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The History of Superman on Screen

by Christian Kern
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Superman… everyone knows him, by any of his names; The Man of Steel, The Last Son of Krypton, The Man of Tomorrow… Superman has always been a favorite of many.

Superman has been a cultural icon for almost three quarters of a century. He debuted April 18, 1938 in Action Comics #1 and it it wasn’t long before the Man of Steel found his way on to the screen. His screen debut started in 1941, in a number of animated shorts, just 3 years after his first comic appearance. Within seven more years (1948) he found his first movie (Atom Man Vs. Superman starring Kirk Alyn) which was quickly followed by a sequel in 1950. Only a year later saw the release of the first feature film “Superman and the Mole Men” starring George Reeves, a man who would make himself a name as the Man of Steel in television.

Christian gives the rundown of the history of Superman on both the small and big screen!

Black & White Television

Adventures of Superman

Adventures of Superman with George Reeves

The first Superman TV series was black and white. The Adventures of Superman began in 1952, starring George Reeves. It ran to 1958 (the final 4 seasons being broadcast in color) until his untimely death. There were attempts to revitalize the series with an Adventures of Superboy spin off as well as a Superpup series, which would have seen a world populated by dogs. The last attempt was to make the actor who played Jimmy Olsen, Jack Larson the main character in a Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen spin-off which would utilize stock images of Reeves as Superman.

In 1961, Johnny Rockwell was cast as Superboy, however only one out of 13 written episodes was filmed before the whole idea was scrapped.

Adventures of Superboy

The Whole Unaired episode of Adventures of Superboy can be found here

In 1966 there were two attempts to revive Superman through Superboy. One was an unaired and never screened live action directed by Andy Warhol starring  Robert Hastings.  The other was “The Adventures of Superboy” which was a series of six-minute cartoons produced by Filmation and broadcast on CBS until 1969,

The Motion Picture and the Salkinds

We wouldn’t see the Man of Steel on either screen for over twenty-five years. 1978 showed an entire world that we could believe a man could fly, which was the tag line for Superman: The Motion Picture. A relatively unknown actor named Christopher Reeve was cast as the Man of Steel and won the hearts and minds of billions of fans. Superman and Superman II are considered icon cult films and for many, the epitome of Superman. The films can be watched back to back as a whole movie. Alexander and Ilya Salkind had a habit of filming movies back to back. The Salkinds would go on to produce a third Superman film which while not a fan favorite was a box office success.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was considered the real failure of the film franchise. Cannon Films had acquired the movie rights and the films took a different direction. They originally wanted to introduce Bizarro and have a split screen of Reeves with Gene Hackman‘s voice. However due to the expense of split screen it was decided to rewrite the script and introduce a new character named Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow). It was apparently cheaper to hire a whole new actor than to do the split screen. The movie was a wash at the box office and the least liked movie of the franchise. Considering the failure of the later two movies, the franchise took a break.

Superman Quest for Peace

Superman IV Quest for Peace

Cannon Films filed for bankruptcy and the rights reverted back to the Salikinds who had plans for Superman V: The New Movie. The planned revival had a very ‘Death and Return of Superman’ plot years before DC would kill the character in a major story.

Finally Superboy!

In 1988, the Salikinds still had the rights to Superman but they abandoned the film concept turning instead towards the small screen and a half-hour television series called Superboy. The series focused on a young Clark Kent (Gerard Christopher) growing up as Smallville’s Superboy. It saw Lana Lang (Stacy Haiduk) as the love interest and focused on the relationship between Lex Luthor and Superboy. It would also utilize a host of Superman’s rogues gallery. If you pay attention there are great easter eggs such as Clark Kent attends the Siegel School of Journalism at Shuster University in Shusterville, Florida– two references to the creators of Superman Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Even though the series was a success it was intended to end on a cliffhanger with the end of season 4 so the Salikinds could do a series of continued TV to carry on the show. However, the rights of Superman which also encompassed Superboy and Supergirl were shifted to Warner Bros which was beginning production of their own Superman TV series.

Lois and Clark

Lois and Clark

In 1993, ABC television would debut a new live action Superman series, one which hadn’t been seen on television since the 1950’s. Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman would be on the air for 4 consecutive years with 87 episodes. This introduced a new Superman (Dean Cain) and a Lois Lane (Terri Hatcher) who would take equal billing. The show would focus on Clark Kent/Superman’s arrival in Metropolis and his first meetings with Lois Lane and Lex Luthor. While the show does have many Superman villains and focuses on Superman, the series main theme was the budding love affair between Lois Lane and Clark Kent. The series focus was so intense that when Clark proposed to Lois in Superman issue #50 in 1990 DC Comics made the Superman writers hold off on marrying the characters until Lois and Clark tied the knot in the TV series. Which finally did at the beginning of Season 4, their final season. The series ended on a cliffhanger with an unknown Kryptonian baby being left on the couple’s doorstep and a note explaining it belonged to them.

ABC had intended on a season 5 and had even announced such it, however due to a ratings decline,  ABC dropped Lois and Clark from their lineup but still ordered 13 episodes of another Warner Bros series to make good on their commitment to Warner Bros.

