Although he is perhaps the most recognizable superhero in the world, Superman has had a rocky history on the big screen.
Just look at his present situation: Three movies into his tenure as Kal-El, last son of Krypton, actor Henry Cavill may be a man of steel, but he's almost a man without a franchise. His debut, 2013's Man of Steel, and the follow-up, 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, both underperformed at the box office relative to expectations, and last year's Justice League was very nearly an outright flop (again, relative to expectations and definitely relative to the film's cost). There's no sign yet of either a Man of Steel 2 or a Justice League 2 on the Warner Bros./DC slate either, making Cavill's future in the cape cloudy.
But he's not the only actor to step into the famous blue tights and experience some difficulty connecting with audiences. In fact, it's safe to say that the history of Superman movies is riddled with more misfires and abandoned projects than inarguable successes — and again, considering the iconic nature of the character, that seems downright weird. Is it possible that Hollywood, with all its power, money, and resources, has never quite gotten the character right?
Let's step along the timeline of Superman's adventures on the big screen and see what we find (note: this article is just about Superman's career in the movies — we'll mention his history on TV where it's applicable, but that's a whole separate study on its own).
THE EARLY YEARS: 1941-1951
Superman first flew onto movie screens not long after he made his debut in the pages of Action Comics #1 in June 1938. The first time Big Blue appeared in theaters was in 1941, when an animated short film produced by the legendary Fleischer Studios was released by Paramount Pictures. The short kicked off a string of some 17 similar animated shorts, with the first nine created by Fleischer and the second round of eight by its successor, Famous Pictures.
Considered some of the best animated works of their time (the first one was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Subject: Cartoon), the Fleischer Superman cartoons established the famous intro — "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" — that was later used in both the radio and TV shows about the character. And despite the "tall buildings" line, the cartoons definitively gave Superman the power of flight, which was then retconned into the comics.
Superman transitioned into live-action in 1948, five years after the last animated short film was released, with his debut in a serial simply called Superman. The 15-part saga starred Kirk Alyn as the title character and Noel Neill as Lois Lane, a role she would reprise in the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Superman opposite George Reeves. The story recounted Superman's origins and set him against a villain known as the Spider Lady. Scenes of him in flight were done with animation instead of live-action visual effects.
Superman was a success and was followed in 1950 by Atom Man vs. Superman, a second 15-chapter serial with Alyn and Neill returning to the roles. The Atom Man of the title was actually Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot), marking the first onscreen appearance for Superman's most infamous nemesis. Both Atom Man vs. Superman and the earlier serial suffered from ultra-low budgets and primitive effects, but their success (and that of several early Batman serials, as well) demonstrated that superheroes could make the leap from the comics to the screen.
1951 saw the release of Superman vs. the Mole Men, a barely feature-length (58 minutes) film that was nevertheless the first live-action feature based on a DC Comics character. The movie, which starred Reeves in his first appearance as Kal-El and Phyllis Coates as Lois, was released in theaters but served as a backdoor pilot for the legendary Adventures of Superman TV series, which ran from 1952 through 1958. The movie was re-edited into a two-part episode for broadcast called "The Unknown People" as part of the TV show.
THE GLORY OF REEVE: 1978-1987
Following the cancellation of The Adventures of Superman in 1958, Kal-El took a 20-year hiatus from the big screen. During that time, he appeared only in his animated form in TV shows like The New Adventures of Superman (1966) and Super Friends (1973). But it was also in 1973 that European father-and-son producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind purchased the dormant film rights to the character and arguably changed the course of comic book movie history.
It was Ilya who convinced his father Alexander to buy the rights, setting them on a five-year journey to create the first true blockbuster superhero movie. The path to the film involved multiple candidates to direct (including Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, John Guillermin, George Lucas, Guy Hamilton, and Steven Spielberg), several scripts by a number of different writers (among them Mario Puzo, David and Leslie Newman, and Tom Mankiewicz), and some 200 actors considered for the role (ranging from superstars like Paul Newman and Robert Redford to non-professionals like athlete Bruce Jenner and Ilya Salkind's wife's dentist).
