It’s been a while since we’ve seen a standalone Superman adventure. The last time we saw the Man of Steel on the big screen, it was in DCEU superhero team-up movie, Justice League. He was ‘touched up’ in some of the worst CGI modern blockbusters have ever seen. This iteration of the character has lain dormant ever since, despite all that Henry Cavill brought to the role. On the small screen, meanwhile, as part of The CW’s expanded universe, Arrowverse, we’ve seen Tyler Hoechlin taking on the mantle in Supergirl and the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” storyline, which also saw former big-screen Supes, Brandon Routh, return.
But now, finally, we are getting a fresh double dose of the Kryptonian hero as Zack Snyder’s version of Justice League (black suit!) prepares to land, and – perhaps even more excitingly – a new Superman television series that tells a story we haven’t seen before: Kal-El and Lois Lane married, domesticated, and parents to two young boys. As Superman & Lois gears up to hit the small screen, we’re celebrating the superhero and his longtime love by taking a look back at the famous couple’s history both in the comics and on-screen.
EARLY YEARS IN METROPOLIS
Superman and Lois first came into the world in Action Comics #1 in June 1938, some eight decades ago. This thanks to creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster who first had the brainwave for the characters. Lois has almost always been involved in the comics alongside the Man of Steel ever since, with their initial romantic arc seen in a very classic way: boy meets girl, girl falls for boy, boy falls for girl… Siegel and Schuster took inspiration from the films of Douglas Fairbanks, one of cinema’s first big superstars, who had played Zorro and Robin Hood in his movies. They conceived of Superman as a similarly heroic protagonist, one who would also sweep damsels in distress off their feet in more ways than one.
It wasn’t until a few years later that the notion of Lois suspecting Clark Kent might be Superman entered the stories, becoming a through-line in most of the comics of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. This caused their dynamic to shift somewhat into what we now know as the love triangle with only two people, adding more drama and tension to their relationship, with Clark, and Superman, having to go to increasingly extreme lengths to protect his identity and keep Lois in the dark.
Things changed for the hero’s 40th anniversary — Action Comics #484 — when a wizard wanted to rid the world of Superman and Clark lost any recollection of being his alter ego. Without the burden/curse, Lois falls for the more assertive version (something that would surface in some television versions, more on those later) and they decide to get married. However, when Clark is caught in a fire and emerges without a scratch, she begins to suspect once again, gaining more proof as time goes on, and she realises not only his secret but how much he, and the world, needs Superman. She consequently gets the wizard’s curse reversed.
They stayed married, however, in this series – known as Earth Two – and they would continue as such through that continuity, and even through the Infinite Crisis series in the 2000s. Earth One, and the main continuity of the comics, continued with the thread of Lois never knowing that Clark and Supes were one and the same.
THE DAWNING OF A NEW HERO
In the early 1970s, cinema was changing: auteurs like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and more were starting to make their marks on Hollywood, bringing their visionary filmmaking skills to the big screen with varying degrees of box-office success but much acclaim. Both Spielberg and Lucas, however, saw their films as being something different: bigger, broader, more exciting. Movies of the kind that audiences had never seen before. With Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), Spielberg and Lucas ushered in the age of the blockbuster. Cinema hasn’t been the same since.
Producer Alexander Salkind, along with his son Iyla and partner Pierre Spengler, shared a similar vision to Lucas and Spielberg and, after huge success with The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), decided to tackle a bigger challenge: bringing the Man of Steel to life on the big screen. Several battles – and close to $100million – later, they succeeded.
A change of director in the pre-production process saw Richard Donner – director of the massively successful 1976 horror, The Omen – brought in to helm the first two Superman films, though events dictated that he only complete the first (the history of his tumultuous time with the Salkinds is well documented, but he was fired from 1980 sequel Superman II). Originally scripted by The Godfather creator Mario Puzo, as well as David and Leslie Newman and Robert Benton, Donner brought in Tom Mankiewicz to help remove all of the “parody-on-a-parody” from the earlier scripts and replace it with “verisimilitude” in order to find the reality of the world.
“We weren’t gonna screw around with apple pie, it was Americana, our little moment in history. So eliminated everything that had been put in,” said Donner.
“We wanted to have the love affair, the romance, between Lois and Superman and the relationship between Clark and Lois to be so central, so that, at the end when she falls into the crack in the earthquake and he has to turn the world backward, you really feel that there’s something there. This is the core of the whole piece… two kids on a date,” said Mankiewicz.
