Entertainment Weekly

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Article

Time Flies

Posted on

You’re not Superman.

Most of us have heard this at one time or another after we’ve reached our breaking point. After 75 years, the DC Comics hero is so ingrained in our culture that he has become a way to define ourselves by contrast. The man in the cape is invulnerable and limitless, a paragon of strength and competence. He’s the ideal we strive toward. Yet when we fail, we reassure ourselves with the fact that he’s fiction. We’re not him. No one is.

The new film Man of Steel (rated PG-13) is the latest in an almost countless series of adaptations of the character (see review, page 44). There were heroic pop culture figures before Superman, but he launched the wave of costumed good guys. Of course, the Superman of today isn’t the same one introduced by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1938’s Action Comics #1. At first the Cleveland high school buddies depicted their hero as an abnormally strong man from another world, able to leap tall buildings and vulnerable to ”nothing less than a bursting shell.”

Superman caught on because he was a big man who fought for the little guy — a simple concept that any kid could understand, even if it had hidden depths. ”Comics were street-level then,” says Danny Fingeroth, a historian and author of 2004’s Superman on the Couch. ”It was the height of the Depression when Superman was created, so he was fighting a wife beater, a slumlord…. He was definitely the champion of the oppressed.”

The all-American hero also struck a chord with the kinds of people welcomed on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty: tired, poor, huddled masses. Siegel’s and Shuster’s parents were both first-generation Jewish immigrants, and Superman is widely seen as a metaphor for that experience. “He was the immigrant who came to America and immediately became the model citizen,” Fingeroth says. None of this was ever made explicit, but you don’t need X-ray vision to see it just beneath the surface of the early comics.

Over the decades, as Superman’s story was retold not just in comics but also on radio, TV, and in the movies, he gained ever more fanciful powers, like flight. The hero who once shocked with his ability to lift and throw a car could later hoist entire planets out of their orbits. Before long, Superman’s strength actually became his greatest weakness. When you are truly invincible, you are also truly boring. Would we still be talking about Achilles if not for that heel of his? But the character’s popularity has endured in part because other writers have struggled to tell Superman, ”You’re not Superman.”

Besides power-sapping kryptonite, storytellers have found other ways to get under that seemingly invulnerable skin: Superman’s love for reporter Lois Lane makes her a favorite target of villains, and his moral code leads him into ethical quandaries over whether to actually kill bad guys. In the past decade, the graphic novel Superman: Red Son imagined what might have happened if Superman had landed in the Soviet Union instead of Heartland, USA, while TV’s Smallville made the perils of adolescence as much a foe as Lex Luthor. In Man of Steel, Henry Cavill plays Superman as the ultimate outsider — incapable of fitting into his adopted world without lying about who he really is.

Director Zack Snyder acknowledges that his goal was to make the hero relatable again. ”We always talk about Superman as ‘He’s outside of my experience,’ so I was dead set on saying, ‘Well, if I was Superman, how would I act? What would I feel?’ ” he tells EW. ”We made this movie about a Kryptonian, but he’s a mirror for ourselves in a weird way. All of our fears are his fears.”

After all these years we still fantasize about being Superman, but now Superman aspires to be more like us. Here’s a look back at how the Man of Steel evolved from dime-store hero to the icon we know today.

1938
SUPERMAN IS BORN!
ACTION COMICS #1
The most shocking thing about this 10-cent magazine is how perfunctory Superman’s origin story is. We learn that he’s from another world, can lift steel beams, outrun trains, etc. — but after one page of that, he’s busting down the governor’s bedroom door to save a wrongly accused woman on death row. ”He kicked off the superhero genre but had nowhere near the power level that he has today,” says co-publisher of DC Entertainment Dan DiDio. ”It was very much based on a level of strength [readers] could understand.” Much of Superman lore had yet to be invented. He didn’t fly, but he could leap. X-ray vision, heat rays, and freeze breath? Don’t be ridiculous. Still, Lois Lane was there in the early issues, competing with Clark Kent, her mild-mannered co-worker at the Daily Star (DC later changed the name to Daily Planet). By the way, the heirs of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster have waged a decadelong legal battle with Warner Bros. and DC over the rights to the character.
BONUS FACT A near-mint edition of that first issue now sells for more than $2 million.

