Sunday, October 7, 2012

The History of Superman

Look! Up in the Sky!

By Jon Gallagher

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!

Even as a kid, I had to wonder about the citizenry who couldn’t tell a bird from a plane, let alone a caped guy flying around their city. And for that matter, what the heck would get them so excited about seeing a freaking bird flying around, much less a plane.

I was cynical even as a kid.

A few weeks ago I was discussing reboots with Ed Garea. This is when Hollywood has run out of new ideas, so they recycle old ideas with new twists. That time we talked about Spiderman and Batman.

Well, now it’s Superman’s turn.

Superman has been rebooted more times than a cowboy walking cross-country without a horse. 

Superman began as a comic book, first appearing in Action Comics in 1938. Since that time, Superman has undergone several changes and it seems that each generation makes their own changes to his storyline. In the comics, they’ve managed to justify the different paths the stories take by saying that there are parallel Earths, and that a different Superman exists on each, with just slight changes in his biography.

For example, one Superman discovered that he had powers as a baby. On that Earth, there was a Superboy. On other Earths, he doesn’t discover his superpowers until he’s a young adult. Sometimes, in the comics, the Supermen from the different Earths get together and then I’m really confused.

One thing is for sure and is a constant throughout. Superman was born on another planet and came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Hey… someone should write that down. It’d make a good intro someday. 

The planet was identified later as Krypton, and so far, that has remained consistent throughout each telling of his life. But that’s where things start to change. As the comic books remained consistent, radio, TV and motion pictures started giving their own slant on things.

Superman began on radio in 1940 and enjoyed an 11-year run with future game show host Bud Collyer supplying the voice of the Man of Steel. This weekly series introduced two important items into the Superman lore that have remained. First was Jimmy Olson, a cub reporter for the Daily Planet who became buds with both Superman and Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent. 

It also introduced Kryptonite, small bits of the planet Krypton that came to earth as meteorites and are deadly to Superman.

In 1948, Kirk Alyn began portraying Superman in a series of movie serials. He reprised the role for Atom Man vs. Superman, filmed as a movie, but later split into mini movies for serialization. Alyn, typecast in the role, had trouble finding other work in Hollywood after that. He had a cameo in the 1978 movie Superman.

TV provided us with the Superman associated with Galesburg, Illinois. George Reeves, whose mother lived in Galesburg, starred in the title role from 1952-1958. 

In this series, there was little difference between Clark Kent and the Man of Steel. Clark was little more than Superman with glasses, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone; the series was a huge success. The first two seasons were filmed in black and white, but later episodes were in color, which meant they had to get a Superman costume with the color scheme correct. In the first episodes, Reeves wore a costume that was grey because it didn’t matter.

This series featured some special effects, but most things were left to the imagination. Reeves would use a springboard to jump out of windows, landing on padded mats out of the camera’s view. When entering a room through a window, Reeves would swing like a gymnast from a bar outside the window. Fortunately, Reeves, despite being in his 40s at the time, was athletic enough to pull off the stunt.

One thing that really bothered me was when the bad guys would shoot at Superman. He’d stand there, letting the bullets bounce off his chest. After the criminal had emptied his gun, he would always throw it at Superman.

Think about that. Bullets won’t hurt the guy, so throwing the gun at him might. 

Then, instead of letting the gun bounce off of him like the bullets did, Superman would DUCK! That makes sense.

Other than animated series, we went without a Superman for 20 years. In 1978, Christopher Reeve (no relation to George Reeves) would take over the role and become the best Superman celluloid would ever know.

Reeve, in his portrayal of the Kryptonian, gave us a Superman who had fun. Special effects allowed us to “believe a man can fly” as the advertisements at the time claimed. His Clark Kent character stammered and ran into things, slouching to hide his physique. In one magical moment in the movie, Clark is in Lois Lane’s apartment (Lois is Superman’s love interest) when he decides to reveal his identity. Lois is in the other room and Clark removes his glasses and straightens up, becoming Superman. He has second thoughts and just as she comes back in the room, he slips his glasses back on, and resumes his Clark Kent persona.

