Bizarro Back Issues: Superman Plays Superman In A Movie About Superman (1967)
You may not have heard about it since Warner Bros. is keeping it pretty quiet, but there's a new movie about Superman coming out this week. That means that it's once again time for a new group of people to try their hand at bringing Superman to the big screen, and if there's one thing we've learned from past movies, it's that this is a darn near impossible task. Even in the best of circumstances, even if Clark Kent himself steps up to play the lead role, they're always going to get something wrong.
And I know that, because Otto Binder and Al Plastino did a story with that exact premise. And as weird as that might sound, it gets really crazy once his cast members start dropping dead from jungle diseases. Seriously.It all happened way back in 1967's Superman #196, an issue where the lead story involved Superman and a pile of shape-shifting goo from the future beating the living hell out of each other with trees for a few pages before Superman literally blew it up with a nuclear missile, so right from the start we're dealing with an issue that's just a little on the strange side. And yet, I'm going to go ahead and say that "The Star of Steel" is still the weirdest thing in this comic.
It does, however, raise a pretty interesting point about how making a Superman movie would work in a world where Superman actually existed. I mean, they're obviously going to be a pretty big deal -- if there's one thing we know from Superman comics, it's that entire industries have been built around reporting on what that guy and his friends do all the time, and the public cannot get enough of it. That makes sense, too: If there was a guy flying around under his own power, shooting heat lasers out of his eyes and bringing down crooked swamis, you probably wouldn't get tired of hearing about it either.
And yet, it doesn't take long for things to go right off the rails, and it all starts with Clark Kent covering the arrival of Lyrica Lloyd (hoo boy), an actress who's returning to Metropolis after a stint filming on-location in the jungle. And because she is apparently Tony Montana, she steps off the plane leading a friggin' leopard on a leash.
Sure enough, this causes some trouble:
Everyone is impressed by Clark's bravery, but none more so than Lyrica, whose next project is The Super-Saga, a movie about Superman. The only problem is that they haven't actually cast the lead yet, an issue that she solves pretty handily by just straight up pulling Clark's glasses off and yelling about how he should play the part because he looks just like Superman:
I think the key factor here isn't that she notices that he looks just like Superman, but that everyone involved sees that this guy who's never around when Superman shows up but always gets the best news stories about how Superman helps out his friends and coworkers, and just assumes that this is a crazy coincidence. I know that the story almost requires Clark to try to get out of acting, but I really wish that next panel would've been him shrugging with a Maeby Fünke-style "well that was a freebie."
Either way, Clark takes the job, and after being given the stage name "Claude Keith" -- despite the fact that he has been encouraged to write about his experiences as Super Famous Reporter Clark Kent, but whatever -- he and Lyrica get down to filming. All the while, Clark is finding himself more and more attracted to his leading lady, who explains how the movie's actually going to work:
This is the stuff that I find fascinating about this story: The fact that the movie studio is making up a fake secret identity for Superman and then filming fictional events, as though Superman's actual adventures aren't exciting enough for a movie. Then again, I guess it could be worse. They could just keep making movies about his dad over and over.
For the movie, all of Superman's powers will be replicated by special effects, and if you guessed that "special effects" would mean "a robot suit with jet boots for flight and actual laser beams for heat vision," then congratulations, take the rest of the day off. If you also guessed that the suit would screw up so that Superman would have to use his actual powers without anyone knowing, take tomorrow, too. You've clearly read Otto Binder comics before.
It's all pretty standard stuff, but the real meat of the story comes from Clark (or Claude)'s burgeoning romance with Lyrica, as defined by both a list of grandpa-friendly adjectives...
...and by Clark seriously enjoying manhandling his costars when they have to pretend to make out with her:
And then that dude just straight up dies on the set.
No, really. No sooner does Superman tell him to "kindly drop dead" than he kindly obliges, achieving as-a-doornail status right there on film. Lyrica is understandably freaked out by all this, but in the very next panel, Clark's back to kissing her while Binder clues us into his internal monologue about how much making out rocks. He even goes off script and flies her up into the sky to play among the clouds, which causes her to pass out.
Come to think of it, Lyrica spends an awful lot of this story passing out and shaking with the chills, even when she's not being dragged into the atmosphere. Surely that's just a coincidence and won't have any bearing on the rest of the story. Best to just move on.
A few more mishaps happen that Superman has to attend to, and at this point I'm starting to realize that if they'd hired an actual actor instead of Clark Kent, the death toll for this movie would be way higher than just the one guy who died because Superman yelled at him. This time, it's a giant glass heart (because that's what doctors have in their offices in the magical world of Otto Binder) that gets shattered by a sonic boom, raining jagged glass on the sound stage and forcing Clark to reveal himself. He just plays it off by admitting he's the real Superman and claiming that Clark hasn't made it to the set, and is then inspired by a bit of film to support his lie with the single most insane super-stunt (but not nearly the most insane action) of the story:
The magic of filmmaking!
As filming goes on, Clark becomes more and more enamored with Lyrica, until he finally decides that the time has come to tell her he loves her. It does not go well.
Well. That seems like an appropriate response.
And it gets worse. Superman goes into a full-on rage, smashing up Lyrica's apartment in order to prove his love. It is pretty uncomfortable, to say the least.
I think the worst thing about this is that after Superman snaps out of his rage, his only concern is that he's -- gulp! -- revealed his secret identity, and not that he just f**king terrorized a woman for two pages because she wouldn't go out with him. It is extremely weird to see comics' most stalwart bastion of morality whining about being dropped into the (Phantom) Friend Zone.
Lyrica passes out yet again, but the good news (I guess) is that it's not because she's afraid that The Super-Abusive Boyfriend From Krypton is about to murder her, so we can all be relieved about that.
It's because she is actually dying in front of him.
Yeah, remember all that fainting and such? Turns out she caught some rare disease while filming her Jungle Princess movie and then decided to just not tell anyone about it, even after someone else died of it "mysteriously." Everyone in this story is a horrible person.
And you know what? Props to Al Plastino for understanding that. While superman's "choke!"-filled dialogue might hint at sadness, that face Superman's pulling in the last panel is definitely a dude who considers a terminal disease to be a complete and utter deal-breaker.
Lyrica reveals that she would've been stoked to marry Superman in what I'm sure would've been an extremely healthy relationship, but despite his best efforts over the next three panels, she dies, because we are on the last page and it is time for things to pick up. Thus:
So yeah. That was the time that two people died while filming a Superman movie where Superman played himself. Compared to that, even Hollywood's most egregious mistakes with the character don't seem all that bad.
Well. Maybe Superman Returns.