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The Evolution of Superman

Tracing 75 years of the Man of Steel from his origins to Zack Snyder’s reboot

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Clay Enos

If Henry Cavill's Superman in the new Man of Steel looks unfamiliar to you – both in his new suit (in muted colors, without the traditional red outer briefs) and his brooding, humorless attitude – well, you're not alone. The Kryptonian refugee who became the world's first major comic-book superhero has undergone a lot of changes in his 75 years on this planet. For a pop culture fixture, a character we think we know, he's evolved through several wildly different incarnations. Cavill's Superman, a man with two identities who feels alienated from both of them, is just the latest version, and he won't be the last. Here's a look at how much Superman has changed and grown over the past three quarters of a century.

By Gary Susman

Courtesy DC Comics

The Beginning

If Cavill's Superman is an immigrant having trouble assimilating into his adopted homeland, he's actually come a fitting full circle since Superman's earliest days. The character was invented by two Jewish teens from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, whose self-published 'zine introduced Superman in 1933. But Super-scholars generally date his birth to his 1938 appearance in Action Comics #1, with its iconic cover image of Superman hoisting a car over his head. That was the first time he was exposed to a national audience, thanks to publisher National Allied Publications (later DC Comics, the publisher that would go on to popularize Batman, Wonder Woman and a host of others). The familiar backstory was already in place: the infant Kal-El, lone survivor of his destroyed planet, lands in middle America, is raised as unassuming Clark Kent, recognizes that his superhuman powers oblige him to help the weak, and uses his identity as big-city reporter Kent as a cover for his heroic activities as Superman. Today, that issue of Action Comics, generally regarded as the first superhero comic book, can go for $2 million a copy, but Siegel and Shuster earned just $130 for the rights to their work. Of course, Superman immediately took off in popularity, leading Siegel and Shuster to spend a lifetime battling DC over royalties – over the share of the American Dream they felt had been denied them.

Courtesy DC Comics

The American Hero

With the coming of World War II, Superman was quickly enlisted in the war effort, fighting Japanese and German spies and saboteurs as well as the usual mobsters and mad scientists. This was true on both the page and the big screen, where Superman made his movie debut in 1941 in a series of animated shorts by Max and Dave Fleischer, the brothers behind the Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons. In these shorts were born such Superman catchphrases as "It's a bird! It's a plane!" and "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound."

Everett Collection

The Nemesis

The first live-action Superman was Kirk Alyn, who starred in two Man of Steel movie serials in 1948 and 1950. The second of these, Atom Man vs. Superman, marked one of Superman's first screen battles with his greatest enemy, Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot). Co-starring in these shorts as Clark Kent's Daily Planet co-worker Lois Lane was Noel Neill, who would go on to reprise the role in the Fifties TV series. Alyn and Neill would also cameo in 1978's Superman feature as Lois' parents, and Neill would have a walk-on as a dowager bilked by Lex Luthor in 2006's Superman Returns.

super man

Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

The Scoutmaster

At a time when Congress' fears of subversive activity extended to comic books, the nation's creators of vigilantes in tights decided to clean up their acts, publishing stories that would not be accused of contributing to juvenile delinquency. In print, Superman became something of a Boy Scout, embracing his small-town cornball side. On TV, he did the same, in the stocky form of George Reeves, star of The Adventures of Superman. (This was a Superman who would let the bad guy's bullets bounce of his chest, but who would then duck when the shooter then threw his empty gun at the hero's head.) From 1952 through '58, Reeves fought for "truth, justice, and the American way."

superman

Courtesy Everett Collection

The Team Leader

Within two decades, Superman had been completely child-proofed, with all internal conflicts suppressed and rough edges sanded smooth. Exhibit A was the jocular, cheerful Superman of the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends (1972-85), in which Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman (as well as two teenage alien Wonder Twins and their pet space monkey) fought evil together as teammates in the Justice League of America. (Years later, DC would mock this era with the satirical Justice League title that imagined the group as a sniping schoolyard marked by petty super-ego squabbles.)

