Superman: New York as Metropolis

But what of this place, “Metropolis?” Why does it have the exact same scenescapes as New York City? And why has this always bothered me?

Literary creations, like ‘real’ people need a locale that fits their story, their ambition, no matter how grandiose, or deluded, it may be. When I was in college and fancied myself an “aspiring writer” – a term which a wise man once told me can be used until one’s mid-30s – it was instilled in us young hacks that PLACE was a close second in importance to character. Man vs. City has been the basis for great cinema since Charley Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” navigated the urban suck in Modern Times (1936). But his character was of that place. What about the man who seeks out such an arena? What is it that makes seemingly normal and contented people decide one day that they are going to walk across the country? Or climb Mount Everest? Or leave everything/everyone they have ever known to seek life-fulfillment in a 10 story walk-up, 100 square foot studio apartment? 

In fiction, it is usually a yearning for that unspeakable, un-acknowledgeable something that propels one towards high adventure. The protagonist goes to The City for many of the same reasons that the artistically inclined high school doormat might – escape and reinvention. Fictional characters from Jay Gatsby to Madonna (and their real life creators Fitzgerald and Ciccone) all saw NYC as a beacon of promise for their outsized ambitions. The allure of the challenge – “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!” – announces itself like a not-so-subliminal message bouncing off the satellites (or terrestrial media towers) before flinging itself scatter-shot out over the Americas and beyond. New York’s constant cultural reinvention is the result of bouncing enough shit off those satellites in the hope that every once in a while something sticks. Every now and then a kid is gonna leave Ohio for the Bowery, or exchange Pittsburgh for midtown.

Of course, that call can sometimes be more Cthulhu than Clarion. As any modern day Odysseus knows, the sirens’ sweet singing initially masks the rat race rent hike 3am cement-scratching garbage pick-up reality that must be confronted before truly visionary action can be contemplated. For most who heed The City’s call, the anticipated heroics will usually give way to a pattern of just surviving the game and navigating the hyperreality of it all. In such a massive organism, simply feeding oneself, or making it just in time to catch three consecutive subway connections, is in itself scaling the metropolitan Everest.

The hustle and bustle outside the offices of the Daily News Planet.

It’s only natural that mortals temper their expectations when confronted with the scope of such vastness of SIZE and possibility, but what of superheroes? While they can be more powerful and more physically equipped to handle the rigors of extreme urban existence, their predicament is not so dissimilar. The City is the most formidable opponent any man – super or otherwise – will most likely ever face.

As Richard Donner makes clear in the overly-protracted process that is Superman (1978), Kal-El’s is the ultimate immigration story whose path is as relevant today as it was when Siegel & Shuster first conceived it in 1938. To sum up Donner’s meandering intro: boy is sent away from untenable hometown situation (not unlike young Vito Andolini in Godfather II) for greener pastures. First stop is Smallville, Kansas, a midwestern oasis of farms and family which instills in the refugee, now masquerading as one “Clark Kent,” the traditional Western values of responsibility, hard work, empathy, and loyalty to the Good – in short, Truth, Justice, and the American Way. But the man, now grown (and Super) comes to feel out of place in his adopted home, and so leaves in quest of meaning and purpose in the Big City.

But what of this place, “Metropolis?” Why does it have the exact same scenescapes as New York City?Why not just call it what it is? And why has this always bothered me?

And Guest Starring New York City as “Metropolis.” From Cannon Films’ Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

I remember having a heated internal discussion as a child about Metropolis and its thinly metaphorical existence. Being a Marvel Comics guy in general and a Spider-Man guy in particular, I always held those titles in higher esteem because Stan Lee actually had the chutzpah to call New York “New York.” I always felt DC was hiding behind the unpleasant urban realities of the actual NYC as I came to understand them via Death Wish movies, MTV and the NBC Evening News. (Yes, I really was having this philosophical self-dialogue at age 8). I thought DC was copping out, and held that belief as integral to my comic book publishing allegiance. But now, as an older adult (who recently felt compelled to introduce my two young children to EVERYTHING that I valued as a second grader) I must admit to having missed the point. After submitting my children to a three night Superman extravaganza, I think I finally get Metropolis now. 

That Metropolis really is New York isn’t so much a weird rearrangement of linguistic geography as it is a useful device to superimpose an added layer of magical mystery atop a familiar, established locale. There are things that can only happen as long as you suspend the actual City nomenclature. Consider the villain, Lex Luthor. Avaricious, shitheel real estate tycoons do control New York – that is a reality. Their existence is the urban history of the City (Moses, Helmsley, Trump, Durst) and their collective machinations have probably been detrimental to the vast majority of people who have ever tried to live in the City.

But how does someone like that – as powerful as they are in boardrooms and on golf courses – combat an alien with powers beyond all human comprehension? (Superman shoots flame from his eyes for God’s sake!) In New York, that doesn’t make sense – but in Metropolis, Lex Luther is obvious.  His secret lair beneath the subway tunnels (why the hell not?) is oddly appropriate. I can accept that, just like I can accept that in this slightly off-kilter world, Superman has a giant cave of ice where he keeps dinosaurs, rocket ships, and magical crystals that allow him to commune with his dead father. Again, why the hell not?

