When you think of superheroes, there’s one who leaps to your mind: Superman.
It’s a natural reaction. He’s the purest crystallization of the strength, integrity and patriotism a superhero is meant to embody, right down to his image as the handsome, well-groomed, all-American male ideal. The “S” emblazoned on his chest might as well stand for “Symbol.”
Yet despite his iconic status, Superman has only been translated to the big screen seven times since his creation in 1938. (Yeah, he’s been in countless TV shows, matinee serials and cartoons, but I’m talking feature-length Hollywood films here.)
From the early ’50s to present day, just four actors have played the Man of Steel in major motion pictures, and their vastly different approaches to portraying Superman reflect the cultural environments in which their respective movies were released.
We’ll need to stretch the definition of “major motion picture” in order to accommodate Superman’s first feature, a 1951 quickie awkwardly titled “Superman and the Mole Men,” starring George Reeves as the fabled Last Son of Krypton.
Reeves would later reprise the role on the TV series “Adventures of Superman,” but for his first foray in the famous blue suit (although he’s photographed in black and white) he’s up against humanoid underground dwellers that cause panic in a small town.
Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds, but Reeves is totally deadpan in the midst of the absurdity. He’s devoid of all irony, and his unerring resolve in the face of, uh, radioactive mole people must have been reassuring to a Cold War-era audience.
After such humble cinematic origins, Superman finally got the full-blown Hollywood treatment in 1978’s “Superman: The Movie,” which famously guaranteed that “you’ll believe a man can fly.” It was a box office smash and made a star out of Christopher Reeve, who went on to play Superman in three more movies.
The ’78 “Superman,” directed by Richard Donner, still holds up as a classic of its genre: It takes itself more or less seriously, but it still has screwball energy and comic book panache. It also served as the model for just about every superhero movie since, and it still feels surprisingly contemporary.
The 1981 sequel, on the other hand, is more of a lark. Richard Lester replaced Donner halfway through production, and his penchant for broad slapstick makes “Superman II” feel more dated than its predecessor.
As for “Superman III” (1983), which co-starred Richard Pryor as a bumbling computer programmer, and the 1987 cash-in “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” – well, they’re better left forgotten.
Having just rewatched all four Reeve “Superman” films, I think it’s clear that he was the perfect postmodern Man of Steel. Reeve subverts the outdated solemnity of the Superman of the 1950s, and there’s a smirking, sardonic twist to his performance that certainly inspired the self-aware, wisecracking superheroes we see so often these days.
After Reeve’s decadelong reign, Warner Bros. attempted to jump-start the series with “Superman Returns” (2006), but the movie wasn’t the runaway success the studio hoped for.
For that go-around, Brandon Routh donned the red cape, and his take on the character is essentially an amalgam of his predecessors: His Clark Kent is almost consciously goofy, and his Superman is a no-nonsense do-gooder. Routh fits the role physically – he matches our collective idea of what Superman is supposed to look like – but he’s not given any new terrain to explore.
Released at a time when superhero movies started to roam into bleaker territory, “Superman Returns” didn’t offer anything particularly fresh or edgy (unlike, say, “Batman Begins” from the previous year). It’s almost too reverential to the Superman legacy, as if director Bryan Singer was afraid to upend convention and exasperate the fans.
But for his seventh feature, Superman seems to have gotten a darker, grittier update. “Man of Steel,” opening nationwide this weekend, casts British actor Henry Cavill in the title role, and his interpretation of Superman looks to be more in line with the tortured souls of the Christopher Nolan “Batman” movies. (Nolan is credited as a producer on “Man of Steel.”)
Whether the revisions will work remains to be seen – it’s miles away from the old-fashioned, gee-whiz charm of the early “Superman” prototype – but one thing is already perfectly clear: Superman needs a major overhaul if he wants to stay relevant in a crowded market.