If it feels like Superman has been around forever, it’s because the Man of Steel is an impressive 84 years old. DC Comics’ iconic superhero debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938, and, a decade later, made the jump — or quick flight, really — onto our screens. Kirk Alyn starred in that first live-action serial, but that doesn’t mean he’s the definitive actor behind the caped Kryptonian.
The well-known symbol on Superman’s chest might stand for hope, but that doesn’t mean every Clark Kent hopeful made it work. So, from Christopher Reeve and Dean Cain to Tyler Hoechlin and Henry Cavill, we’re taking a look at the best — and worst — Superman actors.
The Worst Man of Steel Actors
10. Dean Cain | Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993–97)
Dean Cain’s Superman felt very wooden. It was almost like he was trying to play the role partly as an homage to the likes of George Reeves and Kirk Alyn — actors who took up the Superman mantle in the ‘40s and ‘50s — but he failed to capture their charm.
Moreover, Cain’s attempt felt a little outdated. While Reeves and Alyn might’ve sold the role back in their day, Cain’s approach felt a bit cheesy, even campy, in the ‘90s. And not necessarily in a fun way. In fact, a lot of his popularity boils down to looks. Honestly, the real star of Lois & Clark was Teri Hatcher (Desperate Housewives).
9. John Haymes Newton | Superboy (1988)
We’re including a few Superboy actors here, which may sound a bit confusing. These days, you likely know Superboy as a completely different character from Superman, but, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the show Superboy followed a young adult version of Clark Kent. So, despite the more youthful names, these actors did technically play a younger Kal-El.
(Also, around the same time, the Man of Steel comics reboot erased the Superboy character from the continuity, leaving the name up for grabs, I guess.)
Anyway, John Haymes Newton was cast as Superboy in the show’s first season. Since he was in his early 20s, the actor did feel like a more youthful Clark, especially compared to the live-action portrayals that came before his. But, in part, Newton ranks so low because he never really got the chance to establish himself as the future Superman. When Newton tried to negotiate a 20% pay raise, the show recast him faster than a speeding bullet.
8. Gerard Christopher | Superboy (later, The Adventures of Superboy) (1989–92)
And that brings us to John Haymes Newton’s replacement, Gerard Christopher. For the show’s next three seasons — it was renamed The Adventures of Superboy for its third and fourth seasons — Christopher played the titular role. However, much of the show’s popularity likely stems from the fact that it was a daytime network show. Had this iteration of Superman been released in movie theaters, it wouldn’t have fared well.
Not to mention, Christopher was 30 years old when he replaced Newton as a young Clark Kent. So, despite the show’s title, he was most definitely not a “Superboy” by any means. To put it plainly, this show tried to do what Smallville later achieved much more successfully, making Superboy (and both lead actors) rather forgettable.
7. Brandon Routh |Superman Returns (2006)
Maybe Superman shouldn’t have returned in 2006. While Brandon Routh looked the part, he just wasn’t a believable Man of Steel. In the film, Superman returns to Earth after a five-year absence. Lois Lane has moved on. And Lex Luthor has moved on to his next sinister scheme — a scheme that’s honestly unhinged, even by superhero movie standards. But the real issue is that this melancholy film is anchored by a star who lacks the must-have Superman charisma.
A few years ago, Routh put on the cape one last time in the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event on The CW — characters from the Arrowverse shows, like Legends of Tomorrow, Batwoman, The Flash, Black Lightning and Supergirl, all joined forces, and there were many, many cameos from DC actors of the past. Even in this TV crossover, Routh was outshone by the other Men of Steel.
The Good-for-Their-Time Kal-Els
6. George Reeves | Adventures of Superman (1952–58)
From 1952–58, George Reeves stepped into the role of Superman. At the time, his portrayal might’ve been a little too convincing. The Clark Kent of the ‘50s had a terrifying brush with a young fan, who held him at gunpoint because he wanted to test Superman’s invincibility.
A quick-thinking Reeves convinced the kid to put the gun down, telling him the bullet would bounce off of him and potentially injure someone else. Looking back, his performance isn’t super convincing simply because the series didn’t age well. But, at the time, he was clearly a solid pick.
