We have at this point had enough actors play Superman that we can have a conversation about who did it best, much as is done for James Bond and Batman and (for some reason) Jack Ryan. For me, the order goes like this:
- Brandon Routh
- Christopher Reeve
- Tom Welling
- Dean Cain
- Henry Cavill
- George Reeves
I’ll accept argument about the lower four, but not the top two. Chistopher Reeve owned that part – it was part of his being, much like Sean Connery will always be Bond and Johnny Weismuller will always be ‘the’ Tarzan. Brandon Routh, though, gives us the most interesting and balanced performance, bar none. His movie is the best Superman movie. When I think of Superman, I am either thinking of #1 or #2 on that list.
Superman Returns gets a bum rap. People seemed to have not liked the movie, and I don’t quite understand why. To be fair, Routh is simply playing Reeve playing Superman to some extent – it’s the exact same character in the exact same plot continuity – but excised of a lot of the stuff that made Reeve’s movies silly. Instead of a fairly flat tale of Superman flying around and saving people, we get an in-depth character drama circling around one of the more interesting love triangles in superhero-dom. Oh, and we have Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, and I don’t think anybody can seriously suggest anybody did it better than he did. Even Gene Hackman pales next to Spacey’s sharp, witty portrayal.
Anywho, in Superman Returns, Supes comes back after being gone for five years – he journeyed to Krypton to see what was left. When he gets back, the world has moved on without him. Most interestingly, Lois Lane is now engaged and has a kid. Lane is the same high-octane reporter and no-nonsense girl, Clark is the same befuddling goofball, but now we’ve moved on from the will-she/won’t-she anticipation of the Superman/Lane relationship. This is good – it was a bad idea for a relationship, anyway. Clark, though, isn’t quite willing to let go.
Enter the other man. Lane’s fiancée is (surprise!) a nice guy. A good guy. He’s handsome. He’s tall. He has a job. He’s good with the kid. He’s kind to Lois. He is a completely, 100% decent human being deserving the girl he’s got. I LOVE that about this movie. I am so very, very tired of the old superhero trope that reserves the affections of certain women (named Vale, Watson, Lane, Potts, and so on) for their specific heroes, as though they are some kind of franchised and licensed appendage to the male lead. No, bullshit – Lois Lane didn’t wait for Superman. Why should she? Some jackass flies off for five years and, what, she’s gonna just hang around? Not her. Oh, and the movie also gives her the respect of assuming that an intelligent, capable, and strong woman like Lois is able to pick a guy who isn’t a jackass, a liar, a jerk, or any of that crap. She doesn’t need to be rescued from her own life by some guy in a cape. Sure, she needs to be rescued from a crashing jumbo jet and a sinking boat and what-not (she isn’t a superhero), but Lane has her life figured out. She’s living it. She doesn’t need Superman. Well, almost certainly not.
That, right there, is the central conflict of the story: Lois might not need Superman, but does she want him? Clark may not have her, but should he get her back? Yes, yes – Lex Luthor is in the midst of a dastardly plot and Lois gets mixed up in it and Superman has to stop him – but the purpose of that plot is to demonstrate and explore Clark and Lois’s feelings for one another and their new relationship. This is interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which is this: the writers realize that the only conflict interesting enough to sustain Superman is one that he cannot punch his way out of.
Did any of you get bored in Man of Steel after the 45th straight minute of indestructible people punching each other? I did. I mean, jeez – they are invulnerable superbeings. Throwing them through a wall isn’t going to do crap. They know it. We know it. Everybody knows it – why do we go through the motions? Man of Steel seemed fueled by the juvenile and visceral enjoyment involved in destroying large portions of real-estate with immense special effects budgets. Yeah, it’s fun, but it lacks a certain trueness to the character. Brandon Routh safely stopping the crashing jumbo jet from smashing into the baseball stadium and then setting it on the field was iconic. Every part of that scene was quintessential Superman – the guy who is so good he can’t be from this world. That’s what it’s all about.
Cut back to him and Lois, we are watching a genuine moral dilemma. Superman possesses the power to get Lois back – nobody doubts that, not even Lois. She still has feelings for him and could probably be convinced, as much as she might not want to be. In the end, though, Superman doesn’t get her. Lois chooses the other guy. The other guy distinguishes himself as a hero in saving Lois. Superman backs off, knowing this is for the best. It’s a little bittersweet, but we feel good – this is the right decision. That, to me, is what Superman is all about. He is about making the right decision. He is about taking the high road, despite his feelings. No movie or show has ever told his story better than Superman Returns. Not that I’ve seen, anyway.
Unfortunately, such subtlety seems to have been lost on movie-going audiences. They much prefer the near-genocidal violence of Man of Steel and a character who is less ‘super’ and more aloof and detached. Cavill’s Superman is a stock hero – he’s Wolverine in different underroos, he’s Batman with laser vision, he’s yet another version of the ronin, the disgruntled knight errant. A good character, sure, but not who Superman is. Superman is the Paladin. The incorruptible, unachievable paradigm. People seem to think that’s boring, but I disagree. People just don’t seem to think hard enough about how interesting and difficult journey it is to do the right thing for the right reasons at the worst times.