Life Lessons from Superman

The Christopher Reeve movies were shot in Calgary. I can barely recognize my hometown


Published 6:20, June 23, 2023

Illustration of a highway sign reading “Trails” above an arrow pointing north north east. Behind, a meteor with a long tail appears in the sky and is falling to the ground. Narration appears above an image of a flustered young woman with her hair up. “Lois is dazed.” Lois and a man in cape fly over tall buildings, appearing like a meteor. “She just flew hand in hand with Superman, cruising over Metropolis.”

Lois and Superman fly with arms outstretched, her dress floating around her like Superman’s cape, then embrace and look into each other’s eyes. “Above the clouds, she confessed her crush. At the end of their flight, Superman carried her back to her balcony and swooped off into the night.”

Clark Kent arrives at her apartment. A man in a suit with thick glasses closes the door behind her. “Lois, we did have a date tonight, remember?” he says. She leaves the room to grab a coat and, presumably, collect herself. While she’s gone, Clark considers telling her that he is Superman. He takes off his glasses and straightens up. “Lois, there’s something I have to tell you...” he says. He loses his nerve the moment she returns. He quickly puts his glasses back on.

Jillian, the narrator, is lying on her back, holding a phone above her head. “I watch the clip from Superman (1978) in a tweet. The replies remark upon Christopher Reeve’s facility as an actor.” Clark turns away from Lois, sighing. Below, we see the transition of a nervous man in glasses, to a confident man in a suit, to Superman in his costume. “The flimsy disguise of a horn-rimmed reporter is an oft-repeated joke—How can they not tell it’s the same guy?—but in this scene, there is undeniably a transformation. Straight-backed in his dorky suit, Reeve seems to embody both nerd and superhero simultaneously.”

“If a movie is shot in your hometown, it’s your obligation to mention it.” Jillian sits up in bed, still looking at her phone. Her partner, sitting beside her, is watching something on his laptop. “They shot the Superman movies in Calgary,” she says.

A stretch of land is seen through time. A man sits in a cart being pulled by a large ox. Years later, a group of runners pass by a crowd cheering. In modern day, rows of cars and trucks sit in traffic, bumper to bumper. “In Calgary, many major roads are called trails in reference to a historic oxcart trail. One such road is named after Api-kai-ees, dubbed “Deerfoot” by his promoters, a professional long-distance runner from Siksika Nation who once ran just over 135 kilometres in sixteen hours. Deerfoot Trail is now a main thoroughfare through Calgary. Once the road extends past the city’s northern limits, it becomes Queen Elizabeth II Highway.”

A man with long braids, wearing a loincloth, is pictured and captioned “Api-kai-ees, 1886.” “Midway along Deerfoot Trail is an old scrapyard. We passed by it often, on our way to the zoo or the mall. My mom liked to point it out.” A younger Jillian is sitting in the backseat of a car beside her little sister, looking at the scrapyard through the window. “That’s where they shot Superman,” her mother says while driving.

Jillian continues narrating: “The scene in question is actually from Superman III (1983).” The movie poster, shown on its own, is an image of Superman flying over the Grand Canyon carrying a scared man in his arms.

“In it, Clark Kent is chased around a wrecking yard by an inverted, evil Superman who is hellbent on destroying, not saving.” This Superman has shadows under his eyes and a bright light is shining from his forehead.

“He smacks Clark with fenders and punches him clear across the yard and onto a pile of car hoods.” A large TWACK sound effect is written over Clark, his body flying backwards.

Jillian’s face is seen in the sky as she looks down at the scrapyard and cars on the Deerfoot Trail in the background. “The place is impressive, regardless of film pedigree. Cars await their fate at the foot of a hulking green structure with tentacle-like chutes. Sometimes it spews smoke. At the far end of the yard sits a mountain of indistinguishable twisted metal. It feels out of place amid the surrounding business parks and car dealerships. Perhaps this was once the edge of town.”

