In 2013, Superman will return to the big screen in “Man of Steel,” directed by Zack Snyder and starring Henry Cavill in the leading role. Many are discussing how this portrayal of Superman should be done and what version of Kal-El, the last son of Krypton, works for today’s audience.
Part 1 of our two-part feature examining Superman’s past and the many actors who brought the Man of Tomorrow to life through film, television, animation brought our history lesson up to us up to Christopher Reeve’s portrayal. Our second and final part picks up from there and focuses on long-form series rather than direct-to-DVD movies, audio books or audio play adaptations of particular stories to avoid becoming too unwieldy. Also, while “Young Justice” is an ongoing series, it is not featured here because Clark Kent/Superman is portrayed as a recurring character rather than one of the main protagonists.
Come fly with Part 2 of CBR’s History of Superman Portrayals.
THE TWO SUPERBOYS
1988 featured a Superman animated series on CBS that lasted just one season, produced by Ruby-Spears Productions. Comic book writer Marv Wolfman acted as head writer. The series basically followed the new continuity of the Superman comics of the time (following “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” which Wolfman wrote), but also brought in elements from older interpretations. For instance, each episode ended with the “Superman Family Album,” which showcased Clark having misadventures with his powers when he was a boy growing up in Smallville. Superman was voiced by Beau Weaver, who played Superman as a strong, heroic figure similar to previous cartoon interpretations, and Clark as a decent guy who was fairly unremarkable to those around him.
Later that year, Alex and Ilya Salkind developed a TV series that would follow much of the atmosphere that had existed in the Christopher Reeve films they had produced (with a stronger focus on camp, as they preferred). 1988 featured the premier of “Superboy,” which lasted four seasons and was later renamed “The Adventures of Superboy.” This show very much broke from previous interpretations of Superman and his past. Clark was a college student in Shusterville, Florida, attending the Siegel School of Journalism. Clark went to college with Lana Lang, his childhood friend, and his roommate T.J. White, nephew of Perry White. And whenever trouble arose, Clark would don his costume as Superboy.
Initially, Clark was played by John Haymes Newton, who played Superboy as a very serious hero and the professional persona of the hero, whereas Clark was his more normal self. As Haymes explained, “[Clark] ought to be a well-rounded individual. I think people have gotten tired of seeing the nerdy Clark after four movies.”
After the first season, the producers weren’t strongly impressed by Newton’s performance. His demand for a raise and a publicly known DUI arrest resulted in his leaving the show. Gerard Christopher stepped into the role and played Clark closer to the Christopher Reeve portrayal, more relaxed, noticeably softer-spoken and less confrontational than Superboy (though he wasn’t a complete disguise or a klutz). His Superboy was a little more serious, especially as the show got darker in later seasons. This hero stuck by his moral code but displayed more anger than previous incarnations.
Along with the darker tone, the show’s premise changed as Clark and Lana left their university to become interns at the Bureau of Extra-Normal Matters in Capitol City, Florida. All of these factors made the “Superboy” series a strange and unique adaptation.
ABC premiered “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” in 1993. This was a more tongue-in-cheek take on various aspects of the Superman mythos. The primary focus was the working relationship and growing romance between Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Several episodes bordered on being a simple romantic sitcom and villains were generally played as over-the-top characters. For example, the pilot episode revealed Lex Luthor had his servants occasionally set deadly animals against him just to keep his survival instincts and reflexes in top form.
The show’s embrace of the absurd and light-hearted banter made it a quick success with many viewers, leading to several seasons of adventures. In the late 1980s, DC Comics re-interpreted the Superman/Clark identity. Clark was seen as the true personality, whereas “Superman” was a professional persona he assumed, similar to how law enforcement officials and prison guards may deliberately act a certain way while working or dealing with criminals.
Actor Dean Cain followed this basic model but developed it along his own ideas. Superman was Clark acting as an authority but openly admitted to villains he faced that he was a citizen subject to the law like anyone else. This Superman seemed a mixture of Christopher Reeve and George Reeves.
