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Opinion Pieces

Big Blue on The Big (and Small) Screen: Superman on Film


Superman is my hero.

He has been for longer than I care to remember.  There was just something about the character that resonated with me from an early age.  A hero of infinite strength, not just physical, but a strength of character, a moral strength and unwillingness to compromise, no matter what the situation, not matter what the cost.  Forget the cape and the red underpants outside the trousers, that is inspirational in my book.

As I have grown into adulthood, chronologically at least, the character has stayed with me.  38 years old and I still make a monthly trip to the comic book store to follow Superman’s adventures and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

The character has changed a lot over the decades, but one thing has remained constant, The Man of Steel’s transition into another medium has not been without problems.

So here is one fanboys look at The Big Blue Boyscout and his cinema and small screen adventures.

Superman creator Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster

Created by Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster,  Superman, or at least a version of him first appeared in a Science Fiction Fanzine in 1933.  He was a bald telepathic villain, who attempted to take over the world.  He was ultimately unpopular.  Over the next 5 years, the pair would mould and develop the character into a version at least, of the hero we see today.

Basing the Superman character on the swash buckling actors of the time, like Douglas Fairbanks Snr and Clark Kent on, at least in part on Shuster himself.

Superman as we know him first appeared in Action Comics #1 in June 1938.  “Faster than a speeding Bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”

Fleischer Brother’s Superman Cartoons 1941-43

In the beginning the Man of Steel’s powers were relatively limited.  In fact, it wasn’t until a request by The Fleischer Brothers, while making the Superman cartoons in the early 40s, to change his powers as they found it too difficult to find ways to have him jump around that Superman began to fly.

I am not going to get bogged down by the evolution of the character or his powers and abilities or get caught up in the extensive history.  That is something that myself and Welshy can debate for hours over a few beers, here I want to look at the character on screen, from my own experiences.  The Christopher Reeve films, Superman Returns and The Man of Steel, with a slight diversion into Supergirl.  Then on to the small screen.  From The 90s Animated Series through the Justice League.  From Lois and Clark to Smallville.  What went right and what went wrong.

 
George Reeves as Superman in Adventures of Superman 1952-58

Before I get in to all that, I feel I should mention George Reeves in Adventures of Superman, this was a live action serial which ran from 1952-1958.  It was the first live action series to feature The Man of Steel.  Running for 6 seasons and making a star of Reeves, the show is drenched in controversy due to the untimely death of its star from gun shot wounds. Although his death was ruled a suicide, there are those who still believe that he was murdered.  That theory is explored in the film Hollywoodland (Dir. Allen Coulter, 2006) which stars Ben Affleck as Reeves.  Check it out, if for no other reason than Affleck is awesome.

The Feature Films

Superman: The Movie (Dir, Richard Donner, 1978)

I love this film.  Superman II seems to get held in higher regard, but for me, this is the better film.

It takes it’s time, totally immersing the viewer in the world.  Christopher Reeve doesn’t actually show up until about 45 minutes in and I love every minute of it.

When it was decided to bring The Man of Steel to the big screen, the decision was taken to film both Superman and its sequel together,  A team of writers, which included The Godfather author Mario Puzo were drafted in and Richard Donner (who would go on to direct Lethal Weapon and The Goonies) was hired to direct.  As time went on and budgets soared, tensions rose between Donner and The Producers and the decision was made to stop filming the sequel (which was about 75% done) and focus on completing Superman: The Movie.   This wasn’t the only issue surrounding the production, Marlon Brando, who plays Jor-el, Superman’s father in an extended prologue, was notoriously difficult to work with and created all sorts of problems during his 12 days on set.

All that aside, what we are left with is an absolute treat.  Christopher Reeve, who only received 3rd billing on the film, behind Brando and Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, is perfectly cast as Kal-El.  Equally at home as the dashing hero, fighting for Truth, Justice and the American Way, as he is as his intentionally bumbling alter ego Clark Kent.

The supporting cast are all great too, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane is great and harks back to the screw ball comedy heroines of the 1930s and gets the balance spot on between the hard nosed journalist and damsel in distress.

Other than some slight pacing issues the real problem with this,as with any Superman film (II and Man of Steel aside), is the fact that, with the exception of General Zod, it is difficult to actually believe that Superman is ever really in any danger (Returns really suffers from this).  Still, that is a small complaint.  This has pride of place in my Top 5 films of all time.

