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'Super' conversation at TPR Cinema Tuesdays

L to R: Former DC Comics colorist Anthony Tollin, TPR's Nathan Cone, Superman historian Ryan Steans.
Maximilian Cone
L to R: Former DC Comics colorist Anthony Tollin, TPR's Nathan Cone, Superman historian Ryan Steans.

At TPR’s July 2 Cinema Tuesdays screening of “Superman: The Movie,” we welcomed a special guest to talk all things super following the show—Ryan Steans is a Superman historian and blogger online at The Signal Watch. In the following Q&A with Steans, we get into the history and motivation of the iconic character, and a little bit into the background of the 1978 film that helped launch American popular culture’s fascination with comic book heroes onscreen. We’re also joined in this talk by Anthony Tollin, a frequent guest at Cinema Tuesdays and former DC Comics colorist, who shares his own experiences as Christopher Reeve’s DC Comics liaison.

You can listen back to our discussion using the audio player at the top of this page, or read a transcript below, (edited for clarity).

Nathan Cone: Thank you all for staying and thanks for enjoying Superman with us tonight for cinema Tuesdays. My name is Nathan Cone, and once again, I want to reintroduce my friend Ryan Steens, who blogs at The Signal Watch. Ryan, thanks so much for being here. I've known you for a very, very long time, and of course, your shirt signifies that you are a genuine fan, of course. Before we start talking about history and this movie, I wanted to talk about why I think this movie works so well, and that's that Christopher Reeve absolutely believed in this role. And you can see it on screen. He was really into it!

Ryan Steans: Yeah, you know, the casting was a very, very long process for this movie. And they went through all kinds of folks. They looked at pretty much everybody in Hollywood, because initially they thought they were going to get a star. Robert Redford was considered, and he turned it down. And DC Comics had put out a list of people who were okay. One of the most fascinating ones that you see on that list is Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali. I think that would have been amazing, but eventually they came across this guy at a play, Christopher Reeve, and he was this six foot four beanpole, but he was a really strong actor. And apparently, when he went up for his first screen test, he said one line, and pretty much everyone was like, “Yeah, that's it.” That's pretty cool. One of the things I think he really does… because this movie is several different genres, right? I mean, you start off with the kind of cosmic space odyssey stuff, and then you kind of move into the Americana stuff, and then you move into the Metropolis stuff, which has both the kind of screwball newsroom, and then you have the kind of Lex Luthor, wacky trio, criminal group. And so in the middle of that, you have to have something that's going to hold it together, that's going to always bring it back, to make it seem like it matters, like it's not necessarily camp or fluff. And I think that Christopher Reeve, that last scene when he finds Lois and she's been crushed. I mean, that's acting, man, but I think that he just does such an amazing job. And it was, I think, his second film ever!

Nathan Cone: Yeah, and there's just such an earnestness about the performance, like you said, and he really believed in the role itself. There's a story that goes that at one point, Marlon Brando was kind of snickering at something that they were doing, and he said, “Look, I'm trying to act. I'm really taking this seriously here, and I appreciate it if you would, too.” And Brando was a little taken aback by that. Is that apocryphal? Or have you heard that story before? [Ed. Here's the clip, at about 4.35 in this Dick Cavett interview]

Ryan Steans:  I actually had not heard that one before, but there's a million things. We actually have someone in the audience with us this evening who I'm really excited to point out, Mr. Anthony Tollin up there. He worked at DC Comics in the 1970s and he—actually, I have some comics I want him to sign before you leave, so don't go!—but you worked with Mr. Reeve correct?

Anthony Tollin: There were only about 35 of us on staff at DC Comics at that time, and I was assigned as his liaison to bring him around and introduce him to the writers and editors of Superman and to help him pick their brain. And one more thing I'd like to say about his performance, he's the only actor I've ever seen play Superman on screen who made me believe that people could know both Clark Kent and Superman personally, and not instantly realize they were the same person. He does an incredible job of separating the two—body language, posture, everything. But anyway, Chris Reeve was hired. He was very interested in getting the input from the editors and the writers of Superman. I remember Marty Pasko, who was writing the Superman book at that time, stressed… (Marty was adopted himself) that you had to realize that Superman was an orphan… But no, Chris was incredible in the role. By the way, I did hear the story about his glaring at Marlon Brando! Initially the script was to be written by Alfred Bester, who had written Starman and Green Lantern for DC in the 1940s before going on to radio and writing The Shadow and Charlie Chan and writing a lot of early television, one of the great science fiction writers of all time, and he Alfred Bester, had actually brought in Julie Schwartz as an editor at DC Comics. And Julie was editing Superman at that time.

When Superman returned to the silver screen in the '70s, Freeborn did actor Christopher Reeve's makeup.
Warner Bros.
Christopher Reeve in a 1978 publicity still for "Superman."

