Superman has appeared in comics more or less continuously since 1938. This is how long that is: He’s been famous since it was cool to use the phrase “Slap a Jap!” on the cover of a comic book. (Just kidding — that was never cool.) He’s weathered a sex-tape scandal, taken a wife and then lost her to a continuity reboot, died, and been reborn, with a mullet. He’s outlived his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and will undoubtedly outlive his current corporate paymasters, too.
If he were a real person, he’d be a leathery showbiz survivor — 75 years old, with a résumé split between massive hits and outrageous flops. Regardless of how Man of Steel does — and even with a Rotten Tomatoes score hovering around 59 percent as I write this, it still looks too big to fail — it won’t define him for long. What define him are his endurance and his mutability. The most important Superman movie is whatever the next one is. Here’s a look back at some of his more noteworthy appearances on screens small, large, and huge.
Superman (1948); Atom Man vs. Superman (1950); The Adventures of Superman (1952-58)
The first live-action Superman was Kirk Alyn, born John Feggo Jr. in New Jersey in 1910. He was 37 when he landed the role, a vaudeville performer who’d struck out for Hollywood with his pal Red Skelton and struggled to land major roles before Columbia Pictures offered him the cape. (“They said take off your shirt, so I did and flexed my muscles,” he said once. “Then the guy said, ‘Take off your pants,’ and I said, ‘Wait a minute.'”) In two 15-chapter serials, Alyn fights a femme fatale called the Spider-Lady and the metal-masked Atom Man;1 he’s too slim to really look the part but he springs into action like the trained dancer that he was. The serials look cheap even by the standards of the medium, which was waning by the late ’40s; they couldn’t make his wire-enabled flight look remotely real, so whenever Superman takes off, Alyn is replaced by a rotoscoped cartoon.
“Playing Superman ruined my acting career,” Alyn said later. “I was bitter for many years about the whole thing. I couldn’t get another job in Hollywood.” He’d been told as much by Columbia when the serials ended; when they offered him the part of Superman in a 1951 TV pilot, Superman and the Mole-Men, he turned it down to prove them wrong. The role went to George Reeves, also 37, a longtime studio contract player whose credits included small roles in Gone With the Wind, Knute Rockne All-American, and Sex Hygiene, an Army instructional film about syphilis directed by John Ford. (John Ford!) Reeves took the job reluctantly; he was worried about typecasting, and TV was low-rent. The story about his scenes in From Here to Eternity being cut when preview audiences shouted “It’s Superman!” and laughed him off the screen is probably false, but the Superman association and his restrictive TV contract did keep him from building a viable film career.
An increasingly bitter Reeves drank heavily, marked the end of each season with the ritual torching of his Superman outfit, and carried on a long-term affair with Toni Mannix, the wife of apocryphally Mob-connected MGM producer/enforcer Eddie Mannix. He died at his home in Benedict Canyon in 1959, of what police said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound, although conspiracy theories still abound. Allen Coulter’s 2006 film Hollywoodland — in which career-challenged actor Reeves is played by then-career-challenged actor Ben Affleck — seems to cosign the suicide theory, but doesn’t rule out the possibility that Mannix had Reeves whacked. Believers in the notion of a “Superman curse” usually point to Reeves as its first victim, with Christopher Reeve’s equestrian accident and Margot Kidder’s 1996 breakdown as other prominent examples of the hex at work.
The stocky, graying Reeves made a curiously suburban-daddish Superman, and as in the Alyn serials, the scope of the Reeves show is limited by a paltry effects budget; Superman spends a lot of time dealing with less-than-global concerns like jewel thievery and blackmail and, once, a plot to rig the outcome of a guess-the-number-of-jellybeans-in-the-jar contest. But occasionally the show’s cheapness takes it to some appealingly surreal places. In the sixth-season episode “The Perils of Superman” — generally considered a series highlight, and one of a few episodes directed by Reeves himself — a man shows up at the offices of the Daily Planet and tells Perry White, Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen, and Lois Lane that he plans to kidnap and kill them using specially designed traps, “just like in the old movie serials.”
