“It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman!” It would be hard to deny that 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 from even just his trademark symbol – with maybe Mickey Mouse being his only real rival in recognizability – 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, even certain aspects of the current Superman differ so greatly from the one that first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938 that even Siegel and Schuster would have had a hard time recognizing the “super man” he’s become today.
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 the least 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 or 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 couldn’t 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’s history. Though only the first nine cartoons were produced by Fleisher Studios, all 17 cartoons are lavish big-budget productions that rivalled 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 the 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, most at least once a week if not more, 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, and 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 in the 1948 Columbia serial, and this serial provided the standard origin story that comic fans were familiar with, 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 a dinosaur. The most interesting thing about this incarnation of Superman was the technique used to simulate Superman flying, as for some reason Columbia Studios decided to go with animation as the most appropriate method to pull this off. Thus Kirk Alyn would run behind a rock or a tree, out of sight, and then a cartoon Superman would pop out to fly around, and then after flying around for a bit, 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) This is considered by many to be the first theatrical version of Superman, that’s if you discount the serials as this “movie” was only 58 minutes long, and I myself can’t do that as it was basically just the 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 favourites, in fact, Siegel and Schuster based Clark Kent on the hard-hitting news reporters of the day, and that is exactly 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 having to rush off to a 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 budgetary restrictions and the limitations of special effects had him spend most of his time taking on the shady underworld types, ones that a television budget could afford.
One wouldn’t think a comic book character the likes of Superman could be easily adapted to a live stage musical production, and one would be right, but this didn’t stop Charles Strouse and Lee Adams from giving it a shot. The plot centred around a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, bitter about his brilliance being dismissed by the public, deciding to destroy the ultimate symbol of goodness, Superman. As one would do. Though it opened to fairly good reviews it never really caught on with the public, yet it has been revived many times since its initial run and even got a television special. A really terrible television special, one that sadly ditched any charm the Broadway production had.
The animated cartoons produced by Filmation were the first attempts at animated Superman since the Max Fleischer cartoons in the 40s, and they were abysmally poor, even by television standards of the day. On the plus side, he was finally tackling such foes as Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Toyman and Mister Mxyzptlk, and he was also hanging out with members of the Justice League, but what was most damaging to the Man of Steel was that this ended up causing a 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 these shows was Superman, unfortunately, due to the protests from parent groups, any kind of action-related violence, such as punching and kicking was not allowed. Now, while this mostly affected Batman and Robin, as punching is kind of their thing, even Superman was limited to do doing stuff like 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 the idiot kids Marvin and Wendy, who along with their dumb dog tagged along with our superheroes. Then later those kids were swapped out for the Wonder Twins, who were basically an ad for alien inbreeding. The early seasons even had sympathetic villains, ones who were just misunderstood and not actually evil, and it wasn’t until 1978’s 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 them 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, one that kids and adults alike would enjoy, and with director Richard Donner at the helm that is exactly what we got. For me what was more important than all the advances in special effects was the casting of relatively unknown Christopher Reeve as Superman, and though I’m not a huge fan of the bumbling Clark Kent persona his character got saddled with, I have to say, Reeve’s portrayal of Superman is bang on perfect. He just oozes sincerity out of every pour of his body, and there is never any winking at the camera. The first two movies of this series were filmed back-to-back, and pretty much gave audiences everything they could want from a Superman movie; an epic yet touching origin story, Gene Hackman as the brilliantly evil Lex Luthor, Superman heroically battling the effects of a man-made earthquake, and a Time Square smack down with Kryptonian 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, because in Superman III (1983) our title character finds himself forced to co-star with Richard Pryor in a slapstick comedy that forgot to be funny. The original idea for Superman III had to do with Supergirl, Mxyzptlk and Brainiac – a pretty awesome line-up one must admit – but Warner Brothers vetoed that, so instead we got stuck with Pryor’s Gus Gorman computer genius and his supercomputer, that he somehow builds for Robert Vaughn’s evil billionaire.
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 the studio funnelled 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 Hackman is clearly in paycheck-cashing mode here, but along with him is Jon Cryer as Luthor’s idiot nephew – weep for us comic book fans – and then to top it off there was 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, and I’ve probably watched Superman IV: The Quest for Peace more times than Superman II. It literally has to be seen to be believed.
This series starred Dean Cain as Clark Kent/Superman and Terri Hatcher as Lois Lane, and as the title implies this show focused more on their relationship and not so much the superheroic deeds of the Man of Steel. This version of Clark Kent also dispatches the clumsy incarnation made popular by Christopher Reeve, as it was more in keeping with what was going on in the comics at the time during the John Brynne era, and 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 super villains 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 were 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 years run harder to pull off believably. When Clark Kent (Tom Welling) finally donned the Superman costume for the show’s last episode everyone in Metropolis would have immediately assumed correctly that Superman and Clark Kent were 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, which had little to no budget and featured Superboy refereeing Hockey games and working secretly for a government organization, one that investigated unusual and paranormal disturbances, though Superboy did meet the odd supervillain.
When Bruce Timm launched Batman: The Animated Series back in 1992 it forever changed the look of animated television shows, and one of its more successful spinoffs was…
This is easily my favourite version of Superman, and creators Bruce Timm and Paul Dini have become 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 Byrne reboot, from his Man of Steel run in the late 80s. The voice cast is equally brilliant, with Tim Daly as Superman/Clark Kent and Dana Delany as Lois Lane, and then there is Clancy Brown as my all-time favourite Lex Luthor. In this series, he tackles almost every Superman foe you could imagine, with Timm and Dini throwing in some interesting new origins for a few 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 and though director Bryan Singer earned great cred among comic book fans with his X-Men movies he lost a little when he created this version of Superman, who seems to have been turned into 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 supposed to be 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 sadly the story they support makes little to no sense, especially if you consider it a sequel to the Donner films, and Luthor’s plot to create his continent is beyond moronic. Who the hell would want to live on his shitty rocky hellscape?
The success of Chris Nolan’s Batman movies certainly made an impact on the genre, and an even greater impact among the executives of Warner Brothers, who seem to think this is the only way to make a comic book movie these days, “Men, kids these days want it dark and depressing, call Zack Snyder!” I’m not saying you can’t have a dark and gritty version of Superman, I’m just questioning why they thought we needed 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 he murders General Zod. This is not the Superman I know and love, but what is most terrible about this is that it is actually in keeping with the character we are shown in this movie. Director Zack Snyder gave us a Superman who was raised by Jonathon Kent (Kevin Costner), who instilled in him the belief that he was more important than the people around him, that it’s okay to let a busload of kids drown, because gosh darn you are here for a purpose. (Just not a saving kids kind of purpose?) Once again there is no knocking the visual effects supplied here, as they are simply stunning, but sadly they are in service of a story I just can’t get behind.
In this second instalment from Zack Snyder, things getting even darker – as impossible as that may sound – where we not only get the continued dark journey of Superman but we get a version of Batman who seems totally okay with murdering anyone who stands in his way, well, anyone who doesn’t have a mother named Martha.
How do you justify a team of superheroes if Superman is around? If you need to talk to fish call Aquaman, or if someone is leaving sinister riddles around Gotham turn on the Bat Signal, but other than it’s safe to say Superman could handle anything else. So killing off Superman at the end of the previous film did give the other heroes time to shine, sadly, they still remained underdeveloped and mostly useless, and just waited around until Superman could be resurrected to save the day.
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.