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Who Was the Best Superman? Here Are All of the Live-Action Superman Actors, Ranked

The Mary Sue logo The Mary Sue 7/1/2022 Rachel Ulatowski
Christopher Reeve as Superman in Superman IV © Provided by The Mary Sue Christopher Reeve as Superman in Superman IV

DC’s Superman is the archetype of a superhero. While others came before him, he was truly the first major superhero who popularized the superhero genre and set the standard for other heroes. These standards include having superhuman abilities, using a codename, fighting crime, and wearing a memorable costume while doing it.

Currently, Henry Cavill is the DC Extended Universe’s (DCEU) Man of Steel. The last time he portrayed the role was in 2017 and it is uncertain when he will make his return as Superman. However, he has stated his contract still includes one more Superman film, so we’re patiently awaiting his return. In the meant time, we have Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman in the CW show, Superman & Lois.

In addition to Hoechlin and Cavill, there are eight more actors who have taken on the live-action role of Superman, either in TV or film. Actors have been portraying Superman onscreen as far back as 1948. Over the course of 7 decades, there have definitely been some memorable standouts as Superman, while others left less of a mark on the iconic superhero. Here is every live-action Superman actor ranked worst to best.

10. John Haymes Newton (Superboy, season 1)

(CBS) © Provided by The Mary Sue (CBS)

John Haymes Newton portrayed Superman in the 1988 TV series Superboy, but his career was short-lived. Superboy followed the adventures of Clark Kent during his earlier years as Superboy. Newton was initially cast as Superboy, but only remained for one season before drastic casting changes took place. The changes saw Newton replaced by Gerard Christopher after season 1. Aside from providing his voice for a fan film in 2011, Newton has never reprised his role as Superman/Superboy.

The exact reason Newton was replaced is unknown. However, Newton had asked for a pay raise after season 1 due to the stunts he performed and had a DUI. How much these incidents actually factored into his replacement is unknown. Regardless, Newton wasn’t a very memorable Superman. His acting performance was very poor and very bland. Additionally, Superboy season 1 was really just a first draft, or experiment, that the studio didn’t want to spend too much money on. As a result, the episodes were a bit muddled, gritty, and cheap looking. Newton looked the part of Superman, but he lacked charm, charisma, personality, and heroism, leaving him looking more like a Superman imposter than the real deal.

9. Kirk Alyn (Superman (1948) & Atom Man vs. Superman)

(Columbia Pictures) © Provided by The Mary Sue (Columbia Pictures)

Kirk Alyn was the very first actor to ever portray Superman in a live-action adaption. Alyn portrayed Superman in the 1948 15-part film serial titled Superman, as well as in the follow-up 15-part Atom Man vs. Superman film serial. Alyn was credited as merely Superman in both serials, though he was credited by his actual name in promotional materials. One component of his hiring was his striking similarity in appearance to Clark Kent. He approached Superman in a unique way and portrayed the hero as very different from his alter ego Clark Kent. However, the serials were very limited in special effects and had to animate scenes of Superman flying instead of filming them live.

Alyn’s portrayal of Superman was historical and set the foundation for every actor to follow him. He looked the part, had charm, and dove in with no model to go off of. Still, though, he had to make to do with what he had. These were very low budget serials and the superhero genre was relatively new. As a result, his costume isn’t quite right, there’s a lack of visuals, and numerous aspects of his performance are exaggerated and unrealistic. Alyn also struggled to find work afterwards, leading him to believe Superman ruined his career. He is vital to the history of Superman onscreen, but the time period made it difficult for him to really shine as the hero.

8. Brandon Routh (Superman Returns)

(The CW) © Provided by The Mary Sue (The CW)

Brandon Routh was cast as Superman in the 2006 film, Superman Returns. Superman Returns is the sixth installment in the Superman film series that began in 1978 and starred Christopher Reeve. However, the film ignores the events of every film in the series past Superman II and recasts Superman as Routh. The film sees Superman return after a long-period of absence. Upon his return, his arch nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is released from prison, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has moved on from him, and the world thinks it doesn’t need a superhero after all. Superman must reestablish his connection with Lane and his reputation as Earth’s hero once more.

