Who played the best Superman?: Ranking the Supermen
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
What's the superlative of Superman?
On June 14, 2013, audiences around the world will get to see if the wait for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was worth it. While many fans seem torn about whether or not the film holds any promise (it has to be better than Superman Returns), actor Henry Cavill seems to at least look the part. But there’s more to playing The Last Son of Krypton than just appearances, and not every actor gets it right. There are the subtle nuances that go with selling the character, not only as Superman himself, but also as his alter ego, reporter Clark Kent. In preparation for the upcoming film, I want to take a look at the actors who have played this iconic character over the years, and see how well each one has done in the role. For ease, we’ll stick with just the live-action versions.
Kirk Alyn – Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
Alyn was cast as Superman for the first of Columbia Pictures’ serials (for the young kids, think a television program, but shown at the movie theatre), and he certainly looked like the comic hero come to life. In fact, he was credited as Superman in the credits (but in promotional posters, as Kirk Alyn). He also knew he had to sell the character, and played both Supes and Kent as two very different people, from speech patterns, pitch of voice and the manner in which he held himself. He did well in making Clark Kent look like the mild-mannered reporter, and giving Superman the heroic appearance he deserved. The serials are well done, although the special effects team couldn’t convincingly make Superman fly, so an animated hero was used in flying sequences. Alyn was also one of the first to pull double duty on comic book films, as he also went on to portray Blackhawk in the serial Blackhawk, based on the DC Comics title about a squadron in World War II (the first was Tom Tyler, who played Captain Marvel and The Phantom in Republic’s serials).
George Reeves – Adventures of Superman (1952-8)
Alyn was offered the part, but turned it down for fear of being typecast. Iowa native and boxer-turned-actor George Reeves portrayed the Man of Steel in the first television series based on the comic book. Reeves initially didn’t want the role, seeing television as insignificant, but eventually donned the cape and tights, and eventually enjoyed the role and stuck up for his co-workers, even though the pay was terrible and he had trouble getting other work.
Reeves didn’t differentiate too much between his portrayal of Superman and Clark Kent, which sort of hurt his ability to sell the two characters as individuals. However, we did at least get to see this Superman fly, and for that, we are glad. Though not quite as effectual as Alyn was in the role, he was, for millions of children, Superman.
Christopher Reeve – The Superman films (1978-1987)
Reeve was incredible in the role, portraying Clark as a wimpy, fainting small town everyman, every bit mild-mannered. But then he would change that completely, and with such simple effects as deepening his voice, standing straight, and showing some backbone (as well as parting his hair on the other side), he became Superman. He was also the first actor to honestly convey the idea that this man isn’t human, but an alien who, while having grown up on Earth, isn’t truly one of us. While the film series became a little sillier with every entry, Reeve always played the role as though it were Hamlet or King Richard, selling his lines and never seeming condescending of the material. He had an honest respect for the property, and could have gone on longer with it had it not been for shoddy scripts and a back injury in 1995 that left him paralyzed. Reeve made the role his own, and became Superman for a whole new generation.
Dean Cain – Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-7)
When an injury ended his professional football career before it even began, Cain took to acting, getting small parts before landing the role of Superman. While he had the physique to pull off the role, he never quite managed to separate Superman from Clark, almost seeming awkward when trying to play the bumbling reporter, and adding too much bravado to the character. As Superman he was passable, but he didn’t seem to contain the same passion for the role as Reeve had. He should be applauded for not trying to duplicate anyone else’s portrayal, but he might have wanted to take some notes on how to breathe life into the character.
Brandon Routh – Superman Returns (2006)
Another Iowa native, and a comic book fan, Brandon Routh was given the task of bringing the character to life on the big screen. Director Bryan Singer left his popular X-Men franchise in the less-than-capable hands of Brett Ratner to make his love letter to the Superman films of the seventies and eighties, and it was a giant misstep. Ignoring the third and fourth installments of the original film series (oh, if only it were possible), Superman Returns begins with Kal-El returning to Earth after journeying to find remnants of Krypton, leaving directly after the events of Superman II. Even though the script was terrible – turning Superman into a stalker and obsessive ex-boyfriend sort – Routh gave a very good performance, hampered only by the fact that he seemed to be trying too hard to copy Reeve’s excellent turn in the role. The magic of that is that he seems to understand how to separate Clark and Superman, and make them two separate entities, even though they’re the same guy. Had the film been different, I think Routh could have gone on and made a franchise out of the film, instead of being rebooted a few years later.
Tom Welling – Smallville (2001-11)
While I didn’t add the program Superboy to the list, Smallville should be added because Welling portrayed a young, inexperienced Superman (and after John Byrne’s rebooting of the comic title in the eighties, Superboy didn’t exist in this universe – just go Google the DC Crisis storylines, it’s too lengthy to go into here). While many liberties were taken with the property, the heart of the comics is here, with young Clark Kent learning how to use his abilities to help those who need it. The program took many a cue from Jeph Loeb’s wonderful graphic novel Superman for All Seasons (in fact, Loeb would eventually become an advisor for the show, until his son’s illness forced him to leave), portraying a Superman for a modern time. Gone was the iconic hero standing with his hands on his hips, ready to face evil in all its incarnations. Instead, Welling gave a wonderful performance as a young man not only trying to discover who he really is, but learning to use those abilities for good, and to use the moral compass provided by his human family, even when others would exploit his power for their own greedy purposes. Welling also learns to separate the two characters, becoming the hero when in costume, and holding himself differently when he’s just Martha Kent’s little boy.
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