A joke on “Archer” made me aware of the death of Michael Findlay. A sexploitation film director of the 1960s and 70s, he was slashed to death by a helicopter on top of a New York City skyscraper. While boarding passengers and preparing to take off, with the blades spinning, the accident caused the helicopter to suddenly lurch. Three people, including Findlay, were killed as the blades smashed to bits, another passenger died later, and a woman on the street below was killed by debris.
Then I noticed the year this happened: 1977. The year before “Superman: The Movie” debuted, in which Superman’s first public appearance happens when Lois Lane boards a helicopter on a rooftop, which then spins out of control due to a fault and threatens the lives of people both in the copter and on the streets below.
Maybe this was an obvious connection at the time; I was only a kid, unaware of all but the biggest news events. The writers of the Superman movie had to think up a first appearance for Superman that would be a real grabber. The helicopter accident always struck me as a bit underwhelming, but to a public that had helicopter crashes on its collective mind, that might make more sense.
In the comic books, aside from the 1938 story where he first appears lifting a car full of gangsters after they kidnap Lois from a dance, there never really was a canonical “first appearance of Superman” that all the fans knew like gospel. The reason was: Superboy, “The Adventures of Superman When He Was A Boy,” became part of the canon in the early 1940s. This meant that Superman was first introduced to the world as Superboy. A 1984 mini-series finally filled in the first appearance of Superman when, in the middle of fighting Lex Luthor, a college-aged Superboy decides it’s time he called himself Superman. So…ta-da, I guess?
Come to think of it…I don’t even know if there’s a “world gets introduced to Superboy for the first time” story. There either isn’t one…or there are 40 competing stories! Either way, like I said before, there wasn’t a really legendary tale of Superman/boy’s first appearance that we all knew by heart.
In comic book canon, Superman’s first “reveal to the public” moment was in John Byrne’s “Man of Steel #1” that relaunched Superman and reinvented him for the post-Crisis era. For the first time since 1943, there was no Superboy. Superman makes his first appearance at age 25 when he rescues a damaged “space plane” with Lois Lane aboard. That 1986 mini-series happened the year of the Challenger disaster. Whereas the Findlay accident may have inspired Superman: The Movie’s helicopter scene, this story was already in the works when Challenger exploded and (reportedly) the story was hastily rewritten to use a gigantic space plane that in no way resembled the shuttle. Though he isn’t in costume, everyone recognizes that this was Superman when he later shows up in the cape, so it is accepted as his debut appearance.
In 1993’s “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” which draws heavily from the Byrne-era continuity, Superman first appears in costume stopping a bomb on a new spaceship. He swallows the bomb, then assists with the successful launch.
An air disaster is again part of the first appearance of Superman in The Animated Series (1996) episode The Last Son of Krypton (Part 3), though he first fights robo-suits stolen from LexCorp. An errant missile fired from a LexCorp suit strikes a plane, causing Superman to save it. (There’s just something about a flying man catching a weighty flying machine that comes across as iconic.)
20 years later, the movie “Superman Returns” would have Lois on a genuine space shuttle which Superman has to rescue as part of his first public re-appearance after a five year absence. Very likely this was cribbing a bit from the John Byrne story. I can’t complain since the entire sequence is one of the highlights of the film.
The finale of Smallville, which I did not see (gave up on that show after season 1), has Superman rescuing Air Force One in his costume for the first time.
Every single one of these stories has one thing in common: the sudden appearance of a super-powered brightly-costumed flying man who saves lives, lifts heavy objects, does a good deed, smiles at the public, and flies away leaving everyone in awe.
So, of course, the “Man of Steel” movie charts a new course by doing none of that. Superman’s just a laundry-stealing nobody who wanders America destroying personal property in ways that cannot be explained. Man of Steel’s defenders stress that Clark doesn’t know who he is and is still figuring out his way in life, which is why he hasn’t decided if he’s a guy who kills people or not. (Yeah, except that he’s 33 years old! Granted, they chose that age just to over-emphasize the Jesus angle, but it really does make it odd that he doesn’t have a career yet. It’s not like he’s 19 and backpacking across Europe. Oh, and the whole point of being raised by salt-of-the-Earth middle Americans is that you get raised with a moral code and a sense of responsibility, so that you aren’t a wandering bum…but I’ll save that argument for another time. Still…a moral person doesn’t let his dad run into a tornado to save the family dog in his place and then let him die just to protect his own ass.) Clark is only revealed to the world because Kryptonians who intend to kill everyone on Earth need a vital codex that he’s secreted somewhere, so they demand that he turn himself over to the military. He’s just an alien in hiding who first appears standing in the desert wearing a weird costume to surrender himself to the military. All the public knows is that some aliens went to Metropolis and began flattening millions of people on both ends of the Earth into mush. (The filmmakers want it to be horrific, though they don’t show you a single dead or mangled body, so you could be forgiven for thinking it was all abandoned buildings and vehicles.) Then one of the aliens started fighting the others, caused skyscrapers to be destroyed, and finally snapped the neck of the alien leader.
Side note: I never really thought about it before, but these new Kryptonians are keeping with the Zeitgeist of the times. Instead of ostentatiously flying around showing off their powers, a la Superman II, they just send out low-quality video messages of blackened figures making demands of the public, and then later they begin destroying towers and firetrucks and killing massive amounts of people without warning as part of their campaign where everyone who isn’t part of their new order will be dead. You know. Like…well, the terrorists who’ve been fighting us for decades. I won’t say what they are, but it rhymes with Babical Bizlam.
Anyway, this is a horrible way to introduce Superman. Granted, he fights Zod. We don’t see him rescue anyone during the fight, or rescue trapped people afterward, or clean up debris (remember the months it took to search for survivors and then remains while carting away all the wreckage at Ground Zero, which was just a relative handful of tall buildings?), or fly someone to a hospital, or even simply smile that Superman smile one time! He then destroys valuable military property that we all pay for out of our taxes just to be a jerk about it.
The entire premise of this new Superman vs. Batman movie is about how miserable the first movie was in establishing Superman’s persona, that it couldn’t even get across the idea that he is a good guy! It’s a plot, sure, but how far do you have to go from the general concept of Superman? Why, in the 20 languishing years of Superman’s development, does Superman get bounced back and forth amongst writers, producers and directors who hate that the product is about a big blue flying boy scout in a red cape and shorts who follows a moral code and lives his life for others? Why can’t Superman be an inspiring fantasy, like Harry Potter or Star Wars, instead of an angsty, humorless, brooding loner in dark armor? We’ve already got Batman for that!
Superman Returns was a disappointment due to Lois Lane being a 22-year-old single mom with a five year old kid in a distracting subplot that didn’t make either Lois or Superman come off particularly well, but that airplane scene knew what Superman was all about. I got more of a giddy thrill from seeing Superman facing off against the minigun-wielding criminal at the bank than I got from the entire Man of Steel movie.
Superman is supposed to be iconic, not so dark that he can be mistaken for Darth Vader from afar, an experience I had when seeing a standee at the grocery store. See, the red shorts are part of that icon, a point which DC and the filmmakers seem to loathe but Warner Brothers knows well enough since most of the general-public merchandise they produce still includes the bright costume with the yellow belt and red shorts. The public LIKES the bright smiling guy! We don’t want midnight-blue Underoos for our kids; why do they think we would hate the big blue boy scout if he was on the big screen?
Here’s hoping the new movie can show us a more inspiring Superman. Although the frowny, humorless, dark-tinted looks of Wonder Woman and Aquaman don’t give me much confidence.