Film Discussion

A History of Superman at the Movies

Flying into space, the earth behind him, past the camera with the most charming smile, is there any other sequence in a Superman movie that sums up the character’s magic more than the final moment from the Christopher Reeve Superman movies? Of course, Christopher Reeve was not the first to don the iconic costume, but he is the one that has made such a sizeable impact that every actor or interpretation since 1978 has been compared, both fairly and unfairly.

As far back as 1948, only ten years after his debut in the pages of Action Comics, Superman has been a presence on our screens. Kirk Alyn was the first to don the costume, in a serial entitled Superman, and it was subsequently followed up by a sequel, Atom Man vs Superman. Three years after Alyn’s debut, we got the famous interpretation from George Reeves in Superman and the Mole Men. Released theatrically, the film only lasted 58 minutes and is pretty much seen as a pilot of sorts for the subsequently famous television series that starred Reeves and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane.

Then, unleashing its way into cinemas for Christmas of 1978, Superman: The Movie came to the screen courtesy of direction from Richard Donner, having been filmed back-to-back alongside Superman II, although the second movie would end up being mostly re-shot by Richard Lester when producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler fell out with Donner over the increasing budget as a result of trying to perfect the flying effects.

The first two Superman movies are arguably the vintage wines of the superhero movie genre and are still regarded as two of the best examples of the genre to this day. Christopher Reeve’s portrayal is forever seen as the greatest on-screen interpretation of the character, and the chemistry between himself and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane is a genuinely winning

Yes, Lois Lane’s “white woman rap” as they fly through the sky is maybe a little cheesy, but it has its charm, and while the flying effects have maybe not aged the best, they were revolutionary at the time, and coming a year after the release of Star Wars, both Lucas’ film and Donner’s are seen as pioneering in the field of special and visual effects.

Despite the behind the scenes issues, Superman II is every bit the equal to the original film, with some critics rating it even higher than the original film. Lester did increase the humor somewhat, but it was under a semblance of control, unlike Superman III. The theatrical version does still contain some scenes in it that were shot and directed by Donner, although in 2006, to coincide with the release of Superman Returns, Donner was allowed to release a re-edited version more closer to his own vision for the film.

Following through on the opening of the first movie that saw General Zod, Ursa and Non banished to The Phantom Zone, Superman II sees the three villains arrive on Earth to unleash chaos, just as Clark decides to give up his powers for Lois. The film culminates with a battle on the streets of Metropolis that was spectacular for the time, even if does throw in a ton of product placement in a manner that Man of Steel would take to a whole other level in 2013.

Superman III brought in Richard Pryor to proceedings, but is a film that is tonally all over the place. The upping of humour is most evident in a credit sequence that plays out like a farcical slapstick sequence, whilst the adding of Pryor is clearly an attempt to up the comedy card. Despite its tonal problems, and evident shunning of Kidder as Lois Lane, the film does have elements that make it worth a watch. Clark’s return to Smallville and his reunion with Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole, who would later play Martha Kent on the television series Smallville) is bitter-sweet, while the character’s descent to the dark side and subsequent Clark Kent vs Superman battle is brilliantly well done.

The nadir of  all things Superman would come in 1987. With the Salkind’s selling the rights to Cannon Studios, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is unfortunately everything you would expect a Superman movie to be from the producers of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. With a sizeable downgrade in budget, which occurred days before filming began, nonsensical plotting, as well as being bizarrely edited to within an inch of its life to the point that certain plot points don’t make any sense, the film is viewed to this day as a unmitigated disaster and put the character into a very long hiatus on the big screen.

During this hiatus, the character would find a home on three hit television series, with Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman debuting for a four season run in 1993, Superman: The Animated Series in 1996, an iteration that would cross over into the animations Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, and Smallville premiering in 2001 for a record-breaking ten seasons.

The character finally returned to the screens in 2006, but that return was not an easy journey. Development on a new Superman movie began around 1997, with Tim Burton attached to direct and Nicholas Cage starring as the Man of Steel. Unfortunately the film got stuck in development hell with all manner of creative differences between the filmmakers, the studio and producer Jon Peters.

Despite attempts to relaunch the character on the big screen with the “Death of Superman” story arc which had been a massive success for DC Comics, scripts written by the likes of Kevin Smith and JJ Abrams, not to mention an attempt at Batman vs Superman with a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, it wouldn’t be until 2006 when the Last Son of Krypton would finally make it back to the big screen.

Starring Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman, the film would underwhelm at the box office and cause a massive split with audiences and critics. The film would be hated by some, but defended by others and still causes much debate to this day.  One thing about the film that many agreed on was that Brandon Routh made for a wonderful Superman, bringing charm and vulnerability to the character.

A sequel was on the cards, but it would never actually happen and in the end Warner Bros would hit the reboot button, this time with Christopher Nolan producing, David S. Goyer writing and Zack Snyder directing. Released in 2013, Man of Steel would, once again, give the world a Superman movie that would split everyone right down the middle. A dark and grittier take, the film made up for any perceived lack of action in Superman Returns with a plethora of massive set pieces and intense scenes of destruction unlike any in a comic book movie before.

Starring Henry Cavill as Clark Kent and Amy Adams as Lois Lane, the film would subsequently be used as a means to kickstart a shared cinematic universe with other DC characters, meaning this interpretation of the character returned to screens three years later, squaring off against Batman in a long-awaited movie that would also see Wonder Woman make her big screen debut, as well as featuring cameos from The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg.

Opinion was once again massively split, and its $800 million worldwide box office gross was seen as something of an underperformance. It continued a more darker and emotionally conflicted portrayal of the character than seen previously, with Cavill’s Kal-El frequently seen as torn over the right thing to do, while also trying to combat the antagonism of an incredibly brutal Batman/Bruce Wayne. Whilst the film has issues, it also has a lot going for it too, and the subsequent team up of all three members of the DC Trinity in the film’s final act is spectacular and fun, even it does feel out-of-place in a film that up until that point was playing the “dark and gritty” card.

With the character confirmed for Justice League, Superman is well and truly back on our screens, although a stand alone sequel to Man of Steel has not yet been confirmed For as long as there are movies and television, it feels as if there will always be Superman, and with the character even appearing in the Supergirl television series, through a charming performance by Tyler Hoechlin, the silver and television screens will always be a welcome home for the Man of Steel.

Who is your favourite Superman and what is your favourite Superman movie? Let us know.

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