I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and finally just decided to blurb it all out here to try to make sense of it.
DC has now released THREE cinematic versions of Superman/Kal-El/The Man of Steel in the last 10 years. One of those versions, Superman Returns, had Brandon Routh in the lead, while Man of Steel and Batman Vs Superman placed Henry Cavill in the role of the Son of Krypton.
The problem, such as it is, is that none of those films, and neither of those actors, has been able to engender the kind of fan loyalty and goodwill that has been bestowed on the 1978 version of Superman portrayed by Christopher Reeve.
Clearly, it’s not an issue of having viewers who are more discriminating when it comes to the film’s special effects, or else Batman vs Superman would be the gold standard. So that’s not it.
Can it be the scripts? Hardly, as Superman Returns is basically a do-over of Superman.
Lex Luthor appears in both Superman and Superman Returns (and sort of appears in BvS), and Kevin Spacey engaged in a fair amount of scenery-chewing evil, a bit more over the top than Gene Hackman’s portrayal, perhaps, but still a fair depiction of the quintessential villain.
It is hard to argue, then, that it boils down simply to Christopher Reeve’s portrayal over the other two, as Brandon Routh does a credible job in invoking Reeve’s appearance and mannerisms, but it may, in fact, be that simple.
While Reeve’s portrayal wasn’t the first, it has resonated with the fans for so long that it has become the de facto standard against which all subsequent iterations are judged.
Where Routh’s version invokes the clean-cut, goofy, character that Reeve created, it’s just that: an invocation, a copy of the “original.”
Where Cavill’s version brings us a dark and conflicted Superman, Reeve embodies the most wholesome, most good, most pure version of the character, despite Routh’s attempt to replicate that.
Can it be, then, that DC is stuck in a situation where Reeve was able to embody the perfect character, at the perfect time, in the perfect movie, in the perfect way, so much so that attempts to replace/redefine the character are starting with two strikes against them, leaving little to no room for error?
Perhaps. Though it rarely happens, think of other iconic roles which have been cast and which recasting seems impossible.
The most notable for today’s audiences would have to be Wolverine. When originally cast, the character had never been portrayed before, existing solely as a 5-foot-something ball of bad attitude from Canada. Remember, if you can, the fan ruckus that surrounded the cast of Hugh Jackman at the time. Even through time travel and the recasting of every other character in the X-Men universe, Wolverine stays the same. While we can guess that the upcoming Logan will end Jackman’s run, imagine the horror when the role is inevitably recast, as such a property cannot be left unmined by the studio.
Who would like to be the Brandon Routh to Jackman’s Christopher Reeve in this situation?
How much leniency will the fans give that actor in the face of such expectation?
Ten years from now, will be all be bemoaning the fact that the studio cannot produce a successful film with such a bankable character, much as we do today with Superman?
I don’t know.
I don’t know if there’s any way to know until it happens.
But, to that person, I wish them good luck.
They’re going to need it.