SUPERMAN, Christopher Reeve, 1978.

Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Exemplar

1978's Superman is regarded as the first modern comic-book superhero movie, the one that served as the template for all those that have followed. It tried for a certain realism in its effort to place its hero in our physical world ("You'll believe a man can fly" was its advertising slogan), but in keeping with the personality of its main character, it also featured jokey, kid-friendly humor. None of it would have worked without newcomer Christopher Reeve (no relation to George Reeves), who in Superman and its fine first sequel (1980's Superman II) convincingly portrayed Clark Kent's struggle between his desire for a normal romantic life with Lois Lane (the sharp Margot Kidder) and his responsibility to protect his adopted homeworld. Reeve gamely donned the blue longjohns for two more sequels after that, but those two movies fell firmly on the silly/campy side, alienating fans and effectively killing the movie franchise for the next 19 years.

Courtesy DC Comics

The Martyr

The end of Reeve's movie franchise wasn't the only sign of an early-Nineties Super-slump. The comic-book industry's Eighties rebirth as a marketplace for grown-ups and collectors proved to be a bubble that had burst. And the innovative, revisionist titles it had spawned (notably, Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns) had made Superman seem obsolete. No wonder DC decided to kill him off. The 1992 "Death of Superman" storyline, in which Superman sacrifices himself to save the world from an alien menace called Doomsday, inflamed casual fans, though DC had pulled a similar move with Batman's sidekick, Robin, in response to a readers' poll. Still, the issues had the intended effect, making Superman controversial and relevant again. Of course, DC followed this storyline with one about Superman's rebirth, a bake-off in which four beings claim to be the reborn Superman. These days, it seems like DC reboots the print franchise every couple of years, including the current Superman Unchained title, featuring a young, lonely Superman who echoes Henry Cavill's new big-screen Kal-El in his angst-ridden efforts to find his place in our world.

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Courtesy Everett Collection

The Husband

It only took 60 years, but Clark Kent and Lois Lane finally did get married in the mid-Nineties. That's what happened on ABC's 1993-97 series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher became stars as they played up the romantic, female-friendly side of the Superman saga. For the first time, DC began coordinating its print titles with the Super spinoffs, so that when Clark and Lois walked down the aisle on TV, they tied the knot in the comic books as well.

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Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Teenager

On the WB, the TV home of such angsty teen heroes as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Dawson's Creek kids, the young Clark Kent was right at home. On Smallville, Tom Welling made a believable young Clark, especially since the show had a "no tights, no flights" rule that kept Clark from blatantly exposing his superpowers and revealing his identity. As in the Superboy comics, he had a crush on Lana Lang (Kristen Kreuk) and an uneasy friendship with the young Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum). The show chronicled Clark from his teen years in the tiny town of the title through his young adulthood, including his early years as a Daily Planet reporter working alongside Lois Lane (Erica Durance) and encountering other familiar DC heroes and villains. Clark also had a pal, budding investigative journalist Chloe (Allison Mack), who became so popular that she got her own spinoffs online and in print. The show ran for 10 years (2001-'11), making it the longest-running comic-book-inspired TV series in primetime history.

superman

Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Homage

After nearly two decades of false starts and disastrous script ideas, Superman finally returned to the big screen in the form of Brandon Routh who, like Reeve, had been a barely-known soap actor when he landed the role. Bryan Singer, who had brought comic-book superhero movies to the next level with his smart, bleak, innovative X-Men films, made 2006's Superman Returns a surprisingly reverent, somber affair. The story picked up where Superman II left off (wisely pretending that III and IV never happened), and Routh's performance seemed an uncanny tribute to Reeve's. Singer and Routh had hoped to make a sequel, but Warner Bros. chose to hand the franchise over to Dark Knight masterminds Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer instead. Whether or not their Man of Steel makes viewers forget Superman Returns, and whether or not Henry Cavill gets to keep wearing the cape until the inevitable Justice League movie, one thing is certain: this isn't the last time Superman will be reinvented.

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