“It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman!” There is no character more iconic than Superman; you would have to travel to a very obscure and isolated spot on this Earth to locate someone who couldn’t identify The Man of Steel, and today we will take a journey through some of the major highlights in the many incarnations of Superman.
When Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster put pen to paper and created their story of a baby launched from a dying world to become the world’s first superhero, they could never in their wildest imaginations have dreamt of what their brainchild would one day become. Hell, certain aspects of the current Superman differ so greatly from the one that first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938 that Siegel and Schuster of the day would have had a hard time recognizing him.
Superman has evolved more than almost any other comic book character with his powers, abilities and origins constantly being changed and revamped so often that if it was finally revealed that he was a creation of the fifth dimensional imp Mister Mxyzptlk, I wouldn’t be surprised. When he first graced the pages of Action Comics he was “Faster than a speeding bullet” but certainly not fast enough to break the speed of light and travel through time, he was “More powerful than a locomotive” which is a far cry from being able to move the moon around, and he was “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” but he definitely could not fly.
Superman’s first foray out of the four colour comic book was in The Adventures of Superman, a radio serial starring voice actor Bud Collyer, where three times a week Superman battled various shadowy organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. It was during the run of this serial that kryptonite was first introduced so that Collyer could get time off for vacations while Superman was incapacitated.
Then came the Max Fleischer Superman Cartoons produced by Paramount from 1940 to 1943 and to this day are still considered some of the best moments in Superman history. Though only the first nine cartoons were produced by Fleisher Studios, all 17 cartoons are lavish big budget productions that rivaled anything Disney or Warner Brothers was doing at the time. In these cartoons Superman battled numerous types of enemies; mad scientists, Japanese saboteurs, dinosaurs, mummies and of course giant robots. These amazing cartoons have all fallen into public domain so if you want to see some exciting action with great animation they are only a YouTube away.
Before television became the media juggernaut it is today everyone went to the movies, and at least once a week, and for 24 cents you not only got a movie but also a newsreel, a cartoon and your weekly chapter of the latest serial. Serials dabbled in such genres as westerns, crime fiction, science fiction but some of the best serials were the ones based on comic book characters.
The first actor to don the Superman costume was Kirk Alyn for the 1948 Columbia serial. This serial provided the standard origin story but sadly due to budget constraints, a problem live action Superman vehicles will suffer for decades, his main opponent was a criminal underworld type called “The Spider Lady” and not a giant robot or dinosaur. The most interesting thing about this incarnation of Superman is the technique they used to simulate Superman flying, Columbia studios decided to go with animation. Kirk Alyn would run behind a rock or a tree and then turn into a cartoon Superman to fly around, and then the cartoon would land behind another rock or a tree and out would step the live action actor. It’s kind of neat that this technique is often used today only now with CGI.
Superman and the Mole Men (1951) is considered by many to be the first theatrical version of Superman, but that’s if you discount the serials, as this “movie” was only 58 minutes long and I myself can’t do that as it basically is just a pilot for the upcoming television series…
Both the “movie” and the series starred George Reeves as Superman and though he may have used some muscular padding to play the Man of Steel, his version of Clark Kent is still one of my favorites. Siegel and Schuster based Clark Kent on the hard hitting news reporters of the day and that is what you got with fedora sporting George Reeves. He may have been called “mild mannered” but at times good ole Clark was known to sock a crook in the jaw without rushing off to phone booth to change into Superman first. Reeves was originally teamed up with Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane but she had to leave after just one season and was replaced by Noel Neill who just so happened to have played Lois Lane in the Kirk Alyn serials. This version relied on George Reeves to dash into a closet or nearby alley to change costume and then to run out, hit a springboard and then launch himself into the air followed by footage of him in front of a rear projection screen as he flew around Metropolis. Still no giant robots or dinosaurs, or even a sign of Lex Luthor for that matter, for once again he spends most of his time taking on the shady underworld types that a television budget could afford.
