Photo: Forgotten Superhero Performances
One of the things that makes the superhero film genre so unique is that sometimes your favorite superhero can come in all different shapes, sizes, and flavors. Like James Bond, there are certain characters in comic book lore that Time might have forgotten these superheroes, but the fans won’t. The actors behind these heroes in tights gave these roles their all with very little recognition. These characters are too big and iconic to be hogged by one particular actor, and these heroes are often passed from one actor to the next like a sacred inheritance to inspire a different generation of moviegoers. Some do these superheroes so much justice (pun intended) that their names are synonymous with their heroic alter egos.
Forgotten Superhero Performances
Christopher Reeve fits this category, where he was such a perfect match for the Man of Steel that you can’t think of Christopher Reeve without thinking about the world’s greatest superhero. Similarly, to many, no one laced up Batman’s boots better than Michael Keaton, who not only played Batman, but channeled him in such a way that he’ll always be seen as the definitive Batman no matter the era. Of course, all art is subjective, and many people would argue that Henry Cavill and Christian Bale had both respectively matched, or surpassed their predecessors in portraying their favorite superheroes. That’s the beauty of having so many talented performers bringing these characters to life.
The actors who play them are like the artists who draw them in comic books, crafting different visions, versions, and interpretations of these modern Gods and Goddesses to connect to the masses. With so many actors sampling our favorite crime fighters, there are some actors whose performances get abandoned by the times, despite them putting out decent to above average work with the material they had.
Before Henry Cavill and Tyler Hoechlin put the S on, director Bryan Singer trusted Brandon Routh with the Superman mantle in 2006’s ‘Superman Returns’. The film was a bold experiment for its time, trying to work as both a spiritual sequel to Richard Donner’s classic ‘Superman II’, while also operating as a reboot that would’ve birthed an entirely new Superman franchise. The film was very much a love letter to Richard Donner’s inspiring take on the character, paying homage while trying to forge its own identity, so much so that sometimes the film itself felt like it was co-directed by both Donner and Singer themselves.
If the nostalgia didn’t help Superman’s decade long return to the big screen, it’s unclear if it helped, as ‘Superman Returns’ flew towards a $391 million gross, and also had positive word of mouth, proving it had a decent amount of fans in its corner rooting for its success. Unfortunately, the heights ‘Superman Returns’ achieved didn’t result in a sequel, as the positive word of mouth wasn’t loud enough, and its gross was a bit too modest for Warners Bros to feel comfortable moving forward with the franchise. Over the years, however, I’ve found a newfound appreciation for Brandon Routh’s Superman that wasn’t with me in my earlier years. Although Reeve’s Superman is the basis and the blueprint for Routh’s, it’s more than just a Reeve impersonation.
Routh manages to add enough of his own talent and personality into the role to where, yes, Reeve’s silhouette is apparent, but it doesn’t overshadow what Brandon Routh brings to the table. Routh plays a Superman that’s burdened by wisdom, heavier than the weight of a world that tiptoes precariously on his shoulders. He doesn’t necessarily brood, but Routh’s Superman is a bit more withdrawn than his predecessor, spending more time in his head than he does outside of it.
It’s a habit that he and Cavill’s Superman have in common, but whereas Cavill’s Superman carries a certain amount of cynicism with him, Routh’s Superman manages to maintain Reeve’s almost childish optimism and warmth despite his more introverted nature; a difficult balance to achieve, and evidence of a truly unique performance.
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Even Routh’s Clark Kent, still bumbling and goofy, seems more dialed back to accommodate Superman’s growing maturity. Looking back on ‘Superman Returns’, it’s almost a crime that Routh didn’t get a chance to tackle the character one more time in a sequel, which maybe would’ve further separated itself from Donner’s likeness to be its own thing. Routh’s Superman had grown on me, and I would’ve liked to grow along with him in further stories on his adventures.
Maybe in an alternate reality where ‘Superman Returns’ did jumpstart a franchise, Brandon Routh might be heralded as the best actor to ever portray Superman. It’s a shame we’ll never really know, but we have gotten a glimpse of what Routh’s Superman would’ve been like fully fleshed out in the Arrowverse crossover event, ‘Crisis On Infinite Earths’. In it, Routh dons Superman’s costume one last time to thwart a malicious force that threatens DC’s entire multiverse. It’s a nice glimpse into what could’ve been, but never came to be.
