x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Superman on screen

Man Of Steel is the eagerly awaited Superman reboot, so it's time to look at the screen versions of the DC comic superhero that have gone before and the mysterious 'curse of Superman'.

The first Superman comic book from 1938. Courtesy Action Comics
The first Superman comic book from 1938. Courtesy Action Comics

This weekend, with its release in UAE cinemas, it’s Superman’s turn for a makeover, with The Tudors and Immortals star Henry Cavill swooshing his red cape in Man of Steel.

Of course, this is just the latest screen incarnation of the man in tights from the planet Krypton, who was created back in 1933 by the writer Jerry Siegel and the artist Joe Shuster. Superman (and his alter ego, the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent) first appeared in Action Comics in 1938 and it was just three years later that a series of animated shorts were made for the cinema featuring the superhero.

While there was a live-action black-and-white serial in 1948, starring Kirk Alyn as our hero and Noel Neill as Lois Lane (both of whom had cameo roles in 1978’s Superman, as Lois Lane’s parents), the best-known – and most-notorious – early screen version of the Superman story was one made for TV rather than cinema, The Adventures of Superman, which ran for six seasons (104 episodes from 1952 to 1958).

Starring George Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman, Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen and Phyllis Coates (for the first season) and then Noel Neill as Lois Lane (yes, the same Neill who had played Lois in the 1948 cinema serial), the series boasted the opening lines that would go down in TV history: “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” It also had some pretty advanced flying effects for the time, using cables and wires, and a springboard that Reeves jumped on to look like he was taking off (his landing wasn’t so technical, often involving the actor jumping from an out-of-frame ladder).

It wasn’t the special effects that made this series notorious (and the subject of the 2006 Ben Affleck-starring drama Hollywoodland), however. Reeves became a reluctant star as Superman and found it hard to get any other acting parts due to his association with the superhero character. On June 16, 1959, before a new season of the series was due to begin filming, he died of a shotgun wound to his head in his Benedict Canyon home. Although ruled a suicide, some fans speculated that Reeves had been murdered by a mysterious assailant, possibly due to an ended affair with the wealthy Toni Mannix, the wife of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer manager Eddie Mannix.

If you have ever heard of “the curse of Superman”, the death of Reeves at the age of 45 is always cited as the first example of a series of misfortunes that have plagued people associated with the character. Most of the other examples of the curse are linked to the most famous adaptation – the four Superman movies that starred Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder as Clark/Superman and his love Lois Lane.

Reeve, who also appeared in movies including The Remains of the Day, Somewhere in Time and The Bostonians, will for many fans always be Superman. The 1978 Richard Donner classic Superman, co-starring Marlon Brando as Jor-El (who reportedly earned more than US$3 million [Dh11m] for a few minutes’ screen time while Reeve only got $250,000) and Gene Hackman as the baddy Lex Luthor, told the story of Superman coming to Earth, growing up and meeting Lois, and Reeve made the role his own – a role that Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Nick Nolte and Robert Redford had all been considered for.

The infamous curse first kicked in for 1981’s Superman II. Donner had reportedly completed about 75 per cent of filming on the sequel before being removed from the project, with Richard Lester being brought in to finish it. However, to get full director’s credit, Lester had to film more than half the movie, so many scenes were reshot (a Donner director’s cut reinstating his footage was released in 2006). Despite all the difficulties, the movie, featuring Terence Stamp’s General Zod as the Kryptonian baddy, remains most people’s favourite from the four Reeve films, partly because this is the one where Lois discovers Clark is Superman, even if she forgets by the end of the movie.

After the rather daft Superman III in 1983 (and the risible spin-off, Supergirl, the next year), Reeve decided to return once more to the cape and tights for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987. He was given story input, but budget constraints, a weak nuclear arms plot and the fact a rainy English industrial park had to stand in for Metropolis all helped to cause the movie to flop. The curse had struck again, but sadly it wouldn’t be for the last time in fans’ minds – Christopher Reeve’s tragic horse-riding accident in 1995 that left him quadriplegic (he died in 2004) and Margot Kidder’s mental health problems (she is bipolar, and in 1996 disappeared for four days) in the 1990s have both been mentioned as part of the curse of Superman.

Fans of the curse overlook the fact that the next two outings for Superman – both on the small screen – were actually successes. The TV drama Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman ran for four seasons from 1993, focusing as much on the relationship between Lois and Clark as on Superman’s adventures (they even get married once Lois finally figures out that Clark is Superman), while the teen drama Smallville ran for an impressive 10 seasons, with Clark at high school in the town of Smallville where he is friends with a young man named Lex Luthor.

The most recent movie was 2006’s Superman Returns. Directed by Bryan Singer, who had scored success with superhero movie X-Men, it was a semi-sequel to Superman and Superman II (but ignored the events of Superman III and IV) that had Superman returning to Earth after a five-year absence to find Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) engaged and Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) on the rampage. It didn’t do much for the career of the man who played Superman in the movie – Brandon Routh. The late venerated critic Roger Ebert said he “lacked charisma”.

Hopefully, the supposed curse won’t affect Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill. Having previously been dubbed “the unluckiest man in Hollywood” by Empire magazine after he lost the roles of James Bond and Twilight’s Edward Cullen earlier in his career, surely becoming Superman in a blockbuster produced by Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins) and directed by Zack Snyder (300) is a good sign that there’s no such thing as the curse.

artslife@thenational.ae

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