Superman has been around nearly eight decades now and is the most recognizable superhero in the world. He’s evolved from a man who can leap tall buildings in a single bound to a hero who’s more god than man.
Since 1947, many brave actors have tried on the tights and cape, and each film or TV appearance provides as much insight into the world as it existed when the production happened as the character itself. How many have you seen?
Kirk Alyn (Superman Serials) — 1947
George Reeves (Adventures of Superman) — 1951
Christopher Reeve (Superman: The Movie) — 1978
John Haymes Newton (Superboy) — 1988
Gerard Christopher (Superboy) — 1989
Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) — 1993
Tom Welling (Smallville) — 2001
Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) — 2006
Henry Cavill (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman) — 2013
There’s no getting around it. The innocence of the George Reeves interpretation has been replaced by the dark power of the Henry Cavill version. It’s nearly as dramatic a change as the evolution of the special effects. But, then again, the America of the 1950s bears little resemblance to the country in the 2010s. Things change. Heroes evolve.
If you need a memory refresher or a super Moment of Zen, try watching this video, “(Super) Men of Steel.” It incorporates most of the Supermen discussed here into a Smashup of epic proportions. It’s edited by Robert Anglim and stars Edd Hall (“The Tonight Show”) as the voice of Jor-el. Plus, it’s funny…
Silver Screen Supermans
In films, if you start with Kirk Alyn as the original celluloid Superman in the late 40s film serial “Superman,” that makes Christopher Reeve’s first fully realized Superman in 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” the first reboot — which makes Brandon Routh’s 2006 “Superman Returns” the reboot of the reboot — which makes 2013’s Henry Cavill “Man of Steel” the reboot of the reboot of the reboot. And that, of course, makes “Batman v Superman” the sequel to the reboot of the reboot of the reboot.
This has been fine with me because I’m the kind of guy who buys four remakes of my favorite song on iTunes because I like to see how the familiar can be made new again. I’m always up for a re-interpretation.
If history is a judge, I’m not alone. We never seem to get tired of this Superman character (created by the great Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster). The Son of Krypton is now safely in the world’s DNA. That, however, doesn’t mean that he hasn’t morphed with time because, oh brother, he sure has done that.
All of these cinematic interpretations have their fans with the likely exception of the first one that was insanely low-budget and produced so far back in the last century that Roswell was breaking news and Truman was president.
The arc of the character — on film anyway — has been relentless in its march from light to dark — from the squarely low-budget serials… to Richard Donner’s comedically directed “Superman: The Movie” and its sequels… to the half-and-half blend of Bryan Singer’s homage-ific “Superman Returns”… to the dark origin of Zack Syder’s “Man of Steel” and the current descent into even more tonal darkness of “Batman v Superman.”
Small Screen Men and Boys of Steel
We’re not done, of course, because we can’t forget the TV Supermans. For an earlier generation of fans it was George Reeves in the 1950s series “Adventures of Superman” who was so fondly remembered. Sure the flying was cheesy and pretty much left to the imagination and the actor looked a little soft in his suit, but there was something square and wonderful about seeing him even badly done and suited up for only a short time per episode.
People back then were blown away. As a kid, I used to run home from school in order to catch the late afternoon syndication repeats. What was so awesome to an early fanboy is now just a dated relic of the past.
Later, in the 1980s, actors John Haymes Newton and Gerard Christopher would give it a try in “Superboy”, something that seems like a blip and an asterisk to the legend today.
The next great TV challenger was the winning personality of Dean Cain in the rom-com feminist expression of the legend in 1993’s “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.” This made Clark Kent the dominant force in the double-identity and turned Lois into an equal character.
I know a bit about this one because I was the Supervising Producer on the series during that first season. Extending from Deborah Joy LeVine’s excellent pilot, I got to write the episode where he meets Lois Lane, the first trip to Smallville, and the introduction of Kryptonite. That was a great time. You can read about that experience here: Lois and Clark Memories
Even so, that entire re-imagining barely had time to be missed before hearthrob Tom Welling took on the role in “Smallville,” even though he never suited up in the red and blue until the very, very end.
How Superman Defines Us
There is no objective criteria for the best Superman. It’s entirely subjective. How do these Men of Steel make you feel?
They’re all different, that’s for sure. Earnest Kirk Alyn? Middle-of-the-road George Reeves? Sweet and innocent Christopher Reeve? Slightly gay Brandon Routh? Hard-ass Henry Cavill?
Those big screen Supes might be the odds-on favorites but, again, the TV guys can’t be counted out. All of them strongly connected with their audiences. From the ill-fated Reeves (he committed suicide) to the hunks from Smallville, Cain and Welling, all of them had passionate fans. Each, I think it’s safe to argue, reflected the times during which they were produced.
You can vote for your favorite Superman in this poll: VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE SUPERMAN. It’s not just a fight. It’s a super-fight!
Every Generation Gets the Superman It Deserves
Here’s a thought experiment. If you’ve just seen Batman v Superman, what does it mean that the being of light, Superman, was made into a disaffected alien of darkness in the latest film?
These days, it seems, it’s harder and harder to be a hero.
I wonder what the character will be like 10, 20, even 50 years from now. I guess that depends on who we are when he gets there.
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