Not only was Superman: The Movie pitch-perfect in its adaptation of the source material – from a precisely imagined Krypton and Metropolis and the hazy, dreamy, comic book-capturing cinematography of the late Geoffrey Unsworth to the deft characterisations of Superman/Clark, Lex Luthor, and Jor-El – but it was also spot-on with its crafting of a central romance to truly make the film fly. The beautiful and poignant transfer of their love story to the screen is something that all adaptations since have tried to replicate. Even other comic-book movies have tried to capture it.
The care and attention Donner, Mankiewicz, and company invested in their love triangle is remarkable. They meticulously adapted the words of Siegel and Shuster, including many nods to the history in the comics, and brought in subtle lilts from the modern world and other film romances. There are echoes of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind and Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund from Casablanca delicately woven in. But the real magic comes from Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder who, together and separately, are still the best inhabitants of the roles. Both plucked during the infancy of their careers after successful screen-tests, they would immediately become household names forevermore. And that’s despite the derailing of their love story in 1983 follow-up, Superman III.
Fast forward to 2006 and Superman Returns – a quasi reboot/sequel that was designed to erase the events of the third and fourth parts of the original series and act as a direct sequel to II, as well as start afresh in many ways with a new cast of actors portraying ostensibly the same characters. Step forward Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth, two similarly relatively unknown actors at the time. However, like the film itself, something was missing.
A modest success at the box office (though not enough of one for a sequel), the film played too close to Donner’s version and its rules, and with cinema having moved on in the three decades since, the Lois/Clark/Superman triangle felt stale and no amount of romantic flying through the sky could spark it into life. Additionally, the film raised more questions than it needed to, not least the whole ‘Son of Superman’ angle, which felt forced and misjudged. The romance, at least on the big screen, was over for now. Time to think smaller…
LOOK, UP ON THE FLAT SCREEN…
After 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace failed spectacularly, the hero was given a rest for a while before attention focused on the small screen. Could something – and someone — as big as Superman work on TV? This wasn’t a television landscape like we know today with bigger, better stories, stars, and capabilities: this would be Superman on a different scope and scale, but ideal for a new romantic storyline involving Lois and Clark – hence the title, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and a shift in dynamics.
Taking inspiration from John Byrne and Dick Giordano’s 1986 limited comic series The Man of Steel, the show’s creators — including one Deborah Joy LeVine, labelled “The Woman who Revived Superman” — devised a show that focused on the Lois and Clark dynamic even more than before while also exploring Superman and his powers, albeit in a more restrained way. In Byrne’s story, Kal-El is sent to Earth still in an embryonic state, emerging from his ship which acts as an artificial womb, and the story continues with the Kents from there.
The biggest difference in this comic-book storyline was that, since he discovered his powers as he grew up, it was Clark that needed a disguise, not Superman. This is why the show made mention of the fact that Martha Kent made the suit for him rather than it being part of his Krypton legacy, and why Clark is more assertive and focused than Christopher Reeve’s clumsy version. Also, Jonathan Kent (Eddie Jones) is alive through the show rather than passing away when Clark was still at high school, with Clark phoning his parents for advice many times during the show.
But what of the titular lovers? Well, the dynamics of the series do reflect much of their history together – Lois is already at the Daily Planet when Clark joins her, for example – but with the shift in narrative choices, their relationship actually feels more complete and realistic than any manifestations that have gone before. Taking the clumsiness out of Clark and making him more assertive works wonders the show. Everything feels more grounded and, in the spirit of the changing office politics of the 1990s, Lois herself feels more fleshed out than ever before, something that would continue into Man of Steel. Their relationship blossoms, and feels genuine and loving. While we see the costume and the heroics, the focus is on them over superhero shenanigans — which many loved but others disliked, with critics suggesting this was more soap opera than comic-book.
They eventually married as the series approached its end and lived happily ever after – as much as you can when one of you is an alien with secret powers. However, the show ended on an unintentional cliffhanger: a baby arrives in their living room with the famous “S” emblazoned on the blanket keeping it warm and a note saying “this baby belongs to you”, suggesting Krypton, or some survivors, might still be alive. While it was initially set to go ahead, a fifth season was unexpectedly cancelled, leaving us wondering the how/why/what for the rest of our days. The comics had leaned towards ‘domestic bliss’ in the early 1990s and followed the television show closely, only allowing them to marry after their on-screen counterparts had.
