With this week's release of "Man of Steel," Henry Cavill will officially become the latest in the long line of actors to play a live-action incarnation of Superman, inheriting a legacy that began just about 65 years ago. Unfortunately, it's a legacy that often comes with a heavy price for those that don the cape, boots and big 'S' of the Last Son of Krypton.
"The Curse of Superman" is a longstanding superstition based on a series of misfortunes -- both professional and personal -- that have plagued the actors who have played the superhero on either the small or big screen. While it mostly centers on the rather notorious case of George Reeves, the "curse" actually came into being almost from the very beginning of Superman's live-action career.
The first actor to portray a live-action Superman was Kirk Alyn, who started out as a chorus boy on Broadway and treaded the boards of vaudeville before moving to Hollywood in the early 1940s. He got by on bit parts in low-budget films before landing his big break with "Superman" (1948), a 15-episode live-action serial that chronicled Kal-El's coming to Earth, growing up and befriending Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen at the Daily Planet and battling the nefarious super villainess, the Spider Lady. Alyn reprised the role in "Atom Man vs. Superman" (1950), which featured Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor and the first-ever live-action portrayal of the alternate dimension known as the Phantom Zone.
Alyn would prove to be the first victim of the "curse," as he became too closely associated with Superman and was unable to have much of a career following the serials. He appeared in a few more comic book-type serials as well as some TV series and movies, though his most notable role following his tenure as the Man of Steel might very well have been his cameo as Lois Lane's father in Richard Donner's "Superman" (1978).
Alyn was offered the role of Superman in the subsequent television series, though he turned it down, allowing George Reeves to step (fly?) in. Reeves played the role in the theatrical featurette "Superman and the Mole Men" (1951) and on the TV series, "Adventures of Superman" (1952-1958), arguably becoming the most popular live-action Superman actor next to Christopher Reeve.
However, like Alyn, George Reeves was unable to sustain a career after he hung up his cape. He played the role of Sergeant Maylon Stark in "From Here to Eternity" (1953), though there were rumors that the part was drastically reduced after audiences reacted unfavorably to seeing Superman in a war movie. According to director Fred Zinnemann, screenwriter Daniel Taradash and assistant director Earl Bellamy, the rumor is false, that it is brought up and claimed to be true in director Allen Coulter's film, "Hollywoodland" (2006), starring Ben Affleck as Reeves.
The "curse" took a sinister turn with Reeves after he was found dead from a gunshot wound in his bedroom on June 16, 1959. The cause of death has officially been registered as a suicide, though it's been the cause of controversy and conspiracy ever since, with many claiming that Reeves was murdered.
The main basis for the "curse," however, is not being able to truly escape from the role of Superman, a cinematic Kryptonite that keeps the actor from having any sort of decent career that doesn't involve running (and flying) around in blue tights. Christopher Reeve, a classically trained stage actor, won the hearts of millions with his masterful dual role of Clark Kent/Superman in four feature films from 1978-1987, though he struggled professionally following the much-reviled "Superman IV: The Quest For Peace" -- though one has to wonder whether he might've scored a comeback were it not for the horse riding accident on May 27, 1995 that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Reeve died on October 10, 2004 from heart failure stemming from his medical condition.
The "curse" has also affected Superman actors who never even got to play the role on the big screen. The career of Dean Cain, star of "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" (1993-1997), never took flight following his four-season gig as the Man of Steel, and Tom Welling, star of "Smallville" (2001-2011), has struggled with life after Superman (or Clark Kent, rather).
The most recent victim of the big-screen version of the "curse" is Brandon Routh, the star of Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" (2006). Routh won praise for his charming if somewhat brooding performance, though the film's lukewarm reception both critically and commercially didn't put him on Hollywood's Most Wanted list. He's managed to score some amusing supporting roles since his one and only big-screen Superman gig (most notably as Todd Ingram in the cult favorite "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), though he's mostly found semi-steady work on television, appearing in recurring roles on "Chuck" and "Partners."
Which brings us to Henry Cavill. He's had a not-bad career so far, breaking hearts and bedding maidens on "The Tudors" and flexing his muscles for the good of gods and men in "Immortals" (2011). He managed to emerge unscathed from that Bruce Willis movie no one saw last year ("The Cold Light of Day") and fought valiantly against Michael Fassbender's demonic Nazi in Joel Schumacher's underrated "Blood Creek" (2010). He's even rumored to be filling in for Tom Cruise by taking on the lead role of Napoleon Solo in "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," the long in-development big-screen adaptation of the '60s spy series.
However, "Man of Steel" is most definitely Cavill's biggest movie yet -- by far, actually. For many people, this week's much-hyped blockbuster will mark the first time they've actually seen Cavill in action. Whether he'll be able to transcend being "the new Superman" or become the latest victim of career Kryptonite remains to be seen.
"Man of Steel" opens on Friday.