Thursday, 3 March 2011

Leap | Film+Television+Comics | Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

He that is everywhere is nowhere. (Thomas Fuller M.D., Gnomologia, 1732)

The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939)

Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound... (Adventures of Superman, ABC, 1952)

Superman hasn't always been able to fly. Once upon a time, back in Joel Siegel and Jerry Schuster's original stories, he was only capable of super-leaps. He was also a fairly ruthless bastard in those early days. In a strip from 1939, he terrorizes a stool pigeon by dangling him over the city. "Hm-mm! I wonder if we could jump all the way to that building?" Superman asks the poor fellow, adding, "Did you ever wonder how it would feel to fall a great distance and be CRUSHED TO A PULP?"

Needless to say, Superman gets the information he's looking for.

With hindsight, it's disconcerting to see such a well-loved character starting out life as a bullying Übermensch. The clue's in the name of course, but it's difficult not to be a little shocked by lines like, "Cracking your head like an eggshell will be a messy job, but if you insist on being stubborn..." In these first comic-strip outings, the Man of Steel was Spring-Heeled Jack bestriding the earth, a colossus in red underpants.

Over time, the rule-book was rewritten. Now Supes could fly, continuously and without rest. He could even leave the Earth's atmosphere, venturing out into the depths of space in search of his lost homeworld. And with this upgrade came a new source of imagery. He wasn't just a Nietschean avenger anymore; he was an angel. He could look down upon the world from a God's eye view.

It's fair to say that these grandiose ideas were sublimated for most of the strip's early life. But when the character came to be adapted for the motion pictures, the imagery of flight fed upon this crucial metaphor. So too did the achievement of flight, with the technical challenge of its representation becoming a crucial selling point. It's no surprise that the blockbuster hit of 1978 (in which Christopher Reeve filled out the lycra) used the language of faith in its tagline: "You'll believe a man can fly."

Even the earliest screen incarnations emphasized the character's dominion over the skies. In The Mechanical Monsters (1941) and The Bulleteers (1942), two of the Fleischer Studios' brilliant Superman cartoons, striking sequences show our hero soaring above the city, then zipping down into action. Very soon, the Fleischer cartoons recruited Superman into the war, reigning down death on stereotyped Japanese troops.

It was the Fleischer cartoons that first gave Superman flight. The animators, quite understandably, decided that super-bunny-hops looked clumsy onscreen and so adjusted his super-powers accordingly. The majority of the cartoons were rotoscoped, a process that traced the movement of live-action footage onto the hand-drawn cells. Rotoscoping flight, however, was too complex, meaning that the animated flying sequences took on a looser, malleable aspect. With form came plasticity.

For many years, animation remained the only method of picturing flight. Superman's first live-action outing, Columbia's 1948 15-part serial starring Kirk Alyn, switched to animation footage whenever take-off was required. In the more accomplished Adventures of Superman TV series (1952-1958), George Reeves flew on wires, usually against matte shots or back projection.

Budgetary restraints meant that the same shots of Reeves flying were used in each episode, but this creates an interesting sub-textual resonance. The repetition of the same special effects sequences heightens our awareness of their mechanical reproduction. Flight becomes routine and ritualized, making Superman's intervention into each episode a true deus ex machina. On the backlots of Metropolis, the focus is always upon the characters of the Daily Planet newsroom, and the way that they enact B-movie tropes. Episodes frequently end with Clark Kent winking at the camera, as though acknowledging a tacit contract - Superman as shared joke.

The first hour of the Christopher Reeve Superman stands up pretty well today as an attempt to place the character in a pulp-screwball tradition of Americana. It also presented the most sustained religious allegory the franchise had seen so far, with Marlon Brando incarnating a dubious Heavenly Father. The knowingness of the script often worked against it, however. In what must be one of the most cringe-worthy sequences in American film, Superman's first flight with Lois Lane became a soupy Freudian ballet. The movie's tagline cuts both ways - this really has to be seen to be believed.

In the final scene of the movie, Reeve circles the Earth and passing the camera, smiles at us. It's a reassuring moment, a promise that flight is no longer a joke and that omnipotence is benign.

In a post-9/11 world, this omnipotence becomes problematic. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006) attempted to negotiate the character's inefficacy through a period of absence, with his return marking a reinvigoration of the American spirit. But the film ended up seeming glum and sour. Brendan Routh's Superman is castrated, a father without access to his son, doomed to watch over a world that needs him but cannot accommodate him. The final shot repeats Reeve's circuit around the Earth, but omits the smile to camera.

Flying as a metaphor for loneliness? Tiresome stuff - I think I prefer Nasty Superman. Now, where was I? (reaches for Siegel and Schuster) Ah yes, Superman is clawing at a villain's face: "This nose would look perfect, mounted above my mantle piece!"


Nicolas Pillai
Film Editor


  1. Great piece! Beautifully traces how "the rule-book got rewritten" as Superman leapt from medium to medium. I had to laugh at the thought of "super bunny-hops" and how un-Super they would seem! It's interesting that the George Reeves TV series (that featured plenty of flying) still took leaping-tall-buildings-in-a-single-bound as emblematic in its opening credits. Perhaps that is why this TV Superman's flights always began with a mighty leap, complete with whooshing sound effects. Christopher Reeves had even springier leaps and his turns and stationary "treading air" were always amusing, though I too found the "Freudian ballet" with Lois made me a little queasy. :)

  2. Thanks, Lucy. I definitely should have mentioned the hidden trampoline that always used to launch George Reeves into the air! I've nothing but admiration for the poor actors who had to endure hours on wires in uncomfortable harnesses. Apparently Chris Reeve used to be a glider pilot and so naturally tipped his body for maximum aerodynamic effect. While some of those 1978 effects look a bit ropey now, a lot of the special effects and model work is still very impressive. "Is it a bird? Is it a plane? etc. etc."

  3. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Superman, the great-souled hero who transcends the enslavement of Christian morality by his “will to power”. Yet, can't escape his own self-imposed love triangle. A shape in which he features twice, double the heartache perhaps. I might be mixing up my Supermans there.

  4. I think your comparison's spot on! And what's that on Superman's chest? Another triangle, or even perhaps an inverted pyramid...

    The characters who populate Superman's world feel like they're part of some weird eternal recurrence. Look at all the assonance: Lois Lane (the woman he desires), Lana Lang (the woman he spurns), Lori Lemaris (the woman he cannot save), Lex Luthor (his sworn enemy).

    Here's an idea for a comic book: ensconced in his rocket ship, bound for Earth, the infant Kal-El dreams of his new home, where he will be worshipped as a god. The adventures of Superman are mental projections on the interior wall of his spaceship, each running for 30 minutes (no ad breaks). El begets a preponderance of L's, and while the spaceship never reaches Earth, it drifts on in deep space, endlessly creating new adventures...

  5. That's an L on an idea.