The Remarkable Symmetry of the Original Superman: The Movie

This is my third cinematic chiasmus. The first time, I noticed 17 parallel scenes in the first and second halves of 1987’s RoboCop. The second time, I pointed out 26 parallel scenes in The Empire Strikes Back. This time, I’m going to keep things nice and simple with just eight parallels that cover the entirety of Superman: The Movie. Hopefully that will make it easy to follow.

Chiasmus is an ancient means of expressing a symmetrical idea. It begins with a bunch of ideas that are then repeated in reverse order so that the first thing stated is also the last.

Superman: The Movie is one of my favorite films. So I don’t mean any slight by saying that its two halves are virtually identical.

The Chiasmus

Here are the events of Superman: The Movie listed in order to reveal the chiasmus:

A. Jor-El sends General Zod, Non, and Ursa to the Phantom Zone

 B. Jor-El defies Krypton’s council to save his son’s life

  C. Krypton suffers natural disasters from its exploding sun, killing Jor-El and Lara

   D. Jor-El calls Clark Kent and leads him far north to explain the secrets of the universe to him

    E. Clark meets Perry White at the Daily Planet

     F. Lex Luthor brags about his real-estate swindle to his underlings

      G. Superman catches Lois Lane in the air and then speaks with her briefly on the roof of the Daily Planet

       H. Superman flies through the air, fighting criminals who are completely outmatched physically

       H. Lex swims in his underground lair, bantering with underlings who are completely outmatched mentally

      G. Lois interviews Superman on the roof of her apartment building and then flies with him again

     F. Lex and his underlings put the real-estate swindle into motion

    E. Clark has another one-on-one meeting with Perry

   D. Lex calls Superman and leads him deep underground to explain his evil plan to him

  C. California suffers a major earthquake from an exploding nuclear missile, killing Lois

 B. Superman defies his Kryptonian father to save Lois’ life

A. Superman puts Lex and Otis in prison

Of course, there’s a lot more going on at each of these points in the film. I’ll go into greater depth on each of them so you can see the chiasmus even more clearly.

A. Putting the Bad Guys in Prison

Jor-El and Kal-El put their nemeses into prison.

Jor-El and his son both have three enemies who they deal with at the beginning and the end of the movie, respectively. Both sets of criminals have qualities that they share in common. The leader of the enemies is power mad and hungry for revenge on Jor-El and his son. The second is defined by his physicality, simple mind, and voice or lack thereof. And the third is a woman with varying degrees of devotion to her leader and completely opposite views toward the children of Krypton.

The first thing we see after the opening credits is Jor-El putting three criminals into the Phantom Zone after they’ve been sentenced for their crimes. General Zod craves power and swears he’ll escape someday. He is devoid of empathy and holds a grudge against Jor-El for imprisoning him. Non is an imbecile who is very strong and yet incapable of speech. And Ursa is completely devoted to Zod to the point of being so vicious that she threatens even the children of Planet Krypton. Just before the end credits roll, Superman drops off some criminals in a prison to await a fair trial. Lex Luthor craves money and swears the prison walls won’t hold him for long. He doesn’t bat an eye at killing people and he is eager to get revenge on Superman for imprisoning him. Otis is a simpleton who is incredibly weak. He repeats many of Lex’s words and most of the time he won’t shut up. Eve Teschmacher is a complex woman who wants to be good, but she follows Lex because that’s the type of man she’s always known. She is spared prison because she was more devoted to her mother than to Lex and she saves the Last Son of Krypton as a result.

B. Like Father, Like Son

Jor-El and Kal-El are willing to do anything to save the ones they love from certain death.

Jor-El and Kal-El have trouble listening to the counsel of their elders, especially when it concerns the ones they love.

Jor-El refuses to abide by the decision of Krypton’s council and uses excessive amounts of energy to power a spaceship to save his infant son, Kal-El. Superman refuses to obey Jor-El’s counsel and uses his superpowers to reverse time and save his love, Lois Lane.

C. Deadly Disasters

Krypton is destroyed when its red sun erupts, but California is delivered from an atomic detonation.

Krypton is destroyed in a cataclysm that could have been avoided. Kal-El is the only survivor. California is nearly destroyed by a manmade disaster. Lois Lane is the only one killed.

Just as Jor-El predicted, Krypton’s red sun explodes, causing massive earthquakes and destruction across the planet. Jor-El and his wife Lara are killed, along with everyone else on Krypton, except little Kal-El. Just as Lex predicted, a nuclear missile explodes, causing a huge earthquake that threatens to destroy California. Superman prevents this by restoring the San Andreas Fault to its proper state, managing to save everyone in the state except Lois.

D. Revealing the Master Plan

Clark Kent gets mysterious messages from people wishing to share big secrets with him.

Clark Kent receives a secret message meant specifically for him from a friend and a foe who wish to unveil a grand plan to him. He has to go a great distance either north or below the earth to find the answers he’s seeking.

After spending many years living among mortals, Kal-El (now called Clark Kent) gets some sort of psychic message from his father calling him to the North Pole. Jor-El builds a Fortress of Solitude where he shares the secrets of the universe with his son and sends him forth to serve humanity. After spending some time establishing himself in Metropolis, Superman receives an audio message only he (and some poor dogs) can hear from Lex calling him to his secret underground hideout. Lex unfolds his entire plan to Superman and then attempts to kill him.

E. Meetings with Perry White

Clark Kent is in Perry White's office at the start and end of his sojourn in Metropolis.

Clark enters and leaves the busy world of Metropolis in the same spot: Perry White’s office.