Like Brandon Routh, Val Kilmer also had a blueprint to follow when he tried on Batman’s cape and cowl. ‘Batman Forever’ was Joel Schumacher’s sequel to Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ and ‘Batman Returns’, and after Michael Keaton’s nearly flawless performance as the caped crusader, Val Kilmer had some pretty high standards to live up to. The film wasn’t as lauded as Burton’s Batman movies, but it wasn’t as hated as ‘Batman & Robin’ either. It treaded on middle ground, achieving very modest box office success and mixed word of mouth. All in all, at best it was a mediocre Batman movie, but it was rescued Batman-style by Val Kilmer’s underrated and underappreciated execution.
‘Batman Forever’ portrays one of the most haunting, disturbed Batmen in recent memory, which is often lost in all the silliness and toy advertisement that contributes to the film’s makeup. Kilmer’s Batman nails the quiet rage that whispers inside Bruce, trying to find its voice. It’s very much a kid’s film, and a kid’s Batman, but underneath its shallow surface, Kilmer’s Batman feels like someone who’s immersed himself into a creature he created that took on a life of its own. Even his Batman voice is a bit too good for the movie he’s in. Like Keaton, his Batman voice is guttural and soft-spoken, using Keaton’s Batman voice as a template while still being its own thing. Kilmer isn’t exactly Christian Bale or Ben Affleck, but if given a Batman movie that was a bit higher caliber, Kilmer might’ve delivered a more than capable Batman that we’d all still be raving about today.
Mark Ruffalo is a fantastic Hulk, but it’s a shame we never got to see Edward Norton’s Hulk tangle with the Avengers. Not only for the sake of continuity, but because Edward Norton gave us a fascinating Bruce Banner, and it would’ve been a privilege to see him eating shawarma with the rest of Earth’s mightiest heroes. Edward Norton’s Hulk was a different kind of beast than Mark Ruffalo’s, and captured the not so jolly green giant in a slightly different light. In 2008’s ‘The Incredible Hulk’, Norton flaunts a Bruce Banner that’s in the prime of his rage. We catch Norton’s Bruce Banner living his life on the run, desperately searching for a cure for what he, and the government that’s after him, see as a disease, and his whole demeanor reflects the attitude of a man who sleeps with one eye open and is scared of his own Hulk-sized shadow.
In ‘The Incredible Hulk’, Norton’s Banner is a bit rougher than Ruffalo’s version. Norton gives us a world-weary scientist that’s isolated and exhausted, while also giving us a Hulk that’s terrifying in not only function, but appearance. Ruffalo’s Hulk looks very much like Ruffalo, reminding us that there are traces of Banner still somewhere inside of his destructive alter-ego. For narrative purposes, modeling Hulk’s face so close to Ruffalo allows for a more emotionally expressive performance, and helps Ruffalo’s Hulk come off more approachable thanks to his more human appearance.
Related article: A Tribute to Richard Donner: Father of the Modern Superhero Movie
Norton’s Hulk, on the other hand, feels more like a monster. When he transforms, the facial resemblance between Norton and Hulk is nonexistent, which makes Norton’s Hulk more akin to a Godzilla or a King Kong. A misunderstood, yet dangerous creature with no discernible human characteristics. Although having Hulk look nothing like Edward Norton wasn’t a creative choice, it further helped distinguish Norton’s Hulk from Ruffalo’s by giving Norton’s version a more chaotic presence. Sadly, Edward Norton walked away from Hulk and the Marvel franchise due to creative differences, but the continuation of his story, as well as his interaction with Avengers, will always be one of Marvel’s greatest what-ifs we’ll never get to see.
