Superman, however, remains possibly unique in the pantheon of cinematic heroes, and the damage — real or imagined — associated with playing that strange visitor from another planet appears, at the very least, to have cast a longer-than-usual shadow over those who have dared to fly a mile in his cape and tights.
Due to the suicide (unless proven otherwise) of George Reeves, who played the character on television; and the tragic accident that paralyzed Christopher Reeve, one of his alter egos in film, there has even been talk through the years of a “Superman curse.”
Analyzing the challenges of being Superman, however — and toting the massive baggage he carries on his back — doesn’t require any superstitious mumbo-jumbo. The factors would appear to be as varied as the mix of patriotism and religion that has surrounded the character; that unlike many comicbook heroes, Superman doesn’t obscure his face, even in costume; and that Superman’s ordinary alter ego Clark Kent is actually his disguise. (Quentin Tarantino somewhat unexpectedly waded in on this last point — launching a thousand debates on comicbook websites — in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2.”)
The politics of Superman contain perhaps the role’s most fascinating traps, saddling our hero with a Boy Scout image and the description of representing “truth, justice and the American way,” even though the alien visitor is ostensibly a citizen of the world. When the 2006 reboot “Superman Returns” amended the well-known phrase to “truth, justice, all that stuff,” as newspaper editor Perry White put it, conservative writers predictably responded with torrents of indignation.
“As soon as you take on the role, it tends to dwarf anything you’ve ever done,” says Larry Tye, author of the book “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” who calls the part “uniquely defining as well as confining.”
Much of that has to do with the messianic overtone touched upon by the Superman origin, including the Judeo-Christian echoes of God dispatching his son to Earth or — for those who prefer the Moses variant — parents sending off a doomed but special baby to an uncertain fate that involves being adopted by strangers.
“It’s one of the reasons why it has such power, and why it has such potential for controversy and screwing it up,” Tye says of Superman’s religio-patriotic nexus.
In the past, actors have clearly chafed against the yoke of Superman. Reeves’ pains were even detailed in a movie, “Hollywoodland,” featuring a fine performance by Ben Affleck, well before he exploded the Internet by agreeing to become the next Batman. For his part, Reeve pushed back by playing a gay character in “Deathtrap,” whose rather demure kiss of co-star Michael Caine triggered boos from audiences in 1982. (Notably, 30 years later, when Brandon Routh of “Superman Returns” played a gay character in the CBS sitcom “Partners,” the casting didn’t garner much attention.)
The proliferation and mainstreaming of comicbook fare has changed some of the stigma tethered to these roles, and the related calculus in agreeing to play one. Certainly, it seems passe to think performers who sign on have nothing to look forward to in their twilight years but squeezing into the old costume to sign autographs at Comic-Con, although there might be no more depressing spectacle in the entertainment biz.
That said, even those who aren’t burdened by superstition must possess a sturdy backbone, almost uniquely so, before agreeing to join the relatively short list of actors who have become the Man of Steel. And for all the character’s old-fashioned values, that’s perhaps why mamas (and agents) should still think twice about letting their babies grow up to be Supermen.