As Christopher Nolan says goodbye to the Dark Knight trilogy to produce the upcoming Man of Steel, Internet search engines have been flooded with queries about Superman. Like Batman, Superman has undergone dozens of reincarnations with each new comic book, animated feature or live-action film giving its own perspective of the Superman mythos.
The story of Superman begins as an infant named Kal-El, soon to be better known by his Earth persona, Clark Kent. Kal-El’s parents strapped him into a vessel bound for Earth just before their home planet of Krypton was annihilated. In most versions of the epic, Kent is an adult and holds a day job as a journalist, although the television show Smallville follows Kent as a teenager learning about his powers and his extraterrestrial past.
Superman can trace his roots to before World War II. His creators, two teenagers from Cleveland named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, envisioned him as villain with superhuman mental abilities. Superman spent the first five years of his literary career perpetuating crime rather than fighting it. Unable to find a publisher, Siegel and Shuster started over from scratch in 1938, this time putting Superman in the role of the hero. They did not completely discard their old design; it became the template for the new Superman’s archnemesis, Lex Luthor. Later that year, the artists sold Superman’s rights to future DC Comics for $130. Though a considerable sum at the time, it is dwarfed by the billions of dollars their brainchild has generated.
In the 40s and 50s, Superman became the focus of numerous radio serials targeted to children and adults. Bud Collyer was the first actor to give voice to the Man of Steel. Dozens of other actors have portrayed him in television and film, but Christopher Reeve remains the most memorable for his roles in Superman I-IV, the first series of films to propel the hero into mainstream culture.
If Nolan’s Batman films are any indication of where the Man of Steel is going, future Superman films will be grittier than ever before. Perhaps one day Superman will make it to Gotham City, and we can at last have a live-action crossover between two of America’s greatest superheroes, but that’s wishful thinking.