DC Comics’ Superman goes beyond life in Hollywood. The Man of Steel is the most popular and culturally significant comic book character that ever existed. He is the embodiment of what every kid and adult want: the ability to fly, good looks, invincibility, and to be able to save the world from harm. His trademark ‘S’ symbol is one of the most recognizable in pop culture and is still wickedly popular over eight decades later. Even though I’m more of a Batman fanatic, I have to tip my hat to the guy.
The backstory here is Superman, an alien named Kal-El from the planet Krypton, crash lands onto earth after the destruction of his home. He ends up in the fictional, suburban town of Smalltown, Kansas and adopted by Martha and Jonathan Kent who subsequently name him Clark. Superman possesses many supernatural capabilities including sonic speed and super strength and is harmed by Kryptonite, the material that encompassed his native planet. In his adult years, Kent moves from Smallville to Metropolis and lands a job as a reporter at the city’s newspaper, the Daily Planet and tries to woo fellow reporter, the beautiful, Lois Lane. While trying to hide his supernatural abilities from the rest of the world, he is stalked by an onslaught of different villains, the most famous being Lex Luthor, a cutthroat industrialist. With the aid of a phone booth, Kent changes into his familiar threads: red boots, blue body suit, and red cape to combat them.
Shades of his Justice League companion, Batman, the popularity of the character launched into the world of cinema and television before long and the world has been blessed with several actors trying their best to tie the character down just right. Which ones are still remembered and who’s better left forgotten? Why, let’s take a look…
Wait, before I do, I just want to take a second to say that I will not be discussing Nicolas Cage’s brief time as Superman in the aborted, Superman Lives. Sorry, guys.
A moment of silence now for Mr. Cage.
Moving on now:
George Reeves (1951-1958)
The first memorable portrayal of the Man of Steel occurred as early as the 1950s in the form of popular television series, Adventures of Superman. Actor George Reeves starred in many low budget productions prior to the show and while he found it difficult to gain more significant roles, his luck soon changed. He was cast as the hero in the 1951 film, Superman and the Mole Men, which was used to spark interest in the character and the subsequent television program. The series was pretty popular with viewers and critics praising Reeves for his performances in every installment. Soon, Reeves was the face of the American Hero being a role model for children and an action hero to millions of others. Eventually, nobody saw him as anything other than Superman so he later became typecast, even going as far as appearing in costume in other television shows such as I Love Lucy. This made it difficult for him to find work after the series ended in 1958.
Sadly, Reeves was found dead in 1959 under controversial circumstances as it’s not known whether his death was a murder or suicide. The case involving his passing was chronicled in the 2006 film, Hollywoodland, with Ben Affleck assuming the role of Reeves. Yes, in a way, you can say that Affleck is the first actor in history to play both Superman and Batman in film.
Christopher Reeve (1978-1987)
When people think of Superman, Christopher Reeve is usually the first person to come to mind. Reeve’s role as the legendary character was immortalized in the first big budget Hollywood interpretation of its history, Superman. The motion picture dropped in 1978 with Reeve donning the red cape and symbolic front hair curl that has become synonymous with our hero. As Clark Kent, he is tall, handsome, and completely unassuming. As Superman, he lights up screen with his imposing demeanor and embodiment of a true comic book hero. The film showcased some pretty groundbreaking effects at the time which pushed the curiosity of audiences. Director, Richard Donner (The Goonies, Lethal Weapon) shot the first movie and most of the sequel, Superman II, before he was asked to leave the project over disagreements with the producers. A cut of his version of the second film was eventually released for purchase. The series would go downhill after this with poor Reeve having to act opposite an evil Richard Pryor in Superman III. Nothing against Pryor, he’s one of the greatest comedians ever, but he pretty much just played himself in the world of Metropolis.
Reeves returned for one more film, 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. RIP, Chris!
Dean Cain (1993-1997)
Now, as Batman was being reinvented in the late 80s and early 90s, studios looked to do the same for Superman but instead of releasing another film with a whole new cast, it was decided to create another television series. Premiering in 1993, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was broadcast on the ABC network and starred Dean Cain as the main protagonist. In an interesting tidbit, Cain is actually the first Asian-American Clark Kent as he’s part Japanese. He had the look down and his impeccable charm was too hard not to like. The show featured a lot of characters from the original comic books and deeply explored the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane (played by Teri Hatcher) with a bigger emphasis on drama. It ran for four seasons ending its run in 1997. As Supes, Cain serviced himself quite well in a more modern atmosphere with sometimes laughably dated effects, trying to save the world from Lex Luthor.
