Superman is perhaps the most popular American superhero of all time, in fact, one can argue that he is the most popular superhero in the world. Debuting in 1938 on the cover of Action Comics #1, the alien refugee from the doomed planet of Krypton has endeared himself in the hearts and minds of readers and fans all around the globe and throughout numerous generations. After almost 80 years of publication, hundreds of rival comic book characters, and zillions of issues the Man of Steel still remains as the quintessential face of the Superhero Comic Book. Yet despite his commercial and literary success, Superman has yet to make a lasting dent in the world of big budget cinema. DC comics, the publisher of the
Superman title, and its mother company Time AOL Warner have made a slew of forays into Hollywood hoping to further the Big Blue Boy Scout’s prestige...Enter the roller coaster ride known as the Superman film franchise which has seen its share of heroic triumphs and tragic defeats.
With a new Superman movie directed by Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300, and Suckerpunch) and produced by Christopher Nolan ( the Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception) coming out in June, let us retrace the storied footsteps of this proud yet squandered Superhero film franchise and see how the latest Superman movie changes everything.
The Christopher Reeve Era
Though there have been numerous Superman movies which were released between 1948 and 1951, its real thrust came in the form of the first original motion picture entitled Superman which was released in 1978. This financial and critical juggernaut of a film featured everything you would want to start a strong franchise, it had Marlon Brando playing Superman’s father Jor-el, it boasted the acting talents of Gene Hackman for the role of evil genius and long time Superman foe Lex Luthor, it sported the directorial vision of the great Richard Donner, and most importantly it introduced the world to the definitive face of Clark Kent/Kal-El who is none other than the immortal Christopher Reeve.
The casting of Christopher Reeve was perhaps the most important milestone of that particular era of the Superman film franchise. He possessed the kind of honest-to-God demeanour and old Americana charm that did justice to the otherworldly purity and humility which Superman has always been portrayed within the comic books. Christopher Reeve’s instant connection with the audience and his uncanny knack for switching between the dual personas of Clark Kent and Kal-El made him an international star at the time and forever cemented him as the face of Superman, so much so that nearly a decade after the Reeve Era, the search continues for an actor with the same transcendental calibre as Christopher Reeve to portray both Clark Kent and his powerful alter-ego
However, while some things in life age like wine, others spoil like milk. Failing to stick to the formula of success which adorned Superman and Superman II, the big movie studios decided that all they needed was Christopher Reeve and going with that impetus created the terrible Superman III and the oft forgotten Superman IV. Soon after, Christopher Reeve suffered a spinal accident which decommissioned him from acting for good and hampered any serious attempts to continue the film franchise, with the iconic face of Superman gone, Warner Bros decided to give the saga a rest.
The Singer Solution
The Reeve era was followed by many awkward attempts to continue the franchise but with Christopher Reeve gone from the scene and the film franchise continuity having dug itself into a hole of bad plots, forgettable characters, and Richard Pryor, nothing much was really happening anymore and the Big Blue found himself stifled by production kryptonite. By 2005 the franchise had become totally stagnant, even missing a rare and bold opportunity to build on its television endeavours such as Smallville (there was for some time a prevalent school of thought which insisted that Smallville series should be treated as the new continuity), meanwhile uptown competitor Marvel comics through its ties with Paramount and 20th Century Fox had launched its initial wave of movies which would soon form the backbone for the now dominant Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The executives in Warner were desperate for some sort of response to the movie mania unleashed by Marvel, after numerous attempts to create a revival for the Reeve Era, the executives were left with no viable script, no willing director, and seemingly no hope. Fortunately salvation came in the guise of DC’s competition when Warner was approached by Bryan Singer, then director of the fledgling X-men Film Franchise of Marvel. A childhood fan of Donner’s treatment of the Superman mythos, Singer wisely disregarded III and IV and continued where II left off. Singer evoked the very same direction and mood of the Donner films, employing a talented cast which included Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, he also did not stray far from the casting formula for the titular hero when he chose an unknown Brandon Routh who bore a strong comparison to Christopher Reeves thus playing on everyone’s nostalgia for the cinematic Clark Kent/Superman they grew up with. Assembling Donnerian elements for the film, Superman Returns debuted as a massive hit both financially, nearly raking in $391 million worldwide, and critically with critics praising it as a wonderful tribute and successor to the Superman and Superman II.
Superman Returns may have won DC and Warner the battle for the year 2006 but it ended up nearly losing them the war for Hollywood supremacy. The Singer Solution was a short-term one and while it may have made Superman a relevant franchise in terms of its potential for lucrative sequels, its laurels were casually stomped on by the rise of the independent Marvel Film Studio whose hits had DC comics and Warner Bros reeling with every blow. The Superman film franchise needed to adapt or die.
Nolanverse and The Man of Steel
As Marvel’s movies became more aggressive and more colourful with every flick, DC decided to take a darker road with its comic book properties. Tapping the creative genius of director Christopher Nolan to reboot Batman, another DC icon whose film franchise desperately needed reinventing (Bat-nipples anyone?). Nolan re-invented the Batman mythos as a realistic and gritty crime thriller, trading in the traditional Superhero movie set-up for a more crime-noir oriented direction. This eventually led to the phenomenon known as the Dark Knight Saga which popularized Christian Bale and canonized Heath Ledger as the patron saint of method actors. In 2012, after wrapping up the Batman film franchise with its third instalment The Dark Knight Rises, Warner announced that it had successfully convinced Christopher Nolan to helm its entire line of DC adaptations including a conceived Justice League movie which would serve as the retaliatory strike to Marvel’s massively successful Superhero team-up flick The Avengers. First on the line for Nolanification was the Superman film franchise, which Warner hoped would benefit under the same kind of realistic treatment as the Batman movies. After much fan speculation and debate about having a DC cinematic universe helmed by Christopher Nolan, the long wait was ended by the release of trailers for the new Superman movie entitled Man of Steel, the first Superman movie which does not feature the name ‘Superman’ in its title (a tactic Nolan used for his last two Batman movies, it is also his subtle way of saying “Hey my comic book films mean business---Academy Award business!)