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The Strange Story of the Superman Curse

Curses seem to be able to come in many forms, and some of the oddest are those that seem to revolve around the  productions of movies. I have covered this before here, but that is only the surface the the phenomenon, and it goes deep indeed. One of the most well-known such movie curses in pop culture orbits the DC Comics character of Superman, insidious and seemingly insatiable. It is apparently a curse that sucks in and entangles anyone who has anything to do with Superman, and which has come to be known as the “Superman Curse.”

The supposed “Superman Curse” can be traced all the way back to the character’s inception and creation by comic book artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. It has sometimes been noted that they are perhaps the first to suffer the wrath of the curse, as their character only started getting popular and making real money after they had sold the rights to the precursor company to DC Comics for a paltry 130 dollars. Siegel and Shuster would go on to try to claim some legal rights to ownership and royalties, but were unable to ever get anywhere with it. In the end they would barely ever see a dime from their iconic creation, and Siegel would at one point lament, “I can’t stand to look at a Superman comic book. It makes my physically ill. I love Superman, and yet to me he has become an alien thing.” In later years they would both fall on hard financial times, with Shuster also suffering from myriad medical problems, including waning eyesight that prevented him from drawing and making a living, and although they were finally granted a byline in Superman materials they were paid a pittance and lived in near poverty their entire lives. It leaves one asking whether this was part of a curse or just bad luck and a poor business decision, but if there is a curse it can probably be traced back here to the beginning.

Whether the “curse” started with Siegel and Shuster or not, it certainly didn’t end with them. In many of the cases, those supposedly affected were actors associated in some way to the series on television, animation, and film. In the 1940s Superman made his first appearance on television in the form of a series of two low budget black and white serials starring actor Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel. Far from a career boom for him, the role conversely destroyed it. When the series ended Alyn found himself nearly jobless, unable to snag any roles other than bit parts and commercial voice overs, simply because of the fact that he was so associated with Superman and irredeemably typecast, and no one really even knew his name because as an unknown actor his name hadn’t even been in the credits on the serials he had appeared in. In later years his mind would wither away due to the onslaught of Alzheimer’s disease, and he would die in 1999 in obscurity, never having landed another famous role and claiming later in his life that Superman had ruined his life.

The curse then supposedly reared its head again when the first Superman animated series aired from 1941–1943, with the character voiced by Bud Collyer. While nothing bad happened to him at the time, and indeed he went on to become rather successful as the host of the game show To Tell the Truth, things took a turn for the worse later in his life. In 1966 a new Superman animated series titled The New Adventures of Superman was launched and Collyer was asked to reprise his iconic role, which he did to much fanfare. Just a few years after taking this gig, he would fall suddenly ill with a severe and unexpected circulatory ailment, which made quick work of him to kill him at the age of 61.

While this is all certainly spooky in a sense, it still wasn’t really considered a curse yet, and wouldn’t really gain that particular distinction and launch itself into the public consciousness until actor George Reeves took up the red cape for the 1951 film Superman and the Mole Men, as well as for a Superman TV series that ran from 1952 to 1958. Although he had had a long film career before his role as the Man of Steel, his career would take a nose dive after his appearance in the film and series, as he was typecast, similarly to Kirk Alyn. He would find fewer and fewer roles that did not have to do with Superman, and even when he did appear in films people could just not separate him from the iconic character he had played. He would spiral into a deep depression, and was the first to voice the idea that he had been literally cursed by the Superman role, and on June 16, 1959, just a day before his own wedding he was found dead in his home by apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound while his girlfriend and friends had a party downstairs. Although officially considered a suicide, considering Reeves’ fingerprints were not found on the gun it has long generated rumors and conspiracy theories that foul play was involved.

George Reeves as Superman

It was Reeves’ death and his ominous mention of curses in the days before that would truly bring the idea of a “Superman Curse” to life, and this was when the public began speculating that there might be something to it all. This would only be bolstered by the next high profile victim of the “curse.” Perhaps the highest profile victim of the alleged curse is the man who most people probably see as the quintessential Superman to which all others are compared, actor Christopher Reeve. Appearing in Superman: The Movie (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983), and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), Reeve would truly embody the popular superhero until his image was inextricably linked to Superman, and this might be why he would draw the most attention to the malicious curse.

