Superman has been a worldwide icon since his comic debut in ‘Action Comics #1’ back in 1938. The man has everything: laser vision, super strength, the power of flight, great hair and a full-time job with benefits. It’s no wonder he remains a fan-favorite all these decades later! As such, Superman has been reimagined for the big screen dozens of times, and his famous red boots have been filled by a wide variety of actors. Some actors brought this namesake hero to life in amazing ways, but others weren’t able to fulfill the high expectations set by fans. From his days in black and white to his latest adventures in the DC Extended Universe, here’s a comprehensive ranking of the most notable Superman actors.
7 Kirk Alyn – Superman (1948-1950)
Most people might be disappointed to see the original Superman at the bottom of this list, but his ranking here does not suggest he did a bad job. As a pioneer of silver screen heroes, Kirk Alyn had to use what technology was available and follow instructions given to him by the directors; he did the best with what he could, and that’s admirable. What Alyn struggles with are his stiff, deliberate demeanor and forceful movements. Every single motion he makes is rigid and purposeful, so he looks more like a marionette puppet than a human being. Even his dialogue feels forced, as the inflection in his words comes off as extremely scripted. It’s almost like he was so worried about playing Superman well that his performance suffered for it. That being said, he looked great in the suit and had a bewitching old-Hollywood voice that was perfect for the role. On top of all this, his iconic jump launch into flight was absolutely lovable!
6 Brandon Routh – Superman Returns
In terms of action sequences, Brandon Routh is spot-on for his character in Superman Returns. Each scene of flying, fighting or falling is vivid and immersive, almost dreamlike in some cases. He’s imposing and certainly looks like Superman, but his attitude sets him apart from the others in a less flattering way. The issue is Routh’s attempts at making the character darker and edgier; these changes makes sense in theory (given the film’s context), but it comes off as brooding and moody most of the time. He’s less respectful than most other Supermen, and he invades Lois’ privacy by investigating her desk and listening in on her home without her consent. His attitude leaves a lot to be desired, but he does do a few things well. When it comes to his Clark Kent disguise, Routh genuinely looks like a different person.
5 George Reeves – Adventures of Superman
One of the classic Supermen, George Reeves did a lovely job capturing the suave, noir side of the people’s hero in Adventures of Superman. Film of this era was still adapting from the overacting needed to convey emotion on stage, and Reeves’ interpretation feels wonderfully natural. He’s smooth, charming and incredibly poised, but what he’s lacking is a connection with those around him—this Superman comes off more like a ‘charming hero at a distance’ rather than a man of the people. He feels just a little standoffish at times, with Clark Kent’s more serious, business-minded attitude constantly shining through. The few times he does open up a little, it’s a sweet, endearing treat.
4 Dean Cain – Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
While Lois & Clark doesn’t quite hold up to the believability of Smallville, Dean Cain added a lovely sense of humor to the character in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Out of his Superman costume, he feels a bit like a sitcom dad. His body language, speech and wardrobe all give off a very casual vibe, and he’s pretty wholesome without being overly saccharine. Cain’s take is easily the friendliest of all the Supermen yet, and it’s heartwarming to see the way he interacts with people in dire situations. His loving relationship with Lois makes him feel very approachable, and he has some serious moments that contrast well with his more lighthearted personality. He’s not as mature and worldly as some other entries on this list, and he sometimes seems less like a hero and more like ‘one of the guys’, but the character’s youthful outlook is still very enjoyable.
3 Tom Welling – Smallville
The best part about Smallville is how much time it took to flesh Clark Kent out, and the series is still adored to this day. Tom Welling showed us the younger, very human side of Superman as he learns what he is and how to use his powers; he’s humble and a little naive, and we see bits of self-doubt, confusion and even jealousy and anger at times. As the story progresses, he builds on deep connections with friends, family and Lois Lane, and it’s refreshing to see him surrounded by people who build him up. The series finale did a wonderful job at capturing the old-Hollywood feel of the original Superman shows, and the ending is often revered as one of the most satisfying in TV history.
2 Christopher Reeve – Superman
1978’s Superman is arguably the most wholesome version of our hero thus far, and Christopher Reeve sells the part flawlessly. His take is sweet, considerate and undeniably helpful: using x-ray vision to screen Lois Lane for lung cancer, informing us that he doesn’t drink when he flies—Reeve does a wonderful job of showing us a hero that’s a man of the people, and he’s both humble and self-assured when performing heroic feats. On top of all this, his exterior seems a bit deadpan; this makes his scenes even more enjoyable when he opens up and makes a joke or flirts with Lois. Purity and wholesomeness are the core of his character, and a subdued sense of humor rounds him out nicely.
1 Henry Cavill – Man of Steel
As far as the role of Superman goes, Henry Cavill feels the most like he is Superman rather than someone in a suit. His attitude is just the right blend of humble, kind and innately driven to help, and this is all balanced out with a sort of world-weariness. He’s just a little grittier than we normally see Superman, and he doles out hard justice when it’s necessary. Cavill’s Superman openly expresses that no government controls him, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t an ally to mankind. This particular Superman also shows tons of emotion: he’s a little sassy and humorous under his steel exterior, and the subtle changes in his expression often convey irritation and self-doubt. Man of Steel also gives us a very vocal Superman who uses screams and cries of anguish during intense action sequences and emotional scenes, which makes him feel more passionate.
Universal is hoping to shoot Tom Cruise into space sometime in 2023.
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