1940
LEX LUTHOR DEBUTS
ACTION COMICS #23
It took two years of battling street thugs, racketeers, and corrupt politicians for the Man of Steel to find his lifelong nemesis: Lex Luthor. Then known only as Luthor (one word, like Madonna), the evil genius menaced the world from his dirigible headquarters, determined to use his high-tech laser weaponry to rule the world. ”When Lex Luthor came in, he brought a science-fiction aspect to Superman,” DiDio says. Of course, the villain was missing some of his signature traits too.”He had red hair in those days,” DiDio says with a laugh. Luthor’s chrome dome came later.
BONUS FACT In DC’s Superboy spin-offs, it emerged that Clark Kent and Luthor were childhood friends. Why the hatred, then? When Superboy saves young Lex from a lab fire in 1960’s Adventure Comics #271, he accidentally knocks over a chemical that causes Lex’s hair loss.

1941

HE FLIES FOR THE FIRST TIME
THE FLEISCHER BROTHERS’ ANIMATED SUPERMAN SHORTS
In the early days, Superman just jumped great distances, which looked fine in a static comic-book panel. But when animation pioneers Max and Dave Fleischer began creating a series of art-deco-style shorts in 1941, they asked DC for permission to make him fully airborne. ”They felt that it just looked silly, this guy jumping around,” says Mark Fleischer, grandson of Max and current chairman and CEO of Fleischer Studios. From that point on, Superman could soar through the air under his own power. Just like a bird. Or a plane.
BONUS FACT In another series of shorts, Fleischer Studios tweaked a different comic-strip hero: Popeye. ”He originally derived his strength from petting a particular type of [lucky] hen,” says Mark Fleischer. ”And it was Fleischer Studios that gave him spinach.”

1943
WATCH OUT…IT’S KRYPTONITE!
RADIO’S THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN
As storytellers made Superman more powerful, they also had to find new weaknesses. The glowing green rock that paralyzes the Man of Steel first materialized as a plot in the 1940–51 radio serial. According to legend, it was devised to give voice actor Bud Collyer break time while costars filled in for the ailing character. It took six years for kryptonite to turn up in the comic books, but it’s now a staple of his mythology.
BONUS FACT Any kid who’s studied chemistry can tell you that krypton is a real element, though the colorless and odorless noble gas has practically nothing in common with fictional radioactive kryptonite.

1945 Superboy makes his debut.

1950s
HE TAKES TV IN A SINGLE BOUND
TV’S ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN
George Reeves brought the hero into America’s homes when he appeared in 104 episodes of this hit TV series. At the time Reeves was Father Knows Best in a cape, but now the actor is better remembered for his tragic death in 1959 from a gunshot wound that was ruled self-inflicted (although speculation about foul play or an accident continues to this day). As rumors that Superman killed himself at age 45 spread among kids who had once loved the show, it became a poignant reminder that still endures: The fantasy of the hero is a stark contrast to the frailty of real life. ”When one plays a superhumanly powerful character, you’re kind of inviting irony,” says comics writer and historian Danny Fingeroth.
BONUS FACT A bit actor named Kirk Alyn became the first live-action Superman on screen in a 1948 serial in movie theaters.

1960 Superman and six other heroes launch the Justice League.

1961
GENERAL ZOD FIRST THREATENS EARTH!
ADVENTURE COMICS #283
General Zod debuted in three panels of a Superboy story as a would-be tyrant on Superman’s home planet who’s bent on enslaving fellow Kryptonians. Exiled to the Phantom Zone, an eerie dimension that Krypton used as a ghostly gulag, he soon escaped to a vivid new locale: Hollywood, where he became a go-to villain on film.
BONUS FACT In 1981’s Superman II, Terence Stamp’s Zod utters the oft-quoted line ”Kneel before Zod.”

1964 JFK makes a cameo in Action Comics #309 — which hits newsstands just after his assassination.

1966
SUPERMAN SINGS!
IT’S A BIRD…IT’S A PLANE… IT’S SUPERMAN
Forty-five years before Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a musical about a high-flying superhero in tights hit Broadway. Unfortunately, it didn’t have much success. Despite good reviews, the show lasted only four months. Sample lyrics: ”He brings the orphans Christmas turkey/He flew my asthmatic son to Albuquerque.”
BONUS FACT Lex Luthor’s henchmen in Superman Returns were modeled loosely on the gang in the musical.

1966 Scottish singer Donovan’s heady ”Sunshine Superman” becomes a No. 1 hit.

1969 Superman and Wonder Woman smooch — though she’s later exposed as a villain in disguise. (In a 2012 reboot, the two hook up for real.)

