This week the motion-picture emporiums will unspool a new Superman film, “Man of Steel,” that will reboot the franchise for the first time in well over a year. Henry Cavill is the latest actor to play the colorfully dressed bachelor, following in the rubber bootsteps of Christopher Reeve, George Reeves, Brandon Routh Reeviest, and Reeves Reeverton. Lois Lane is Amy Adams, and the villain is high expectations.
Everyone knows Superman. He’s one of the most recognizable fictional characters in the world, up there with Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus, Donald Trump, Rachel from “Friends,” and Satan. But in case you need a refresher course, let us take this opportunity to present a brief history of the Man of Steel. Up, up, and let’s go!
Superman was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young men who drew from their Jewish heritage in inventing the character. Note, for example, that in early drafts the hero was called Supermankiewicz and had the ability to tell just by looking whether a pastrami sandwich had enough mustard.
Superman is an illegal alien whose conniving parents shipped him to the U.S. just before their planet exploded. He was raised by human parents who named him Clark Kent and taught him how to pretend to be a nerd so no one would know he had special powers, because the last thing you want if you can do amazing things is for anyone to know it. Superman gets his powers from the Earth’s sun. I don’t know how, he just does. You want to prove that coming here from another solar system WOULDN’T give you super powers? Be my guest.
The comic book version of Superman was an instant hit, and soon the character appeared in other media: daily comic strips, movie serials, radio shows, instruction manuals, pornography, butter sculptures, playing cards, ancient Greek tragedies where someone had scribbled out “Zeus” and written “Superman,” etc. The Man of Steel inspired the invention of countless other superheroes, too. Soon the comic books were filled with heroes, most of them taut, clean-shaven men in skintight clothing gadding about saving the world from various fey menaces. It was good practice for World War II.
In the 1950s, when television came into people’s homes, so did Superman (metaphorically, in the sense that there was a Superman TV show that people could watch) (I’m sorry, I have over-explained it). George Reeves played him in “Adventures of Superman,” a popular series that ran for six seasons and 104 episodes and found endless ways for Superman to defeat villains without doing the obvious and simply ripping their heads off their bodies. There was a sad postscript, however, when Reeves killed himself a year after the series ended. Many idyllic ’50s TV shows had dark behind-the-scenes stories like this. Everyone remembers the Jerry Mathers/Tony Dow murder-suicide and the gruesome images of June Lockhart being torn apart by a rabid Lassie.
In 1966, in what sounds like a joke you would make up but which is actually true, there was a Broadway musical called “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman,” with songs by the duo who would go on to write “Annie” (which is also about an orphan from the 1930s who complicates the life of a bald capitalist). The Superman musical got good reviews but failed to attract an audience, despite toe-tapping numbers like “Man of Steel, Hands of Jazz,” “Day and (Krypto-)nite,” and “Kent Buy Me Love.”
Then Superman was in like a thousand Saturday morning cartoons, many of them based on true stories.
The first big-budget, big-screen version of Superman arrived in 1978. The movie was called “Superman,” narrowly beating out proposed titles such as “The Superman Movie,” “Man in Tights,” and “Clark Kent: Boy Reporter.” The film had a controversial ending, in which Superman saved Lois Lane’s life by making the Earth spin backwards, thus reversing time. He did this despite being warned by a council of Kryptonian elders that it was forbidden to do things that are stupid and don’t make sense. He ignored this warning again in “Superman II,” when he gave Lois Lane amnesia by kissing her, and in “Superman III,” when he appeared in “Superman III.”
“Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” does not exist.
We mentioned reversing time by spinning the planet backwards and using the power of his kiss to make people forget things. In closing, here are some other superpowers Superman has had at some point that were eventually discarded:
– Parallel parking
– Line dancing
– Sneezing with his eyes open
– Totally shredding on the electric guitar
– Stopping at the exact right moment when fast-forwarding through commercials
– Prehensile tail
– Highly accurate racism
– Squeezing his nose so it makes an “ah-OOGA!” sound
– Being able to see what MAD Fold-Ins show without folding them
– Shooting spider webs from his wrists
– Michael Caine impersonation
– Reading people’s minds, but only if they’re thinking about fudge
– Knowing who’s calling on the phone before he answers (phased out when caller ID became common)
– Belching the alphabet