Superman(s): The Bluffers' Guide to the Man of Steel
1. The Man Who Fell to Earth
He’s not a bird or a plane, but Superman – the “Man of Steel” – has been mistaken for both, and often. He was the first comic book hero, and greedily hogged most of the superhero attributes all at once: he was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound (a phrase that came from his first radio show in the late 1930s)… But he couldn’t fly, at least not as originally envisioned.
2. Bad Guy
Created by two Jewish teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932, he was conceived as a bad guy: bald, telepathic, and bent on world domination. A few months later the duo reused the name, this time refiguring him as the hero we know today, basing his looks on matinee idol Douglas Fairbanks and creating a “mild-mannered” human alter-ego, reporter Clark Kent (a character inspired by slapstick comedian Harold Lloyd). Even so, it would take six years before the character would find a publisher willing to take a gamble on him. Detective Comics (later DC Comics) took the plunge, a business decision they would not regret.
3. Out of Space
It was in June 1938 that the first Superman comic strip came out. Superman already wore the famous costume, a blue unitard with red shorts, boots and cape, and a big S shield insignia on his chest. It was a flashy look, part cop, part bodybuilder, and it owed something to Saturday Morning serial hero Flash Gordon. At first there was a more science fiction feel to the series, with Superman battling mad scientists and robots. Superman was an alien being too, an orphan from the planet Krypton. But it wasn’t long before this Nietzschean Uber-man was enrolled in the fight against Fascism, battling Hitler himself in a propaganda war Superman couldn’t lose.
4. Taking Off
The first movie incarnation came with a series of animated short films (ten minutes apiece) by the Fleisher Studios in 1941 – and it was the Fleischers who requested that Superman bump up his grasshopper abilities to fully-fledged flight, to save their team from having to spend so much time drawing him running and jumping.
When the tabloids dig up “the curse of Superman”, they always go back to poor old George Reeves, a B movie actor who played the role on a kids’ TV series in the 1950s. Reeves’ first film role was in the very first scene of Gone With the Wind. He seemed to be on the cusp of stardom in the early WWII years, then he signed up for the military and the opportunities thinned out. The Superman gig wasn’t very prestigious – it was a cheap production, too cheap to stick with the original star Kirk Alyn (who wanted too much money), and Reeves never thought it would be picked up for a series – but kids loved the show and it ran for several years, from 1952 to 1958, making Reeves a celebrity. Increasingly he became frustrated that his career was going nowhere. On June 16, 1959 he argued with his lover, Leonore Lemmon, went upstairs to bed, and then shot himself. He was 45 years old. His story would later be told by Daredevil, or at least Ben Affleck, in the drama Hollywoodland.
6. Superman and the Mole Men
The first live action Superman movie was actually two episodes of George Reeves’ TV show stuck together. Superman and the Mole Men (1951) runs just under an hour. It’s the story of how “mole men” pop up out of the world’s deepest oil mine. They’re mute, furry midgets with human heads – and Superman protects them from hostile surface-dwellers who are, perhaps understandably, freaked.
7. Brand O
Film historians have taken to marking Star Wars (1977) as the turning point where Hollywood fell in love with the blockbuster. But if Richard Donner’s Superman had failed in 1978, perhaps history would have been different. Produced by father and son Alexander and Ilya Salkind, Superman the Movie was two years in the making and designed to capitalize on the latest special effects, blue screen (aka green screen) a back projection process that convinced audiences Superman really was flying over Metropolis. After Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds, Warren Beatty and even Sylvester Stallone passed on the role, newcomer Christopher Reeve was cast as Superman – a much younger, more boyish hero than George Reeves (who looks like your dad). At 6’4 he was also three inches taller.) Obviously worried by the lack of star power, the producers then scandalized everyone by paying Marlon Brando $3 million for 13 shooting days – or $8 a second. (A lot of money back then.) Gene Hackman got $2 million to play villain Lex Luthor. Godfather scribe Mario Puzo came up with the storyline. At $40 million the budget was a record breaker at the time – and so were the profits.
The Salkinds knew they were on to a good thing and had a sequel on the go while the first film was still shooting – but fired director Richard Donner, handing over the reins to Richard Lester, who had directed the Three Musketeers for them a couple of years before. Where Donner instilled gravitas and pomp, Lester’s instinct was for slapstick and tongue in cheek thrills. Superman II (1980) struck almost the perfect balance, and on paper at least it seems like the biggest influence on Zack Snyder’s current reboot. With the third and fourth films, as well as the ill-fated Supergirl (1984), the pendulum swung too far towards silliness, dooming the franchise for nearly two decades.
9. The Curse Strikes Again
Sadly, Christopher Reeve was thrown from a horse in 1995 and became a quadriplegic. Despite his determination and active support for spinal cord research he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, dying in 2004 at the age of 52.
10. Except for the popular teen series Smallville – with Tom Welling as the young Clark Kent, struggling with his alien origins but never swapping his blue jeans for tights – the character lay dormant while many filmmakers and stars toyed with ideas for a relaunch with notorious producer Jon Peters. The closest to materialize was to have been directed by Kevin Smith and star Nicolas Cage. Warner Bros unveiled Superman Returns in 2006. Rather than a traditional reboot, Returns was a kind of alternative sequel to the Salkinds’ Superman II. It was directed by Bryan Singer, then hot off his hit X-Men series, and again, a newcomer was cast as Superman. Sadly Brandon Routh and this long (nearly three hour) and reverential treatment was underwhelming to the fans – even a staggering worldwide box office take of $391 million was not enough to make the film a hit in the eyes of the bean-counters, and plans for a sequel were quietly shelved.