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Sunday, June 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Who's gonna save us now?

Special to The Seattle Times

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's ...

Now wait just a minute, Superman fans. How many times can the citizens of Metropolis mistake the legendary Man of Steel for seagulls and single-engine Cessnas? Even from a distance, a caped figure in blue and red bears little resemblance to flapping wings and spinning propellers, right?

But mess around with any of the beloved details in Superman's 68-year history, and you'd better have a darned good reason. That's why you'll still hear "It's a bird! It's a plane!" in director Bryan Singer's $200 million summer blockbuster "Superman Returns" (opening Wednesday with some Tuesday-midnight screenings), in which newcomer Brandon Routh plays Superman in a costume that almost everyone on Earth will instantly recognize.

Oh, sure, the costume's been slightly modified, and those famous lines of dialogue have been given a cleverly humorous spin (as heard in the enticing "Superman Returns" preview trailers), but Singer knows better than to mess with mythology. Millions of Super-fans would crucify him if he did.

A sampling of "Superman" DVDs


"Superman: The Movie" A must-have for fans, and the expanded 154-minute version on DVD is even better than the theatrical release.

"The Complete Superman Cartoons: Diamond Anniversary Edition" Several low-quality compilations of the magnificent 1940s Fleischer cartoons are available on DVD. Avoid them all in favor of this release from Image Entertainment and Bosco Video, which offers the definitive restorations.

"Adventures of Superman" The third and fourth seasons of the 1950s half-hour TV series starring George Reeves were released last Tuesday, with remaining seasons to follow. The first-season set includes the first Superman movie, 1951's "Superman and the Mole-Men," which was later re-edited as a two-part episode.

"Superman: The Animated Series" Featuring the voices of Timothy Daly (as Clark Kent/Superman) and Dana Delany (as Lois Lane), this popular cartoon series (1996-2000) deserves permanent inclusion in the Superman pantheon. The third volume is now available.

"Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" The third season of the popular '90s series starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher was also released last Tuesday, one of several Superman DVDs released to coincide with the opening of "Superman Returns."

"Smallville" Starring Tom Welling as the teenage Clark Kent, the still-running series has been doing brisk business on DVD. The fifth season will be released Sept. 12.

"Superboy" Not to be confused with the abandoned "Adventures of Superboy" series, this 1988-92 series starred John Newton in the title role for the first season (just released on DVD). When Newton demanded a pay raise, he was replaced by Gerard Christopher for the remainder of the series.

— Jeff Shannon, Special to The Seattle Times

We can expect some fresh ideas from Singer and screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty (who penned Singer's "X-Men 2"), but how will their new Superman fit into the superhero's iconic legacy? As Routh flies up, up and away into multiplexes everywhere, it's a good time to survey the Man of Steel's history on film and TV.

Best movie: If Singer hits a home run, "Superman Returns" could inherit top honors in the world of Super-cinema (early buzz suggests it's good, not great), but 1978's "Superman: The Movie" is still the one to beat. Despite tone-shifts that could send any director's head spinning, Richard Donner delivered a classic.

Also-rans: Most of "Superman II" (1980) was filmed during production of "Superman: The Movie" (British director Richard Lester finished what Donner had started), so it retains much of the first film's appeal. "Superman III" (1983) was a misguided comedy vehicle for Richard Pryor, and "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987) killed the franchise with wretched dialogue, cheesy effects and a too-earnest plot about nuclear disarmament.

"Superman and the Mole-Men" (1951) earns honorable mention as the first live-action Superman feature (it was preceded by the 1948 "Superman" serial and its 1950 follow-up "Atom Man vs. Superman") and served as the pilot for the successful TV series "Adventures of Superman" (1951-57).

Best Superman: Christopher Reeve, hands down. The late actor (who died in 2004, after nearly a decade of severe paralysis from a 1995 spinal-cord injury) was the definitive Man of Steel, with just the right combination of chiseled handsomeness and acting chops required to bring a perfect balance of sincerity and humor to his dual roles as Superman and his bumbling alter-ego, mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent.

Runners-up: Just a wild guess here, but Brandon Routh looks like the real deal in "Superman Returns" — a far better choice than Brendan Fraser, Jude Law, Josh Hartnett, Keanu Reeves or any of the other established stars who were briefly considered. He's paying tribute to Reeve (and, like Reeve, was an unknown 25-year-old when cast in the role), but preview trailers suggest a fresh approach of noteworthy nuance.