But once the cape was put away and the glasses were put on, Cain made Clark Kent a relaxed, well-spoken, charming man who displayed a wide knowledge of the world and a casual wit. This version of Clark didn’t blend into the background, he was actually the romantic objective of several women and, more than once, Lois found herself competing against coworkers to keep the man’s attention. This Clark was a pal to many and completely comfortable with having Jimmy Olsen call him “C.K.”
Earlier this year at Wizard World Philadelphia, Dean Cain spoke to Dr. Travis Langley (author of “Batman and Psychology”) about his take on the character.
“I was teased for being into Superman when I was a kid, so it was kind of apropos… Sometimes you get really nervous and uncomfortable in these auditions, but I was very comfortable with the material. I had read it the night before, and I said, ‘You know, I might have a different take on it than anybody else.’
“Well, Christopher Reeve set the tone. In fact, he set the tone for me as Superman as well. I modeled my Superman character after Christopher Reeve. I thought he played that role fantastically, and as Clark Kent as well.Â I just didn’t particularly love Clark Kent being the mealy mouthed kind of guy. I liked the George Reeves version where he was more of a substantial guy. I was happy that I got to sort of pair those two in my portrayal of the character.”
TIM DALY AND GEORGE NEWBERN
In 1996, following the success of “Batman: The Animated Series,” the WB brought forth “Superman: The Animated Series.” Tim Daly voiced the Last Son of Krypton. Tim Daly’s portrayal hewed somewhat closer to Christopher Reeve, giving Clark a lighter voice and less confrontational manner. But he didn’t make Clark too strong a disguise either. Clark and Superman seemed like similar people, both concerned with justice and simply pursuing it in different ways.
Similar to Dean Cain and Kirk Alyn, Daly’s Clark was prone to engaging in dry humor and occasionally teasing his friends. When Lois asked Clark how he seemed to cover some of the best stories, he joked that he was secretly Superman and had taken a job as a newspaper reporter in order to instantly know about disasters, after which he happily squeezed her out of the byline. Lois grimaced and dismissed Clark’s strange sense of humor immediately, remarking, “You’re a sick man, Kent.”
Superman, meanwhile, was friendly but, similar to Cain’s portrayal, a mixture of Christopher Reeve’s affability and George Reeves’s tough guy gruffness. He volunteered his services to help with scientific exploration and was very open about his alien nature and his activities with police and government officials, but never forgot that he was a tolerated vigilante. He took the law seriously and made sure not to cross certain lines that other heroes, such as Batman, dismissed.
“When you read the script and put yourself in the position that Superman is in — I mean, he’s always saving the planet, for God’s sake,” Daly said in an interview with ComicBookMovie.com. “When you realize that, it’s not difficult to take the gravitas of the situation and make your voice do what it needs to do.”
At the same time, the actor didn’t think the Man of Steel should be without his lighter side. In an interview on YouTube channel “Whedonopolis,” Daly commented, “I like it when Superman shows his sense of humor. He has this sort of developing relationship with Batman where he’s starting to actually be amused by this negativity that Batman always displays about everything. At this point, he takes it with a grain of salt.”
After “Superman: The Animated Series” concluded in 2000, that version of the character continued the following year in the animated “Justice League” and later “Justice League Unlimited” (plus appearances on “Static Shock”). Tim Daly couldn’t return to the role, though, as he had other commitments and moved to the East Coast. George Newbern succeeded him as the Man of Steel.
Newbern rarely played Clark, as the Justice League cartoons focused on the heroes working together on intense missions rather than on their personal lives and secret identities. Having been darkened by experiences during the series finale of “Superman: TAS,” experiences that came back up during the season 2 premiere of “Justice League,” Newbern’s Superman was a bit gruffer, a bit less patient than Daly’s.
Since “Justice League Unlimited” concluded, both Newbern and Daly have occasionally reprised the role of Superman for different direct-to-DVD animated films.
During promotional interviews for the animated film “Superman Vs. The Elite,” Newbern spoke about the timeless appeal of the character. “There’s a lot of gray in the world… and people always go back to Superman… He’s sort of like this true North.”