5. Kirk Alyn | Superman (1948) & Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
Adored by fans in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Kirk Alyn holds the distinction of being the first actor to play Superman/Clark Kent in a live-action work. In 1948, he starred in Superman, a 15-part serial — essentially, a film cut into parts — that screened at movie theaters’ matinée showings.
Most chapters end with a cliffhanger, which encouraged viewers to return for future installments. In fact, it was such a financial success for Columbia Pictures that the studio produced a sequel serial in 1950, Atom Man vs. Superman. Not to mention, first-run theaters that never showed serials started screening the popular Superman shorts.
With a small budget and a campy feel that emulated the comics of yesteryear, Alyn’s serials feel pretty dated. Still, he gave the viewers of the day a great performance worthy of the Man of Steel.
The Best Man of Steel Actors
4. Tyler Hoechlin | Superman & Lois (2021–) & Supergirl (2015–21)
A good actor will make viewers forget their previous roles, and that’s exactly what Tyler Hoechlin, a Teen Wolf veteran, has done with his portrayal of Clark Kent/Superman. Before landing Superman & Lois on The CW, Hoechlin played the Man of Steel in The CW’s Supergirl. In the show, Kara Zor-El — a.k.a. Kara Danvers — is supposed to protect her infant cousin, Kal-El (a.k.a. Clark) on Earth. But when the two flee a doomed Krypton, Kara’s pod is derailed, landing her in the timeless Phantom Zone for a few decades.
Once Kara (Melissa Benoist) arrives on Earth, her cousin is not only older than her, but a bona fide superhero. Hoechlin plays a great mentor in Supergirl, and it’s exciting to see the two cousins fighting alongside each other. Best of all, he’s pretty humble, admitting when Kara has better odds than him in a fight. And that feels very Superman.
In the spin-off series, Superman & Lois, the titular couple have two kids. This is something of a departure from other live-action portrayals, so seeing the fatherly side of Clark is fun. Hoechlin gives a wholly convincing portrayal of a family man pretending to be ordinary and a do-good superhero. Clearly, this is what Lois & Clark from the ‘90s wanted to be.
3. Henry Cavill | Man of Steel (2013), Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) & Justice League (2017)
It can’t be denied that Henry Cavill was great in Man of Steel (2013). Okay, so the movie wasn’t beloved by everyone, but Cavill brought something different to the role. Although Clark’s general backstory is the one we’re all familiar with, the world around him isn’t looking for a superhero or willing to accept one. Instead, there’s a strong mistrust of anyone who’s different, including our caped hero.
In Cavill’s follow-up outing, Batman v. Superman (2016), his charisma was once again foiled by an incredibly lacking script and empty action sequences. And 2017’s Justice League wasn’t much better. It’s honestly frustrating to see Cavill’s Superman go to waste in otherwise bogged down — or straight up messy — DC Extended Universe (DCEU) films. Here’s hoping he gets a Superman film befitting his abilities.
2. Tom Welling | Smallville (2001–10)
In Smallville, Tom Welling plays a high school version of Clark Kent, long before he becomes Superman. He has the powers, of course, but he’s just a farm boy who’s 10 years away from becoming the full-fledged Man of Steel we all know and love. This different approach to the character allowed Welling to make the role his own.
Young fans got the chance to grow up alongside Clark. Not to mention, the show aired for a decade — and it wasn’t canceled. Instead, it had a planned conclusion. That speaks volumes about Smallville’s success, which is largely thanks to Welling’s performance.
1. Christopher Reeve | Superman (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983) & Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the top spot. Christopher Reeve became the benchmark for who Superman should be on screen. Although he first donned the red cape and blue spandex back in 1978, Reeve is perhaps the most memorable Man of Steel to this day. Sure, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) is best forgotten, but his first three outings as Clark Kent more than make up for that.
The first film has all the classic Superman elements, from an infant Kal-El escaping Krypton to a super-powered Clark Kent moving to Metropolis to fight crime, woo Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and stop Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). Reeve perfectly captures both Superman’s strength and his honest naïveté — but he never loses the charm or believability either.
If you’re ever feeling down, Reeve’s performance Superman will give you a dose of wonder you haven’t felt since you were a kid.