Tom Welling (2001-2011)
Again, with no new Superman film on the horizon, another live-action series was created to cash in on the character’s popularity but without rehashing any old ideas and storylines that we’ve seen on-screen before. The WB began airing Smallville in 2001 and after a merger with UPN, the series carried over to the CW in 2006 for the remainder of its run. In total, 10 seasons were produced and is considered one of the most popular shows in the CW’s history. Here, we concentrate on Clark Kent’s life as a teenager in the his home of Smallville. As the series progressed, we see Kent become an adult and procure his job at the Daily Planet in his formative years before the earth’s savior. With the exception of the final scene in the show’s finale, Kent never appears wearing the trademark Superman threads which was a nice touch and a theme I actually really liked. It was enjoyable seeing a more realistic and mortal side to him along with the trials and tribulations with his personal relationships and being introduced to characters in the Superman universe that were never seen portrayed on TV or film before. I also really respected them bringing in a different love interest of the character from the comic books in Lana Lang and actually building storylines around her instead of dumping just Lois Lane out there. Don’t get me wrong, he still has his powers and we see plenty of bone-jarring action but more emphasis is given to the man that is Clark Kent which had never really been explored in this of sort of depth before. Hell, even in his handicapped state, Christopher Reeve was able to make a few guest appearances on the show as he was pleased to see what the character he helped evolve for prior generations had become. As for Tom Welling, while he can be a little too wooden and annoying at times, he can also be pretty good. He kicks plenty of ass while being sympathetic and reserved. I mean, he played the character for 10 years so he must have been doing something right.
Brandon Routh (2006)
Finally, after a near two decade absence from the big screen, another Superman film was finally announced amidst the success of the films based on Spider-Man and X-Men. Instead of a typical reboot, Superman Returns has Supes returning to earth after an extended hiatus. Wanting to explore something new, Bryan Singer actually abandoned directing X-Men: The Last Stand in order to shoot this film and after his success with the first two X-Men films, fans saw this a step in the right direction. This time, Brandon Routh, a virtual unknown at the time and embarrassingly was probably best known at this point for his appearances in MTV’s sexual anthology series, Undressed, was cast as Clark Kent but unfortunately, he wasn’t very good. Sure, he shared a striking resemblance to Christopher Reeve but he had zero personality to back it up. His atrocious acting certainly didn’t help either. Routh is just too one-note to really show the audience anything substantial with the character. Critics and fans agreed and the movie received poor reviews and ultimately performed below studio expectations. Talk of a sequel quickly disappeared along with Routh’s career. The one thing people praise about the film is Kevin Spacey’s over-the-top performance as Lex Luthor which made Superman Returns watchable for me.
Henry Cavill (2013-Present)
After studios were still bitter about Superman Returns not lighting the world on fire like Batman had with his reboot, they were still determined to rake in money from the character. Christopher Nolan, who directed the Dark Knight trilogy, decided to help elevate the DC hero just like he did with Batman. Studios called for a reboot of the franchise and requested a darker Superman film in tune to the Batman Begins as Nolan produced and The Dark Knight screenwriter, David S. Goyer penned the film’s screenplay. Taking another page out of Nolan’s famed trilogy, Superman’s origins were explained in the film titled Man of Steel which flew into theaters nationwide in 2013 to very mixed reviews. It wasn’t a bad film by any means but while the dimmer feel compliments Batman well, it doesn’t do the same justice for Superman. I have plenty to complain about the film such as its unnecessary gloominess, Zack Snyder’s direction, and the endless, blatant product placement but one thing I will not take away from it is its acting which was actually pretty good. Henry Cavill, the first British man to portray Superman, put on a tremendous portrayal as Clark Kent and actually showed the edge that the character was lacking in the previous film. From his time as a drifter to a laborer to his first instance of showing off his powers, Cavill is pretty damn convincing as the larger than life phenomenon.
Who do you think is the best Superman? Will Henry Cavill knock it out of the park in future Superman flicks? His time in cinema is far from over so keep your eyes peeled for footage from 2016’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.