Seventy-five years after he sprang from the imaginations of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman is making another visit to movie screens, in “Man of Steel,” with Henry Cavill playing the superhero.
Coupled with the anniversary of the character’s first comic-book appearance in 1938, the movie at once aims to generate new interest in the last son of Krypton and to demonstrate the enduring power of a major cultural figure.
One, of course, who has been reinterpreted and reinvented over the years. Cavill’s movie and TV predecessors include George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Tom Welling, Dean Cain and Brandon Routh. But that barely hints at the longevity of the character.
Think of these stats, from Larry Tye’s book “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero”:
Before he was killed in a 1992 comic book (and later resurrected), Superman had been the subject of death scenarios in comics in 1950, 1957, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1968, 1984 and “twice in 1987 — with each story proving to be his inventive artifice or his writer’s imagination,” Tye wrote.
Similarly, the 1996 print marriage of Superman and Lois Lane followed wedding (or, more precisely, near-wedding) stories so frequent that they put the runaway bride to shame: Tye says tales appeared in 1949, 1955 and 1959, another 16 times in the ’60s, and six more in the ’70s, including one involving a parallel-world Superman that actually stuck. There was also a wedding on TV’s “Lois & Clark” in 1996 (which may have hastened the end of the series) and in 1981’s “Superman II,” in which Superman gave up his powers to marry Lois — only to have to reclaim them, and end the marriage, in order to save Earth.
Part of the menace to Earth, by the way, was General Zod, played by Terence Stamp, who more than 20 years later gave voice to Superman’s father Jor-El on TV’s “Smallville.” (Superman sagas, on and off screen, circle around; “Man of Steel” was directed by Zack Snyder, who also helmed the superhero revisionism of “Watchmen,” and co-written by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer of the “Dark Knight” trilogy; but without Superman, there might not have been “Watchmen” or “Batman.”)
Indeed, Zod returns in “Man of Steel,” now played by Michael Shannon, who was a couple of months shy of his 7th birthday when “Superman II” came out.
Cavill, 30, was born about six weeks before the premiere of “Superman III.” He is six years younger than Welling, who played the young, pre-Superman Clark Kent on “Smallville” from 2001 to 2011. Based on the chronology in Les Daniels’ book “Superman: The Complete History,” Cavill’s birth was long after the arrival of not only Superman but Superboy (in 1945), Supergirl (1959), Krypto the Super-Dog (1955), Streaky the Super-Cat (1960), Beppo the Super-Monkey (1959) and Comet the Super-Horse (1962).
Every decade since the ’30s has had some kind of Superman moment: the first appearance in the ’30s; animated productions from the legendary Max Fleischer, a live-action movie serial starring Kirk Alyn and radio programs in the ’40s; the TV series starring Reeves in the ’50s (and his death under still-debated circumstances before the decade was done); a Broadway musical in the ’60s; the Christopher Reeve movies beginning in the ’70s; more Reeve movies and a “Superboy” TV series in the ’80s; the death-of-Superman saga in the ’90s; “Smallville” and the big-screen “Superman Returns” in the ’00s; and now “Man of Steel.”
Not that all these efforts were successful. The musical was a dud. “Superman Returns” made close to $400 million worldwide — but that figure paled when the high cost of the movie was considered and, as Tye has written, it was less than the reinventions of Spider-Man and Batman had made.
Still, Superman endures, often revised and reconsidered, different and yet the same. Tye is fond of saying that Superman has evolved more than a perpetually changing fruit fly.
“He changes his hairstyle,” Tye said in a telephone interview. “His uniform gets updated. His work circumstances change.” Even the seemingly shocking change of Clark Kent from newspaper reporter to blogger was not really surprising, Tye said. “He’s been quitting the Daily Planet, whether it was to work for TV or do whatever seemed most contemporary, for 75 years.”