There’s a new Superman in town, with British actor Henry Cavill stepping into the blue and red in the week’s “Man of Steel.” Will he measure up to fanboy expectations? If the checkered history of move and TV Supermans (Supermen? Supers-Man”) is any indication, there may be some problems. Let’s go to the scorecard:
KIRK ALYN—“Superman” (1948), “Atom Man vs. Superman” (1950)
The first on-screen Superman, Alyn suffered the indignity of being turned into a cartoon anytime Supes had to fly, as the proposed effects were deemed too crappy, even for the 40s. Facing off against baddies like The Spider Lady, Alyn had more than a little Mike Hammer about him, roughing up bad guys to get information with a decidedly un-Superman-y sneer on his kisser. On the plus side, he had a great mop of curly hair that couldn’t wait to form a spit curl.
GEORGE REEVES— TV series “The Adventures Of Superman” (1952-1958)
For generations of kids reared on reruns, Reeves was the only live action Superman we had—it’s hard to believe we all didn’t give up on him and just go outside and play baseball or something. Reeves’ portrayal gave lie to the idea that Superman is merely the smilingly stolid Big Blue Boy Scout. Like your dad’s golf buddy over to help paint the garage, Reeves plodded through some of the most turgid superhero adventures of all time, planting his hands on his hips while lackeys’ bullets pinged off his meaty chest until he socked their fedoras off. And while he often had the demeanor of a slightly bored flank steak, Reeves wasn’t done any favors by the scripts, which pitted the most powerful being on the planet against cheap thugs with an insatiable “tie up Jimmy Olsen” fetish.
CHRISTOPHER REEVE — “Superman” (1978) and three increasingly regrettable sequels.
Even as these films succumbed to the terrible ideas from which even the original was not free (Supes reversing time by spinning Earth backward? Really?), Reeves imbued the character with a beguiling earnestness—without losing sight of Superman’s essential otherness. An alien of unimaginable power, Superman could rule the Earth. The fact that he does not, indeed that he instead puts himself at humanity’s service, marks him as something almost angelic, and Reeve conveys that. Like an angel, he’s benevolent but not one of us, and Reeves’ Superman is sweet, playful, and, in those moments when there’s real work to be done, possessed of something like grace, and mystery. Plus, after he sees Lois seemingly killed in that earthquake, he delivers the greatest “NOOOO!!!!” in screen history.
DEAN CAIN —“Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman” (1993-1997)
When people think “Superman,” they clearly want a Lois Lane/Clark Kent soap opera punctuated with very occasional, budget-friendly action, right? Anyone? This misbegotten series focused more on Cain and Terri Hatcher’s Lane making goo-goo eyes at each other, a silly idea not helped by the fact that Cain, blandly handsome and smirky, has zero gravitas as either Clark Kent or Superman, no matter how many times he takes his shirt off.
BRANDON ROUTH — “Superman Returns” (2006)
Deciding to reboot the Superman film franchise with talented nerd Bryan Singer (“X-Men”) at the helm? Great! Plugging Superman into a muddled movie where he spends an eternity moping over Lois Lane’s impending marriage to someone else? Um… As the would-be successor to Christopher Reeve’s iconic portrayal, unknown Brandon Routh struggles manfully against the script, and the fact that he comes across like Reeve’s pleasant younger brother, but he, and the movie, just cannot escape their predecessor’s shadow.
TOM WELLING — “Smallville” (2001-2011)
Despite the fact that stretching young Clark Kent’s pre-heroic days out for ten years similarly stretched dramatic credibility, a series about how Superman becomes Superman isn’t a terrible idea. Too bad that the creators plucked such a nonentity from understandable obscurity to carry the load. Former male model Welling never shed Clark Kent’s (perhaps initially understandable) blankness as the series went on, his proto-superhero fading into the background as much as a guy able to punch holes in a mountain can.
HENRY CAVILL —“The Man Of Steel” (2013)<
And now there’s a new guy. Will Cavill supplant Reeve as the quintessential screen Superman? He’s got the right look—Reeve handsome but not Cain/Welling blank. The trailers promise action aplenty, but also hint at a “Dark Knight” broody grimness that may fit Superman as poorly as the unnecessarily armored suit he’s crammed into. Can Cavill, finally, embody the heroic contradictions that make up the Man Of Steel? I hope so.
The world needs a Superman.
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.