75 years ago today, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster took their character, the very first comic book superhero, to Detective Comics. You may have heard of him; blue tights, red cape, perpetually slick hair… It’s Superman, of course! For three-quarters of a century, the Man of Steel, the Last Son of Krypton, etc. has been flying around, beating the tar out of monsters and robots in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. Siegel and Shuster, two friends from Cleveland, turned their own experiences as being the sons of Jewish immigrants into a story of an alien coming to Earth as a baby and becoming the mightiest hero the planet has ever seen. With it came the idea of the secret identity, in this case Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter for Metropolis’ Daily Planet. It was all about an outsider being loved and accepted through his contribution to society, which is something any kid can aspire to, regardless of upbringing.
Through the years, Supes has appeared in dozens of film and TV adaptations, some good and some not-so-much. I’m going to showcase five of my personal favorites. Because I can.
5) The Fleischer Cartoons
From 1941 to 1942, Max Fleischer produced nine theatrically-released Superman animated shorts. The above is the very first one, simply entitled Superman, but given the alternate title “The Mad Scientist.” These cartoons are still incredibly influential, from the art deco design to the preamble about being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound (remember, initially, Superman couldn’t fly; he just jumped really high). The second Fleischer film, “The Mechanical Monsters,” is one of the best short animated pieces ever produced, and director Dave Fleischer’s innovative rotoscoped style set the bar for animation of its kind for years. In 1942, Fleischer Studios was dissolved and reorganized into Famous Studios, which produced a further eight Superman shorts and, while entertaining, they lack the spark of Fleischer’s initial nine. All are available to watch for free thanks to their presumed public domain status.
4) The Adventures of Superman TV Series
This TV series ran from 1952 to 1958 and produced 104 episodes. Wowzers. It starred the ill-fated George Reeves as the Man of Steel, who was probably the paunchiest version of the character to date. Back when Nick at Nite showed old TV shows (and not just episodes of Full House like it does today), they would play two episodes back-to-back during the week, which I would watch from about two inches away from the television in my Superman pajamas (with Velcro-detachable cape) pretending I, too, could be more powerful than a locomotive. The first two seasons of the series were in black and white and the next four were in glorious color. The plots are pretty hokey today and probably were at the time, but as a kid, there’s nothing better than seeing Clark Kent go into a phone booth and emerge as Superman. This, however, also led to my idiotic childhood belief that the phone booth is what turned Clark Kent into Superman. I was a dumb kid, what can I say?
3) Super Friends
Now, here’s the thing about the Super Friends: it was a pretty dumb show during its initial 1973-1974 season. First of all, in its first season, it had two kids and a dog in a cape. Really? Were they so worried the Scooby-Doo crowd couldn’t handle superheroes on their own? Second was its claim about who were the “four greatest superheroes in the world.” Superman – obviously. Batman – of course. Wonder Woman – you betcha. Aquaman? L’homme d’aqua? He who speaks to fish? When the series returned in 1977, they’d ditched the kids and dog for the Wonder Twins, who still weren’t the best but were at least “Super.” They finally got it right with Challenge of the Super Friends in 1978, which ditched kids altogether (except Robin) and added the likes of The Flash and Green Lantern. And Apache Chief, too, but nobody’s perfect. It also gave us the Legion of Doom, which has been worked into the comics. Through it all, Superman led the team with his mightiness and proves his durability.
2) The Superman Movie
In 1978, Richard Donner wanted the world to believe a man could fly. Boy, did they ever. The thing that had been missing (or too blatantly evident) in other live action adaptations was actually making the flying scenes look real. It’s astounding that Donner actually did it. Newcomer Christopher Reeve was the perfect choice to portray both the mild-mannered and the super-powered, and the Smallville section at the beginning of the movie is still the high-water mark for superhero origins in movies. Marlon Brando got top billing in his excessively-limited role as Jor-El, but it was Gene Hackman who stole the show as the evil billionaire Lex Luthor. Sure, it has Superman reversing time by spinning the Earth backwards, the temporal equivalent of dialing back your car’s odometer, but after such a great adventure, we can forgive it a lot. The sequel, begun by Donner and finished by Richard Lester, pitted Supes against General Zod, Ursa, and Non, three Kryptonian criminals sentenced to the Phantom Zone. It’s pretty good. The third and fourth movies are garbage, but Superman still set the stage for Tim Burton’s Batman and, eventually, all the bevy of superhero movies that came after.
1) Superman:The Animated Series
Easily my very favorite adaptation is the Warner Brothers animated series which ran from 1996 to 2000. Animator Bruce Timm, who had completely overhauled the comic book cartoon with the phenomenal Batman: The Animated Series, went a different-ish way with Superman, bringing back Fleischer’s art deco-inspired Metropolis and making his enemies more spacey and sci-fi-ish in nature. He battled the likes of Metallo, Toy Man, Parasite, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and Darseid. He even had to tangle with Lobo a few times, which are among my favorite episodes. Tim Daly as the voice of Superman and Clancy Brown as the voice of Lex Luthor were so good, much like Kevin Conroy as Batman, they’re basically the go-to voices for those character in every DC Animated Universe incarnation. To me, this is always how Superman should be presented. and it led to The New Batman/Superman Adventures and eventually Justice League, and for that it can’t possibly be any lower than #1.
Now, you’re probably going to yell at me about not including Smallville or Lois & Clark in this list, but it’s my top 5; you go make your own if you want those shows in it. But, if you’d just like to TELL me about which other versions of Superman you like, please post a comment below. And, just for kicks, here’s that new trailer for Man of Steel again, because it’s awesome.