How CAPTAIN AMERICA Surpassed SUPERMAN as Our Greatest Hero

Christopher Reeve’s heir doesn’t wear a cape. He carries a shield.

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UPDATED 12/22/16: Captain America: Civil War starts streaming on Netflix on Christmas, so I’m dusting off this good ol’ argument starter…

There’s a truth I’ve long held to be self-evident: Superman is our greatest hero.

Not the “best” mind you. I could come up with 13 reasons Batman’s better, more interesting and easily my favorite. And then 13 more. And then 13 after that.

I mean greater in terms of his historic, cultural importance, what he’s supposed to stand for, how he emblemizes our aspirational ideals.

And I’m not talking about comic books, either. I’m talking about the pop-cultural zeitgeist. Comics readers are a tiny fraction of the population. Everyone else? What they know of superheroes comes from movies and TV.

For more than a generation, Superman was embodied by Christopher Reeve and defined by director Richard Donner (and, to a lesser extent, director Richard Lester). Dean Cain, Tom Welling, Helen Slater and those two guys who played Superboy were variations on the Reeve model.

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Reeve and Donner recognized Superman’s inherent appeal in his modern surroundings. They made Superman’s squareness an attribute. The Metropolis he lives in exists in a post-Watergate New York City Metropolis with its daytime muggings and bold Midtown pimps. But in a cynical world, he was the last hopeful man.

Yet even as TV shows kept the flame alive, Reeve/Donner Superman gave way 10 years ago to Bryan Singer and Brandon Routh’s Superman. Their Metropolis was located in Prozac Nation. Superman still did good because it was the right thing to do but he moped and pined like an adolescent whose ex-girlfriend is taking a different guy to the prom — to our eternal tedium. Singer may have loved what Reeve and Donner did, but he didn’t get what Reeve and Donner did.

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Then came Zack Snyder and he melted down the Man of Steel even further: Now, he gets the girl but he’s wracked with crushing indecisiveness and self-loathing. His father tells him that maybe he should keep to himself and let a bus full of children die. His mother insists he doesn’t owe the world anything.

If that’s not a reflection of who we are as a society, then I don’t know what is.

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But that’s not what Superman is supposed to be about. He’s supposed to be about sacrifice, loyalty, bravery and humble but powerful confidence.

As it turns out, a funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex: Captain America quietly but assuredly walked past the Man of Steel to become this generation’s definitive “super man.”

And it’s because we have, across five movies in the last five years, seen our best selves up there on the screen as embodied by actor Chris Evans, and a series of smart directors and writers.

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Rob Kelly wrote here the other day about Captain America: Civil War: “Now that there have been a half dozen films featuring him in the role, I can confidently say that Chris Evans as Captain America ranks up there in the annals of great casting, as perfect a fit of actor and role as Christopher Reeve and Superman was in 1978. And just as important: Like Reeve, you never catch Evans winking at the audience or seemingly apologizing for Cap being so ‘square.’ He’s a hero, pure and simple. And while he’s capable of mistakes (he makes a few here), he ultimately wants to do Good.

“Marvel shrewdly recognized this was essential to making the character work in live action and it has paid off: Evans as Cap is the lynchpin of the MCU. I was heartened to read a few months ago that he essentially went on the record to say he’ll play the role as long as Marvel wants him. For my money, I could watch another half dozen Cap movies as long as Evans is in the role. He’s that good.”

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Rob couldn’t be more right about that. After his bro turn as the Human Torch, l was as skeptical as anyone that Evans could pull of such a square role as Steve Rogers.

But now, as Superman wallows in self-pity in Warner Brothers’ decrepit vision of the DC Universe, Captain America leads by example and challenges his friends — and by extension, us — to do better. To stand for what you believe in, to do what’s right and to remain compassionate when all around you is going to hell.

I guess what I’m saying is that unlike the man in the red cape, Captain America is the one who now stands for truth, justice and what I like to think of as the American way.

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Author: Dan Greenfield

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20 Comments

  1. “For more than a generation, Superman was embodied by Christopher Reeve and defined by director Richard Donner (and, to a lesser extent, director Richard Lester). Dean Cain, Tom Welling, Helen Slater and those two guys who played Superboy were variations on the Reeve model.”

    I would disagree with this statement. I would go back to George Reeves for the model in which all other variation in film and TV were based on. If you want you could even go back to Kirk Alyn from the serials for the model on which all other version were built on.

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    • It may be a generational gap, where George Reeves was your Superman. For me, Christopher Reeves was iconic in the role and I still believe a man can fly.

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      • Christopher Reeve, there’s no “S” in his last name. The two aren’t related and George Reeves wasn’t his real name, just his acting name.

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  2. George Reeves is still the guy to me with Cavill being 1b. Crap article………Thank God that bronze-age, Jimmy Olsen’s pal, stumblin’ and bumblin’ Clark Kent, “Luthor, you snake!” stuff is long gone. This has nothing to do with Cap. Cap’s character is established, he’s been Cap for decades. Superman has been Superman for about 18 months and whe he rises from the “dead,” will be THE guy. Superman did not begin with Chris Reeve in 1978 and has changed much since 1938. Time to let go of 1978….

