Culture

Superman Biographer Larry Tye on the Man of Steel's High-Flying Cinematic Legacy

Henry Cavill and Amy Adams in Man of Steel/Photo © 2013 Warner Bros. Pictures
Henry Cavill and Amy Adams in Man of Steel/Photo © 2013 Warner Bros. Pictures

Editor's Note: Larry Tye was an award-winning journalist at The Boston Globe and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. A lifelong Superman fan, Tye now runs a Boston-based training program for medical journalists. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Satchel as well as The Father of Spin, Home Lands, and Rising from the Rails, and co-author, with Kitty Dukakis, of Shock. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, and is currently writing a biography of Robert F. Kennedy. His latest book is Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. Here, Tye reflects on Superman's seven decades on the big screen and the critical lessons gleaned from each remake.

Warner Bros. has been defiantly closed-mouthed about "Man of Steel," which opens today, just as its perpetually-youthful hero turns seventy-five. But studio insiders are convinced it will be their biggest blockbuster yet, not just on Superman, but on any superhero.

Here's hoping they are right -- and that, in making the new film, they learned from Superman's seven decades on the big screen. The Man of Steel's cinematic past offers critical lessons for today's Hollywood moguls.

1) It's all about the kids.

Kirk Alyn was an odd choice for the first live-action Superman. He was more a song-and-dance man than an actor, having studied ballet and performed in vaudeville and on Broadway in the 1930s and early forties. He appeared in chorus lines and in blackface, modeled for muscle magazines, and performed in television murder mysteries in the days when only bars had televisions and only dead-end actors performed for the small screen. But he had experience in serials, if not in superheroes, so when he got a call from Columbia Pictures in 1948 asking if he was interested in trying out for Superman he jumped into his car and headed to the studio. Told to take off his shirt so the assembled executives could check out his build, the burly performer complied. Then producer Sam Katzman instructed him to take off his pants. "I said, 'Wait a minute.' They said, 'We want to see if your legs are any good,'" he recalled forty years later. They were good enough, and fifteen minutes after he arrived, Alyn was hired as the first actor to play a Superman whom his fans could see as well as hear.

Alyn and his directors were smart enough not to try and reinvent the character that Bud Collyer had introduced so convincingly to the airwaves. "I visualized the guy I heard on the radio. That was a guy nothing could stop," Alyn said. "That's why I stood like this, with my chest out, and a look on my face saying, 'Shoot me.'" His demeanor said tough guy but his wide eyes signaled approachability and mischievousness, just the way co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had imagined their Superman a decade before. Alyn understood the same way Collyer had that the hero's teenaged fans could spot a phony in an instant. If they didn't think Alyn was having fun -- and that he believed in Superman -- they wouldn't pay to see his movies. His young audience, after all, didn't just admire the Man of Steel, they loved him. Superman was not merely who they dreamed of becoming but who they were already, if only we could see. The good news for them was that Alyn was having fun, and he did believe in his character in a way that these pre-teens and teens appreciated even if movie reviewers wouldn't.

Adults saw the fifteen-part film that aired in 1948 for what it was: a B movie sliced into fifteen disjointed parts. But kids whose Saturday at the movies was the highlight of their week ate it up. These were the same youngsters who, even before they could read the words, had thumbed through their Superman comic books until the pages grew ragged. In later years, the reward for finishing their homework -- or the inducement to get started -- was listening to Superman on the radio. Saturdays had meant "Superman" cartoons at the movie house downtown, while on Sunday he showed up in regal color in the funny pages. Now there was a new treat: their hero, in live action, as part of the weekend matinee. Their parents dropped them at the theater thinking the attraction was Charles Dickens's penniless orphan Oliver Twist, but the real reason they wanted to come was "Hurled to Destruction," the Superman short that ran first. That explains not just why "Superman" played in seven thousand movie houses nationwide, but why it took in more than a million dollars, which was three times what Columbia had invested and enough to make it the most successful movie serial of the time.

2) Knowing Superman matters less than knowing about our yearning for a hero.

Consider the case of Alexander Salkind. Barely reaching five-foot three, with a mop of blue-rinsed white hair, Salkind brought to mind Superman's impish adversary Mr. Mxyztplk more than a Man of Steel. His taste ran to white bucks, silk ascots, and jeweled lorgnettes, the elegant spectacles favored by operagoers. His suits were strictly powder blue and Savile Row, with a Legion of Honor rosette proudly pinned to the wide lapel. He held court amidst the faded opulence of luxury hotels and refused to ride an elevator or an airplane. His exotic accent, a thick blend of old school Romance languages, left no doubt that English was not his native tongue. Indeed, his nationality was Russian, his homeland Germany, his citizenship Mexican, his ethnicity Jewish, and his passport that of a cultural attaché to Costa Rica. He had bankers in every capital in Europe yet had never paid a bill on time. But this son of Greta Garbo's film producer knew how to make movies -- his production credits ranged from Orson Welles's "The Trial" to the blockbuster "The Three Musketeers." In the spring of 1974 he was looking for the next big thing.

"Why don't we do Superman?" his son and protégé Ilya asked expectantly over dinner at the Café de la Paix in Paris.

"What's Superman?" Alex asked back.

