Holy secret identities! American Heroes Are British in Real Life

Visit Britain

Hold the apple pie! Our national superheroes are fast becoming as American as scones and tea cakes. Batman is Welsh, Spider-Man grew up in London and even the patriotic Superman was born in Jersey — Jersey in the Channel Islands between England and France, that is.

For the first time ever, British actors are filling the costumes of all three of America's biggest classic superheroes. Christian Bale brought a gravelly Gotham accent to "The Dark Knight Rises" this summer, Andrew Garfield spun a flawless web of words as "The Amazing Spider-Man," and next year sees Henry Cavill don Clark Kent's cape and Midwest twang in "Man of Steel."

Not just villains anymore

Hollywood has often cast Brits in superhero movies before, but usually as sneering baddies. Think Sir Ian McKellen as Magneto and Brian Cox as Stryker in the X-Men franchise, Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus in "Spider-Man 2" or Tom Hiddleston as Loki in "Thor" and "The Avengers."

This year's blockbusters even saw two all-British super-showdowns: Spidey tackling Welsh actor Rhys Ifan's scaly super-villain the Lizard, and the Caped Crusader wrestling with Londoner Tom Hardy as creepy killer Bane.

"Brits haven't always been villains," says Nick Setchfield of science fiction magazine SFX. "James Bond made sounding English heroic back in the 1960s. But it's a strength that these actors don't come with any baggage. There can be a battle on the big screen between the icon of the actor and the icon of the character, and for superhero movies the character always has to come first."

Garfield has said that his inner self is "a New Yorker with a smoker's cough and a horrible mouth" but you couldn't tell that from his cut-glass English accent and modest manner. The actor, who was born in Los Angeles but grew up in rural England, starred in numerous British TV shows before returning to Hollywood to star in "The Social Network." Appropriately, one of his breakout roles was in an episode of cult sci-fi TV show "Doctor Who" that was set in Manhattan.

Super lucky?

Henry Cavill is another young Brit who was virtually unknown before landing the role of lifetime. Cavill had auditioned to play the Man of Steel before, in 2006's Superman Returns, where he lost out to local boy Brandon Routh. He also narrowly missed becoming both James Bond in "Casino Royale" and Edward in the "Twilight" movies, leading Empire magazine to dub him "the most unlucky man in Hollywood."

Cavill doesn't seem so unfortunate now, having played Greek superhero Theseus in "The Immortals" earlier this year and now on course to be the first non-American actor to portray Superman. "It's important to do the role justice," he told Cineplex magazine. "There are a lot of people relying on me to do this well. I don't let the pressures get to me because that's going to hinder my performance."

Some Superman enthusiasts are up in arms about the choice of a Brit to play America's unofficial national icon. "I simply don't feel this actor can handle the Superman role," one disgruntled fan moaned online. But remember that Superman himself was an immigrant from the planet Krypton, arriving in Smallville without so much as a passport: You might even call him the country's best-loved illegal alien.

Leading limeys

British actors aren't just taking over superhero movies, they're invading every genre of film and TV. Sam Worthington checked his accent at the spaceship door to play Jake Sully in the highest grossing movie of all time, "Avatar." Robert Pattinson bared his teeth (and more) in the "Twilight" movies, and Hugh Laurie's grumpy doctor in "House" sounds as American as private health insurance.

Two actors deserve special notice as the most unlikely Brits to grace our small screens. Dominic West, who played streetwise Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty in the gritty HBO drama "The Wire," attended the same posh private school in England as prime ministers Winston Churchill and David Cameron. Even less plausible as a tea-sipping Euro is Charlie Hunnam, better known as Jax, the greasy, tattooed leader of a motorbike gang in "Sons of Anarchy."

"Ultimately, nationality doesn't matter a great deal," says Nick Setchfield. "What matters is talent, and these are fantastic actors who are able to inhabit their characters completely."

By Mark Harris

Top: Andrew Garfield, who grew up in England, is the latest incarnation of Spider-Man. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Right: Henry Cavill, from (old) Jersey, will be playing the Man of Steel next year. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/ Getty Images Entertainment)

What to Read Next