secret – why can't use them to be a great football star, for example? "One thing I do know, son" explains superdad "and that is you are here for a reason. I don't know whose reason, or what the reason is. Maybe.... But I do know one thing. It's not to score touchdowns." That in turns, points right back to Superman #1, in which the hero's character depended on the upbringing which his adoptive parents had given him. "This great strength" says his father "You've got to hide it from people, or they'll be scared of you." "But when the proper time comes you must use it to assist humanity" adds mother Mary. Their passing away "greatly grieves him", but strengthens his resolve "to turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind". That's really all that's necessary. Superman's an immigrant, but he's truly an American because he was raised with American values. Mario Puzo's allegorical Superman, who's strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure, is rather less interesting. Glen Ford is really just telling Christopher Reeve is that he doesn't have a choice: his path is laid out by God, Fate, Marlon Brando or the Script. It's his job to be the hero because that's what the Plot requires of him.
In fact, both Christopher Reeve movies do involve moral choices. The first film ends with him going against Jor El's instructions and using his powers to reverse time and alter history. The idea seems to be that this failure makes him in some way even more heroic than he was before: a humanist Messiah who's transcended Fate or God or Father or Plot – a true Nietzschen ubermensch. The second film has him giving up his mission to marry, or at any rate go to bed with, Lois Lane -- the oldest dilemma in the book. (Oh to be torn twixt love and duty!) But these aren't decisions about whether to be a hero: these are the kinds of decisions that you would expect a hero has to make.
Superman III and Superman IV don't count, obviously.
The Man of Steel teaser seems to be going out of its way to avoid both versions of supermorality. This Superman is not good by virtue of being Kryptonian; he's not good by virtue of having an American upbringing; and he's not characterized by his strong beliefs in justice and equality. At any rate, not yet. We are being asked to imagine that the really interesting question is whether he will decide to be a hero -- at any rate, the prospect of seeing him make that choice is supposed to get us all fired up about the movie.
"Gee. I wonder what I will do. Should I turn my titanic strength into channels that will benefit humanity? Or into channels that will harm it? Or shall I just stay home and do nothing?" It sometimes seems like Hollywood sees morality as one of those computer where you get different power ups depending on whether you choose the dark side or the light side.
There is nothing wrong with films about heroes who have to make choices. Of course there isn't. It would be a terribly boring story if there weren't some choices to be made. Han Solo is very definitely a baddie in Act I of Star Wars -- I don't know if you've ever spotted this, but he shoots Greedo before Greedo has even had a chance to go for his gun -- but in the final scene he chooses to stop being selfish and join the rebellion. Luke Skywalker hesitates before joining Ben Kenobi's journey to Aladeraan because he feels a sense of responsibility to his adoptive parents. (Oh to be torn twixt love and duty, again.) But no-one ever set up "one man must choose" as the be-all and end-all of Star Wars. It's one of the things which happens along the way. The Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded as a more sophisticated film than Star Wars because the choice which Luke Skywalker has to make is actually quite a difficult one -- between long and short term goals, between saving Han and defeating the Empire – and because he arguably makes the wrong choice, and because that wrong choice is the one that most of us would have made in his situation.
But when "one man must choose" between good and evil, or between being the hero and not being the hero, the choice is rarely very interesting and usually self-evident. Aragorn knows that the Plot says that he is going to be King but because of Heroic Self Doubt he has "turned away from that path." He hasn't really, of course: how can he have done, when we already know that the third movie is called Return of the King.The whole of the first Narnia movie turns on Peter, who knows that there is a crown and a throne with his name on it (literally) at Cair Parevel saying over and over again "I am not a hero, this is not my fight" when everyone already knows that he is and it is.
"You have but one choice" says Elrond in Jackson's Lord of the Rings. One wishes that Merry or someone could have replied "In that case, it's not a choice."
We could blame all this on Joseph Campbell. I often do. Campbell makes "refusal of the quest" one of the things which may happen in the class of stories called Hero Myths. Vogler made it an essential part of every Hero's Journey (and thought that the Hero's Journey is the only story which can ever be told.) Hollywood has progressively made it the whole road-map. We might concede that reluctant heroes are more attractive than very willing ones. We like the idea that Neil Armstrong didn't particularly want to go to the moon and didn't enjoy the adulation that he had when he came back to earth. Jim Hacker knows that he should not admit that he has ambitions to become Prime Minister, but that he went into politics to serve his country and if someone persuaded him that the best way he could serve his country was as Prime Minister , well, then of course....
What is most nauseating is the way in which the "you" of the voice-over isn't just Clark Kent, it's you. It's what every Daddy might say to every Son. We all have to decide who we are. To a lessor or greater extent, that decision has the capacity to change the world. Every story has to be about how Superman or Batman or Spider-Man or Conan or Solomon Kane or Sinbad the Sailor chose to become hereos to make the point that we can all be heroes if we want to be. We are all Superman.
Except that we're not. Really, we're not. That's why we like Superman so much. Because he is faster than a speeding bullet, and we're not. Because he can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and we can't. Because he stands up for the weak and the oppressed, and we're weak and oppressed and would quite like someone to stand up for us. (It can hardly be said too often that the whole idea of Superheroes was thought up by Jewish People in the 1930s.) Superman doesn't have to choose whether to have a good character or a bad character. What part of "superhero" don't you understand?
Yes, stories can be told about the reluctant Everyman hero. But that's not the only story, whatever Peter Parker's English teacher thinks. Superman is much more like the classic Western hero. He rides into town. He saves Everyman and Everywoman and Every Cute Red Headed Kid With Freckles and then he rides out. Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White are about the only three constants in every retelling of the Superman story. They are the Everypeople though whose eyes we see the amazing person in the red cloak.
Sam Gamgee had it right, didn't he? The heroes of stories are, by definition, the ones who made the right choices, because the ones who made the wrong choices never get stories written about them.
"Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually -- their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on -- and not all to a good end, mind you."
He might, I suppose, have added that a good storyteller might want to point out, from time to time, the moments at which the hero might have turned away from his path, or to occasionally contrast him with someone who did. (Tolkien contrasts Frodo with Fatty Bolger and the Knights of Rohan with the hillmen who weren't brave enough to ride with them to the final battle.) But it seems as if someone has decided that "the moment at which the hero decides whether to turn back or not" is all that any story can ever be about.
And that isn't just wrong: it's boring.
(*) I believe the usual figure is actually six: rags to riches, riches to rags, boy meets girl, boy leaves girl, someone learns lesson, someone fails to learn lesson.
Thank you to Greg Gerrand for commissioning this piece.
Thank you to Greg Gerrand for commissioning this piece.