The older I get, the more I appreciate my Orsognese heritage. The main reason for this is Superman: The Movie, which I first saw with my parents in its initial theatrical run in 1978. I was a child. Jimmy Carter was President of the United States; my mother couldn’t get enough listens of Billy Joel’s album 52nd Street; I ate my first cannoli and read my weight in comic books, especially Action Comics, the title that introduced Superman to the world.
After seeing the promotional posters for Superman, which promised, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” my mother was as eager to see it as I was. She was impressed with Christopher Reeve, the Juilliard-trained actor who portrayed Clark Kent/Superman, after reading an article about him in People Magazine. She devoured it faster than I could say up, up, and away.
As for Superman itself, I was hooked from the jump. The names “Marlon Brando” and “Gene Hackman” appeared, and then swelled into almost 3-D proportions, which was accompanied by a whoosh sound, and moved in sync with John Williams’ dynamic opening score. When the opening credits got to the screenplay writers, my father’s eyes widened at the appearance of Mario Puzo’s name.
“Mario Puzo?!” he said. “That’s the guy who wrote The Godfather, Joefish,” he said to me. I shrugged my shoulders.
“Don’t you see? Superman is Italian,” my father said. “This is gonna be a good movie!”
My father wasn’t wrong. I enjoyed Gene Hackman’s comedic take on Lex Luthor, Glenn Ford’s and Phyllis Thaxter’s brief, but tender renderings of Jonathan and Martha Kent, Margot Kidder’s spunky Lois Lane, Jackie Cooper’s crusty Perry White, Marc McClure’s sincere Jimmy Olsen, Ned Beatty’s studied portrayal of Luthor’s incompetent henchman Otis, and Valerie Perrine’s no-fool-suffering performance as Eve Teschmacher.
I was also taken with the way director Richard Donner used the film’s locations. I was thrilled to see that New York City was among the locales, being the place where I was born, so it augmented the sense of familiarity I already had with Superman’s story. In thinking about it now, his decision to cast New York City as Metropolis has become more poignant to me over the years. I see the Twin Towers and the Statue of Liberty as metaphors for the late 1970’s, the New York City of my youth, before Lady Liberty’s restoration from 1984-1986 and before the towers were first attacked in 1994 and destroyed on 9/11.
My father was also impressed with The Fortress of Solitude. I recall him turning to my mother and asking, “What do you think the property taxes are for that place?”
Then there was the Phantom Zone, the structural counterpoint to the Fortress. As depicted in Superman, it is a prison made out of a ginormous mirror. Designed by Jor-El, one of Krypton’s leading scientists and Superman’s father, one of the Kryptonian elders describes the Phantom Zone as “a living death.” It appears in the opening act of the film, when Jor-El and the Krypton High Council find the villains Non, Ursa, and General Zod guilty of treason and sedition, which results in their imprisonment.
The Phantom Zone soared towards the villains and entrapped them. I gasped when the Phantom Zone rotated and hurled off into space, Non’s, Ursa’s, and Zod’s voices muffled, their hands and faces pressed against the glass.
“And you think I’m tough,” my father said to me. “Madone.”
I remember being fascinated by the fact that Superman began this way, because it showed the audience not only a world, but also a culture: its customs and values. As an Italian-American male who was not taught the language of my ancestors or any variation of it, watching the Kryptonian Elders made me wonder why my parents refused to do so.
“Ask your mother,” my father told me when I asked him. “She’s from the old country.”
I was confused. “The old country?” I asked.
“She’s from Italy, Joefish. Don’t you know that?”
I did as my father suggested, and my mother explained.
“I was born in Italy, but I came to America when I was a kid.”
“Where in Italy? Rome?”
“No. I’m from a town called Orsogna.”
“Where’s it at?”
“It’s a tiny place, near lots of farms and mountains.”
As my mother spoke, I saw Smallville, the agricultural community where Superman grew up as Clark Kent, in my mind’s movie screen. I saw Jonathan Kent’s death scene, just after reassuring Clark that he was on Earth for “a reason.”
Then Martha Kent’s voice echoed in my brain as she told the future Man of Steel to “Remember us, son. Always remember us.”
I rubbed my eyes. “How come Nonna and Nonno don’t speak English as well as you do?”
Because they didn’t have the time to learn it like I did,” my mother said. “That’s the best I can explain it to you.”
I was astounded. Not only was my mother bilingual, she was from multiple places, like Superman himself. I had no idea that I had a superhero for a parent: Orsogna Woman. I wanted to know more.
“Can you teach me Italian, Mom?”
My mother took a deep breath. “I don’t know, Joseph,” she said. “You were born in America. You have to master English.”
“But I want to speak Italian, too.”
