Superman postsSunday June 16, 2013
SLIDESHOW: A History of Superman Onscreen
SLIDESHOW INTRO: As of June 14, 2013, according to IMDb, there have been 175 various incarnations of the Man of Steel. But these include Uljas Kandolin in “Kiinni on ja pysyy” (1955), Ronald Wong in “97 goo waak jai: Jin mo bat sing” (1997), all of that HISHE stuff, but not, believe it or not, Henry Cavill (above). In “Man of Steel” (2013), his character is simply called Clark Kent/Kal-El, so IMDb's algorithms fail to make the connection. Oh, IMDb. When will you learn? (BTW: What are the IMDb parameters for web-specific inclusion? A certain number of YouTube hits? A certain place in the cultural firmament? Or do you just have to ask?) What follows is a slideshow of 17 of the better-known cinematic incarnations of the Man of Steel, including Cavill, but not Kandolin and Wong. They'll have to wait. Admittedly, though, the dude on the next slide wasn't exactly cinematic ...
1940: At the 1939-40 New York World's Fair (for which, yes, read Doctorow's novel), actor Ray Middleton was hired to play the Man of Tomrrow at a special Superman Day. This was the first time a man had ever played Superman and he doesn't look bad for a first go. My favorite part of the costume is the written-out explanation above the “S” symbol. Image that. A time when you had to explain the name of the man in cape and strong-man undies with an “S” on his chest. Middleton would never play the Man of Steel on screen but he did play a founding father in the screen version of “1776,” as well as various roles on “M*A*S*H,” “Charlie's Angels” and “Too Close for Comfort,” before his death in 1984.
1941: A year later, the Fleischer Studios, which had created Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons in the 1930s, put together 17 Superman shorts that still hold up. The animation is much better than the low-budget, sketchy stuff of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, for example. Plus Lois is tough, and almost every job is a job ... (drop an octave) ... FOR SUPERMAN. As in the radio series, Superman is voiced by Bud Collyer.
1948-1950: Finally! After 10 years, a live-action version of Superman appeared onscreen. Kirk Alyn has a dancer’s lightness to him and a perpetual gee-whiz expression on his face, as if he too is amazed by the amazing things he can do. He also has an early version of the spitcurl. Yes, at times, particularly employing his x-ray vision, he looks slightly crazed. Plus he’s undone, certainly to modern eyes, by the lack of special effects. But to me Alyn's enthusiasm makes up for these other deficits.
1951-1958: George Reeves was the second actor to play Superman on screen, and he lost both the spitcurl and the enthusiasm. Reeves’ indifference to the role permeates the character. Plus he makes very little distinction between Clark and Superman. Basically he's less deus ex machina than admonishing father, but he does provide one of my favorite moments in the Superman oeuvre: When the defender of truth, justice and the American way tells a Texas mob, “Obviously none of you can be trusted with guns. So I’m going to take them away from you.” Then he does just that. Play the scene, from “Superman and the Mole Men,” for your favorite NRA member.
1966-69: In the intro to Filmations' “The New Adventures of Superman,” Superman fights for “Truth, justice and freedom” (so no “American way”), but make no miskae: by now he's as muscle-bound as his adopted country. He also seems to forget he's adopted. At one point in the first episode, “The Force Phantom,” he says, “It looks like we have visitors from space. OK, I’ll be a one-man welcome committee!” Psst. Dude. YOU'RE a visitor from space. A few villains from the comics show up, including Lex Luthor and Brainiac, but mostly Supes battles aliens from space, aliens underwater, and various giant monsters. The voice was once again provided by Bud Collyer.
1966: That's Bob Holliday on the Broadway stage in “It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman!” which ran for 129 performances in 1966. But despite the success of a campy Batman that year, a campy Superman didn't really take off. Jack Cassidy, father of David and Shaun, starred as the villainouse Max Mencken, a fellow reporter who wants to bed Lois and unmask Superman.
1973-74: My main memory of “Superfriends” is the work Superman went through to stop a train in the first episode. In the comic books, which I was reading regularly at this point (I was 10), there was a scene in which a subway is about to run over a commuter and Superman stops it. “One foot!” an admiring observor declares. “Did you see that? He stopped the train with one foot!” That was my Superman. This guy who has to struggle to stop a train? What's the point? As was true of many superserious early 1970s cartoons, each episode revolved around an issue of the day: the energy crisis, pollution, etc. “Marvin,” Batman says, “don't forget not everyone has super-strength. But everyone has a brain.” Yes, Batman. Yes, they do.
