Superman on TV: 60 years of punching robots

Rob celebrates decades of TV Superman doing what he does best: punching robots into oblivion...

It’s hard to believe Superman’s been zooming about on that glowing rectangle in the corner of our living rooms for most of his 75 year existence. It’s just that we haven’t always paid attention, what with things like the Cold War and MasterChef to distract us. But whatever the era, the medium, or the man in the tights, there’s one constant when it comes to Superman on TV: he loves to break robots. 

So as Superman turns 75, and Henry Cavill faces both Zod and the merciless Brain Interactive Construct of Internet Fandom, let’s chart the history of the small screen Man of Steel by looking at the times he’s gone up against men of metal…

 

The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)

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Robot Thumping Episode: ‘The Runaway Robot’ 

Superman had enjoyed huge success in theatres during the 1940s (and had kicked the scrap out of robots in the Fleischman Studios animated short The Mechanical Monsters), but it was the 50s before he rocketed onto the strange new world of television. He was portrayed by George Reeves, the kind of handsome all-American who looked like he was built from Spam and rivets and had stepped out of a SterlingCooperDraperPryce ad campaign for Lucky Strike. Reeves wasn’t the first live-action Superman – that honour goes to the oft-forgotten matinee star Kirk Alyn – but he was a dead ringer for his comics counterpart. 

Reflecting the strips of the period, Supes fought street-level crime: bank robbers and drug smugglers. Basically anyone with access to a trilby and a pistol. But occasionally you’d get something madder mixed into his adventures, like a mind-reading donkey, a blackmailing dog, or Mole People. And of course, a robot. Well, it was the 50s: robots were second in popularity only to the pastime of suspecting your neighbours of being Commies. 

Season 1’s The Runaway Robot is a prime slice of The Adventures of Superman. An inventor’s pots & pans android – built to foil robberies and apparently designed from a child’s drawing of a Cyberman – is kidnapped by a group of gangsters (trilbies: check, pistols: check). And they’ve clearly seen The Mechanical Monsters, because they use the poor thing to rob banks. It’s irony in iron. 

Just as it looks like the crooks are going to get away with their thievery, Superman bounds in and dismantles the automaton in a clever shot designed to make you think there’s not been a sorry actor sweating in that man-shaped oven for the past twenty minutes. Of course under the cynical laser vision of modern eyes the whole thing looks a bit laughable, yet it’s a delightful artefact of the time, with a wholesome charm and old-fashioned heroism to it that no other iteration has matched.

 

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Super Friends (1973-1986)

Robot Thumping Episode: ‘The Androids’

‘MEANWHILE AT THE LEGION OF DOOM!’ Ahem, sorry, couldn’t resist. 

Hanna-Barbera’s Saturday morning sugar rush saw Superman team up with the Justice League, plus the couple in the apartment upstairs and their talking dog, and what a big bowl of crunchy fun it was. Indeed, it’s been scientifically proven that watching Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and a dog in a cape search for missing air conditioners and help balloon aliens actually has the same effect on your emotion centres as having a Pop Tart pushed gently into your brain. 

Only once among their many wacky adventures did Superman managed to fulfil his insatiable appetite for robo-wrecking, and his most Freudian dreams, by fighting an exact machine duplicate of himself. On Mars of all places.

 

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Superman (1988)

Robot Thumping Episode: ‘Destroy the Defendroids’ 

Who remembers this gem? Airing in 1988, the year of Superman’s fiftieth Anniversary, the Superman cartoon only ran for 13 episodes but each one is so fast-moving and fun you can’t help but wonder why there weren’t more. 

Featuring the classic opening monologue from The Adventures of Superman set to John Williams’ stirring movie soundtrack, it did a beautiful job of capturing the excitement of the Fleischman Superman theatrical cartoons, and used an animation style that will give those 80s kids raised on a diet of Transformers, MASK, and GI Joe a punch of nostalgia. 

In the very first episode, Destroy the Defendroids, Lex Luthor fakes a programming glitch in his crime-fighting Defendroids, all so that he can steal a quantity of gold from an armoured bullion train. Just to repeat: the billionaire tycoon Lex Luthor has spent millions and millions of dollars creating high-tech robots, all so he can steal only one million dollars in gold. This is why you never see Lord Sugar creating evil Amstradroids. 

In a blatant piece of Transformers theft, the Defendroids connect together to make a giant Defendroid that kidnaps Lois and Jimmy and, for reasons it keeps to itself, flies them off into space. Not to kill them. Just because. Off it goes, millions in R&D and technology sailing off into the void. Only a timely rescue by Supes saves them, as he uses a satellite to destroy the behemoth. Somewhere in Japan a businessman probably shouts ‘Hello? Hello…? Hello?” into the receiver of his briefcase phone. 

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As more Defendroids attack the bullion train, Superman makes no effort to eradicate them, despite the fact he made quick work of scrapping the Super Defendroid. The only thing he punches are their buttons, as he reprograms the robots to attack each other. 

