Looking back at the Superman live-action shorts and shows
Lauren goes back through the life and times of Superman, looking at the Man Of Steel's adventures in shorts and TV shows, and the actors who have donned the tights...
Superman is the last surviving son from the planet Krypton, who gets sent to Earth by his birth parents in order to protect him from getting caught up in the devastating blast on Krypton that doesn’t just wipe out the entire population, but wipes the entire planet off the map.
Of course, we already know all of this, and the story has been re-told over and over again, sometimes in different ways throughout comics and on screen.
To celebrate the success of Smallville, which is coming to an end, and to also help keep anticipation for the up and coming Superman film, Man Of Steel, flying high, I’m going to look at the live-action Superman short films and shows, all the way back, from Kirk Alyn’s Superman screen debut, to Smallville.
Are the shows true to the comics? How good is each Superman actor on screen? Are they fun to watch? Read on to find out…
Superman1948Superman actor: Kirk Alyn
Kirk Alyn was the first live-action Superman to ever hit screens back in 1948, in what was simply titled Superman. One thing I find very interesting is that Kirk was never credited in the serialised short films by his real name, but was, in fact, credited as Superman.
Most of the Superman episodes ended on cliffhangers, with there being only fifteen episodes overall. It would have been nice for them to have done more, for these were short films that did remarkably well throughout theatres. They did, however, release the spin-off series, Atom Man Vs Superman, in 1950.
Each episode consisted of villains and different tasks for Superman to face. Kirk Alyn was very mild-mannered, just like Clark Kent, which made him an obvious choice for playing the character. He had a very wholesome look about him, and the way he portrayed Clark and Superman was magnificent.
The costume looks very similar to that of George Reeves’ (Adventures Of Superman), and just the same, it was grey and brown instead of blue and red, because it showed up better on the black and white recordings.
Noel Neill played Lois Lane in the serials, whom you may remember as playing the same character in the Adventures Of Superman television show that aired a few years later.
Neill, in my opinion, is the best Lois we’ve seen on screen. She’s a great actress, she looks the part and she has all of Lois’ characteristics down to a tee. For Neill to have been able to play Lois in two different programmes goes to show just how good she was in the role.
The special effects in this early version of Superman were also interesting. Instead of showing you Alyn jumping into the sky and flying, instead we had a cartoon clip of Superman doing just that. They also made animated bullets bounce off his chest.
The writers have since gone on to say that this was the weakest part of the show, but I actually like it. It was very different, and makes it a lot more appealing to children, which is probably who the shorts were primarily aiming towards.
In the early Superman comics, there was no Doomsday or anything of the sort. The comics focused mainly on Superman fighting criminals who had escaped from jail, and mafia-type gangsters.
The episodes haven’t aged too well, and a lot of the dialogue is very corny, and not something a modern day youngster would perhaps be interested in. But if you’re an older person who may even remember watching them as a child yourself, you’ll almost certainly enjoy watching them again and take them to heart.
Both Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill did make a later appearance in a film better known to more recent generations of Superman fans, playing uncredited roles as Lois Lane’s father and mother in a train scene in 1978’s Superman.
Although his earliest films aren’t available, we have a video gallery starring Kirk Alyn here with all fifteen of the chapters from the 1950 sequel, Atom Man Vs Superman.
Thankfully, examples of the special effects are preserved for posterity within these shorts starring the Mighty Man of Tomorrow.
Adventures Of Superman1952-1958Superman actor: George Reeves
Christopher Reeve is my all time favourite Superman actor, but George Reeves comes close. What interests me about him is his charming personality and the way he comes across.
He hated playing the role of Superman and felt typecast, which (we assume) contributed in his committing suicide and the show coming to an abrupt end. The cause of his death is controversial, for some wonder if he was actually murdered. Ben Affleck plays him in the film, Hollywoodland, a film about his life, but mostly his death.
The Adventures Of Superman was a very good TV show and ran for six years before its cancellation. They were going to pick the show back up again, but obviously, due to tragic circumstances, they couldn’t.
The show began in black and white, and it wasn’t until its third season that it was colourised. The costume was grey and brown for the black and white episodes, just like in the Kirk Alyn series, but a highly anticipated new colourful suit was brought in for the coloured recordings.
