TV discussion

A History of Superman on Television

For one of the most powerful superheroes in all of superhero fiction, and for one who has an ability to be incredibly cinematic, Superman has also, surprisingly, found a substantial home on the smaller screen.

If anything, it’s television where the character has managed to thrive even more than on film. As various movie projects were announced and then shelved, seemingly never able to climb out of the pits of development hell (most famously the Tim Burton/Nicholas Cage collaboration from the mid-90s), and as fans of the character clamour for a Man of Steel sequel that seems like it will never come, television has always found new and imaginative ways to explore the character and various aspects of his background, life as well as Kryptonian mythology.

These television series may not have had the budgets that the movies had access to, but they’ve managed to capture the heart and grace of the last son of Krypton even more than many of the character’s big screen outings.

Interestingly, one of the most famous television versions of the character actually started off life as a feature film; Superman and the Mole Men was a fifty-eight-minute feature film that gained theatrical distribution in 1951. Starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane, the cast and crew immediately started work on a television show to follow on from it. After the first season, Coates opted to leave the series to pursue other projects and was subsequently replaced by Noel Neill who had actually played Lane previously in the famous Columbia serials of the 1940s.

Lasting for six seasons, and eventually going from being filmed in black and white to colour, Reeves even made a guest appearance on I Love Lucy, such was the popularity of his performance and the series. However, controversy, urban legend and conspiracy theory surround the series even to this day over the death of leading man Reeves after the sixth season of the series, to the extent that it would inspire the movie Hollywoodland, strangely enough starring future Batman Ben Affleck in the role of Reeves, at one point wearing the famed Superman costume, while future Martha Kent Diane Lane would play Reeves’ lover Toni Maddox.

Controversy and conspiracy aside, the series was a massive success with audiences at the time and paved the way for future interpretations of the character on-screen, while Noel Neill and Jimmy Olsen actor Jack Larson have since made cameos and guest appearances in other Superman live action projects.

Television executives had, in fact, tried to spin-off Jack Larson’s performance as Jimmy Olsen, even contemplating the idea of using unused footage of Reeves along with a double to stand in for the deceased actor, but Larson felt the idea was in very poor taste and it never made it past those preliminary discussions.

A pilot episode for a potential Superboy television series was filmed in 1961 starring Johnny Rockwell, but it ended up not being picked up for series. Interestingly, it would not be the last time Superboy would be attempted at being developed and turned into a live action television series, with two series lying in the future showing the teen years of the Man of Steel.

Various animated television series followed throughout the sixties and seventies, most famously Hanna Barbara’s Superfriends and an animated series produced by CBS in 1988, but the next time there was to be a live action Superman it would be  on the big screen through Richard Donner’s magnificent 1978 feature film Superman: The Movie, without a doubt the most definitive live-action account of the character and feature Christopher Reeve’s iconic portrayal of the title character.

Produced by father and son duo Alexander and Ilya Salkind, they would also end up being the producing hands on a successful attempt at bringing Superboy to the small screen through the syndicated television series of the same name, premiering in 1988, the same year as the CBS animated series and the fortieth anniversary of the creation of the character. Initially portrayed by John Haymes Newton in the first season, the actor would leave at the end of the first season and be replaced by Gerald Christopher from season two onwards and who would play the role until its fourth and final season.

Airing from 1988 to 1992, the first two seasons were very much teen superhero fare, but the series took a darker turn in its third season with stories that were of a more paranormal nature as well as featuring a darker look that many had suspected had been inspired by the success of Tim Burton’s darker interpretation of Batman in 1989.

Even though the series was incredibly popular, the fourth season would end up being its last. Rumours had it that the Salkinds’ (who ironically were no longer producing Superman movies having sold the film rights to Cannon who produced the disastrous, terrible masterpiece that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) had intended to  keep the series going as a series of television movies, but it wasn’t to be.

