Created by childhood friends Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both classmates at Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio, Superman was born into a world where fascism was marching across Europe. Therefore, it may come as no surprise that the character’s creators were both Jewish young men. Their creation of hope and justice shining in a post-depression world of turmoil and hate. Superman’s stature and strength, a dreamlike reflection of an adolescent longing for heroes. His alter-ego Clark Kent, gentle and thoughtful, his mannerisms a world away from the power that lies hidden under his suit. Meanwhile, religion sat at the heart of the character’s origin—his story echoing Moses; his name Kal-El, a Hebrew suffix for God.
Siegel and Shuster’s character gave birth to the DC Comics we know today while providing the superhero template of nearly every ‘super’ character since. Throughout the pre and post-war comic book explosion, Superman’s popularity proved instrumental in the birth of Batman, The Flash, Shazam and DC’s main rival, Marvel Comics. While at the same time, the man of steel would lead the jump from page to screen and ensure the expansion of comic books into a multi-media world.
On radio, Superman took to the skies in the hands of Clayton ‘Bud’ Collyer in The Adventures of Superman (1940-1951). However, it was Paramount Pictures who would bring Superman to the screen with seventeen highly successful and stylish animated shorts from 1941 to 1943. Following their success, Superman’s big-screen debut was all but assured. And in 1948, Kirk Alyn became the first live-action Superman in a movie serial. The fifteen part series becoming the most successful movie serial in film history, spawning a sequel, Atom Man vs Superman, in 1950. During this period, Superman had proved his durability, success and ability to create box office revenue, his place in TV, radio and film assured. The famous blue and red costume becoming a part of America’s cultural landscape. Therefore, his first feature-length debut was only a matter of time.
Superman – The Mad Scientist & The Mechanical Monsters (1941)
That feature debut would come in 1951 with Superman and the Mole Men. Here, George Reeves would step into the role of Superman and Clark Kent. However, far from being a magical, expensive and effects-laden film, Superman and the Mole Men was a mere precursor to the Reeves TV series set to air in 1952. But, despite this, it is a defining point in Superman’s on-screen history. Superman and the Mole Men redefined not only Superman but also Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
This was the first Superman outing to truly create a distinct difference between Superman and Clark in the hands of Reeves. While at the same time embracing Lois as a spicy, formidable and intellectual reporter in the hands of Phyllis Coates. This winning mix would ultimately lead to 104 TV episodes between 1952 and 1958. However, following the death of Reeves in mysterious circumstances in 1959, Superman would fall silent on screen. Rumours of a possible murder and a potential curse ensuring Superman remained hidden. This period would also see a live-action Superboy TV series placed on hold after just one pilot episode in 1961.
Superman takes flight
The early 1960s and 1970s would see Superman find a voice in animation through CBS and Hanna-Barbera. Their cartoons introducing audiences to Superboy from 1966 to 1969. However, in the background, rumblings of a new big-screen epic had spread across Hollywood from 1973 onwards. The names attached to a potential project were the Mexican born Ilya Salkind, his father Alexander, and their business partner Pierre Spengler. However, standing in their way was the might of Warner Brother’s. But, the Salkinds were not about to let Warner Brothers disrupt their cinematic plans. And following lengthy negotiations, they brought the rights to produce Superman in 1974. Their idea, a back to back production of both Superman and its sequel.
As pre-production progressed, the relationship between the Salkind’s and Warner remained challenging. For example, while Warner insisted on a big name in the Superman role, from a potential longlist including Al Pacino, James Caan, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Dustin Hoffman, the Salkind’s opted for an unknown actor in Christopher Reeve. Meanwhile, Warners preferred choice as director, Guy Hamilton, would ultimately be replaced. The Omen’s Richard Donner stepping in due to the UK filming location and Hamilton’s tax exile status. But, by far, the biggest challenge was the practical effects work needed, with early production tests beset by problems in making Superman fly.
Superman the Movie – Original Theatrical Trailer
However, those concerns would not deter the Salkind family from bringing the man of steel to the big screen. And despite delays and a ballooning budget, Superman promised the world, “You’ll believe a man can fly”. However, behind the scenes, the atmosphere was challenging, and the biggest problem was the tense, angry and volatile relationship between Donner and the Salkind’s. Here, Donner’s creative vision and the budget needed to fulfil it ultimately led to a halt in back to back filming before the sequel was completed. And as Superman the Movie premiered in 1978, Donner was unceremoniously sacked. The Salkind’s actions leading to upset and anger within the cast and crew. At the same time, placing any sequels beyond Superman II at high risk.
