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Superman on Film: The Most Iconic (and Accurate) Performances

Written by: Joey Esposito, Special to CC2K


In this classic piece from 2009, former comics editor Joey Esposito, now the comics chief at IGN, looks at the best and brightest onscreen performances from the world of Superman.
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The goal of this article is NOT to distribute my personal opinions on my favorite television/film personifications of the iconic characters contained within the Superman universe, but rather to indicate who was the most representative of the true character. Yes, comic characters evolve, as one would expect, especially with a character like Superman who has been around for 80 years. That would be a damn long time for a character to not have any progression or modern updates whatsoever. What I am referring to when I say the “true character” of these fictional people is their iconic status, the archetypes that have been the constant in every incarnation of the character. For example, though Jimmy Olsen has gone from nerdy copy boy to relatively hip, but still goofy, successful photo-journalist, he has always been Superman’s Pal; a representative of how Superman is a mentor for all of us.

So, without further ado, I present: The most accurate actorly portrayals of the icons of the Superman universe.

1. Lois Lane as played by Terri Hatcher (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman)
I’d like to start this one by saying, I recognize the disdain most fans and creators have for Lois & Clark, but I would like to state for the record that it is without a doubt the best Superman product ever produced for television. It is home to the best incarnation of the Lois and Clark relationship/dichotomy, my favorite interpretation of Perry White, and thousands of wonderfully comedic moments. That said, although Dean Cain doesn’t make this list in anyway, his Clark kent was a cool, hip alternative to the traditionally goofy farm boy persona. Lois, however, is everything that fans have come to love about the character and more. Hatcher brings the tough reporter side of the character to the limelight more often than not, but always allows us to see that sliver of a damsel in distress that she has inside, and hates it. She’s a tough as nails independent woman, yet somehow Superman is able to penetrate the outer shell and make her melt inside.

What I really love about Hatcher’s Lois is her dedication (and reluctance to admit it) to Clark. In previous incarnations, Lois has always come across as a complete bitch. Let’s be honest, most of the time she doesn’t give a shit about Clark until she founds out he’s Superman. How shallow. But here, it’s almost as though there is a love triangle between Lois, Clark, and Superman, and it’s just a happy coincidence that they turn out to be the same person. Hatcher’s performance are quirky, romantic, and genuinely funny. There has never been a more accurate depiction of the Lois Lane that is in my head when I am reading a Superman comics than the one that appeared for four seasons on the underrated (and professionally hated) Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

 

2. Lex Luthor as played by Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville)

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Smallville, for all of it’s shortcomings, has done many things right. Jonathan and Martha Kent. The slow integration of DC characters. Christopher Reeve cameos. Kryptonian mythology. And judging by this season so far, even Doomsday. However, it did nothing more right than the characterization of Superman’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor. Michael Rosenbaum’s portrayal of Lex had the perfect character arc that any classic villain could ask for. Lex and Clark became fast friends in the early years in Smallville, only to have that relationship slowly betrayed with lies and deceit as the years went on, culminating in the absolute disintegration of not only their friendship, but also of any of the good that was inside of Lex. Through the tumultuous relationship with his father, Lex is led on a journey from one wrong choice to another, ultimately leading to choices that aren’t just wrong, but evil. Throughout the course of Rosenbaum’s run with the character, we get to see his character go from being fairly jovial with a dark side, to a man who cares only for himself and his agenda.

Rosenbaum’s performance is more nuanced than most when it comes to serialized television, let alone a WB/CW show. He is the master of double meaning, being able to pass off a lie to his friends convincingly without indicating that he has no intention of telling them the truth in the first place. This Lex Luthor is the beginning of something maniacal, not the shades of of a criminal mastermind we get from the Superman films, including both Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey. The movie Lex thus far as been almost comedy relief, written and performed with the intent that the viewers are to laugh at most of his genocidal tendencies, rather than be chilled to the bone. The idea of Lex Luthor is that he is a man generally respected by the masses, a billionaire businessman that seems to be doing his best to help everyone, but at his core doing things only for himself, for personal gain. This is the Lex we see in Smallville, at least in his beginning stages. The entire seven seasons build up to, according to a Native American cave wall in the second season, the prophetic destiny that two who were like brothers are to become mortal enemies. Rosenbaum takes his character slowly, understanding the very slow build that Lex’s character arc follows. A lesser (or perhaps, more vain) actor would have encouraged the showrunners to perhaps get things moving with the evilness of his character. Instead, he rode it out naturally, resulting in one of the greatest character arcs in recent television.

 

3. Clark Kent as played by Christopher Reeve (Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace)

 

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Yes, Clark Kent and Superman are two different people. It’s even in the classic description: “Mild mannered reporter” and “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” hardly represent the same persona. Clark Kent is the human, fallible side of the same coin, but what is truly fascinating about Clark is that, at least publicly, he is a created persona. Detractors of Superman always love to point out the silliness of his disguise: wearing just a pair of glasses. Comic writers in the 70’s even tried to further explain the success of this disguise by introducing absurd ideas like Superman’s ability to emit a low frequency hypnosis over, well, everyone, to convince them that he looked nothing like Superman. As I said, absurd. The true genius of Clark’s disguise is that he is essentially the greatest actor to ever live. As far as we know , Earth’s yellow sun give Kryptonians not only the power of superhuman strength, speed, and flight, but thespian supremacy as well. And that is where Christopher Reeve takes the cake, whole heartedly.

