Funny thing about this week’s summer movie kickoff, The Avengers: While all of the superheroes have been around for a long time in comic-book and/or animation form, they’re all relative newbies to the live-action world. (That is, with the exception of the Hulk and, to a lesser degree, Captain America.) Not the case with the unofficial “first wave” of superheroes, the ones many of us have been watching — and have been entertained by — for decades on the small and big screens. Here’s a look at those superheroes, the actors who have portrayed them on TV and in films, and how they’ve changed (or haven’t) over the years.
In: Batman (TV series, 1966-‘68) and Batman (movie, 1966)
Best/Worst Batman? Neither
Notes: West is generally thought of as the first actor to play the Caped Crusader, but Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery each played the character in the 1940s “serial” movies. West, however, was the first to give Batman a place in the public consciousness, cinematically speaking, and he will forever be linked with the superhero. His performances were solid, but West was a victim of the campy feel of the movie/series in which he starred… and the spandex Batsuit… and the Batusi.
In: Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992)
Best/Worst Batman? Neither
Notes: Keaton’s interpretation of Batman, which followed two-plus decades of nonactivity on the big screen for the Caped Crusader, forever changed the representation of the character. The monotone, emotionless voice? The physical rigidity? That’s Keaton’s work (which isn’t to say his director, Tim Burton, didn’t have a hand in crafting the modern-ish Batman). And what great work it turned out to be. In fact, we'd understand if you rank him as the best Batman of all time; he’s our No. 2, and just barely. (And on the subject of rankings, Kevin Conroy, who voiced the Dark Knight in the 1990s animated TV series, doesn’t quite meet our live-action criteria for this list, but vocally, emotionally, and dichotomously — as Bruce Wayne and Batman — nails the character unlike any before or since.)
In: Batman Forever (1995)
Best/Worst Batman? Neither
Notes: Kilmer was mostly just… innocuous as Batman in his really, really brief (as in one-movie brief, thanks to the ol’ “creative differences”) tenure playing the character. Although strong in spots, Kilmer’s turn as Batman was stiff and ultimately forgettable, a Caped Crusader that didn’t make audiences feel much of anything. That’s a no-no for a character as complex as Batman.
In: Batman & Robin (1997)
Best/Worst Batman? Worst
Notes: The Cloon Man can do virtually no wrong — except when it comes to the role of Batman, which was a borderline (unintentional) joke at the time and is now, in hindsight, an absolute joke. Clooney’s delivery and affect were tonally askew pretty much throughout the movie, and then there were the things he had no control over, like the prominently displayed codpiece — er, Bat-crotch (pictured, above!) — not to mention director Joel Schumacher’s subtly erotic take on Batman and Robin’s relationship. But Clooney’s hindsight assessment of the movie’s failure, and his failure in it, has always been refreshing: “It’s easy to look back at Batman and go, ‘Whoa! That was really s**t, and I was really bad in it.’”
In: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Best/Worst Batman? Best
Notes: Is it too soon to crown Bale the best Batman ever? Does proper perspective and evaluation of his performances require time and distance? Uh, no. Bale has captured the true essence of the Dark Knight (emphasis on “Dark”) like no actor before him, injecting his trademark intensity into an iconic character that, let’s not forget, was previously rendered a joke by Clooney and Schumacher. With obvious help from director Christopher Nolan, Bale completely resuscitated a dead franchise and restored fanboy sanity — by playing Batman the way he was meant to be played.
NEXT: Reeves or Reeve?
In: Superman and the Mole Men (movie, 1951) and Adventures of Superman (TV series, 1952-’58)
Best/Worst Superman? Neither
Notes: Reeves, as the first screen version of Superman, was a bit, well, steely as the Man of Steel, one of the few superheroes whose faces we see (and thus whose expressions are a big part of the performance). But it was more a sign of the times than bad acting. In fact, Reeves, who obviously didn’t have the good fortune of working with any sort of modern special effects, was often forced to rely on his raw physicality, to typically strong results. He was even cooler as Clark Kent!
