SLIDESHOW: LOOK, UP IN THE SKY! A History of Superman Flying Onscreen
SLIDESHOW: Look, Up in the Sky! Near the end of his life, Christopher Reeve said, “The appeal of flight. I mean … Batman’s got a cool car. But flight is what really captures people’s imaginations. To take two or three running steps and soar into the air. That’s everybody’s dream.” On the screen, of course, it took a while for that dream to take hold. In the beginning, which is to say June 1938, with the publication of Action Comics #1, Superman couldn't fly; he could only leap 1/8 of a mile. It took adventures in other media for the dream of flight to take hold.
1941: In the early Max Fleischer cartoons, Superman is merely, as they say, “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” But all that bouncing from spot to spot made him look a bit like a Mexican jumping bean, and it just became easier, and cooler, to show him, you know, flying. The Fleischer cartoons immediately subbed out that “tall buildings” line for “Able to soar higher than any plane!” but it didn't stick. As late as 1988, the opening intro (to Ruby-Spears Superman) nonsensically trumpeted Superman as a dude “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!”
1948: Kirk Alyn was the first live-action, onscreen Superman, and this was the moment he finally took flight. Did kids in theaters in 1948 hold their breath? If so...
1948 (cont.)... they were probably disappointed since as soon as he lifted off he turned into a cartoon. This was true in all 15 chapters of the '48 serial. On the other hand ...
1948 (cont.) ... there's something to be said for the cartoon. It ain't bad. Dude could move. When they switched to flying of the live-action variety, it had the same effect on Superman that sound had on early talkies: a tendency toward stiffness. It would take half a century before Superman, in flight, could move as well as he could above.
1950: Here we go. This is the first time we see Superman, as a man, in the air. It's Kirk Alyn again from the 1950 serial, “Atom Man vs. Superman.” Most of the flying, though, is still done with animation.
1953: In the 1950s TV show “Adventures of Superman,” George Reeves' flight has a kind of lying-on-a-table effect. In episode after episode: 1) Clark Kent went into the Daily Planet storeroom; 2) Superman bounced out a window to whooshing wind effects; and 3) we saw Supes, against a cloud backdrop, flying rather straight. But then it was an era of flying straight.
1975: But it beat this. It's a screenshot from the TV adaptation of the short-lived 1966 Broadway musical, “It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman,” starring David Wilson as Superman and Lesley Ann Warren (rahr) as Lois Lane, which aired On Feb. 1, 1975 at, I think, 11:30 PM. Why so late? I guess they didn't want little kids to see it. I was 12 but wasn’t going to let that stop me. I stayed up late. Unfortunately, I kept nodding off. I kept thinking, “This is painful,” without realizing why. Even Ms. Warren didn't help. Much.
1978: So when “Superman: The Movie” was released in 1978, and Christopher Reeve takes to the air to save Lois Lane dangling from the Daily Planet helicopter, it looked breathtakingly real. Because it was. It wasn’t a cartoon, it wasn’t a man against a blue screen, it wasn’t CGI (yet). It was a man, in a bright blue suit, with big red boots, flying. We never believed, as the tagline counseled, that a man could in fact fly. But we knew it looked real. It had … what’s that word? Verisimilitude. Guess what? Still does.
1987: Nine years later, we'd taken a big step backward. Blame Sylvester Stallone. His film, “Over the Top,” produced by Golan and Globus, who were leasing the rights to make a Superman movie, did poorly at the box office, and as a result the “Superman: IV” budget was slashed from $40 million to below $20 million. It shows in every sad frame—including this one, where Superman returns the Statue of Liberty to its proper station. Irony? Stallone was one of the few big-name Hollywood actors in 1976 who wanted to play Superman. Mostly, though, blame Golan and Globus. They made you believe that a man really couldn't fly after all.
1993: Even in the title, “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” the Man of Steel gets third billing. And in terms of screentime, he was probably further down than that. But some flying scenes, like this, from the premiere episode in the Daily Planet offices, aren't bad.
2001: The creators of “Smallville” promised “No flights and no tights” and pretty much adhered to that principle through its 10-season run. Unfortunately, the closer it go to the birth of Superman, the worse it became. I mean, the red-and-blue blur? Somebody save me.
2006: “Superman Returns” is the first big-deal, CGI-infected Superman movie, but it’s still disappointing, probably because it has one foot and three toes in the past. It can’t get over Christopher Reeve. But who can?
2013: Well, David S. Goyer and Zack Snyder, that's who. Their new movie, “Man of Steel,” promises mind-bending flying effects and special effects. Let's just hope it's smart. Let's just hope we haven't been sucker-punched.
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