Sunday, June 9, 2013

Don't Make a Scene: Superman The Movie

A "new" Superman movie, The Man of Steel, opens this week, with yet another re-telling of the origin story.*  Well, that's fine.  But my favorite Superman film is this one, because it actually supplanted my admiring childhood memories of the TV "Superman" with George a singular Reeve who would become equally beloved in the role.

The Story: When I first saw Superman (The Movie) when it opened in 1980, I had a real problem with its tonal changes whenever it moved location. On the planet Krypton, everything is formal and blank-verse Shakesperean (Brando even uses his Brit-Marc Anthony accent from Julius Caesar). In Smallville, everything is as earnest as Clifford Odets-gone-rural. Then, when you get to the city of Metropolis, it feels like the "Batman" TV-series as written by Damon Runyon, a little campy, and consistently winking (a Superman staple) at the audience over the familiar tropes (phone booths, T, J & the A-way, bullet catching and Kryptonite) as they are dispensed like so many speeding bullets. 

Perhaps they had to do this, just to lighten the movie a bit. We'd already seen a planet explode and thousands of extras die in the ensuing carnage, and the melancholy Kansas scenes are capped by the death of Pa Kent (Glenn Ford, another amazing piece of casting, that, in a movie full of them). Somewhere in the process, someone, among the many layers of writers, must have said "Geez, this is depressing..." 

So, perversely, things get lightened up during the villains' plot to send twin nukes from sea to shining sea.

Where it goes right off the rails is the super-villain Lex Luthor (played by a genial Gene Hackman), portrayed as a genius, despite surrounding himself with buffoonish lackeys (those being Otis, played by Ned Beatty, and Miss Tessmacher, played by Valerie Perrine)—in an effort, perhaps, to always be "the smartest man in the room." The thing is, it works, because Hackman's precise flair for comedy never flags and he makes a great contrast to Reeve's super-straight Superman, who manages to be "the most normal guy in the room" despite wearing a circus weight-lifter's costume of blue tights and red cape. Now, that takes some credible acting chops. Ned Beatty's Otis is a total goon (with a thick East Coast accent that turns "Luthor" into "Lewtore"), but he and Hackman have an Abbott and Costello relationship that's very funny, and Beatty is never at rest, even when he's not the point of the scene. Check out this shot, where he's eyeing Superman's chest and parallel-puffing out his own:

And I can't praise Hackman enough for his comic deftness, from his inserting a song-title into the dialogue ("Call me a fool, call me irresponsible") to his absolute seriousness when he replies he gets his kicks "by causing the death of innocent people," which might be my favorite line in the film. 

Donner's Superman set up the template for every subsequent super-hero movie, particularly in the "Marvel" movie-world, in its delicate balancing act between mythic drama and comedy. The only exceptions being Graham Nolan's dark take on his Batman films. As he's the executive producer on The Man of Steel, it will be interesting to see if his more serious Superman will usurp audience expectations and fly on its own. 

I've tried to adhere to the strict script format here, and, where crucial, annotated to difference between written word and final film. Oh, and you'll also notice that the anchor in the relay of writers, Tom Mankiewicz, occasionally typo's Superman's name (Supepman, Supeman). I kept those in.

The Set-Up: Rocketed to Earth from the doomed planet Krypton, the baby Kal-El was found and raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent in Smallville, Kansas. Now an adult, Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) fights for truth, justice and the American way as "Superman" (which he's doing here).

The inevitable confrontation takes place, as Lex Luthor (Hackman) surmises that Superman's unexpected presence comes at precisely the right time to prevent his elaborate real estate scheme from reaching fruition. Plans in place, he decides to bring the battle to himself, by sending a hyper-sonic signal to The Man of Steel boasting of a poisonous gas threat to Metropolis. It doesn't take long for Superman to find him in his villains' lair in an abandoned Metropolis subway station.

Action! (comics #1, June, 1938)  

Deletions are crossed out. Additions are in Kryptonite-Green. 

8/4/77 TM 233 INT. LUTHOR'S LAIR - DAY

OTIS I think he's coming, Mr. Luthor...

LUTHOR sits behind his desk, a model of smug composure, calmly reading the newspaper with the headlines and picture announcing the dual missile test. A large, blank screen has been lowered on one wall next to him. In front of the screen, a black lead trunk forms the base or something which has been converted into a bench, covered with cushions. Some distance away, OTIS finishes setting up a slide projector.
EVE watches nervously from the open entrance to the viewing theater. 

The heavy metal main door to the complex suddenly starts to tremble under SUPERMAN 'S strength. 

LUTHOR looks up from his paper, calls out. 

LUTHOR It's open...

OTIS He's definitely coming, Mr. Luthor...