This Superman is one that was aware of the differences between himself and others as a teen, but didn’t fully realize his powers until he, as a young adult, took a crystal from his home planet to the Arctic where the crystal built his Fortress of Solitude, a place that trained him and revealed his origin on the planet Krypton.

Reeve would reprise his role in three more sequels in 1980, 1983, and 1987. Each lost some steam as writers ran out of ideas, and by the time the final movie came out audiences had tired of the series.

That didn’t stop television. In 1988, a series called The Adventures of Superboy made its debut on the tube. The series ignored the movies and made Superboy a college student. As a superhero he worked for a government agency while as Clark Kent, he attended college. 

Somehow, the series made it through 100 half hour episodes, ending in 1992. Gerard Christopher took the honors of donning the cape for this go-round. 

An interesting note from the series, which was set at Shuster University: there was a building on campus called the Siegel Center. This honored Superman’s creators Jerry Shuster and Joe Siegel.

Almost as soon as the series ended, ABC came out with Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. The series starred Dean Cain as the strange visitor from another planet while Teri Hatcher was Lois Lane.

In this series, which lasted 87 (one-hour) episodes, was played tongue in cheek, much like the Batman series of the 1960s. Although not as campy as Batman, no one seemed to take themselves too seriously. Here, Lois knows that Clark is Superman, but somehow manages not to reveal it to the world. Again, there’s not a lot of difference between Clark and Superman; both are a little nerdish this time around.

In 2001, the WB came out with Smallville, yet another take on the Superman origin. In this series, which lasted 10 years, Clark is a teenager, being raised by his parents Jonathan and Martha Kent. The town of Smallville was hit with a meteor shower, which brought all sorts of problems, causing several residents to mutate into humans with special powers. Lex Luthor, who will eventually become Superman’s arch enemy, loses his thick shock of red hair because of radiation. The meteor shower, of course, was parts of the planet Krypton that came right along with the spaceship carrying baby Kal-El (Superman’s Kryptonian name). 

Tom Welling plays Clark, who dons the tights and cape just once in the final episode. Throughout the 10-year run, however, Clark is seen wearing some combination of red, blue and yellow, the colors of Superman’s costume.

The series follows Clark throughout his high school years, introduces Luthor and Lana Lang, setting the stage for Clark’s future life as Superman. Lex and Clark are best buds though the first few years, but become bitter enemies by the end of the series. Lana is Clark’s first love, and we discover that they lose their virginity to each other. Lane is also introduced and becomes Clark’s lover and fiancé. 

My favorite parts of the show are the inside jokes that are often used. John Schneider, who had played one of the Duke boys on The Dukes of Hazzard, played Clark’s father Jonathan. In one episode, Jonathan is riding along in his truck and his radio starts playing One-Note Waylon Jennings’ “Good Old Boys,” which was the theme song of the Dukes. In another episode, Tom Wopat, the other Duke boy, shows up for a reunion with Jonathan in a car that looks suspiciously like the General Lee, the car they drove in their original series.

The show also has some interesting connections to the Christopher Reeve movies. Annette O’Toole plays Martha Kent in Smallville but in 1983, she played Lana Lang in Superman III. Terrance Stamp is the voice of Jor-El, Clark’s Kryptonian father, throughout the series. It’s not the first time he’s played a Kryptonian because in Superman II, he was the evil General Zod who came to Earth looking for the son of Jor-El. 

Reeve, who by this time was paralyzed because of his horseback riding accident, appears in two episodes as Dr. Virgil Swann (a salute to longtime Superman comic book artist Curt Swann), who gives Clark quite a bit of the background he needs from his past. Reeve died shortly after filming his role. It’s quite eerie seeing him talk to Clark from his wheelchair, knowing that he once played that role himself.

Others, including Cain, Hatcher, Helen Slater (Supergirl in the movie by the same name), and Margot Kidder (Lois in the Superman movies), have roles as well.

Interesting to note that Oliver Queen, the alter ego of superhero Green Arrow, is a regular and played by Justin Hartley. Hartley’s official bio lists him as being born in Knoxville, Illinois, in 1977 (he was either born at home or they moved Cottage or St. Mary’s a few miles east), and claims to have spent the first few years of his life on Westview Drive. Heck…. I may have done a magic show at one of his birthday parties!