In fact, Warner Bros. was already developing a new Superman television series, one that would once again put the focus on the character as a grown up, but which would also put Lois Lane front and centre in a way she hadn’t been before…

Premiering in September of 1993 on the ABC network, and becoming a massive hit in the UK when it would premiere in January of 1994 on the BBC (it would become a Saturday night stable for a generation of Superman loving youngsters, including myself), Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman put romantic comedy more in the foreground of the Lois Lane/Clark Kent dynamic, and while not having the largest budget to accomplish effects like the movies could do, it would somewhat smartly put more focus on Clark Kent as a journalist and his will they/won’t they romance with Lois, coming across more as a wonderfully funny fantasy romantic comedy about big city reporters than a superhero series.

Wonderfully cast with Teri Hatcher as a witty, funny and lovably feisty Lois Lane and Dean Cain as an incredibly handsome and charming Clark Kent/Superman, the series boasts some wonderful supporting turns with John Shea portraying a darkly charming Lex Luthor, Michael Landes as Jimmy Olsen, and then being replaced by Justin Whalen from season two onwards, Tracy Scoggins as Cat Grant (season one only) and without a doubt the greatest Perry White put to screen with Lane Smith’s Elvis obsessed interpretation being an undoubted highlight of the series.

Taking its cue from John Byrne’s acclaimed Man of Steel comic series, Lois and Clark concentrated more on the idea of Clark Kent being the dominant personality of the Clark/Superman character, with Superman being more of a role that Clark portrays to the public, as opposed to vice versa. Byrne’s work was also instrumental in Shea’s performance as Luthor; no longer the underground criminal that Gene Hackman played, he was now an entrepreneur that owed as much to certain New York billionaires (now turned President).

The series was a massive hit internationally and made huge stars of Cain and Hatcher. Their chemistry was wonderful on-screen and the series concentration of glossy comedy and romance made it a must watch even for those who weren’t into comic books (the series pulled in big numbers for the BBC in the mid-90’s and is very much a genre product of its time in much the same was as The X-FilesBuffy the Vampire Slayer or Charmed, or at least it feels that way personally given how much I watched it along with those shows during that period).

The series would come unstuck somewhat in its third season. After two seasons of will they/won’t they and every obstacle getting in the way of their tentative romance (the series was nothing but a grandiose work of Superman/Lois Lane fan fiction and all the better for it), the characters finally made a go of their romance and soon made their way down the aisle for a wedding that turned out was never real because Lois had been replaced by a clone, followed by a nonsensical amnesia arc that felt like it went on forever.

From massive ratings to barely scraping by, ABC renewed the series for a fifth season, but ratings dropped so low during the fourth it was subsequently cancelled, ending on a baby related-cliffhanger that was never resolved.

Thankfully the series has never gone away; it has been repeated constantly on television, been re-released on DVD anytime Warners’ have something brand new Superman related coming out (a Blu-Ray release would be even more appreciated), and is very much part of the Superman-lore, with Hatcher and Cain both popping up on Smallville and Supergirl in later years, such has their impact been in the roles. While some may think of the series as cheesy and dated, and there’s no denying that Reeve and Margot Kidder are more iconic as the characters, for myself and many of my generation, Lois and Clark was our first ‘new’ Superman after having been exposed to the character through Bank Holiday or Christmas broadcasts of the Christopher Reeve movies.

With no new movies on the horizon (Superman Lives was about to begin its torturous journey to not being made at this point), Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher were our Lois and Clark and Saturday nights at 6:15pm, just before Noel’s House Party, was Superman time and it was magical and romantic and wonderful.

It would be four years before we’d get another live action Superman, or at least Clark Kent, on-screen. In the meantime animation was to give us a wonderful Superman fix in the shape of Superman:The Animated Series. Although not marketed as a spin-off of Batman: The Animated Series, it did come from the same stable of writers, producers and directors, with a similar animation style and subsequently crossing over with Batman and then spinning off together in the shape of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.

