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From all-American hero to mild-mannered reporter, there are two distinct personalities to Superman. In order to keep the world from putting the pieces together and working out his identity, Kal-El needs to project some difference between the two. While on the surface, it looks like he simply changes his clothes and removes his glasses, it's actually so much more.
Actor Christopher Reeve is, for many, the definitive on-screen Superman. He managed to portray both parts to the character with great success — and this is proved by a very subtle, yet hugely effective shoulder movement, which just went viral earlier this week:
Christopher Reeve turning into Superman. He's his own practical effect. pic.twitter.com/sT5oRysuS2
— Ben Kuchera (@BenKuchera) September 3, 2017
In one small motion, Reeve transforms from the shy reporter into the Man of Steel — and immediately, you can see a difference. It doesn't seem like much, but this small adjustment in body language demonstrates the understanding that he had of the character. Reeve knew that Clark Kent would have to blend in and not arouse suspicion about his true identity, so he carefully thought about how he could portray this. This one motion is the result. As the tweet says, he's his own practical effect.
#ChristopherReeve isn't the only actor to play the role(s), of course, so let's have a look to see how other portrayals compare — do any of them have the same subtle differences?
Henry Cavill (Man of Steel)
Let's begin with the current custodian of the famous red and blue suit (on the big screen, at least): #HenryCavill. Putting aside your opinion of #ManOfSteel as a whole, it's undeniable that Cavill looks the part.
But one area that's lacking is the duality of the character. It seems like the modern-day Clark Kent isn't too bothered about keeping his secret from the world, though he does acknowledge that he needs a job where he can keep his ear to the ground. When he enters the Daily Planet newsroom at the end of the film, he greets Lois with a wry smile, and from her response it's obvious that she recognizes him too.
Tyler Hoechlin (Supergirl)
The #Supergirl adaptation of Superman took a different approach. While the #DCEU's Clark Kent is still finding his place in the world, the #Arrowverse version is an established hero. Hoechlin plays a much lighter version of the character than Cavill, and his Clark Kent is much more charming.
He is very clumsy and accident-prone, like Reeve's, and he holds himself in a reserved way; once he removes the glasses, he stands up straight and looks much more assertive. There are clearly two different characters in his performance.
Brandon Routh (Superman Returns)
Another film that didn't really hit the heights of Reeve's 1978 debut was 2006's Superman Returns. It was a loose sequel to Reeve's films that depicts Superman's return to Earth after a five-year absence. Routh was chosen because of his likeness to Reeve, and it's clear from his performance that he studied Reeve's portrayal. The slightly hunched shoulders that Reeve employed as Clark Kent are evident in Routh's performance, and the confidence that he exudes as the Man of Steel is also apparent.
Tom Welling (Smallville)
#Smallville is an interesting one because Clark needing to alter his behaviour to conceal his identity actually became a plot point towards the end of the series' run. When he first started acting as "The Blur" in Metropolis, Clark Kent was a super confident, up-and-coming journalist who always just happened to be in places that The Blur showed up. But it was Lois Lane who realized that if Clark was going to become the hero that he was destined to be, he had to change the Clark Kent side of his character.
As a result of this, he starts to act in a more clumsy manner and becomes less assertive in his daily life. When we finally see the moment that we waited 10 seasons for — when Clark becomes Superman — we're given a brief glimpse into how Clark has changed in his behaviour around his coworkers.
Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman)
Dean Cain took a different approach in the way he carried himself as Clark Kent than Reeve did. #LoisAndClark implied that Superman was the disguise and Clark Kent was the real Kal-El. One example of this was the difference in the hairstyle; Superman was the character with the slicked back hair, whereas Clark Kent's hair naturally fell over his forehead. This Clark was less clumsy and more confident among his peers, and Cain's performance reflects this. It's a unique take, but fondly remembered by a generation of fans.
These are by no means the only actors to portray Superman, but every actor has put their own stamp on the character. While they all tried to show the two different elements of Superman's character, they've all had varying degrees of success. Almost 40 years after its release, Christopher Reeve's Superman has still set the benchmark for the character — and in one gif, we can see just how he did it.