1975: Poor David Wilson. You know that Seinfeld bit where Jerry talks up the lousy Superman outfit he wore for Halloween? How it hangs off his body in unflattering ways? It looks like Wilson's wearing it for the Feb. 1975 TV adaptation of “It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It' Superman!” Even Kirk Alyn 30 years earlier was better outfitted. But no matter. We were about to get the greatest Superman ever ...
1978-87: Look at that. You couldn't draw a better Superman. One imagines the disaster if one of the producer’s original choices—Robert Redford or James Caan—had gotten the role. Instead Superman came to us, as he should, fresh-faced and innocent. Christopher Reeve is shockingly handsome, with a jawline straight out of the comic books, and yet he’s actor enough to make us believe in the worst secret-identity subterfuge ever. He’s also actor enough to say lines like “I’m here to fight for truth, justice and the American way,” make them work, and, at the same time, through this boy-scout persona, flirt with Lois Lane.
1988: The Ruby-Spears Superman Saturday morning cartoons, which died a quick death, take their cue from the “Superman” movies so much they even make Superman look a little like Christopher Reeve, who had become the standard.
1993: For some reason, Dean Cain's Superman lost the spitcurl in “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.” It's Clark who's now the hottie, so it's Clark whose hair dangles like a man of action. Odder still: Clark shows up in Metropolis without having conceived of the notion of Superman, let alone the maskless costume, yet Clark is already wearing glasses. Why? He's wearing his disguise even though he doesn't have anything to be disguised from.
1996-2000: In 1986, John Byrne rebooted the Superman franchise in DC Comics. Ten years later, Warner Bros. Animation produced a cartoon version of the reboot, with Tim Daly as the Man of Steel and Dana Dulaney as Lois Lane. Superman's powers have been clipped a bit (he can't toss around planets like medicine balls), his Clark Kent is no meek, mild-mannered man, and Lex Luthor is a billionaire industrialist rather than an evil scientist. Oh, and Jimmy Olsen rides a skateboard. Kowabunga, dude.
1999: Superman's No. 1 fan Jerry Seinfeld appeared in several ads in which he palled around with Supes as if the Man of Steel were a gentler, and gentiler, version of Larry David. They weren't bad.
2001-2011: In 1989, a meteor shower struck Smallville, USA, bringing with it Kryptonite, a rocket ship, and a small baby. That baby grew into Tom Welling in one of the more imaginative reboots of the Superman franchise. Here, Supes develops his powers gradually, in adolescence. Here, he learns of his true origins gradually. Everything is gradual. We're interested in the becoming, not the become. The theme song was called “Somebody Save Me,” but it always felt like the cry was issuing from Clark himself, who needed saving from all of that adolescent angst.
2006: You have to admire the attempt. We live in a throwaway culture but in 2006 director Bryan Singer became involved in the greatest recycling project in movie history: a continuation of the Christopher Reeve/Superman movies that jettisons the awful ’83 Richard Pryor vehicle and the ’87 Golan and Globus abomination, and adds intrigue and depth to where we left off in 1981. It didn't quite work, the Jesus metaphor was overdone, and Brandon Routh looked too young to play Superman; but he wasn't bad. Plans for a sequel were scuttled when the movie did only so-so at the box office.
2010: These days there are so many one-offs in the comic books, and direct-to-video Warner Bros. cartoons, that it's tough to keep up with them all. The above image is from “Superman/Batman: Apocalypse,” which involves the rebooted introduction of Kara, Superman's cousin, AKA Supergirl. Here's a line from the Wiki explanation of the plot: “Superman encounters Darkseid, who sets the brainwashed Kara on him. Kara pummels Superman while Darkseid watches, until Batman confronts Darkseid and informs him that he has activated the Hell Spores, all of which will destroy Apokolips.” Makes one long for the simplicity of Mr. Mxyzptlk.
2013: He's got no spitcurl, he's British, but Henry Cavill makes a helluva Superman in David S. Goyer's and Zack Snyder's reboot, “Man of Steel,” which opened this weekend. Reactions about the movie have been mixed, from both non-fans and fanboys alike, but Cavill is mostly getting praise. He exudes a lonely decency as Clark and a steely determination as Superman. My review.
EXIT MUSIC (FOR A SLIDESHOW): Up up and away.
