Look! Up on the Screen!1 of 12
It's a good time to be a fan of Superman on TV.
Not only is the Man of Steel headed for a new series (headlining alongside Lois Lane) on the CW, multiple versions of Superman are appearing in the network's current "Crisis on Infinite Earths" crossover event - including the returns of Tom Welling and Brandon Routh to versions of the role.
For now, we're inspired to look back - all the way back - through the history of Superman on TV and in movies, and count down the greatest live action Superman actors of all time.
John Haymes Newton2 of 12
Though it's not well remembered, CBS' Superboy ran for four seasons in the late 80s and early 90s - and in the first of those seasons, the title role of Clark Kent/Superboy was played by John Haymes Newton.
In that first season, the show centered around Clark Kent's education at the Siegel School of Journalism at Shuster University in Florida - tying into the show filming at Orlando's Disney/MGM Studios.
Haymes' Superboy would spring into action each week alongside Lana Lang, TJ White (son of Perry White), and eventually his nemesis Lex Luthor.
Newton's Clark and Superman, while hunky, weren't exactly remarkable - the show underwent serious retooling and Haymes was recast in between the show's first and second seasons.
Gerard Christopher3 of 12
Gerard Christopher was the second actor to take on the role of Superboy in the titular show that adapted Superman's younger days to his time at journalism school in Florida.
Starting in the second season, some of the show's cast was written out and its setting somewhat altered to accommodate a more Silver Age, superheroic Superboy - alongside versions of some of his classic villains.
Christopher's more driven and familiar Superboy/Clark Kent anchored the show for three seasons, including a change of setting to a government agency where Clark Kent and Lana Lang were interns - and even a planned depiction of the death of Superboy, segueing into a series of TV movies.
Alas, producers the Salkinds, who also produced the first three Superman films, entered a longstanding custody battle for Superboy's film rights that culminated in those larger plans being scuttled and the series simply ending - with Warner Bros. retaining full rights to Superman and Superboy on television.
Brandon Routh4 of 12
Brandon Routh is a popular Superman actor among fans - though he only got one shot at a big screen appearance in the ill-fated Superman Returns, a direct sequel to Superman 2 which eschewed the plot developments of Superman III and IV in favor of a semi-reboot.
The film failed to soar - its complicated emotional plot and lackluster action led it to fizzle somewhat in the public eye. However, Routh's performance as Superman and Clark Kent stood out above the film's foibles (a regular occurrence for Superman actors, it seems).
Routh's competent performance might be higher on this list if it didn't owe so much to Christopher Reeve - perhaps a necessity given the nature of the film and its relationship to the earlier franchise.
Ultimately, Routh's Clark Kent is engaging and charismatic, his Superman strong and beset by inner pain. But what comes through most is his resemblance to Reeve and his ability to echo Reeve's performance - making this a better portrayal of another actor than of a Superman with his own wings to fly on.
Routh recently picked up the cape one more time for the still-ongoing "Crisis on Infinite Earths" TV crossover.
Dean Cain5 of 12
Dean Cain's performance in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was perhaps the onscreen epitome of the idea that Clark Kent is the truest expression of Kal-El's inner self, while Superman is the disguise.
Affable, charming, and more put together than many takes on Clark Kent, Cain's take on the Man of Steel was the perfect fit for the show's Superman a la Moonlighting vibe.
Cain's Superman remains a fan favorite, with his 90s-era performance leading to a turn as Kara Zor-El's adoptive father Jeremiah Danvers in CW's Supergirl, while his co-star Teri Hatcher, the show's titular Lois Lane, has appeared as Rhea, Queen of Daxam.
Kirk Alyn6 of 12
Though he's all but forgotten 70 years later, Kirk Alyn was the first actor to play Superman in live action starting in 1948.
Alyn portrayed Superman and Clark Kent over the course of 15 episodes in the Man of Steel's original film serial. Though that story took some liberties from comic books - his arch-enemy is the Spider Lady, for example - but a later serial also included Lex Luthor and introduced a concept similar to the Phantom Zone, which didn't arrive in comics till after.
Alyn's Superman was particularly notable for the efforts the actor took to portray Clark Kent and Superman as almost wholly different characters, building on the illusion that so far hadn't had to work in a moving, live context.