One wouldn’t think a comic book character of the likes of Superman could be easily adapted to a live stage musical production, and one would be right. Of course this didn’t stop Charles Strouse and Lee Adams from giving it a shot. The plot centered around a Nobel Prize winning scientist who is bitter about his brilliance being dismissed by the public, so he decides to destroy the ultimate symbol of goodness. As one would do. Though it opened to fairly good reviews it never really caught on with the public, but has been revived many times since its initial run and even got a television special. A really terrible television special that ditched any charm the Broadway production had.
These animated cartoons produced by Filmation where the first attempts at animated Superman since the Max Fleischer cartoons in the 40s and they are abysmally poor even by television standards. On the plus side, he was finally tackling such foes as Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Toyman and Mister Mxyzptlk, and he was hanging out with members of the Justice League. What was most damaging to the Man of Steel was that this caused grassroots organization “Action for Children’s Television” to protest the violence portrayed on a show aimed for children which resulted in the show being cancelled. This shift in “Standards and Practices” for television would lead to…
This long running animated series had many incarnations with an ever changing roster of heroes and villains, but front and center of all of them was Superman. Unfortunately, due to the protests from parent groups, any kind of action-related violence such as punching was not allowed. This mostly affected Batman and Robin as punching is kind of their thing, but even Superman was limited to wrapping the villains up in steel bars or gently dropping them in jail. Worse is the fact that they were forced to team up with idiot kids Marvin and Wendy along with their dumb dog and then later the Wonder Twins who were basically an ad for alien inbreeding. The early seasons even had sympathetic villains who were just misunderstood, and it wasn’t until 1978 with The Challenge of the Superfriends that our heroes faced off against classic supervillains such as Lex Luthor, Gorilla Grodd, Bizarro, Solomon Grundy just to name a few. Most episodes ended with the Legion of Doom’s nefarious plans being thwarted but then escaping because Superman kept forgetting he could just fly after them.
“You will believe a man can fly.” This tagline changed everything because when Ilya and Alexander Salkind teamed up with Warner Brothers they made it their mission to create a believable version of Superman that kids and adults alike would enjoy. With director Richard Donner at the helm that is exactly what we got, but for me what was more important than all the advances in special effects was the casting of relative unknown Christopher Reeve as Superman. Now I’m not a huge fan of the bumbling Clark Kent persona but Christopher’s portrayal of Superman is bang on perfect to me. He just oozes sincerity out of every pour; there is no winking at the camera at all. The first two movies of this series were filmed back-to-back and pretty much give you everything you want from a Superman movie; epic yet touching origin story, Gene Hackman as the brilliantly evil Lex Luthor, Superman heroically battling the effects of a manmade earthquake, and a Time Square smack down with Kyrptonian Supervillains.
The third and fourth installment in the series was not so much a drop in quality as it was a complete abandonment of what made the first two good. In Superman III (1983) our title character finds himself co-starring with Richard Pryor in a slapstick comedy that forgets to be funny. The original idea for Superman III had to do with Supergirl, Mxyzptlk and Brainiac but Warner Brothers vetoed that and instead we got stuck with Pryor’s Gus Gorman computer genius and his super computer that he builds for Robert Vaughn.
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse Canon films picked up the rights to the Superman franchise and the reason Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) looks like a bad television show is because Canon funneled much of the film’s budget to other projects of their own. Crappy effects aside the story is also atrocious, as Superman basically declares himself “World Dictator” and disarms every nation in the world of its nuclear arms. Gene Hackman is back as Lex Luthor and is clearly in paycheck cashing mode here, but along with him is a terrible Jon Cryer as Luthor’s idiot nephew and then to top it off there is the cosmic clone Nuclear Man played by Mark Pillow but dubbed by Gene Hackman. Unlike Superman III, this movie is so bad it’s entertainingly awful. I’ve probably watched Superman IV: The Quest for Peace more times than Superman II.