“I’ve seen cats with less lives than that man!” Luthor angrily exclaims at the sight of his robots blowing each other to bits, thus tacitly admitting to the fact that he likes to kill cats in his spare time. What a fiend.

 

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-97)

Robot Thumping Episode: ‘Metallo’

Lois & Clark saw gel-headed Dean Cain and your dad’s Saturday night telly crush Teri Hatcher take up the sexually-charged banter mantle of the Daily Planet reporters. There was a strong focus on the pair’s relationship, in particular all those ‘couple-y’ things you do when you’re in love. You know, like thwarting a hirsute Lex Luthor, or time travelling bearded git Tempus, or clones of your wife. 

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It was appointment TV for kids (and adults who weren’t gawping at Baywatch) in the 90s, and for a generation of youngsters who grew up in the decade that Doctor Who forgot, it was pretty much the only dose of Saturday teatime excitement and camp that didn’t involve Mr Blobby. Yes, it looks a little dated now, and the fight scenes are sluggish and staged, but it’s still highly enjoyable. Unlike Mr Blobby. 

Season two’s Metallo embodies the at once both brilliant and cheesy nature of the show. After the generously coiffed criminal Johnny Corben is shot dead by police he wakes up to find his head – 90s haircut and all – has been plonked onto a kryptonite-powered robot body. Remember, this was America before ObamaCare. 

As Metallo, Corben’s Kryptonite heart means Superman goes down like a sack of Gorgonzola in their first encounter, but by their second meeting – on a street littered with throwable things, making the whole scene feel oddly like an arcade game – Superman’s learned his lesson and devises a cunning new strategy to beat the cyborg: hover just out of his reach. Crafty bastard. 

Superman’s so nonchalant he spends the entire fight with his arms crossed as Metallo’s creators watch their science project flail around angrily like a gorilla who’s lost his mallet. Then, in flagrant violation of Queensberry Rules, Supes uses his heat vision to melt Metallo’s legs into a puddle. Top job Supes, time for beans on toast and Noel’s House Party.

 

Superman: The Animated Series/Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (1996-2006)

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Robot Thumping Episodes: Too many to mention 

TV Superman did gangbusters from DC’s animation boom in the 90s, starring in his own series and two others in the space of a decade. It helped that across all three shows the animation was dynamic, the music stirring, and the stories thematically and emotionally complex enough to keep the grown-ups from fidgeting. They’re worthy successors to the Fleischer & Famous legacy. 

Across the four season run of Superman: TAS he regularly tears through Metallo and Brainiac with a merry abandon that says ‘I was knocking the circuits out of your daddy back before you could even spell Siri’. In season one of JLU he and the Leaguers fight an army of alien nanotech robots in Dark Heart, and in The Return Supes and Co. have the stuffing knocked out of them by the all powerful android Amazo. In season two he helps defeat a Brainiac/Luthor composite. By 2006 cartoon Superman (voiced by George Newburn) must’ve been picking metal filings out of his fingernails.

 

Smallville (2001-2011)

Robot Thumping Episode: ‘Solitude’ 

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Smallville started out as a super-powered teen drama and over ten(!) seasons morphed into a televised replication of the DC Universe at large; a ‘through a mirror, sexily’ reflection of the comics. As college-aged Clark, Tom Welling, brought just the right mix of youthful uncertainty and jaw clenching to the story of the youth learning to hone his powers and his moral compass. 

Season five saw the introduction of Brainiac, a malevolent alien artificial intelligence which in the Smallville universe took the form of nanotechnology treacle and adopted a handsome shape in the form of Buffy‘s James Marsters. Because there’s no rule against being evil and handsome. Through five seasons Brainiac lurked in the background, occasionally popping up to cause irritation like a malicious Adobe Flash Player update reminder, but we’ll just focus on his first encounter with the Sophomore of Steel. 

After having tricked his way into the Fortress of Solitude Brainiac opens up a portal to bring General Zod to Earth and introduce humanity to the new social media craze, #KneelBeforeZod. 

There is a problem with Smallville‘s action sequences, in that no matter who is fighting who, all of the battles are a similarly choreographed ballet. A lot of slow-mo’d super-speed and someone being picked up and thrown across the room into things. The law of gravity is a lot more laid back in Kansas. Still, this is one of the more impressive as the two super-powered beings duke it out until, with the strength of an angry office worker gripped by Excel-fuelled fury, Clark tosses him across the Fortress like a laptop, impaling him on a dangerously sharp crystalline array. Brainiac promptly vanishes, to lick his wounds and tweet his new ‘Fight with Superman’ high score. 

And there we end our tour of the Kryptonian wrecking ball known as Kal-El, sent from a doomed planet to break anything more advanced than a smartphone and more threatening than a blender. Who knows when the Man of Steel will return to our small screens with his own series. Whatever form it takes it’s bound to happen eventually. And when it does, you can guarantee the cogs will fly once more.

Read our look-back at the animated adventures of Superman, here.

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