Man of Steel (Magnolias)
By Mark O'Connell
The Nuns got me into hot men in tight pants. All Catholic schools in Britain of the 1980s were fitted out with their own set of 1940s Nuns. Fortunately, a less austere model was one of our teachers and it was she who curiously mentioned in passing that Superman The Movie was on television that very Easter Sunday.
You’d think King of Kings or The Ten Commandments would be a more Catholically apt recommendation? Maybe Sister Anne-Marie saw religious parallels in the man from Krypton’s story. Superman can walk on water, is relatively chaste (until Superman III required him to suddenly notice dangerous woman and flick peanuts in drunken anger at locals), his origin story is all but Moses in the reeds and his Dad was played by an acting god (Marlon Brando) trying to actually be God. In this summer's blockbuster, Man of Steel, Superman’s earth and star fathers are played by mere earthling Robin Hoods (Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe).
When we were required to talk to the other God via prayer at junior school, I imagined having a conversation with Brando’s Jor-El: “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned…I quite enjoyed parts of Superman IV – The Quest for Peace, even though I know you weren’t in it”. It was a sort of On The [Holy] Waterfront. And no-one can convince me that, if Jesus himself came back, he wouldn’t demand the same record-breaking appearance fee Brando got out of director Richard Donner and Warner Bros. in the late 1970s (though Our Lord would probably be much more social to his co-stars during the lunch break).
Admittedly, I did have a brief affair with the other Caped Crusader. I owned an Adam West Batman doll, complete with removable cape and nylon slacks. But that was a rather short liaison as said cape was lost on a motorway when I held Batman out the car window to emulate Superman’s flying. And an Adam West Batman doll without a cape is, well, just an Adam West doll.
Ultimately, there were five men in my childhood: James Bond, Roger Moore, Christopher Reeve, Superman, and Clark Kent. Or is that technically only two: 007 and Kal-El? While Roger Moore did nothing to stir my burgeoning loins -- but did lead me into a lifelong Bond obsession -- it was Christopher Reeve who was my first inkling of abs, thighs and
I am not so sure Sister Anne-Marie had that in mind when she mentioned Superman The Movie. Though had she actually buoyed up King of Kings as preferred Easter viewing, I could well have had a very different Road to Damascus moment with Jeffrey Hunter, those blue eyes and that rather odd Thundercats mane of very biblical hair all leading me to a path of hopeful damnation. But no -- it was the biblical Superman The Movie that provided me with all sorts of doctrines.
I remember once boldly –- and wrongly -- bragging over Sunday dinner to relatives how Christopher Reeve was the only one of the Superman The Movie cast to be English. I was convinced Reeve was. Maybe it was me pretending I could bump into Reeve or become his best friend and maybe share a desk with him as a Daily Planet intern. As it happened, I did bump into Christopher Reeve. And in my local town, too. Well, I saw him from afar. It was a Saturday afternoon and there he was wondering up the cobbles of Guildford high street. He was in a play with Vanessa Redgrave at the local theater, and I was mortified my mum didn’t go up to him to see if he could come back to ours for his tea.
Without getting that introduction to Superman himself, the following winter I did the next
best thing. When the snows filled in our back garden I singlehandedly endeavoured to build Superman’s icy bachelor-pad, the Fortress of Solitude. I even donned a red tracksuit and boots and fashioned a Superman cape out of a black trash bag. We will brush over the comic-book law that says the black cape was reserved for Superman’s villains. And with a VHS copy of Superman II left on ‘pause,’ I spent ages recreating a triangular ‘S’ and glued it onto the trash bag cape (and woe be tide any new film trying to insist that does not stand for –- adopts flamboyant tones -- “super”). Sadly, my snowy base was less fortress and more of a Mattress of Solitude –- a sort of snowy chaise lounge our dogs soon left their yellow marks on. Not that this hampered me from insisting my step-dad helped me with a Superman photo shoot. With said cape barely billowing in the breeze, I leg-bombed my own photos as I endeavoured to look all DC Comics with my limp wrists perched butchly on my Easter-chocolate pumped hips.
And then came 1984’s Supergirl. As if my man of steel (magnolias) hang-ups could not get any worse, along comes one big pageant of superhero camp -- with fag-hag Brenda Vaccaro, a hot Hart Bochner pre-dating the Diet Coke hunks, villainess Faye Dunaway recycling her Mommie Dearest outtakes, Peter Cook clearly battling the DTs and Peter O’Toole trying to inject some gravitas into the bottom-gravy script (“your suffering will be short, mine will be -- "add a Beckett pause" -- forever”). So far, so very Pedro Almodóvar. My very patient older cousin took a group of us cousins to see it at the Glasgow Odeon. It
was the only day I recall hot weather in Glasgow –- and we all went to the cinema. Afterwards my red caped obsessions were fed a further hit when all the cousins went back for tea and an uncle rented Superman III on video.
