Strange Moments in Solid Movies: Can You Read My Mind, Superman?

In 1978, a year after Star Wars catapulted audiences into the alien cosmos, Warner Brothers did humankind a solid by bringing the alien to modern-day America with Superman: The Movie. With the appropriately rousing–if not a bit biologically misleading (it’s marketing, people!)–tagline “You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly”, Richard Donner’s adaptation found the right balance between honoring the rich mythology of the character’s comic origins and reconfiguring it through the epic scope that only the big screen can hold. And thanks to this steady footing provided by the saga’s terra firma that stretches from the distant Krypton to Earth’s Smallville and Metropolis, it is no wonder why, when push comes to shove and heroics are called for, Superman can leap buildings in a single bound (and the like) into the stratosphere: the ground is set for success, which makes the flying leap that much more believable. Indeed, Superman takes off, soaring to immense heights as it is still one of the best comic book adaptations in film. (Slight tangent: its structure, still an unbeatable beacon for doing a great origin story, has “inspired”–or, more cynically, motivated the lazy–makers of subsequent comic films to follow Superman’s shining light too much, too closely, like moths to the flame. Some men just can’t fly well, it seems–and Superman’s mastery becomes all the more apparent.)

But despite Superman’s eminent standing in the comic book movie canon, the film isn’t without its share of strange, head-scratching moments. It can sometimes get bogged down by silliness and camp, much of which stems from the antics of Lex Luther (Gene Hackman) and his cohorts (Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine). Another source of strange is Superman himself (Christopher Reeve) or, more precisely, some of Donner’s decisions regarding him. Presenting a character with a myriad of incredible powers can be tough to illustrate vividly while simultaneously being aware of where (and when) to stop without going off the deep end. Case in point: Superman has the capacity to change human history (or time travel). And although his father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) decries such a far-reaching implementation, Superman ultimately spins the world back in time in order to save Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Fortunately, Reeve and Kidder are able to imbue enough emotion and humanity into this daring act against reason that it doesn’t sink the whole film like Lois’ car. Superman is willing to go to physics-defying lengths to save the woman he loves and that doesn’t bug me one bit because it’s earned. The dramatic resonance rightfully rip time and space apart.

Still, there is one patch of strange that supersedes all others: Superman and Lois’ night flight. Arguably, this sequence can be described with many adjectives: romantic, momentous, unique. But, without a doubt, it is also strange, as nothing before or after it–in any of the Superman movies, even–is quite like it. Take a gander here.

In a sequence that plays up Lois’ vulnerability (she is wearing a night gown while reporting, engaging in activities that are outside normalcy like flying around with a “god” whom she doesn’t know all that well, etc.), conveying what she is thinking during the flight in some way is important to understanding Lois as a character. The audience already knows what Clark Kent/Superman thinks about Lois, but at this juncture, what Lois really thinks about Superman is up for debate (though there are some indications of what she thinks previously). And an inner monologue, the most direct avenue of exploring a character’s thoughts,  would certainly do the trick in letting the audience in on Lois.

However, how these thoughts are actually conveyed is a different matter entirely. This isn’t some garden variety inner monologue. Done as spoken word with a hint of freestyling, Lois’ innermost musings come across as both formed and irregular, as if she has put a lot of thought into what this moment with Superman would be like but couldn’t possibly think of how overwhelming the experiences would be (which is understandable with the vulnerability and excitement factoring into it all). Furthermore, the whole sequence of thought is stimulated by Superman’s aptitude to do almost anything. Except for a few limitations (like dealing with kryptonite, lead, and other magical things), he can do a lot. More to the point here, he can see a lot. And what he sees in this scene is Lois (and her pink panties), but not her thoughts. Those are hers alone (that is, unless they are in the song version, in which case they are singer Maureen McGovern and lyricist Leslie Bricusse’s thoughts as well). Because of this restriction, Lois is empowered by her faculty to the point where she sees herself as someone Superman can seek out for help and companionship–the best way of finally overcoming the obstruction as she is the only one who can reveal what he can’t read in her mind. The interviewer has truly become the interviewee.