Speaking of Hulk, Eric Bana was another actor who portrayed the hot-tempered monster back in 2003’s ‘Hulk’, directed by Oscar winning director Ang Lee. ‘Hulk’ was Lee’s attempt to really delve into Bruce Banner’s backstory and psyche, perhaps more so than any other Marvel film to date has tried to do. So even though the film might’ve failed in getting the reaction it was trying to receive, there’s no doubt that Ang Lee was trying to make ‘Hulk’ more than just a superhero movie; a commendable effort by the director. But what doesn’t get the credit it rightfully deserves is Eric Bana’s solid take on the character. Even before Hulk is forced into Banner’s life, Banner’s backstory is full of tragedy. Growing up in an abusive household, his mother was accidentally murdered, his father was sent to prison, and that pain is written all over the actor’s face in every shot.
You get the sense that even before the accident that turned him into the Hulk, there’s a monster inside of him, waiting for the right opportunity to break free and present itself to the world. Bana is the calm before the storm in human form. A lot of what he says isn’t with words, but with the raw emotion that he conveys with a look, almost like he’s telepathically whispering to the viewer the character’s true intentions; the superpower that every master actor possesses.
In fact, Bana’s version doesn’t really feel like himself until he transforms into the Hulk, fully exposed in all of his vindictive, angry glory to wreak havoc on a world that wronged him. It’s an amazing, layered role that Bana fills out masterfully, but because the movie wasn’t looked at too fondly for its time, it’s a role that’s not nearly talked about as much as it should be.
In 2009, Zack Snyder reintroduced the world to ‘Watchmen’, his adaptation of prolific author Alan Moore’s timeless graphic novel of the same name. A graphic novel on such a pedestal that it’s considered by and large not just one of the greatest comic books, but one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. It was also considered unfilmable; a form of storytelling that only our imaginations could capture, and not the big screen. But Zack Snyder, being the Cinematic author that he is, decided to take a crack at it and film the unfilmable, which might’ve been a sin against the Cinematic Gods. The reactions to his adaptation were mixed, leaning slightly positive.
Some claimed that Snyder missed the point of Alan Moore’s literary masterpiece, while others would tell you that not only did Snyder relay the graphic novel’s messages well, but made those messages his own, translating the meaning of Moore’s work with Snyder’s own colorful accent. As divisive as the movie was, there are two performances that fans on both sides of the fence agreed on. Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, and Billy Crudup’s portrayal as the fascinating Dr. Manhattan. Dr. Manhattan is the only superhero in the ‘Watchmen’ world with actual superpowers. With his abilities, Dr. Manhattan could literally do anything, but his humanity came at the cost of his new Godlike talents, since as time went on he became more and more detached from human beings.
It would’ve been easy to make Dr. Manhattan come off as a robot in less capable hands, but thanks to Zack Snyder’s faithfulness to the source material, and Billy Crudup’s own stellar performance, Dr. Manhattan comes off as a very flawed, sympathetic character that in parts humanizes the film more than the movie’s other human characters. Despite his severed connection with his fellow man, you get the impression that deep down Dr. Manhattan wants to feel that bond with the human race again. He’s longing for the emotion and inspiration that his newfound Godhood cost him.
Billy Crudup does a fine job nailing all of the character’s intricacies and subtle hints of loneliness. Since the character is largely CGI, Crudup’s voice and inflection are the source of his performance, and it works perfectly. Crudup’s voice isn’t digitized, it doesn’t echo from the skies like an almighty deity. In the film, Crudup sounds extremely human, except he’s as soft-spoken as he is eloquent, his words carrying on a poet’s jaded tone. Occasionally, Crudup even has Dr. Manhattan sound sedated, struggling to interact and pay attention to the world around him. At the same time, with a combination of CGI and natural talent, Dr. Manhattan’s fragile humanity flickers on and off every now and then, revealing that the superhuman isn’t as devoid of his soul as even the character might believe.
It’s a role that all witnesses of the film, both the supporters and the critics, can unite in celebrating. But although these avid fans give Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan some much deserved praise, Dr. Manhattan still feels like a hidden gem among mainstream audiences due to the lack of attention the film had gotten. I have no doubt that in a world where ‘Watchmen’ received as many accolades and recognition as its graphic novel counterpart, Billy Crudup’s achievement as Dr. Manhattan would be heralded as one of the most iconic portrayals of a superhero in modern times.
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