So what was it about Superman that got me spinning in my phone box? Clark Kent. That is what. He is the 9-to-5, the working day of that character. The story progresses and evolves through what happens to Clark, rarely Superman (and Henry Cavill's Man of Steel Kent looks to be no different). How a new Clark looked and behaved was always more of a pressing concern to me than the cape and boots. How Clark is played frames Superman. And Reeve played Kent like one of those cute Mormon boys who doesn’t know he is cute. Throw in Margot Kidder’s definitive and vice-heavy Lois Lane and the end result is a sort of comic-book, East Coast echo of Mona and Mouse from 1978’s Tales of the City.
Christopher Reeve was picturesque in both roles -- an onscreen soul with dignity,
diplomacy, and compassion. But that was Reeve, not Clark/Superman. The reason there is still life in the film franchise is down to Reeve, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (who doctored a monstrous size of camp out of the original and unworkable script drafts) and director Richard Donner (The Omen, The Goonies). Twenty-six years on from the last time Reeve played the role, it is the speeding bullet momentum he gave the project that not only enabled gay director Bryan Singer to fulfill a few of his own Kal-El fantasies in 2006’s Superman Returns, but also for another film –- this summer’s Man of Steel -- to try and wipe away the memories of Brandon Routh’s faux Reeve.
With 1978’s Superman The Movie, director Richard Donner and his team fashioned a superhero slice of American escapism at the tail end of a decade that saw the likes of Nixon and Vietnam leave the country’s psyche hanging precariously off a bridge like a packed
school bus. For years I actually thought New York was called Metropolis. And while I always preferred the second half of Superman The Movie’s pitching Metropolis as a sort of Studio 54-era New York, the Norman Rockwell Smallville of Clark’s formative years is prescient stuff.
Something very haunting remains about the early Superman film’s motifs of growing up and moving on. Especially if –- like me and Kal-El –- you are an only child prone to building ice palaces in your backyard. Clark Kent was surrounded by nostalgic corn fields and John Williams-scored crane shots. So was my childhood. Well, we had the cornfields and Williams [possibly] best score was in constant loop in all our heads throughout the 1980s.
And what I would have given to be that kid rescued from a combine-harvester death as seen in Superman III (1983). Superman The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980) gave us non-Americans our first taste of the United States. Corn fields, chunky Studebakers, preppy high school cardigans, skyscrapers, busy press rooms, subways, hot dog stands, Marlboro billboards and yellow school buses –- this is what America first meant to me. The Donner Superman movies did that (even if the irony was they were often produced in the Home Counties of England, my own home planet). Throw in a toned guy in a crisp white shirt and black-rimmed glasses battling back a jet black cowlick, and I will kneel before Zod and anything else he wants me to.
Way before “geek chic” was used by men and mags who miss the point of both, Reeve as Kent showed geeks could be good looking. It proved I could be good looking! And perhaps the cub reporter hiding his true self behind a wall of lies and excuses (like many a Spider-Man, Dark Knight and X-Men) chimed with many a boy or girl’s coming-out secrecy. But to be honest, I was clearly more of a Lois Lane -- besotted by fantasies of needing rescuing as I hung from a ditched helicopter by only the belt of my raincoat. That one moment was so etched in my generation’s psyche that, when I visited New York years later, I badgered myboyfriend into taking photos of me outside the Daily Planet location as I pretended to be one of those establishing shots passers-by. For this same reason, I am not allowed to visit Canada for fear I might throw myself Kidder-style into Niagara Falls.
So now we have Henry Cavill and, at last, a truly British man of steel (which to British audiences implies he must have had an upbringing in the steel communities of Sheffield, not Smallville). Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel has now been sent to Earth to educate a new generation of Superman converts. And it will be no easy feat. Despite securing the already dead Marlon Brando and his offcut voiceovers, Singer’s Superman Returns was OK. Yet the accoutrements of Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Smallville, and the Daily Planet lacked any cohesive chemistry. Once again, it's not the suit that everything hangs on, but rather what Richard Donner would always reference as the verisimilitude –- how a film handles the reality of an outer-worldly superhero in present day America.
Henry Cavill, however, is a fine actor (and could still one day be 007, which would blow my fanboy mind up). And of course, he is a rather super man tasked with not only not being Christopher Reeve, but also being the one who mustn’t throw a chain of power-robbing Kryptonite around the franchise’s neck. My hunch is that the non-American playing the non-American will work very well indeed. Cavill has the acting chops to not need to play Christopher Reeve as Superman. That beard and ripped chest already makes all previous incumbents of the cape look like Supergirl. Or Faye Dunaway. But more crucially, Cavill has the Clark Kent eyes, another planet’s -- or even era’s -- sense of virtue and the gift of that calm dignity Christopher Reeve gave Superman forever more.
At least my Superman-loving child self need not worry about meeting Cavill. We once collided on a London pavement. For a very brief moment, Superman looked apologetically into my eyes. In my head it was Clark Kent that said sorry. Once again, my Mum was with me. And once again she failed to step up and ask Superman back to ours for his dinner.
Man Of Steel is in theaters everywhere. Mark O’Connell is a London-based writer and the author of Catching Bullets: Memoirs of a Bond Fan. www.markoconnell.co.uk