In: Superman (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Best/Worst Superman? Best
Notes: Make no mistake: We’re not calling the late, great Reeve an unequivocal success throughout his overlong run as the Man of Steel, but he’s certainly the franchise’s best. When one thinks of Superman in human, non-comic form, Reeve comes to mind first, and for good reason: Not only did he make us associate him with the character by, again, starring in at least two too many such films, but his performance throughout struck the perfect balance between sweet charm and raw masculinity.
In: Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
Best/Worst Superman? Neither
Notes: Don’t judge Cain based on his post-Lois & Clark career — or lack thereof. He actually made for a solid Clark Kent/Superman in this small-screen take on the relationship between the title characters. Cain rendered Superman/Kent a likable, interesting, more contemporary superhero/guy, and a lot of viewers didn’t much mind his looks week after week, either.
In: Superman Returns (2006)
Best/Worst Superman? Worst
Notes: The movie’s box office failures and those of its star have probably been overstated a bit, but… yeah. It did disappoint in both aspects, especially the latter. While Superman Returns itself was relatively well-received by critics, Routh, who was basically unknown at the time of his casting, undeniably lacked charisma as the title superhero, and his performance was flat. Which isn’t to say it was disastrous, but for a franchise that had been inactive on the big screen for almost two decades, a wiser casting choice might’ve been a splashier name and/or a more impactful actor.
In: Man of Steel (2013)
Notes: A Brit? As the most all-American superhero?! Hey, worked for Batman — quite well. Aside from that, with nothing more than an exciting "first look" photo to go on, we don’t know what to expect from Cavill in the summer 2013 Steel, other than a major step up from the man he’s replacing. (That, and Christopher Nolan's producing.) With all due respect to Routh, there’s nowhere to go but up.
NEXT: The Irreplaceable Ms. Carter
Cathy Lee Crosby
In: Wonder Woman (TV movie, 1974)
Best/Worst Wonder Woman? Worst
Notes: Little-known, or frequently glossed-over, fact (by those who weren’t around in the mid-‘70s): Lynda Carter IS Wonder Woman, but she isn’t the original Wonder Woman. In fact, Carter might have Crosby to thank for her iconic role: The Wonder Woman TV movie garnered solid ratings when it premiered in 1974, but not great reviews from critics or viewers. Thus, producers felt compelled to launch a serial version soon thereafter but also to take the character in a different direction, one that better paralleled the comic version on which she was based… i.e., played by a brunette.
In: Wonder Woman (TV series, 1975-’79)
Best/Worst Wonder Woman? Best
Notes: Again, Carter IS Wonder Woman. It's perhaps why TV and movie studios have had such a difficult time trying to find her replacement or replication for a big- or small-screen update… to no avail. (There has never been a movie version, and, well, see below for more on the extremely short-lived TV reboot.) And while Carter’s beauty was always what caught the viewer's eye first, her strong yet humane performance is what has really helped the character resonate and endure the way Wonder Woman has. It’s also what made her a role model to so many women at the time.
In: Wonder Woman (TV pilot, 2011)
Best/Worst Wonder Woman? Unknown
Notes: NBC was once so excited about its shiny David E. Kelley-backed Wonder Woman reboot with rising star Palicki in the title role. That was circa February 2011. By May, on the heels of the not-so-well-received first image of Palicki in costume, it was announced that nothing beyond the pilot episode would be necessary, and so the updated-Wonder Woman search continues.
NEXT: The Not-So-Jolly Green Giant
In: The Incredible Hulk (TV series, 1978-’82), The Incredible Hulk (movie, 2008; voice) and The Avengers (movie, 2012; voice)
Best/Worst Hulk? Best
Notes: Whether he likes it or not, Ferrigno is and always will be the Hulk, which at this point in his life/career is presumably somewhat annoying (see: I Love You, Man’s hilarious but probably accurate send-up). The ex-bodybuilder certainly would be a natural fit to play any superhero of monstrous proportions — green or otherwise — because of his physical stature, but it’s as much his innately hulky voice and mannerisms that make him such a great fit as the green giant. And it’s a role that has endured, to say the least, as Ferrigno provided the voice of the character in the 2008 Incredible Hulk and he does the same in this summer’s The Avengers (Mark Ruffalo will physically portray the Hulk in the film, but not vocally — which is more than can be said for Edward Norton and Eric Bana, both of whom only played the Bruce Banner character in the 21st-century Hulk updates; see below for more on them).
