The Supermen!

Clockwise from upper left: Gerard Christopher as Superboy, Tom Welling as Clark Kent in Smallville, Dean Cain from Lois and Clark, George Reeves from the 1950's TV series The Adventures of Superman, the animated Superman from the Max Fleisher cartoons, Kirk Alyn from the 1948 movie serial, the most recent animated Superman from the 1990's Warner Brothers series and, in the center where he belongs, Christopher Reeve from the Richard Donner film Superman: The Movie.

About the Tribute

In November of 2001 I was on a long road trip and heard the song on the radio, Superman (It's Not Easy), by the group Five for Fighting several times.  The song, an obvious ode to Superman, got me thinking about all the many incarnations of the character there have been over the years.

I grew up watching the The Adventures of Superman TV series starring George Reeves, which got me into comic books, and now I've viewed just about every incarnation since, and many that came before.  I'm a fan, I love what the character embodies.   I'm also a bit of a writer, critic, filmmaker and literary geek.  I was fascinated by the evolution of the character and by the way Superman has been re-envisioned for each generation.  In doing this musical tribute I tried to touch on that.

Superman's first screen incarnation came in 1941 in the early Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons.  At that time he was drawn and animated just as he appeared in the comic books and, at that time, Superman could not yet fly.  In the first cartoons Superman was merely able to "leap tall buildings in a single bound."  In tribute to that history I have included a moment of that, a scene in which we see Superman falling from the sky, legs kicking and flailing in the air, until he is finally able to land on a building and jump up again.

The inability to fly had never been a problem in the comic books, but in bringing him to the moving image this need to keep "jumping around" got to be a problem.  To address this, the makers of the animated cartoons soon gave him the power to fly, an ability quickly incorporated into the comic book version of the character.  Yet even after they made the change and added the new line "able to fly higher than any plane" to the opening, the old statement remained in everyone's mind (probably added to by the radio show) and Superman would forever be known as for his ability to "leap tall buildings in a single bound."

The first Fleischer cartoon came out just as the US entered World War II (the first was released in November 1941, just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor) and the character and story lines of that series quickly adopted a very anti-Nazi, anti-Japanese theme, with Superman spending much of his time fighting spies and war time enemies.

In 1948 the first live action portrayal had Kirk Alyn playing the "strange visitor from another planet" in the fifteen episode Columbia serial Superman.  To make him fly each time actor Kirk Alyn would leap into the air they would cut in an animated cartoon of him soaring, some of which look quite silly to modern eyes.  There is a small piece of that in the tribute.  By this era Superman was no longer fighting in the war, now he was turning his powers to fighting criminals in America in the form of "The Spider Lady."

A second series Atom Man Vs. Superman (1950) introduced the live action world to the character of Lex Luthor, as played by actor Lyle Talbot, masquerading as the titular "Atom Man." (I want to give special thanks to Philip Schweier of Savannah, Georgia for bringing this to my attention and correcting an earlier error I made in saying that Gene Hackman's portrayal in the Christopher Reeve movie was the first live action appearance of the character!  I very much stand corrected and thank you, Mr. Schweier!)

In The Adventures of Superman TV series (1952 - 1957) George Reeves took on the title role, fighting thugs and hoodlums, bank robbers and petty crooks.  Although I didn't come along until the late 1960's, his portrayal was, for me and for many, THE defining image of Superman and that series will forever hold a cherished place in my heart.

The next years were lean ones for Super-fans.

There was a 1961 Superboy series pilot made by the creators of the George Reeves series.  Few have seen it (including me) and rumor is that it wasn't very good.  I had no clips from it to use in the tribute.

[Note: Since making this video fans have linked me to the the following website, where the pilot is available:
The Adventures of Superboy - 1961 Series]

There was a hideous Saturday morning cartoon series, The New Adventures of Superman (1966) which isn't represented in the tribute because I don't have any clips from it and probably wouldn't have used any if I did.  My recollection is that the animation wasn't very good at all.

There was also, of course, the campy Superfriends (1973).  Same note as above.

But much was made up for in the next major incarnation.

By the late 1970's Superman was once more ready to fly on the BIG screen and this time it was done as best it could be done.

Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie starring Christopher Reeve remains, in my mind, the very best realization of the Man of Steel brought to the screen yet.  In the Christopher Reeve feature great effort was made to treat the character of Superman with dignity, especially in his origin story, and although later versions (and even the initial film) had more than a few moments of failing, the image of then unknown actor Christopher Reeve in the crimson cape and costume brought the character to life with dignity and integrity for a whole new generation of fans.   Jeff East was equally appealing as the young Clark Kent and the scenes of his growing up in Smallville were played with a sincerity, humanity and depth that set the character on a solid foundation of reality.  The dramatic work is underscored by the outstanding cinematography of the late, great Geoffrey Unsworth.  [Scenes from the sequence of Lois trapped in her car are used in this tribute and those scenes were photographed by second unit cinematographer Robert Collins.]  Whatever shortcomings there may be in the film, I cannot say enough for the wonderful work of Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve.  The look of that film holds up well today and much of what you see in this tribute comes from that.  They made Superman real and made us all believe a man could fly.

