When watching Superman (1978), I was reminded of the David Carradine rant from the end of Kill Bill: Vol. 2, in which he starts off with “As you know, I’m quite keen on comic books ” and goes on to talk about how Superman is unique among superheroes because “Batman is actually Bruce Wayne. Spiderman is Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spiderman.” In contrast, “When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter-ego is Clark Kent.”
Carradine concludes: “What Kent wears, the glasses, the business suit. That’s the costume Clark Kent is how Superman views us, and what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak, he’s unsure of himself, he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”
What does it mean, then, that Superman’s critique of the entire human race is a journalist?
Surely there’s some American Studies thesis out there somewhere about the role of journalism in the Superman comics, and I hope its author will correct me in the comments section, but, based on Superman the movie, at least, I don’t know that journalists should be too quick to claim Clark Kent—by Carradine’s theory the personification of inadequacy—as their own.
As portrayed by Christopher Reeve, Kent is a befuddled, timid nerd who elevates politeness to the realm of parody. He says things like “swell” and is constantly pushing his glasses up on his nose or running into things. Socially clueless, he’s also completely devoid of wit despite the “snappy, punchy prose style” that his editor-in-chief claims as a reason for hiring him.
If Clark Kent is any help to Superman, it’s as a beard. In other words, Superman took a look around and concluded that the way he could most explicitly not be mistaken for a crusader trying to make a difference for humanity was to write for a major metropolitan newspaper. His newspaper gig is merely a day job to support his passion project—being Superman.
That’s not to say that journalism comes off badly in the film—banally might be a better way to put it. Journalists come off as fairly ineffectual throughout, just like every native resident of the planet Earth. This stands in odd contrast to the film’s opening scene, in which the Daily Planet is described in the most glowing terms.
The film has a heady but endearing meta-opening, filmed in black and white, in which velvet curtains are drawn open to reveal a movie screen. We see the title card “June 1938,” the date of the first Superman comic, as a young boy opens a comic book and begins to read:
In the decade of the 1930s, even the great city of Metropolis was not spared the ravages of the worldwide depression. In the times of fear and confusion the job of informing the public was the responsibility of the Daily Planet. A great metropolitan newspaper, whose reputation for clarity and truth had become a symbol of hope for the city of Metropolis.
I don’t know quite what to make of the fact that the Daily Planet is given such a prominent place in the film’s beginning—a beginning that is otherwise dominated by an incredibly tan and iridescently jump-suited Marlon Brando. Certainly the film never does anything to support these grandiose claims. Since the movie is set in the 1970s and the black-and-white sequence in the 1930s, I suppose we have to conclude that the one true compliment journalists are given is meant to be sealed off in the comic book from which the “reality” of the film eventually springs.
It’s a good fifty minutes into the film before Clark Kent leaves the family farm to become a city beat reporter in the great city of Metropolis. Filmed on location in New York, the newspaper scenes are classic Hollywood journalist camp: fun to watch, utterly separate from reality—at least today’s reality. The Planet newsroom is packed with people and rings with the steady clatter of typewriters. The editor-in-chief, played by Jackie Cooper, rants and shouts and offers advice like “a good reporter doesn’t get great stories. A good reporter makes them great.” When giving his troops a pep talk about their upcoming flooding of the zone on the Superman story, he begs his reporters for answers to questions like “Does he have a girlfriend?” and “What’s his favorite ball team?” You like the guy, but you don’t get the sense that he or anyone else at the paper is overly concerned with acting as “a symbol of hope for the city of Metropolis.”
The Daily Planet may seem like an oddity to modern journalists for more reasons than just the packed newsroom. In a moment that requires at least as much suspension of disbelief as any other point in a film that features intergalactic space travel, Air Force One being struck by lightning, and nuclear missiles hijacked via a damsel-in-distress stunt straight out of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the Daily Planet has its own helicopter, Planet One, that it uses to fly reporters to assignments.
Of course, the outlandish plot is not only forgivable but the entire point of the film. You need some pretty crazy stuff to happen if your main character is a walking, flying deus ex machina.
If there’s any journalism-based theme to be taken from the story, it’s that, unsurprisingly, Superman doesn’t feel that his talents are best used at a newspaper. For a guy whose father conveyed to him “the total accumulation of all literature and scientific fact from dozens of other worlds spanning the twenty-eight known galaxies” Superman doesn’t seem to be much of a reporter. Instead, he flies around, throws missiles into outer space, collars criminals. This is as it should be. I doubt anyone’s ever been inspired to be a journalist by Superman, but we should be nothing but grateful for the association. We need him now more than ever.
Last week: The Devil Wears Prada
Next up: The Year of Living DangerouslyMichael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm. Tags: Clark Kent, Daily Planet, movies, newspapers that own helicopters, Summer Movie Club, Superman