In: Hulk (2003)
Best/Worst Hulk? N/A
Notes: Bana turned in a solid performance as Bruce Banner and is in no way, shape or form responsible for the cringe-worthy Hulk we saw on screen — the cartoonish version that might as well have been Shrek's juiced-up (on CGI) cousin.
In: The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Best/Worst Hulk? N/A
Notes: The newer Hulk was a vast improvement over the previous model, seen in the aforementioned 2003 film — but it still had nothing to do with Norton, who, like Bana before him, only portrayed Banner. In fact, as much as the toned-down CGI deserves credit, it was franchise MVP Ferrigno, providing the vocals and more, who once again helped restore credibility to the character.
NEXT: Is the Best Yet to Come... This Summer?
In: The Amazing Spider-Man (TV series, 1977-’79)
Notes: Can Spider-Man be considered groovy? If so, that’d be probably be the most accurate description for Hammond’s tenure as the character. Just see: The porn music and overall vibe present in the way-too-‘70s Spidey TV movies/shows in which Hammond starred. His acting was endearingly cheesy — and you thought the upside-down smooch between Mary Jane and Spider-Man was tacky! — and he looked about two decades too old (and was, in reality, about one decade too old) to play Peter Parker. But no one can ever take away the fact that Hammond was the first-ever live-action Spidey.
In: Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Notes: Part of what makes Maguire slightly off-putting in a lot of other roles is what also happens to make him credible as Peter Parker: a certain delicate awkwardness. The fact that, for three films, he was able to seamlessly and believably transform into the powerful, crime-fighting title web-slinger speaks to his oft-overlooked ability as an actor. (Even the studio, Sony, was reportedly not convinced that Maguire could pull off such a dichotomy… and then he auditioned.)
In: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Notes: Another British takeover! And another seemingly good casting choice: Garfield showed off a pitch-perfect American accent (and more importantly, a firm grasp on teenagedom) in 2010’s The Social Network, and that was all producers needed to cast him as the lead in Columbia Pictures’ franchise reboot. Garfield’s personal passion for, and understanding of, the character since childhood is icing on the cake. Couple all that with incoming writer/director Marc Webb’s hints of a deeper, less special-effects-reliant Spider-Man installment, and the Garfield casting ought to pay dividends immediately (especially if the studio got the pre-fame discount!).
A Non-Geek's Guide to the Avengers
Batman Spends What? The Price of Being a Superhero
What If The Dark Knight Was Made In the '60s? — VIDEO
Set in a world inhabited only by motor vehicles Cars is sort of a cross between Michael J. Fox's Doc Hollywood and NASCAR. The main hero is a hotshot rookie race car named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson)--an obvious homage to the late fast-driving Steve McQueen--whose one goal in life is to win the Piston Cup and bask in fame and glory. Yet on his cross-country trip to the Piston Cup Championship in California to compete against two seasoned pros (real-life legendary racer Richard Petty voices the reigning champion The King) Lightning finds himself unexpectedly detoured in the sleepy--and forgotten--Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. There he meets its colorful denizens--including Sally (Bonnie Hunt) a snazzy 2002 Porsche who owns the local “rest” stop; Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) the town’s rusty but trusty tow truck; and Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) a 1951 Hudson Hornet who rules the town with a steady hand er wheel. Together they all help the cocksure Lightning realize that there are more important things than trophies fame and sponsorship. If Pixar calls you come running so it isn’t at all surprising how impressive the Cars vocal line-up is starting with legendary screen icon Newman as the Doc. Come on being the race car driving nut that he is you think the 81-year-old actor would say no to voicing a 1951 Hudson Hornet who has his own mysterious past in the racing world? Hell no. The rest of the cast also seem to have a good time channeling their inner car from Wilson’s snarky speedster to Hunt’s cute and sexy Porsche a big-city lawyer who decides to get out of the fast lane. Supporting voices include Cheech Marin and Tony Shalhoub as Radiator Springs’ low-riding body shop and Italian Fiat tire shop owners respectively. Even George Carlin gets into the act as a groovy ‘60s VW wagon who sells “organic” fuel. Good stuff. Of course what Pixar flick would be complete without its comic relief? Although he’s no Ellen DeGeneres as a short-term memory impaired fish Larry the Cable Guy fills in nicely as the dim but sweet Mater the ultimate hick tow truck. Having been out of the directing loop since his 1999 sequel Toy Story 2 Cars marks Pixar’s golden boy John Lasseter return--and this is his big love letter to the splendor that is the automobile. Of course his demand for perfection took its toll. The animators had to come up with a new technique called “ray tracing ” which allows the car stars--that are metallic and heavily contoured--to credibly reflect their environments. Even with a sophisticated network of 3 000 computers and state-of-the-art lightning-fast processors that operate up to four times faster than they did on The Incredibles the average time to render a single frame of film was 17 hours. Still all that time spent pays off. Cars is a real visual treat with another firm grasp in storytelling. Sure it’s a bit of a vanity project and may shoot way over the kiddies’ heads making them squirm a little during the “slow” parts. But as one of the recently appointed top guns at Disney Lasseter can do just about anything he wants these days--and we are going to love it dammit.