Noel Neill didn’t join the show until the second season, where audiences were already familiar with her, having seen her play Lois Lane in the Kirk Alyn shorts.
The show was very similar to the Kirk Alyn Superman serials, with the only difference being that it lasted longer, at about thirty minutes per episode. Superman fought crooks and gangsters throughout the episodes, but the animation shown in Superman was nowhere to be seen in this.
Amusingly, when Superman went to take off in the sky in Adventures Of Superman, he would run, do a slight pause and jump on a little trampoline that sent him flying off-camera. If you look closely, you can often see the trampoline rise at the bottom of the frame, and it’s certainly something they wouldn’t get away with nowadays.
The landing scenes were done with Reeves jumping off a ladder or some other high object. The rest of the flying scenes were reportedly done with George laying flat on a table, arms outstretched, with the table then cut out of the camera image.
That method sounds really bad now, but it was clever technology back in the 1950s.
A lot of props were used in this show for the action scenes. They all looked somewhat rubbery as they wobbled in Superman’s hand after he’d hit someone over the head.
The death of Perry White actor, John Hamilton in 1958, forced the producers to think twice about bringing the show back after its break, but they did consider bringing in a replacement. All decisions were finally over, however, when news got back to them that George Reeves had fatally shot himself. This meant the series would never make it back onto television screens. It’s such a sad ending to what was a really upbeat, fun show.
Does Adventures Of Superman stick to the comics? Well, it sticks to the earlier Superman comics, because they’re all about Superman fighting crooks, and there’s also an appearance from a dog in a certain episode that makes you wonder if it was, in fact, supposed to be Krypto.
Clark and Lois get married later down the line and we see Superman travelling to some wonderful destinations to fight crime, all of which was present in the old DC Action Comics.
Despite George Reeves apparently hating the role, it was never noticeable in any of his performances. He always put on an outstanding Superman display and is probably the finest actor to have ever played Superman so far.
Superboy1988 – 1992Superman actors: John Haymes Newton/Gerard Christopher
Superboy was played by two actors, John Haymes Newton (left) in the first season, and Gerard Christopher (right) in season two, three and four.
Each show lasted thirty minutes and focused mainly around Superboy’s time at college and his romantic interest in Lana Lang.
Clark worked for his college newspaper and most of the action in the show based itself around whatever newspaper story Clark was working on.
The college Clark attended was amusingly called Shuster University, in Siegelville, Florida. These, of course, referred to the names of the Superman creators, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, which was a very nice touch, indeed. This doesn’t exactly stay true to any of the comics, as Clark never really attended these colleges, but it’s such a nice touch that I think it can be forgiven!
The show does include appearances from famous Superman villains, Bizarro and Metallo, and it focuses heavily on Clark and Lex’s relationship.
It has to be said, some of the acting on Superboy is quite bad at times. The special effects aren’t too great either, but we have to remember that this was the 1980s/early-1990s.
So, which Superboy was the best, John or Gerard? It’s really hard to say, as both were very similar acting-wise, but by looking closely at the two pictures, I would have to go with John, as he seems to have more of a superheroic physique than Gerard and looks more like Superman facially. What do you think?
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman1993 – 1997Superman actor: Dean Cain
This show is quite special to me for nostalgic reasons. I used to watch it every Saturday night at my grandparents’ house as a kid, with my pyjamas on after my bath. Saturday was bath night, but I always had this to look forward to at the end of it!
I had a massive crush on Dean Cain as Superman when I was about seven years old, and I can kind of see why. He made a very dashing Superman and they got rid of the curl, which was nice to see. (I personally don’t find the curl very flattering at all.)
The show focused more on Clark Kent than it did on Superman, and it’s mostly set around the Daily Planet. It sticks to the comics very well, surprisingly, and even though it doesn’t include the major Superman villains, it does stick to the Superman story, from Clark’s Earth mum making him the costume, to Lois and Clark eventually getting married.
It does lack action sometimes, so it’s hard to comment on the special effects, but when they were on show, they did look good then, but not so much now.
Boy, did they sex this show up when it came to advertising. You couldn’t look through a magazine without seeing Lois and Clark groping each other with bare chests. This is why I always saw the show as being aimed towards females, rather than males, with its ‘chick flick’ appeal. But it does have some gripping scenes in it now and again, usually when Luthor is about, which should help grab the male attention for a while.
