Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Place Your Kryptonite in the Green Recycling Bin

The earliest literature in every culture is filled with gods, demigods, and mythical beasts doing fantastic things and interacting for well or ill with ordinary mortals. Ovid’s Metamorphoses reads like an adult superhero comic book. In time these characters largely were replaced in fiction with mortals such as Don Quixote, Tom Jones, the gunslingers in dime novels of the 19th century, and the ray-gun wielding adventurers of 20th century pulp science fiction. To be sure, many of the heroes of these stories might be braver than you or I and more skilled with a sword or six-gun, but they are not superhuman – not even the most fanciful of them. Flash Gordon is just a guy with keys to a space ship. Yet, in the past 7 decades we have come full circle. Movies (today’s prevailing form of fiction) populated by superheroes dominate the box office. The superheroes are very much in the mold of classical demigods. A few (e.g. Thor) actually are the old mythical gods.

This was brought to mind by a movie and by Halloween. Last night with friends I watched Thor: Ragnarok. On this Halloween day amid the ghosts and goblins wandering the streets are numerous superheroes of the DC and Marvel universes. Superhero films are not my preferred genre; this is not snobbiness – I enjoy plenty of much trashier and more lowbrow fare – but just personal inclination. These films are so much a part of the culture, however, that I make some effort to see the major ones. Thor: Ragnarok was pretty good for its kind. The dialogue was clever. The characters could be enjoyably petty and make missteps in the manner of flawed humans – and Chris Hemsworth has his fans for reasons that are obvious.

The prototype of the modern superhero and still the most iconic is, of course, Superman, who debuted in Action Comics in June 1938. He appeared in a live action film serial in 1948, but my first introduction to the character was on the TV series The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves that ran from 1952 through 1958. Reruns ran regularly from the 50s to the 80s and irregularly ever since. Naturally, I watched the show as a kid and was as likely as anyone to tie on a towel as a cape and pretend to fly. Seasons 2-6 were family-friendly with a vengeance in accordance with so much of the 1950s backlash to 40s worldliness. But not Season 1. Even as a preteen I noticed something different about Season 1 quite aside from it being black-and-white and starring Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane. (Noel Neill had the part of Lois in 2-6.) I wasn’t precocious enough to put into words what the difference was, but by my late teens I began to get an inkling. To this day, despite the show’s low budget and the limitations of early TV, Season 1 (first aired in 1952 but shot in 1951) remains my favorite depiction of the man of steel. The explanation begins a decade earlier.

The 1940s were the quintessential decade for American culture – all the good and bad in high relief. At its best, 40s music is great and its style is better. Ugly social attitudes, behaviors, and laws were rampant in the US, and were on display in the movies. Yet, whenever 1940s scriptwriters slowed down to think about something and then actually tried to make a moral point, the point almost always is unexceptionable. They knew better, in other words, and the war tested folks moral compass like nothing else could. There was more. WW2 veteran and accomplished author Gore Vidal frequently asserted that the Sexual Revolution (in all its aspects) usually attributed to the 60s really took place in the 40s – the 50s largely undid it, but that is another story. Vidal himself contributed his part, publishing the best-seller The City and the Pillar in 1946. The sophistication shows in the movies of the era even through the constraints of the Hays Code: particularly in 40s film noir. Adult cynicism permeated the genre but not to the point of nihilism and not without gritty humor. Philip Marlowe is apt to do the right thing (not the same as the legal thing) in the end, after all, even though he doesn’t expect to change the world by it. The culture seemed headed the right way in the 40s, even though in practice it had far to go. Life seldom proceeds in a straight line, however, and the 50s took a turn.

Lois tries to rescue a trapped miner by
herself in defiance of safety rules
Decades never quite know when they are over, and some 40s style spilled into the 50s. (For that matter, much 50s style was foreshadowed in the late 40s.) It spills into the first year of The Adventures of Superman. But for the fact that Clark Kent is a “strange visitor from another planet,” the scripts and direction are classic noir. No episodes were written by Raymond Chandler, but they might as well have been. Phyllis Coates’ Lois is the strongest most capable Lois to date, very much including the Amy Adams version. Superman is not the Boy Scout he is in the remaining seasons. When a crook and his moll in one episode discover Clark’s identity, for example, Superman strands them on a mountain; they die trying to climb down. So, I’ll take Season 1 George Reeves over the wholesomely virtuous Christopher Reeve, the homey domesticated Dean Cain, or the grimly broody Henry Cavill. I’ll take Bogart as Sam Spade or Powell as Marlowe or Veronica Lake as undercover agent Ellen Graham over any of them, but, as Superman portrayals go, George in Season 1 is my man.

While the modern superheroes have been around for decades, until recently they have been a quirky minor genre on the screen. The question remains why they are so popular today in a way that dwarfs all previous time periods. There are entire books on that subject. (Try The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration by Jennifer Canzoneri and Robin S. Rosenberg for a consideration of what motivates the characters and why we care.) The abbreviated version of the consensus is that at a time when few of us feel powerfully in control of our own destinies the fantasy of power is more appealing. Superheroes and their enemies also paint our fears and concerns in broad palatable strokes: it is hard not to see a proxy for partisan division in Captain America: Civil War or for real existential threats in the ambitions of Thanos. Then again, sometimes the appeal might be simpler. Maybe sometimes we just like to tie a towel to our necks as a cape and pretend to fly.

The Kinks – (Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman


  1. I think one of the reasons super heroes have become so popular on the screen is that finally special effects have caught up with them enough to go along with their daring exploits. Sure they did some of that earlier, but they were pretty low budget--good enough for a child's imagination. But a lot of story had to be left up to the imagination.

    I have the first season of Superman on DVD too. I always liked Noel Neill playing Lois though, I guess as she played in the majority of them.

    1. Neill played Lois in the 1948 serial, too, so I guess it was like coming home again when she replaced Coates.

      CGI has opened up a lot of new possible storylines, it is true. The 1978 Superman did pretty well with old school fx, but there were limits.