This week we got our very first glimpse at actor Tyler Hoechlin taking up the iconic costume of TV's version of the Man of Steel, Superman. Hoechlin will be appearing as the original superhero in the first two episodes of the forthcoming second season of Supergirl, which has moved from its original home on CBS to a new one alongside the other DC Comics-based TV shows on the CW.
Whether you love or hate the idea of Kara Zor-El’s more well-known cousin appearing alongside her on the show, this represents a fundamental shift in the relationship of DC Comics characters when it comes to their use simultaneously on the big and small screens. You don’t have to think too far back to remember a time when Warner Bros. was so skiddish about TV stepping on the toes of the movies that they even instituted a famous “embargo” of famous Batman characters from appearing on animated shows.
Yep. Because a movie has more priority, that meant that Batman couldn’t square off against the likes of the Joker in a later episode of Justice League Unlimited. So, how has this relationship changed? Let’s take a look.
DC on live-action TV overlapping with major movies
While more TV series based on DC characters have been created in animation over the years, the live-action iterations are generally more notable due to their more tangible depictions of DC characters. There are exceptions, of course – it’s probably pretty fair to say that Batman: The Animated Series has left a more indelible mark on the characters’ legacies than the 1980s Superboy show, for instance – but overall, whenever a live-action TV effort kicks into production, everybody takes notice.
While both George Reeves’ Superman of the 1950s and Adam West’s Batman of the '60s were featured in motion pictures, those movies were extensions of what were, or what would become, the larger efforts on television. 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men was created before production began on the Adventures of Superman TV series, and served as a precursor to that show. The 1966 Batman film, on the other hand, was released during the hiatus between the first and second seasons of the TV show.
After Batman went off the air and shows based on Shazam! And Wonder Woman finished their respective runs by 1979, the baton was passed to feature films, as Christopher Reeve played Superman between 1978-1987 in four major movies. It wasn’t until 1988 that the next DC Comics TV show would hit the small screen in the form of Superboy, which would stay on the air through the release of both Tim Burton Batman films in 1989 and 1992, respectively. Also appearing briefly in live-action TV during that time was the original TV effort focusing on The Flash, starring John Wesley Shipp and airing for one season on CBS between 1990-91.
While Batman continued tearing up the big screen through the 1990s, Superman was nowhere to be found in movie theaters. This eventually led to the Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher-starring Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman to premiere in 1993, and this was a show that had a few references to Superman’s darker brother-in-arms. For instance, in the first episode of season 3, Lois talks a little too loudly about her recent discovery of Clark’s secret identity.
This caused Clark to respond, “A little louder, I don’t think they heard you in Gotham City!” This nearly coincided with two Superman references made in the Batman films directed by Joel Schumacher, where Bruce mentions to Dick in Batman Forever that the circus his family was a part of must have been “halfway to Metropolis,” and at the opening of Batman & Robin when Batman sarcastically retorts Robin’s desire for a car by saying, “This is why Superman works alone.”
All of these references were well before there were any concerted crossover efforts, or major motion pictures made that took further advantage of the characters’ newer presence in multimedia. Smallville, premiering in 2001, would be the first time that a major motion picture and a TV show featuring the same DC Comics character would overlap, all while Warner Bros. was trying to get both Batman and Superman back off the ground as new and refreshed cinematic franchises.
Smallville: The Place of Superman Returns and Bruce Wayne
Originally envisioned as a show featuring a pre-Batman Bruce Wayne, show developers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar instead went with a show depicting a teenaged Clark Kent (played by model-turned-actor Tom Welling) coming to terms with the things that make him different while growing up under the guiding hands of Jonathan and Martha Kent (played by John Schneider and Annette O'Toole, respectively). When Smallville went on the air in the fall of 2001, it was in the midst of a lot of concerted efforts to revive both the Superman and Batman film franchises, which had been dormant for either years (in Batman’s case) or over a decade (in the Man of Steel’s case).
As the first major DC Comics TV show that rose during the age of the internet, it didn’t take long for fans to wonder if other DC Comics characters would show up in the Kent Farm’s fields at some point or another. Popularity obviously dictated a major desire on the part of fans to see some kind of interaction between Clark and Bruce Wayne, but according to the showrunners, this wasn’t possible because WB told them “no” at virtually every turn. Even traditional Superman characters were disallowed for use on the show for a while, most notably in the case of Lois Lane.
It wasn’t until the show’s fourth season that they were permitted to use her at all, and only then on a limited basis. This restriction was later loosened and Lois became a recurring character played by actress Erica Durance.
As WB was beginning development of the movie that would become Batman Begins, the studio issued the now infamous “Bat Embargo.” That dictated to other producers, including those of animated programs, that they could use Batman, but only a minimal amount of his supporting characters. When it became clear that Superman Returns would be the next DC Comics-based motion picture, it presented a few interesting notions to Smallville. In an undeveloped previous production, directors had approached series star Tom Welling to potentially reprise the role of the adult Clark Kent in a film, but ultimately, Bryan Singer went in a different direction after he cast Brandon Routh.
While Superman Returns and Smallville were relatively autonomous from each other, they did inform each other in at least one way: the set of the Daily Planet, Lois and Clark’s future employer. As the Planet became a regular location in later seasons of the show, the show’s production designers collaborated minimally with Superman Returns production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas on the look of the Planet for the show to evoke the deco design that was used in the film.
Building a Small Screen Universe
Ultimately, Smallville included a lot of other DC characters (like Green Arrow, Cyborg, Aquaman, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and Booster Gold), made allusions to Gotham City, and even adapted stories from the comics in their own way, which would illustrate for both audiences and the CW network the kind of potential the DC Universe could have on television. Now, with several DC shows on the network from a wide variety of characters and worlds of the DC Universe, what WB would’ve once never been okay with – Superman in full costume played by a different actor in both film and on television – they now seem to understand that audiences are sophisticated enough to differentiate between the DCU of the movies, and the DCU of TV.
We’ll just have to wait and see for ourselves this fall just how Tyler Hoechlin matches up to big-screen counterpart Henry Cavill when he takes flight as Superman in the upcoming second season premiere of Supergirl.
Chris Clow is a gamer, a comic book expert and former retailer, as well as a freelance contributor to The Huffington Post and Batman-On-Film.com, as well as host of the Comics on Consoles podcast. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.