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Of all the universes and all the superheroes in comic book and film history, they all owe something to Superman. The Man of Steel birthed the superhero in popular culture and has since become one of the most iconic characters in all of human history. And, despite all that, film versions of the hero have struggled to find consistency.
From his birth in the 30s, when America needed a hero, to his evolution over time, and his current state in Hollywood, here is a brief look at the history of Superman, and his journey from page to screen.
Birth: Superman was created from the minds of Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster, in 1933. It took them five years to conceptualize the character and place him in Action Comics in June 1938. That same year, Superman was sold to Detective Comics, later named DC Comics. Originally, Superman would be a telepathic villain who wanted to dominate the world. Siegel and Schuster kept that idea in mind for a certain villain, but opted to make Superman the hero, with Shuster visually modeling Superman on Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and his bespectacled alter ego, Clark Kent, on a combination of Harold Lloyd.
First Appearance: Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 on April 18, 1938. The next year, months before Batman, Superman was given his self-titled comic.
Villains: For years, Superman squared off against gangsters and hoods in pulp-style novels. However, his most prominent villain, Lex Luthor, became his most worthy adversary throughout the years of the comics and in the films. The scientific genius has undergone several evolutions in his career in the comics, but Luthor is always Superman’s most challenging villain.
Other villains in the pantheon include Brainiac, the alien android, Doomsday, and Darkseid, who is one of the most powerful beings in the DC Universe. General Zod is perhaps one of his most popular adversaries, having appeared now in two film versions of the hero.
The Death of Superman: In 1992, DC Comics heavily publicized the upcoming comic book series which would spell the death of Superman. At the hands of the raging beast Doomsday, Superman dies along with his adversary in one of the most popular series’ in DC Comics history. Superman, however, did not die in the comics. After three months away from the shelves, four story lines for Superman were launched, with all four claiming to be Superman in some capacity.
First Screen Appearance: After a successful radio series in 1940, Superman was launched into cartoon serials which appeared at theaters. In 1948, Kirk Alyn became the first actor to portray Superman on screen in a movie serial. Superman took off in 1951, with George Reeves taking on the title role in The Adventures of Superman.
Film History: While Superman enjoyed a lucrative history on the small screen, it wasn’t until 1978 when director Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve brought the Man of Steel to the silver screen in a feature film debut. Superman The Movie was a worldwide smash hit and a great film about the hero. Two years later, and after a change from director Donner, Superman II continued the Reeve’s franchise with solid success.
However, after the first sequel (much like the Batman franchise), the Superman franchise began to wobble. Superman III was a campy, cheesy entry into the story, and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace was an unmitigated, over-edited disaster of epic proportions. It spelled doom for Superman on the big screen for nearly 20 years when Bryan Singer helmed Superman Returns. While his film attempted to pick up where Superman II left off and forget the last two films, it was still seen as rather dull and uninteresting.
Zack Snyder and Supes: Seven years after Superman Returns, DC Studios released their all new revamped reboot of Superman in Man of Steel, which borrowed heavily from the darker, more realistic Christopher Nolan Batman films. With Henry Cavill in the title role, Man of Steel attempted to ramp up the DC Universe. While it was a box-office success, critics pointed at its penchant for mass destruction in the end as a severe drawback to the film.
Present Day: In 2016, Superman will finally share the big screen with Batman in Snyder’s upcoming Batman Vs. Superman, with Henry Cavill reprising the role opposite Ben Affleck as The Dark Knight.