Luther’s cartoonish lackey Otis (played with wonderfully nuanced facial reactions by Ned Beatty) is another creation whose existence is easier to digest outside of the “real” New York. Why would a real world Big City super-evil genius commiserate with a man of such low ability and worth? I get that Luthor, as the Super Ego head honcho, feeds on Otis’ sycophantic behavior – he would not want to be surrounded by potential usurpers. But in the “real” world, if you wanted to possess as much power, influence, and real estate as possible, wouldn’t your accomplices be brainy, ruthless lawyers and shady cops who lean on people? I don’t see the Luther/Otis pairing working outside of a DC comic book world. It certainly wouldn’t fly in Spider-Man’s New York of Crime Master’s masks and Kingpin mercenary dealings (Hobgoblin, Jack o’ Lantern, The Rose). But this is Metropolis, so it works. In fact, the whole alter-NY that the films establish makes it much easier to accept that a flying man wearing an external cod-piece is something worth rooting for over and over again (and again, if you like Richard Lester’s Superman III, and/or Sidney Furie’s Superman IV.)

Whereas Superman is the tale of the small-town boy who comes to the big city, Superman II is the story of the once-disoriented transplant who now knows the ropes, or is at least adept at maneuvering the smaller levers of power that The City makes available to the mid-level worker bee. Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman has gotten his Big City flow on. He is a capable jockey of the messy newsroom politics at work, and a plotting presence in the life of his main desire, spunky sass-talking Lois Lane.

The game Kal plays is tricky though. He must function on all levels that the normal transplant operates, but he can’t let on that he is really an alien who deceitfully dwells amongst human beings. The bulk of his life is a lie which, like the more extreme cases that find their way to Metropolis/New York, must be maintained at all costs if there is to be any sense of peaceful or satisfactory reinvention. The sham is unceasing and the effort that goes onto such a charade must be exhausting. This pressure has destroyed many a human New Yorker, and the magnitude is such that even supermen are, apparently, not immune. 

Kal-El is done in by loneliness and desire for companionship; two things that are part and parcel of Big City life, where at times there seem to be 9 million people not looking at you. Succumbing to the surging humanity that is Metropolis, Kal renounces his physical alien superiority in order to – prevent a planetary catastrophe? Save all of humanity? Nope. In order to have sex with Lois Lane. The relief that Superman feels is palpable as he discusses his future options with his dad (Brando in crystal form) who informs him that he can either live on as he is – an outsider, a powerful outlier always alone – or give up the gifts that make him super in order to experience happiness and carnal bliss with womankind. 

Like any young man on the prowl in the City, Kal chooses the nooky. This choice, and its inherent abandoning of his original self, is the apotheosis of character development in the Big City, be it in comic book adventures or sophomore year dorm room revelations. The moment when a person (or alien from Krypton) grows out of his previous shell and becomes a new entity existing as a new creature in a city/place that is still more foreign than familiar, that is the moment of true development where even an acne-ridden misunderstood “poet” from East Lansing can feel the stir of Ubermensch flowing through his newly evolved form. 

But the reverse, as we see with Kal-El is just as powerful. The change inherent in abandoning power is just as compelling, as it is also a signifier of great personal transformation. The City – be it New York or Metropolis – facilitates that evolution.

So it becomes obvious that the bedding of Lois Lane is the crux of the Superman story and Donner (before he was fired and replaced by Richard Lester) knew this. He envisioned a three picture arc that would explore outsider alien Kal-El’s search for attachment to place (Krypton – Smallville – Metropolis).  The overarching theme is the emotional roller-coaster that such a journey becomes, and this is central to understanding the motivations of Kal-El, and why Donner tasked his screenwriter pal Tom Mankiewicz with only two script directives: “Make a love story and prove to me that man can fly.” Isn’t that the Big City dream in a nutshell? The real (love) and the impossible (flying men) converge so well in this meta New York because even though it is grounded in a referential reality, it is, after all, Metropolis.

The best part of Superman II for me is when a now powerless Kal attempts to become a fully integrated Metropolitan, complete with obligatory ass beating by the local street tough. Yes, Kal gets his powers back in order to defeat the unholy cosmic prism trio of Zod, Non, and Ursa, but he can never really go back to before that moment when he felt the transformative need to change. The knowledge that he abandoned all that he was – his genetic make-up! – for a shot at making it with a girl he met in the City is a tale as old as creation, or at least as old as Pete Stuyvesant’s wooden leg.

Superman is a cartoon story told in the real world. But because this real world is rooted in a super-reality, it is only right that the names are changed to protect the fantasy. You don’t have to fly to New York to know what these films are about. Metaphorically speaking, Metropolis is not too far for those who seek it out. I know Metropolis is New York, but I don’t need it to be spelled out. As any Jay Gatz can tell you, it doesn’t really matter in the end anyway.

Review by L.E.S. Cordell

Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve attempt to hail a taxicab in New York City on Feb. 9, 1981. | Photo by Steve Sands.
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