There was of course the typical typecasting involved when it comes to Reeve, and indeed he found little memorable work outside of the role that had made him famous. He was mostly relegated to bit roles or those that had something to do with Superman, but he managed to keep his career afloat and this would be the least of his worries as the curse began its dark work. On the side Reeve was an avid horseback riding enthusiast, often participating in equestrian events, but on May 27, 1995 one of these events would go tragically wrong when the actor was thrown from his horse to break his neck and leave him paralyzed from the neck down. Oddly, the grievous injury was blamed on witness accounts that his hands had rather freakishly gotten hopelessly tangled in the reigns, forcing his head to take the brunt of the impact. Reeve would never walk again, and he became a major advocate of treatment and support of those suffering paralysis, yet his life was tragically cut short at the age of 52 when he died on October 10, 2004 from heart and lung complications related to an adverse reaction to medication he was taking for his condition. Rather eerily, his wife Dana Reeve would develop lung cancer shortly after this and die 2 years later at the age of 44.

Christopher Reeve

Rather ominously, it seems that the supposed curse seemed to really have targeted the 1978 Superman movie, as Reeve was not the only alleged victim of the doomed production by a long shot, with various actors appearing in the movie experiencing death and misfortune during and after production. Margot Kidder, who played Superman’s love interest Lois Lane, famously had all manner of woes in her life following Superman. Her career would take a deep plummet, her bipolar disorder became worse, and a car accident in 1990 left her partially paralyzed and unable to find work. She turned to drugs and alcohol, and in 1996 had a major mental meltdown, vanishing for several days only to turn up in a delusional state, chopping her hair off and ranting about how her husband was out to kill her. Kidder’s life would further unravel and spin out of control until her death on May 13, 2018 of an alcohol and drug overdose.

Also in the 1978 film and possibly cursed was famed actor Marlon Brando, who played Superman’s father Jor-El. After the film Brando’s life went through some tumultuous periods. His son shot and his half-sister’s boyfriend and was sent to prison in 1990, his daughter committed suicide in 1995, and Brando himself became a notorious unruly recluse considered nearly impossible to work with. The once unstoppable actor saw his star fade right up until his death in 2004, eerily just 3 months before Christopher Reeve would die. Even the actor who played baby Superman in the 1978 film is said to have suffered from the curse, when actor Lee Quigley, who appeared as the baby, died in 1991 at the age of 14 after overdosing on inhaling harmful gas aerosols that he had done to take the edge off the bullying he had received for his sole film role. The curse would spread out to the sequels of 1978’s Superman as well. Comedian Richard Pryor appeared in Superman III in 1983 and went on to develop serious drug abuse problems, get multiple sclerosis, and die on December 10, 2005 at the age of 65.

Although the most famous series of Superman films to have incurred the most of the curse’s wrath, it is certainly not the end of such dark rumors. Production on the DVD for Bryan Singer’s 2006 film Superman Returns was supposedly plagued by all manner of freak accidents, mishaps, and bad luck, including on-set injuries and even a mugging, and Kate Bosworth, who played Lois Lane in the film, famously blamed the Superman Curse on her romantic split with actor Orlando Bloom and other personal woes. In later years there was also the TV show Smallville, which featured actress Allison Mack, who played Chloe Sullivan and who was arrested in 2018 for sex trafficking and forced human labor.

It is hard to say whether all of this is attributable to any sort of supernatural curse. Movie productions employ so many people and there are bound to be deaths, misfortune, and accidents orbiting them from time to time, and with so many involved there is no greater rate of mishaps than there really would be with a random sampling of people. Add in talk of a curse and suddenly anything bad that happens can be blamed on it, so perhaps this is just reading into things a little too much and weaving an urban legend around nothing more than bad luck. There have certainly been cast members who don’t believe in any “Superman Curse” at all, with even one of the alleged victims Margot Kidder long denouncing the idea that there was such a curse behind her strife. Actor Henry Clavill, who has most recently portrayed Superman in Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and Justice League (2017), has said of the infamous curse:

Well, I mean, I honestly don’t believe there’s a curse. I think there’s been some bad luck in the past, especially when it comes to horses, and I don’t mean that as a joke. My fiancée is an international show jumper and I know all the risk attached to that. You can fall off 1,000 times and be fired through fences and then the one time you’re home out in the yard, all it takes is something to startle the horse and you’re off and you fall the wrong way. There’s bad luck, but I don’t think it’s any curse.

Of course there is likely a rational explanation for this all. After all, one can tie any unfortunate incident to a production and then go looking for other incidents to add to the fire if one were so inclined. Yet the Superman Curse remains special because it has become so well-known and embroiled with ominous happenings. Whether is is just our minds grasping at straws or something truly supernatural in nature, it certainly puts a different spin on any viewing of a Superman movie.