There has been much debate over which actor played the best Superman, with Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavill usually being the top two candidates. Having both played the Man of Steel the most on the silver screen, many people typically associate them with Superman whenever the hero comes to mind.
However, there are still arguments over who played the Blue Boy Scout best. So with Cavill about to exit the DCEU and David Corenswet about to be the new Superman, it’s time to settle this debate and explain who is the better Superman.
Though Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor and Terrence Stamp’s Zod are considered classic Superman villains, they really don’t hold up today and are mainly seen through a nostalgic lens. Hackman’s villain is a campy but crooked businessman who just wants to get richer and more powerful, which doesn’t strike much fear into the hearts of Superman or the audience. At the same time, Stamp’s character is a hammy and power-hungry warlord who wants to take over Earth, seeing himself as superior to humanity in a traditionally evil way.
In contrast, the DCEU’s Superman had more layered and threatening villains in his rogues’ gallery. Zod is more menacing and sympathetic for trying to destroy the Earth to build a new Krypton following its destruction, feeling it’s his right and purpose as a Kryptonian leader. Also, even if Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor isn’t that good, he is still better than Hackman’s, as he sees Superman as an unjust threat to the world due to his hateful and twisted views of God, and he briefly succeeds in turning Batman and Superman against each other before killing the latter with Doomsday.
In addition, Zack Snyder’s Steppenwolf is a monstrous but regretful alien who wants to create unity by stripping everyone of free will, as well as to return home after being banished for treason. And while Darkseid didn’t get much screentime in the DCEU as a big bad villain, he still cast a terrifying shadow over Superman and the multiverse thanks to the nightmarish future he is destined to create after breaking and brainwashing the Man of Steel.
When Reeve’s Superman reveals himself to the world to help people and stop crime throughout Metropolis, everyone immediately welcomes him as a hero. In contrast, Cavill’s Superman is detained the minute he rears his head to stop General Zod, and this fear persists even after protecting the planet for almost two years.
The latter character shows how the people of Earth would really react if a nigh-invincible alien with world-ending powers appeared. Humanity wouldn’t immediately welcome him as their savior; they would understandably fear him. The DCEU’s Superman thus stands out as a deconstruction of the idealized American fantasy behind the iconic hero, questioning whether or not such a figure can actually exist in the real world today as he did in the comics.
Though Cavill’s Superman spent years traveling Earth in Man of Steel, he was a very inexperienced hero who had only just learned to fly by the time Zod arrived on Earth. Due to his lack of time on the battlefield, he was a sloppy fighter who caused too much collateral damage, as shown by all the destruction and casualties left during his battle with Zod in Metropolis.
But by the time Reeve’s hero left the Fortress of Solitude in Superman: The Movie, he had spent 12 years training with Jor-El’s hologram to master his powers, making him a conscientious and strategic hero the moment he moves to Metropolis. As a result, he was more aware and protective of the lives caught in the crossfire while fighting Zod in Superman II, wisely choosing to move the battle far away to the Fortress of Solitude.
Though Reeve’s Superman made audiences believe a man could fly, he was significantly lacking in the combat department. Since visual effects were still in their infancy back in the ’70s, Reeve only engaged in a few slow-paced action scenes as Superman that don’t exactly look good today.
Fortunately, thanks to the advancements in CGI leading up to Man of Steel, Cavill’s Superman let audiences see some outstanding fights as he defended Earth from evil. His explosive, high-octane fights with Zod and Doomsday look like they were taken out of a shōnen anime, showcasing the hero’s true power in an astonishing spectacle.
Since Cavill’s hero struggles to find his place in a bleak and fearful world, his character doesn’t inspire the same kind of optimism as his predecessor. The dour tone of his story is best embodied by the muted color palette of his first two films. However, his inner conflict only displays the true humanity in his character and how even the Man of Steel can be fallible like everyone else. Also, the DCEU’s Superman does grow to be more like the comic book hero fans know and love over time, with his arc reaching its completion following his resurrection in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
On the other hand, Reeve’s Superman is an embodiment of hope and positivity through and through, as he has no problem fighting for humanity and standing for “truth, justice, and the American way.” He did give up his powers to be with Lois Lane in his second film, but at the end of the day, he never loses confidence in himself or his abilities, and he always stands up for what’s right.
Reeve’s Superman was notoriously overpowered. He could somehow reverse time, erase Lois’s memory with a kiss, and repair the Great Wall of China just by looking at it. He could also throw his “S” symbol from his chest as a cellophane net to catch his enemies. While some of these powers may not be considered canon now, they display how some writers used Kal-El’s ambiguous, alien nature to add whatever ability was convenient for them and the story.
In contrast, Cavill’s hero sticks to the character’s traditional powers, which include super strength, lightning-fast speed, ultra-sensitive hearing, flight, heat vision, X-ray vision, and ice breath. While this modern Superman is extremely powerful, the audience knows his strengths and weaknesses early on, making his conflicts more suspenseful and less contrived.
While Christopher Reeve has been widely hailed as the gold standard for playing superheroes, the overall execution of Superman and his story was arguably done better in Henry Cavill’s films.
He may have had a lackluster run as the Man of Steel, but thanks to his killer fight scenes, well-written character, realistic story, and impressive set of villains, Cavill has proven himself to be the superior Superman.
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