Yesterday's Superman, tomorrow's Legend

Brandon Routh as the Atom (centre) and his co-stars (from left) Franz Drameh, Victor Garber and Falk Hentschel in television series Legends Of Tomorrow.
Brandon Routh as the Atom (centre) and his co-stars (from left) Franz Drameh, Victor Garber and Falk Hentschel in television series Legends Of Tomorrow. PHOTO: WARNER TV

Former Superman Brandon Routh makes his superhero comeback playing the Atom in television series Legends Of Tomorrow

For an actor, being cast as Superman must feel like winning the lottery.

But the string of personal and professional mishaps that have dogged those who played the Man of Steel - from the mysterious 1959 suicide of television star George Reeves to the 1995 riding accident that paralysed film actor Christopher Reeve - has spawned the idea of a so-called "Superman curse".

Another alleged victim: Brandon Routh, who was plucked from obscurity to play the title role in Superman Returns, the 2006 reboot of the Superman movie franchise.

Despite a US$270-million budget and legions of eager fans, it flopped critically and commercially, and Routh's nascent film career has not recovered since.

He is now getting a second shot at playing a superhero on the new television series, Legends Of Tomorrow, which airs in Singapore on Fridays at 9pm (WarnerTV, StarHub TV Channel 515).

The "legends" are a team of heroes and rogues recruited to travel back in time and change history in order to stop an immortal villain named Vandal Savage from destroying the world in 2166.

Routh is billionaire inventor Ray Palmer, who has engineered a special suit that can shrink him to sub-atomic level, turning him into the small-but-powerful superhero known as the Atom.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Vancouver, Canada, where the show is filmed, the 36-year-old actor says that even though this is not a big-budget Hollywood movie, making Legends Of Tomorrow is no less demanding, even though in this project, he is part of an ensemble cast that includes former Prison Break stars Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell, who play super- heroes Captain Cold and Heat Wave.

"The stakes are similar in many ways," he says. "The difference is just the time it takes - television moves much faster than, say, filming Superman Returns, which took nearly nine months. We're shooting this whole season in seven months.

"And the big difference is now I've played Ray Palmer longer than I played Superman, so that's kind of a cool, unique thing," says Routh, who first portrayed the Atom on another DC Comics-based TV series, Arrow, in 2014.

Another difference: There is less pressure now because he is a more experienced performer and not the wide-eyed 20-something who, in 2006, went from never being in a movie to sharing a screen with Oscar winner Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor.

"The fact that I've been doing this for going on 16 years now, as an actor, reduces the pressure. Or I feel the pressure less."

Routh does concede, however, that there were unique challenges in playing Superman, who has been one of the most popular comic-book superheroes since the character was created by DC Comics in the 1930s.

Some critics have argued the cultural baggage that comes with playing a character so infused with religious and patriotic symbolism can overwhelm any career. The actor agrees that the prominent Christian undertones in the Superman stories - Kal El/Superman is the son of a powerful man from another planet, and is sent to Earth to help mankind - set the franchise apart from other comic-book adaptations.

"I think the religious aspect was definitely something to think about. Even in our film, Superman Returns, things were done on purpose to draw very big Christ-like visual parallels and other parallels.

"And he's so much like a god or Jesus or whatever. There's great storytelling in that, and I would say also a great responsibility to acknowledge the power that he has over himself and humanity, and to have that be a part of the story."

With his new superhero character, also from DC, things are rather more light-hearted, especially as the Atom is often shown bickering and bantering with his superhero teammates in Legends Of Tomorrow, who include the assassin known as White Canary, played by Caity Lotz, and the meta-human Firestorm, who is jointly portrayed by Victor Garber and Franz Drameh.

"When I first accepted the role in Season 3 of Arrow, the thing that was key to me was the fact that they wanted Ray to come in and be the comedy, the light and the levity in Season 3.

"If I were to come in and play a straight, not-supposed-to-be-funny character, I don't think I would've said yes. Comedy's something I've been wanting to do for a long time - it's just fun to come to work and make people laugh and make myself laugh all day.

"The superhero stuff is just extra for me," says Routh, who is married to True Blood actress Courtney Ford, 37. The couple have a three-year-old son named Leo.

The actor also likes the fact that his character is a team player and that a different member of the ensemble gets to take turns in the spotlight every episode.

"Ray is part of a team. The whole team decides what we're going to do and how, and each episode has somebody different taking a leadership role, to a degree.

"And I think that allows Ray to be a little more free and to express himself."

Off camera and talking to the press, Routh does not seem at all like his character in this regard and, in fact, comes across a little stiff and serious. His co-star Ciara Renee, who plays Hawkgirl, gives a hint about what fires him up when asked what the closest thing to a superpower Routh has in real life: She reveals that he is a total health nut who eats organic food all the time and loves to talk about it, too.

Asked to confirm this, the actor finally cracks a smile and says: "Well, I don't know if that is a superpower."

Yet he is obviously proud of his role as the resident healthy-eating expert on the Legends Of Tomorrow set.

"I would hope that the super- power would be to educate and give that information back. So, yes, I tend to be very particular and focused on my eating and my nutrition - and I'm not shy to express that information to anyone who might ask about it," he says, laughing.

  • Legends Of Tomorrow airs in Singapore on WarnerTV (StarHub TV Channel 515, Singtel TV Channel 306) on Friday at 9pm.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2016, with the headline 'Yesterday's Superman, tomorrow's Legend'. Print Edition | Subscribe