If you watch his performance in Superman: The Movie, and even in the less quality sequels, one thing is always consistent, and that is Revee’s performance. His Clark is joyfully goofy, quirky, and just an all around ‘aw-shucks’ farm boy. Just look at the timing of the pushing up of his glasses, his perfectly pronounced stutters, and his cracking voice. But the true subtlety of Reeve’s work as Clark is  how much he makes the viewer aware that his performance is actually Clark playing a role within a role, putting on the persona of a goofy do-gooder. You can see the enjoyment that Clark has pretending to be a clumsy oaf, and it is Reeve’s nuanced performance that makes it so, not to mention his amazing comedic timing. Take Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. No, don’t take it and throw it out the window, take it and stick it in your DVD player. Yes, it’s on DVD. Go to the scene where Clark is at the gym, pretending to be  incompetent as a hard bodied jackass comes over to give him “pointers”, looking down upon his nerdy facade, telling him “No pain, no gain.” In the end, Clark tosses some weights to him that are clearly much too heavy for a douchebag to handle, and they collapse on top of him. In a fit of success, Clark can’t help but repeat sarcastically “Well, gee. No pain no gain?” This is a classic moment of the inner Clark purely enjoying the role he has created for himself.

As shitty as Superman III is in comparison to the original, or even the tone of Superman the character, you’d be hard pressed to convince me the film wasn’t a brilliant comedy. Just re-watch the opening scene for reference. And this is a movie where Reeve’s performance as Clark really shines. We get to see him go back to Smallville and reconnect with his lost love Lana Lang, where we get to see Reeve’s take down the ruse of goofiness in very select moments. Overall, Reeve’s performance as Clark has perfected the “idea” of Clark Kent: although really a displaced alien, Clark is truly the “main” persona of the character of Superman, as he was raised as a human. But in the same respect, the public personality of Clark does not hold the same characteristics as the personal one. In many ways, this goes beyond simple duplicity and really makes the character of Clark Kent/Superman one of the loneliest and complicated alter egos in comic books.

4. Superman as played by Christopher Reeve (Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace)

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I’m sure not many people will disagree that Christopher Reeve is the iconic Superman. Most people of my generation remember Reeve as the one and only man that could truly pull the role off. Even DC has taken on many aspects of the original Superman film into it’s comic book canon, thanks in part to Geoff Johns and the spitting imagery of Gary Frank. Reeve’s portrayal as sincere, noble, and patriotic is everything one would think of when they do free association with the word “Superman”. His eyes are piercing to criminals, but he easily adjusts from all business to the big blue boyscout at a moment’s notice, depending on what the situation calls for. Perhaps the greatest moment in the film comes from the end of Superman: The Movie, when Kal-El has failed, and Lois has died. Superman lets out a heart wrenching scream, and sets off to reverse time by turning the earth backwards on its axis. Silly concept, yes, but the emotional climax of the film all the same. Another great moment of Reeve’s Superman comes in the form of his reveal of his secret identity to Lois in Superman II. Here we see Clark stupidly stumble into a fire, and when he can’t hide the fact from Lois that he was not injured, he is forced to reveal his secret. It is here that Reeve literally transforms before our eyes from the gangly Clark into the heroic Superman. There is no costume change, other than the removal of his trademark glasses, but we see his demeanor change entirely. His posture, eyes, vocal tone, and mannerisms change completely. There is no more descriptive scene of Reeve’s ability to encompass both Clark and Superman.

Most importantly, as far as Reeve’s depiction goes, he has that certain “it” factor. His smile is charming while talking to Lois, but his eyes can pierce right through Lex Luthor, with or without heat vision. He travels with an aura of hope surrounding him. One of my favorite moments in the original film is the first montage of Superman flying around and stopping crimes. At nearly every scene, you can see his joy in finally revealing himself to the world, and to the bad guys he’s stopping. Look no further than the classic burglar climbing up the side of the building, only to stumble upon Supes standing in his way, horizontally, asking him “Something wrong with the elevator?” and proceeding to be mildly amused by the burglar’s startled tumble downwards. It is the charm in these moments that Reeve’s brings to Superman, giving him the most well rounded characterization that he has seen in any medium outside of comics.

I know that there are many more characters that are deserving of being on this list of Superman’s most important players (Jimmy Olsen, Jonathan and Martha Kent, Perry White, and Lana Lang), however I feel as though most of these characters have received fitting and pitch perfect characterizations in almost all mediums, and not only would it be overly difficult to pick just one for each, it would be unfair on my brain.

Author: Joey Esposito, Special to CC2K

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