Aside from this innovation, Alyn wasn't given much room to mature his performance - the serials of the day were akin to live action cartoons, aimed at younger audiences. But Alyn's lantern-jawed, stalwart hero defined a vision of Superman for a generation and brought DC's most iconic hero to real true life for the first time.
Tyler Hoechlin7 of 12
CW's Superman, Tyler Hoechlin, is the newest actor to wear the cape and S-shield, but since his guest-starring debut in Supergirl, he's already forged a place for himself in the pantheon of Men of Steel.
Effortlessly powerful, hunky, and witty, Hoechlin's heartthrob Superman brings a bit of youthful energy to the often stately role.
Hoechlin's Superman and Elizabeth Tulloch's Lois Lane (who plays perfectly off Hoechlin's energetic Clark Kent) will appear in CW's "Crisis on Infinite Earths" - before also spinning off into their own CW show next year.
Henry Cavill8 of 12
Henry Cavill’s embattled Superman is likely the most polarizing portrayal on this list. From his debut in Man of Steel into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and his infamous mustache problems in Justice League, Cavill’s Superman has constantly felt bigger than the movies he’s appeared in.
With a physical presence few other Superman actors can match (or have tried), Cavill’s Superman is, well, more of a badass than most other versions. Guided by an intense, complex morality informed more by tragedy than hope, Cavill’s portrayal brings in a deep sadness that other performers have left on the table.
Though he’s yet to get a chance to really soar as a fully-formed Superman, Cavill’s willingness to go farther, and to stray farther from the typical expectations of Superman make him a standout in the realm of Superman actors.
George Reeves9 of 12
George Reeves wins notable acclaim not just as one of the pillars of live action Superman portrayals, but as the first actor to bring the Man of Steel to the small screen.
Though he rarely clashed with supervillains, Reeves' no-nonsense Superman harkened back to the hero's earliest days busting up organized crime and bringing corrupt businessmen to justice (with the occasional mad scientist thrown in for good measure).
Reeves' Superman was lantern-jawed and two-fisted, a hero of the people both as Supes and Clark Kent, defining a vision of the character as steadfast, rock solid, and unflappable.
Oddly, recent Batman actor Ben Affleck once portrayed Reeves in the film Hollywoodland, examining the tragic circumstances of the actor's death.
Tom Welling10 of 12
Smallville’s Superman Tom Welling had a unique challenge in his portrayal of the role. For most of the show’s ten-season run, Welling wasn’t Superman at all – just a younger version of Clark Kent trying to make a difference in his hometown while developing all the skills and morality that would one day make him the greatest superhero of all time (not that we’d get to see much of that part).
Still, despite the lack of cape and S-shield, Welling managed to invoke a level of intense heroism that shed some of Christopher Reeve’s kindly everyman take to bring just a bit more angst to the teen-focused show, which ultimately redefined what superhero TV can be like.
Welling’s performance as Clark Kent is still a fan-favorite, with Welling always coming up as a potential big screen Superman, piggy backing off his origin story. Though he hasn’t been tapped for a film, Welling recently as Clark Kent in CW’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” TV crossover.
Christopher Reeve11 of 12
Christopher Reeve’s affable, amiable Superman has the benefit of being the first one to the big screen in a modern context – and his performance became so definitive, it’s still the biggest touchstone for how Superman is portrayed in wider media.
Reeve channeled a kind of quiet strength as Superman, exuding kindness, helpfulness, and an air of heroism that few Superman actors have come close to matching. But it’s his Clark Kent that really seals the deal here, as Reeve put as much care into his portrayal of a somewhat bumbling Midwestern reporter as he did his caped alter ego, making audiences believe not only that a man could fly, but that none of his friends would be able to recognize him while doing it.
Reeve’s Superman survived four movies (with diminishing returns in both quality and box office). And though his franchise somewhat fizzled out with the lackluster Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Reeve’s iconic portrayal of the Man of Steel lives on, capturing imaginations around the world to this day.
1 of 12
2 of 12
3 of 12
4 of 12
5 of 12
6 of 12
7 of 12
8 of 12
9 of 12
10 of 12
11 of 12
12 of 12