Contrary to what a lot of people may think, Superman was not the first superhero. Costumed heroes date back to such characters as The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro in the early 1900s; Buck Rogers in the 1920s; pulp heroes like The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Avenger; and newspaper strip heroes The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician. In fact, Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created another hero several years before Superman called Doctor Occult. But…none of those characters have had nearly the kind of pop culture impact that Superman has had. As Superman celebrates his 75th anniversary this year with a new major theatrical film, “The Man of Steel”, Mania takes a look at the history of Superman in TV, film, animation, and even radio!
While Superman had been a huge hit on radio, TV, and Saturday morning cartoons something was still lacking something. That something came in 1978 with the release of Superman, a big-budget, theatrical film. The film’s $55 million dollar budget would still be considered sizable today and for 1978 was absolutely huge. Technology had finally advanced to the point where the tagline “You will believe a man can fly” was not just an idle boast.
Many well-known actors were considered for the role of Superman, most of which today are laughable including Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Christopher Walken, James Caan, James Brolin, Nick Nolte, Jon Voight, Bruce Jenner, and Charles Bronson! Patrick Wayne, the son of John Wayne was cast for the role but dropped out when his father developed cancer. Unknown Christopher Reeve won the role and put on forty pounds of muscle to look the part. Margot Kidder starred as Lois Lane, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and Marlon Brando (earning a cool $3.7 million) as Jor-El. The film was capped by a rousing John Williams musical score featuring perhaps the greatest superhero theme music ever.
Superman earned over $300 million at the box-office making it the sixth highest grossing film up until that time. So confident were the producers of Superman that they actually filmed the sequel Superman II simultaneously. A lot of fans still consider Superman II (1980) to be the greatest superhero film of all time or, at the very least, it’s easily the best Superman film. Original Director Richard Donner was removed from the film before it was completed and Richard Lester was brought in to finish the film. Over 25 years later, the Donner version was released on DVD and featured numerous changes from the theatrical version.
The sequel finds Superman battling the phantom zone escapees General Zod, Ursa, and Non, all of whom have the same powers he has. The city-destroying battle in Metropolis remains one of the greatest fight sequences in superhero film history. The film is legendary for its many different versions. Besides the theatrical version and Donner cut, television versions of the film also varied with the number of additional minutes of added footage.
As great as Superman II was, Superman III (1983) began the franchise’s demise. Richard Lester continued his destruction of Richard Donner’s work with a silly, slapstick mess that played its story as much for laughs as action. Richard Pryor was the hottest comedian in the business at the time and his stardom landed him a co-starring role as a computer programmer who goes to work for an evil businessman (Robert Vaughn) who is little more than a far less interesting Lex Luthor.
The film’s budget was nearly 20% lower than the first two Superman films and it showed itself with cheaper, sillier looking special effects including a woman who is turned into a super-powered cyborg. The film did have some redeeming qualities such as a synthetic form of kryptonite that turns Superman into a jerk forcing his good and evil sides to battle for control and Annette O’ Toole as Lana Lang who would later play Martha Kent in Smallville.
Just when you thought it could get no worse for Superman, 1987 brought fans the truly awful Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The budget for the final film to star Christopher Reeve as Superman was a mere $17 million, a third of the budget of the original film a decade earlier. While still under Warner Brothers the film was produced by Cannon Films, notorious for its low budget action films in the 1980s.
Concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Superman gathers all the nuclear missiles of the United States and Russian IN A GIANT NET, and hurls them into the sun. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Hackman) steals a lock of Superman’s hair and uses it to create his own super powered villain called Nuclear Man. By this time, Reeve and Hackman were going through the motions and Kidder’s role as Lois Lane had been reduced to a bit part. After the disaster of Superman IV, it would be nearly 20 years before we would see Superman in another theatrical film.
With Superman dead on the big screen it was once again time for the Man of Steel’s return to television. In 1988 the syndicated, live-action series Superboy debuted, produced by Ilya and Alexander Salkind, the producers of the first three Superman movies. Superboy had the benefit of being written by a number of actual comic book writers including Mike Carlin and Andrew Helfer, Denny O'Neil, Cary Bates, J. M. DeMatteis and Mark Evanier.
John Haymes Newton starred as Superboy/Clark for the first season but the Salkinds were unhappy with his portrayal and he would be replaced by Gerard Christopher (pictured) for the second season. The show featured villains such as Lex Luthor, Metallo, Mister Mxyzptlk, and Bizarro. Despite being only a 30 minute series the show was darker and more dramatic than you might think, particular the final two seasons which some have attributed to the success of the first Tim Burton Batman film.
The same year that Superboy debuted, Superman returned to animation in a new series simply called Superman but better known today as the Ruby-Spears Superman, for the animation studio that produced the series. The series was produced to coincide with Superman’s 50th anniversary in 1988 and ran for 13 episodes Saturday mornings on CBS. Each ½ hour show consisted of two episodes: a main Superman feature and a shorter “Superman Family Album” which told tales of Superman’s early life in Smallville from his adoption by the Kents to his move to Metropolis as a young man. Longtime comic book writer Marv Wolfman serves as Story Editor and writes a few of the episodes himself. Legendary comic artist Gil Kane was the series’ Production Designer.
The animation was vastly superior to earlier Superman cartoons produced by Hanna-Barbera and Filmation. There were greater effects, more detailed backgrounds and movements, and the animation was much more fluid. Most of the adventures are rather mundane with Superman facing a variety of monsters and alien threats with little source material from the comic books used. The biggest negative to the series is the atrocious voice-acting. It may have been 1988, but the actors deliver their lines in overly dramatic 1960s/1970s cornball style. You have to keep from laughing many times at the melodramatic intonations of the actors. Beau Weaver is especially bad as Superman with a voice that is too high-pitched to take seriously.
Superman was not off TV for very long. Just a year after Superboy ended in 1992, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman premiered in ABC. It was a series that polarized its fan base. While many comic book fans were put off by the fact that it focuses as much on the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane as on the adventures of Clark's alter-ego, it certainly attracted its share of non-comic book fans. It starred Dean Cain as Superman/Clark Kent and Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane.
Part 4 of the Superman Timeline continues tomorrow on Mania.com! Discover the History of Superman Part 1 and Part 2 here.
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