He’s wearing a gray flannel suit and a mask made of lead, the only material Superman’s X-ray vision can’t penetrate; he looks like a malevolent version of the PBS Everyman. To keep Superman from apprehending him before his plan takes effect, he’s outfitted all his henchmen with identical suits and masks and sent them out to walk the streets as decoys. His plan doesn’t make sense, nor does the fact that Superman’s police buddy Inspector Henderson waits until halfway through the episode to start rounding up anybody in a lead mask. But there’s a dream logic to the way the plot unfolds, not unlike the tone that would prevail in the Superman comics under DC editor Mort Weisinger, who got his start as a story editor on the TV show. The weirdness begins around 4:40 in this clip; I really love the masked men’s nodding business-casualness.
It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman (1966)
This was a short-lived (but frequently revived) Broadway musical treatment of the Man of Steel, with music and lyrics by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (best known for writing Bye Bye Birdie and the All in the Family theme song) and a tongue-in-cheek book by Bonnie & Clyde screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton. Reportedly somewhat underrated, possibly because of the dismal ABC TV special it became in 1975:
That’s David Wilson, otherwise best known as Eddie’s drummer in Eddie & the Cruisers, in the tights. The New York Times‘s Stanley Kauffman called the 1966 version “easily the best musical so far this season,” but the comic-book subject matter kept adult audiences away. Children kept coming, wrote Bruce Scivally in 2007’s Superman on Film, Television, Radio and Broadway, because lead actor Bob Holiday “remained in his Superman costume after the matinees and invited the kids backstage for autographs. Towering over his young fans, the 6-foot-4-inch actor signed their programs and admonished them to drink their milk and be good.”
Superman: The Movie (1978)
One hundred twenty-five pages is considered standard for a movie script; Mario Puzo’s first draft of the Superman screenplay was more than 500 pages. That script was tamed in rewrite — first by Robert Benton and David and Leslie Newman, then by Tom Mankiewicz after director Richard Donner came aboard. But the finished film still feels like a 500-page movie. Counting the not-brief opening credits, it takes the movie more than 30 minutes to get from Krypton to Jonathan Kent’s death in Kansas, which is observed with an epic widescreen funeral and a series of ever-more-sweeping shots of wheat fields. Then there’s a side trip to the North Pole, so young Clark Kent can erect his Fortress of Solitude and learn all about a Very Special Destiny the movie assumes we won’t be able to pick up on without watching Clark watch a Kryptonian instructional film narrated by Jor-El (Marlon Brando in a proto-Mugatu wig, delivering his lines — which he read off cue cards — with a Richard Burton inflection and a barely suppressed eye roll).
Somewhere around the 47-minute mark we see Christopher Reeve and the red-and-blue suit for the first time, and this trudging, pompous Superman biopic starts feeling like a movie. Metropolis (played by a basically undisguised Manhattan) has cab drivers who call you “Mac,” colorful fruit vendors hawking tomatoes, bustling metropolitan newsrooms, muggers who do crimes in turtlenecks and tweed sport coats, and Rex Reed; it also has Margot Kidder, as brassy reporter Lois Lane, who thinks Clark Kent’s a giant tool but turns to butter at her first glimpse of Superman. The gear-shift into romantic comedy here is abrupt but welcome, and Reeve’s Clark is a sly marvel. For an actor, putting a stamp on Superman is really about putting a stamp on Clark. (“It would be fatal to play Superman as a hero, and Reeve and Donner understand that,” Roger Ebert wrote in 2010. “He had no personality in the comic books and has none here. He exists as a fact.”)
Reeve would write later in his autobiography that he’d based his Kent on Cary Grant’s nerdy paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, and there’s a lot of Grant’s coconspiratorial bond with the audience in Reeve’s performance, but it’s also a unique creation — a Kent who’s gentle rather than just nerdy, with a winking trace of Superman behind his horn-rims. The fact that it’s endured the way it has is due mostly to Reeve. It’s not a great movie, but when he and Kidder are onscreen together it’s a great romantic comedy, particularly in the rooftop interview scene. “Do you … eat?” Lois asks him, freighting the line with subtext designed to sail over the heads of the kids in the audience. “When I’m hungry,” Reeve replies.
