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.
The series was loosely based on the recent DC Comics continuity established by writer/artist John Byrne. While the first season featured Lex Luthor as the primary villain, the second season began to introduce more characters from the comics including The Prankster, Intergang, Mister Mxyzptlk, Toymaker, Metallo, and other Kryptonians. Superman and Lois attempted to marry several times leading to season four’s episode entitled, “Swear to God, This Time We're Not Kidding” where they finally wed and which coincided with the comic book marriage.
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman could be overly campy, particularly when it came to using guest stars like Harry Anderson, Sherman Hemsley, Jonathan Frakes, Tony Curtis, and William Devane in roles as villains. It conjured up images of the 1960s Batman TV show.
It took over 50 years but the Fleischer Superman cartoons were finally eclipsed in 1996 when Superman: The Animated Series hit the airwaves on The WB. Riding the wave of popularity off the critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated series, the new Superman series was the first to fully embrace its comic book roots. The series combined the classic comic book and Fleischer appearance with a modern take on Superman. The series featured a stellar voice cast including Tim Daly (Superman/Clark Kent), Dana Delany (Lois Lane), Clancy Brown (Lex Luthor), Michael Ironside (Darkseid), and Mike Farrell Jonathan Kent. The show also featured an incredible list of guest star voices like Ron Perlman, Malcolm McDowell, Michael Dorn, John Glover, and many others. The high profile voice cast gave the show instant credibility.
The series began with the three-part “Last Son of Krypton” storyline which detailed the destruction of Krypton, Kal-El’s journey to Earth where he is found by the Kents, growing up in Smallville and his eventual move to Metropolis and his first appearance in costume. The show would feature just about every major villain from the comics and included frequent guest appearances by other heroes like The Flash, Green Lantern, and Lobo. One of the highlights of the run was the three-part “World’s Finest” story arc as Superman teamed up with Batman to take on Lex Luthor and the Joker.
Superman: The Animated Series ran for a total of 54 episodes from 1996 – 2000. From there, Superman became one of the core members in the WB’s Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series, this time voiced by George Newbern. The two series ran from 2001 – 2006 amassing 91 episodes. Superman would also appear in the next WB, DC Comics inspired series, The Legion of Superheroes.
A new series was about to hit television. This wasn’t Superman and it wasn’t Superboy. In fact the Producers creed for the new show was “no tights, no flights!” Well what the hell kind of show has Superman but doesn’t have him in costume and flying? That show was Smallville and it became the most successful show about Superman in history running for an incredible ten seasons. Tom Welling starred as a teenaged Clark Kent growing up in Smallville and first learning how to use his incredible abilities.
At first, the series relied on the simple plot device of Clark fighting regular people who gained super powers after being exposed to kryptonite meteor rocks. But the show’s success quickly forced the producers to cull comic book continuity for new plot elements and soon the show featured a host of DC Comics heroes and villains including Green Arrow, Doomsday, Zod, Aquaman, Brainiac, Impulse, The Martian Manhuter, Black Canary, Zatanna, Cyborg, Booster Gold, The Legion of Superheroes, The Justice Society, and Darkseid.
While the show too often relied on Dawson’s Creek style melodrama, particularly in the early seasons, by the time the show reached its last few years it was full on comic book action (mostly) and the producers even broke their own rule in the series finale when Clark finally donned the cape and tights to finally fly and rescue the planet from Darkseid.
Superman had reached his loftiest heights yet in animation and live-action TV but it was still nearly 20 years since the last Superman theatrical film. That finally changed in 2006 when Bryan Singer, Director of the first two X-Men films helmed Superman Returns. Superman film projects had been kicking around for years in development hell including Superman Reborn featuring a battle against Doomsday; Kevin Smith’s Superman Lives; and Batman vs. Superman written by J.J. Abrams.
Superman Returns acted as a semi-sequel to 1980s Superman II and smartly disavowed any relationship to Superman III and IV. Brandon Routh took over as Superman with Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. The Film remained faithful to the look of the first two Superman films and did reasonably well at the box office and with critics although most comic book fans were lukewarm towards the effort. Despite making nearly $400 million worldwide, Warner Bros. also found the film lackluster and a 2009 sequel was canceled in favor of a complete re-boot.
Before the 2013 Man of Steel re-boot however, Superman has starred in several, direct-to-video animated films including Superman:Brainiac Attacks (2006), Superman Doomsday (2007), Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009), Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010), Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam (2010), All-Star Superman (2011), Superman vs. The Elite (2012), and Superman: Unbound (2013), as well as appearing in the various Justice League animated films.
So there you have it…nearly 75 years of Superman’s history in radio, TV, Film, and animation, all leading up to Friday’s premiere of The Man of Steel. And we haven’t even touched on Superman in toys, videogames, and…well, maybe another time!
Check out Part 3 of a Timeline History of Superman here.
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