1973 Hanna-Barbera’s popular Saturday-morning animated series Super Friends debuts.

1978 In a stand-alone comic, Superman fights Muhammad Ali in a galactic boxing match.

1978
CHRISTOPHER REEVE SOARS INTO THEATERS
SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE
Director Richard Donner’s Superman was marketed as a miracle: ”You’ll believe a man can fly.” While the then-revolutionary special effects propelled the film to an otherworldly $134 million at the box office, the film’s most startling spectacle may have been the assemblage of talent. ”The cast, it was just loaded,” recalls Donner. ”But it all starts with Brando.”

Marlon Brando signed on to play Superman’s father, Jor-El, for $3.7 million and a percentage of the film’s gross — an unprecedented deal at the time, especially for a role requiring just two weeks of work. In terms of publicity and credibility, it was a bargain. The Godfather star was soon joined by Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Terence Stamp as General Zod, and Glenn Ford as Pa Kent.

Superman also introduced a leading man convincing as both Superman and Clark Kent. The producers initially wanted a star. Robert Redford was the first choice, and Neil Diamond and Olympian Bruce Jenner both came in for meetings. But Donner insisted on casting an unknown — and he got lucky with a guy who had only one previous film credit. ”Why hire a star when you can make one?” the director says. ”Christopher Reeve was Superman. We just gave him the costume.”

The film — and its three sequels — brought Reeve global stardom, though he flailed a bit in roles that didn’t call for a bright red cape. In the decade before his premature death in 2004 at age 52, the actor’s movie heroism found an echo in his brave struggle with paralysis following a horse-riding accident.
BONUS FACT The Godfather novelist Mario Puzo co-wrote the screenplay for the original Superman from his own story.

1988 A syndicated live-action Superboy takes off and runs for 100 episodes.

1992
SUPERMAN MEETS HIS FATE?
THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN
Dead superheroes inevitably don’t stay dead, but the comic-book demise of Superman was an enormous event nonetheless. In a multi-issue arc, Supes fights the genetically invincible villain Doomsday, eventually succumbing to his injuries in the best-selling Superman #75. The popularity of the story led Warner Bros. to spend years developing a film adaptation, with Tim Burton directing and Nicolas Cage attached to play the Man of Steel. But the project went through multiple writers (including Kevin Smith) and never took flight.
BONUS FACT Superman wasn’t the only DC hero to suffer major defeat in the early ’90s: In 1993’s Knightfall, Batman had his back broken by the villainous Bane.

1993–97
CLARK GETS ROMANTIC
TV’S LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN
Superman flew back onto the small screen (and into prime time) with the ABC series, but this time it was Lois Lane who got top billing. As its title suggests, the show was just as concerned with the man in glasses — and his relationship with his Daily Planet co-worker (Teri Hatcher) — as it was with the man in tights. The two of them even tied the knot in the fourth season, with the televised nuptials scheduled to coincide with DC’s release of the comic Superman: The Wedding Album. ”For me, it was much more about Clark Kent,” says star Dean Cain. ”We tried to make him as interesting as the guy flying around saving people.”
BONUS FACT Cain beat out fellow ’90s TV strongman Kevin Sorbo (a.k.a. Hercules) for the role.

1998 Superman stars with Jerry Seinfeld in an American Express ad.

2001–11 CLARK HITS PUBERTY
TV’S SMALLVILLE
Everyone knows Superman’s origin story, but what was life actually like for him when he was just a Superteen? That was the premise of the WB (and later, CW) series that spent 10 seasons examining the character’s formative years as he was still grappling with his powers and his identity. Thanks to the creators’ ”no flights, no tights” rule, star Tom Welling didn’t don the iconic suit or master flying until the final episode. ”Our main interest was getting inside Clark Kent’s psyche and understanding why he becomes the man he does,” co-creator Miles Millar told EW when the show debuted. ”Taking away the suit and the glasses was really to strip him away to a more human character and get to the heart of Superman.”
BONUS FACT Originally producers wanted to do a series on the early years of Bruce Wayne, but Warner Bros. put the kibosh on the idea because the studio was already developing a film that would become Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

2003 Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son imagines Superman landing in the Soviet Union.

2006
SUPERMAN ATTEMPTS A COMEBACK
SUPERMAN RETURNS
After 1987’s notoriously bad Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and its awkward nuclear-disarmament message, Warner Bros. made numerous attempts to revive the franchise on screen (in addition to Tim Burton, Brett Ratner and McG circled the project). Then X-Men director Bryan Singer stepped forward, pitching a continuation of the Donner universe, a concept furthered by star Brandon Routh’s physical similarity to Christopher Reeve. (Kevin Spacey portrayed Lex Luthor, while Kate Bosworth played Lois Lane.) ”I couldn’t do better than Chris in terms of performance,” says Routh. ”But I tried to bring his essence.” Yet despite generating nearly $400 million in worldwide box office, the film failed to jump-start the franchise.
BONUS FACT After Ratner dropped out, he ended up directing 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which Singer had left in order to do Superman Returns.