In 2006, not to be outdone, Bryan Singer directed Superman Returns. Brandon Routh landed the lead role with Kate Bosworth playing Lane. Kevin Spacey is Luthor.

In this movie, the characters are a little darker with Lois basically being a slut. Superman (along with Clark) vanished five years ago, leaving Lois by herself. When he returns, she’s got a five-year-old kid who she claims belongs to her fiancé Richard White. The problem is the kid exhibits super abilities which makes me wonder if Lois can’t remember who she slept with. If it was Richard, then it sure didn’t take her long to get over Superman because the child was born nine months later.

The budget on this movie must have been really low because they used major parts of the first Reeve movie’s script, including the part where Superman saves Lois from a crashing aircraft and reminds her that “statistically speaking,” flying is still the safest mode of transportation.

Basically, the movie sucked.

I’m not sure why the movie was made given the fact that so much was taken from the 1978 film. Maybe Singer wanted to correct a couple things he didn’t like in it.

Producers corrected one major thing: they scrapped the idea for a sequel because of all the bad reviews this one got, not to mention the egg it laid at the box office.

So here we are in 2012 and trailers are starting to pop up in movie theaters for the newest incarnation of Superman, this one called Man of Steel and set to be released on June 14, 2013.

Evidently this reboot is going to take us back to the beginning again with Superman landing on Earth. 

Gee, I think we got that already. 

Christopher Nolan, who was responsible for the latest reboot of Batman, is the producer and I’m told that there will be quite a few changes to Superman’s character. He won’t be as bold and self-confident as he’s been portrayed in the past, and Lois isn’t going to be as interested in him as she has in every other version.

I’m not sure how that’s going to work out. Superman without Lois would be like Lucy without Ricky, Fonzie without Richie, or Andy without Barney. Sure it’s been done, but the end result wasn’t quite the same.

Superman’s costume has also undergone some changes. Instead of wearing his underwear on the outside of his tights, the red trunks have vanished. This reflects the new Superman in DC Comics whose costume doubles as a suit of armor (uh…. Isn’t Supes invulnerable anyway???). 

The big red “S” on his chest doesn’t stand for Superman; it’s more of a family crest in the form of a shield. This started to be established in the 1978 version when Jor-El, Superman’s father (Marlon Brando) had the same insignia on his shirt while still on Krypton. Later, and I’m not sure where, it was revealed that the “S” is a Kryptonian symbol which means “hope.”

I’ll go and see the movie when it arrives in theaters, but I can’t say I’m quaking with anticipation. I’m not sure anyone can do justice to the role that Reeve defined.

I wonder when Hollywood is just going to say, “Let’s leave well enough alone.”

Just a bit of trivia….

·    The original Superman in the comics did not fly. He could leap an eighth of a mile, but he did not fly. That came later.
     Superman’s home is Metropolis, a fictional town that closely resembles New York City, at least in the Reeve movies (including a Statue of Liberty). In Smallville, Metropolis is in Kansas, not far from Smallville that is also in Kansas.
     There is, however, a real Metropolis, and it’s located in Illinois. The town is located in the southern tip of the state, about 30 miles from the Kentucky border. They have a Superman Museum there and they hold a Superman festival on the second weekend of June each year. 
     It was declared the official hometown of Superman in 1972. The newspaper there officially changed its name to the Metropolis Planet. Evidently it doesn’t come out daily.
     In 1961, a pilot was filmed in black and white called “The Adventures of Superboy.” John Rockwell was cast as Superboy and 13 scripts were written in anticipation of the show being picked up. Networks took a look but determined that the cost to produce each episode with the special effects needed was too much and only the pilot was ever put on film.
     The Daily Planet was originally called the Daily Star.

In the movie Hollywoodland, a movie about the life of George Reeves, actor Ben Affleck falls from his harness while filming a flying scene. When he gets up, stunned, he says, “I’d like to thank the Academy and all the good people of Galesburg, Illinois, for their support….”

Finally, if you really want to show off your Superman trivia knowledge, Clark Kent’s middle name is Joseph.

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