To celebrate the release of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Musings… takes a look at Superman in the movies.
Sent to Earth as child from the dying world of Krypton, Clark Kent grew up on a farm in Kansas and had the values of America embedded in him by his Earth parents. As he grew older Clark gained abilities beyond those of mortal men and chose to use his powers for good as Superman. As with Batman the origin is simple but effective and has endured for decades while the symbol of the Man of Steel is as famous, if not more so, than that of the Dark Knight. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, Superman first appeared in Action Comics 1 in 1938 and soon went on to embody the values of truth, justice and the American way. Elements of Superman lore changed over the years as different writers adapted the character for different situations and ideas generated in other media were adopted by the comic books. For example, Superman originally could not fly and instead could leap tall buildings in a single bound while Kryptonite, radiated pieces of his home planet which were lethal to his physiology, was first mentioned in The Adventures of Superman radio show in 1943.
A movie serial was a short film originally shown in movie theaters in conjunction with a longer, feature film and were extended motion pictures broken into a number of segments. Each chapter was screened for a week and ended with a cliffhanger in which characters found themselves in various situations with no apparent means of escape. Viewers would return each week for a resolution to the previous week’s cliffhanger and the continuation of the storyline. Superman and Atom Man vs. Superman were released in 1948 and 1950 respectively by Columbia Pictures and featured Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel and Noel Neill as love interest Lois Lane. In the first serial Superman discovers his weakness to Kryptonite and battles Spider Lady, while the sequel featured Lex Luthor (Atom Man) who comes up with various schemes to destroy our hero. Both Alyn and Neill would features in cameo roles in future Superman movies and television series, the most notable of which was in the Christopher Reeve starring Superman (1978) where they played the roles of Lois Lane’s parents, General Sam and Ella Lane. Here’s a trailer for the first serial;
Superman and the Mole Men
Created as a trial balloon release for The Adventures of Superman television series, this 58 minute black and white movie was produced within the span of two weeks and starred George Reeves as the titular hero. The 1951 movie involves drilling for oil and the subsequent discovery of a subterranean race who may or may not be hostile- naturally Superman saves the day in a peaceful manner. Interestingly Ben Affleck (the current Batman) played George Reeves in the 2006 film Hollywoodland. Check out the trailer below and a couple of bonus images- Reeves as Superman and Affleck as Reeves (as Superman):
Christopher Reeve’s Superman
Despite failing to impress the producers at their initial meeting, Christopher Reeve bulked up and was eventually cast in the dual role of Clark Kent and Superman. Reeve will forever be the embodiment of the character for many fans with his wonderfully convincing display of the bumbling Clark Kent and his impressive, strong-jawed portrayal as Superman. It’s almost enough to make you believe a pair of glasses and change in posture could fool an investigative journalist as seen in the following clip;
Richard Donner was hired as director, with key roles such as Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and Jor El going to Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando respectively. Donner was adamant that his Superman film be taken seriously and that it should avoid the camp style associated with comic books, in part due to the recent Batman television series starring Adam West. Instead a more serious movie appeared that set the milestone of superhero origin stories for years to come. The movie, known simply as Superman was released in 1978 and, facing little box office competition, was a major hit with critics and audiences alike. Here’s the trailer;
Donner returned for the sequel however production was shut down after multiple disagreements between the director and the producers of the series, Ilya and Alexander Salkind. Once Donner left, Richard Lester was hired to replace him and was able to create a sequel with a more tongue-in-cheek tone. While the first movie featured a convoluted plot about real estate, this movie saw three criminals return from their alien prison to take our planet as their own. Terrence Stamp chews scenery in his role of Zod, a former military leader of Krypton revelling in his god-like powers provided by Earth’s yellow sun.
Originally released in 1980, a new version of the movie appeared in 2006. This re-cut was the Richard Donner cut, which allowed Donner to take footage he had filmed and blend his own take on the sequel together. Surprisingly both versions have received critical acclaim, with Superman II and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut receiving 89% and 90% scores on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Here’s the original trailer;
1983’s Superman III was the start of the decline of Superman on film. Richard Lester returned to direct a more comedic instalment, completed by the inclusion of Richard Pryor as Gus, a man with a latent ability in computer programming. Annette O’Toole makes her debut as Lana Lang, essentially replacing Lois Lane as the female lead. O’Toole would return to the franchise decades later in the tv series Smallville, playing Martha Kent, Clark’s Earth mother. This time the plot revolved around a greedy CEO named Ross Webster, an original character played by Robert Vaughan who, after Superman stops him from taking over the world’s coffee supply, decides to destroy the Man of Steel before he takes a swipe at controlling the world’s oil supply. We are also treated to an evil version of Superman, created due to contact with synthetic kryptonite. Although much of the film was heavily criticised, including the majority of acting and the overall tone, Reeve did receive praise for his performance as a more sinister version of Superman while the special effects were also well produced. Check out the trailer below;
After a poorly received Supergirl appeared in 1984, Canon Films picked up the rights to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which made its debut in 1987. Reeve reprised his role due to his interest in the subject matter (Superman rids the world of nuclear weapons) but a ridiculously low budget and poor overall production values created a mess of a movie that halted further entries in the franchise. Even the trailer fails to hide the low budget;
Multiple attempts at bringing the hero back to the big screen occurred throughout the nineties and early noughties, including a version by Kevin Smith, a Tim Burton attempt starring Nic Cage and even a Batman vs Superman film. It wasn’t until Bryan Singer, fresh from his success with the first two X-Men movies, became involved that production really hit the ground running and in 2006 a new Superman movie appeared. Casting unknown Brandon Routh as the title character, Superman Returns acted as a semi-sequel to the Reeve films, albeit ignoring the third and fourth movies completely. Routh emulated Reeve perfectly and the directing is superb while support from the likes of Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor should have ensured a hit. Here’s the trailer;
In the movie Superman returns to Earth after a five year absence and has to battle Lex Luthor once more in a plot that involves, once again, real estate and land. Despite a planned sequel, the lukewarm fan reaction, lack of action and lower-than-expected box office halted the franchise in its tracks.
Man of Steel
In 2013, Man of Steel was released. Although not clear at the time, this movie is actually the first instalment in the DC Cinematic Universe. Henry Cavill took on the mantel of our hero in a film whose darker tone upset some fans while others enjoyed the grand action sequences and multiple fight scenes. Amy Adams and Michael Shannon portrayed Lois Lane and Zod, while support came in the form of stars such as Laurence Fishburne, Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner. The film focused on the origin of Superman and the arrival of further Kryptonians on Earth, led by the malicious Zod, which culminated in a city-destroying fight that split the opinion of fans.
A darker tone than normal for a Superman movie garnered mixed reviews from critics that didn’t stop the film from taking over $650 million at the box office and a sequel was greenlit. Said sequel developed into Batman V Superman (read a review here).
Cavill is set to reprise his role in more of the DC Universe movies although no confirmation as to which film will mark his return has been set. His slightly darker take on Superman may need to change as a big drawback of Batman V Superman was the lack of contrast between the heroes. Cavill does look the part (at least as Superman) and it will be interesting to see what happens to the character in the future.
As with Batman, Superman has appeared in several animated projects based on comic book storylines. One of these movies, All-Star Superman, is astonishingly good and like the source material (written by Grant Morrison) is a love letter to the history and saga of Superman. Here’s our final trailer, for the aforementioned All-Star Superman;
That’s all for now however you can check out Batman in the Movies here