2011 Superman and Action Comics restart at #1 along with the rest of DC Comics’ ”New 52” series.

2013
SUPERMAN GETS A REBOOT
MAN OF STEEL
Superman has fallen. He is sick, he is pained, and at this very moment on the set of a production code-named ”Autumn Frost,” he is throwing up blood. British actor Henry Cavill writhes on a platform surrounded by curtains as green as kryptonite. The actor has a cold — a ”super sniffle,” he’ll tell you — but that’s beside the point: Today’s exercise in big-budget make-believe has him retching plasma as Earth’s mightiest illegal immigrant struggles to acclimate to the alien environment of a Kryptonian spaceship that will be rendered later with computer animation. It’s a brutal sorta-kinda homecoming.

Before the next take of Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder makes the kind of request you might expect from the hyper-pop auteur known for 300 and Watchmen: more blood. But Cavill resists. He worries that supersizing the effect would be too horror-movie sensationalistic. During a private huddle, Snyder coaxes his star to take a shot at a juicier upchuck. ”As the embodiment of Superman as cultural icon, of course Henry should be fighting me on the amount of blood he should be shedding for this,” Snyder says later. ”And it’s my job to [thrust] him into the modern mythology I want to create for him.”

Such is the process when you’re trying to reboot Superman with the right mix of reverence and iconoclasm. ”The problem is finding a modern language for the optimism of the godlike, all-American hero that Superman represents,” says producer Christopher Nolan, reteaming with Warner Bros. to bring another DC hero to the screen after his megahit Batman trilogy. (ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, like Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, is a division of Time Warner.) One important step was making a formal break from the lighter, often comic tone of previous screen treatments. Says Cavill: ”We all decided to make a Superman movie as if this was the very first live-action telling that existed.”

The Man of Steel forged by Snyder, Nolan, and screenwriter David S. Goyer is a uniquely good soul of great strength who comes of age in a post–Cold War America that is conflicted about its ”exceptionalism” and ”superpower” identity. Cavill’s Clark Kent drifts through his 20s, anonymously doing good deeds — Snyder likens him to the ultimate ”first responder” — before reconnecting with his Kryptonian roots and locking into a more fulfilling identity. The filmmakers also reconceived certain fantastical aspects of the Superman mythos — his suit, the S on his chest, even the Fortress of Solitude — with a sci-fi perspective. But Man of Steel‘s most contemporary touch might be Snyder’s own storytelling voice. ”Lots of modern Superman movies are slick, clean, even antiseptic. This movie definitely has personality, and that was important to me,” says the director, who shot with handheld cameras and drew from visual influences ranging from The Right Stuff to Heavy Metal magazine.

Now that they’ve built and launched a new-century Man of Steel, Team Superman hopes to keep him flying past his confrontation with home-planet villain General Zod (Michael Shannon). Cavill thinks there’s more to be done with the movie’s key capture-the-imagination idea: How would the world really respond to someone like Superman? ”Now that the threat is over, what happens? Do we worry about future threats? Or is he the threat? It’s a great question.”

CLOSE-UP

Superman Returns’ Bryan Singer
SUPERMAN LAST APPEARED IN THEATERS IN 2006 WITH THE UNDERPERFORMING SUPERMAN RETURNS. DIRECTOR BRYAN SINGER, 47, NOW AT WORK ON X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, DISCUSSES THE LEGACY OF HIS ATTEMPTED REBOOT.
What are the challenges that Superman poses for a filmmaker?
Although he has this difficult past of being an orphan and a stranger in a strange world, he’s not as tormented as a lot of characters like Batman or Wolverine, where there’s a lot of angst to explore.
How does Superman Returns fit into the Superman canon?
It’s sort of a love song to the [original Richard] Donner film and what it meant to me. The look of it was meant to be quite nostalgic and romantic. The style of photography, the richness of the sets, the casting, the designs were all a nod to that era and that whimsical tone — although not everyone responded to this particular tone.
The movie got mostly positive reviews.
A lot more than the first X-Men did! I think the polarization comes from two things: a desire for a certain kind of superhero movie in the summer and certain expectations relative to what I’d done prior, with the X-Men pictures. Expectations are a tough one. It was geared more to be romantic than it was an action-packed, dark, edgy summer flick — which was probably a miscalculation…. The one nice thing that it did, despite providing a good experience for the people who do like it, is that it ended the Donner era. And now it’s time to start again with a very different tone and to do something new with it.

