Who are the best Superman actors? If you ask people to visualise a superhero, the picture they conjure is likely that of our favourite Kryptonian. Since 1938, when he was brought to life by DC comics, Superman has defined what it means to be a superhero.
Throughout history, many actors have tried to embody Clark Kent and Superman across television and superhero movies. Some succeeded. Others failed. And a select few were so iconic, their portrayals of the character became synonymous with the role. But who is the best of them all?
With new movies centring on Superman said to be on the way, we sifted through a range of TV shows and Superman movies to bring you this ranking of who, in our opinion, can be considered some of the best Superman actors of all time.
Who’s the best Superman actor?
- Brandon Routh
- Kirk Alyn
- Dean Cain
- George Reeves
- Tyler Hoechlin
- Tom Welling
- Christopher Reeve
- Henry Cavill
Okay, let me get this out of the way quickly. I’m by no means saying that Brandon Routh’s interpretation of Clark Kent was bad. Whatever you think about him snooping around Lois’ desk or being a bit of a shitty dad, he certainly looked the part.
But being a dead ringer for the Man of Steel isn’t enough to save Superman Returns, a ‘2000s movie that tries its best to be edgy but, when push comes to shove, ends up being a little bit boring.
Kirk Alyn will always have a special place in our hearts as the first person to bring Superman to the screen, donning the red cape for the first time all the way back in 1948.
But while his athleticism and previous dance experience made stunt and action scenes nice to look at, his performance as a whole was rather wooden at times, and he himself ended up being bitter about the legacy of playing Superman, describing it once as “ruining [his] career.”
It’s fitting that Dean Cain starred in a TV series entitled Lois & Clark because this television iteration of the DC hero seemed to put a lot more emphasis on the Clark Kent side of things than they did with, you know, Superman.
That isn’t to say Cain’s portrayal of Kent wasn’t good — but at the end of the day, Clark Kent is meant to be a secondary aspects of Superman as opposed to the other way around.
Like Kirk Alyn, George Reeves made no secret of his personal dislike of the role of Superman and the impact it had on his career, but you can’t deny that he gave it all he had. He was one of the earlier proponents of the role but gave a slightly edgier, more nuanced performance than Alyn.
His Superman was charming, muscular, confident, and heroic, but he also had a rare softer side. He undoubtedly paved the way for Superman’s on-screen characterizations moving forward.
The DC movies might sometimes be a mess, but when it came to the Arrowverse, you knew you were in safe hands. The vast majority of these DC-inspired thriller series were consistently good, and Superman & Lois, which delivers consistently high ratings, is one of the CW’s crown jewels. A big reason for this is Tyler Hoechlin’s critically-lauded portrayal of the character, as he brings an equally-satisfying and grounded approach to both Clark Kent and Superman.
To sum it up briefly, Tom Welling was to Superman what Cameron Monaghan was to Batman villain Joker. Both actors were given the near-impossible job of portraying the origins of iconic characters without being able to fall back on costumes or fully-fledged comic book likeness — but in doing this, they both managed to push the envelope and create incredibly in-depth and well-crafted characters.
In Smallville, we see a lot more of Clark Kent than Superman, but Welling does a great job of providing a layered, rich backstory for the Kryptonian for the decade he portrayed the character.
For many, Christopher Reeve simply is Superman. 1978’s Superman is considered by many to be one of the best movies of all time, and that’s largely because in his performance, Reeve embodied the perfect, All-American hero. He was funny. Warm. Gentlemanly. He fought the bad guys and saved the day not because of some God complex or brooding ideal about justice — he did it because he was simply a stand-up guy with a strong moral compass.
It certainly helped that his iteration of Clark Kent was goofy and charming too. However, after Superman II, the sequels began to go downhill rapidly in terms of quality, with Reeve being their only saving grace. For a long time, it felt like nobody could come close to Reeve’s portrayal of the character and his indelible mark on pop culture. But then, 2014’s Man of Steel came along…
Henry Cavill delivered what Superman Returns tried and failed to do. He completely nailed the darker, grittier iteration of Superman the 2006 movie was going for. His Man of Steel was world-weary but not jaded. He had a strong sense of justice but clearly grappled with the magnitude that being a person like Superman entailed.
It was refreshing to see a version of the character who was unafraid to show his emotions (even though it led to that ‘Martha’ scene in Batman v Superman), and his fight scenes were incredibly gripping and well-choreographed. Whatever you think of the DCEU, it’s very difficult to fault Cavill’s version of the hero, and it’s equally as difficult to see how whoever takes on the role next could do a better job.
To hear more about where Superman is going next, including the Superman Legacy release date, check out our guide to James Gunn and Peter Safran’s all-new DCU slate, subtitled Chapter 1 Gods and Monsters. Or, if you want to learn more about the famous faces behind other comic book characters, check out our rankings of the best Batman actors and best Joker actors.
If you’re counting down the days to The Flash release date, then you should check out our spoiler-free The Flash review. We’ve also got a list of everyone in The Flash cast and answered a surprisingly tricky question, ‘How fast is The Flash?‘