Truth, Justice, and the American Way – that sums up Superman. He is the first – and many would argue the best – superhero to grace the comic book world. And, as such, his adventures have been subject to a multitude of TV and Movie adaptations over the decades. Every generation, therefore, has its version of Superman they grew up with.
But, as with any superhero portrayal, some are definitely better than others. However, given the pressure of playing a world-recognized fictional icon, you have to empathize with whoever takes up the famous red cape. It’s not an acting gig for the faint-hearted.
But alas, who is the best of the Supermen? Let us explore this below…
10) Kirk Alyn (Superman serial, Atom Man vs. Superman, 1948, 1050)
Kirk Alyn is not the first man you think of when you hear the name, Superman. But, overlooked though he is, he has a special place in Superman live-action history. The New Jersey-born actor was the first guy to portray the Last Son of Krypton in live-action.
Alas, Kirk Alyn doesn’t really nail the look of Superman. Handsome though he was, his face was a little too boyish to for ol’ Supes. The fact backs up this opinion even the studio had initial reservations about casting Alyn before relenting. He was certainly heroic and didn’t exactly cry ‘iconic,’ making him an easy choice for the last place on this list.
9) John Haymes Newton (Superboy, 1988-89)
Superboy is just a younger Superman, so technically, John Newton counts as a valid Superman portrayal. But that’s not the issue here. The question is, is he any good?
The answer is ‘not really.’ John Newton’s acting is terrible. Newton acts as though he belongs more in a Superman porn parody than a serialized TV Series. His hero feels like a cheap knock-off of the character.
That said, props to the guy for not making Clark too nerdy. His more assertive version of the character is a welcome change from Christopher Reeve’s exaggerated performance. But even saying that Newton makes the character feel one-note, despite his best efforts.
8) Gerard Christopher (Superboy, 1989-1992)
When producers rejected Newton’s plea for a higher raise after Superboy’s first season, they recast the role and retooled the show. 29-year-old (!) Gerard Christopher, therefore, took the role and became the new Superboy.
Christopher didn’t fare much better than Newton regarding his portrayal, giving Supes a similarly robotic feel that felt more at home in a porn parody than an actual TV Show. At best, Gerard feels like a discount Christopher Reeve, giving a low-quality performance almost as bad as his predecessor, John Haymes Newton.
7) Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, 1993-1997)
What can really be said of Dean Cain’s Superman? Well, he wears the suit well. And the slicked-back hair look is certainly a unique aesthetic among Supermen. But his performance? That’s a different story.
The problem is that Dean Cain’s Man of Steel lacks presence. He lacks authority. he feels more at home in a Power Rangers show than a Superman one. He reminds one of a small child trying to put on their best superhero impression. This is a shame because Cain’s John Byrne-esque Clark Kent performance is so endearing – it’s just when he puts on those famous tights, he falters. Dean Cain tried, but he’s far from the best actor to wear Superman’s cape.
6) Brandon Routh (Superman Returns, 2006)
One word to sum up Brandon Routh’s Superman? Meh. It’s a serviceable love letter to Christopher Reeve’s performance (Superman Returns itself being a love letter to Richard Donner’s 1976 hit film). The only problem with Routh’s performance is that it offers nothing particularly original. And strangely, despite Routh’s attempted recreation of Reeve’s performance, he makes Superman feel wooden and boring – although, to be fair, this can also be attributed to the film’s script wherein Supes rarely speaks.
The Arrowverse’s adaptation of Kingdom Come allows Routh to reprise the role once more, and he actually does a little better here. He competently portrays a jaded Superman whose loved ones have long perished. Given his character possesses a more tragic backstory gives Routh more material to work with. But it’s still not enough to stop him from being one of the plainest Supermen in live-action history.
5) Tom Welling (Smallville, 2001-2011)
At fan conventions, Tom Welling insists he plays Clark Kent in the hit TV Series Smallville, not Superman. In fact, it is the complexity of his pre-Superman character that convinced Welling to sign on for the role. If the show had just been ‘Superman in high school,’ it wouldn’t have interested him.
It says a lot that, despite this, Welling exudes so much of what makes Superman Superman in this role. The Boy Scout morality, the ‘Kent Charm,’ and even his future persona’s heroism are exuded in Welling’s performance. The latter is especially evident as Clark grows nearer to his destiny in the later seasons. There’s a complexity and humanity to Welling’s performance that makes him one of the best actors to portray Superman.
4) Tyler Hoechin (Superman & Lois, 2021-Present)
The latest Superman to wear the red-and-blue suit, Hoechin definitely gets the heroic, godlike nature of the character down to a pat. Meanwhile, he pulls off an impressively casual Clark Kent, not unlike Dean Cain’s portrayal. The difference is, it’s easier to take Hoechin’s Superman seriously because the show is less quirky than Lois & Clark.
Hoechin portrays Superman as an experienced crime-fighter on another day on the job. This is appropriate, given the show is about Superman balancing his superhero job alongside his fatherly duties. Yet, while Hoechin isn’t perfect as the Man of Steel, he does make Superman feel powerful and full of presence, an idealized demi-god, and gives the portrayal its own feel, making him one of the best Superman actors.
3) Henry Cavill (Man of Steel, 2013)
Wow, what a hero. Henry Cavill gives the Last Son of Krypton so much power, generating such godlike presence that he’s hard to ignore. Honestly, much of this may be due to the actor’s ridiculous good looks.
There are even signs that Cavill can inject Superman with some charm and charisma. It’s a shame, therefore, that he must subdue this due to the script and direction. In most of his scenes, Cavill’s Superman is solemn and brooding, producers seemingly afraid that audiences wouldn’t be able to take their hero seriously if he cracked so much as a smile. Yet, there’s no denying that Cavill embodies the character as an incredible godlike presence in the best way a Superman actor ever has.
2) George Reeves (The Adventures of Superman, 1952-58)
George Reeves may have hated being typecast as Superman, but the audience of the 1950’s Adventures of Superman sure loved him. And when you watch the show, it’s easy to see why. Reeves embodied the heroism of the character to no end, creating an icon of television that transcended its comic origins. Reeves brought authority and respect to the role that would inspire the actors that followed him in the role.
George Reeves’ performance also highly inspired a young John Byrne, who would later reboot Superman’s origin story in the 1987 mini-series Man of Steel. Reeves’ influence is especially seen in Byrne’s depiction of Clark Kent, who is more assertive than his prior incarnation. As opposed to being cowardly and timid, Reeves’s Clark takes charge of situations and looks for solutions. Unfaithful to its contemporary source material? Sure. George Reeves-level of awesome? Definitely. And it’s this, combined with his Superman, made him one of the best actors to play the role.
1) Christopher Reeve (Superman: The Movie, 1978)
Is this a cliched number one? Perhaps. But there’s a good reason for this – Christopher Reeve embodied pretty much everything Superman represents. For many, he is Superman and always will be. He is, as the first movie’s marketing material states, the person who’ll make you believe a man can fly. Sometimes, clichés are clichés for a very good reason.
Reeves’ Superman embodies everything that is good and truthful. Reeve portrays the character with such reverence and power, more like a super-powered Boy Scout than the god that Snyder’s movies depict him. Reeve gives us the sense that Superman really enjoys his role as Earth’s protector, with the hero smiling charmingly as he saves lives. And while his geeky Clark Kent can be a little over-the-top, there’s no doubt that Reeve’s performance gives us the most credible Clark Kent disguise yet. Equally, there is no doubt that Christopher Reeve is one of the best Superman actors ever to wear the cape.
That said, what are your favorite Supermen? Do you agree or disagree with this list? Let us know in the comments below.