Superman Screenshot of the Day
I'll be going tomorrow morning. I know. Thank God, right? A few folks have complained about how deep up Superman's ass I've been during the last few months. A few more think because I've invested this much time on the subject I have a stake in whether “Man of Steel” works. I don't. I want it to be good, of course, but I invested the time for the historical interest more than anything. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, well, why did they get Zack Snyder to direct? That's my thought.
June 14th. Tomorrow for the Man of Tomorrow.
SLIDESHOW: Lex Luthor, The Badness and the Baldness
SLIDESHOW: For the greatest villain of the Superman universe, Lex Luthor had the worst reason for turning evil: hair. But who else can Superman turn to for a good battle? Brainiac? Bizarro? Mr. Mxyzptlk? The Japateurs? Superman has always had a supervillain problem and the default winner was Luthor.
1950: We first saw him onscreen in “Atom Man vs. Superman” (1950), played by veteran actor Lyle Talbot, who had recently finished a stint as Commissioner Gordon in 1949's “Batman and Robin.” His Luthor is even-keeled, never raises his voice. But for much of the movie he appears ...
... like this. That's the titular Atom Man on the right, which, to producers at the beginning of the atomic age, must have sounded cooler than “Lex Luthor.” He just doesn't look cooler.
1966: Jackson Beck, the voice of Bluto in the classic “Popeye” cartoons, and narrator of Woody Allen's “Take the Money and Run,” became the second actor to take on Lex, in Fimation's “The New Adventures of Superman” in 1966.
1978: Ah, what a joy! Gene Hackman took the role because Brando was involved, but Hackman got all the good lines. “It's amazing that brain can generate enough power to keep those legs moving.” “Otis, it isn't that I don't trust you …. I don't trust you, Otis.” “That's krytponite, Superman. Little souvenir from the old hometown?” At the same time, Hackman refused to do what Brando had done in “Apocalypse Now”: shave his head.
But he does show off his pate at the end. When he's serving notice. To you. That these walls ...
1988: In 1986, John Byrne rebooted Lex as a CEO and the Lex Luthor of Ruby-Spears' Superman (above) was the first screen adaptation to follow this conceit. Voiced by Michael Bell, who was also the voice of the Parkay margarine tub in commercials, this Lex has a fondess for milkshakes.
1993: John Shea's Lex Luthor, in “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” was also a CEO, who battled Superman for control of Metropolis (eh) and the affection of Teri Hatcher's Lois Lane (smart).
1996: The first episode of “Lois & Clark” ended with a tete-a-tete between Superman and Luthor outside Luthor's office and “Superman: The Last Son of Krypton” does the same. Luthor here is voiced by Clancy Brown, a good actor doomed to be forever known as Capt. Hadley, the sadistic prison guard of “Shawshank Redemption.”
2001: “Smallville”'s Lex, Michael Rosenbaum, loses his hair in the kryptonian meteor shower that pummels Smallville but becomes friends with Clark Kent, who saves his life in the first episode. This is a Lex with Daddy issues before he has Super issues.
2006: “Superman Returns” was less reboot than grand recycling effort. But Kevin Spacey is more terrifying, and less funny, than Hackman's Lex ever was. He reveled in the badness and the baldness. Interesting stat: Between them, Hackman and Spacey have four Academy Awards. That's: Luthor 4, Superman 0.
1950 Henchman: I know what you're thinking: “Why is the most brilliantly diabolitical leader of our time surrounding himself with total nincompoops?” Although Luthor's first henchman, Carl (Rusty Westcoatt), was at least efficient.
1966 Henchman: The second, Blinky, showed up in Filmations' Saturday morning cartoon. His strongest trait was cackling.
1978 Henchman: Most people go their entire lives without having the kind of chemistry with another person that Gene Hackman had with Ned Beatty in “Superman: The Movie.” What more could anyone ask?
1987 Henchman: Unfortunately, by 1987 Beatty's Otis is gone, replaced by Lex's nephew, Lenny (Jon Cryer, hot off playing Ducky in “Pretty in Pink”). Everyone looks horrified here. They should.
1988 Henchwoman: Here's Lex's henchwoman in the Ruby-Spears cartoon. Consider her a dumber, sweeter, less booby version of...
1978 Henchwoman: Miss TessMACHAAAAAAH! I'm surprised they didn't rate the movie “R” for Valerie Perrine alone. Do we ever find out what happens to Miss Teschmacher? In “Superman II,” she's in the Arctic with Lex, heading south, and ... that's it. Eve, we hardly knew ye.
