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This Britain

Time for some Brit hero worship

From villains to superheroes... our boys 'do good'

With his chiselled good looks and indefatigable desire to protect the world, Superman is not only the archetypal superhero, but also the embodiment of American wholesomeness. So it could have come as a shock when it was announced this week that the next actor to don the famous cape is British.

But a look at the peculiar world of superheroes shows this is no one-off. The "big three" of the big screen – Spiderman, Batman and Superman – are all now played by British actors.

Christian Bale received critical acclaim with his first two perfor-mances of Batman, and is now preparing to climb inside the Batsuit for the third time in next year's The Dark Knight Rises. Meanwhile The Social Network's Andrew Garfield has signed up to star as Peter Parker, aka Spiderman in Spider-man: Man of Steel, also due to hit screens in 2012.

And Cavill, who is best-known for his role in The Tudors, didn't just beat off American rivals to land the Superman role; fellow Brit Matthew Goode and Irishman Colin O'Donaghue were also reported to be in the running.

Dan Hubbard, a casting director who has worked on the Lord of the Rings and the Bourne trilogies – and who has cast actors such as Sienna Miller, Orlando Bloom and Kate Winslet – believes British training elevates crusading actors above their US counterparts.

"Generic good-looking, all-American guys don't always have the all- round layered, theatrical ability when they display their acting chops," Hubbard says. "There's also a trend of going for more sort-of indie-type actors, not the people you expect to see in the big roles. It adds a realness that people can relate to."

Hubbard also points to an increasingly successful UK film industry. "It's a testament to the amount of talent that's here making better films, and so better showcases for our talent. Andrew Garfield won the Bafta with Boy A and his career took off."

Others point to the influence of Christopher Nolan, who is writing, directing and producing the next Batman film and producing the new Superman.

"Nolan is making some of the most expensive films ever made in Hollywood and he also has some elements of a serious dramatist," says the film critic Mark Cousins. "His influence is considerable because he can make the big blockbuster films, but with moral and dramatic shades of grey."

For a long time, it seemed that Brits could only play villains in the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman and Sir Antony Hopkins reinforced that view as they carved out careers portraying various forces of evil, often against American wholesomeness. And as General Zod, Terence Stamp played one of the villains all-American Christopher Reeve's Superman had to defeat. While in Superman II, in addition to Zod, Superman had another British enemy to contend with – Ursa, played by Sarah Douglas.

Cousins believes the idea that Brits play villains has become a stereotype. "Brits traditionally represent 'other', whether that was a villain or just different. Now we've now gone back to an era where Brits get more of a look-in, like in the 1940s."

Does it work the other way round? "I'm not sure how I'd feel about an American playing James Bond," says Ian Freer, assistant editor of Empire. "But if they have the acting chops, why not?"