Not an auspicious beginning for the man who was about to define the Last Son of Krypton for a new generation in America and around the globe. But what he lacked in appreciation of popular culture Alex made up for with his instinct that a world disillusioned by Vietnam and Watergate might need a superman. It was the intuition of a Holocaust survivor-- Alex knew that it wasn't the particular myth that mattered but our aspiring to something bigger. His own life had always been defined half by suspicions and anxieties, and half by defying norms and accomplishing the impossible. That fearlessness -- what was a tax problem or lawsuit to someone who had been hunted by the Gestapo? -- was precisely what was needed to revive Superman twenty years after the retirement of radio Superman Bud Collyer and fifteen after the death of television's George Reeves, when he was again the limited province of adolescent readers of comic books.
"I told my father who Superman was -- that he flies, that he's as known as Jesus Christ, that we can't do it tiny -- and why it has to be a big movie," Ilya recalls. "He said, 'Sounds very interesting, this Superman. Flies. Powers. Stronger. Known. Ahhh, let me talk a bit with my people."

More than a thousand people would be involved in the production, including six writers and three directors. Eleven separate film units shot from three studios in eight countries on three continents. More than a million feet of film were recorded, although just twelve thousand were needed. It took the largest movie budget ever to pull it all off, with more bounced or delayed paychecks than anyone could count. A director, a writer, and their biggest stars all sued the Salkinds afterwards, and they all won settlements. Alex had to hijack the film to squeeze the extra money he needed from Warner Bros, and his fear of flying -- and of being arrested -- kept him from the U.S. premiere.

But what mattered to him, to Ilya, and to studio executives was that it worked. Five years after that father-son dinner in Paris, the Salkinds released "Superman: The Movie." It was nominated for three Oscars and took home a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and a Grammy for Best Musical Score. The box office results were even more uplifting. It was the second-highest grossing movie of 1978, bested only by John Travolta's "Grease," and the most profitable in Warner Bros.' history. It was the first time a comic-book hero had starred in a serious movie and it launched "Superman" as a film franchise, with three sequels over the next decade. For the Man of Steel, it meant a bold new adventure that would define him for generation Xers the same way George Reeves's "Adventures of Superman" had for baby boomers. And it was made possible by one of the few people on the planet who had never heard of Superman.

3) Close doesn't count in a world of super-high expectations.

Bryan Singer and Brandon Routh learned that the hard way. Warner Bros. bought back the movie rights from Alex Salkind in 1993 after he had a falling out with his son Ilya, and the studio trumpeted its acquisition almost as brashly as Alex had his. They should have known better. For starters, they didn't have in hand a Superman story worth telling. The earliest version began with the hero dying just after he immaculately impregnated Lois with a child so super that he grew to adulthood within weeks. It took even less time for Warner Bros. to realize they needed a more plausible narrative. Subsequent scripts traded in Superman's blue-and-red costume for all-black, sat him down with a psychologist, built him a robot named L-Ron (patterned after Scientology's L. Ron Hubbard), gave him a third persona, pitted him against Brainiac and Batman, resuscitated not just his birth parents but his home planet, and wrote in references to 9/11, then wrote them out for fear the country wasn't ready. Ten writers came and went over eleven years along with countless producers, directors, and stars ready to don the cape and tights, at a cost to the studio of tens of millions of dollars and a stack of embarrassing news clippings.

Finally, in the summer of 2004, Warner Bros. hired Singer to produce and direct his idea for a story he called "Superman Returns." The title showed that he understood what fans were craving seventeen years after the Man of Steel's last appearance on the big screen: give us back our hero. It also made clear that Singer wasn't planning to rewrite the character but wanted to resurrect the Superman millions of Americans had fallen for in the comics and, more to the point, in the Salkind films.

Singer's movie, released in June 2006, couldn't answer why it had taken nearly twenty years for Superman to return, but it did explain what the hero had been doing for the last five. He was off looking for what astronomers said were the remains of Krypton. While he didn't find any survivors, he did find his Earthly world transformed by the time he got back. Lois had gotten engaged, had a son, and won a Pulitzer Prize for her story "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Lex had gotten married, too, to an old widow whose fortune would finance his latest plot to dominate the world. Stopping his old enemy was as instinctual as flying for Superman, but it was certainly hard getting used to seeing Lois in another man's arms. Harder still for the Man of Steel: not knowing whether Jason was his son, too.

While some critics applauded Singer's work, most felt it didn't measure up to the early Salkind renditions. Routh "offers not so much his personal interpretation of Superman as his best impersonation of Christopher Reeve playing Superman. This feels constrained, to say the least," Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker. "Singer's casting errs toward the drippy and the dull, and your heart tends to sink, between the rampant set pieces, as the movie pauses listlessly for thought." Mike D'Angelo of Las Vegas Weekly was harsher still, writing, "Fidelity is one thing; slavish imitation another." And The New York Times's Manohla Dargis called "Superman Returns" "leaden."

Results at the box office were mixed. The film took in $200 million in domestic sales and another $191 million overseas, which sounded like a lot until they were stacked up against production costs and what Marvel Comics had raked in for its blockbuster movies. The original Spider-Man grossed $822 million in 2002 and its sequel two years later hit $784 million. The latest X-Men movie, out a month before "Superman Returns," brought in $459 million. It even lost out to its DC brother Batman, who in 1989 took in $411 million -- or $668 million in 2006 dollars. "Superman Returns" "was a very successful movie, but I think it should have done $500 million worldwide," said Warner Bros. President Alan Horn. "We should have had perhaps a little more action to satisfy the young male crowd."

Singer had been hired with the hope of launching a new film franchise for America's signature superhero just as Routh was intended to replace Christopher Reeve as the defining Superman for his generation. Even the ending of "Superman Returns" -- with the hero passing the mantle to his son and letting Lois know he was back to stay -- was tailor-made for a sequel. But a new film called "The Man of Steel," intended to air during the summer of 2009, died on the vine. While Warner Bros. went on to make another Superman film under that title, neither Singer nor Routh has been involved.

Larry Tye on the origins of Superman.