2015: A hue and cry went up when Jesse Eisenberg was cast as the latest incarnation, but: 1) he's a good actor, who 2) plays smart well. He is a bit young for Lex but then so are most of our digital-age CEOs. He's Luthor as Zuckerberg. But is he smart enough to outwit the dumbing down that Zack Snyder brings to any project? We'll soon find out. FIN
Who Wants to Play Superman? Anyone? Bueller?
“The whole idea embarrassed me.”
--Clayton “Bud” Collyer, on playing Superman on the radio in 1940.
“Well, babe, this is it: the bottom of the barrel.”
-- George Reeves, toasting Phyllis Coates, after the two have been cast as Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane in the TV show “Adventures of Superman” in 1951.
“Sometimes ... when you're not even really sure that you want [the part], that's when you get it.”
-- Christopher Reeve, on trying out for, and getting, the role of Superman/Clark Kent in “Superman: The Movie.”
SLIDESHOW: Extra Extra! A History of Daily Planet Headlines!
SLIDESHOW: Updating Superman in the new movie, “Man of Steel,” shouldn't just be about getting rid of the 19th-century strongman undies. What do you do about his job? The medium that employed Clark Kent for most of the 20th century is in more peril than Lois Lane ever was. It's also the medium that often informed us about the story we were watching. What follows is a compendium of headlines, mostly Daily Planet headlines but rival pubs as well, that appeared in various Superman incarnations over the years. Consider it an extra. Read all about it.
FIRST SIGHTINGS: We first got Superman's origin on the big screen in the 1948 serial, Superman, starring Kirk Alyn, and these are the first headlines about the caped figured who saved people, then left before we had a chance to thank him. He was like the Lone Ranger, but, you know, super.
1948: Oddly, none of these early headlines are Daily Planet headlines. Those would come later.
1948: I love this period before Superman is named and everyone is struggling to figure it all out. “Mystery Bird Man.” “Man from Sky.” What do we call this thing? Once it's named, and known, it becomes a little less exciting.
1953: As here. This is from the George Reeves reboot in the “Adventures of Superman” TV show. Not only is he already named but the feat itself, —his first, saving a man hanging from a dirigible—was redone, to much better effect, in the '78 blockbuster. Dirigible simply became helicopter and airport mechanic morphed into Lois Lane.
1978: By the '70s, the heyday of journalism, we knew the story wasn't that she was saved; the story was that he existed.
1978: Love this. Biggest story of the century but they keep their sense of humor.
1978: Here, too. As Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent says in “Man of Steel,” “You're the answer, son. You're the answer to 'Are we alone in the universe?'” That should've the hed in '78. But nothing sells like sex.
SUPERMAN'S EXPLOITS: Besides telling us Superman's origins, the headlines also detailed the Man of Steel's exploits. They provided a coda to the story we'd just seen. This is from one of the early 1940s Max Fleischer cartoons.
1941: Someone at the Planet needs to work on their subheds. Check out the previous slide. How often can Superman save the city from destruction—total or not? Work with me here, Jimmy.
1966: Another favorite, from the 1966 Filmation cartoon, “The New Adventures of Superman.”
1996: For some reason, the 1996 cartoon, “Last Son of Krypton,” used quotes in its headlines. Not sure why. To make it all seem ironic?
1948: That's Perry White reading his own paper. Feel free to forward to anyone you know named Ray.
FURTHERING THE PLOT: Many of the newspaper headlines furthered the plot. Lex Luthor looks at this headline and sees all of his schemes coming true. “Bye-bye, California. Hello, new west coast, my west coast.”
1950: From “Atom Man vs. Superman.” Two exclamation points, Perry??
1988: Because you can never have enough real estate.
2011: Hardly see why this is a headline. Although it's nice to see in this day and age when many media sources tend to prevaricate about the misdeeds of the rich and powerful.
1981: A rather bland headline to the biggest story ever.
2006: This one, from “Superman Returns,” also worked in the trailers and TV spots. It announced the movie.
1987: The best part of a bad movie: “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.” It's a parody of the Daily News' famous hed regarding Pres. Ford's refusal to bail out New York City in 1975.
1988: The headlines also feed us misinformation. Because he doesn't really.
2006: And he isn't, really.
2011: And he still isn't, really.
1948: “Man of Tomorrow” will never replace “Man of Steel” as a Superman monicker because it's a little too yesterday. It's from a period when the future was full of whiz-bang excitement. But it's also the perfect nickname for Superman. Because in 1938, we were tomorrow. And where's Superman? Still with us.