Given that he is the character by which nearly every other superhero and the entire superhero genre owes a debt to and quite possibly wouldn’t exist without, there is something strange in the notion that Superman, in an era when multiplexes are filled with superheroes, has struggled to find a commercially successful home as a big screen franchise.
Not that it was always that way. Forty years after debuting on the pages of Action Comics, the character would be turned into the first big budgeted superhero blockbuster film. Produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind, directed by Richard Donner and with a script that was brought together by several screenwriters, but mostly worked into manageable form by Tom Mankiewicz, 1978’s Superman: The Movie came with A-list big screen talent such as Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, made a star of Christopher Reeve with his iconic and famous portrayal, and boasted a superb score from John Williams.
It is a film that nearly every other superhero origin film owes a debt to with Patty Jenkins and Christopher Nolan both sighting it as an influence in their own film versions of Wonder Woman and Batman, while the narrative structure of it can also be seen in films such as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man to elements of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger.
Yet, while Batman and Spider-Man have been rebooted several times since the turn of the century, Wonder Woman effectively becoming the flagship character of the Worlds of DC, and Marvel has launched an entire cinematic universe of the back of previously B-List characters such as Iron Man and Thor, the character that started it all has fallen by the wayside when it comes to cinema.
Not, however, on the small screen. Strangely for a character epic in scope with cosmic villains and rich for cinematic potential, one cannot help but feel that maybe the smaller screen is really where Superman has found more of a natural home.
Even before the character made an appearance in a blockbuster film series of the 70s and 80s, George Reeves famously donned the costume for the six season run of The New Adventures of Superman, a massively popular television series that made such an impact that Reeves even appeared as the character in an episode of I Love Lucy.
Certainly Richard Donner’s 1978 blockbuster was a big budget affair, and $55 million was a sizeable amount of money to spend on a film even then, and while it launched a lucrative franchise including a very entertaining sequel, the wheels came off with 1983’s third film and even more so when Cannon got the rights in 1987 and produced Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
Warner Bros. tried in vain repeatedly to get another film off the ground throughout the 90s and into the 2000’s, subsequently producing 2006’s Superman Returns, a beautifully produced film that paid tribute to Donner, functioned as a sequel to the first two films but which underperformed at the box office and divided opinion.
It would be seven years before another film made it to screen, and a reboot at that in the shape of Zack Snyder’s equally divisive Man of Steel, and yet in the years that Superman struggled to find a big screen home, the smaller screen proved more successful in terms of mounting a Superman production.
Not long after the flop of The Quest for Peace, the Salkind’s, who held on to the television rights, brought Superboy to the small screen, and even after the cancellation of that in 1992, it would only be another year before another Superman television series was picked up, in this case ABC’s Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (the Lois and Clark part was dropped when the series made it to the UK where it was a successful staple of the BBC’s Saturday night schedule during a time when Doctor Who was off the air).
While Superboy looked to the past, before eventually turning into a X-Files style supernatural procedural (before that show actually made it to air), Lois and Clark basically took the romantic comedy element from the Donner films and centred a whole show around it, turning the dynamic between the characters into a will they/won’t they story, and making starts of Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher.
The series was a huge success, at least until the third season when a wedding storyline involving clones saw it jump the shark and audiences abandoned it after feeling they were falsely advertised a wedding episode they had been eagerly awaiting for, but the truth was for a generation of 90s kids, the series was the Superman they grew up with, and while it played fast and loose with certain elements of the comics, and took the comic book dynamic and made it more into a glossy, fantasy romantic comedy for a large television audience, it was for two seasons a huge success and brought its own unique interpretations to the stories and to the supporting cast, including an Elvis-obsessed Perry White, played to perfection by Lane Smith, and a Superman/Clark Kent dynamic which owed a debt to the writing of John Byrne.
It was after the cancellation of the show that talk once again emerged of a big screen film and for a few years it looked as if that film was going to be directed by Tim Burton and star Nicolas Cage, but that would be the beginning of nearly a decade of development hell for a potential Superman film, and all the while various directors came and went, not to mention several scripts with writers such as JJ Abrams and Kevin Smith involved, and many potential Supermen mooted, it was once again the small screen that got a Superman project off the ground.
Like Superboy, Smallville looked to the past, but where Superboy was happy enough to still have the character wearing that famed costume, Smallville arrived on The WB network (and Channel 4 on British shores) proudly claiming itself as ‘no flights, no tights’ and was an instant success.
The series premiered a few weeks after the events of 9/11 and a show about Superman’s brand of heroism, albeit in a high school format played by the none more Clark Kent looking Tom Welling, earned glowing reviews and an adoring fanbase, helped by some great casting; Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor and, in later seasons, Erica Durance as Lois Lane, became almost definitive versions of the character, and while the show played fast and loose at times with the mythology, its last two seasons saw it effectively become a Superman television series in all but costume and is still earning new fans today thanks to its DVDs and availability on streaming services.
It does beg the question as to why the character has frequently found a home on the more limited budgeted world of network television as opposed to the higher budgeted world of feature films. While the brooding intensity of Cavill’s big screen version divided audiences, and two of the films he starred in where met with box office that was respectable, even if not quite as high as was expected of it, once again Superman flourished on television, albeit indirectly.
The autumn of 2015 saw the premiere of Supergirl, and while the character of Superman was rightly kept off screen for the first season, although frequently mentioned, it seemed inevitable that he would appear, and when Supergirl made the move from her initial home of CBS to The CW, the character made his first appearance on prime time American television, and on another CW series no less, in Supergirl’s season two premiere in the form of Tyler Hoechlin.
