One needs only look at the torrents of internet outrage that begin whenever a controversial casting announcement about an upcoming superhero film is made to understand the difficulties of playing such an iconic character. Unlike most roles, comic book roles come with a lot of baggage and expectations that can make a great performance seem only passable and a passable one seem downright awful.
Perhaps no role is more iconic than that of Superman, the caped crusader fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. With another DC franchise revolving around Superman now officially up and running, it’s time to look back at the brave men who have donned the Superman cape, or the Clark Kent glasses, and see which performances hold up best.
1. Worst: Henry Cavill
British actor Henry Cavill can hardly be blamed for the shortcomings of the two Superman films he’s starred in so far, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, but the same downcast, sullen atmosphere that characterizes the rest of the films unfortunately seeps into his disappointing performance as the iconic hero. Cavill has proven himself capable of a goofy, likable perfromance in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but he seems drained of all charisma in his role as an angsty, dark superhero who doesn’t much seem to care for anyone around him. He hasn’t had much time to do anything with his spectacled alter ego, but either way, it’s a shame to see a Superman so robbed of his usual decency and charisma.
2. Best: George Reeves
George Reeves defined Superman for a generation in the 1950s as the star of the popular Adventures of Superman. Today, Reeves’s performance as Superman might seem pretty plain, in part because this was one of the first portrayals of Superman onscreen and came to shape all future incarnations of the hero. Reeves disliked the role, especially since it led to a particularly bad case of typecasting, but his paternal sense of authority mixed with an easygoing demeanor make him an easy match for the comic book hero. Even his Clark Kent was interesting — a competent, more confident version of the mild altar ego we’re now used to.
3. Worst: Brandon Routh
Bryan Singer’s failed reboot of the stalled Superman franchise Superman Returns hit theaters in 2006 featuring the fresh young face of Brandon Routh donning the cape and tights for what was essentially supposed to be a continuation of the Christopher Reeve Superman. Routh has the right look for the role, but his performance didn’t amount to much but a disappointing imitation of Reeve that was lost in this mess of a film. While the script took some unfortunate liberties with the character, Routh himself played it safe, resulting in a forgettable Superman who just doesn’t have the authority necessary to make the characters as heroic as the comics.
4. Best: Tom Welling
Tom Welling turned in more hours as Superman than any other actor on this list, though the series he starred in for 10 seasons and 218 episodes generally went out of its way to separate Clark Kent from the iconic hero he would someday become. Welling possesses the chiseled jaw and intense gaze necessary for Superman, but he used them in subtle ways throughout the run of Smallville to visually show the ways in which Clark was maturing into the selfless hero he will one day become. Giving the character internal conflict without compromising his basic morality, Welling managed to make Clark Kent interesting for 10 years, an impressive feat when some actors can’t even do it for one two-hour film.
5. Worst: Dean Cain
Few Superman portrayals are outright bad, so choosing the worst version of the caped crusader comes down to simply singling out the least good. Dean Cain, the star of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, was hardly a bad Superman, but he could never make the hero, once suited up, of any interest. Cain’s Superman was a smiling face and not much else, while the true highlight of his performance was his awkward earnestness as Clark Kent. The show relied on that side of the performance, as well as his formidable chemistry with co-star Teri Hatcher, making Superman a secondary presence in his own series.
6. Best: Christopher Reeve
There will probably never be a better Superman than Christopher Reeve, whose unfortunately short career was defined by his starring role in Richard Donner’s Superman franchise. Beyond possessing the perfect look for the hero, Reeve can’t help but exude a likability that makes the audience and citizens of Metropolis alike immediately on the side of this intergalactic protector. He’s calm and wise with an unwavering moral compass, but he still feels recognizably human when he allowed his anger and passion to shine through his still, sculpted exterior. His Clark Kent was hapless but never cartoonish, a nerdier complement to the good-hearted hero that still defines our perception of DC’s greatest hero.
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