Debate Club: The Top 5 Superman actors

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Apr 18, 2018

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this week's installment, we're counting down the best actors who fought for truth, justice, and the American way. Other superheroes are full of angst or smartass asides: not our Superman, who's a bastion of goodness, always selflessly defeating evil without a thought about himself or his own tragic backstory.

Unalloyed heroism can be a tricky thing to portray — who can live up to the example set by the universe's only remaining Kryptonian? — but these five men all took a stab at donning the Man of Steel's tights and cape. Some proved more super than others.

Henry Cavill

Cavill can be a charming actor; he's light and funny in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and there are good early reports on his work in the next Mission: Impossible movie. But Cavill is the perfect embodiment of the Zack Snyder take on Superman ... and that's not a compliment.

Superman represents the best of humanity, what we're capable of, what we should strive for. But Cavill plays Superman like he's a general in 300, a hulking, scowling monster who doesn't even seem to notice when he's destroying half of Metropolis. Superman doesn't have to be funny, necessarily, but he can't be humorless: Cavill's Superman doesn't have an ounce of lightness in him. He is less Superman than Indestructible Man. And who wants that? If every generation gets the Superman they deserve, this generation is in a bad place. Also: he might have looked kind of cool with the mustache!

Dean Cain

Cain is not an actor with a particularly deep reservoir of range, but that's not what was required of him on Lois & Clark: He just needed to be light and funny and believable when he needed to knock out a bad guy. Cain's inherently dopey, cheerful cheesiness has hurt him in essentially every other role he's ever played, but as this particular incarnation of Superman, it fits: This is a Superman from the cover of a Harlequin romance. Superman is much more than that, of course, but if you're asking if we prefer Soap Opera Beefcake Superman or Angry Snapping Zod's Neck Superman ... that choice is no choice at all.

Brandon Routh

Routh was only 25, with just a smattering of appearances on One Life to Live and a Gilmore Girls episode, when Bryan Singer cast him to play the most iconic character of American pop culture in Superman Returns. That's a lot to put on anyone, so it's probably enough that Routh doesn't collapse under the weight, even if his Superman isn't particularly memorable.

Singer wanted Superman Returns to be a continuation of the story after Superman II, which means in many ways, Routh is less his own Superman than an homage to Christopher Reeve. He does that well enough — the performance does remind you pleasantly of Reeve — but not much more. Still, Routh didn't embarrass himself, and in the wake of Cavill's frowning Superman, today Routh's portrayal feels downright refreshing.

George Reeves

The Superman of the 1950s television series was the very model of fine, upstanding, square-jawed American middle-class decency. To watch Adventures of Superman now is to be teleported to a simpler time — or, at least, the vision of a simpler time — and actor George Reeves plays the Man of Steel like he's your friendly neighborhood fireman or cop. This Superman is like what would happen if Atticus Finch was suddenly blessed with superpowers — he's above reproach and radiates quiet decency. It's a pretty perfect representation of Superman, who has always been one of our most earnest comic-book heroes, but Reeves' portrayal of Clark Kent is equally interesting.

Hardly the sweet dork that later actors would play him as, Reeves' Clark is actually a good reporter with a sharp mind. Reeves' own history is far more tragic: he died in 1959 at the age of 45 from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, although others have disputed the official cause of death as suicide. (In fact, the 2006 drama Hollywoodland is a fictionalized investigation into Reeves' death, with future Batman actor Ben Affleck playing Reeves as an unhappy man who feels shackled to his legacy as Superman.)

Christopher Reeve

Brandon Routh's entire performance in Superman Returns was a loving copy of what Christopher Reeve brought to the role nearly 30 years earlier. Henry Cavill's in Man of Steel was a buffer, more brooding variation on Reeve's sweet nerd. Basically, if you're a modern-day actor about to play Superman, you have to reconcile with Reeve's towering performance.

The Julliard-trained New York kid was all of 25 when he was tapped by director Richard Donner for 1978's Superman, and the beguiling innocence he imbued forever cemented our image of him as Superman: the aw-shucks superhero who thought the best of human beings, even though we let him down over and over again. Reeve played Clark Kent as a massive dork, which was really funny since we were all in on the joke. (He's no dork — he's freakin' Superman, dude.)

Reeve's 1995 horse riding accident left him a quadriplegic, but the courage he showed in the intervening years only added more poignancy and warmth to his indelible portrayal. The actor radiated such positivity, and so did the Man of Steel. For most of us, he might as well just be Superman.

Who do you think is the best Superman? Debate it out in the comments!