Although there are some great scenes from the later films in the series none of them was ever as good as the original.  For this tribute I limited myself to clips from the first film only.

It was a Boy of Steel who flew onto the next noteworthy portrayal.  A small screen version of Superboy, done on a low budget, hit the airwaves in the late 1980's and the first season was, without a doubt, one of the most pathetic pieces of abysmal trash ever to hit the screen.  It was appalling and I tuned out totally, unable to watch a character I loved being regularly bastardized by idiots who just didn't respect what the character was all about.

Sadly, this caused me to miss a great deal of the SECOND SEASON of the Superboy series which, believe it or not, was totally awesome!

What a wonderful show that second series was!  They replaced the actor playing Superboy (John Haymes Newton) after a small scandal, and they fired the producer (Fred Freiburger) and basically scraped everything from that original lemon and started over, keeping only (I think) Lana Lang (Stacy Haiduk).  The totally reimagined concept cast Gerard Christopher in the title role and took a new approach.  The producers and writers crafted what are, arguably, some of the very best, most worthwhile, most entertaining, most imaginative and most character driven stories ever put on the screen for the Super-star.  Sherman Howard made a wonderful Lex Luthor, humorous at times while still being threatening.  The scripts explored different aspects of what made the character who he was with several alternate universe stories that were both imaginative and intelligent.  They had lots of really great fun with the character without ever losing the integrity that was central to making Superboy real.  If you only saw the first season, you have no idea what a great series you missed, and if you ever get a chance to see some of these later shows give them a chance, you may be very surprised and impressed.

Sadly, it was too little to late.  Everyone had gotten such a wretched taste in their mouth from the original series, the shows had been so bad, the ratings sank and the budgets were gutted to the point the writers had to basically write stage plays where everything took place in a single room for the whole show.  This actually prompted some really interesting, character driven stories.  In spite of the obvious shortcomings I thought they all did a wonderful job on that second series and I just had to include at least a couple of shots of Gerard Christopher in this because his portrayal was really good and he truly captured the essence of what the character was all about.  (Wish there were somewhere to get all those second season episodes!  I only have a few and I'm missing a lot, including Part II of a story with Ron Ely guesting as a "Superman" from an alternate universe who has to save Superboy at one point.  It looked good in the preview, but I may never find out what actually happened!)

In any case, Gerard Christopher's portrayal was right on target for me.  He embodied the character.

Recently Brian McKernan corrected me on some information I'd had here regarding rumors I'd heard about Gerard Christopher having a brief connection to the series Lois and Clark.  He pointed me to Gerard Christopher's Website, where I got the straight story.  In an Interview on his site Gerard Christopher talked about his brush with Lois and Clark.

Thus the cape passed to the next screen incarnation of the man of steel, Dean Cain.

During this period the character of Superman was going through a lot of changes in the comic books and much of that was to be reflected on the screen in the new shows.  John Byrne basically started the whole comic book series over again, making many changes in the concept of the Man of Steel, including keeping his parents alive, changing the nature of his powers a bit, and changing his physical appearance into a much larger, more muscular, more strikingly handsome person, even as Clark Kent.

Lois and Clark incorporated some of this and represented yet another, interesting reinvention of the character.  This was the romantic (some would say the "girl's version") of Superman, with the emphasis placed most strongly on the love affair between him and Lois.  Even the title reflected this slant with Lois getting top billing.   In that sense Dean Cain made a fine Superman.  As written his character was very "in touch with his feelings."  For the first time Martha and Jonathan Kent became regulars in the life of a screen version of Superman.  He was a guy who, even as an adult, still stayed in touch with his folks to talk out his problems, big and small.  They played to a lot of humor in the series, with scenes of him asking his mom on the phone how to get a stain out of  his uniform (Martha: "Well, what kind of stain is it?  Is it a grass stain, or an oil stain or...?"  Clark: "I don't know, Mom, it's a... bomb stain.")