Superman Returns received relatively positive reviews. The film was praised for its homage to the comics, its storyline, stunning visuals, direction from Bryan Singer, and Spacey’s performance. What it didn’t receive praise for, though, was Routh’s performance. Routh certainly looks the part of Superman and bares a very striking resemblance to Christopher Reeve. However, while he has Superman’s looks, he has none of his personality. No charm, no confidence, no charisma, and honestly little personality altogether. He has the looks, voice, and acting skill necessarily, but lacks the personality to make him a Superman that’s really special.

7. Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman)

(Warner Bros.) © Provided by The Mary Sue (Warner Bros.)

Dean Cain starred as Superman in the 90s TV show, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Cain portrayed Superman for a total of 4 seasons between 1993 and 1997. The series follows Kent’s move to Metropolis where he becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet. He is partnered up with Lois Lane (Terri Hatcher), whom he instantly falls in love with. However, Lane is in love with his alter ego, Superman. The show also explores Superman’s many adventures, including his feud with Lex Luthor (John Shea).

Cain and Hatcher both received high praise for their performances in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Hatch, especially gave one of the most iconic performances as Lane. However, while Cain made a compelling Clark, he didn’t necessarily make an impression as Superman. After all, as the series title suggests, the romance between Lois and Clark is what takes center stage, which leaves little time for developing Superman effectively. Hence, Cain made a fantastic Clark, but his Superman was pretty average and standard, though this is mostly just a result of the show’s format and premise.

6. Gerard Christopher (Superboy, seasons 2 – 4)

(CBS) © Provided by The Mary Sue (CBS)

Gerard Christopher took over from John Haymes Newton as Superman beginning in season 2 of Superboy. He would portray Superman/Superboy until the show’s conclusion in 1992. At the time of his casting, the show was teetering on the edge of being cancelled after its cheap and crude first season. However, season 2 marked a shift, not just in actors, but also in tone as the series become darker and more mature. It also became more comic book accurate and saw many of Superman’s villains make their live-action debut in the series.

Christopher was much better than Newton as Superman, though he also did have more to work with and was complemented by the show’s new tone and direction. Additionally, his understanding of the character of Superman led him to actually aid with the writing and directing of Superboy. Not only that, but he was also originally chosen to portray Superman in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. When the casting director learned he had already played the role, though, he went with Dean Cain. Christopher is very convincing as Superman and gives a very accurate portrayal of him, though he doesn’t exactly make the role his own.

5. Tom Welling (Smallville)

(Warner Bros.) © Provided by The Mary Sue (Warner Bros.)

Tom Welling played a young Clark Kent just coming into his powers in the TV series Smallville. Welling portrayed Superman for the entirety of the series, which boasted 10 seasons between 2001 and 2011. The series serves as an origin story for Superman and follows Kent’s teenage years in the town of Smallville. As the series progresses it also explores his job at the Daily Planet, his relationship with Lois Lane (Erica Durance), and him eventually embracing of his superhero identity.

Welling was a fantastic Kent, however, the series never actually sees him as Superman. This is why his placement on the list is a little difficult gauge. While he never donned the iconic suit or name, though, he gave a very compelling performance as Kent and demonstrated how he came to be a superhero, adopted his moral and values, and navigated his heritage as a child. Towards the end, he was also basically doing Superman missions and duties—just not as Superman. Welling gave Kent a depth that no other actor can quite top, but sadly we never got to see him as the actual Superman.

4. Tyler Hoechin (Superman & Lois)

(Warner Bros.) © Provided by The Mary Sue (Warner Bros.)

Tyler Hoechlin is one of our present-day Supermans, as he portrays the hero in the current TV series Superman & Lois. Superman & Lois is a superhero drama series developed by the CW and is part of the network’s Arrowverse. The series sees Superman and Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch) attempting to retreat to Smallville to raise their two boys. They navigate past friendships and the fears of their boys inheriting Superman’s Kryptonian powers, while Superman continues to be the world’s defender.