“Like other Canadian cities, Calgary appears in many films but almost never as itself. With its farmland and proximity to the Rockies, it usually stands in for the American West.” A scene from movie Brokeback Mountain is pictured, with two men in cowboy hats embracing in front of a landscape of forests and mountain peaks.

“In the Superman films, it’s a decidedly midsized Metropolis. Blue sky is clearly visible between modest skyscrapers.” Superman is pictured pulling a man out of the sunroof of a car, surrounded by a crowd in the middle of a city. “It’s what the city must have looked like when my parents moved there toward the end of the oil boom of the early 1980s.” A cartoon figure in a cowboy hat is riding an oil well pumpjack as it moves up and down like a bucking bronco.

The oil sands are pictured from above with large trucks driving over a network of roads in an empty landscape. “The booms have been good to my hometown. The city grows out and out, pushing into the surrounding Prairies and gobbling up wheat fields and farmsteads.” Jillian starts her car, turning the key in the ignition.

Jillian is holding the steering wheel. Her car drives down a swirl of highways, merging and crossing each other in every direction. “When I visit, I like to drive around and see what’s changed. I get lost a lot. In part because I’ve been away for so long, but also because they’ve changed the roads to more efficiently feed traffic to the new subdivisions. I use Google Maps to direct me around routes I’ve driven thousands of times.” A voice chimes in, “In 200 metres, turn left...”

The road ahead disappears where land meets sky. “Still, if you drive far enough, you’ll hit the Prairies again and see straight to the horizon. It gives the illusion of endlessness.” A series of panels show a horse in a field. The land around it gradually changes from trees and field to cars and houses. “There used to be a palomino horse that lived in a field in the middle of a suburb, beside a main road and next to a mall. I always wondered if the owner refused to sell their land to developers. One day, the horse disappeared.”

“I used to ride when I was a teenager. It was about an hour’s drive on the highway to get to and from the barn. At first, my mom drove me, then I drove myself. The road was dangerous, a single lane with a gravel shoulder.” “I once passed a burning van in a ditch.” Several cars are stopped on the shoulder of a highway with figures gawking at the fire. “When I drove by the spot the next day, the only thing left was a patch of singed grass. I stopped to investigate.”

“Strange detritus was strewn about: big dollops of melted metal and pamphlets for vacuums. Maybe the driver was a salesperson.” The scattered debris is shown in a pile and then zooms in on one piece of metal. “I took a glob of metal home, but I felt too guilty keeping it. I returned to the spot a few days later and threw it back on the ground. All the vacuum pamphlets had blown away.”

A meteor falls through a clear sky above a field like in the comic’s opening panel. “Baby Superman crash-landed in one of these fields. I’m surprised, when I watch the scene on YouTube, that it shows the kid’s penis.”

“Christopher Reeve is replicated with clunky-but-charming special effects and body doubles.” Evil Superman, in costume, punches Clark in his suit with a POW. The two figures face off. “It’s a poetic image: man versus his alter ego.”

“When Reeve was first cast as Superman, they built him a padded muscle suit, but he insisted on building his body for real.” Reeve is shown being interviewed while lifting weights and sweating. “When I started, I was a string bean—and Superman is NOT a string bean! I eat four times a day. I’m on a high-meat diet…” he says.

Reeve continues speaking: “What sets Superman apart is he has the wisdom to use his power for good. He has all these powers, but he’s got the maturity, or he’s got the innocence, really, to look at the world very, very simply.” A panel below shows a stack of mail. Jillian says, “My dad once got a letter in the mail from a Japanese movie studio.”

Her father holds the letter while the rest of the family gathers around him. She remembers: “A production was coming to town to shoot a war epic set in feudal Japan, and they needed to cast extras for the battle scenes.” A scene from the movie Heaven and Earth (1990) is shown. A man in samurai armour is on horseback and yells in Japanese as he raises a sword. “How did they find my dad? Did they comb through the phone book for Japanese last names? It was pretty funny: the idea of my dad being in the movie, playing a Japanese person.”

