The two biggest superheroes around are headed for a fight, and neither of them look very happy about it. This morning, a first photo of Henry Cavill as Superman was released from Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. While Superman doesn’t appear to be all that different than he was in Man of Steel, Cavill’s look is still a surprisingly different one from those that came before him. To get a better impression of where Zack Snyder’s films are coming from, take a look back across the history of Superman’s sometimes awkward, sometimes incredible appearances on film and TV.
Superman’s first appearance, of course, was on the pages of 'Action Comics.' The first 14-page issue was released on May 31st, 1938, and it presented a version of Superman’s origin story that isn’t all that different from the tragic history that’s usually presented today.
It didn’t take very long before Superman headed to the screen. Fleischer Studios began making animated Superman shorts that ran in theaters between 1941 and 1942, and they’re famous for coining the character’s phrase, “This looks like a job for Superman!” The shorts are now in the public domain and available to watch on YouTube.
A decade later, in 1951, a live-action Superman finally came to the big screen for a feature-length film. Though a color shot of George Reeves’ Superman accompanied the poster, the film itself was in black and white — perhaps explaining the outfit’s two-tone style.
Reeves went on to play Superman in the ‘Adventures of Superman’ TV series, which was spun off of the film and began airing the very next year. By the show’s third season, it had started to film in color too, presenting a better look at Reeves’ outfit. At this point though, the outfit looks more comfortable than heroic.
Christopher Reeve’s famous ‘Superman’ series began in 1978 to much acclaim. It continued for a total of four films, ending with the quite poorly received ‘Quest for Peace’ in 1987. Reeve’s Superman outfit certainly embodies the character’s principled heroism, but this is still very much the outfit of a comic book character, rather than a movie star.
After Reeve hung up the cape in the ’80s, Dean Cain stepped in for a television version of Superman beginning in 1993 and running for four seasons. The style of Cain’s Superman didn’t change much: if anything, it was a bit brighter and more cartoony than Reeve’s. Though, to anyone familiar with the often-cheesy series, that probably makes some sense.
Just under a decade after the ‘Superman’ films ended, the hero once again became a successful animated star in ‘Superman: The Animated Series’. First airing between 1996 and 2000, the series came from some of the names behind the recently concluded ‘Batman: The Animated Series,’ to much the same results. The series presented a grounded Superman and found a similar level of television success.
It was a while before a live-action Superman returned to the big screen, but one did hit the small screen for quite a while starting in 2001. The Superman of ‘Smallville’ was a much different hero from the one that we’re used to though, a young hero who wasn’t always ready to jump into costume. In fact, while his classic outfit does appear in the show, for the most part this Superman was just Clark Kent wearing a red jacket and a blue T-shirt.
Finally, Superman returned to the big screen in 2006 in an all-too-fittingly titled film. Brandon Routh took over as the hero and presented one of the first big departures for Superman’s on-screen outfit, introducing some texture to it and a clearly thicker material. The film saw generally warm reviews, but it ended up performing poorly at the box office and never saw a sequel.
Director Zack Snyder took Superman back to the big screen last year to much more success than the superhero had seen in a long while. It was a far more emotional look at the hero — having a story by ‘Dark Knight’ director Christopher Nolan certainly must have helped — and it served as the kicking off point for a much larger film universe from DC. Henry Cavill plays Superman here, and his outfit is by far the most different. For one, it’s heavily textured and uses what looks to be a far more functional material. But more importantly, it eschews the campy red shorts that have long gone above Superman’s blue suit.
It doesn’t look like much, if anything, will change between Cavill’s debut as Superman and his coming return in 2016 — and that’s by no means a bad thing. If anything, this first look serves to echo the gloomy peek at Ben Affleck’s Batman that was released just a few months ago. It’ll be a while before the two actually face off, but at this rate, it seems like there’ll be a few more heroes to look at well before then.