In 2006, Bryan Singer (“X-Men,” “The Usual Suspects”) directed the film “Superman Returns.” Rather than doing full reboot of the Man of Tomorrow’s film franchise, as “Batman Begins” had done the year previous, “Returns” was intended as a sequel to the Richard Donner directed Superman films. Donner had directed large parts of “Superman II” but had nothing to do with “Superman III” or “Superman IV,” so those later two films were ignored by Singer’s film. The movie began with Superman gone, having left Earth for several years after he discovered evidence that Krypton might still exist (the original script and novelization revealed this was a ruse created by Lex Luthor to lure the hero away). When Superman returned to Earth, he found the world had gotten along fine without him and was now haunted by the possibility that he was no longer needed.
Months after auditioning for a previous director attached to the project, 26-year-old Brandon Routh was cast for the film. A native of Iowa, Routh had made appearances on various TV shows and had been acting regularly on “One Life to Live.” This was to be his first work in a feature film and he was very excited to follow the legacy of Christopher Reeve. As he explained during an interview with Larry King, “Christopher Reeve was my Superman. I grew up with him.”
Since this was a sequel to the first two films with Christopher Reeve, the story and direction had Routh mimicking much of Reeve’s portrayal. Clark was a light-voiced, seemingly open-faced and innocent (though intelligent) journalist who was polite and a little clumsy, while Superman was a smiling adventurer. But there were still differences. Routh’s Clark was more introverted, listening to his colleagues with rapt attention, not speaking as much or sharing his feelings as often as Reeve’s version. He seemed as friendly a co-worker to Lois and Jimmy but not necessarily a strong friend who had been with them through thick and thin.
Superman was also more introverted than Reeve’s version and certainly more somber. He wondered about his place in the world. He seemed to feel isolated and was well aware that Lois Lane (and others) did not want him, but pointed out that the planet was full of people looking for someone to save them. Exactly how he felt about this was not quite clear, though Superman seemed to grow in confidence by the end of the film and was reassured that he served a noble and necessary purpose on the world (though some critics felt this confidence came too late in the film and that it’s absence weakened the character).
In different interviews, Routh himself commented that wanted more focus on the Clark Kent side of things if he were invited back for a sequel, believing that Clark brought a necessary human balance and humor to the mythos. He also wanted to see a stronger friendship between Clark and Lois that could turn into a true romance, rather than having her act too dismissively towards him in favor of Superman.
“I’m more like Clark than I am like Superman in my daily life,” Routh told TheMovieGuy.com. “I’m much more of a character actor a lot of the time than I am a leading man.”
Likewise, he wanted to see Superman act as a stronger, more confident and more aggressive character, one who genuinely lost his temper when dealing with villains who abused their power. He also felt Superman needed to physically battle a super-villain in a live-action film rather than foiling another plot by the non-super-powered Luthor. “I think that something that audiences are looking for — and I certainly am, too — is for Superman to actually be able to lay a punch on someone or something,” Routh said in an interview with ComingSoon.net. “I was filming and I thought, ‘I haven’t really hit anything. I feel like I’m going to need to let some of this anger out’ — getting a good villain that we can actually have physical altercations with.”
When asked about Superman’s appeal by Larry King, Routh answered, “From my point of view, everyone should love Superman — It’s the people that don’t find Superman as an icon or as an inspirational character that’s frightening, frankly.”
SUPERMAN AND THE LEGION
2006 also saw a new animated series starring Superman. “Legion of Super Heroes” featured the popular team of interplanetary super-powered teens journey from the 31st century. In the premier episode, the team visits 21st century teen Clark Kent, whom they know will become Superman, the very night before he’s supposed to move to Metropolis and start a job as a copyboy at the Daily Planet. The Legion recruits Clark, bringing him into the future to join them on their adventures. Soon after he arrives, Clark borrows his own costume from a museum dedicated to his history and takes the name Superman.
Yuri Lowenthal portrayed Superman here. Since the Legionnaires were aware of Clark’s true nature, there was no need for him to adopt a dual identity. He was a young man who was inexperienced and sometimes taken aback by the strange sights of the future, as well as the idea that he was an important historical hero to this era. But despite feeling like a stranger in a strange land, he felt he had come to the future for a reason and demanded the opportunity to help. While he was still new to flying and wasn’t as experienced in battle as the others in the Legion, this version of Clark showed a natural heroic spirit and keen instincts that made him invaluable to the team. He was always optimistic that he and his friends would find a way to win.
