Is ‘Man of Steel’ Doomed? A Look Back at Superman’s Troubled Movie Adaptations

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There’s no denying that in the comic world, Superman is the most iconic character of all time. However, he’s also one of the most loathed amongst fanboys. Seriously. With all his powers, he makes for one of the most uninteresting heroes ever. And, yet, we still can’t get enough of him.

Superman is one of the most globally recognized and profitable characters in all of pop culture. It’s been that way from the beginning. Even with such a notable and wealthy commodity, Superman is perhaps the most intriguing and disappointing comic book character when it comes to the big screen.

Of course, that could all change when this little movie called Man of Steel flies into theaters on June 14. So, in honor of the latest Superman flick, here’s a quick look at the character’s history and his doomed movie adaptations.

Superman: The Comic


Many comic fans are aware that Superman’s first appearance was in “Action Comics #1,” published on April 18, 1938. By 1939, a self-titled series was launched.

However, Supes origins can be traced back to 1933 when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had created a bald telepathic villain wanting to dominate the world in the short story, “The Reign of the Super-Man,” in “Science Fiction #3”. Siegel re-envisioned the character later that year as a hero that was modeled after Errol Flynn, while his alter-ego, Clark Kent, was based on the silent star Harold Lloyd.

Siegel and Shuster then began a six-year quest to find a publisher for their hero. Titling it “The Superman,” Siegel and Shuster offered it to Consolidated Book Publishing, but that fell through. It was sold, however, to Detective Comics, who would later become DC. After the debut of “Action Comics #1,” Superman became the “World’s Greatest Adventure Strip Character”.

Throughout the decades, the story has gone through a number of changes. In 1986, DC put an end to the “Silver Age” Superman with The Adventures of Superman. The new title remained until 2006 before going back to his original title. In September of 2011, DC released the relaunch of the character entirely with The New 52.

Of course, we’d be remiss to not mention a couple of milestones, like Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” in 1986 and 1992’s Death of Superman.

Over the years, Superman has been named the greatest comic book character of all time by Empire Magazine, came in second in VH1’s Top Pop Culture Icons 2004, has sold a boatload of issues, influenced numerous comic artists/characters and even changed death for comic book characters.

Superman: The Star of Radio and TV


Before everyone in America had a television set, there was this thing called a radio. People actually used to sit around it and listen to shows. Superman received his own radio show from 1940 – 1951.

When TV replaced radio as the new entertainment medium, Superman was naturally included. There was, of course, the 1950s series starring George “No Relation to Christopher” Reeves.

This was followed by numerous live-action and cartoon series that included Super Friends (1973-1986), Superboy (1988-1992), Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997), Superman: The Animated Series (1996-2000), Smallville (2001-2011), and Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (2001-2006).

Superman: The Movies


Moviegoers first got a glimpse of Superman in the Fleischer Superman Cartoons (1941-1943). This was followed by the Superman Serials (1948/1950). Then, there was Superman: The Movie.

When Superman: The Movie was released in 1978, it made an astounding $300 million gross worldwide. Not too shabby for a flick that cost $55 million to make. And, it without doubt, laid the foundation for future comic-based films.

Since Superman: The Movie won over fans and critics, it was only a matter of time before sequels, and other adaptations of comic books would follow. Most notably, there was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, which nipple enthusiast Joel Schumacher tarnished.

While DC was cashing in on their film adaptations, Marvel was making a mockery of itself.

There was the Dolph Lundgren version of The Punisher, a shameful Captain America flick, an unreleased Fantastic Four that was so horrible that everyone involved has been blacklisted since (but was made only to retain the rights), and of course the guilty pleasure that was Howard the Duck.

Marvel finally got their act together before the end of the 90′s with their adaptations of Blade, X-Men, and of course, 2002′s Spider-Man. Since then, they haven’t looked back. Marvel has been turning almost their entire catalog into solid films that are blockbusters, such as their most ambitious project, The Avengers.

DC seemed to have redeemed itself with Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. Then, came the disastrous Ryan Reynolds lead, Green Lantern.

While Green Lantern may have put a damper on DC’s plans for future comic adaptations, and even a massive project like  Justice League, there’s still hope that Superman will once again save the day with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. However, if history has proven anything, it’s that this latest Superman flick could be a major disappointment.

Why? Because people involved with the character have a habit of ruining the valuable commodity that is Superman. For example…

Cannon Films


Superman III didn’t exactly live up to its predecessor’s success. It was such a disappointment that the WB pretty much was willing to hand the franchise over to Cannon Films to die, since the studio was known for low-budget films like the American Ninja franchise.

The result was 1987′s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, which didn’t even make $16 million in North America.

In retrospect, Canon didn’t have the budget to handle such an enormous project, so the special effects were downright horrible for the fourth installment. This resulted in Christopher Reeve, thankfully, putting up the blue tights before Superman V could come to life. Canon’s destruction of the franchise is most likely why Supes wasn’t considered for a reboot for some time.

Superman: The New Movie, was supposed to capitalize on the success of the TV series, Superboy, but it’s understandable why financiers would want to steer clear of anything that Canon had tainted. After all, this was the same studio that wanted to make a movie where Spider-Man became an actual spider in 1985.

Jon Peters


Warner Bros., who regained the rights to Superman shortly after Superman IV, wanted to reboot the franchise in 1994. In retrospect, this probably would have been a certifiable smash.

Unfortunately, Superman Reborn and later Superman Lives!, as it would have been most likely been titled, was almost doomed from the beginning.