Superman II (1981); Superman II: The Donner Cut
And then things got weird. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind had originally hired Donner to shoot Superman and its sequel simultaneously, but their relationship with the director deteriorated during production and Donner was fired before he could finish shooting II. Director Richard Lester, who’d come on as a producer and unofficial mediator between Donner and the Salkinds on the first film, was tasked with completing the sequel. Donner had almost three-fourths of the movie in the can when he was fired, but Lester ended up reshooting a number of scenes, including all of Brando’s (the actor was suing the Salkinds over the profits from the first film and they were loath to pay him another dime). And since the Superman-reverses-time ending of the first film was actually the ending they’d written and shot for II, repurposed at Lester’s suggestion, they also needed an ending.
So it’s a patched-together movie by two different directors, and it shouldn’t work, but it does — maybe better than the first one, which falls prey to the somber self-seriousness that would become the tonal default for superhero films going forward. It has a stronger antagonist in the Phantom Zone criminals — led by Terence Stamp, haughty in black leather, one keytar away from being a credible synth-pop front man — and the question of whether to relinquish his powers and his role as Earth’s protector to be with Lois gives Reeve some real emotions to play. (Plus Superman hanging up the cape for love works as a clever homage to the countless goofy ’60s Superman “imaginary stories” about Lois tricking Superman into revealing his secret identity and/or putting a ring on it, although in the comics Superman never seemed as relieved to be revealing his secrets as Reeve does here.)
Decades later, when Bryan Singer wanted to use old Jor-El clips in 2006’s Superman Returns, Warner Bros. finally settled the Brando matter, clearing the way for an official restoration and release of the so-called “Donner Cut,” a new version of II constructed from the six tons2 of unused footage Donner shot before his dismissal. There’s this narrative where Donner’s version is the true Superman sequel and Lester is an interloper whose involvement led to the franchise’s decline. It’s pure revisionism. The Donner Cut does have Brando, whose presence adds some resonance — here’s Kal-El, hectored by his father’s giant, floating head, forever fighting his father’s enemies — but all the CGI wizardry in the world can’t make him look like he wants to be there. And I’ll take Lester — with his light touch, his irreverence about everything but the Lois-Clark relationship, even his taste for dumb guy-loses-toupee-to-super-breath gags — over Donner’s mythopoetics any day. (I love Donner, he’s going straight to heaven for directing Lethal Weapon, but c’mon.)
Superman III (1983)
There’s a deconstructionist impulse visible in a lot of Lester’s work — just look at A Hard Day’s Night, one of the most antimythic rock-band movies ever made — and while it’s present in II, it comes to the fore in Superman III. The problem with Superman films, Lester told Steven Soderbergh in 1999,3 “is that you have to make him destructible briefly, and then make him indestructible at the end. Now, three times, you’re getting a bit bored with that.” So III upends the formula by making Superman — albeit briefly — the antagonist.
There are precedents for this; there’s an entire website and attendant Tumblr page devoted to cataloguing the usually misleading Superman comic covers, mostly from the ’60s, that attempted to entice readers to plunk down their 10 cents by raising the question of why on earth Superman was, say, setting a giant pile of money on fire with his heat vision instead of using it to help poor people, or sentencing Batman to death by stake-burning at a Puritan witch trial, or just standing there straight-up making Robin and Jimmy Olsen dig their own graves while Batman waits to kill them with a tommy gun.4 Superman is the most parental figure in superhero comics, the hero most symbolic of the hard line between right and wrong, the guy whose real superpower is making people feel safe; these covers were little psychodramas, in which the mortal extras looking on in uncomprehending horror — Superman, why? — are stand-ins for you and me and our terrified inner children, who’ve just caught Dad with his bathrobe untied, stinking of gin and preparing to drop-kick the dog into a wall (or, in this case, the sun).
The explanation itself was usually pretty disappointing — it often involved red Kryptonite, famously the most unpredictable form of Kryptonite and therefore the most endlessly useful as a plot device. In III, the superdickery ensues when Richard Pryor (squandered, as a computer hacker working for billionaire industrialist Robert Vaughn) exposes Superman to synthetic Kryptonite laced with tobacco tar, which turns him evil. An extraordinary montage follows: Superman straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa, blows out the Olympic flame, rescues a suicidal woman who’s about to throw herself off the Statue of Liberty and (it’s implied) kinda maybe probably takes her home and makes love to her, and winds up sitting in a bar, in costume, getting crocked on Johnny Walker Red in the middle of the day. Spoiler alert: He’s a mean drunk. I’m not seriously going to defend this movie on any other grounds, but, hey, drunk Superman!