SUPERMAN bashes the thick metal door to the ground like a stick of balsa wood, enters. LUTHOR winces, then rises pleasantly.

LUTHOR It's open... Come in, Superman. 

LUTHOR My attorney will be in touch about the door.

 LUTHOR Otis, don't just stand there, take the man's cape...

OTIS starts forward with a tentative half-smile, suddenly rooted to the spot by SUPERMAN'S stare.

OTIS I... don't think he wants me to, Mr. Luthor.

SUPERMAN All right, Luthor, where's the gas pellet?

LUTHOR (smiles) Somewhere ... 

LUTHOR ... in the back of my mind, actually. 

 LUTHOR It's just a fun little project I've been toying with.

SUPERMAN Is that how a warped brain like yours gets its kicks? By planning the death of innocent people?

LUTHOR(quick smile) No. By causing the death of innocent people.


SUPERMAN has tolerantly taken a seat on the cushioned bench of lead. LUTHOR holds a professor's pointer in his hands, approaches the rolled-down blank screen. OTIS mans the slide projector. LUTHOR stops, turns dramatically to SUPERMAN. 
LUTHOR You see, Superman... (passionately) I had a dream! ... SUPERMAN In your case it must have been a nightmare, Luthor. Get on with it!

LUTHOR Right. Well ... Now, as you may or may not know, Superman, I am, as they say, very heavy into real estate. In order to make money in that game you have to buy in for a little and sell for a lot. Right? Right. So. Problem: how to make that property valuable between the time you buy and the time you sell. Now then... 

LUTHOR snaps his fingers. OTIS flips on the slide projector. A brightly illuminated map hits the rolled-down screen. LUTHOR starts to speak, then looks at it curiously. LUTHOR Otis. This is France. OTIS Sorry, Mr. Luthor. OTIS flips up another slide. This time it is recognizable as the western half of America. LUTHOR points.

LUTHOR And this - is California. The richest, most populace state in America. 
SUPERMAN I don't need a geography lesson from you, Luthor.

LUTHOR Sorry. You do get around, don't you.
(turns back)
LUTHOR Now then. Where was I? Ah, yes...

235A CLOSER ON MAP CAMERA CLOSES on map. LUTHOR begins tracking the San Andreas Fault with the pointer.

LUTHOR At the San Andreas Fault. Maybe you've heard of 1t. SUPERMAN Sure. It's the joining together of two land masses. The fault line is unstable and shifting...

SUPERMAN ...which is why you get earthquakes in California from time to time.

LUTHOR Wonderful. Couldn't have said it better myself. (back to map)

LUTHOR Now all this...(indicates)...west of the Fault is the most expensive real estate in the world. Los Angeles. San Diego. San Francisco. 

LUTHOR And on the other side... (indicates)

LUTHOR just hundreds of miles of cheap worthless desert land. 

LUTHOR Land that happens to be owned by...(whips Otis with his pointer)

OTIS Uh..Lex Luthor Enterprises.

LUTHOR Well...(wistful smile) call me a fool, call me irresponsible...but it did occur to me that if a 500 megaton bomb were to explode

LUTHOR exactly the proper stress point....

SUPERMAN (horrified) Most of California would be destroyed!

SUPERMAN Millions of people would be killed!

SUPERMAN The West Coast as we know it would... 
LUTHOR...drop into the Sea! Bye-bye California! 

LUTHOR Hello new West Coast! My... West Coast.

LUTHOR Casa del Lex. Luthorville. Marina Del Lex...

LUTHOR Otisburg.

LUTHOR "Otisburg?"
OTIS It's just a little place, Miss Tessmacher has...

LUTHOR "Otis-burg?"

OTIS I'll just wipe it off right now...

SUPERMAN You are a dreamer, Luthor.

SUPERMAN A sick-twisted dreamer. It couldn't possibly work.

LUTHOR Oh, I'll admit there were problems. Adjusting...

LUTHOR ...the missile trajectory, finding the precise point of optimum...

LUTHOR ...stress on the Fault... 

LUTHOR smiles broadly, snaps his finger. 235B CLOSE ON SCREEN A new, close section of the map is suddenly magnified hundreds of times. It is recognizable as desert land. Literally dozens or superimposed grid lines converge on a single point in the middle of the desolate wasteland. LUTHOR'S pointer rises to it.

LUTHOR'S VOICE (tone chancing) Which, by the way, is right... (touches it).

LUTHOR Target Zero.

OTIS Oooo!

238 INT. LUTHOR'S LAIR - DAY The screen becomes blank again. LUTHOR turns.
LUTHOR Check the viewing room, Otis... (turns back) Well, Superman Supes'-baby? What do you think? Interesting?
SUPERMAN Your theory's quite impressive, Luthor.

