He might not be the most well-respected Superman, or the man who’s worn the blue tights the longest, but Dean Cain will always be the definitive Superman. From 1993 to 1997, Cain stared as Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman in the fantastic Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. With Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane, the show was unstoppable. Why did anyone ever care about Ross and Rachael when we had Lois and Clark? Lois was a kick-ass reporter and Clark was the most powerful being in the universe. Ross was a palaeontologist and Rachel worked in Macy’s, or something (who cares?). There’s really no competition, and if it were up to me, I’d give Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher the ‘Best 90s Couple’ crown every time.
It wasn’t, however, this burgeoning relationship that I tuned in for. No, I tuned in to see a red cape billowing in the wind as Supes shot lasers from his eyes or froze things with his breath. (Countless cold mornings were spent trying this as I waited for the school bus, but somehow, the bus always arrived.) The action in New Adventures... was camp and brilliant. The acting too was cheesy at times, but in a show where we’re supposed to believe the main character can read a whole book in two seconds, and disguise himself simply by donning a pair of glasses, a little bit of cheese is necessary to help us swallow the serious stuff.
I’m a moderate fan of Superman comics, but have always thought Superman is flawed as a basic concept. The fact he’s invincible (apart from exposure to kryptonite or emotional blackmail) always made Superman a bit of a boring character. It seemed to me that the comics would feature needlessly complex plots about other worlds, time travel and parallel dimensions, just to find something to really challenge Superman. Batman, on the other hand is flesh and blood, and whilst he’s a master of many things, he can still be hurt. Even Wolverine, with his mutant healing powers, is flawed in an interesting way. What’s Superman’s flaw? That he’s too good?
The tongue-in-cheek approach to The New Adventures of Superman worked with this idea of the invincible hero. You can’t take Superman too seriously as there’s a risk of him becoming a stony-faced do-gooder with almost no personality (see Brandon Routh in 2006’s Superman Returns). This is fine, if that’s how you like your Superman, but for me, Dean Cain’s floppy-haired, spandex-clad mound of muscle was enough of a caricature to make Superman interesting as more than a two-dimensional deity.
The world’s first introduction to Superman on film was Superman and the Mole Men, from 1951. As you’d expect Mole Menhasn’t dated well, and to a kid born in the 90s, there was never really a chance for George Reeves to compete with later icons such as (the unrelated) Christopher Reeve.
Christopher Reeve’s first Superman movie, 1978’s Superman, was fantastic. Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were involved as Jor-El and Lex Luthor respectively, and The Godfather’s Mario Puzo wrote the script. What could go wrong? Reeve was hailed as a fantastic Superman and even went as far as to gain 42 pounds during filming after producers told him to wear a muscle suit during his audition.
Superman 2 was also awesome, but by the time Superman 3 came around and Clark Kent was being split in two and having to rescue Richard Pryor, things were on a downward spiral.
Christopher Reeve is undoubtedly the second-best Superman, but despite his run of four films and his dedication to bulking up for the role, I was never convinced he could do any real damage, if he had to. Superman as a character does not necessarily need to be hugely muscular as he has a natural alien strength advantage, but it’s important for an audience to see this strength converted into the actor’s physique, for the sake of appearances, if nothing else. Whilst Reeve didn’t cut it for me in that department, the new trailer for Man of Steelfeatures a great shot of Henry Cavill flexing his muscles and looking strong enough to save every day of the week.
For Dean Cain, looking strong came pretty naturally. After graduating from Princeton, Cain signed on to play American Football for NFL team Buffalo Bills. A training injury meant Cain’s career was over before it began, but his physicality stayed with him through minor roles in a Kellogs' commercial and 90210 until his big (and only) break came in The New Adventures of Superman in 1993.
Perhaps the most popular actor to play Superman (certainly amongst the hashtag generation) is Smallville’s Tom Welling, an actor who’s remained 25 for 10 years and a staggering 210 episodes of the show. Welling appears to have it all, he’s got the floppy hair I admire in Cain, he’s got the muscles, and he’s obviously handsome. Herein lies the problem; yes, Superman should be handsome (he’s more or less perfect, after all) but his supporting cast don’t need to be so good looking. Something always rings hollow around these sort of American shows, where everyone is in their 30s, yet playing incredibly good looking 20 year-olds. Shows like 90210 and The O.C offer an idealised picture of American life, where everyone’s rich and handsome, but Superman is supposed to stand out in contrast to American life (and indeed, all life on Earth). Where he’s handsome, we’re ugly. Where he is strong, we are weak. Where he is perfect, we are flawed.
Those handsome small town bastards
Of course the cast of The New Aventures... aren’t bad on the eye, but at least John Shea as Lex Luthor actually looked the part. Also, anyone who says Lane Smith is not the definitive Perry White is a liar.
It might turn out that Dean Cain is not able to stand up to Henry Cavill’s interpretation of Kal-El, but it’s a fact that Cain successfully wipes the floor with everyone who came before or immediately afterwards his four years in the red trunks. For these reasons, The New Adventures of Superman will forever be held up in my mind as the greatest on-screen depiction of the last surviving kryptonite.
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