Nathan Cone: So Mario Puzo's name is up on screen. And for those of you who recognize that name, of course you know him as the writer of The Godfather. So, from both of y'all… what do you know of Puzo’s involvement in this?

Ryan Steans: My understanding is that the Salkinds, who were the producers of the film, as they were getting things going, they were trying to figure out, how can we get some weight behind this? And they did go through a few different writers, and they eventually just said, “Let's go for Puzo.” My understanding is Puzo actually came up to DC as well, and kind of camped out there for a while…

Anthony Tollin: Well Puzo had been, by the way, an editor at Magazine Management, which Marvel comics was a division of, back during the 50s and such, but…

Nathan Cone: So he had history in that genre…

Anthony Tollin: In a comics-related company, but not DC. By the way, the comment about Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali… that was actually, I believe Puzo, who considered him. DC was not fond of the idea. I mean, there are a lot of faults in the Superman movies. Christopher Reeve is not one of them. Regrettably, I get a bit tired of the comedy around Luthor. I'm actually, in many ways, far more partial to the second movie with the Phantom Zone criminals, which I really think would have been a more complete, cohesive movie, if the Phantom Zone criminals had been in the first movie, because it would have tied in with the opening scenes.

Nathan Cone: So for those of you who don't remember, Superman I and Superman II were filmed almost simultaneously, not completed by the director, Richard Donner, who was actually fired after Superman I had been completed and was in theaters… and the Salkinds, who are quite the unusual pair, I reckon, hired Richard Lester, who directed A Hard Day's Night by the Beatles, to finish out Superman II.

Ryan Steans: He had just finished doing The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers for them, which originally they'd intended to have one long movie, and that movie is split in two and was released a year apart. And they said, “A-ha, that's how we make twice as much money, we film them everything at once!” And then so they went ahead and tried to do that with this movie. Donner claimed in some stuff I was listening to that he never knew what his schedule was, and he never knew what his budget was, but he just kept being told, “You're over budget, you're over schedule.” And was like, “Well, tell me what it is,” because you can tell they spent a lot of money, if you look at those sets and all the different locations and a cast of thousands on street scenes and all that sort of stuff. So, yeah, things had gotten pretty toxic.

What I really liked about Superman was he's always doing as much as he can for other people, and it's not about vengeance. He's just doing it because it's the right thing to do.
Ryan Steans

Anthony Tollin: I was standing under the camera crane when they filmed the scene of Superman apprehending the cat burglar on the side of the building. I'd come on over with Saul Harrison, who was president of DC Comics, and he'd done color separations on Action Comics number one. But the interesting thing is that at first we were told that it would probably be the stuntman doing the scene, and Chris wanted to do it himself. And they did several run-throughs with the stuntman to make sure the harnesses were working right. But I have to say, Chris was far better flying in that scene than the stuntman had been, and a lot of that comes from the fact that Chris Reeve was a glider pilot himself, so he really knew how to fly in real life. And so when you see him fly, and you see him shifting, I mean, he really understood flying. And that's one of the things that made the flying scene so believable, is you had someone who was actually a pilot in real life.

Nathan Cone: Ryan, as we look at the history of Superman in media… you're a big reader and watcher and listener of Superman through the years. We got 100 years of Superman out there. What do you think is probably one of the common elements that that goes through the depictions of Superman, and then maybe side question, what happens when it goes wrong?

Ryan Steans: I think it depends on who you ask as to what goes wrong. I'll be right up front with that, because the most recent movies that were by Zack Snyder, the kind of longtime Superman fans, they weren't necessarily embracing those movies as much, because there wasn't much separation between Superman and Clark Kent. Clark Kent's kind of a cipher in those movies. Zack Snyder just wasn't that interested in the dual identity.

I think that the dual identity was there from day one. I don't think that you necessarily need to be delving as much into the alien heritage, but I do think it definitely adds flavor to the story. Most of the Superman comics, for the first 20 years or so of Superman's existence, until the Silver Age when they got into all the Krypton stuff…it just wasn't as much of a factor. It was Superman kind of dealing initially with gangsters, and then eventually Lex Luthor, and some other kind of more science fiction-y kind of guys. But I think that as far as what makes the depiction as Superman—as he says to Lois, “I'm a friend.” And I think that that's the number one thing that you really need to have to really get who the character is to everybody else. And when those things go sideways, when he's no longer a friend, he's immediately a threat, right?

Nathan Cone: He's more alien.

Ryan Steans: Yeah, and he can shoot lasers out of his face! So that's a threat, right? So I think that really making sure, at his heart of heart, whether he has powers or not, he's there to try and help other people, and he deeply cares about making sure that everybody kind of gets a fair shake, and he really is there for the little guy.

