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Henry Cavill as Superman: Why are Brits so appealing as American superheroes?

January 31, 2011 |  2:24 pm

The reaction in the fan universe to the news that Henry Cavill is the new Superman has been surprisingly muted given that the actor has little track record -- and the one he does have involves a royals soap-opera on pay cable.

But with the casting of "The Tudors" costar as the new Man of Steel, it's impossible not to notice the trend of Brits in capes. As my colleague Geoff Boucher notes, British citizens will fill all three slots in the holy trinity of superheroes for the first time in history now that Cavill will play Superman. (Welsh native Christian Bale is reprising his role as Batman in "The Dark Knight Rises," and British-American Andrew Garfield is the new Spider-Man.)

Meanwhile, Aussie Chris Hemsworth is playing Thor (a character, of course, rooted in another country's mythology) in a new Marvel movie. Even Green Lantern comes from Canada.

Before the comment flames begin ... yes, in many ways this doesn't really matter. These actors will lose their accents long before they leap off their first building. And while Superman is ostensibly a character who seeks "truth, justice and the American way," the phrase from the comic (if it's used in the movie at all) is just a euphemism meant to suggest goodness. These days it could just as easily be the British way.

Still, the casting of foreigners is notable. For one thing, it reflects where filmmakers are headed with these characters. Nearly all of these superheroes are darker and more tortured, and the current generation of Brits is seen, rightly or wrongly, as more comfortable at that end of the acting spectrum than many of their American counterparts.

Maybe more important, the choice speaks to a desire to cast relative unknowns in the roles. Except for Bale, none of the Aussies or Brits was known to a broad U.S. audience when they landed their superhero parts. The ability to get an actor at a reasonable paycheck -- the superhero, after all, makes the actor as much as the other way around -- can't be far from the minds of producers. And creatively, an unknown is a blank slate that can grow with a franchise instead of overshadowing it.

In fact, while some of us get very worked up about just who will play these superheroes, the actors who have inhabited these parts most successfully -- Christopher Reeve, Tobey Maguire -- have been low-key, even fey presences. Actors well-known for their charm -- a George Clooney, for instance -- actually make less-memorable superheroes.

When Brandon Routh was cast as Superman six years ago, he worried that he'd be confused a little too much with Reeve. It wasn't an idle concern: Routh looked and acted enough like the late Reeve to draw the comparison, but he inevitably got the short end of the stick. The goal these days seems to lie in the other direction: Bring in someone who looks and acts nothing like those who came before.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Henry Cavill (center) in '"The Tudors." Credit: Jonathan Hession / Showtime


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