In Man of Steel, Henry Cavill dons the iconic red and blue suit, flies through the air with the greatest of ease, holds up buildings with his bare hands, and defeats an intergalactic army, all without tousling a strand of hair or suffering as much of a cut on his impossibly chiseled jaw. But can he survive “The Curse of Superman”?
Stretching back to George Reeves, the first actor to portray the beloved superhero on screen, in 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men, and all the way up to Brandon Routh, who last played the role in a movie in 2006’s Superman Returns, and Tom Welling, who just wrapped up his run as Clark Kent on The CW’s Smallville in 2011, the pervading superstition in Hollywood has been that playing Superman is a ticket up, up, and away to professional or personal troubles.
Of the small group to have played the Man of Steel, one died shortly after, another was paralyzed in a tragic accident, and all have been unable to shake the close association with the role and parlay it into an A-list career. By that logic, Cavill is doomed. At the very least, countless pundits are breathlessly wondering if he’s the Kryptonite that will finally destroy the Superman Curse.
But what if there’s really no curse at all?
First, a history.
After starring in Superman and the Mole Men, Reeves continued to save the world and woo Lois Lane in the television series The Adventures of Superman. The series ran from 1952 to 1958, and Reeves was never able to convince audiences to take him seriously as anything but the Man of Steel. His role as a sergeant in From Here to Eternity reportedly was downscaled significantly after test audiences expressed their distaste for seeing Superman at war.
“If there’s any truth to the curse, it’s because we’re talking about arguably one of the most iconic characters created by an American,” says Scott Meslow, entertainment editor at The Week. “When you play a role like that, the risk you carry is not getting other work. When you’re Superman, you’re always Superman.”
Reeves died of a gunshot wound in 1959, just a year after the end of The Adventures of Superman. His death was ruled a suicide, though conspiracy theories that it was really a murder continue today.
Christopher Reeve was a classically trained stage actor when he was cast in Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film. He racked up dozens of screen credits after hanging up his cape following the critically thrashed Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, but his career was tragically derailed by a horse-riding accident in 1995 that turned him into a quadriplegic. Though he became a crusading philanthropist, he remained, until his death, the former Superman actor who became a crusading philanthropist.
It was two decades until the torch was passed to Brandon Routh, but the former soap-opera actor’s flight as Superman was cut short when no sequel was ordered to Superman Returns and critics ruled the film a failure. And though Routh played one of the most iconic lead characters in film history, he’s not had a major starring role since. Then there’s the two other actors to play Clark Kent on TV—Dean Cain in Lois and Clark and Tom Welling in Smallville—both of whom are still indelibly tied to the role. All three, no matter what they’ve done since, are still thought of as the Guys Who Played Superman, and not much else.
So five actors—Cavill is the sixth—five stalled careers: does that make for a curse? “I think it’s overblown,” Meslow says.
Defenders of the curse often support their argument by listing the actors who have portrayed Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and a host of other superheroes on film and vaulted to A-list status while still managing to play other characters believably. But there’s a major difference. For some reason, each Superman iteration—whether on TV or on film—has chosen an actor mostly unknown to the public to put on the tights.
“That’s different from Christian Bale playing Batman. That’s different from Robert Downey Jr., who had troubles but certainly wasn’t unknown before Iron Man,” says Mike Ryan, senior entertainment writer at the Huffington Post. The actors landing other major superhero roles typically are established movie stars and are therefore protected from any so-called curse by the body of work they’ve accumulated. “We’ll see what happens to someone like Chris Hemsworth—maybe there’ll be a Thor curse someday. But after Clooney, Keaton, and Bale, we already know there’s never going to be a Batman curse.”
Including Cain and Welling in this idea that playing Superman ruins actors’ careers is unfair too. They’re TV actors. “It’s not surprising for any actor to play a role for a long time and not do much else,” says Meslow. “They always have a tough time getting audiences to buy them as another character,” agrees Ryan. “Kelsey Grammer hasn’t exactly set the world on fire these past few years. Does that mean there’s a Frasier curse?”
But perhaps the chief reason talk of the curse persists today is the career of Routh, who most people have to be reminded is the actor who last played Superman. His career hasn’t been nonexistent, exactly, since Superman Returns—it’s been kind of invisible. His biggest film roles were in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, both of which disappointed at the box office. He guest-starred on Chuck, which was a famously low-rated TV show, and the CBS sitcom he costarred on last year, Partners, was canceled midseason.
If everyone who has played Superman isn’t cursed, at least Routh is, right?
“The real problem for Brandon Routh is that it’s understood incorrectly that his movie was a failure,” Meslow says. “But it actually grossed more than Batman Begins. It made a ton of money—was a hit by financial measures. It just wasn’t what they wanted for the future of the franchise and no sequel was greenlit.”
Superman Returns was supposed to launch a whole new franchise. When that didn’t happen, Routh became—and remains—the punching bag. “Maybe the biggest problem for him is that there hasn’t been another Superman since,” says Ryan. “Now that Man of Steel is out, things might get better for him.”
Yes, now Man of Steel is coming out. So what of Cavill’s future?
For one thing, his film is going to be wildly successful. Tracking is for an opening weekend that could eclipse $100 million. If the applause at early screenings is an indication, positive word of mouth among moviegoers will give it much longer legs than Superman Returns, too. Reviews for the film have been on the positive side of mixed, but most critics praise Cavill for finding depth in any otherwise typically stoic character.
Plus, he’s already playing his cards right. He’s in talks to star in Man From U.N.C.L.E., the film adaptation of the classic spy series that could be a second blockbuster franchise for him. “He’s doing the right thing by getting involved with other projects that aren’t Superman right away,” Ryan says. “For some reason, Brandon Routh didn’t do that.”
In other words, Cavill should have no problem breaking the curse—if there even is a curse—with the greatest of ease.