CLOSE-UP

DC Comics’ Jim Lee
SINCE BECOMING DC ENTERTAINMENT’S CO-PUBLISHER IN 2010, PROLIFIC COMIC-BOOK ARTIST JIM LEE, 48, HAS BEEN REDESIGNING KEY CHARACTERS IN THE DC STABLE. HIS SUPERMAN UNCHAINED #1 HIT STORES THIS MONTH.
What’s the best thing about drawing Superman?
All the incredible wreckage and rubble and destruction that a tiny little figure can create on a page. So much of comics are dictated by characters talking to one another. Superman is only limited by your imagination.
Someone had enough imagination to give him a mullet in the 1990s.
[Laughs] You know, I’m just thankful he wasn’t doing the ”Achy Breaky Heart” dance. I think the mullet was cool for a while. But that was before my time, so I can’t take the blame.
Did you model your Superman on any real-life person?
Not really, but I’m going to reveal one of my trade secrets — I kind of use my own face as a model for my characters, male and female. Because when you’re drawing at two or three in the morning and you need a particular expression or pose, there’s only one person there that can help you capture that thought, and that’s yourself.

CLOSE-UP

Man of Steel Producer Christopher Nolan
AFTER WRAPPING HIS BATMAN TRILOGY, CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, 42, SHEPHERDS ANOTHER DC SUPERHERO — THIS TIME AS A PRODUCER. HE SHARES HOW HE APPROACHED SUPERMAN DIFFERENTLY.
You and screenwriter David S. Goyer first talked about Man of Steel while writing Batman Begins, correct?
We were at one of those points where we were stuck. So just to freshen the air in the room, I made a cup of tea and David started talking about how you would do a Superman movie today. It was spectacular. I thought he had cracked the problem of how to update this great American myth.
How would you define the problem?
What Richard Donner had done in 1978 was a seminal take. But he was looking back to this Norman Rockwell ideal of America. What David opened up for me was taking a science-fiction-based approach to the mythology and rethinking Clark Kent as coming of age in the ’80s and ’90s. Suddenly the virtues of Superman aren’t ”old-fashioned,” but simply idealistic.
Why not direct Man of Steel yourself?
When you invest as wholeheartedly in a superhero as I did with Batman, I would be the last person who should be taking on another one.
Why Zack Snyder?
We were looking for a director who could bring a sense of optimism and idealism to this very American myth. Zack seemed the perfect fit. He is also a very talented visual stylist. The thing I loved about Watchmen is how the movie contains many different stylistic approaches even though it feels cohesive. There’s a hell of a lot going on, but he handled it in an extremely confident manner with great authority.

CLOSE-UP

Henry Cavill
HE PLAYED A DEMIGOD IN IMMORTALS, BUT BRITISH ACTOR HENRY CAVILL, 30, SAYS TAKING ON KRYPTON’S NATIVE SON WAS HIS BIGGEST CHALLENGE YET.
Every actor who plays Superman brings something new to the mythology. What part of yourself do you feel you contributed to the character?
Being away from my family and not feeling like I was understood is something that I brought. I was at a boarding school [Stowe School in Buckinghamshire]. Every three weeks I would go home for a weekend. But when you’re 13 years old and you’re emotional and you miss home, three weeks feels like a very long time — especially if you haven’t got loads of mates.
That’s a feeling that doesn’t change much, even if you happen to be bulletproof, right?
Yeah, being alone isn’t easy. I wasn’t the most popular kid and I felt very alone. That’s certainly a lasting memory. I wasn’t someone who spoke a lot, and I brought that to the character. It’s a silence, because that’s what he’s used to. It’s not sharing everything he’s thinking and everything he is because people may not like it.
There’s a scene in which Superman literally turns his enemy into a plowshare, flying along and dragging General Zod through the dirt of a Kansas cornfield. Can we expect a bad-boy Superman?
It’s not necessarily bad-boy, it’s human. If any of us are in a situation where we’re controlling ourselves [because] we’re surrounded by people who are frustrating us and irritating us — you keep it under control and then someone just gives you a funny look, and it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s going to be a more violent reaction. When you don’t have a choice to react in a small way, things may build up.
How did you develop the physical toughness to play Superman?
Extremely hard work. [Laughs] But extremely rewarding hard work with trainer Mark Twight and his assistant, Michael Blevins. It was about two hours a day for four months. I did a month of training before that, and then for six months of shooting we were training throughout. So effectively we’re talking 10 months of training.
It comes so easy to Superman.
Going to the gym was scary every day. But walking out of the gym felt amazing — even though you can barely move.

Comments