In the end, the Salkinds were impressed enough by a little horror movie called The Omen to hire its director, Richard Donner, who decided to reduce the campy tone of the script he was given and hire an unknown as Superman. That unknown turned out to be New York stage actor Christopher Reeve, who put on nearly 30 pounds of muscle for the role and became what many people consider the definitive screen Superman.
Released in 1978 after two years of production and a then-unheard-of $40 million budget (including a record $3.7 million paid to Marlon Brando for a 10-minute appearance as Superman's father, Jor-El), Superman: The Movie set the standard for all superhero films to come. A true epic that encompasses Superman's origins, his arrival in Metropolis, his blooming affection for Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and his first major battle with Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), the movie was full of genuine warmth for the character, charm, humor, and visual effects that were, for the time, groundbreaking. Reeve knocked his performance out of the park, and the movie was a colossal hit.
"You'll believe a man can fly," shouted the ads, but Hollywood now believed that comic book heroes could make them real money.
Superman and Superman II were initially slated to be shot back to back, but the second film was put on hold as production issues forced the producers and Donner to focus on getting the first one finished. By the time filming on Superman II resumed, however, Donner had been dismissed by the Salkinds and replaced by Richard Lester. Superman II, completed and released in 1981, was another huge hit and a surprisingly solid follow-up, considering that it was stitched together from the footage Donner shot and the material Lester directed, although you could tell where the seams showed, especially in the actors' inconsistent physical appearances (a re-edited "Donner cut" appeared on home video years later, but even that was incomplete).
Lester returned to direct 1983's Superman III, and it was his intention to take the franchise in a campier direction. A proposed story written by Ilya Salkind that would introduce Brainiac, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and Supergirl to the series was rejected by Warner Bros., necessitating vast changes that resulted in the villains being industrialist Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) and computer hacker Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor), who assists Webster in activating a supercomputer that can destroy Superman. Our hero himself is corrupted for a large chunk of the picture into a "bad" version of himself, which makes for this otherwise dreary and unfunny film's most entertaining section.
Audiences and critics did not take kindly to the campier tone of the film, and it was not as big a hit as the first two, with the Salkinds eventually selling the rights to the Superman franchise after their attempt at a spin-off — 1984's poorly received Supergirl — also failed at the box office. The rights were picked up by the notorious Cannon Films, known mainly for low-budget exploitation fare. Indeed, after luring Reeve back to play Kal-El a fourth time and rehiring both Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder, the company cut the budget from $35 million to $15 million. As a result, 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace — based on a story by Reeve himself and featuring a Luthor-created villain called Nuclear Man — was a disaster, a cheap-looking, shoddily made bomb that put the Superman franchise on ice for nearly two decades.
THE LOST YEARS: 1988-2005
Although Superman did not appear in movie theaters again for 19 years, it wasn't for lack of trying. The rights reverted to the Salkinds after Cannon went bankrupt, with Ilya Salkind penning a treatment for Superman V that would feature the introduction of the shrunken Kryptonian city of Kandor. But that idea was abandoned, and in 1993 Warner Bros., which had distributed the first three movies, purchased the rights from the Salkinds (the company had purchased DC Comics itself in 1989).
Superman actually kind of flourished on TV during this time, thanks to shows like Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997), Superman: The Animated Series (1996-2000), and Smallville (2001-2011), but one movie project after another kept stalling in the development stage (more details on each can be read here). These included:
Superman Reborn (1993): In various versions of this script, Brainiac creates Doomsday, who kills Superman, but not before Superman puts his "life force" into Lois Lane, who gives birth to a baby that grows up in weeks to become the resurrected Superman and save the world.
Superman Lives (1996-1998): Perhaps the most famous abandoned film of the modern age (there's even a documentary about it), this was to be directed by Tim Burton from a script by Kevin Smith (and others), with Nicolas Cage starring as Superman. The movie got well into pre-production, with test footage shot and sets and costumes designed and built, before Warner Bros. got cold feet over the budget and pulled the plug. Cage hung around until 2002 as various other directors and scripts came and went.
Superman vs. Batman (2002): This was based on a script by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) and featured Lex Luthor and the Joker teaming up to undermine their superhero enemies. McG and Wolfgang Petersen took turns in the director's chair, while Josh Hartnett was approached to play Superman and Christian Bale was considered for Batman (clearly not for the last time).