“They filmed on the nearby Stoney Nakoda Nation, chosen for its apparent resemblance to the battlefields of Kawanakajima. Around 3,000 extras were paid $75 a day–or $125 if they could ride a horse.” Men in armour are shown on horses, some holding up banners, as they charge into battle. The image is from a famous woodblock print and captioned “’The Battle of Kawanakajima in Shinano Province’ by Hiroshige.”

A school bus drives on a road winding through the mountains. “In the end, many of the extras ended up being college students, bussed in at 7 a.m. and given a boxed breakfast. Most were probably not Japanese. Nor were they exclusively men.” Two figures with swords clash, one in a light suit of armour and one dark, while opposing troops in the background rush towards each other. “'We’re teaching them to move, fall and die like samurai warriors,' says Doug MacLeod, production supervisor in a Maclean’s article I read about the film. A high school student says it beats working at KFC.” “After the film wrapped, the production company held a prop sale. Bows and arrows: $50. Full suit of armour: $130.”

Jillian and her father are riding bikes together on a path through a park. She is surprised as he races ahead of her. “I’ve been visiting my parents more regularly since my dad was diagnosed with cancer in 2020. My dad didn’t take to the concept of rest. His insistence on biking and jogging in the parkland behind their house immediately after surgery stressed me out.”

Jillian’s father is shown jogging. “It felt like he was trying to prove something to himself. It was also comforting. Watching him carry on as if nothing had changed allowed me to believe nothing had changed, nothing too dire anyway. Dad just has stitches now.” She remembers: “My dad thinks the city has seen its last oil boom.”

“I’m shocked he admits this. We don’t agree on much politically.” She continues: “It’s too hard to build pipelines now, and even if the oil is there, the world is trying to turn away from the unfettered use of fossil fuels.” Jillian and her father stop riding and take a break on a park bench. While eating an ice cream cone, he says, “The government is better off forcing people to drive electric cars to curb demand” and she is shocked. “He thinks Calgary should become a medical hub,” she says.

A scene from Superman III is shown in panels. Clark throws tires over Evil Superman (HUF! FWUMP!) until he is trapped. He breaks out and pieces of the tires scatter (RRRR! AAUGGH).

“Unlike much of the rest of the movie, the scrapyard scene in Superman III was not filmed in Calgary, as it turns out. It was a set on a studio lot in England.” A film set at Pinewood Studios is shown. Crew stand by as a stuntman is thrown into a padded mat. “There is a documentary about the production online. The studio set is very well done, but the buildings look simplistic and the piles of cars are too artfully arranged–an approximation of the real thing.”

“My mom is unimpressed when I tell her we were wrong about the scrapyard.” Jillian is sitting at a desk, Superman III playing on her laptop, with her phone in hand. “That’s just what I was told,” her mother texts. Evil Superman carries Clark with scrapyard debris around them. “Superman III is not regarded as one of the best in the franchise, but critics seem to acknowledge the fight scene between Clark and Superman is excellent.”

Evil Superman tosses Clark onto a conveyer belt then flicks a switch. Clark is pulled in and grinding noises can be heard. “The Superman III writers defend Bad Superman. They insist that his attempts to smoosh Clark in a car-crushing machine are not born out of the evil in his heart.” A light shines above Evil Superman’s eyes. “He simply wasn’t in his right mind, corrupted by man-made kryptonite.”

BOOM! Clark breaks through the side of the machine and goes after Evil Superman, standing over him with his hands around his throat. Evil Superman fades away. “Of course, Clark eventually prevails, choking Bad Superman out.”

Clark looks down, his hands now empty. Jillian finishes: “It occurs to me that I don’t think I’ve actually seen this movie.” (End of comic.)

Superman is published by DC Comics. Superman (1978) and Superman III (1983) are distributed by Warner Bros.
Jillian Tamaki
Jillian Tamaki ( is the co-creator (with Mariko Tamaki) of Roaming, published by Drawn and Quarterly.