This series starred Dean Cain as Clark Kent/Superman and Terri Hatcher as Lois Lane. As the title implies, this show focused more on their relationship and not so much the super heroic deeds of the Man of Steel. This version of Clark Kent dispatches the clumsy incarnation made popular by Christopher Reeve and was more in keeping with what was going on in the comics at the time during the John Brynne era. The first season took a page out of the George Reeve Adventures of Superman with most of the criminals being members of the criminal underworld, often working with Lex Luthor (John Shea), but later seasons the show got a bit goofier and revelled in throwing in supervillains of their own making. This was a solid show that maybe went on a season too long. Speaking of going on too long…
These two shows are not technically Superman vehicles but they do deal with the early years of young Clark Kent, and while the Superboy show starring Gerard Christopher embraced the comic book character, the creators of Smallville had a strict “no tights, no flights” policy which certainly limited some of their storytelling ability and made the ten year run harder to pull off believably. When Clark Kent (Tom Welling) finally donned the Superman costume for the shows last episode everyone in Metropolis would immediately assume correctly that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same. That is unless he kiss/mind wiped everyone on the planet. Smallville had a fairly decent budget with really decent effects but what worked best was the early relationship between Clark and Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) and not the kryptonite caused villain of the week. On the other hand, we have the Superboy show that had little to no budget and featured Superboy refereeing Hockey games and working secretly for a government organization that investigated unusual and paranormal disturbances. Though Superboy did meet the odd supervillain.
When Bruce Timm launched Batman: The Animated Series 1992 it forever changed the look of animated television shows, and one of its more successful spinoffs was…
This is easily my favorite version of Superman, and creators Bruce Timm and Paul Dini are personal idols of mine for all they have done for superhero shows. In this series they beautifully blended elements of the classic Silver Age Superman but with the powers and abilities more in keeping with the John Byrnne reboot from his Man of Steel run in the late 80s. The voice cast is equally brilliant with Tim Daly as Superman/Clark Kent, Dana Delany as Lois Lane, and Clancy Brown as my all-time favorite Lex Luthor. In this series he tackles almost every Superman foe you could imagine and with some interesting new origins for some of them. The work they did here and later in The Justice League cartoon still hold up as some of the best Superman stories ever told.
This film is in my opinion basically a failed love letter to Richard Donner’s Superman. Director Bryan Singer earned great cred among comic book fans with his X-Men movies but lost a little when he created this version which has a deadbeat dad super-stalker as the film’s protagonist. I like Brandon Routh, and he does a fairly good impression of Christopher Reeve’s Superman, but along with Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane they are both way too young for the parts they are supposed to be playing, especially if this is a sequel to Superman II. This Lois Lane looks like a college newspaper intern and not a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Daily Planet. Kevin Spacey seems to be the only one really having fun with the part, taking what Gene Hackman did and then making it his own. The effects are of course fantastic but the story makes no sense, especially if you consider it a sequel to the Donner films, and Luthor’s plot to create a continent is beyond moronic. Who the hell would want to live on his shitty rocky hellscape?
The success of the Chris Nolan’s Batman movies certainly made an impact on the genre and even greater of an impact among the executives of Warner Brothers who seem to think this is the only way to make a comic book movie these days. I’m not saying you can’t have a dark and gritty version of Superman, I’m just questioning why they think we need a dark and gritty version of Superman. In this movie Superman (Henry Cavill) causes the death of countless people in Metropolis, billions of dollars in damages and then murders General Zod. This is not the Superman I know and love, but what is most terrible about this is that it is in keeping with the character we are shown in this movie. Director Zack Snyder gives us a Superman who was raised by a Jonathon Kent (Kevin Costner) who instills in him the belief that he is more important than the people around him, that it’s okay to let a bus load of kids drown because gosh darn you are here for a purpose. I myself always thought Superman’s purpose was to save bus loads of kids from drowning, but what do I know? Once again there is no knocking the visual effects here as they are simply stunning, but sadly they are in service of a story I just can’t get behind.
This is far from the end for Superman, and looking back at all the different takes on Krypton’s sole survivor I feel confident that we will get many more; some will be good, some will be terrible, and some I’m sure will be full of sheer awesomeness.
Now, before I send you on your way here is a look at a failed television show that used the sets from the George Reeves Superman series and took place in a world where dogs evolved to be the dominant species. I give you one of the most bizarre shows ever conceived The Adventures of Superpup!
Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.