For those who grew up with "Adventures of Superman" on TV, series star George Reeves — whose mysterious death in 1959 was officially ruled a suicide — will forever remain the Superman of choice, but that's largely a generational bias. Kirk Alyn brought amiable integrity to the "Superman" serial, but he also had a milquetoast quality that hasn't aged well.

For the record, the first actor to play Superman was Ray Middleton, who donned the Man of Steel's blue and red tights for promotional appearances at the New York World's Fair in 1939, a year after Superman made his official debut in Action Comics #1, dated June 1938. Heard but never seen, Clayton "Bud" Collyer was the first voice of Superman, bringing popular flair to the "Adventures of Superman" radio series (1940-51). Collyer also voiced the first cartoon Superman, which brings us to ...

Best animated Superman: The most recent animated "Superman" series (1996-2000) deservedly earned a loyal following, but our vote goes to the brilliant "Superman" cartoons that premiered in movie theaters in September 1941. Produced by the innovative Fleischer brothers (producer Max and director Dave, who'd previously created the "Betty Boop" and "Popeye" cartoons), these short subjects (17 in all) remain the definitive cinematic representation of Superman's golden age in comics, and their art-deco influence is keenly felt in movies like "Iron Giant" and "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."

Best Villain: Gene Hackman was terrific as the egomaniacal Lex Luthor in "Superman: The Movie," especially when sarcastically berating his simpleton sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty), but the jury's out until we see how Kevin Spacey reinvents the role in "Superman Returns."

Worst Villain: Robert Vaughan grabbed an easy paycheck as a nondescript criminal mastermind in "Superman III," but he looks like an Oscar contender compared to Mark Pillow, the bronzed beefcake who played "Nuclear Man" in "Superman IV." Pillow's career vaporized after this, his only movie appearance.

Best Lois Lane: With all due respect to Margot Kidder in the Christopher Reeve movies, TV wins top honors this time: In the popular series "Lois & Clark" (1993-97), future "Desperate Housewives" star Teri Hatcher was perfectly cast as Lois, establishing instant chemistry with costar Dean Cain. Predictably, ratings plummeted when Lois and Clark got married; premarital romance was the series' raison d'etre.

Best dialogue: "Everybody's got their faults ... mine's in California." — Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), as he prepares to reconfigure the California coast by nuking the San Andreas fault, in "Superman: The Movie." Runner-up: "Why is it I can't get it on with the good guys?" — Luthor's ditzy moll, Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), in the same movie.

Worst dialogue: "Arrrggghhh!!" — repeated far too often by Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) in "Superman IV." Also: "The Dude of Steel! You are so gonna get it!" — Luthor's Valley-Boy nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer), in the same movie.

Silliest Super-feats: The 1978 "Superman" is a great movie, but let's face it: Superman's reversal of the Earth's rotation (to spin back time and save Lois Lane's life) was a bit much. The oh-so-silly "Superman III" pitted the Man of Steel against his foul-tempered doppelganger, and when Nuclear Man flew into space with Mariel Hemingway in "Superman IV," did anyone bother to explain how Hemingway was able to breathe? Then again, this is the same movie in which Superman slices off a mountaintop with his laser vision and uses it to cork an erupting volcano, so go figure.

Shortest-lived Super-series: "The Adventures of Superpup" (performed by little people in surreal-looking dog costumes) featured mutt reporter "Bark Bent" in the city of "Pupopolis." Produced in 1957, the never-aired pilot failed to find a sponsor, but a bizarre clip of it is included in "Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman," an excellent A&E documentary now available on DVD. Similarly, only one episode was filmed for the proposed 1961 series "The Adventures of Superboy." The unaired half-hour pilot is available on VHS or can be viewed online at http://superman.ws/fos/thescreen/superboy0/pilot/

Silliest "Superman Returns" tie-in: At the Monaco Grand Prix last month, veteran Formula One driver David Coulthard (whose Red Bull Racing team was promoting the new movie) reluctantly donned a bright red Super-cape to celebrate his third-place finish. Despite his prominent jaw and macho appearance, Coulthard couldn't disguise his embarrassment.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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