1938 – 1974
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 marched across Europe; he was a symbol of hope and justice that would shine in a turbulent world as he encapsulated the fears and hopes of Siegel and Shuster, two Jewish young men forced to watch the horrors of the Holocaust play out from a distance while equally experiencing a rise in anti-semtaism in their home country. Superman’s strengths were a dreamlike reflection of an adolescent longing for justice and power, while his alter-ego Clark Kent was a shrewd journalist who sought the truth at every turn. Meanwhile, his alien name Kal-El would loosely translate to ‘voice of god’ in Hebrew, just as his origin story would play with themes found in Moses.
Originally introduced as a character in Action Comics #1, published by DC Comics (then known as National Comics). Superman is widely regarded as the first superhero, and he quickly became one of the most recognisable characters in the world. Superman’s popularity would prove instrumental in the birth of the superhero world we now take for granted, from DC’s Batman, The Flash and Shazam! to Marvel’s Spider-Man and Captain America. On the radio, Superman would take to the sky care of Clayton ‘Bud’ Collyer in The Adventures of Superman (1940-1951), while Paramount Pictures would bring him to the screen in seventeen highly successful and stylish animated shorts from 1941 to 1943.
Superman’s big-screen debut was all but assured, and in 1948, Kirk Alyn became the first live-action Superman in a cinema serial. The fifteen-part series would become the most successful movie serial in film history, spawning a second outing, Atom Man vs Superman, in 1950. His feature debut would come in 1951 with Superman and the Mole Men. It was this feature debut that marked the arrival of George Reeves. However, far from being a magical, expensive and effects-laden film, Superman and the Mole Men would act as a mere precursor for a Reeves-led TV series set to air in 1952.
The TV series would redefine the characters of Clark Kent and Lois Lane for a whole generation. Lois would become a fiery and formidable woman in the hands of Phyllis Coates, while Clark would adopt a gentle and passive demeanour with Reeves. Reeves and Coates would wow audiences with 104 TV episodes between 1952 and 1958; however, following the death of Reeves in mysterious circumstances in 1959, Superman would fall silent.
From the 1960s to the early 1970s, Superman was to be relegated to the world of comics and TV animation through CBS and Hanna-Barbera. However, in the background, rumblings of a new Superman movie were causing waves across Hollywood from as early as 1973. The names attached to these rumours 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 Bros, who were nervous about any big-screen outing due to the potential costs attached. But the Salkinds were not about to let Warner Bros. piss on their red, blue and yellow parade, and following lengthy negotiations, they brought the rights to produce Superman the Movie and its sequels in 1974.
1974 – 1988
As pre-production began on the Salkind’s epic, the relationship between the father and son and Warner Bros. was challenging. Warner insisted on a big name for the Superman role from a potential longlist, including Al Pacino, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. But the Salkinds wanted to gamble on an unknown actor. Meanwhile, Warner’s preferred choice of director was Bond legend Guy Hamilton while the Salkinds had already decided upon The Omen’s Richard Donner due to Hamilton’s tax exile status in the UK, the home of Superman’s production. But, by far, the biggest challenge for the new director, the Salkind brothers and Warner Bros. were the groundbreaking practical effects that would allow Superman to fly.
Despite delays and its ballooning budget, Donner’s Superman and Superman II would promise the world, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but the atmosphere was tense, and the relationship between Donner and the Salkinds sat at the heart of the problem. Donner’s creative vision required a budget large enough to shoot two films back to back while also inventing a series of new effects and filmmaking tools. But the Salkinds were concerned by the increasing expense and long delays in production. Their decision was final; back-to-back filming of Superman II was to pause, and Donner was to leave after Superman the Movie had premiered. It was a decision that sent shockwaves through the crew and cast and one that would haunt the Superman movies that followed.
On its premiere in December 1978, Superman, the Movie was the most expensive film ever made, with a whopping budget of $55 million to recoup. However, Donner’s film was to prove a huge success, earning critical and public acclaim alongside global box office takings exceeding $300 million. Superman the Movie would go on to scoop three Academy Award nominations for best editing, best score, and best sound, winning the special achievement award for its visual effects. Donner’s vision had been vindicated, but the director’s relationship with the Salkinds was beyond repair.
While Donner’s vision may have given birth to Superman on screen, the theatre actor and relative newcomer Christopher Reeve brought Superman to life. Reeve’s unforgettable performance would create the defining image of Clark Kent and Superman – an image that has never been matched nor equalled. Meanwhile, Margot Kidder would build on the fiery performance of Coates years before in offering us the defining Lois Lane. Reeve’s and Kidder stole the hearts and imaginations of a whole generation while the late great Geoffrey Unsworth beautifully framed their journey alongside John William’s sublime score.
Eyes were now firmly on Superman II, but Donner’s departure had left a large hole in the Salkind’s plans and the continuing story. The Salkinds would place their trust in the hands of Richard Lester (A Hard Days Night), a tried and tested director who could steady the ship.
Lester would bring a lighter tone to Superman’s big-screen return by reshaping the ongoing story and re-filming some of Donner’s work. The result could have been awful, but fortunately, Lester delivered a delightful and highly successful sequel. But for fans, Superman II never quite felt like the continuation we had been promised and over many years, a campaign to reinstate Richard Donner’s vision for Superman II from the cutting room floor would be mounted – finally leading to Superman II – The Donner Cut in 2006.
After the success of Superman II, a third instalment was guaranteed; however, many of the cast were still bitter about Donner’s treatment. Gene Hackman refused to return as Lex Luthor, while Margot Kidder’s public criticism of the Salkinds saw her sidelined. This left Christopher Reeve to stand alone in the third outing with director Richard Lester. Ultimately this would not allow for any meaningful story arc, and Superman III would become a stand-alone picture that descended further into comic book comedy. That doesn’t mean Superman III was a bad movie, but the aim of Donner’s original trilogy was clearly dead as Superman slid into mundane and uninspired storytelling. Meanwhile, the box office failure of Supergirl in 1984 would see the Salkinds admit defeat, selling the cinema rights to Superman to Golan and Globus’ Cannon Films.
Christopher Reeve had announced he was leaving Superman after the third instalment, and Warner Bros. also felt Superman’s cinema days were numbered. But Golan and Globus were not about to let their expensive purchase sit and collect dust, and with the help of a big paycheck, they would persuade Reeve, Kidder and Hackman to rejoin the franchise for Superman IV, also sparking confidence in the Warner Bros. boardroom. However, as with all their movies, Golan and Globus were more interested in quick profit than production, and despite Reeve co-writing the story, Superman IV was plagued with production problems; its release in 1987 the final curtain for Reeve, Kidder and Hackman and the start of a long and challenging road to recovery.
For the Salkinds, 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?
To be continued…