Return to Smallville


We would not see another live action Superman TV series until 2001. A newly branded station, The WB would debut an hour long teenage drama series called Smallville which would focus on Clark Kent (Tom Welling) being raised by his parents; Jonathan and Martha Kent. We would see the contrast between how he is raised by loving parents compared to his best friend, Lex Luthor and his relationship with his cold hearted father, Lionel Luthor. We did not see the Superman costume until the tenth season where it would be briefly teased until culminating with Clark donning the red and blue caped suit in the final episode. For ten years Smallville would be a success with all demographics. It had high ratings and killer soundtracks. The series is eerily similar to the earlier works of the Salkind’s Superboy TV series which was because both TV series used the same source material. Something most are not aware of how is close Smallville was to early Pre-Crisis Superboy issues as opposed to being made up on the fly. The show would eventually showcase many DC characters which would set up hopes for their own spin offs. The beginning of the series even gave us a brand new character in the form of Chloe Sulivan who was then worked into the comic book retroactively. Smallville finds itself still popular even eight years after the series is over.

The Guest Star

We wouldn’t see Superman appear on the small screen again until 2016 in season 2 of the CW Supergirl TV series. The series focuses on Superman’s cousin with mention of him frequently, however we never see him until the beginning of season 2. After that he shows up on occasion to as not eclipse the main character.

The Superman Who Never Was…

During all these hits in television, DC Comics and Warner Bros tried to reignite the Superman film franchise. Their attempts  met with failure and become the stuff of myth and legend. From the Salkinds failed ‘Superman V’ they moved on to ‘Superman Lives’ starring Nicholas Cage as Superman. The new film used material from a previously failed project called ‘Superman Reborn’. The project would use the idea of the Death of Superman comic story and had one considered draft which was written by Kevin Smith. The film was to star Nicholas Cage a self-confessed comic book fan. There were even talks to develop a Batman vs Superman film which never went past the pre-production stage.

All of these elements would returned to later and become more of a reality years later when the DC movie universe began. Warner Bros anticipated the movies becoming a reality and even primed the pump in Batman Forever be mentioning the city Metropolis. This was the first attempt to create a coherent film universe using DC’s two biggest characters. The idea was to somehow connect the Christopher Reeve movie legacy with the ‘Burton’ Batman franchise and open a doorway for the Man of Steel to return. Needless to say none of these films ever made it to the big screen.

The Return

Superman Returns

Superman Returns

In 2006, director Bryan Singer came to Warner with an idea which built upon the the idea of the unmade Superman movies. Singer brought the idea of a sequel reboot. Superman Returns would take place in the original Salkind movie continuity but would ignore the existence of Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. With an explanation of why Superman had left Earth and his sudden return after being gone for many years. The film starred Brandon Routh who won fans over with his incredible portrayal of Clark Kent/ Superman and for his ability to capture the Christopher Reeve spirit. Superman Returns also starred Kevin Spacey and Frank Langella. Unfortunately the film was a box office failure and didn’t sit well with fans. Originally there were plans for a sequel and even a Justice League film which would have tied into the Green Lantern, film which came out a few years later, but with the theatrical failure this never came to fruition. Combined with the failure of the Green Lantern movie the DC movie universe was put on hold.

Man of Steel

Superman would not be seen again on the big screen until seven years later, in in 2013. Coming off the heels of 2008’s Dark Knight Rises, the news that Christopher Nolan had no intention of doing more Batman films nor extending his established Batman universe into the rest of a DC Universe left Warner Bros with a bit of a problem. Earlier, there were discussions to reboot the Superman film franchise which caught the attention of David S. Goyer who worked with Nolan on the Batman (Batman Begins, Dark Knight & Dark Knight Rises) films. In 2010 Nolan and Goyer pitched an idea for a more modern Superman. Zack Snyder was hired as director and Henry Cavill was cast as Superman; the rest has become history.

man of steel

man of steel

Man of Steel still splits comic book fans today. It’s dark tones and gritty film overlays seem to detract from what make Superman the icon he is. Others read a more Biblical symbolism into the film’s script and imagery, which has not been denied by the writers and director as having been intentional. The film would go on to spawn a sequel, of sorts. While not being a direct sequel to Man of Steel; Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice would see Cavill reprise his role as Superman and tackle elements from almost two decades earlier in the Superman reboot history. The film utilizes both pivotal concepts of Batman fighting Superman as well as the death of Superman. His resurrection would come in the sequel Justice League, another film which failed to make it to the big screen years earlier. Also while not seen in the Suicide Squad film, Superman is mentioned and used as an example why a team like the Suicide Squad should exist in the first place to combat threats posed by metahumans such as Superman.

Although the current Superman has yet to reach iconic status the likes of Geroges Reeves and Christopher Reeve, Warner Bros has no intention of stopping with just the three films they have done. With a whole shared universe finally a reality (Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, Jsutice League & Aquaman) we should expect to see much more of the current Superman in the future as even a sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel is still in the works. However, they may be doing it without Henry Cavill.


With almost 80 years on the big and small screens and we haven’t even covered animation; Superman remains a favorite to see. It has been a long and eventful road for the Last Son of Krypton to make it to the cultural movie status he has found himself upon, but for as long as mankind continues to produce films and television it could be expected that we will never stop seeing the Man of Steel in one form or another on our TVs as well as on the Silver Screen.

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