Superman has changed much throughout the years. If you started reading comics with the New 52 version of the character, going back to the Golden Age or Pre-Crisis versions could be a bit of a culture shock. Every generation had their own unique Superman, even though they have all been instantly recognizable as Superman. Movies and television have actually done a fairly good job of bringing each and every one of these unique Superman iterations to life. Let's take a moment to look at each of the cinematic Supermen, and see how he relates to the comic book version of his time. For the purposes of this article, the word cinematic is being used to include both movies and television, but not animation.
Kirk Alyn and George Reeves- Golden Age Superman
Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. While the character went through some changes in his early years, mostly cosmetic costume changes and fleshing out of his abilities, when we think of the definitive Golden Age Superman, the character who would become the Earth-2 Superman with the creation of the original DC Multiverse, we think of a character very similar to the one these two men played, and they did indeed play pretty much the same version of Superman. Kirk Alyn was the first ever live action Superman, appearing in two Saturday matinee serials, Superman in 1948 and Atom Man vs Superman in 1950, and he had actually been offered the part in The Adventures of Superman, but he had turned it down. Both of these versions of Superman had the exact same origin story, pretty much word-for-word from the 1948 serial to the first episode of The Adventures of Superman. Both versions were sent to Earth alone, because Krypton was breaking apart sooner than Jor-El had anticipated, and he had not yet constructed a rocket large enough to carry the entire family to safety, so Kal-El was placed alone in the working model and sent to Earth. In both versions, the baby Superman was found by a farmer and his wife, Eben and Sarah Kent. You can also see where his super powers as we know them had not been fully developed yet. For example, the radiation that emitted from Superman's eyes that we would associate with heat vision was the same radiation emitted in his x-ray vision. It was basically the heat from his x-ray vision that he could use to burn through a wall. These were certainly the Superman who had appeared in the original Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel comic books.
Christopher Reeve- Silver Age/Pre-Crisis Superman
While the Richard Donner movies had been made during the period commonly called the Bronze Age of comics, the character of Superman really hadn't changed much from the Silver Age, so it could be argued that the character played by Christopher Reeve actually reflected both eras of the character. This version had no parents in his adulthood. His father had died while he was in High School and his mother, mentioned as being elderly in the first picture and having died some time before the third, was out of the picture. Lois Lane still retained the busy body traits that she'd had in the Golden and Silver Ages, but also had bits of the modern independent traits she had been given in the Bronze Age. It is interesting to note that while these movies were still being made, DC had their Crisis on Infinite Earths and Superman was given a complete reboot, making him an almost completely different character in the comics than what was being shown on movie screens. For many fans, Christopher Reeve remains the standard by which all other Supermen are measured, even today.
After the final Superman film had been released with Christopher Reeve, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who had been the producers on those movies, also produced a Superboy television series. While Superboy was obviously meant to be set in the same world as the Christopher Reeve movies, and was intended to serve as a prequel to the movies, Superboy added in some of the elements of the revamped Superman from the post-Crisis comic books, most notably exploring Clark Kent's relationship with his parents, who are both still very much alive and living on the family farm in Smallville while he is attending college in Florida, where the majority of the series was set.
While there were glaring continuity issues, as there were with Superboy, most notably that the film completely ignored the events of Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the Superman portrayed by Brandon Routh was again intended to be the same Superman, set in the same world, as the Superman portrayed by Christopher Reeve. Superman Returns actually acts as an alternate Superman III, taking place after Superman II and taking plot points from that movie to develop in this one. While Routh did a good job with what little he had been given, his Superman really had no identity of his own and was expected to rely on the character that had been developed by Reeve, much the same way the character on Superboy was expected to do. Routh seems to be poised these days to make his superhero mark as the Atom on Legends of Tomorrow, making Superman just a footnote in his career that will be all but forgotten 20 years from now.