In later episodes, Clark left and then returned to the team as an adult, now more confident in his abilities. The series lasted two seasons.
In 2001, the CW premiered “Smallville,” which began with Clark as a teenager starting high school, an adopted farmboy who had grown up with strange abilities. The pilot had Clark meet Lex Luthor and subsequently learn that he had been found in an alien rocket ship, both events altering the course of his life from then on.
The series differed from all previous live-action Superman adaptations in two major ways. First, the intention was that this would showcase Clark’s journey and he would not fully be the hero fans knew and loved until the end of the series. Second, the first several seasons focused on the parallel growth and maturation of Lex Luthor and the relationship between him and Clark, first as friends, then as uneasy occasional allies, finally as enemies.
The role of teenage Clark was given to Tom Welling, who was 24 years-old when the show began. Since he was portraying an early version of Clark and the show was building its own continuity, Welling actively decided not to learn too much and not to study previous portrayals so that he could find his own path to becoming Superman, a decision that Christopher Reeve agreed with. Despite this, the producers did take certain aspects of the comic books seriously and wanted to maintain the audience’s belief that their version of Clark would one day grow into the Man of Steel.
Throughout the course of the series, tributes were made to those who came before. Christopher Reeve appeared in the role of Dr. Swann (a nod to famous Superman artist Curt Swan). Dean Cain played a villain whose initials were, not coincidentally, “C.K.” Margot Kidder and Terri Hatcher made appearances. Even the casting of Clark’s mother was a connection to the past, as she was played by Annette O’Toole, who portrayed Clark’s high school love Lana Lang in “Superman III.”
Welling’s version of Clark Kent was an honest young man who tried to believe the best in people and wanted to protect them, sometimes to a fault. And despite his honesty in many other matters, he held onto his secrets, not for the sake of a dual identity but out of genuine concern that he would lose friendships and others would fear him. For several seasons, Clark struggled to do good and to help others clandestinely while also fighting doubts that he was helping in the best way possible or that perhaps his efforts were worthless since danger never went away. He also had to adjust constantly to an ever-growing array of powers, each one a stronger reminder that he was not a native of Earth. He didn’t even learn where exactly he came from until Reeve’s character, Dr. Swann, revealed to the young man that he had come from the planet Krypton, and that his true name was Kal-El.
When asked about the more impactful moments of “Smallville” for his version of Clark, Tom Welling mentioned this scene with Reeve as when Clark began to truly understand his nature and destiny. “Going to New York and working with [Christopher Reeve] for the day. It was just such an inspiration — it was a good moment for Clark. It really set him up for the rest of the series.”
In the last few seasons, Clark became a much more confident and seasoned person, one who took charge during a crisis and refused to apologize for having been raised to care about others and follow a moral code. He didn’t always get things right, but he was able and willing to learn. As he formed a dual identity towards the end of the series, Clark began acting as himself when he was adventuring with other superheroes and as a meeker, clumsy, more introverted version of himself when he was working at the Daily Planet newspaper.
“Smallville” ran for ten seasons, longer than even George Reeves’ six-year run as Superman. In the series finale, Clark fully embraced his destiny, albeit one he chose for himself rather than the exact one his father Jor-El had spoken of or exactly what Jonathan Kent had voiced. As Clark grabbed the famous costume, he was also finally able to fly under his own power, the last step in becoming Superman.
In the show, Clark dealt with being torn between living by his parents’ upbringing and the desires and following the plans and prophesied destinies of Kal-El (or rather the A.I. programmed to act in Jor-El’s stead). “If this series was about one thing, it would be identity, and Clark’s search for who he is,” Welling said during a CW promotional interview recorded shortly before the series finale. “Clark’s had to deal with who he is. Is he more like Jor-El? Is he more like Jonathan? — Clark has to figure out that he’s who he is — He doesn’t have to be anyone else. And It’s finding that within himself that I think will help him move on to being who we all know he’s going to be.”
This version of Clark/Superman continues his adventures in the “Smallville Season 11” comic by Bryan Q. Miller, available as a digital first series from DC.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Superman and next year’s “Man of Steel.”