Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Superman Movies

There have been numerous movies – and several tv series – based on the creations of Jerry Siegel (1914-1996) and Joe Shuster (1914-1992).

1. Series of 17 short Animated Movies (1941-1943). Paramount/Fleischer (#1-#9) and Paramount/Famous (#10-#17), by arrangement with Action Comics and Superman Magazines. Pr Max Fleischer. Dir Dave Fleischer except as noted. Voice actors Joan Alexander (Lois Lane), Clayton Collyer (Superman/Clark Kent; later more famous as Bud Collier). Each about 8½ mins. Colour.

The plots of these cartoons almost all share various similarities: Lois and Clark Kent are sent to investigate some threat or potential threat; they get separated; Lois's foolhardiness gets her into trouble; Clark says "This looks like a job for Superman" and transforms himself; as Superman he rescues Lois and saves the day; she gets the story and mocks Clark for his inefficiency or faintheartedness. Only in #3 does Lois step out of her stereotype to help fight the menace; even then she must in due course be saved by the Man of Steel. The animation is quite good. The scripts rely on low-brow adventure rather than wit or imaginative invention. The series runs: #1: Superman (1941; vt The Mad Scientist); #2: The Mechanical Monsters (1941); #3: Billion Dollar Limited (1942); #4: The Arctic Giant (1942); #5: The Bulleteers (1942); #6: The Magnetic Telescope (1942); #7: Electric Earthquake (1942); #8: Volcano (1942); #9: Terror on the Midway (1942); #10: Japoteurs (1942) dir Seymour Kneitel; #11: Showdown (1942) dir Isidore Sparber; #12: Eleventh Hour (1942) dir Dan Gordon; #13: Destruction, Inc. (1942) dir Sparber; #14: The Mummy Strikes (1943) dir Sparber; #15: Jungle Drums (1943) dir Gordon; #16: Underground World (1943) dir Kneitel; #17: Secret Agent (1943) dir Kneitel.

2. Two serial movies and a feature were released between 1949 and 1951. These were:

Superman US serial movie (1948). Columbia. Pr Sam Katzman. Dir Spencer Gordon Bennet. Screenplay Lewis Clay, Royal K Cole, Arthur Hoerl. Starring Kirk Alyn (Kent/Superman), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), Carol Forman (Spider Woman), Noel Neill (Lois Lane), Pierre Watkin (Perry White). 15 episodes. B/w.

Spider Woman seeks – aided by a ray and a piece of kryptonite – to destroy Superman and rule the world. Produced on a shoestring – visibly so – this serial was hugely successful.

Atom Man vs Superman US serial movie (1950). Columbia. Pr Sam Katzman. Dir Spencer Gordon Bennet. Screenplay David Mathews, George H Plympton, Joseph Poland. Starring Kirk Alyn (Kent/Superman), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), Noel Neill (Lois Lane), Lyle Talbot (Lex Luthor), Pierre Watkin (Perry White). 15 episodes. B/w.

Luthor assails Superman, sacks Metropolis and abducts Lois. For Luthor this ends in tears. Despite the success of its predecessor, the budget on this movie was even tighter – and again it shows.

Superman and the Mole Men (vt Superman and the Strange People) US movie (1951). Lippert. Pr Robert Maxwell, Barney Sarecky. Dir Lee Sholem. Screenplay Maxwell (as Richard Fielding). Starring Phyllis Coates (Lois Lane), George Reeves (Kent/Superman). 67 mins. B/w.

The 1950s equivalent of a series pilot tvm (it was released theatrically but to promote the tv series Superman), this has little interest except for its anti-racist message. Superman saves the Mole Men from massacre by bigots. [JG]

3. Superman: The Movie US/UK movie (1978). Dovemead/International Film Production/Alexander & Ilya Salkind/Warner. Pr Pierre Spengler. Exec pr Ilya Salkind. Dir Richard Donner. Spfx Colin Chilvers. Vfx Roy Field. Model fx Derek Meddings, Brian Smithies. Screenplay Robert Benton, Norman Enfield, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Mario Puzo. Novelization Superman: Last Son of Krypton * (1978) by Elliot S Maggin – not a true novelization of the movie, although it was published as such. Starring Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Jeff East (Young Clark), Glenn Ford (Jonathan Kent), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Christopher Reeve (Kent/ Superman), Phyllis Thaxter (Martha Kent), Susannah York (Lara). 143 mins. Colour.