Superman II (Dir, Richard Lester, 1981)

Ok, so controversy first.  The production history on this film is well documented.  Richard Donner claimed to have filmed 75% of the movie before being removed in 1977.  Richard Lester was then hired to complete the film and in doing so, re-shot a lot of what Donner had done.

The film itself has been very well received by cinema goers and critics alike, and it widely regarded as one of the best Super Hero films of all time.

The film picks up General Zod (Terrance Stamp), the Kryptonian Criminal banished by Jor-El during the prologue of the first film.

He and his followers have managed to escape The Phantom Zone and have come to Earth to seek revenge on the Son of Jor-El.  This is much more action packed than the first film, as we actually have some one for Superman to fight.  Not just 1, but 3 villains with similar powers to his own.

Yes, the action scenes are great and the scenes between Reeve and Kidder are well played out.  The desire of Clark to live a normal life with the woman he loves set against his duty to protect his adoptive world is well observed,  but the film just feels a bit off, probably due to the fact that the director who finished the film was not in the same league as the guy who started it.  It wasn’t until 2006, when an alternative cut of the film was released did we see how Donner would have done it (more on that later)

Overall, great but still prefer the original.

Superman III (Dir Richard Lester, 1983)

After he took over from Richard Donner and finished Superman II, Lester was given the reigns of Part III.

I remember loving this film as a child, however revisiting it as an adult, I was less impressed.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some great moments, and I love that it was set in Smallville rather than Metropolis, replacing Lois Lane with Lana Lang and giving Lex Luthor a rest too.

Christopher Reeve was also given a chance to explore the darker side of the character and does it brilliantly as he relishes playing a corrupted version of Superman, following his exposure to Kryptonite.

There are problems, and they are plentiful.  The brief glimpse at a darker Superman aside, the tone of the film is much more comedic and lets be honest, it borders in camp at times.  The immersive credit sequence and iconic score are gone and replaced with a strange slapstick sequence that to this day it just cant get my head around.  It is like they had set aside everything that had made the first 2 films great and iconic in favour of a cheap laugh. The films plot set around a super computer dates it very badly.  However that largest criticism levelled at the film was the casting of Richard Pryor, as much of a fan as I am of the great man, here, he is just out of place, miscast is harsh as the character has no real place in a Superman film.

Still, thanks for the early memories, but cringe watching it now.

Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (Dir Sidney J. Furie, 1987)

If anyone read my piece on The Star Trek Franchise (it’s here) I completely skated over Star Trek V, I feel the same about this film, but hey, this is Superman, so I have to find something to say about it.

It retains the slapsticky, campy tone of Part III, it sees the return of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor (he looks embarrassed to be part of this), it was filmed in Milton Keynes, it has a dude who went on to be in Casualty in it, an early role for Jim Broadbent……and it is utterly dreadful.

On the bright side, Reeve is wonderful as always and given that this is the last time he would pull on that uniform, it makes me a little sad that it is so bad.  This is most definitely for completests only…..

Superman Returns (Dir. Bryan Singer, 2006)

I always let out a massive sigh every time I think about this film.  It had so much potential.  Bryan Singer at the helm, coming off the back of two brilliant X-Men films seemed like the perfect choice.  Brandon Routh, unknown at the time but had echos of Christopher Reeve (who has sadly died 2 years previous), the brilliant Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and probably the most exciting part, it promised to be a sequel to Superman II, ignoring the comedic campery of the later sequels.

It has been nearly 20 years since Superman had last been on our screens, Spider-Man and X-Men had put Marvel on the map and this was DCs chance to make their mark.

It was a moderate box office success, it was a critical triumph, Praise was heaped upon it, saying that they had brilliantly updated Superman for a new generation.  Nope.  Not having that…..

As I write this, I ask myself, was it really that bad?  The answer is yes.  I have often asked myself that question and the answer is always yes.  It has its moments, and they are pretty special.

The opening credit sequence, harking back to the original both is style and by using echos of John Williams score.  Brandon Routh himself is great as Superman, dashing and heroic, almost god like in some scenes, capturing the character perfectly, his physical resemblance to Reeve helps too.  The scene where he rescues Lois from the plane is still jaw dropping.  But…….

I have always felt that Clark, not Superman is the character. This is something that Superman writer John Bynre focused on a lot in the 1990s.  In a line from the 90s TV series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, in the second season episode Tempus Fugitive sums it up perfectly:

“No Lois, Superman is what I can do, Clark is who I am”

In Superman Returns, Clark hardly features, which is made even more infuriating, given just how good Routh is The CW TV Series Arrow, where is currently appearing as Ray Palmer.  A real missed opportunity.