Although initially separate from the already successful double whammy of Arrow and The Flash due to being on a different network, the fact that many writers, directors and executive producer Greg Berlanti were involved in Supergirl as on the other shows, meant that a potential crossover was on the cards, and soon enough, following an appearance from The Flash star Grant Gustin on a season one episode of Supergirl, season two saw the character crossing over with the characters from those shows, and Legends of Tomorrow, and becoming part of a larger live action universe.
Not only was it inevitable that this version of Superman, which owed more of a debt Christopher Reeve and Dean Cain as opposed to the more brooding, humourless intensity of Cavill, would crossover with the high number of characters making up the roster of The CW DC shows, but this Superman was also set to be a part of a commercially successful, critically acclaimed live action shared universe while the big screen counterpart which Man of Steel was meant to launch would be met with reactions more divisive, if not downright hostile.
Warner Bros. had tried to keep the movies and television so separate at various times that they didn’t want certain characters to have two versions being portrayed in different formats, and it did seem at the start of Supergirl’s second season that Hoechlin’s portrayal would be a one-time deal, but the character has now become a large fabric of that world and, inevitably, a television spin-off is in development.
Cavill’s version of the character has seemingly been put to rest, while Warner Bros. concerns itself with new movies featuring Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn and a reboot of Batman, with Cavill’s castmate Ben Affleck giving way to Robert Pattinson. Batman has always been the darker, edgier character and Warner Bros. have always been more inclined to try and get that character on to the bigger screen more, or at the very least The Dark Knight has never found himself in the pits of development hell in the manner that his fellow Justice League members have frequently found themselves, and that goes for Superman too.
It’s often been said that Superman is a hard character to realise on screen, due to his many powers, and that his superpowered, alien nature makes it harder for audiences to relate to him, which seems like excuses more than valid reasons; after all Marvel Studios managed to turn Captain America, similarly superpowered all -American hero created during wartime and with a supposed ‘cheesy’ nature, into an emotional centre for a large batch of their movies, and yet Superman has struggled to star in a film that everyone can agree is great.
Man of Steel and Batman v Superman have their fans, and yet they also have their critics. Maybe what television can do is that in having that limited budget, they can work on the elements that make Superman relatable. In a day and age of political upheaval, lack of bipartisan politics and when even the President of the United States was previously known for being a celebrity billionaire with his name blazoned on every business and property (as well as being a reality television host) with a vendetta against the free press and immigration, it’s strange that the ultimate immigrant character, albeit from an alien world, who works for the free press and grew up in middle America should struggle to become a big screen icon again.
With a longer storytelling format, television has often been able to take those elements and stretch them out a little longer, but also give them considerable emotional heft. That’s not to take anything away from the movies; Superman: The Movie is tremendous and the death of Jonathan Kent is devastating, but Smallville took five seasons to get to that point and the image of Clark and Martha cradling a dying Jonathan Kent was devastating what with five years of storytelling behind it.
Same goes for Clark’s relationship with Lex, which went from friendship to antagonism, while later seasons got to have a lot of fun with the inclusion of other Justice League members, with Green Arrow effectively becoming a Batman substitute in terms of the playboy millionaire vigilante who becomes friends with Clark (and another example of Warner Bros. wanting to keep things separate as the Clark and Oliver Queen relationship feels very reminiscent of Superman and Batman in the comics).
If there was any failing to Smallville, it was how the series went to extremes to stop Clark from wearing the actual costume for so long, and then only gave us that briefest of teases of Tom Welling wearing it in the finale.
As for Supergirl, it managed to take certain storylines and famous elements of the mythology and apply them to Kara Danvers to tremendous effect; the first season of the show featured its own version of ‘For the Man Who Has Everything’, renamed as ‘For the Girl Who Has Everything’, while later seasons have featured its own versions of storylines involving Lex Luthor (a surprisingly brilliant Jon Cryer, fully redeeming himself for whatever the hell it was he was doing in The Quest for Peace), not to mention touching on themes related to the current political climate; Kara’s job for Catco has allowed the show to tell stories related to working for the media, dealing with extreme right-wing politics, the issue of immigration while its fourth season managed to take characters from Donner’s movie such as Ms Teschsmacher and Otis and utilise them to entertaining effect.
With Superman missing on the big screen, Supergirl has even managed to use the character of her cousin to entertaining effect on the larger Arrowverse, having him play a major part in the yearly crossovers Elseworlds and now Crisis on Infinite Earths, the latter having not one, not two, but three versions of the character to play with; on top of Hoechlin’s returning Clark Kent, the crossover will also see the return of Tom Welling, as well as Brandon Routh donning the costume once again in a tribute to Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come.
The lack of a Man of Steel on the big screen has most likely allowed The CW and the Arrowverse to utilise the character on the smaller screen again, and with it is the production of a new television series starring Hoechlin’s version of the character. Once again, as the movie world has struggled to bring a modern day Superman to the screen, the smaller screen has come calling, no doubt for a series dealing with themes and ideas that will be tailor made for the character.
Cavill certainly has his fans and it is a shame that in Warner Bros. trying to rush their way to a cinematic universe in the style of Marvel’s that were deprived of a more concrete, centralised series in much the manner of The Dark Knight Trilogy or Captain America’s solo adventures that could have dealt with the character and his place in the world. It’s something that makes the prospect of a new modern day television series centred around the character and Lois Lane a tantalising prospect.