Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Television Should Always Have A Superman


While I don’t watch much current TV, as a former comic book kid I still check out the superhero shows. But this season I dropped The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, as both have become muddled messes, and I said goodbye to Supergirl years ago after it followed up a delightful first season with one finger wagging lecture after another.


So until I eventually see Loki and WandaVision and the other Marvel miniseries (no Disney+ at my house) I’m left with just one – Superman and Lois. And the reason I’m discussing it here is because of a recent episode called “A Brief Reminiscence In Between Cataclysmic Events.”


Much of its running time is devoted to retelling how Superman became Superman. That tale is so well known that I wasn’t sure how much I’d care about hitting those same story beats one more time. But I guess every actor who dons the cape deserves a chance to take that journey and bring his own choices into such iconic moments. 


Full disclosure – the biggest reason for my trepidation was that I kept waiting for them to screw it up. To take some familiar element of this most familiar story and twist it in a way that would make it more palatable to the 18-34 demographic.


But…it didn’t happen.


From the moment young Clark Kent traveled north to learn about his Kryptonian roots at the Fortress of Solitude, to his move from Smallville to Metropolis, getting hired at the Daily Planet and meeting Lois Lane - I smiled through every scene, in a way I hadn’t smiled on a modern scripted network series in at least five years. The first time Superman saves the day, that moment delivered everything generations of fans love about this character, while also paying homage to the cover of Action #1, the book where Superman first appeared in 1938. If you recognized the moment, I know you were smiling with me.


Television first depicted Superman’s origin back in 1952, in the debut episode of The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves as The Man of Steel. Richard Fielding’s script for “Superman on Earth” also told the story the right way (and yes, there is a “right way”). But that wasn’t surprising because television was different then. At that time no one had to be advised that the objective was to take the story fans had read and bring it to life. That was hardly a given on Superman and Lois because adapting material from what is now viewed as a less enlightened era often entails concessions to fend off boycotts and cancel culture advocates.


The other essential element to a successful adaptation is casting the right actors. George Reeves probably shouldn’t work but for me he always has. His Superman projected both kindness and confidence. I wrote a magazine article about this series many years ago and had the pleasure to interview both Noel Neill (Lois Lane) and Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen) – both of whom also fulfilled every audience expectation for their characters. 


Neill told me Reeves sometimes referred to the job as “running around in my underwear,” but if he was haunted by the typecasting and movie roles he lost as a result, it was never apparent to the children who idolized him. Had he lived longer I believe that, like Adam West, he would have come to embrace his place in the pantheon of great television heroes.


That series ended in 1958, and Superman did not return to television until 1966 in the animated New Adventures of Superman (1966-1970), which was followed by several iterations of the Super Friends series beginning in 1973. 


And then this happened. 


Nothing was going to rival that milestone achievement – even its sequels paled in comparison. Since then, television has gone back to the well for Superboy, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and Smallville, which ran for ten years without ever showing the character in costume (star Tom Welling was apparently adamant about never running around in his underwear). All of them worked on their own terms, as did the fine Justice League animated series. 


In the nearly 70 years since “Superman on Earth” was broadcast, viewers didn’t have to look up in the sky to find Superman – he has been a near constant presence on TV through new shows and reruns of the classics.


And with superhero films dominating the global box office for the past two decades, more Superman was inevitable. But while the Marvel films have been overwhelmingly successful both creatively and financially, the results have been mixed for those taken from DC Comics. And some would say “mixed” is being generous.


One problem: Warner Bros. struggled to find someone that could wear a Superman suit with credibility post-Christopher Reeve. One reason: Superman is one of the few superheroes that doesn’t wear a mask. Masks create barriers (as we are all sadly learning once again). Superman is not a man of mystery like Batman; the actor playing him has nothing to hide behind, and must personify in his manner, voice and expression all of Superman's humble and heroic traits, while wearing a costume that would look silly on 99% of the male population.


So when Superman and Lois star Tyler Hoechlin first appeared in an episode of Supergirl, it’s astonishing how quickly and easily he owned the role like no one since Reeve. After one scene, I was sold. 



I was not as immediately all in on Elizabeth Tulloch as Lois Lane, but she has since won me over as well. 


The resiliency of Superman on television is even more impressive when one considers how many  comic book fans now dismiss Superman as boring. He’s not edgy, he’s not quick with a humorous quip, he doesn’t shoot first and ask questions later. Like Brian Wilson and Mr. Rogers he just wasn’t made for these times. But the overwhelmingly positive response to “A Brief Reminiscence In Between Cataclysmic Events” on IMDB and elsewhere suggests that we still need heroes like this, maybe now more than ever.


  1. David, a wonderful piece and I couldn't be more in agreement--about EVERYTHING SAID HERE! I too have given up on the CW "super shows", Flash was too busy trying to be an equal opportunity cast and my ratings for Supergirl plunged after she lost the skirt, basically. But I did say "wow" the first time Superman premiered on there, and what a smart move, giving this dude his own show. I also felt just the same about his Lois, but like you, she's grown on me too. In fact, I'm surprised how much I've been enjoying this series, and the 'special episode' you wrote about here... it was terrific. And when Superman overhears Lois telling a coworker she's fallen in love with Clark Kent, gosh done so well! I even liked his original uniform with the Fleischer Superman emblem, too much! A couple weeks ago I decided to cut the cord (I live in the city so I get all my OTA channels with an indoor antenna) and the only reason I didn't do it sooner was because I don't get the CW. But then 2 weeks ago I learned you can watch all the CW show for free on your computer (or tablet like me) via the CW app. The Superman episodes are also all "Extended Cuts". Okay, I'm done! But again, enjoyed your piece here. We couldn't possibly be more on the same page. PS. Wanted to mention that I sadly got tired of Batgirl too, after Ruby Rose left the show.

    1. Thanks, Doug. You should also try "Stargirl" if you haven't already - another enjoyable series that is more about entertainment than advancing agendas.