Dean Cain- Post-Crisis/John Byrne Superman
Where Superboy, which had been forced to end to make room for this new Superman series, had touched a bit on the new changes that had been made to the Superman mythos by superstar writer/artist John Byrne, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was doing the Byrne Superman whole hog. This series saw the Kents still alive well into Clark's career as both a reporter and a costumed adventurer, and explored their relationship far more than the Superboy television series ever had. The Kents, now much younger and hipper than they'd ever been seen before, were regulars in the series, appearing in some capacity in almost every episode. Lois and Clark also explored the relationship between, as the title suggest, Lois Lane and Clark Kent, first as partners then as friends and eventually as romantic partners and ultimately as husband and wife. As had been first introduced in the John Byrne comics, Lois and Clark further developed the idea that Clark Kent was not an oafish persona that Superman adopted to better aid in his disguise, but rather that Superman was a tough guy persona that Clark adopted when he put on his uniform. In fact, Dean Cain had a line in one episode that illustrated completely this show's philosophy on the dual identity: "Superman is what I can do, Clark is who I am." To me, this has always been the most logical way to look at Superman.
Tom Welling- Smallville
Smallville had probably the most unique portrayal of the Superman character of any other adaptation in movies or television, and it is the hardest to pair up with a comic book counterpart. Smallville, in itself, was originally created as the untold story in the Superman mythos, telling the story of Clark Kent's high school years. The show ended up being more popular than I think anyone involved with it ever could have imagined, and the show eventually evolved beyond that concept. The character portrayed on Smallville wasn't really modeled after any version of the character from the comic book, instead the show took elements from all versions of Superman and pieced them together into its own unique interpretation of the character. In that sense, it was more of a re-imagining of the Superman concept than it was an actual adaptation of it. Much like the earliest Golden Age character, this Superman didn't fly, instead he could jump incredibly high and far, literally leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Much like in the John Byrne comics, this Clark Kent had a very strong relationship with his parents, but like the pre-Crisis version, his father died while he was a Freshman in college. Smallville borrowed the idea of Clark Kent and Lex Luthor starting off as friends from some of the earliest Superboy comics, as well as the idea that Lex's premature baldness was, in some way, Clark's fault. The show also introduced some original concepts, such as the idea of Martha Kent being a professional woman and eventual politician, and the entire character of Chloe Sullivan, who was a sort of Lois Lane surrogate but also shared some traits similar to the Pete Ross of the Superboy comics. Love it or hate it, very few fans seem to be luke warm on this series, and no one can deny that the series was definitely unique to any other adaptation of the character.
Henry Cavill- New 52 Superman
In development at pretty much the exact time Superman was being re-imagined for DC Comics' New 52 reboot, it is hard to tell how much Zack Snyder had borrowed from what the creators were developing for the new comic book version, but the end results are remarkably similar. In both Man of Steel as well as the New 52 comics, Superman's costume is a sort of battle suit, Kryptonian in origin, as opposed to earlier versions where it was made for him by his adoptive mother, and in both versions the costume is missing the red trunks, which had for so long been a trademark of the character. Some elements of the New 52 introduced after the initial launch in 2011, such as the appearance of the characters of Zod and Faora, were obviously inspired by the versions seen in Man of Steel. There does seem to be a budding romance between Clark Kent and Lois Lane in Man of Steel, although there have been rumors that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice may actually introduce the Superman/Wonder Woman romance that had been featured in the New 52. As further films featuring Henry Cavill as Superman are released, we will see more of how his Superman either lines up with, or deviates from, his New 52 counterpart, but in Man of Steel it does seem like they are trying to line the character up with his current comic book version.
Well, there you have it, folks, a complete deconstruction of every live action portrayal of the Man of Steel compared to the comic book counterparts of his era. With very few deviations, most film and television adaptations of Superman have stayed extremely faithful to the character in the comics of the time. I would even venture to say that Superman has consistently been the one character who has remained the most faithful to the source material. What do you think? Are there any other characters who have been as faithful in their adaptation as Superman has been? Sound off in the comments below.