Despite the virtues of the different versions of Superman they portrayed, the Men of Steel played by Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill can, unfortunately, be categorized as “failed” Supermen – but which of the two is ultimately better? Routh played the caped wonder in 2006’s Superman Returns, directed by Bryan Singer, and he donned the blue and red costume once again in the Arrowverse’s 2019/2020 mega-crossover, Crisis On Infinite Earths. Cavill rebooted the Kryptonian superhero in Zack Snyder’s 2013 Man of Steel. Cavill then returned in 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2017’s Justice League, and he will reprise the role once more in Zack Snyder’s Justice League in 2021.


While both versions have legions of fans and each actor did get to reprise the role, Cavill and Routh also faced a degree of critical and audience malignment in their initial outings as Superman, which led to box office disappointments when compared to the lofty expectations for both Superman Returns and Man of Steel. Routh’s sequel was canceled while Cavill’s Man of Steel 2 was reconfigured to co-star Batman (Ben Affleck) as a “sure thing” to turn it into a blockbuster. As such, both Supermen “failed” since neither Routh nor Cavill got to star in a direct sequel to their debut films as Superman.

The Superman played by Brandon Routh was the same character originated by Christopher Reeve, and Singer designed Superman Returns to be a sequel to Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie and Richard Lester’s 1980 Superman II (but it ignores Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). Routh’s Kryptonian continued Reeve’s friendly but god-like Silver Age incarnation of Superman, who possessed seemingly unlimited powers and once spun around the world so fast that he turned back time. The twist for Routh’s hero was that after five years away from Earth, he faced alienation and loneliness as he saved the world from Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey). Meanwhile, Cavill’s Superman was a reinvention by Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer, and theirs’ was a physically impressive but morally conflicted Man of Steel, which borrowed from DC Comics’ Injustice storyline. Cavill’s Superman faced a full-on alien invasion by Kryptonians and did the unthinkable when he outright murdered General Zod (Michael Shannon) in order to save the world.

Cavill’s Man of Steel, like him or fear him, is a reflection of the darker edges of modern pop culture. Zack Snyder wanted a Superman who ultimately did the right thing but questioned the goodness of the people he was protecting because he was the victim of bullying all of his life. In Batman V Superman, Cavill’s Kryptonian was greeted with requisite suspicion by the government and the 24-hour news cycle, all of whom questioned his true motives despite his world-saving heroics. Meanwhile, Batman outright feared Superman turning on the world and “burning the whole place down.” Justice League did strip away Superman’s fearsomeness and resurrected him to be brighter and more heroic, but The Snyder Cut of the film looks to re-embrace the darker Superman and bring the macro story Zack Snyder wanted to tell to its fruition.

Unlike Cavill’s Man of Steel, who has to undergo a very elaborate arc in order to emerge at the end as a true Superman, Routh’s spit curled hero already is Superman. Much of this is because Routh inherited the role from Reeve, who defined Superman for a generation and remains the beloved gold standard for a cinematic Man of Steel. To his credit, Routh conveyed all of Reeve’s Superman’s virtues and he added an emotional vulnerability to Clark Kent as well. The failure of Superman Returns was because the film didn’t create a compelling enough story and it overall lacked action despite a thrilling airplane rescue sequence, but Routh’s Superman was undoubtedly the best thing in Singer’s movie.

Unfortunately, since he was never able to star in Superman Returns 2, Routh didn’t get to make the Superman role truly his own – until Crisis On Infinite Earths, where Routh’s Kingdom Come Superman finally broke out of Reeve’s shadow and delivered a seminal version of the Man of Steel who suffered and understood great loss but rose above it to become a beacon of hope. In Crisis, Routh was, simply put, a perfect Superman with all of his nobility and heroism intact. Cavill’s Superman, while impressive to behold and bursting with potential, still hasn’t had the chance to put all of the pieces together to become a complete Superman. Perhaps after Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Cavill’s Man of Steel will finally be the Superman he was meant to be, but until then, Brandon Routh already embodies Superman and all of the superhero’s very best qualities.

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