It’s hard to talk about superheroes without talking about Superman. Most of the conventions and tropes we see in superheroes today can be traced back to him, though as we’ve seen with Flash Gordon and The Phantom, Superman was not the first to display these tropes. But who really is Superman, and what place does he have in the media? Let’s find out.
Superman, as a character, was born on the planet Krypton, and was sent to Earth as a baby as Krypton exploded and was raised by farmers in the rural Smallville. He became a journalist and moved to the city of Metropolis, where he fights crime where necessary, with his most infamous arch nemesis being Lex Luthor, who deserves a profile of his own.
Like Tarzan, Superman had humble beginnings. He was originally a villain, and gained his powers by an experimental drug by a scientist who tricked him. His alias is Bill Dunn, not Clark Kent. This iteration of the hero was published as a short story in a magazine run by the author, Jerry Siegel, in 1933, with illustrations from high school friend Joe Schuster. Soon after, the character was written in comic strip form. It would become published as the hero we know him as today in Action Comics #1 five years later. For those five years Superman went through serious development, partially as a result of critique coming from those who rejected the hero. And there were many rejections. Action Comics #1 was them giving up, not them getting a major deal. Luckily for them, the success of the comic was immense.
Action Comics was originally an anthology series, and featured different characters in each book. Because of the success of the character, the series focused on that hero. He was the best selling comic book hero throughout the sixties and seventies, with a slight drop in the eighties. In 1992, Superman #75 became the most sold comic book of all time, selling 23 million copies, due to the media suggesting the hero was going to die that issue.
While his success in comic books is immense, his success in other media was not as strong. He had nowhere near the success of another famous DC superhero: Batman, at least not in other media. This is not to say that he’s a bad character, but it’s easy to see why. After all, he’s able to fly, has immense strength, and is bulletproof. It’s also to be noted that Superman is almost flawless except when Kryptonite is involved, making Batman an easier hero to base conflict around. For an engaging Superman narrative, the conflicts have to be dynamic, or you have to change the nature of the hero. Superman is also vulnerable to magic which hasn’t been explored as much in movies or TV. The 1978 film Superman is a great example, as the character has to (spoiler) stop an entire missile.
The first adaptation was, like Flash Gordon and The Phantom, on radio: The Adventures of Superman. There was a 2,088 episode series that was aimed at children. Each episode would follow the same formula; The Man of Steel would go against some bad guy and the episode would end in a cliffhanger. The first feature film, Superman and the Mole Men was created by the same people responsible for the radio serial, and was used to promote the television series of the same name as the radio show. The main difference between the radio show and the TV series was that the series was intended for all audiences and not just kids.
Superman and the Mole Men was not the first film featuring the hero, however. There was a popular serial starring the character in 1948, targeted to children: Superman. What is a serial? It was a series of short films, geared toward children, with an episode playing each week at a movie theatre during a matinee. Each episode ended with a cliffhanger, and you’d need to come back to see how the story would end. Superman proved to be the most popular movie serial in all of movie history, with a sequel series being created in 1950: Atom Man vs. Superman.
The first appearance of the character also came in a serial, but in animated form, and created by Fleischer studios, whereas the previously mentioned films were all live action. Animation would continue to be a popular medium for the character. After all, you don’t have to worry about how to produce the large-scale action sequences necessary for a good Superman film if it’s all in animated form. I loved these films, and would recommend them to everyone. They’re fun little pieces of animation that contain decent animation for the time, great hand-drawn art, and decent storylines.
1978’s Superman was the first movie involving the character to have a large budget. As a result, it’s one of the best Superman movies of all time. It does what it needs to do. It develops a likeable character in Clark Kent, it has great action scenes, and it’s overall a great watch. This is a must watch. As well as being a great movie on it’s own, it paved the way for later big-budget superhero films like Batman (1989) and Spider-Man (2002). The first sequel was pretty good too but the third and fourth installments killed the franchise until Warner Bros. tried to revive the character in 2006, this time Brandon Routh donned the tights. Routh, and the film in general, Superman Returns, tried just a little too hard to duplicate the Christopher Reeve films and while it was better than Superman III and Superman IV The Quest For Peace it failed to draw enough interest to create a new franchise.
In 1967 there was a stage musical It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman!
There’s also the direct-to-video animated movies that have been coming out starring the Man of Steel. These films are adaptations of popular comics. For example, Superman: Red Son is based on the popular comic book series of the same name. While these movies may not be bad, it’s important to note that they’re being adapted from popular comic series’, which means they are forced to reach a standard that’s pretty high to attain. It’s like trying to adapt The Great Gatsby. While movie adaptations may be good, they’ll never be what the book was.
In the television world, besides The Adventures of Superman, there has been a couple of other notable live action television series: Lois and Clark The New Adventures of Superman starring Dean Cain as Superman and Terry Hatcher as Lois Lane focused more on the lives of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, probably in an effort to keep the budget down. It ran for four seasons. There was also a syndicated series aimed at younger audiences The Adventures of Superboy (1988). The most notable thing about it was they actually changed actors playing Superboy halfway through the series. Smallville, which debuted on The WB and ran for five seasons and was The WB’s highest rated premier, moved to the newly merged WB/UPN network The CW for 5 more seasons and explored Superman’s younger years in the town of Smallville when he was Superboy although he was never called that. The series ran for an unbelievable ten seasons and it’s actually pretty good. Another amazing fact is Clark Kent never wore his traditional Superman costume even once during the entire 10 years. At the very end of the last episode Clark Kent is seen bounding into the sky (he rarely ever flew in the series) and he is wearing the costume finally…except he wasn’t. They used CGI to put the costume on star Tom Welling who had refused to ever wear the costume during the show’s run. If you’re interested in a young adult series starring the world’s most popular superhero Smallville’s for you. And you just can’t keep a good hero down because Superman is headed back to the small screen in just a couple of weeks on The CW. Tyler Hoechlin will reprise The Man of Steel role he first played in the Supergirl series and has since made various appearances on other CW Arrowverse shows. Superman And Lois will premier February 23, 2021.
The other TV adaptations were animated, including Superman: The Animated Series, a follow-up to the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series. While it didn’t reach the acclaim of Batman, it had complex themes, excellent writing, and beautiful artwork. That series is worth the watch.
With Man of Steel having come out in 2013, there have been new adaptations of the hero, portrayed by Henry Cavill. Despite what you may think of the recent hero, he’s still going strong, and is still being made into new movies.
Superman may not be the first superhero, though he is the most prolific. A lot of the films and TV shows that star him are the first of its kind. 1978’s Superman was the first big-budget superhero movie. Without it, we wouldn’t have had Avengers: End Game. The Adventures of Superman was the first television series to feature a superhero. The first direct-to-video DC animated film starred the character. One of the first licensed video games, and the first game to feature a pause screen, was a Superman game. Even if you couldn’t care less about the Man of Steel or anything he’s involved in, you still have to appreciate all he’s done.
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