Nathan Cone: When we talk about the origin of Superman as well, when I was watching this movie again, it's always in the back of my mind… Superman has both Jewish origins in the creators of Superman [were Jewish]. And then [watching tonight], this is the first time that I caught that he was supposed to be age 30, when he leaves the Fortress of Solitude. So there's that language that Jor-el gives, that it's plain as day, like “I've sent you my only son.” Here, he is, age 30, going out into the world! So there's two things going on here.

Ryan Steans: I mean, there's definitely the notion that a lot of folks have thought of, of the rocket is, you know, the basket going down the river, and him being Moses, being discovered. And then there's definitely the notion, and if you saw both Superman Returns and Man of Steel, there's definitely some heavy Christ imagery that works its way in. And it is someone who, from a distant place or an unknowable place, who has sent then only son, to, you know… “they can be a great people...they have that capacity, and that's why I'm sending you to them.” It's not real subtle.

Nathan Cone: Who wants to add to the conversation? Does anybody out there have a want to have any comments or observations?

Mike Garza (audience member): I'm really haunted by the ending when Superman is sort of defying the gods in an almost Orphic sense. And you know, that's something that just stays with me. I don't even know how long ago I've seen the movie, but I found that very interesting, how there's obviously this sort of Christian symbolism stuff. But then when he finds Lois buried in the earth and what he does, [turning back time], I just wanted to see if anybody could talk about that.

Ryan Steans: I think it's both. I mean, this movie is essentially a love story. I don't think that that's a huge secret. And I think that what's really rooting Superman to who is this, you know, super powerful character. We don't see him long enough in this movie to be able to stray [from that]. If you've ever seen something like The Boys with Homelander, or any of those characters… often they don't have a Lois Lane who's there to kind of be their anchor and their light, for lack of a better word. And I do think it's kind of a moment of choice. I am going to do this the way that I'm going to do it. It opens up a million plot holes, and we'd all like to be able to turn the earth backward and fix yesterday, right? But, but I do think it's a really fascinating moment, and he is pushing up against… he's defying his Kryptonian father, but he is listening to his earthly father in that moment, and he's thinking about his inability to have saved Jonathan Kent in that moment on the farm. And so, yeah, I think that it's not something that was necessarily, I think, in the comics before, I can get checked on that, I have no problem if I'm wrong, but it definitely, I think, is a really, really strong moment.

Anthony Tollin: Well, I was just going to say in an earlier draft of the second movie, after they had used the ending for the second movie in this movie, where it turns back, the plan was that it was Superman's turning back time and interfering in that way that released the Phantom Zone criminals. They made another reason with, I think, a nuclear explosion in France or something in the second movie. But it was originally supposed to be that his violating his responsibility to not alter human history that caused the release of the Phantom Zone.

Nathan Cone: So there would have been consequences. Anybody else?

Cameron Tufino (audience member): So speaking to Lois Lane. Do you have any info on like, how does Margot Kidder get cast in that role? And was Lois Lane always this damsel in distress, like in the comics as well?

Ryan Steans: Yeah, they definitely were going off of kind of the Rosalind Russell sort of model. But if you do go watch the old Fleischer cartoons, which I think are on YouTube, there's a great scene where Lois, and this is like 1942, something like that, it was right around World War II… She's on a train, and a bunch of gangsters come up to try and, like, basically hijack the train, and Lois picks up a tommy gun and just starts firing at these guys. So, Lois was supposed to be this kind of tougher character in the 1950s kind of post war. She definitely became a very different character. Interestingly, this is also one because of the popularity the TV show, both Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane got their own [comic] series. And if you want to see a really interesting progression of kind of how women are portrayed in media, just pick up sequential issues of that Lois Lane comic. Just from the covers, you can tell what's going on in any given year.

Jackie Velez (audience member): One of the things that I noticed in this movie is you see [Superman] show his powers, but it's not like for no reason. It's not like, just showing off. They show it because he usually has a reason for doing so, and then, like, later on in the movies, it just seems like overkill with the showing off of his powers… in other Superman iterations. And I'm just wondering, do you think that pulling back on him showing his powers in the earlier movies, do you think that that kind of [made a] better film because of that, rather than, you know, it being all laser eyes and explosions?

Ryan Steans: Yeah. I mean, a big part of it is, where are you at with special effects in any given year? And you just start thinking of things you can do, because he's a Swiss Army knife of powers, right? I do think that there's something to show each thing he does as a super feat, but it's also always in the service of helping people. Everything he does, whether it's flying under the train track and folding it up and making sure the train rolls over him or whatever, as goofy that might be, but he also was also always saving people in that moment. And I think that there's some cool stuff you can do where you show him, like using powers in combination with each other and whatnot. There's a currently a Superman and Lois show on TV where they've done some of that. And I don't really have a problem with it, but I definitely know what you mean about when it happens. It's very special in the movie, and it's a moment to take a beat and kind of appreciate what's going on there. And I think it does help the character seem a lot more intentional.