The planet Krypton is doomed. Jor-El and Lara send their baby son, along with a green crystal, to safety on Earth. He is adopted by the elderly, childless Kent couple, who call him Clark. At age 18 he is guided by the crystal to the Arctic, where it builds an ice palace and summons up Jor-El's personality to educate the boy for 12 long years. Afterwards, he takes a job in late-1970s Metropolis as a junior reporter on the Daily Planet, under editor Perry and alongside staffer Lois and cub photographer Jimmy. Although strictly forbidden by his father from interfering with human history, Clark impetuously transmutes into Superman to save Lois from a helicopter crash; he goes on a crimebusting spree. Evil genius Lex Luthor deflects two test-flying ICBMs to the San Andreas Fault as part of an estate scam. Superman thwarts him by flying into orbit, reversing the Earth's spin and thereby "turning back the clock" to a time before the missiles struck.

S, despite sf trappings, is a self-confessed fantasy, with Superman explicitly equating himself with Peter Pan, who "flew with children, Lois, in a Fairytale". The variable spfx, produced by a huge team, are at their best excellent; Reeve plays his dual role with panache. Tucked away in cameo roles (although, irritatingly, given star billing) are such names as Trevor Howard and, in an introduction that cleverly trails 4, Sarah Douglas and Terence Stamp; bit parts are played by Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill, who were Superman and Lois in the serial movies (> 2). Lois is here rendered as a selfish, mercenary smartass, stupidly rash rather than pluckily intrepid. S is quality garbage, and blockbusted. [JG]

4. Superman II UK movie (1980). Dovemead/International Film Production/Alexander & Ilya Salkind/Warner. Pr Pierre Spengler. Exec pr Ilya Salkind. Dir Richard Donner (uncredited), Richard Lester. Miniature fx Derek Meddings. Screenplay David Newman, Leslie Newman, Mario Puzo. Starring Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Sarah Douglas (Ursa), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Margot Kidder (Lois), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Jack O'Halloran (Kon), Christopher Reeve (Kent/Superman), Terence Stamp (Zod), Susannah York (Lara). 127 mins. Colour.

At the start of 3 three criminals – Zod, Ursa and Kon – were despatched from Krypton into space in a two-dimensional "cage" (the Phantom Zone). Now Superman, in despatching a terrorist bomb into space, shatters the "cage", allowing the trio to come to Earth, which they immediately decide to conquer. Lois, unmasking Superman's secret, accompanies him to his Arctic ice palace; there he is told by a projection of his mother, Lara, that if he wishes to live with Lois he must lose his superpowers and Immortality, an option he gladly embraces. Soon, however, he discovers he must reassume his powers to defeat Zod. The world is saved. When Lois complains of her emotional confusion knowing both Clark and Superman, he strips her of the relevant memories and reverts to being willing doormat Clark.

Partway through SII Donner, dir of 3, quit, and Lester picked up the reins; it is difficult to identify who was responsible for what. SII has a more interesting premise than 3 and does not have to trace Superman's early history; it is marked by good performances from Reeve (as usual), Kidder (a refreshingly mellower Lois than in 3), Stamp and Douglas. Nevertheless, it has longueurs absent from the earlier movie, and the spfx are significantly less impressive. Inappropriate (and implausible) slapstick sometimes destroys tension. The result lacks entirely the mythic power which 3 occasionally attains. [JG]

5. Superman III UK movie (1983). Dovemead/Cantharus/Alexander & Ilya Salkind/Warner. Pr Pierre Spengler. Exec pr Ilya Salkind. Dir Richard Lester. Spfx/miniatures Colin Chilvers. Optical/vfx sv Roy Field. Screenplay David Newman, Leslie Newman. Novelization Superman III * (1983) by William Kotzwinkle. Starring Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Annette O'Toole (Lana Lang), Richard Pryor (Gus Gorman), Christopher Reeve (Kent/Superman), Annie Ross (Vera Webster), Robert Vaughn (Ross Webster). 125 mins. Colour.

Played mainly for laughs, this self-parody sees computing idiot savant Gus being used by megalomaniac plutocrats Ross and Vera Webster to further schemes first to destroy the coffee industry of Colombia (a plan frustrated by Superman) and then to take over the world's oil supply. Meanwhile Clark has returned to Smallville for his highschool reunion and become entangled with one-time sweetheart Lana Lang, cameoed as a schoolgirl in 3 (Lois hardly appears in SIII). The Websters produce synthetic kryptonite, which changes his personality, so that, in effect, his evil Twin emerges. All is righted in the end.