Fast forward to the turn of the millennium and the beginning of one of the most iconic and influential shows of its ilk: Smallville. The show, created by Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, actually came out of a planned Bruce Wayne show which never materialised (if it had, we may not have had Batman Begins). Instead, it became a groundbreaking series that played with the Superman mythology while at the same time paying homage to what had gone before in both the comics and the Reeve films.
Pitched as a ‘no tights, no flights’ interpretation, the show would focus on Clark Kent’s teenage years in Smallville as he came to terms with his powers and his place on Earth. In the first seven seasons – there or thereabouts – the love story was between Clark and Lana Lang (Kristen Kreuk), expanding into love triangle territory with Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) also involved. Lois Lane (Erica Durance) wasn’t introduced until season four when she came to Smallville to investigate her cousin’s death, and it was during season eight – when she and Clark work together at the Daily Planet – that their love story began, with the final two seasons cementing it.
More so than any other show or film, Smallville was able to expand and extrapolate a lot of the Superman mythology, and take its time telling its story — which included plotting out the Lois and Clark love story like no other adaptation had done. Leaning on the comics as well as the narratives that had played out before in film and on TV, their relationship in Smallville had much more of a classic romance feel to it. Like the comics, the show brought them together, moved them apart, had them be friends before bickering and falling out, and then slowly but surely having their destinies align during the show’s final season as ‘The Blur‘ became the Man of Steel. And speaking of Man of Steel…
A new big-screen Supes outing had been mooted for many years. The aforementioned Batman franchise had been growing bigger, generating more and more money for Warner Bros. and DC. But, like Superman IV a decade before, it too crashed and burned with 1997’s Batman & Robin. Around the time of that film’s release, though, a titanic alliance of Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage, Kevin Smith, and infamous producer Jon Peters almost resulted in Superman Lives, a film that could have been a catastrophic or else eccentrically unique chapter in the superhero’s screen history. However, it was not to be: the studio balked at its ever-increasing budget and cancelled production. J.J. Abrams, McG, and Wolfgang Petersen all took shots at bringing him back, but it was David S. Goyer who pitched an idea more akin to what he had done on the Dark Knight Trilogy with Christopher Nolan and, finally, Superman was reborn.
Released in 2013, Man of Steel was a fresh approach to the mythology weaving in some of the rebooted comics and fresh timelines while treating it all in a ‘realistic’ fashion – “cinematic reality” Nolan called it – where the real world was at stake and repercussions were harsh. Man of Steel kept most of the origin story intact save Clark/Superman’s relationship with Lois, which develops differently than we’ve seen before. Rather than meeting in Smallville or at the Daily Planet, their first ‘meet-cute’ is in the Kryptonian ship that is found in the Arctic. They also become embroiled in the alien side of things far sooner than ever before.
Indeed, Lois only knows Clark as the hero. The thought of Superman and his guise as a reporter only comes later. It’s always a bit jarring seeing the love story begin this way, especially in the moments Lois calls out “Clark” and he’s wearing the red, blue, and yellow costume — but it does bring a more dynamic and grounded relationship to the fore. It also allows for both characters to exist without each other, as the narrative dictates that they don’t rely on each other — at least in the beginning. Their romance, therefore, stems from a genuine affection and, moreover, from the unique chemistry between Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel and Amy Adams’s Lois Lane.
It was a bold move from Goyer and director Zack Snyder to manipulate the mythology like this, but within the setting of the film’s universe, it’s actually the highlight in an otherwise muddled film. Sadly, though, in both Batman v Superman and Justice League (at least, as it stands before the Snyder Cut is unleashed), their relationship takes a back seat.
And so, onwards to Superman & Lois and a show that is different again to what’s gone before on-screen. The series will give a unique insight into their domesticity; the couple’s place in the 21st century world of social media; mental health issues; and, of course, a glimpse of what the implications are for the father of the family being an indestructible alien. It seems some of the show will be based on both the New 52 comic series and DC Rebirth that started in 2016, where the couple is married with a son named Jonathan — who is in the show, and who becomes Superboy.
Fan reactions have been somewhat mixed to the show’s first trailers and, perhaps now more than ever, they are hungry for another big-screen adventure for the superhero. But we’ll hold opinions until we see how the show pans out — it’s nice to have you back, Supes.
Superman & Lois debuts on The CW on February 23.