Ever since his debut over eighty years ago, Superman has been one of the most popular characters in the world of comics. And from the Fleischer cartoons through the box-office smash of Superman: The Movie--right through his recent appearances in films like Man of Steel and Justice League, he's one of the world's biggest movie stars, too.
It's only natural for these movies to draw on the comics. After all, they provide millions of pages of potential stories, and there's at least that many hardcore fans who will riot if anyone changes the source material too much. But sometimes the adaptation runs the other way. In fact, many of the most iconic parts of Superman's comic book canon appeared on the big screen first.
Up, Up, and Away!
If you asked ten people to visualize Superman, it's a fair bet that at least half of them would picture him in flight. But for the first three years of his existence, the Man of Tomorrow kept both feet firmly on the ground. Instead, he got from place to place by hopping around -- as the announcer for his radio show put it, leaping tall buildings in a single bound. After all, this early version of Superman got his powers from earth's lower gravity. Why shouldn't he be able to jump as high as the astronauts on the moon?
Then, in 1941, Paramount contracted the Fleischer Brothers, the studio behind the Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, for a Superman animated series. They adapted the comics faithfully, but with one major change. Jumping, as it turned out, was too hard to draw. Why not have Superman fly instead? Soon, the comics followed suit, and so did the live-action serials -- they even had Superman turn into a Fleischer-style cartoon character whenever he took off! This change to Superman's powers led to a bit of surrealism in DC Comics' famous copyright infringement lawsuit against Fawcett over Captain Marvel (who recently appeared on the big screen himself in Shazam!). The characters did, in fact, share many similarities in appearance: tights, boots, capes; and powers: super-strength, super-speed, and, of course, flight. But Captain Marvel flew over a year before Superman ever did!
The Phone Booth
Another of the most iconic Superman images is of Clark Kent stepping into a phone booth and coming out again in full Super-gear. But if you read through the comics, you'll find it almost never appears except in references to the scene as one everyone already knows. So where did it come from? It turns out we have the Fleischer Brothers to thank for this piece of Superman lore too. In The Mechanical Monsters, Clark ducks into a phone booth to call in a breaking story on a jewel robbery to The Daily Planet. Then, seeing one of the titular monsters flying overheard, he ducks back in again and flies away in costume.
Since then, Superman's phone booth has appeared on comic covers, video games, cookie jars, and wristwatches. It made a memorable appearance in 1978's Superman: The Movie with a cheeky acknowledgment that phone booths were out of date even then: looking around for a safe place to change, Clark briefly considers a payphone in a small enclosure before changing in a revolving door. Speaking of that Christopher Reeves classic...
It's Not an S
Superman: The Movie was a major event when it opened in 1978. Star Wars had proven there was a market for sci-fi spectaculars, and as a result, special effects had finally caught up with comic artists' imaginations: the ad campaign promised "You'll believe a man can fly." Unlike the cheapies of the forties and fifties, this was a movie with pedigree: a script cowritten by Godfather author Mario Puzo, direction from Richard Donner, who would go on to helm classics like Lethal Weapon and The Goonies, and stars like Gene Hackman (The French Connection, The Conversation) and Marlon Brando (The Godfather, On the Waterfront).
Brando appears in the prologue as Superman's father, Jor-El, in the last moments of his home planet Krypton. Jor-El had appeared in the comics for many years before this, but the movie gave him a major remodel. He'd originally worn a green tunic with a sunburst on his chest; Brando suggested the filmmakers replace the sunburst with an "S" inside a pentagon, just like Superman's. The comics would follow suit, coming up with various explanations of why an alien with no knowledge of English would wear an "S" for Superman. Brando suggested it was a family crest for the House of El, and other Kryptonian families had similar crests in the prologue sequences (with abstract Kryptonian glyphs instead of letters). In Mark Waid and Lenil Francis Yu's miniseries Superman:Birthright, we learn that, as Henry Cavill famously said in Man of Steel, "It's not an 'S.' Where I come from, it means hope."
Smallville first appeared as the home of young Clark Kent in 1949. For decades, DC refused to tie it down to any one location, letting it exist in a kind of everywhere-and-nowhere realm like Metropolis, or Batman's Gotham. This allowed readers to identify it with their own location, wherever they are, and writers to bring in all kinds of geographical features without having to worry about consistency or believability. When they adaptated Superman to the big screen, Donner and his crew decided to nail down Smallville's location. Thanks in part to The Wizard of Oz, Kansas seemed like a perfect image of rural Americana. After all, for Superman, like Dorothy, there's no place like home.
Christopher Reeve: The Face of Superman
After auditioning over 200 actors, Superman's producers finally settled on the then-unknown Christopher Reeve for the part. It was a gamble, but it paid off. To this day, for many fans, Reeve is the face of Superman. That includes comic artist John Byrne, who heavily modeled his Superman on Reeve when he retold his origin in 1986's Man of Steel miniseries; other artists, including Gary Frank, have cited the same influence. One of the reasons Reeves' performance is so celebrated was his ability to convince audiences that no one would recognize Superman and Clark Kent were the same person. He didn't just put on glasses -- he changed his whole posture, making Superman's superhuman musculature look like flab. It's a trick comic artists would adopt for decades to come, most notably Frank Quitely in All-Star Superman and Tim Sale in Superman: For All Seasons.
Kneel Before Zod!
Filmed back-to-back, Superman: The Movie and Superman II feature the iconic hero going up against two of his most iconic villains: Lex Luthor and General Zod. But while Luthor had been established as Superman's archenemy ever since the forties, Zod had only been a minor character until Superman II. He'd also been nearly unrecognizable compared to his big-screen counterpart: while the movie Zod was played by seventies sex symbol Terence Stamp in a goatee and a black suit, the comics Zod was a bald, clean-shaven, middle-aged man in a grey military uniform.
When John Byrne brought him back to the comics, he retained the old design but reflected the character's new importance by establishing him as the one villain so evil that he made Superman break his no-killing rule. After a strange detour where he was rewritten as the result of Soviet experiments, Zod returned again in comics cowritten by Superman director Richard Donner in 2007, for all purposes identical to Stamp's interpretation. When Michael Shannon brought General Zod to life on the big screen in Man of Steel, his performance was clearly more indebted to Stamp than the earlier comic book version.
This version also ended up being adapted back into the comics, with Zod wearing his Man of Steel armor when he appeared in 2013's special "Zod" issue of Action Comics as part of the Forever Evil crossover. Proving a good Superman idea can't be denied, no matter where it comes from.