Hoechlin made his first debut as Superman through guest star appearances in Supergirl. He also appeared in crossover episodes of The Flash and Arrow, and he impressed so much as Superman that he got his own series, and rightly so. Hoechlin is a phenomenal Superman, who has truly made the role his own. Hoechlin is one of the best actors to balance and differentiate Superman’s personal and superhero lives. We get to see Superman as the fantastic defender, as well as a father of two, juggling parenthood and marriage. Hoechlin offers us one of the most realistic, relatable, and unique portrayals of Superman so far.

3. George Reeves (Superman and the Mole Men & Adventures of Superman)

(Warner Bros.) © Provided by The Mary Sue (Warner Bros.)

George Reeves was the second actor to portray the live-action Superman. He made his debut as the hero in the film Superman and the Mole Men, which served as a pilot for the TV series Adventures of Superman. Reeves would portray Superman for the entirety of Adventures of Superman, which spanned 6 seasons and 104 episodes from 1952 – 1958. The series largely follows Superman’s various heroic feats such as fighting gangs, mad scientists, and all kinds of villainous foes. When he’s not Superman, he’s the mild-mannered Clark Kent who works as a reporter for the Daily Planet and fosters a relationship with Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates & Noel Neill), who becomes suspicious about his identity.

Adventures of Superman struggled a bit and especially became lackluster towards the end. Viewers also disliked its lack of homage to the comic books and its failure to feature any of Superman’s most iconic villains. However, Reeves performance was by far the highlight of the series. Reeves, like Alyn, didn’t always have a lot to work with, but he encompassed Superman extremely well. He was one of the most likeable, charming, and confident actors to ever portray Superman. He also certainly looks the part, boasted a comic-book-accurate persona, and proved himself to be a true hero of high morals.

2. Henry Cavill (Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, Justice League)

(Warner Bros.) © Provided by The Mary Sue (Warner Bros.)

Henry Cavill made his debut as Superman in the very first DCEU film—Man of Steel. He would also go on to portray Superman in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. Cavill offers up one of the most unique and differentiated version of Superman. There’s no campiness or corniness in his storylines, nor is he a goofy, fumbling Kent. Instead, Cavill debuts a more cynical, brooding Superman, who struggles to maintain his morals and who can’t flawlessly save the world without damage and fatalities. Meanwhile, as Kent, he is a serious, dignified, and respected journalist who does his job well.

Cavill’s performance as Superman is different, but in a good way. While some insist that he lacked charisma, his personality worked well for the more mature direction of his stories. He also provides a depiction of Superman that is more realistic and human. Additionally, the special effects definitely ramp up his performance. Even without the visuals, though, one can’t deny that he looks the part of Superman to a T and radiates the power of Superman in a way that no other actor can. Cavill gives us a Superman who is believable and that can make audiences feel like they’re actually watching a real superhero onscreen.

1. Christopher Reeve (Superman (1978), Superman II, Superman III, Superman IV)

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Christopher Reeve made his debut as Superman in the 1978 film, Superman. He would follow up by appearing the sequels, Superman II, Superman III, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Superman received rave reviews for its groundbreaking special effects, encapsulation of the superhero genre, a masterful score, and for the absolutely phenomenal casting of Reeve. The film achieved high critical acclaim and was followed up with a worthy successor in Superman II. Unfortunately, Superman III and Superman IV were very poorly received. That wasn’t Reeve’s fault, though, but the result of studio interference, an attempt to make Superman III a comedy, and monstrous budget cuts on Superman IV.

Cavill may have given us a realistic Superman, but Reeve gave us the Superman that we needed. He exuded confidence, charisma, and nobility, and had just the right touch of humor. As Superman, he boasted good looks, charm, wit, and was simply the best, most wholesome and gallant hero he could be. Meanwhile, he made sure to create distinction between Superman and Kent, making Kent adorably innocent and humorous. Reeve created a hero who is strong, noble, and brave, but also had a heart and acted with sensitivity and gentleness. Essentially, he was what everyone would hope for Superman to be if Superman were real.

(featured image: Warner Bros.)

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