Superman appeared in the inaugural issue of Action Comics in 1938, with tremendous abilities founded in science – super-strength, bullet-proof skin, and superhuman jumping – created by writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster. Over time, he progressed from leaping to flying, gaining greater powers and being granted an Achilles’ Heel made of kryptonite. Similarly, Superman transitioned from arresting bank thieves to fighting cosmic gods to preserve his adopted country.
His initial popularity led to a recurrent newspaper comic, a radio program, and, eventually, a 1948 movie serial. Over the years, several actors have played the part of Superman in film and television, each with their unique take on the hero, but never deviating from the mild-mannered Clark Kent/super boy-scout Superman combination. Here’s where they’re at.
8. Kirk Alyn in Superman (1948)
Kirk Alyn was the first actor to play Superman on film, and he did a wonderful job. Columbia Pictures chose him for the Superman serial based on his dance abilities, which he utilized to leap over cameras and into action with ease, and his resemblance to the mild-mannered Clark Kent. Because when casting a character like Superman, you want to be sure the actor can utilize a pen and paper.
Alyn as Superman didn’t appear powerful, and it didn’t help that the serials featured situations like him rolling out of the way of a crashing boulder. Dude is very strong and bulletproof, so how come he rolls away from a rock? Alyn did a good job in the part, but this version of Superman pales in comparison to others that came after. The shorts that reach his armpits haven’t aged well, either.
7. Dean Cain in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
Lois & Clark has been dubbed “Moonlighting with superpowers,” an appropriate remark given how much time was spent on the will they/won’t they Lois Lane and Clark Kent romance than on Superman doing Superman things. This isn’t an unforgivable fault, and the program was enjoyable and vibrant, but Dean Cain‘s portrayal of the hero suffers as a result. His Clark Kent is well-rounded and self-assured, and you believe in the developing relationship between Kent and Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane. Cain’s Superman, on the other hand, does not receive the same treatment. He isn’t commanding. Kent performs the role of Superman, but he’s not sure how to do it. Lois & Clark has no intentions other than to be rom-com cheerleader fodder, which it is, but Superman’s character is clearly second fiddle.
6. Brandon Routh in Superman Returns
The film Superman Returns is a bit of an exception. It’s a continuation of the Superman film series, which began with Superman: The Movie and ends with Superman II. The film’s storyline says that it takes place five years after Superman II, yet it takes place in a hazy, unidentified year that is certainly not 1985. Finally, Superman Returns concludes the Christopher Reeve film series.
Wait a minute, didn’t Christopher Reeve pass away before the debut of this film? Yes. He did, indeed.
So you have this strange situation where whoever is cast as Superman isn’t a new Superman. On the contrary, you’re being cast as Christopher Reeve, the legendary individual whose depiction defined the role, which means that no matter what you do with the character, you won’t be able to make it your own.
Enter Brandon Routh, an actor with few cinematic credentials to his name but a startling likeness to Christopher Reeve that landed him the job. In spite of this, he manages to keep up.
Routh does more than just look like Reeve; he emulates the mannerisms, character qualities, and charm that Reeve brought to the part, and comes perilously close to pulling it off. It’s the plot that fails him, with little speech for Routh and a twist that finds Superman not far from being a stalker. He was never given a chance, which is unfortunate given how he would redeem himself and claim the position in the Arrowverse’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” narrative.
5. Tom Welling in Smallville
It’s difficult to justify Tom Welling‘s placement on a list like this. He never wore the suit, because to Smallville’s strict no tights, no flying policy, and he was never given the name. Nonetheless, his Clark Kent provided deserved legitimacy to Superman’s ideals and beliefs. Smallville filled in the hero’s past, and Welling nailed it. What got absurd in later seasons, as Welling’s Kent grew into a young adult, was the usage of highly Superman-centric narrative lines (fighting Doomsday (Dario Delacio), or launching the Justice League, for example) without the actual Superman character being employed. Welling could, nay, should have ranked higher on our list, but he is held back by a questionable aesthetic judgement.
4. George Reeves in Adventures of Superman
For many people of a particular age, George Reeves was Superman. He resembled Superman, fitting up the outfit considerably better than Alyn had. You felt he could break down barriers and face the challenges that were ahead of him. Reeves gave Superman a subtle edge, giving him the air of a gentle giant you don’t want to cross. His Clark Kent was no pushover, though, but a self-assured and astute figure in his own right. It was no secret that Reeves despised the professional constraints that the show would impose on him, but he recognized his audience and ensured that whatever Superman performed on TV had a good impression on America’s youth. Reeves’ life was cut short under unknown circumstances, and he was never completely appreciated for what he offered to the world.
3. Henry Cavill in Man of Steel
From the beginning of Man of Steel, it was clear that Henry Cavill‘s interpretation of Superman would be unlike any other. Not the bright, cheerful Christopher Reeve Superman, but a gloomier, darker Superman living in a cynical society. It’s expected Cavill’s Superman can grin and even laugh, but let’s just say it’s not overwhelming. Clark Kent, on the other hand, is no longer the wacky cornball of yesteryear: he’s a serious journalist with nary a pratfall.
But, gosh, Cavill’s Superman is fantastic on film. His first flight is awe-inspiring. The conflict between General Zod (Michael Shannon) and Faora-Ul (Antje Traue) is epic. Cavill’s performance benefits enormously from the outstanding special effects, but you never question for a second that his Superman is up to the challenge, whatever it may be.
2. Tyler Hoechlin in Superman & Lois
Tyler Hoechlin, the newest challenger, has quickly established himself as one of the top tights wearers. He does a better job than most of keeping the character’s two worlds separate while allowing components of both to coexist. You believe he genuinely wants to be a great spouse, a decent parent, and a beneficial force for justice in the world, and that his flaws only serve to make him more accessible, more human. His depiction encompasses both the Reeve and Cavill interpretations of the character, an upbeat hero who delivers on action (and can smile). Hoechlin has made Superman his own, and we can only hope that he maintains his high status here.
1. Christopher Reeve in Superman
Was there ever a genuine question? Christopher Reeve rapidly ingratiated himself into the popular consciousness and remains the classic portrayal of the role to this day. Every Superman before and after Christopher Reeve’s portrayal is constantly compared to him. His Superman oozes power and confidence, while his Kent is the ideal alter-ego for hiding in plain sight. Reeve was a paragon of goodness and a beacon of hope both on and off the screen. Reeve brings to life and, more crucially, grounds everything related to Superman. If ever there was a real definition of a superman, this is it.