Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman
July 7, 2006
The best superheroes, and by that I mean the ones that endure for years and years to be discovered and reinterpreted by subsequent generations, are the ones that reflect the human condition at its simplest level. One of the best examples of this is Superman, an alien who, as a small child, escaped from his doomed planet of Krypton shortly before it was destroyed. He landed on Earth and was taken in by a kind couple who raised him to be a champion of good. He grew up to lead a double life – the mild-mannered Clark Kent, a reporter for the Daily Planet and that allowed him to mix seamlessly with the rest of humanity, and Superman, a costumed crusader for truth, justice and the American way. Superman works so well and resonates nearly 70 years since its inception because he represents the ideal that we all want to aspire to.
Originally airing on the A&E network, Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman (2006) is a feature-length documentary that examines the Superman mythology from its humble beginnings with a comic strip created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to Bryan Singer’s new film, Superman Returns (2006). The character’s various incarnations (comic book, radio program, T.V. shows and movies) are all covered in this fairly in-depth look.
Narrated by Kevin Spacey (who plays the latest incarnation of Lex Luthor in Singer’s movie), the doc logically begins with Superman’s origins: two Cleveland teenagers, Siegel and Shuster who shared an interest in pulp literature. They created Superman in response to the Great Depression because they felt that people needed someone they could look up to. He was, as one commentator points out, “a social crusader.” What Siegel and Shuster did was quite incredible as they created the blueprint for the costumed comic book superhero.
Superman caught on and became a pop culture phenomenon with approximately 20 million listeners tuning into the 1940s radio show. Part of his appeal came from the notion that he was the ultimate immigrant and American audiences, most of who were either immigrants themselves or descended from immigrants, identified with his experiences trying to fit into society.
This documentary addresses Superman’s attempts to contribute to the war effort in the ‘40s and his foray into live-action serials in the conservative 1950s. Emerging from the latter decade was one of his most popular incarnations, a feature-length film starring George Reeves. It was so popular that it spawned a long-running T.V. series also starring Reeves who became inseparable from the role. He was so good and so popular that his portrayal was considered the definitive one until Christopher Reeve in the late 1970s.
After George Reeves’ tragic death, the comic book stepped up to fill the void and really fleshed out the mythos in the ‘50s, including the introduction of Supergirl. After the Kennedy assassination and the disillusionment that followed, Superman’s unflagging optimism seemed dated and irrelevant. A musical in the 1960s and a cheesy, live-action T.V. show follow-up in the ‘70s didn’t help either. Comic book sales dropped off and an attempt to tweak the characters to make them more socially relevant didn’t work.
This all changed in 1978 when a movie starring Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and a then unknown Christopher Reeve returned Superman back to his roots and kept it simple. Not surprisingly, the doc spends a significant amount of time examining the making of this movie because it is so important in the history of the character. The film went over schedule and over budget because of the ambitious scale and the choice to shoot the sequel simultaneously. This created a great amount of tension between the film’s director Richard Donner and the producers.
Donner had shot most of the sequel but due to the conflicts with the producers, he was replaced by Richard Lester on Superman II (1981). The film was a big hit even though some critics felt that Superman got lost amidst all of the mayhem and that it was a mistake for Clark Kent to tell Lois Lane that he was Superman (which actress Margot Kidder, who portrayed Lane in the first two movies, agrees with, in retrospect). Interestingly, the documentary actually acknowledges the faults with the third and fourth movies and doesn’t gloss over the commercial failure of the latter one.
Thankfully, the comic book took precedence again with John Byrne re-imagining the mythos to reflect the corporate greed of the 1980s. The 1990s brought Superman back to television with Lois & Clark which placed an emphasis on Clark Kent rather than Superman as it took more of a romantic comedy angle a la Moonlighting. A new cartoon in the late ‘90s also helped keep the franchise going which had led rather nicely into Singer’s film that pretends (rather wisely) that the third and fourth ones never existed.
Look, Up in the Sky! probably won’t contain too many revelations for the die-hard fan but it is an excellent primer for the uninitiated and a smart move on Warner Brothers part. By releasing this DVD and airing the documentary seemingly every day on A&E they hope to get a whole new generation interested in Superman again. They will have to as the budget for Singer’s film has soared upwards of $200 million. This doc does a good job explaining the character’s appeal and why he’s endured over the years.