Superman Turns 75: The Man of Steel's Legacy in Pictures
10:59 AM PDT 4/18/2013 by Marc Bernardin
Long before Henry Cavill strapped on the blue suit, Superman was already a staple in Hollywood culture. From the comic books and Saturday morning cartoons to "Smallville" and Christopher Reeve's 1978 film portrayal, the Man of Steel has long been an iconic part of pop culture history.
No, he couldn't fly — hence the "leaping a tall building in a single bound" — but so much of Superman's mythology was firmly in place in Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's very first Superman story: the baby sent from a dying planet to Earth, being raised as a human, an older Clark Kent falling for a woman named Lois Lane. The modern age of the superhero can be traced back to this 1938 issue.
MAX FLEISHER'S SUPERMAN CARTOONS
There weren't a lot of these — less than a dozen — but their art deco look and lavish detail would cement these 1940-1941 cartoons in the minds of animators for generations, including those who took on the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel for Warner Bros in the '90s.
ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN
Starting in 1952, George Reeves was the first actor to play Superman on television and, unfortunately for him, he felt trapped by the role. When he died in 1958 at the age of 45 — officially, a suicide — the show stopped production.
Very much the proto-Smallville, this 1988-1992 half-hour drama followed a college-age Clark Kent (James Newton Howard, then Gerard Christopher) as he crushed on Lana Lang (Stacy Haiduk) and coped with Lex Luthor (Scott James Wells). Trivia: A few Superman comic writers and editors — like Mike Carlin, Denny O'Neil, J.M. DeMatteis and Andy Helfer — wrote episodes of the show.
LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN
This 1993-1997 ABC TV series promised to be, as the title would suggest, less about Superman and more about Dean Cain's Clark Kent, Daily Planet reporter, and his burgeoning romance with Lois Lane (a very pre-Desperate HousewivesTeri Hatcher). But, given that it was Dean Cain, they put him in the tights a lot.
SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
On the heels of the incredibly successful Batman: The Animated Series, Warner Bros hatched a similarly faithful 1996-2000 cartoon for the Last Son of Krypton, with Tim Daly voicing Clark Kent/Superman, Dana Delany voicing Lois Lane and the great Clancy Brown voicing Lex Luthor.
No flights, no tights. And for most of Smallville's 10 seasons, from 2001 to 2011, that's precisely what viewers got: Tom Welling's Clark Kent, learning to be a man, laying the groundwork for the hero he would become.
"You will believe a man can fly" was the tagline for Richard Donner's elegiac 1978 film, which introduced Christopher Reeve to the world and proved that the superhero movie was a viable genre.
Routinely in the top 5 comic-book movies ever made — if not on the top of the heap — 1980's Superman II gives us General Zod, Lois and Clark in the fuzzy penthouse suite, Superman giving up his powers and turning his arctic lair into the Fortress of Schtupitude, Clark getting his ass kicked and (spoiler alert) putting the American flag back on the White House. A classic in every sense of the word.
Aside from Richard Pryor's "computer genius" plan to siphon fractions of pennies from the company he worked for — later homaged in Office Space — there's not much to recommend about this 1983 sequel. And yet it's infinitely more worthy of inclusion that Superman IV: The Quest For Peace ... we couldn't even bear to look at those pictures.
Long before Ben Affleck was bandied about as a potential director for the eventual Justice League movie, he strapped on the blue tights to play actor George Reeves — who, as we've established, played Superman — in this 2006 murder-mystery.
Sometimes, nostalgia will get you but so far. Bryan Singer's 2006 movie exists in the shadow of the Richard Donner films to such an extent that he uses John Williams' grand theme, Marlon Brando's voice as Jor-El, and Lex Luthor's same big plan (a land scheme). Which is too bad, because Brandon Routh is actually pretty endearing as Superman ... when he's not coming off a little too stalkery.
MAN OF STEEL
Since barely a generation can go by without a Superman just for them, Warner Bros enlisted Watchmen's Zack Snyder and Dark Knight Rises's Christopher Nolan to direct and produce, respectively, this June's Man of Steel, starring Henry Cavill.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW
Watchmen writer Alan Moore, along with longtime Superman artist Curt Swan, delivered this flashback tale that told of the Man of Steel's final adventures. We're not going to spoil any of this 1986 two-parter, other than to say that there's a reason why this is considered one of the finest Superman stories ever told.
THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS
Even though writer-artist Frank Miller's genre-defining 1986 miniseries is a Batman story, the "Big Blue Schoolboy" makes an appearance to do battle with the out-of-retirement Dark Knight. DKR's fourth issue is a doozy.
THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN
No, no one ever really dies in comics, but this 1992 story was one of the first times readers encountered the demise of a beloved, foundational character like Superman. And it mattered. (Until it didn't.)
Writer Mark Waid and artist Alex Ross collaborated on this 1996 alternate-universe story which pits older, old-school heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman against a younger, more morally flexible generation of meta-human. Things go badly in an incredibly awesome way.
DC: THE NEW FRONTIER
With this retro-gorgeous six-issue miniseries — which won just about every award a comic can win back in 2004 — writer-artist Darwyn Cooke dramatized the moment in which the heroes of comics' Golden Age (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) first encountered those of the Silver Age (Green Lantern, Flash and the Martian Manhunter), forming the core of the Justice League.
Writer Grant Morrison wanted to tell a dozen timeless Superman stories and — with this haunting, heartfelt 12-issue comic book miniseries which came out in 2005 — he did exactly what he set out to do.
THE SUPER FRIENDS
Yeah, this is the one you remember from the '70s. The one with the Wonder Twins. You can probably stream this somewhere; I'd think twice about watching it. It exists far better in your memory.