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With 'Man of Steel' looming, a look back at the history of Superman on the big screen

Man of Steel,” the reboot of the Superman film franchise, promises to be one of this summer's biggest movies.

Starring Kevin Costner, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Henry Cavill (“The Tudor”) as the hero in the red cape, “Man of Steel” looks like it could be this year's “The Avengers” in terms of box-office gold. The film is produced by Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”) and directed by Zack Snyder ("Watchmen"), two filmmakers well-versed in superhero action films.

Taking a cue from Nolan's “The Dark Knight,” “Man of Steel” is the first Superman movie that doesn't have Superman in the title.

Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the early 1930s, and the adventures of the flying Kryptonian took off in 1938 when he first appeared in Action Comics 1. Since then, the character has appeared in comic books, cartoons, radio plays, TV series and one of the most successful film franchises in history. With the new film in theaters June 14, it's a good time to take a look back at the history of Superman on the big screen.

In 1974, producer Alexander Salkind and his partners acquired the film rights to Superman, and soon set about working to bring the hero to the big screen through Warner Bros. Pictures. Mario Puzo, whose book and film “The Godfather," had won wide acclaim, began working on the script, and eventually Richard Donner was hired to direct a story arc that was supposed to play out over two pictures.

Donner cast a number of established actors to fill out the Man of Steel's universe. Gene Hackman was cast as the evil Lex Luthor, Jackie Cooper as Perry White (the boss of Superman's alter-ego, Clark Kent) and Marlon Brando as Superman's Kryptonian father, Jor-El. For the role of Superman the filmmakers went with a relatively unknown young actor, Christopher Reeve. Early posters for the film showed simply Superman's famous “S” and the tag line: “You'll believe a man can fly.”

Superman” was released in December 1978 to box-office and critical success, setting the tone for the modern superhero film as a big-budget spectacle on the order of “Star Wars,” which had been released the year before. A solid origin story, the film's special effects wowed audiences, and the film's message of hope, sacrifice and good triumphing over evil resonated in a nation still recovering from the disillusionment of Watergate and the wounds of Vietnam.

The film had been fraught with production problems, however, and Donner had to cut corners to meet the release date the producers had set. Initially, Donner had been shooting scenes for both “Superman” and its sequel, “Superman II,” simultaneously. To keep on schedule, however, Donner had had to forgo shooting many scenes for the sequel, vowing to complete them only after the first picture was finished.

Though Donner had shot approximately 75 percent of the scenes for “Superman II,” the producers, unhappy with their working relationship with the director, fired him and brought on Richard Lester, director of the Beatles' “A Hard Day's Night,” and silent producer on the first Superman film. With the approval of the producers, Lester altered the script and shot entirely new scenes for the film to receive full director's credit.

“Superman II” was released in 1980 and was also well-received by critics and audiences. The antagonists, three Kryptonian super villains led by the evil General Zod, all had Superman's powers and abilities. In wrestling with his feelings for Lois Lane, Superman made the decision to become mortal, leaving the earth vulnerable to General Zod's hostile takeover.

Lester was given the reigns for 1983's “Superman III,” which saw a radical departure in tone from the earlier films. Comedian Richard Pryor was brought in to add a new slapstick element to the franchise, and Lana Lang replaced Lois Lane as Superman's romantic interest. Though the first two films had their comedic moments, those movies offered epic adventure with serious themes and real drama. This third outing, which was widely panned by critics and never fully embraced by audiences, played the comedy up far too much. Essentially, this film feels like a Pryor comedy that just happens to have Superman in it.

After the failure of the third film, veteran director Sidney J. Furie was brought in to do damage control with 1987's “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.” Based on a story by Reeve, this film saw Superman engaged in a crusade to rid the world of atomic weapons, fearing that if left unchecked nuclear proliferation would destroy the earth just like his home planet of Krypton. With the best of intentions, and hoping to return the franchise to a more serious tone, this film was another disaster.

Critics called it a mess, while its box-office take was by far the worst of the series. Indeed, with its cheesy dialogue, forced sentimentality, dull story and ridiculous, incomprehensible villain, Nuclear Man, many still consider it one of the worst big-budget films ever made. Even Reeve called it a "catastrophe."

The poor showing of “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” proved to be the nail in the film series' coffin for nearly two decades. Though various parties talked about a fifth Superman film, Reeve's 1995 horse-riding accident and paralysis ensured that he would never again play the Man of Steel on film.

In the following years, several other writers, directors and producers proposed a reboot of the franchise, most notably Tim Burton, whose 1989 “Batman, ” also from Warner Bros., is considered one of the greatest superhero films of all time. Burton supposedly spent a year and $30 million on a project titled “Superman Lives,” which reportedly would have starred Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel. By 1998, however, the project fizzled out and Burton went on to other things.

The year 2006 saw two important developments in the Superman film franchise. First, Bryan Singer, who had been responsible for the wildly successful X-Men films, directed “Superman Returns.” Though the film cast new actors — such as Brandon Routh as Superman and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, “Superman Returns” was not a reboot. Rather, Singer continued the story of the first two Superman films, essentially ignoring the events of “Superman III” and “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.”

The film saw Superman returning to earth after a distant, unsuccessful search for the remnants of the planet Krypton. Clark Kent returned to his job as a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, and rekindled a romance with Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who now had a young son that displayed the signs of a Kryptonian heritage.

Despite Routh's charisma and dead-on impersonation of Reeve, and Spacey's Luthor, which was by turns both amusing and chilling, the film ultimately offered a bland, uninspiring story that did not live up to its potential. Early plans for a sequel fell apart not long after the film's release, despite generally favorable reviews and a decent box-office take. The film never captured the public's imagination the way Nolan had with his 2005 Batman reboot, “Batman Begins,” and the "Superman Returns," which was to reignite the Superman franchise, is now generally considered a failure.

In addition to “Superman Returns” on the big screen, Warner Bros. finally agreed in 2006 to appease fans who had always wanted to see Donner's original vision for “Superman II.” “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” was released on DVD and presented a film radically different from Lester's theatrical cut. The restored film included much of the original footage that Donner had shot while working on the first Superman film, including scenes featuring Brando as Jor-El. Where certain scenes crucial to the plot were never shot, Donner opted to use audition footage of Reeve and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, giving the film an uneven look, but nevertheless creating a marvelous story.

From the standpoint of story, theme and tone, Donner's cut stands head and shoulders above Lester's version, and one wonders how the subsequent films in the series would have played out with Donner continuing at the helm.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com