Although too comedic to be a satisfying movie, SIII has great fantasy interest. Aside from the evil-twin subplot, there are liberal doses of Technofantasy. Moreover, its tackling of a core problem of Superhero adventures – that they are foregone conclusions unless the protagonists lose their Invulnerability – is more imaginative and more fully ramified than 4's similar attempt. However, despite 6 and 7, this was really the end of the line for the series. [JG]

6. Supergirl UK movie (1984). Cantharus/Alexander Salkind. Pr Timothy Burrill. Exec pr Ilya Salkind. Dir Jeannot Szwarc. Vfx Roy Field, Derek Meddings. Screenplay David Odell. Based on the Supergirl Comics. Novelization Supergirl * (1984) by Norma Fox Mazer. Starring Hart Bochner (Ethan), Peter Cook (Nigel), Faye Dunaway (Selena), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Peter O'Toole (1932-2013) (Zaltar), Helen Slater (Kara/Linda Lee/Supergirl), Maureen Teefy (Lucy Lane), Brenda Vaccaro (Bianca). 124 mins. Colour.

Superman's cousin Kara lives in Argo City, whose savant is Zaltar. Through foolishness, Zaltar and Kara doom Argo City by losing its single power source, the Omegahedron, which hurtles Earthwards, falling into the hands of Carnival witch (indeed, self-styled Witch of Endor) Selena, who uses it to confer on herself Immortality, and with slimy warlock Nigel and folksy fellow-witch Bianca plots world domination. Zaltar condemns himself to eternal penance in the extradimensional Phantom Zone, but Kara pursues the Omegahedron. On Earth she disguises herself as a highschool girl, Linda Lee, and finds herself rooming with Lucy Lane, younger sister of Lois and girlfriend of Jimmy Olsen. Selena, her powers of Magic growing steadily, conjures a love Potion to enslave hunky, inarticulate landscape gardener Ethan, but the Spell misfires, and he falls instead for "Linda", in the process becoming a suave poet. After much more such stuff the USA is saved, the Omegahedron is recovered and Supergirl returns to Argo City, leaving a lovelorn Ethan.

Slater is an exceptionally charming Supergirl – the movie would have been lost without her – and the spfx are excellent. While there are some excellent – and excellently realized – flights of imagination, too often there is a tendency to default to an easy option. Supergirl's characterization is inconsistent: she is at one moment prepared to die fighting the good fight, the next wailing in childish fear. Dunaway suffers more from such inconsistency: her comic-cut role subverts her attempts to convey evil power and presence. Yet S is the most exuberantly fantasticated of the cycle begun with 3: while it is less than the sum of its parts, not all of those parts are insignificant. [JG]

7. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace US movie (1987). Warner/Cannon/Golan-Globus. Pr Yoram Globus, Menahem Golan. Exec pr Michael J Kagan. Dir Sidney J Furie. Vfx Harrison Ellenshaw. Screenplay Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal. Novelization Superman IV * (1987) by B B Hiller. Starring Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Mariel Hemingway (Lacy Warfield), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Mark Pillow (Nuclear Man), Christopher Reeve (Kent/Superman), Sam Wanamaker (David Warfield). 89 mins. Colour.

International tension is high, and a schoolboy writes to Superman for a solution; Superman's response is to announce that he is now an Earthling rather than an alien and to filch all the world's nuclear missiles and herd them into the Sun. Meanwhile Lex Luthor clones from a strand of Superman's hair the evil Nuclear Man, superpowered in sunlight but not in shade. Much of SIV is taken up with battles between Nuclear Man and our hero (to whom it never occurs that he could end things by simply throwing a blanket over his adversary). All villains defeated, Superman rousingly broadcasts that the gift of world peace is not something for him or any single individual to bestow: it is up to all of us.

The story for SIV was largely generated by Reeve, who agreed (with a fresh production company) to make one last movie in the series if it had a "message". Sadly, this message is set in a clumsy context, and thus largely lost; in common with other Golan-Globus productions, there appear to be bits missing from the final cut, and the spfx are often poor. SIV is not a fine movie, but it is better than generally acknowledged. [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.