Boasting the voices of Tim Daly as Clark, Dana Delaney as Lois and Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor, the series was gorgeously animated and, like Batman before it, boasted some of the finest writing and stories featuring the Man of Steel in such a way that it makes one wonder why Warners just didn’t shoot  live action versions of these stories when they struggled to get these movies off the ground, or even get audiences and critics to respond favourably to them when they do.

Then, in 2001, the longest-running superhero television series would debut, but we didn’t know it at the time. Taking its cue from Superboy and focusing on the teenage years of Clark, this time there would be no costume as the series would proclaim itself to be a series with “no flights, no tights”.

Developed for television by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, and with a pilot directed by David Nutter, and premiering on The WB Network, there was no way that Smallville was never going to be not be picked up. With a teen cast made up the best looking twenty-somethings you could think of, and with newcomer Tom Welling in the lead role, not to mention that gloriously brilliant and anthemic theme song courtesy of Remy Zero, Smallville was a massive ratings success right out of the gate for The WB, boasting, by 2001 standards at least, impressive visual effects for a television series, superb production values, and a lovely understanding and portrayal of the Clark Kent character.

Mindful of its own legacy, the series came on like it was a cross between Superboy, The X-Files and Dawson’s Creek, mixing superhero thrills, monster of the week story telling (sometimes referred to be fans of the show as freak of the week) and coming of age drama.

Cast to perfection, Welling was a charming and lovely Clark, but the series was undoubtedly stolen by Michael Rosenbaum’s definitive interpretation of Lex Luthor. Friends with Clark from their first meeting, the series had a lovely pressure cooker of a time bomb going on around it as we waited for the inevitable to happen and for their friendship to sour. Would Lex turn evil this week? Will he find out Clark’s secret? When will Lois Lane show up? Isn’t it a little creepy that Clark watched Lana from across the way by using a telescope?

Lasting for a monumental ten seasons, the series lasted longer than many expected and by the last three seasons and had effectively become a Superman television series in all but costume, with the series having to put Welling into variations of Superman’s famed threads (season nine went for a Matrix-style all black style, for example), so as to save the costume reveal for when they knew the series was coming to an end, which for many felt like was never going to happen.

For some, the series might outstay its welcome, and it did have an up and down time in terms of quality; the first three seasons are wonderful; the less said about the fourth the better; the fifth rebounds with the appearance of James Marsters as Brainiac, while the sixth starts strong, particularly with the first appearance of Justin Hartly as Oliver Queen/Green Arrow, but turns into a bizarre soap opera in the second half with fake pregnancies and the Clark/Lex/Lana Lang love triangle; season seven also starts strong with the first appearance of Laura Vandervoort as Supergirl, but the WGA Writers’ Strike of that year means it runs aground in the second half; the eighth season and its interpretation of Doomsday should never be talked about again, but then we get to the last two seasons and we are presented with some of the finest superhero television ever produced.

During the course of the series, Clark’s relationship with Lana Lang became a massive crutch on the show, but with the character completely out of the picture, the series put all its focus on to Clark’s budding romance with Lois Lane, a superb Erica Durance who made the part her own from the moment she first appeared in the otherwise very lacklustre fourth season. It essentially becomes Lois and Clark again, albeit in the 21st century with better visual effects and a more eager ability to utilise many elements from DC Comics themselves such as the show’s equivalent of the Justice League and the Suicide Squad, working brilliantly as a result; it’s charming, it’s fun, it’s romantic and very, very engaging and for anyone who finds the thought of watching ten seasons off-putting, just know that it is worth it for the last two glorious seasons which may, in fact, be the best seasons of the entire run.

Yes, Clark’s teenage romance with Lana Lang goes on and on and on and in some cases sees Welling and Lang actress Kristen Kreuk basically recycle variations of the same conversation in the first two seasons regarding his inability to tell her his secrets, but the series remained forever watchable, even when it made massive mistakes like having Clark defeat Doomsday in the space of about thirty seconds at the tail end of season eight, while the same season’s Jimmy Olsen should never be talked about again. Ever.