Superman: Flyby (2002-2004): J.J. Abrams penned the script for this one, which involved a civil war on Krypton, Lex Luthor as a government agent, and many more departures from the comics. McG and Brett Ratner were both attached to direct, while Hartnett, Jude Law, Brendan Fraser and Paul Walker were all considered for Superman. McG left the project for a final time in 2004 and Bryan Singer came aboard, beginning the process that morphed this project into Superman Returns — the first big-screen Superman movie in 19 years.
SUPERMAN REBORN... SORT OF (2006-2018)
Singer abandoned the Flyby concept — as well as X-Men: The Last Stand, which he had been slated to direct — in favor of making a direct sequel to the original Superman and Superman II (while ignoring Superman III and The Quest for Peace). As the first film had done with Christopher Reeve, he cast an unknown named Brandon Routh as Superman in a story that found Kal-El returning to Earth after a five-year search in space for survivors of Krypton. He grapples with Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) yet again, while learning that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a 5-year-old son... and guess who's the father?
Routh does a genuinely earnest Reeve imitation and some of the film is inspired, but too much of it is dependent on nostalgia for the first two movies and features a brooding Superman (a theme that would crop up again in a few years) pining for a distracted Lois like a super-powered stalker. The film also started a trend that has plagued Superman movies ever since by underperforming at the box office: Even though it grossed $200 million at North American theaters and nearly $400 million total worldwide, expectations were higher given the budget, the marketing, and Superman's long absence from the screen.
Although Singer and the studio expressed interest in a sequel — which might have featured DC uber-villain Darkseid — the train never really got rolling on a follow-up, and it seemed as if both Singer and Routh were one and done with the Man of Steel. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. commissioned a Justice League script in 2007, fast-tracking it for production and hiring Australian director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) to helm the project. Extensive pre-production and casting were completed on the movie, including the hiring of actor D.J. Cotrona as Superman, but a writers' strike and Warner's uneasiness over competing with its own successful Dark Knight series of Batman films shut Justice League: Mortal (as it was titled) down.
Ironically, it was the success of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films that led to the next and most current iteration of Superman. Nolan's co-writer on his Batman movies, David Goyer, pitched Nolan an idea for a Superman film — a slightly more "grounded" take in keeping with Nolan's own aesthetic — that the director agreed to produce. Although comic book writers like Mark Millar, Geoff Johns, and Grant Morrison all made pitches to the studio, Warner Bros. accepted Goyer and Nolan's concept because of the success of The Dark Knight. Nolan picked Zack Snyder to direct, and in the summer of 2011, cameras began rolling on Man of Steel with Henry Cavill, an obscure British actor who had tried out for the role in the mid-2000s, cast as a reluctant and brooding (!) Kal-El, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Michael Shannon as General Zod.
Man of Steel was heavily hyped as the launching pad for the DC Extended Universe on film, a long-awaited counterpart to the booming Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is easily the best of the three movies Cavill has appeared in so far, with a generally strong performance from the actor, fantastic visuals, and moments that touch on greatness — although it diverged in certain ways from the comic book character that made diehard fans angry. It made $668 million worldwide, earning a tiny profit for the studio, but again, strangely seeming to underperform at a time when Marvel movies were hitting $1 billion at the box office.
Nevertheless, Warner Bros. committed itself to the DCEU, and it wasn't long before Snyder took to the stage of Hall H at Comic-Con 2013 in San Diego to announce that his next film would pair Batman and Superman for the first time in a live-action movie. Not exactly a sequel to Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was more an introduction to the concept of the Justice League as well as a way to reboot the character of Batman... but with results that are divisive and controversial to this day.
Last year brought us Justice League, which Snyder also directed until family tragedy and studio politics led him to depart the project, with an extensive series of rewrites and reshoots handled by Joss Whedon (The Avengers). The movie has been exhaustively chronicled elsewhere, but with Superman dying at the end of Batman v Superman and being reborn in this film, the stage would seem to be set for a proper Man of Steel sequel — except that the continuing decline of box-office earnings for all the DC films (save Wonder Woman) has left the exact path of the DC film universe in question.
Will Cavill return for one more film? Will Warner Bros. decide to reboot Superman one more time? And why does it seem so hard to get this iconic character right? Perhaps not even the vast knowledge banks of Krypton itself hold the answers.