The series had a lot going for it, certainly they threw production value at it, at least in the beginning, but the new age, touchy-feely take on the character never really excited me a lot.  It was cute.  I mean, really heavy on the cute.  The scripts were sort of fair to average, some were good, most were sort of mediocre.  But I liked what they did and admired, appreciated and applauded the attempt to reshape the mythology to reflect the feelings of a new and modern audience and putting the emphasis on the romance for a change.  Certainly actor Dean Cain's portrayal deserves space in any tribute!  He created a VERY strong personification of the Man of Steel and has very much earned his place in the annals of the character's on screen existence.

For me, however, a far more "true"  take on the character can be found in the recent Warner Bros. cartoon series.

I've always found it curious that the scripts for the recent animated cartoons of Superman and Batman were so much more intelligent and mature than the scripts for the earlier big budget feature films and the live action TV shows.  Maybe there's less committee pressure or something on the smaller scale, but if the earlier Batman feature films (starting with Michael Keaton and ending with George Clooney) and the latter Superman films (SUPERMAN III and IV) had been scripted as well as the animated program, they would have been the best on screen realization of a comic character to date.  The features finally got it right for me with "BATMAN BEGINS" and I'm really looking quite excitedly forward to the upcoming Bryan Singer "SUPERMAN RETURNS."  (Here's hoping!)

But, no doubt about it, the animated Superman series of the 1990's was really well written.  The character was taken fresh from the current version of the comic book and he had the integrity and depth that made him what I have always enjoyed.  The scripts were well written and the series was pretty darn good.  I'm happy to see it's not available on DVD.

Sadly, especially as far as this tribute goes, the animation is a weak element.  I didn't actually realize how much so until I started putting this together.  Every time I dropped in a shot from the recent animated series it just looked so, well, cheap.  The movements, cut into the Fleischer stuff, was noticeably jerky, the lighting was flat and bright with no mood, and the stylized characterization, compared to the highly realistic earlier cartoons, made the new series look worse than it should.  I tried using some flying shots and the animation was so choppy that it just went "clunk."  I would have used more, the series is great, but its strength lies in the quality of its writing, and that is not evident in a quick visual clip.  This tribute is a visual tribute and compared to the animation from the old Fleischer cartoons, the new series just looked lame.  Pity.  The stories are really good.  I still used a shot, I couldn't leave this well made series out, but would have used more if it just looked better.

Finally, at least as of this writing, we come to the current live action embodiment of the character as portrayed by Tom Welling in the series Smallville.

A little bit of the X-Files, a touch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a LOT of Dawson's Creek is spun around the character of Clark Kent, a teen struggling with his adolescent angst and coming to grips with the difficulties of being different, while mutants created by Kryptonite radiation become the "monster of the week."  There is some great stuff in this series!  They have gone to wonderful lengths to capture the humanity of the character and his angst.  The first season got stuck in a formula it couldn't escape.  This season is doing better as they seem to be developing some confidence that people might watch just to see what happens in the lives of the characters, even without a new kryptonite created mutant jumping out at each commercial break.

Tom Welling makes a sincere, good looking, and very likeable Clark Kent, a young man still unaware of who he is and what he can do.  The look of the show is good, the production value is great, and the cast is wonderful.  (Michael Rosenbaum, in particular, makes a wonderful Lex Luthor and his relationship with his father adds a much needed new level of depth to the development of the character.)

I hope the show continues to do well, as it seems to be, but sooner or later as the cast matures they are going to HAVE to commit to advancing the story beyond the limits of their current premise.  They can only go so long without certain unavoidable issues arising.  How old can Clark get and still be living in Smallville, still not know he can fly, still not need a secret identity, etc.  How they're going to handle this change I have no idea, especially as they have painted themselves into a few corners, premise wise, at this point.  (For example, I can only assume the future has Lex knowing Superman is Clark Kent, unless he loses his memory and forgets the friend he spent so many hours with.]

As much as I like the show, because he is only Clark Kent and thus never wears the costume, it was tricky to incorporate clips from the show into the video tribute.  You have to KNOW who he is to get it.  (I guess the same is true of Jeff East as young Clark Kent in the clips from the Superman movie that are in here, but those seemed clear, somehow.)  I tried to show Tom Welling doing "super stuff" to get the idea across and as the current embodiment of the character, and a very fine one at that, I certainly wouldn't have done this tribute without him.

Interestingly, I was able to find a shot of each live action character, including Tom Welling, walking through flames, and those cut together into kind of an interesting little montage near the end.

Well, there's more than you probably wanted to know, but that's the story behind the clips and what I used, and what I didn't.  All rights belong to the authors of the original works and I am presenting them here ONLY in the form of a non-commercial fan tribute and hope they are taken for the enjoyment of all.  I claim NO copyright on this material, all of which is held by the original owners, except in the case of the Max Fleischer cartoons which have fallen into public domain.

ALL material is DC Comics and Warner Bros.


Click to view the video