While we never fully see Welling in the costume, it builds up to one hell of a finale and during the course of its ten season run, it pays glorious tribute to Superman’s on-screen legacy, with Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Marc Olsen, Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher and Helen Slater all making guest appearances in the series while former General Zod himself Terrence Stamp and his amazing vocal tones recurred throughout the series as Jor-El, while visually the series paid tribute to the original cycle of movies with a similar visual effect used to portray The Phantom Zone, while composer Mark Snow wasn’t above paying tribute to John Williams’ iconic scores.

Incredibly, not only did Smallville run for a record number of seasons, it did so while a brand new Superman movie made it into theatres with the Brandon Routh-starring Superman Returns. That was meant to be the beginning of a new cycle of Superman movies but its box office underperformance meant it didn’t, while Smallville amazingly just went on and on.

While Green Arrow appeared in the series through the guise of the very charming Justin Hartley, Oliver Queen himself would get his own television series in the form of the Greg Berlanti produced Arrow, and while it would not be in any way connected to Smallville, it would be the growing stable of Berlanti-produced DC Comics adaptations on The CW Network, which Smallville’s home The WB had morphed into, where Superman would make his next appearance, this time in the shape of Tyler Hoechlin in Supergirl.

Given its focus on Kara Zor-El, Superman was rightly kept to the sidelines, appearing as a blacked out figure or off-camera through instant messaging to his cousin, but when it came to casting the Man of Steel himself, with much in the way of speculation as to who it would be, with rumour indicating that it might be Tom Welling himself, in the end, it would be the Teen Wolf star who would wear the famous symbol of the House of El.

Given that the big screen version of the character was being given a dark and gritty makeover through the stylings of Zack Snyder and star Henry Cavill, Hoechlin’s interpretation paid tribute more to Reeve, and even a touch of Dean Cain. Cain himself had turned up on the series as Kara’s adoptive father on Earth, with her mother portrayed by the former Supergirl herself, and Smallville guest star Helen Slater, while later in the second season Teri Hatcher showed up as the main villain of the season along with Kevin Sorbo, who had actually auditioned for the role of the Man of Steel in Lois and Clark.

The CW Network, LLC.

Hoechlin’s portrayal was loving, warm and kind-hearted, but best of all never hogged the limelight away from his cousin. The character played a key part in both the two-part season premiere and finale, but the episodes remained resolutely about Kara and her story, but it would be hard not be charmed by that stirring moment in the season premiere when Hoechlin, clad in the costume, turned to camera and winked at a family he had just saved.

Which brings us up to this year and Krypton which will be a prequel story to the Superman origin itself, heading back further in time to explore the story of Kal-El’s grandfather and the events leading to the destruction of the planet. Somewhat like Batman prequel series Gotham, the series has opted to explore a part of the story that has seldom ever been portrayed before, or at least rarely portrayed. Premiering on the Syfy Channel, the series is set to star the Clark Kent-esque Cameron Cuffe as Superman’s grandfather Seg-El and has been developed by Man of Steel and Batman Begins co-writer David S Goyer.

It promises to be a new and unique take, opting to explore a side of the Superman mythology that hasn’t been explored in live action outside of the opening acts of Superman: The Movie and Man of Steel and even then it’s going back in time further beyond those sequences. Filmed in Belfast at Titanic Studios, the same soundstages as Game of Thrones, the series has met with somewhat mixed reviews but has been renewed for a second season and has won acclaim from some fans for incorporating many elements from DC Comics and the character’s heritage.

It proves that there are always stories to tell involving Superman, and with audiences clamouring for new movies, and television series managing to explore his equally famous cousin and the origins of his own family, with the superhero genre showing no signs of going away, it seems there will always be room for Superman, both on the big screen and the small.

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