(audience member): I've always been a fan of the Clark Kent character, and tonight I saw for the first time this sense that I'm wondering if this was an intention, that we, bumbling people, all have this Superman, extraordinary ability to rise to the occasion. Do you think that was part of the message that was intended?

Ryan Steans: I absolutely do. The two guys who came up with Superman were Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster. And they were both kind of nerdy guys, you know, as far as what that meant in the 1930s, and they really kind of understood from, like, a lot of heroic fiction, whether you're talking about with them reading Robin Hood or the John Carter books, or whatever that they were reading, kind of what this hero is. But they liked the idea of that you had the Scarlet Pimpernel, who'd kind of been this character who'd been, you know, a fop, or Zorro, who did a little bit of being a fop, and those characters proceeded… I know Anthony's also a Shadow guy, and I can't talk as much about Lamont Cranston and how his double, because he's got, like, four different personalities, so I'm not even going to go there, but I do think Superman in particular is there to show [that] all of us want to believe that we have this inner strength and that in the right moment, we're going to rise to the occasion, absolutely.

Ryan Steans and Anthony Tollin share and browse some of their collection.
Nathan Cone
Ryan Steans and Anthony Tollin share and browse some of their collection.

Anthony Tollin: I think also another thing that no one's mentioned here but Superman's background in rural Midwestern America, where very much part of farming in rural communities, is helping out each other, being there for each other. That you know, Superman's background is someone who grew up in Kansas, in Smallville is very much a Midwestern, rural, Midwestern, be there for your neighbor.

Nathan Cone: That's an excellent point as well, about the way small communities pull together.

Ryan Steans: Yeah, and I think that that's really in the in the comics. Jonathan Kent and Martha Kent and kind of their rearing of him happens on the page pretty quickly. And then I don't remember what year the first Superboy issue comes out, but they decided to go ahead and show that. And so for many years Superman had a secondary title of Superboy. “Superman, the tales of him as a lad,” or whatever. And you know, they're not bad stories, but they are about him, kind of in this community, and kind of like, you know, all the wacky neighbors in that community. And I do think in this movie, they do a really good job. Casting Glen Ford was absolute stroke of genius. I tend to think of him as being from a lot of film noir, and I kind of tend to think of him from that angle. But I also know he did a lot of westerns. He was considered to be this kind of lantern jawed, but everyman, sort of guy, and so I think that, you know between that and Phyllis Thaxter as Martha Kent, I think that they really kind of managed to pull that together and really launch him in the right angle, so you know what his base has been. And those scenes are so short, but you still get such a good vibe out of what they were trying to do with that part of the story.

Nathan Cone: Ryan, finally I want to ask you, as a long time reader and consumer of Superman media, what keeps you going with the character? What makes you want to turn the page to the next story and keep reading and keep discovering more about Superman?

Ryan Steans: That's an amazing question, because I have hundreds and hundreds of Superman comics at this point. I've tried to watch as much of the serials and TV shows and all that at least once through as I can. But I would say that… I do enjoy the stories on the page, and I do enjoy, you know, Superman's fighting this alien, or Lex is up to no good this month, or whatever, and all of that is fun. But there's also a thing of tracking, like, how close are they getting to, kind of, my ideal Superman kind of month after month. And a lot of that comes out of this movie. Part of that is because I saw this movie in the theater at too young of an age. I saw it, what, ‘78 oh, I would have been three. But, you know, and then following up over the years, I was not initially a huge Superman guy when I got into comics. I was much more of like an X-Men and Batman guy, and then at some point, you kind of realize the X-Men are cool, and not to take away from any other characters, or anybody else's enjoyment of those other things.

But what I really liked about Superman was he's always doing as much as he can for other people, and it's not about vengeance, or it's not about I've got to, you know, get revenge for something that happened to me when I was nine. He's just doing it because it's the right thing to do, which sounds incredibly naïve when you're in your 20s, right? And then you get a little bit older and you go, actually, that's a really, really hard thing to do. And that's why Lex Luthor is the perfect foil for him in the comics, because he doesn't trust him, and he doesn't believe him, and if he would just believe Superman that he's actually up to good, the two would probably—if Lex was always trying to murder people—the two would probably get along! But, you know, there's this whole idea in the comics that not to get too far down a wormhole, but that, you know, Lex and Superman knew each other coming up, and they had an incident, and Lex became who he is because of that incident. And so it's this whole thing of those two trying to repair each other over and over and over.

Nathan Cone: Ryan Steans, thank you so much for your insight and time this evening, we really appreciate it. Thank you very much.

Ryan Steans: Thank you so much. Nathan, this has been an absolute blast.