“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman! Yes, Superman, a strange visitior from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great, metropolitan newspaper, fights a neverending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!”
Even if you’re not a comic book fan, you’ve heard of Superman, also known as the Man of Steel, the Man from Krypton, or the Man of Tomorrow. Many people love Superman, even though they may know little about him. The character is simply iconic.
Superman was the creation of Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster in 1938. He quickly became popular in print, thus leading to appearances on radio specials. With the advent of television, a Superman series became a reality.
Superman has appeared on screen many times, on both television and in films. With so many appearances, it’s inevitable that the actors protraying him will be compared with each other. The question is who is the best Superman? Who gave us the best portrayal of the Man of Steel?
First, I must state my criteria for choosing these candidates. The actors must have played both Superman and his secret identity Clark Kent. Second the actors must have played Superman, not Superboy, or Supergirl, or Krypto the Superdog. This excludes both the Superboy television series and Tom Welling from Smallville, despite the excellent performance. Nevertheless, this leaves us with four very capable candidates.
If you’re classically minded, this is probably your favorite Superman. In the early 50’s, Kellogg’s sponsored this incarnation of the comic classic, with George Reeves as the titular character. It aired in black-and-white originally, then became colorized during its run.
As for characterization, Reeves does well. I won’t say he’s excellent. Sorry, but there’s something I find a bit bland about his performance. I think I tend to overlook it, because this is a classic series, and this is, for all intents and purposes, the FIRST Superman on screen. But I can’t shake that there’s something missing from his performance.
But to his credit, he played Clark Kent well. The visual effects were very good for the time, while outdated by our modern standards. As Superman, Reeves is decent. The biggest complaint I have is that he looks a bit old to be playing the part. Superman has always been a young thirty-something. Reeves looks like he’s in his mid-40’s. Maybe it’s the black-and-white I’m seeing, but he just looks older than he needs to be.
All in all, not a bad Superman. He’s classic, but I wouldn’t say the best.
Now, that’s what I’m talking about. What can you really say about this man? In 1978, Director Richard Donner gave us his masterpiece film, simply entitled Superman. The film used about every visual trick available, and it has become a modern classic.
Casting for this film was tremendous. Actors like Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando gave the film a lot of marquee value, but in the titular role was an unknown. Searching for a Superman at one point became so desperate that a dentist was screened. Finally, Christopher Reeve walked on the set, an unlikely candidate, put on the costume, and shot a scene with Lois Lane. From the moment he said, “Good evening, Miss Lane,” producers and the director were convinced.
At first, the production team instructed Reeve to wear a muscle suit, to give the Superman character the desired physique. Reeve refused, instead taking up a rigorous workout regimin. The result payed off for both Reese and the film.
As an actor, Reeve plays the part so well. Anyone can bumble around as Clark Kent, but Reeve makes it seem convincing. The scene where he gets stuck in a revolving door will have you chuckling. But as Superman, well, he does it again. I don’t know how he pulled it off, but Reeve actually looks like two different characters. Many have complained over the years that Clark Kent is simply Superman with glasses. Doesn’t anyone recognize him? Well, the way Reeve does it, when he takes off those glasses and straightens up, there is a notable difference.
A hand well-played, indeed. And let’s not forget the conclusion of 1978’s Superman, where we see the agony of the Hero. Superman saves the North American continent from sure destruction, but the love interest, Lois Lane, loses her life. Superman holds her dead body, weeps, then takes off into the sky. What does he do? He turns back time, saves Lois and the world together. What a Hero!
Even in the later films of that particular incarnation, Reeve still shines. In Superman III, a form of home-grown Kryptonite affects Superman’s psyche. He does things completely uncharacteristic of Superman, like tearing open a hole in an oil tanker and straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The change in his personality even changes the colors of his costume. The once-vibrant red and blue become more muted, even dirty. This culminates in a showdown with himself as Clark Kent, where the good man (Clark) wins, bringing a good Superman back to the world.
It may be a bit weird, perhaps a little too existential, but Reeve plays both parts well. He convinces us that he can be bad, and make it look good.
I trust many of you already know how Reeve’s life went after Superman went. A neck injury rendered him paralyzed, but the work he did with disabled kids made him a hero. He became a sort of real-life Superman to many. Sadly, he’s gone now. But Christopher’s legacy remains.
This one will be hard to top.
Who? Well, this one may not sound familiar, but the show he played Superman for might. In the mid-90’s ABC aired a series called Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman. The series is notable in that it actually features Lois and Clark getting together, eventually marrying. Their relationship became so widely regarded that DC Comics published wedding issues, making the marriage official in two media, coinciding with the television wedding.
I feel Dean often gets overlooked, by me probably most of all. But his performance is no less noteworthy. In the costume, he looks fairly convincing as Superman. The drama is there, the heroism well-represented. His performance as Clark Kent is more noteworthy, however. The series almost leads you to believe that Superman is the secret identity and Clark is the real person. Interesting move. Clark becomes a very good reporter in the show, even winning awards.
So, I’d say Dean is overlooked, but it’s not deserved. Certainly one of the best.
The last candidate. Routh played Superman in 2006’s Superman Returns. After years of disappointing news of Superman films, with many people attached to various projects, including Tim Burton and Nicholas Cage, Superman finally returned to the screen.
Though the movie had its moments, it failed to deliver as the Richard Donner film had. Though the cast was filled with great actors and actresses, some of them didn’t quite look the part. Lois and Jimmy stand out as the most notable of these. Great actors, sure, but not quite Lois and Jimmy. In the costume this time was Brandon Routh, obviously a talented actor, but just a few inches shy from being the best Superman.
I have nothing against Brandon. I think he did his absolute best, and really, he’s not unconvincing in the suit. He does look like a Superman. I really have a hard time telling myself this is the same Superman as the one played by Reeve, which he is supposed to be. But he probably did the best anyone could have.
As Clark Kent, I’m sorry, I’m not persuaded. I just don’t feel he delivered at all. Keep him in the costume and everything would have been fine, to a point. As Clark, I just feel he’s a completely empty personality. A cardboard cutout might have had more presence.
But the biggest complaint I have here echoes what I said about George Reeves. Well, not exactly. Brandon Routh looks too young to be Superman. Imagine that. The first Superman I covered was too old; this one is too young. I don’t mind a young Superman at all, but Christopher Reeve’s Superman was in his thirties. Routh looks barely older than I am, mid-twenties.
If they wanted a young Superman, why not pick Tom Welling? We’ve been wanting to see him put on the suit ever since Smallville debuted. He’s been a great Clark Kent. Why not get him to play around with another side of the character? Well, that might have spoiled the fun on Smallville, but it did leave many of us with the question.
Probably not the worst perfomance ever, but Routh just leaves a lot to be expected.
So is the jury in? You bet. I know I only covered four of them, and a case could be made for many more. Which one is the best in my opinion? Hands down, it’s Christopher Reeve. Call it nostalgia, sympathy for the departed, or whatever, I vote for Reeve. His performance is legendary. His films are epic, and he left us with many memories.
We’ll all miss Christopher. Nothing will ever take his place. The mantle of the Man of Steel was his, and still is.