With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice just a few days away and fulfills a dream I’ve had since I was a kid, I figured it was a good time to celebrate Superman‘s long history on film. But just simply recounting actors that have taken it on would’ve been boring, so let’s argue over which actor and story made the best Superman.
These aren’t all of the men who’ve pretended to fight for truth, justice, and the American way over the years, but it’s at least the notable ones. Special shout outs to Helen Slater and Melissa Benoist for being great Supergirl actresses. Too bad there isn’t enough to write an entire list for them. Anyway, let’s get to it.
Who’s the best on screen Superman?
Bud Collyer (New Adventures of Superman and several radio specials)
Though the only experience I have with Paramount’s 1940s serials are the few I found on a budget DVD a few years back, Bud Collyer will most likely go down as the actor with the longest Superman tenure. Starring in those serials as well as over 2000 radio specials from 1940 to 1951, Collyer was the de facto Superman to an entire generation. He also set a lot of guidelines for future Supermen too such as adopting a lower octave when speaking as Superman.
Kirk Alyn (Superman 1948)
Collyer might’ve been the first Superman in media, but Kirk Alyn was the first live action one. His brief stint (only starring in two serials, Superman and Atom Man vs. Superman) isn’t well remembered thanks to how badly it’s aged, but there’s something charming about Alyn’s positively charged performance. He took those budgetary and technological limits with a smile.
George Reeves (Superman and the Mole Men)
George Reeves began the ever important focus shift to Clark Kent, thus granting Superman more longevity in media. His Superman take wasn’t bad, but his Clark Kent made his stint memorable. Bringing a charm and intelligence to the role that wasn’t captured yet, writers began focusing more and more on Supes’ secret identity life. In fact, Reeves’ stint as the hero was more Kent focused than anything.
Danny Dark (Super Friends)
Despite all of its cheese, and all of the jokes fans make now, Super Friends was my first introduction to superheroes. Caught it at five in the morning along with Hanna Barbara reruns of Scooby Doo and Johnny Quest. The only unfortunate thing about Superman’s role in Super Friends was that it was pretty unremarkable. I remember the Legion of Doom making more of an impact on this show. Super Friends’ version of Superman had almost no defining characteristics.
Christopher Reeve (Superman-Superman IV: The Quest for Peace)
Then, in 1978, everything changed. Suddenly, superhero fiction seemed like it could work on film. Arguably the most well known and favored actor to take on the role, Christopher Reeve defined Superman for a generation of moviegoers. Combining George Reeves’ Clark Kent mannerisms and Kirk Alyn’s positivity, Reeve was the first Superman (and only one for a while) that felt absolutely sincere. Also, the man was 6’4 and 225 pounds. Doesn’t get more “super” than that.
Tim Daly/George Newbern (Superman: The Animated Series/Justice League)
While Super Friends was the first superhero show I’ve ever watched, Superman: The Animated Series quickly became a new favorite. Before Bruce Timm’s unprecedented animation domination (crafting a huge DC comics animated universe), Superman served as the lighter tone alternative to Batman: The Animated Series. Tim Daly and George Newbern essentially deserve the same amount of credit (as Newbern took over once Superman ceased to have a solo series) as both their takes saw Superman through his most faithful comic stories to date. Adaptations of “For the Man Who Haves Everything,” “What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?,” and introducing long time comic book villains like Brainiac and Darkseid to the mix.
Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman)
Ah, poor Dean Cain. He really never bounced back after this (while his co-star Teri Hatcher did just fine with Desperate Housewives) because while he tried his best to do both Clark Kent and Superman justice, fans didn’t quite gel with the show’s focus on relationship struggles. There is some surprising nuance to be found with Cain’s performance during the first season as Kal-El wants Lois to love him for him and not his powers, but the show later squandered all of that promise. And then equally squandered Dean Cain and doomed him to obscurity.
Tom Welling (Smallville)
Smallville was a weird, weird series. Its formula serving as the prototype shows like Arrow and The Flash would adopt later, Tom Welling portrayed a young Clark slowly discovering his powers and becoming the Superman we all know and love…except he didn’t actually become Superman until the final episode. Full of weird things like the not-Justice League and not-Lex Luthor (who was actually the best Luthor and The Flash WB and DC have ever had), but Welling held it all together. It wasn’t a perfect series by any means, but Welling managed to keep our attention for ten seasons. That’s pretty super.
Brandon Routh (Superman Returns)
I loved, loved Superman Returns. Brandon Routh was absolutely charming (and that charm keeps his TV career alive to this day), but his downfall ultimately was cinema’s changing tone overall. Although it paid tribute to Richard Donner’s earlier Superman films and Routh captured what made Christopher Reeve’s performance so special, fans were over it. The “lack” of superhero action in a post-Batman Begins world was the final nail in the coffin. It was too bright of a film to succeed.
Roger Rose (Batman: The Brave and the Bold)
Okay, so my favorite Superman comics were always the ones where Superman acted like a total jerk. Like when red kryptonite turned Superman into a tyrant ruling the Earth, or when Mr. Mxyzptlk makes him act wrongo, or that time he tries to un-adopt Jimmy Olsen by acting like such an asshole that Jimmy quits out of being his son. One episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold (possibly the best Batman animated incarnation) combines all of that Superman weirdness into an episode where Superman (played by Roger Rose) ends up fighting Batman. So not only does it pay tribute to both heroes’ Silver Age stories, but also combines a bit from The Dark Knight Returns. It’s seamless, silly, and probably my personal favorite incarnation of Superman to date.
Henry Cavill (Man of Steel)
It may be still too early to tell on which end of the super spectrum Henry Cavill is going to end up, but I’m hoping it’ll be positive. Cavill nails the look, but doesn’t have the presence. I’m a bit worried for WB’s future universe since Cavill can’t seem to act even opposite of huge talents like Amy Adams and Michael Shannon. But his darker, and more mature, take on Superman may bring the hero to places we’ve never seen. But who knows what the future holds.
Who’s the best Superman? Oh, let’s just say…Moe.
Who do you think makes the best on screen Superman?