The first time we see Clark in Metropolis, he’s in Perry White’s office at the Daily Planet getting a big speech about how to be a good reporter. He also meets Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. The last time we see Clark in Metropolis, he’s once again in Perry White’s office getting advice on how to be a better reporter. Jimmy and Lois are absent because they’re in California covering a major story.

F. Crime of the Century

Lex schemes and then puts his plan into action to sabotage a nuclear missile test.

Otis fails twice, causing Lex to get violent. But Lex still uses Otis and Miss Teschmacher to make his scheme a reality.

Otis is followed by a police officer while bringing a newspaper to his boss Lex. Lex kills the officer and then brags about the crime of the century, which he’s about to commit with the help of Otis and Miss Teschmacher. Later, Otis makes a serious mistake while entering new coordinates into a nuclear missile. Lex gives Otis a black eye and then uses Otis and Miss Teschmacher to put the correct coordinates in another nuclear missile.

G. Spending the Night with Superman

Superman has two interviews with Lois Lane, and he saves her life twice, too.

This point encompasses a lot of things. It’s bookended by long tracking shots and in-between we have Superman saving Lois from falling to her death and then having an interview with her on a rooftop.

A long tracking shot across the Daily Planet office ends with Lois closing a door in Clark’s face. Then Superman reveals himself to the world to save Lois, who is falling off the roof of the Daily Planet. Once he brings her back up to the roof, she does a very short interview, just asking his name. He dodges the question, simply saying he’s a friend and then he flies off, leaving Lois mystified. Later, after another scene in the Daily Planet, Superman flies to the top of Lois’ apartment building to have a longer interview with her. She’s more prepared this time, but he still dodges the question of his name, allowing her to come up with one for him. He takes her out for a romantic flight, which is interrupted when she accidentally slips from his grip and falls until he catches her once more. Once she gets back home, she’s got stars in her eyes and opens a door right in Clark’s face at the end of a long tracking shot across her apartment.

H. Mind Over Muscle

Superman soars through the sky above Metropolis while Lex Luthor swims beneath the city streets.

The turning point of the film illustrates the dichotomy of the hero and villain. Superman demonstrates his superior strength in the air above Metropolis while Lex demonstrates his superior intellect below the streets of Metropolis.

Superman flies all around Metropolis, surprising a jewel thief climbing up a building and showing off his superior strength, which no mortal can match. Lex hears about Superman for the first time while swimming in his underground lair in the heart of Metropolis. He is clearly more intelligent than anyone else around him, especially Otis, who is surprised that he accidentally gave Lex his bathrobe while still in the pool.

The Son Becomes the Father… the Father the Son

Some people see Superman: The Movie as being split into three parts: Krypton, Smallville, and Metropolis. That’s certainly a valid way of looking at it since each of those parts is distinct from the others.  But now we have a new way of looking at this movie: two halves of a whole.

I hope this gives you even more appreciation for this wonderful film. Now you can hopefully see it as not just the grandfather of all superhero movies but as a truly artistic achievement on a grand scale. A lot of thought had to go into making this chiasmus work so beautifully.

This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.

All images are the copyright of their owners.

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About Robert Lockard, the Deja Reviewer

Robert Lockard has been a lover of writing since he was very young. He studied public relations in college, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 2006. His skills and knowledge have helped him to become a sought-after copywriter in the business world. He has written blogs, articles, and Web content on subjects such as real estate, online marketing and inventory management. His talent for making even boring topics interesting to read about has come in handy. But what he really loves to write about is movies. His favorite movies include: Fiddler on the Roof, Superman: The Movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Back to the Future, Beauty and the Beast, The Fugitive, The Incredibles, and The Dark Knight. Check out his website: Deja Reviewer. Robert lives in Utah with his wife and three children. He loves running, biking, reading, and watching movies with his family.
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24 Responses to The Remarkable Symmetry of the Original Superman: The Movie

  1. Steve Price says:

    It’s a bird.
    It’s a plane.
    It’s Superman.
    It’s a plane.
    It’s a bird. 🙂
    One of my all time favorites. If you get an opportunity to listen to the dvd commentary with Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz, seize it. Some of the original symmetry intended was altered when the original story was split into two films. For example, the Kryptonian villains imprisoned by Jor-El were originally supposed to have been freed by Superman’s having tossed Lex Luthor’s hijacked missile into space. That delicious irony was replaced by the activation of a somewhat less poetic explosive in the second film. (Not that I’m complaining. Loved Superman and Superman II!)

    Like

    • Thank you for pointing that important fact out. I have listened to their commentary, and I’ve seen the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II, which restored the original idea for freeing the Kryptonians at the end of the first film. That would have been awesome. I can’t help but love the Richard Lester version of Superman II even more than the Donner one. Maybe it’s because I grew up with its quirky jokes, but I just can’t help liking them.

      Like

  2. Your name here says:

    You should do one of these for HItchcock’s film Notorious. It’s already partially outlined in the book The Art of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto (starting on page 149).

    Here is a brief example of what is outlined in the book. Very mild spoilers ahead, so I recommend you watch the film if you have not, because it’s one of Hitchcock’s best, which makes it one of cinema’s best by default.

    A – Open door with three men before one judge / open door with one man before three judges.
    B – Alicia exits courtroom, silent and alone / Alicia exits, whispering with her lover.
    C – The party talk of drinking and the need for love / Talk of poison and an admission of love.
    D – The unsteady exit, the flimsy protection of the kerchief, the night ride in an open car, he protects her by revealing his identity / the unsteady exit, the protection of her coat, the night ride in a closed car, he saves her by concealing his identity.
    E – The morning hangover in the bright bedroom, her blurry vision, his offer of a job / the illness in the dark bedroom, blurry vision, a declaration of love.

    The book doesn’t go into much more detail, but it’s a good jumping-off point.

    Like

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