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    • Says a man who has so much trouble letting go of the 80’s that he names himself “Sonny Crockett”.

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    • You do realize that Hackman’s Luthor is the closest we have ever seen to how Lex is supposed to be portrayed? George Reeves?? Seriously? That’s like saying the 60’s Batman was a true representation of Batman which is completely ludicrous. Reeve 78 Superman is as close we have seen to how Superman truly is in the cinema. The only better done Superman is in animation.

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  3. As a kid, I watched the old George Reeves TV show in syndication. Then I saw the first Christopher Reeves movie in the theaters. So, I grew up with both versions and like both portrayals of Superman. The point of this article is that Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner deliberately made Superman behave like a man out of time. Personality wise, George Reeves’ Superman fit right in with his time. Christopher Reeves’ Superman was deliberately out of step with his times which were accurately reflected in the characters and world around him in the 1978 movie. He had old fashioned manners and optimism at a time when those were in short supply in a post Watergate, post Vietnam War America suffering from a bad economy. At the same time, while Christopher Reeves portrayed a Superman retaining the good of earlier decades, he did not hark back to what was bad about them. He was about the best of the old and the best of the new. The article is not about whether George Reeves or Christopher Reeves was the better Superman. The key is that Christopher Reeves and Donner updated the world around Superman, but portrayed him as square, as out of step with that world. That way Superman could continue to symbolize the things the character stood for, and he could serve as an example for the rest of us to strive to be better, to be “our best selves.” That’s what’s been lost with the Brandon Routh and later movies. In the more recent movies, we got a character who reflects rather than challenges his times. Thus we lose much of what Superman is supposed to represent.
    Since the early 1960s when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee revived Captain America (created by Kirby and Joe Simon two decades earlier), a key approach to the character has been to portray him as a man out of time. This has been captured well by Chris Evans in the recent movies. The article argues that Superman has lost this quality while Captain America has retained it thanks to Evans’ portrayal, and this is why Captain America has taken Superman’s place in inspiring us to be our best, to not surrender to cynicism.

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    • Well said, Scott. Oh, there is no “s” is Christopher’s name. It is simply Christopher Reeve. Not “Christopher Reeves”. The only “Reeves” who has worn the SUPERMAN Costume was George Reeves.

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      • Thanks, Kalel. I have a tendency to throw that “s” on there without even thinking about it. Hopefully, I’ll be more alert to it in the future.
        By the way, I like the ID. It really goes with the subject matter. Great choice!

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  4. Sounds like whoever wrote this doesn’t understand Zack & Cavil superman. Similar to Singer not understanding Reeves & Donners superman.

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  5. “Dean Cain, Tom Welling, Helen Slater and those two guys who played Superboy…” Those “two guys” had names. They were John Haymes Newton and Gerard Christopher. Please show some respect.

    Other than that, this is a FANTASTIC article and is 100% ON POINT!!! Well done!

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  6. George Reeves was the only guy to play Superman as the smartest guy in the room. People forget,Superman should also have super-intelligence,too. I am partial to Captain America as he has always been my favorite comicbook hero.Evans does a great job portraying him. DC’s world is a putrid mess thanks to Zac Snyder. I didn’t hate his movies but thought there was a lot of room for improvement.

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  7. This is a perfect article. Summed up my feelings perfectly. Sorry Supes, we had good times, but I don’t like what you’ve become… Cap is my main man now.

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  8. You are quite right. And what is more, the clash between Cap and Tony had been carefully prepared. Already in the first Avengers movie there was a suspicion, in their great scene where Tony works out where Loki is, a sense that the two did not find it easy to communicate (their previous row does not count, it was engineered by Loki). But it is in Age of Ultron that we have an important dramatic clue to events to come. In the woodchopping scene, Tony as good as asks Steve to tell him about the nightmare Wanda had made for him, adding “I don’t trust a man who doesn’t have a dark side. Call me old-fashioned” – that is, he ends with a jab at Cap’s “old-fashioned” attitudes. But Cap is, indeed, old-fashioned; even as he complains that his teammates won’t tell him things, he refuses to even admit that he had a nightmare. I imagine that is the sort of thing he would regard as unmanly to complain about; it would feel to him like whining. But I know that when I watched that scene, I was thinking “tell him! tell him!” Cap kept his secret, and Iron Man went away in annoyance, letting off steam with a joke about Cap not taking any of his wood.

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  9. I agree wholeheartedly with this. Just as Christopher Reeve’s Superman was in 1978, Chris Evans’ Cap is in 2016: a reflection of the greatness that we can be. In both cases you see just how human these superhumans can be. In 1978, Reeve inspired me to want to be great. In many ways, his Superman was just as much a greenhorn as Cavill’s, but he inspired people both in the film and in real life. Evans brings a humanity to Cap. Compassion and humility, but still a greatness that surpasses it. Inside him is that skinny kid from Brooklyn who still wants to protect the world from bullies. I admire that. The writers have an incredible grasp on this.

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