What makes Superman super? Is it his superpowers? Is it his heroics? Is it the red S on his chest? All of those are elements of it, but they’re not the whole answer. The real answer to this question is found in Superman: The Movie, specifically the famous rooftop scene where he is interviewed by Lois Lane. Up until this point in the film, Superman has remained nameless. Perry White listed off a number of attempts in the previous scene, but none of them do him justice. It is left to Lois to give him a name, which she does after her interview with him.
In case you are unfamiliar with this scene or you’d like a refresher, here it is:
Making It Look Easy
Everything about this scene looks effortless and feels lighthearted, but it is a powerful example of laser-focused storytelling. For example, the movie cleverly avoids the necessity of Superman identifying himself by having him disrupt Lois’s train of thought with an embarrassing answer to her previous question. It’s funny, and it feels so natural that it is easy to miss the fact that it is specifically designed to get out of a jam. Superman doesn’t know his superhero name. He’s there to be a do-gooder, not a good namer. He only refers to himself as a friend when they first meet. Lois is the master of words, even if she’s not the best speller. She’s a world-weary cynic who is the only one who can give a name to this friendly alien because doing so demonstrates that his influence is strong enough to win over someone as hardheaded as her to his innocent and pristine view of right and wrong.
What Makes Him Super
Instead of drawing out the suspense, I’ll reveal what makes Superman super now. It’s his positive attitude. Lois scoffs when he claims to fight for truth and justice and the American way. Her mind immediately turns to cynicism because she knows all too well the corrupting power of politics. Where do you find truth and justice anyway? And is the American way of life really all it’s cut out to be? Those are probably her thoughts in that moment, trying to avoid believing someone could actually stand for those things. But Superman smiles in turn and says, “I’m sure you don’t really mean that, Lois.” Do you see what he did there? He looked at her in the best possible light. He gazed deep into her soul and found what he was looking for. He wants to see the best in everyone.
I’d also like to point out that Lois still fights internally after hearing his words, saying out loud that she doesn’t believe him. Rather than trying to offer some persuasive argument, which would bring him down to a lower level rather than inviting her up to his, he simply states that he never lies. He wants her to know she can trust him completely, and he demonstrates that when he takes her on a romantic flight around Metropolis and through the night sky. You might argue that he always lies as Clark Kent about not being Superman. But I’ve watched these movies closely, and whenever Lois brings up the idea of him being the Man of Steel, he never flat out denies it. He just deflects by pointing out what a silly idea that is. He’s not lying, but he’s giving the impression that he’s denying and disputing that fact by pointing out how utterly absurd it should appear to the casual observer.
Anyway, on to the main attraction. This scene is what leads up to Lois naming Superman.
Finding the Hidden Good
As Lois points out in her mind while flying with Superman, he can see right through her, figuratively and literally. He sees through her façade of detachment to find her vulnerable, kindhearted soul yearning to be set free by a man strong enough to reach it. A super man, if you will. That’s why, after he drops her off at her apartment and flies away, she softly whispers to herself, “What a super man.” Then it dawns on her that Superman is the perfect name for him, and it sticks.
If he had immediately declared upon saving Lois in his first public appearance, “I’m Superman, and I’m here to save the day,” it would have lacked the emotional resonance that his name gains by having it come from Lois. In that case, his name would have just stood for his superpowers, heroics, and the S on his chest because that’s all that she had seen of him up to that point. But that’s shallow and fails to acknowledge what makes the character of Superman great. Thankfully, the filmmakers were wise enough to dig deeper and show Lois what Superman stands for bit by bit until she understands his motivations and lets them begin to influence her for the better. He’s not just a flying strongman who saves lives. He cares deeply about the people he saves, and he tries to be a good influence on them so that they aren’t just returned to normal, but are left better off because of their interactions with him.
Goodness Never Goes Out of Style
Superman is more than the sum of his parts. That’s why he doesn’t need to be updated and darkened to match the modern times he’s in any more than Captain America did in The Winter Soldier. He’s supposed to stand out. The 1970s are hardly known for their old-fashioned American values, but Superman: The Movie debuted at the tail end of that decade in December 1978 and was immensely popular with audiences. Goodness never goes out of style because it feels right to everyone who comes into contact with it. Superman is meant to be an unchangeable beacon of hope, kindness, compassion, courage, and honesty. If Lois can change for the better, so can we. That’s what Superman is all about.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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