Based on a series of six Marvel Comics created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1962 The Hulk revolves around a scientist named Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) who following a laboratory snafu absorbs a normally deadly dose of gamma radiation. Bruce thinks he has escaped unscathed--until he gets mad ... real mad which causes him to turn into a huge rampaging green monster known as the Hulk. In order to make this 40-year-old gamma theory somewhat more believable for today's science-savvy moviegoers screenwriter James Schamus and his team decided to arm the script with a somewhat more convincing scientific rationale. The story follows Bruce's father David Banner (Nick Nolte) who as a young scientist conducted prohibited genetic experiments on himself thus changing his son's life before he was even out of the womb. While modernizing the scientific reasoning behind Bruce's transformation makes sense it's a pity it had to be done in such a heavy-handed way. By adding such an elaborate layer to the story The Hulk becomes more about Bruce and David's tormented past and any semblance of a plot is buried in melodramatic dialogue between the characters. The result is a comic book adaptation that is much too serious for its own genre.
Despite the theatrical discourse don't expect complex characters to emerge from The Hulk. Although Bana (Black Hawk Down) is a good choice for the lead of the nerdy scientist and reluctant hero his character is so busy pretending he doesn't have any problems that the audience never gets to see his emotional side. Bana's character grimaces convincingly as he represses his anger for example but he fails ever to open up on a personal level to his love interest in the film his co-worker Betty played by Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind). Betty is Bruce's old flame but the two are obviously still in love: she is obsessed with fixing whatever is broken about him. As the Hulk Bruce need only look at Betty once for his anger to subside and allow him to morph back into human form. They have weighty discussions about the significance of their dreams and Bruce's past yet they never seem to connect on any level. One of the film's best performances comes from Nolte (The Good Thief) in the role of Bruce's mad scientist father David. Almost Shakespearean at times Nolte--scraggly hair and all-- completely immerses himself in the role. The cast's performances however are muted by the general heaviness of this would-be actioner. Look for quick cameo appearances by Lou Ferrigno (from the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk) and Marvel legend Stan Lee.
For his follow-up to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Ang Lee has turned to bigger greener matters. The Hulk the director's visual effects-intense picture (with a little help from Industrial Light & Magic) is stunning and startlingly well done. The green beast's computer generated movements from his heaving chest to the single leaps that spring him well into a different zip code are convincingly real. Not only does the ground shake when this goliath lands but his momentum even throws him off balance at times sending his lumbering arms flailing. But while the CGI Hulk has been meticulously honed Lee's homage to the world of print comic books--using multiple screens to present concurrent storylines and alternate angles of the same scene--is off-putting: Rival researcher Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) suspiciously walks out of the lab Betty reacts in one panel Bruce sits back in another. The simultaneous screens don't necessarily show anything pertinent going on making the far and wide close and medium shots of the character's reactions a distraction rather than a helpful storytelling technique. But the most disconcerting thing about the film is that in its leap from the four-color paneled pages to the big screen it lost its wit.