LUTHOR Otis...Check the viewing room, (turns back)

SUPERMAN But as for the rest - it's nothing but a sick fantasy.

LUTHOR (thin smile) Fantasy?...(exploding) History!! It's happened, Superman!


SUPERMAN rises quickly, eyes widening, as LUTHOR wheels maniacally to EVE standing in the doorway to the viewing room.

EVE Yes, Lex?
LUTHOR Where's that rocket...

EVE(glances back) Passing the Grand Canyon, Lex. Going like a bat. So's the other one.

SUPERMAN (in disbelief) The other one! There's two of them?

LUTHOR That's right, Superman. Double jeopardy! And even you can't fly fast enough to stop both of them! (sly grin) 
LUTHOR While I, on the other hand would merely have to press my detonating device and ...

SUPERMAN leaps at LUTHOR, grabs him by the neck.

SUPERMAN Where is it, Luthor! Where's that detonator?

SUPERMAN scans the room with his X-Ray vision,

...suddenly stops as he sees the lead Trunk he's been sitting on.

SUPERMAN You diseased maniac! Did you really think you could hide it from me by encasing it in lead?

SUPERMAN drops LUTHOR in a pile on the floor. He crosses quickly to the trunk, tosses the cushions aside.

SUPERMAN(ripping it open) I'll mold this box into your prison bars, you...

LUTHOR Don't touch that!

SUPERMAN stops suddenly, recoils, stunned, a dim green light ref1ecting of his face. 


The green Kryptonite rock glows inside the box. It is linked on both sides by a chain. 


SUPERMAN is instantly immobilized, his strength waning, his knees getting wobbly. 

SUPERMAN That rock... I can-t... my strength..

LUTHOR Told ya...

LUTHOR advances, bursting with glee.

LUTHOR It's Kryptonite Superman! 

LUTHOR A little souvenir from the ol' home town! 

LUTHOR You see I've spared no expense...

LUTHOR making you feel right at home here!

LUTHOR pulls the rock out of the box by the chain, dangles it in front of him. SUPERMAN desperately tries to raise his arm to shield himself from the rays. SUPERMAN Away... please... take it... LUTHOR loops the chain around SUPERMAN'S neck, pulls the staggering, helpless Man of Steel after him like a dog on a leash.

LUTHOR You were great in your day, Superman. 

LUTHOR But it just stands to reason...

LUTHOR When the time came to cash in your chips,

LUTHOR ...Lex Luthor was just naturally ...this "old, diseased maniac"...

LUTHOR ...would be your banker!  

LUTHOR Mind... 
LUTHOR stops, puts his two 1itte fingers on each of SUPERMAN'S shoulders, pushes him down to his knees. 
LUTHOR ...over muscle ...

LUTHOR checks his watch, looks down at the pitiful hulk below him, the life ebbing from SUPERMAN.
LUTHOR I'm afraid I have to leave you now. Nothing personal, you understand. We all have our faults. It's just that mine is in Ca1ifornia.
LUTHOR turns toward the viewing theater. SUPERMAN looks up at him, gasping for breath.

SUPERMAN You don't . . . even care. . .

SUPERMAN ...where the other missile . . . is headed, do you ..

LUTHOR On the contrary. I figured it out instantly. Hackensack, New Jersey.

LUTHOR kicks out contemptuously with his foot, pushes SUPERMAN over the crumbled railing bordering the office portion of his complex.


SUPERMAN'S lifeless body splashes helplessly down into the pool below.

LUTHOR I'm afraid I have to leave you now. Nothing personal, you understand. We all have our faults.

LUTHOR It's just that Mine is in Ca1ifornia.


LUTHOR crosses to the viewing theater where EVE stands at the entrance, stunned. LUTHOR (entering) Hurry, Miss Teschmacher . . .

EVE (stopping him) But Lex....
LUTHOR (impatient) What?

EVE My... mother lives in Hackensack.
LUTHOR (pause) Your mother used to live in Hackensack.

LUTHOR looks at his watch, pauses and slowly shakes his head.

Superman the Movie

Words by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton and Tom Mankiewicz (Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster)

Pictures by Geoffrey Unsworth and Richard Donner

Superman the Movie is available on DVD from Warner Home Video (by special arrangement with the Jerry Siegel family).

 * Krypton explodes...again? It's exploded so many times that doubting council of Kryptonian elders is going to actually believe it one of these times ("Krypton will explode? Yes, Jor-El that's a very common occurrence. We'll do a planet-wide evacuation IMMEDIATELY! (By the way, where's your dog?")

1 comment:

Christopher Knyght said...

SUPERMAN-The Movie was actually released in Dec-78.Just sayin'....