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.
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