“You’re not listening to me,” my mother said.
Then she began to tear up. “As an American, English is your language. Learn it well. This conversation is over.”
I don’t know what particular parts of the film’s screenplay Mario Puzo wrote, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the scenes between Clark Kent/Superman and Jor-El’s projection were his creations. True to Jor-El’s words, the son becomes the father, like Michael and Vito Corleone: Michael becomes the Godfather. Small wonder that Marlon Brando, who played Vito Corleone in The Godfather, plays Jor-El in Superman. That he also commanded and received a reported salary of 3.7 million dollars didn’t hurt, especially given that it was the most an actor had ever been paid for a film as of 1978. Acting like an Italian-American mobster made serious bank. Acting like a Kryptonian scientist made even more. Talk about an offer he couldn’t refuse.
My fluency in Italian has improved through the years, which is to say that I can write and speak a few phrases fairly well. I have learned from friends and colleagues mostly, which has also yielded some fascinating and troubling discoveries. Among them, I am related to Charles/Chuckie “The Typewriter” Nicoletti, a notorious Chicago-based hitman, who is also alleged to have been one of the mechanics that shot and killed JFK. This is not exactly truth, justice, or the American way as I saw it portrayed in Superman or heard about it from the adults of my family. The reports of The Typewriter’s participation in the JFK assassination have not been confirmed, but they strike me as having some emotional truth to them, much like Superman’s capacity for love. Watching him turn back time to save Lois Lane feels as if it could actually happen, on account on the depth of his love. The same rings true to me about The Typewriter, whose disregard for life was such that it led to his involvement in multiple murders, in the name of crime family pride, honor, and personal interests.
The elders of my family claim to have not known about The Typewriter, but they have often expressed sympathy for him, especially the men, claiming that, “He was probably driven to it.” If anything, many of the men in my family see being a gangster in the same light as being Superman: a model of singular veneration.
I saw this theory in practice at a wedding I attended recently. My cousin was the bride. I was dressed in a Navy blue suit, a purple shirt, and a floral tie. My father, who also attended, had recently been diagnosed with having cataracts. He wore a black polyester polo shirt, black slacks, socks, and shoes. When we left the church, he hugged me.
“Hey! Joefish! You look like a gangster! Sharp.”
I raised an eyebrow, advised him to drink less, and walked towards my car. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I thought, than my father’s cataracts were worse than either of us could have possibly imagined.
The worst part of the exchange was that I knew better. My father did not mean to be offensive any more than Superman meant to forget about Lois Lane when he was trying to save the Earth in his eponymously named movie. Lex Luthor was his enemy. Anyone who was not in good standing with Sam Giancana was The Typewriter’s. To my father’s way of thinking, being in the mafia is a charmed life. To be a member of a mafia crew—and especially a high ranking one, such as a “made man,” also known as a “wiseguy” or a “capo,” the head of a crew of soldiers—means that you have money, power, and influence. You command respect and have neighborhood cultural cache. It means that you are to be feared and admired in equal measure, which is the ultimate assurance that people will get their just desserts if they work with or against you. What superheroes are to me, wiseguys are to my father. They are protectors and practitioners of justice. They wear tailored suits and wingtip shoes instead of a red cape and boots.
Many critics and scholars of films and comics consider Superman to be the first big-budget superhero film. At first I watched it for my love of the character. Decades later, this film keeps inspiring me to learn about my ancestry, which has yielded intriguing discoveries about other members of my family, including my mother: her assimilation from being Italian to Italian-American to American, and all that she suffered and persisted through in that journey. Of all the books I have read, of all the instructors I have studied with, of all the movies I have seen, my first screening of Superman is perhaps the largest factor in why I became a writer who investigates the immigrant experience from a second-generation Italian-American perspective.
There have been several incarnations of the Superman story on the screen since 1978. Superman remains my favorite of them, not just for what it means to me personally, but also for proving that comics-based motion pictures can a substantive, as well as a lucrative genre of film. Without its success, acclaimed movies such as Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Spider-Man 2, and others might have taken longer to be made, if ever.
When my spouse and I drove to the venue where my cousin’s wedding reception was being held, I thought about my father. I resolved to hold my tongue and enjoy his company. The thought of having cannoli for dessert made my mouth water. I wondered if the DJ would play any Billy Joel songs. I thought of my mother, her eyes red and puffy as she looked at her hometown for the last time, the majestic Maiella in the clear, Apennine Mountain-lined distance.
Joey Nicoletti is the the author of three full-length poetry collections and four chapbooks, the most recent of which are Thundersnow (Grandma Moses Press, 2017) and Counterfeit Moon (NightBallet Press, 2016). His work has appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program, currently teaches at SUNY Buffalo State College.