Dean Cain plays a great Superman, but he seems to portray him as too much of an old romantic most of the time. Not his fault, though, for that’s what this show was all about.
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman was definitely one for the ladies.
Smallville2001 – 2011Superman actor: Tom WellingSmallville distances itself away from the ‘ordinary’ Superman shows by insisting that there will be ‘no tights, no flights’. The show shows us Clark Kent as a teenager growing up in the town of Smallville, solving crimes, developing powers and fighting his biggest enemies, whilst all of the while trying to hide from the world his biggest secret: that he’s an alien.
Clark tries to rebel against his birth parents’ wishes by refusing to become the man of steel. Unsure of his true origins, he worries that he’s destined for evil. It is only later on, throughout the seasons, that we witness Clark starting to understand his roots more, and this comes about with a little help from a man called Dr Virgil Swan, played by the one and only Christopher Reeve.
There are a couple of special appearances in the show by previous Superman actors and actresses. Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, makes a brief appearance, as does 1984’s Supergirl, Helen Slater. Terrence Stamp, who played General Zod, now plays the voice of Jor-El. This is somewhat nice to see, and in a way, it’s a bit like the passing of the Superman torch.
Smallville broke the WB records for having the most viewers of any WB show during the pilot and the first season. Despite a drop in ratings over the years, it’s still going strong ten years later.
Some of the acting in the show can be quite mediocre at times, but the storylines help pull things along.
Every week, Clark has to save Smallville from what is known as ‘meteor freaks’ (people who are infected by the Kryptonite that fell down on them during Clark’s crash landing to Earth). Clark tries to help these people by preventing them from hurting people, as he feels bad for being responsible for what happened to them.
From season five onwards, the show gets darker and more adult. It starts to introduce other heroes from the DC Universe such as Green Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, Cyborg and Aqua Man. It also introduces some Superman villains, such as Doomsday, General Zod and Brainiac.
Lex Luthor stars in the show from seasons 1-7 and he and Clark are actually friends for a number of seasons, until Clark gets suspicious of Lex doing research into his life. In the Superboy comics, Clark and Lex were actually friends in their younger days, and this is where the Smallville story gets its roots.
Smallville also contains some characters that aren’t in the comic world, these being Chloe Sullivan and Lionel Luthor. Lionel is Lex’s controlling billionaire father, whist Chloe is Clark’s school friend.
The special effects in the show are a little below par at times and often quite cringe-worthy, which for a modern day show is quite disappointing. Don’t let this put you off, however, for the show has very gripping storylines and delves way into the Superman history pretty well at times.
The most off-putting part of the show for me is the constant on-off love relationship between Clark and Lana. Until Lana’s exit in the latter seasons, this romance thing is a constant drag and is one of the show’s main downfalls.
How does Tom Welling fair as the man of steel? Well, just like Christopher Reeve, he was an unknown when cast. He’s grown up a lot over the ten years we’ve watched him on screen and his acting has improved along the way.
He certainly has the right physique for Superman and many fans have called for him to play Superman in the up and coming movie. I personally don’t want to see that. I’m happy with Henry Cavill. But it will be interesting to see where Tom goes with his career after Smallville. My guess is down the director’s route, seeing as he’s already directed a few Smallville episodes.
So, how does the show compare to the Superman comics? Many would argue that the show has taken no notice of the Superman story and made up its own. I will say that I do feel that putting Doomsday into the show was a bad idea, for it’s Superman who meets Doomsday, when he’s much older, not Clark. Another twist, and one we’re not used to seeing in the comics, is that Lois knows Clark without the glasses, and of course, so do most of Clark’s friends and enemies, before a disguise is even made.
All in all, Smallville adds an interesting twist to the Superman tale, and it’s one that often works well. It’s best to watch it for what it is, rather than for what it’s trying to be.
Join us tomorrow for a look at the animated incarnations of The Man of Steel.
- The First Superman: Kirk Alyn (1948-1950) video gallery
- 10 things I want to see in the Smallville finale
- Top 10 Smallville episodes
- The Superman films: Part 1
- The Superman films: Part 2
- The Superman films: Part 3
- The Superman films: Part 4
- The Superman films: Part 5
- Our collection of Superman news and articles