Superman (1978)

Richard Donner

Astonishment

Superman (1978).  Directed by Richard Donner.  Written by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, and Tom Mankiewicz. Music by John Williams.  Starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Jackie Cooper, and Marlon Brando.  PG, 143 min.

Just when and where we least expect a significant something or Other is perhaps a good time and place to find it.  And so it goes religiously, especially in the Christian tradition, where Jesus hails from an obscure low-rent place, is ill-educated, is not comely, tells crazy stories, parties a lot, and hangs with serious losers.  In fact, the extraordinary happens where we least expect it, and forgetting that is to risk stone-cold blindness, and worse.  Lose astonishment and, fast upon that, lose the radical gifts of, one, being alive, and of, two, the boggling mystery of a holy presence in all that is.  To be sure, if one does not wonder and tremble down-deep, well, then you’re missing something, really Something.

Of all these Jesus mysteries of the unexpected none is greater than those two blaring, heavy-duty moral preachments, namely the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  One, take radical care of the dreaded Other, especially when beaten, bloody, and forsaken by those who should know better.  And the same shock leaps out of the latter, though many a preacher celebrates the prodigal finally getting sense rather than the father losing his.  The boy comes home, hunger and humiliation being good teachers, and the father without thought or hesitation not only spontaneously forgives but breaks out the wine and invites the neighbors [see Frederick Buechner’s fabulous telling of the story in Telling the Truth, or for that matter Ron Hansen’s novel Atticus (1997)].   The father’s declaration defies all logic, prudence, and expectation.  A welcome, so soon, without apology, admonition, or a counseling regime?

The movies at their best often do this sort of thing, and no more so than in really good “kid flicks,” classics, if you will, especially those of the 70s and 80s, meaning the Star Wars saga, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, and Superman I and II.  Take, for example, done in a knowing high-comic glee, the strange annunciation of toddler Kal-El, a long-travelling exile from ill-fated Krypton to another off-the-map place such as rural Kansas.  An aging childless farm couple blows a tire on their ancient old truck when they are startled by the flare of a strange meteor-like something that crashes nearby.  From a charred scar in the earth emerges a naked male toddler, arms open and looking very much in need of a good hug. The old couple are in jaw-dropping astonishment, as well they should be.

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The script makes sure to deliver their names, Martha Clark Kent (Phyllis Thaxter) and husband Jonathan (Glenn Ford), whose names seem as close as one can get to Mary and Joseph without giving away the whole grand high comedy of an incarnation. Just in case we don’t pick up on the play with names, baby Supe lifts the truck when it tumbles off the jack.  Not bad for a debut.

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Indeed, by the great unforeseeable surprise of lifting that truck, his strength and kindness not only dazzle his adoptive parents but prepare them (and us) for how special this little boy really is.  Quite out of nowhere, then, and with no expectation whatever, to an aging childless couple comes a gift unforeseeable.

The last clue in the sequence that this is no ordinary boy comes in John Williams’ brilliant score, and especially in that leitmotif that accompanies Superman doing his thing.  The surprise here is that the music is not a full-frontal tidal wave such as one usually gets in superhero movies but a simple tune of delicate and exultant lilt, at once playful and joyous.  This is no ordinary comic book super-hero, to be sure.  That bit of music fits a hero who never employs violence but uses his super-phenomenal strength and quiet humor to protect and rescue.  He’s not quite ET, with his healing, glowing finger, but he comes right close.

The bigger surprise is that none of this is unintentional, as was the case with Melissa Mathison’s script for ET.  Tom Mankiewicz, an uncredited Superman screenwriter, and son of the famous Joe, co-writer with Orson Welles of Citizen Kane, admits on the audio commentary of the expanded special DVD edition of the film, that, yes, indeed, he had set out to tell the Jesus story.  At a special campus showing decades ago, I noticed a local banker, always serious and just a step from boredom, especially in church, exited the theater smiling and exultant as I had never imagined possible. Tell him he had just seen and experienced and felt and known the Jesus story—that he finally got it–and he would have called in my mortgage or some such. Now there’s something to ponder.

written by Roy Anker