The impact that John Badham’s seminal 1977 film ‘Saturday Night Fever’ had on global culture cannot be understated. The film ostensibly established disco as a near fail-proof commodity and rocketed it’s star John Travolta into global icon territory.
What few people realize is that Saturday Night Fever is a super hero movie.
For the twelve people who haven’t seen Saturday Night Fever, the film chronicles the daily troubles of a paint store clerk named Tony Moreno as he attempts to escape reality through dance.
The film is a gritty meditation on socially and economically impoverished twenty-somethings in the late 70’s. The film is unflinching in its slightly theatrical documentarian style. It showcases both the positive aspects of a small group of friends, brotherhood, loyalty, and physical prowess, as well as the negative ones, racist tendencies, misogynist overtones, and downright rapist behavior. The film strikes and interesting, if not precarious, balance between the two halves of the human psyche.
The film is also meticulously constructed, and therefore, utilizes the same narrative building blocks that so many successful super-hero films capitalize on. Travolta’s character is almost literally Peter Parker. He’s confined by a social hierarchy in his everyday life, he has family issues, and he has girl problems. Travolta’s Tony, similar to Parker’s Spider-man, an outlet. He has dancing. He can be himself in the discothèque, he can express himself there, and most importantly he receives the adulation of women there. This is directly relatable to the difference that Peter undergoes when he dons the red and blue. Peter is the lowest rung on the totem pole, but he overcomes this through the anonymity that he gains with the Spider-man persona. He puts on a costume and becomes a wisecracking do-gooder.
At multiple points in the film Travolta’s Tony displays an outward metamorphosis through a costume change. When he’s at work he wears a dreary drab smock and then when he goes to the club he wears an white suit. There’s even a scene where he’s called to the dinner table to eat with his family, and he’s so paranoid about getting food on his suit that he drapes himself in a sheet.
Every super hero movie has the ‘suiting-up-before-we-go-kick-the-villain’s-ass’ sequence. It’s usually filmed in a darkened room where our protagonist rapidly pulls on his or her costume with staccatoed stylization. Well, Saturday Night Fever has that sequence too. Travolta is standing in front of a mirror, preening before he goes out the discothèque, and he launches into full on costume application mode.
It is also painfully obvious that some of the narrative tropes that are being discussed go back to just plain old fashioned good story telling. And yes, Joseph Campbell, Hero of a thousand faces yadda yadda yadda. But there’s more than that. In most super hero narratives the character learns to be humbled. He or she discovers a world outside of themselves and their needs, and decides to pursue a higher path. To use the skillset or talent that they’ve honed for self-less goals.
Tony starts out the film as a thuggish, racist, misogynist asshole. Women are for one purpose only, to him. And this ultimate character arc is learning how to be friends with a member of the opposite sex. Granted, he had to attempt to rape her first, but apparently that’s how things worked in the 70’s.
Tony’s super power is dance. He’s a dancer. He’s the best dancer. He knows he’s the best dancer and he knows that when he’s at the club he can attain anything or anyone by dancing. Inevitably, due to selfish decisions, he’s forced to look beyond that purview and attempt to discern another path for his dancing.
In other words, he uses his dancing like Spider-man initially did when he tried to become a wrestler. Over the course of the film, Tony learns that he should be using his dancing for self-less purposes. Just like Mr Parker.
The parallels are uncanny. The elaborately choreographed dance sequences are analogous to fight scenes. They take up most of the same narrative time, and the serve to progress your understanding of the protagonist and his world.
The only way that Saturday Night Fever fails to really solidify itself as some sort of urban disco super hero film is that it doesn’t have an antagonist. Similar to many of the films depicting 70’s and 80’s era New York, the city itself is almost the villain of the film. Whether it be Tony and his group of racist friends deriding one geo-specific ethnic group or another or just the seedy characters that populate the film, New York is undeniably a character in the story. The wounds from it’s oppressive environmental barbs can be felt throughout the cast. If the film did have an antagonist for Tony to bump proverbial chests with, the film’s super heroic archetypal undertones would undoubtedly have been ramped up to overtones.
The assentation could be said that Tony is both the protagonist and the antagonist of the film. In multiple scenes his infantile anger and genuinely sincere desire to succeed are showcased. It’s hard to make a character that almost rapes his dance partner likeable but, to Badham’s credit, he does it.
Saturday Night Fever presents us with an unblinking view of what the disco era ultimately became. It’s a shocking portrayal of the internal turmoil that young americans pan-generationally experience. It’s a sold film with an unrelenting narrative voice.
And it’s sort of a super hero movie.