On its premiere in December 1978, Superman, the Movie, was the most expensive film ever made. Its whopping budget of $55 million, a colossal box office risk for both the Salkind’s and Warner Brothers. However, Donner’s film proved a huge worldwide success, earning both critical and public acclaim. Its global box office takings exceeding $300 million. While at the same time receiving three Academy Award nominations for best editing, best score, and best sound. Donner’s vision was vindicated, but the director and the Salkind’s relationship was beyond repair.
At its heart, Superman the Movie offers us a sublime coming-of-age love story, dovetailed with the belief that America can be a land of freedom and hope. Our young orphan from a distant star, taken in and loved unconditionally by adoptive parents despite his difference. His abilities and strengths, rooted in timeless themes of anthropic action and public service. And within a world of economic problems, post-Vietnam guilt and social turbulence, Superman felt timely and comforting for global audiences.
Donner embeds Superman the Movie in the energy and adventure of the matinees he enjoyed as a child. While Christopher Reeve seamlessly portrays both the human and alien side of his character. His unforgettable performance creating the defining on-screen representation of Clark Kent and Superman. Meanwhile, the delicate and beautiful cinematography of the late great Geoffrey Unsworth and the pure magic of John William’s score ensures Superman the Movie’s place in film history. Here, Donner’s vision would set the template of every superhero movie since 1978. While at the same time, Reeve and Kidder would steal the hearts and imaginations of a whole generation.
However, Donner’s sacking as director before Superman II was complete left a large hole in the Salkind’s plans for the future. Enter veteran director Richard Lester (A Hard Days Night), who altered the original vision under the direct instructions of the Salkind’s and Warner. Lester brought a lighter tone to Superman’s big-screen return, using Donner’s footage while refilming and restructuring many parts of the story. And while highly successful at the box office, this also led Superman II to feel remote from the epic start made in 1978. However, after a vast and lengthy campaign from fans, Warner gave the green light to release Richard Donner’s Superman II in 2006.
Richard Donner’s original vision was restored using cut material and screen tests, finally joining Superman the Movie and Superman II. And while Lester’s film is still superb, the Donner cut only further demonstrated what could have been in 1980. And the vision that could have led to a groundbreaking and epic trilogy for Reeve and Kidder.
Superman’s cinematic decline
After the success of Superman II, a third instalment was all but guaranteed; however, the cast was still bitter about Richard Donner’s treatment. And as a result, Gene Hackman refused to return as Lex Luthor, while Margot Kidder’s criticisms of the Salkind’s in public ensured Lois Lane was sidelined. This would leave Christopher Reeve to stand alone in the third big-screen outing. Richard Lester’s response was to lighten the tone even further, introducing comedian Richard Prior and an ensemble of cliched villains.
The result was a film of two halves, with Reeve, once again shining on-screen while also having space to explore Superman’s darker side. While in contrast, the story surrounding Reeve sat within a childish sphere of poor gags, slapstick comedy and tongue in cheek humour. As a result, while popular with kids, Superman III lost its adult audience, with Reeve announcing his retirement from the role shortly after its premiere. And after the box office failure of Supergirl in 1984, the Salkind’s would also admit defeat, selling the cinema rights to Superman to Golan and Globus’ Cannon Films. A studio that was synonymous with B-Movie low budget action flicks.
Superman III – Original Theatrical Trailer
Of course, Golan and Globus were not about to let their purchase sit and collect dust. With Cannon remarkably persuading Reeve, Kidder and Hackman to rejoin the franchise for Superman IV. However, as with all their movies, Golan and Globus were more concerned with profit than production quality. And despite Reeve stepping up to help create a story rooted in nuclear disarmament themes, Superman IV was plagued with problems. The film’s release in 1987 was the final curtain for Reeve, Kidder and Hackman while marking the start of a long and challenging road to cinematic recovery.
For the Salkind’s, their belief in Superman would instead ride on a new TV series with CBS, based on Superboy. The series premiered in 1988 to reasonable reviews. However, after four seasons, Superboy would come to an end. Warner’s decision to take Superman back in-house leading to a protracted legal dispute with the Salkind’s and the end of their involvement in the franchise.
A new dawn was breaking, but would Superman be able to find a new voice as the 1980s came to an end? Well, that is a whole new story, one that continues to unfold to this day.