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
This is the astonishingly cheap post-Salkinds, post-Lester, post-even-pretending-to-give-a-shit final entry in the original series, in which Superman gathers up all the world’s nuclear weapons and hurls them, along with the Man of Steel’s future as a big-screen franchise character, into the sun. I saw this when I was 10 and hated it, and when I was 10 I thought Teen Wolf Too was pretty solid.
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-97); Smallville (2001-11)
LOIS: “Let’s get something straight — I did not work my buns off to become an investigative reporter for the Daily Planet just to babysit some hack from Nowheresville. And another thing — you are not working with me, you are working for me. I call the shots, I ask the questions. You are low man, I am top banana, and that’s the way I like it, comprende?” CLARK: “You like to be on top. Got it.” — Lois & Clark, pilot episode
It’s often said that for all his endurance, Superman’s a difficult protagonist to write for and a difficult character for contemporary audiences to connect with — that he’s too powerful, too virtuous, too corny, too lacking in the dark psychological furrows that make a hero like Batman compelling and endlessly reimaginable. What that hypothesis ignores is how well and how frequently Superman has worked as a TV character. Superman didn’t disappear from non-comics media in that long lull between Quest for Peace and Superman Returns. He was alive and well and living on television, thanks to shows like Lois & Clark and Smallville,5 which demonstrated the durability of the Superman mythos by bending it to fit classic TV-genre formulas — Moonlighting-esque workplace romantic comedy and teen-angst drama, respectively. Lois lasted four seasons, thanks in part to the boost Teri Hatcher got when this picture became one of the most-downloaded images in the history of AOL; Smallville, with the dreamy, toothy Tom Welling as a teenage Kal-El, started out as an alien-powers-as-puberty parable, then gradually built a credible TV version of the entire DC Universe, with its own Zod and its own Luthor but also its own Justice League, its own Green Arrow, even its own Amanda Waller and Dr. Fate. Seinfeld‘s credo was “No hugging, no learning”; Smallville producers Miles Millar and Alfred Gough promised “No tights, no flights,” and the show mostly kept that promise even after they departed. When Clark finally moved to Metropolis and caught some media attention, the papers dubbed him “The Blur.” The show ran for 10 seasons, longer than any previous comic-book-based series in TV history; it’s proof that the issue with Superman isn’t the concept but the execution.
Superman Returns, 2006
Someday, maybe Quentin Tarantino will publish the book of film criticism he claims to have been tinkering with for years, containing the 20-page defense of Superman Returns he says he’s written. But what could he have to say? I’ll give Bryan Singer due respect for daring to alter the legend by giving Superman (Brandon Routh, the George Lazenby of the franchise without Lazenby’s secretly-being-awesome) an asthmatic preteen son named Jason. A bold, terrible decision. And I love the shot where Lois (babyfaced Kate Bosworth, laughably miscast as a tough-as-nails Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter) gets on the elevator at the Daily Planet and Clark follows her all the way up with his X-ray vision. This is a ridiculous movie, though — it’s basically a more Jesus-y remake of Donner’s version that makes some inexplicable decisions about which aspects of that film should carry over, notably Lex Luthor’s obsession with coastal real estate and his inability to recruit quality henchmen. (His whole crew is made up of comic-relief knuckleheads, except for Kal Penn, who looks visibly uncomfortable to be here.)
Kevin Spacey’s performance as Luthor makes Gene Hackman’s Lex look like something out of mumblecore, but the movie never really dramatizes the conflict between them. Spacey spends a lot of time on a boat acting campy/menacing and demonstrating his plans to the audience while Superman broods over Lois and averts the occasional plane crash. Eventually Luthor uses purloined Kryptonian krystals to make a Kryptonite island, which Superman has to lift into space before falling back to Earth in a crucifixion pose; compared to an earlier moment when 99-pound Bosworth swims to the bottom of the freezing Atlantic and pulls an unconscious Superman to the surface, this ending makes perfect sense. Despite all this, Singer’s Superman got decent reviews and made money; the fact that it’s now considered a flop, or at least a false start, has a lot to do with it not spawning a sequel, which is at least one Superman-franchise error Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel won’t repeat.