Superman (1978)

Richard Donner

Incarnation

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.

It’s there in plain sight from the start, at least for those with ears to hear.  Still, maybe it is better not to hear, to let the story take you up and away in just the same way its template should, and rarely does, so familiar and worn has the extra-ordinary become.  What we’re talking about here, of course, is the coming of a savior, and in Richard Donner’s masterful Superman (1978), we have just that that in his telling of the Christ story.  Except this time, he’s a klutzy and wimpish nobody, about as close to a clown as one can get without the costume:  squeaky voice, ill-fitting clothes, sloping shoulders, and heavy eyeglasses that endlessly slip down his nose, a sweetly dweeby bundle of ineptitude. And despite the fact that he is, as editor Perry White describes, “the world’s fastest typist,” poor bumbling Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) gets no respect, like none at all.

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The truth of the matter, while we know it’s coming sometime, smacks views with surprise, delight, and even elation.  After all, the “real” Clark is quite the opposite, instead of lowly and outcast, this Kent fellow is quite something else, big-time, as we find out for sure when at last he sheds his no-name work suit for his full-body blue spandex, a big red letter “S” emblazoned upon his chest, and that flowing red cape, and then, wow, he takes flight to rescue, for the second time, the perky, and jaded, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) who dangles from a helicopter dangling from the top of the imposing The Daily Planet skyscraper.

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Like, who could have guessed that this lapdog wuss was in fact the Hound of Heaven, so to speak.  And John Williams music provides as grand, and also lilting an introit as one is likely to find in the entire history of sacred music.  Dance, anyone?

However, and crucially, this fellow is decidedly not pure power for the sake of power.  He is, in fact, power for the sake of others, at once restraining and redirecting power for the sake of, well, love.  Most notably, when Supe finally catches the falling Lois and the falling helicopter, he does so with comic elan, cracking jokes in the midst of his heroism and other’s terror.  And when at last he returns Lois and the helicopter to the top of the building, an astonished, and for once almost speechless, Lois manages to eke out a single very biblical question, which is also the most important question in human history—“Who ARE you?”—his response is as simple and telling as the whole history of theology, “A friend,” not just to Lois but also to a bedraggled and besotted humankind.

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At such news, the steely girl reporter faints, as well she should (and we also perhaps).  After all, the heart-leaping joy all feel in rescue catches the jolt the Incarnation should have, if only folks could see it clearly in the great surprise of its soul-splitting love.

This is the essential, boiled-down truth, refracted through fable and parable, a process that dramatizes, clarifies, and expands rather than diminishes, opening the doors of Light to the deeps of the soul.  Such is what we are as creatures, hungry to understand our own story and the world’s story.  In rescue, the clown in the suit is shown to be Love itself, more grand and wild and kindly than any can dream.  As Frederick Buechner has put it, unforgettably, this is the majestic joke that is “too good not to be true”—the unimaginable possibility that there is help for confused, desolate humankind.  And in that lies the mystery of the surprise, wonder, and elation at an in-carnation of a God of love (see Buechner’s marvelous book, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy-Tale, 1977).

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And there, too, is the stunning power of story and especially of this particular story.  I first saw this film with kids in tow on a frigid New Year’s Day matinee in a theater in which the management had not yet turned up the heat.  Also attending was a solitary and understandably grumpy mother with three unruly preschoolers.  Afterward, lo, the same beset mom was radiant and exuberant and, though why exactly no one knows (maybe she had a good nap while the kids watched?), it might well have been the wild hope that for a humanity weary and heavy-laden there just might be an exultant kindly rescue such as that just depicted with high comic elan.  That is the hope, after all.

written by Roy Anker