Kate Bosworth….now, I am would love to meet the person who sat in the rehearsal room and pointed to Kate Bosworth and said……”yup, that’s her.  That’s Lois Lane”  She is horribly miscast, as are most of the supporting players.  Frank Langella as Perry White and Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen both miss the mark and don’t get me started on Kal Penn and Parker Posey. James Marsden must have really done something to upset Bryan Singer, as Cyclops, his role in X-Men and X2 is totally marginalised, and here he is saddled with the thankless boyfriend role.  Only Eva Marie Saint as Martha Kent hits the right note, but sadly, her role is greatly reduced too.  I am not mentioning the kid.  If you want to wind up The Snooty Ushers there are some buttons you can push, with Dan, any negativity surrounding Bruce Campbell will be met with rage, simply mention that you thought Taylor Kitch made a good Gambit to Welshy and stand back…..with me, it is the bloody kid in Superman Returns.

I have already gone on too long about Returns, so onward.

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (Dir. Richard Donner, 2006)

Release to coincide with the DVD of Superman Returns in November 2006, The Richard Donner Cut finally answered the question.  What would Superman II be like if he was allowed to finish what he started?

Restoring a significant amount of lost footage shot by Donner in 1977, the film was put together by Michael Thau, under the direct supervision of Donner himself.  Unlike most Director’s Cuts, this is an alternate version of the film.  It has an alternate beginning and ending, using different angles and shots and has even restored some deleted footage of Marlon Brando.  Since Donner never finished shooting the film, in a pivotal scene, Thau uses an early screen test between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, to keep the plot as close to Donner’s original vision.

So, is it better?  Yes, slightly.  Superman II was already a great film, the ending is slightly frustrating as it is simply a rehash of the first films conclusion.

Before we move on to Man of Steel, I would like to beg your indulgence for a second, while I give a brief mention to…….

Supergirl (Dir. Jeannot Szwarc, 1984)

Yes, I know, Superman doesn’t appear in this (apart from a photo) but this is one of my wife’s favourite films and hey, my little girl is called Kara, so I am allowed a brief diversion….

It is considered canon to the Christopher Reeve films, with Marc McClure reprising the role of Jimmy Olsen from the Superman series.

The film features such acting heavyweights as Faye Dunaway, Mia Farrow, Peter Cook, Peter O’Toole and best of all Hart Bochner (Ellis from Die Hard)

It is camp and ultimately terrible, but I think I will always have a soft spot for it.

Man of Steel (Dir. Zack Snyder, 2013)

After Superman Returns, I feared I had seen the last of The Last Son of Krypton on the big screen.  Then,  WB made the very sensible decision of hiring Christopher Nolan to reboot The Batman Franchise.  After The Dark Knight grossed $1b world wide, I began to hope that WB would look to the other big hitter in the DCU and Superman would fly again.

This actually IS a Superman for a new generation.  The Suit has been updated in the comics following the New 52 reboot, the red pants are gone.

Henry Cavill was hired and, once again, Superman was facing off against General Zod,  A real threat.

Unlike Returns, the cast are perfect.  Michael Shannon brings real menace to Zod, Kevin Costner hits all the right notes as a pitch perfect Jonathon Kent and Amy Adams is brilliant as Lois Lane.  A proper investigative journalist, who figures out Superman’s identity really quickly, something that bothered me at first, but, hey, if she was half as good a reporter as we are told she is, she should have sussed this in 1939…..Henry Cavill himself is great.  Again, Clark seems to be slightly cast aside and as is often pointed out by my friend Welshy, he doesn’t really say much, but the suit is his.  A Superman for the New 52 generation and beyond.

The film itself is a proper blockbuster and the action sequences border on excessive, but all in all, the Superman film we have been waiting for since 1983 was here.

I write this on the day that the trailer teaser dropped.  There isn’t much, but I feel a bit sorry for Cavill in as much as he didn’t get a solo sequel to really explore the character, still in spite of the dreadful subtitle, I await with moderate indifference to see what they come up with…….

Superman on TV

Superman: The Animated Series 1996-2000

This was the first of many spin offs from the outstanding Batman: The Animated Series.  While not quite hitting the heights of Batman, this was a fine series.  It was beautifully animated and offered just as complex plots and characterisation as Batman.

Tim Daly, who voiced Superman, went to to reprise the role in the brilliant Justice League series.

I would highly recommend checking this out.  It is running on Amazon Prime and can be picked up very cheap on DVD.  It is fun and a very easy and addictive watch.  A wonderfully catch theme tune too…..

