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 be no surprise that the character’s creators were Jewish young men. Their creation of hope and justice would shine in a post-depression world of turmoil and hate. Here Superman’s stature and strength were a dreamlike reflection of an adolescent longing for justice. While his alter-ego Clark Kent was gentle and thoughtful, his mannerisms a world away from the power hidden under his three-piece 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 template for 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 rival, Marvel Comics. On the radio, Superman would take to the sky care of Clayton ‘Bud’ Collyer in The Adventures of Superman (1940-1951). But Paramount Pictures brought Superman to the screen with seventeen highly successful and stylish animated shorts from 1941 to 1943.
Following the success of these shorts, Superman’s big-screen debut was all but assured, and in 1948, Kirk Alyn became the first live-action Superman in a serial. The fifteen-part series would become the most successful movie serial in film history, spawning a sequel, Atom Man vs Superman, in 1950. During this period, Superman proved his durability, success and ability to create box office revenue; as a result, his place in TV, radio and film was assured for years to come. Here the famous blue, yellow and red costume became a part of America’s cultural landscape.
Superman – The Mad Scientist & The Mechanical Monsters (1941)
Superman’s feature debut would come in 1951 with Superman and the Mole Men. Here, George Reeves would step into the role; 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, redefining the characters of Clark Kent and Lois Lane for a whole new generation. This was the first Superman outing to create a distinct difference between Superman and Clark, one that would pass from one Reeves to another, with Christopher further building upon George’s initial work. The same can be said for Lois, who was spicy and formidable in the hands of Phyllis Coates, once again creating the template for Kidder.
Reeves and Coates would wow audiences in 104 TV episodes between 1952 and 1958; however, following the death of Reeves in mysterious circumstances in 1959, Superman would fall silent, with only a failed action attempt at Superboy TV in 1961. Was Superman dead? After all, audiences were lapping up far more camp superhero entertainment with the TV show Batman.
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From the 1960s to the early 1970s, Superman was relegated to animation through CBS and Hanna-Barbera. Here their colourful cartoons introduced 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, and the names attached were the Mexican-born Ilya Salkind, his father Alexander, and business partner Pierre Spengler. But standing in their way was the might of Warner Brothers, who were nervous about any big-screen outing. But the Salkinds were not about to let Warner Brothers disrupt their cinematic plans. Following lengthy negotiations, they brought the rights to produce Superman in 1974 with a back-to-back production of Superman the Movie and its sequel.
As pre-production began, the relationship between the Salkinds and Warner was challenging; for example, Warner insisted on a big name in the Superman role from a potential longlist including Al Pacino, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. But the Salkinds wished to gamble on an unknown actor. Meanwhile, Warner’s preferred choice as director, Guy Hamilton, was quickly replaced by The Omen’s Richard Donner due to Hamilton’s tax exile status in the UK. But, by far, the biggest challenge was the groundbreaking practical effects work needed to make Superman fly.
Superman the Movie – Original Theatrical Trailer
Despite delays and a ballooning budget, Donner’s Superman promised the world, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but the production atmosphere was tense, and the relationship between Donner and the Salkinds began to falter over money. Here, Donner’s creative vision and the budget needed to fulfil it would lead the Salkinds to pause back-to-back filming before Superman II was completed. But the real knife in the back came as Superman the Movie premiered in 1978 to rave reviews just as Donner was unceremoniously sacked.
On its premiere in December 1978, Superman, the Movie was the most expensive film ever made. Its whopping budget of $55 million was a colossal box office risk for both the Salkinds and Warner Brothers. However, Donner’s film proved a huge success, earning both critical and public acclaim alongside a global box office takings exceeding $300 million. Meanwhile, it would scoop three Academy Award nominations for best editing, best score, and best sound – Donner’s vision was vindicated, but the director and the Salkinds relationship was beyond repair.
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At its heart, Superman the Movie is a sublime coming-of-age story and a commentary on the immigrant foundations of America. Here our young orphan from a distant star is taken in and loved unconditionally by adoptive parents despite his difference. It’s a message that continues to resonate today and is one of the reasons why Superman’s return has never been more important in our current divided world. In a 70s landscape of economic problems, war, protests and social turbulence, Superman offered stability, comfort and hope.
Donner surrounds Superman the Movie with the energy and adventure of the matinees he enjoyed as a child, while Christopher Reeve seamlessly portrays the human and alien sides of the comic book character. Here Reeve’s unforgettable performance created the defining on-screen representation of Clark Kent and Superman – one that has never been matched nor equalled in the years since. Meanwhile, Kidder builds on the fiery performance of Coates years before while equally making Lois her own. When Reeve and Kidder are together Superman the Movie steals hearts and imaginations. But the beauty of Superman the Movie does not just sit with Reeve and Donner; there’s the beautiful cinematography of the late great Geoffrey Unsworth and the pure magic of one of John William’s finest scores.
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Donner’s departure before Superman II was complete left a large hole in the Salkind’s plans for the future, and they would place their hopes in the hands of Richard Lester (A Hard Days Night). Lester would bring a lighter tone to Superman’s big-screen return, scraping and reshaping much of Donner’s original footage while reframing the story. The result was a highly enjoyable and successful sequel. But it was also one that felt remote from the epic start in 1978, leading to a long campaign to reinstate Richard Donner’s vision for Superman II from the cutting room floor – a movement that finally concluded in 2006 with Superman II – The Donner Cut.
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After the success of Superman II, a third instalment was guaranteed; however, the cast was still bitter about Richard Donner’s treatment, with Gene Hackman refusing to return as Lex Luthor, while Margot Kidder’s public criticisms of the Salkind’s saw her sidelined. This would leave Christopher Reeve to stand alone in the third outing with Richard Lester, further descending into comic book-inspired comedy with Richard Prior and an ensemble of clichéd villains.
The result was a film of two halves, with Reeve shining on-screen 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. Meanwhile, the box office failure of Supergirl in 1984 would also lead the Salkind’s to admit defeat, selling the cinema rights to Superman to Golan and Globus’ Cannon Films.
Superman III – Original Theatrical Trailer
Golan and Globus were not about to let their expensive purchase sit and collect dust, and with the help of a mighty paycheck, they persuaded Reeve, Kidder and Hackman to rejoin the franchise for Superman IV. However, as with all their movies, Golan and Globus were more interested in profit than production quality, and despite Reeve co-writing the story, Superman IV was plagued with problems. The film’s release in 1987 was the final curtain for Reeve, Kidder and Hackman and the start of a long and challenging road to recovery for the man of steel.
For the Salkind’s, their belief in Superman would continue with a new CBS TV series based on Superboy. However, after four seasons, Superboy would also fall back to earth as Warner finally decided to take Superman back in-house, leading to a protracted legal dispute over rights. By 1988 a new dawn was breaking, but would Superman be able to find a unique voice as the 1980s ended? That is a whole other story and one that continues to unfold to this day.
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