The choice for Jon Peters to produce the project was one of Hollywood’s ultimate fails. Peters, a former hairdresser who rose to fame by having relations with Barbra Streisand, was absolutely clueless when it came to Superman. Despite the possibility of having a script written by Kevin Smith and Tim Burton directing, Peters ruined the whole project.

Peters made Smith rewrite the draft to squeeze in as much garbage as possible to sell merchandise, since he and the WB, discovered that they made more off the Batman films in merchandising than the actual film.

His vision for Superman Lives! was to have Supes never fly or wear his trademark suit because it was “too faggy” (not my words, his). He also wanted Lex Luthor to have a sidekick dog, Brainic was to have a lame robot assistant, and Supes would be fighting a giant spider during the climax.

Oh yeah, he originally wanted Sean Penn to star as the lead, because he’s “a caged animal, a f*ing killer,” you know, just like Superman. Eventually, with Burton, he settled on Nicolas Cage.

To make matters worse, Burton, the art boy who has built a career on films based on existing characters and stories, trashed Smith’s script.

Eventually, Burton and Cage wisely left the project. After their departure, the WB brought in a number of other writers and directors, but the film laid dormant forever. This whole mess has since inspired much debate and wonder that it’s the basis for a potential documentary.

As for Peters, he finally got his giant spider in Wild Wild West. How did that work out for him? If you need further details on how much of a waste this guy is, check out this interview.

Bryan Singer


This isn’t a knock at Singer’s abilities as a director, or the end result of Superman Returns. But overall, his direction of the character was ultimately a bust.

Singer’s vision was essentially a sequel to Superman II, which could have worked twenty years earlier, when there was little to no competition. However, the franchise was in dire need of an overhaul to compete with Marvel.

Superman Returns was pretty unoriginal when completed. Superman balances his powers with his nerdy alter-ego Clark Kent, is in love with Lois Lane, fights Lex Luthor, and almost dies because of kryptonite. We’ve been there and seen that for years and years.

Kevin Spacey was a solid Luther, but the lead, Brandon Routh, was rather uncharismatic. And, Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane was just, well, silly. But not as ridiculous as Lois giving birth to Supes’ son.

Despite solid box-office earnings, and mainly positive reviews, the film was dubbed a failure by Warner Bros. Which meant another chance for someone to tackle yet another Superman project.

Singer’s involvement not only had ramifications for the DC universe, but also rival Marvel. Since Singer left the X-Men series for Superman Returns, the potential of X3 was squandered into a huge, warm pile of dong.

The Siegel/Shuster Heirs


The heirs of Superman’s creators have been battling DC/WB for over a decade. In 2009, there was a huge ruling in favor of the heirs.

Instead of throwing out all the legal mambo jumbo, here’s the abbreviated result. The heirs were to own 100% of the rights to Superman by 2013. In theory, that would mean that Supes could not only be exiting Warner Bros., but even the DC universe when that time comes.

This would have meant that DC/WB would had to have a new Superman movie in the can before 2011, or at least started, which could result in a rushed project. However, earlier this year, a court ruled in favor of Warner Bros. The studio is now allowed to “fully exploit the Superman franchise to its maximum advantage.”

But, how was this originally a problem?

Remember when the writers went on strike a few years back? Do you recall the end results of films, like GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, had because they were rushed into production? It could be the same thing for Man of Steel, which was rushed into production because of the possibility that WB/DC would lose the rights to the heirs.

Warner Brothers


However, all of these examples of Superman’s demise can be traced to back to one culprit. Warner Bros.

They let the original franchise go in the 80′s to Cannon.

They put Jon Peters in charge of the project in 1994, as well as, producer for Superman Returns.

They went with Singer’s vision instead of a more solid storyline. And, despite Superman Returns’ success, they still managed to botch its marketing, and never gave Singer a chance to let the story unfold further.

Now, they could have a film that was rushed into production.

Overall, it seems that Warner, like most studios, is in it for the quick buck. However, their particular handling of the Superman movies is so boggling that it seems like a sketch from Animaniacs.

The Superman Curse


Then again, maybe there’s something supernatural here that we’re dealing with.

It’s been said that Superman creators Siegel and Shuster put a curse on their beloved character.

The curse is supposed to execute misfortunes for people involved with Superman adaptations. Examples include The Fleischer Brothers, Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, and even, everyone from JFK to Margot Kidder to Marlon Brando to Richard Pryor.

Of course, this is probably just a coincidence.

So far, most of the Superman Returns cast is fine. As are, Teri Hatcher, Dean Cain, Tom Welling, Ned Beatty, Gene Hackman, and a number of actors portraying Supes in animated form, like Tim Daly.

While we can rationally dismiss this curse, it could be enough for some in Hollywood to avoid anything that has to do with Superman.

On the other hand, there are some things that we just can’t explain, like Nicolas Cage’s career.

Maybe Superman is cursed. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what unfolds when The Man of Steel finally arrives in theaters on June 14. But one thing’s for certain. Superman has had a long and twisted journey through Hollywood.

And, yet, despite this strange journey, and how we personally feel about the character, we’re still anxious to see how Man of Steel will turn out.

After all, Christopher Nolan has been brought in to sire the project. Zack Synder is directing, which was great until Sucker Punch. And, there’s an interesting cast of Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Michael Shannon, and Laurence Fishbourne.

So far, the trailers look epic. And maybe, just maybe, Man of Steel will finally end Superman’s bad luck at the movies. But, if history has taught us anything, it’s not to get too excited before we actually see the finished Superman product and its aftermath.


Images via Wikipedia

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