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997)

I have a massive soft spot for this show.  In particular Season 1.  As I previously mentioned, John Byrne, who wrote for the comic series in the 1990s, was a big advocate of the theory that Clark is the true identity and Superman is the disguise.
Lois and Clark loosely uses this theory.  This is the best screen version of Clark Kent for me, in as much as it is the closet to the character that I imagine him to be.  He is just as capable and every bit as good a reporter as Lois and the whole mild mannered, bumbling side of the character is diluted.  The love triangle is well handled too.  Clark is in love with Lois, Lois loves Clark, but is utterly besotted by this Superman….. she loves them both, without knowing they are the same person, it is handled well in this show.
Yes, I know, it is ropey.  Pretty terrible effects and after the first season it descends it to utter dross, but I still stand by Season 1.  Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher make a great couple and John Shea is charmingly menacing as a different kind of Lex Luthor.

Smallville 2001-2011

The origin of Superman, this series will always hold a special place in my heart.  It was pitched as an origin story, a young Clark Kent coming to terms with his powers and what makes him into the hero we have come to know as Superman.  We are promised no tights, no flights.

What started as a high school drama with super powers, developed into a proper superhero show.

I could write all night about this show, but you have stuck with me long enough so I will be brief.

What is good, Tom Welling is great as Clark, he is very easy to identify and root for.  Michael Rosebaum is a wonderful Lex Luthor.  In the early seasons, we get to see how Clark and Lex, who start as friends, became the enemies we all know.

In the later seasons, we get to meet several DC Characters, including Green Arrow, Flash (or Impulse) Martian Manhunter, Doomsday and Supergirl.  The characters are all slightly altered so Smallvilled just enough to make them believable in the world of the show and keep this old fanboy happy.  The Absolute Justice episode in Season 9 being stand out.

The guest stars who pop up though the 10 years include Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Marc McClure and Helen Slater from the films and Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher for Lois and Clark.  While they change a lot…. they still stayed on the right side of respectful to the original material.

The shows biggest triumph was introducing the character of Chloe Sullivan, she was written specifically for the show, but was such a success, she was eventually written into the comic canon.  She was played by the wonderful Allison Mack, and was the only cast member, other that Tom Welling to appear in all 10 seasons of the show.

What is bad, well, the show suffered in the early season from the “freak of the week” format and the character of Lana Lang, who featured for 7 full seasons, was awful.  Whingy and annoying, she outstayed her welcome by about 4 years.  With only Welling and Mack surviving from the original cast , the later seasons suffer a little, mainly down to the absence of Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor.

The show ended how we all wanted it to.  Clark assuming the Cape and shield and becoming Superman and Michael Rosenbaum returning for one last show down with Clark.  A very satisfying ending to a show I loved for 10 years.

The Future…..

What does the small screen have in store for The Last Son of Krypton, well, there are a few things in the works, nothing directly involving Superman.

The CBS are developing a Supergirl TV series that will air at some point in 2015/16, Dean Cain from Lois and Clark and Helen Slater from the Supergirl movie are involved, and it seems like the show will exist in the same universe as CWs Flash and Arrow, we shall wait and see….. it seems unlikely that Superman will feature, but you never know……

Speaking of Flash and Arrow, there have been rumours of late that Tom Welling could be reprising his role as Superman from Smallville on these shows, some sort of alternate time line story no doubt…..my initial reservations about this are in conflict with me wanting to see Welling do his thing in the Suit as we never really get to see it in the show.

Also, David S. Goyer, writer of the Blade Trilogy and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, is developing a series called Krypton, a series based on Superman’s home world, set years before his birth……

Well, thank you for sticking with me on this, it has been a little longer than I had initially planned.

I love this character and the notion of heroes in general.  I like the idea that when times and tough and you are not at your best, you always have the idea of a hero to fall back on.

While there are many people in my life who inspire me, my Father being a big one, I love the idea of retreating into a fictional world.  Superman is my hero and still, to this day, I love picking up a comic book and losing myself in the character.

Thanks for reading 🙂

About Snooty Usher Dave

Favourite Film : Ghostbusters (1984) Worst Film: Left Behind (2014) Guilty Pleasure: Pitch Perfect (2012) 40 year old family man from Hamilton, Scotland. I have settled in Gateshead with my wife and 2 beautiful daughters. Worked as a Cinema Manager (or glorified usher) for 14 years, now I run a chicken shop. Love Sport especially Football and Tennis. Love comic books, especially DC and particularly Superman. I own 58 Nicolas Cage films.

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