Superman is arguably one of the hardest characters in all of pop culture for actors to play. Talented men from all walks of life have been embodying the Man of Steel since 1948. Not only do they have to be the world’s greatest hero, they also have to be Clark Kent. They must be so completely different as Clark that viewers believe no one around him can tell he’s Superman. Since we assume that none of these actors actually have super strength, super speed, flight or heat vision, they also have to convince us that they are extremely powerful.
They must be so earnest and charismatic that never for one second do we stop and think “I saw this guy in a English period drama, he can’t be Superman.” It’s a delicate balance that not every Superman actor, whether live action or animated is cut out for. Comic book fans are the most demanding and hard to please in entertainment. To mess up an important character like Superman, draws an intense wrath that never goes away no matter how many other great projects they take on. It’s not a role to treat lightly. So, here for your enjoyment are the on-screen versions of Superman from weakest to most powerful.
In 1988 Ilya and Alexander Salkind, the producers of the '80s Superman movies, had the bright idea to make a show about a college aged Clark Kent. As we all know now, that could actually make for an interesting story (but, we’ll get to that later). Due to the show’s low budget, Superboy, never seemed very powerful. Obviously a show from the '80s won’t have the same advances as something that comes out now.
However, when effects and camerawork can’t accurately display the full might of the Man of Steel, it’s up to the actor to make the audience believe that underneath the mild mannered reporter, there’s the most powerful man in the world. Neither of the show’s actors had the skill or charisma to pull it off.
14 JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER
Superman has always been a little too much of a Boy Scout. His motto is truth, justice and the American Way, after all. He’s so rigidly honest and occasionally self-righteous that it can be exhausting being a fan. In modern stories this often puts him at odds with the rest of the Justice League, however he fits right in with the '50s era The New Frontier.
This particular iteration is voiced by Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks). Unfortunately, for most of the movie he comes off as more of a disappointed father than super powerful crime fighter. He actually spends a crazy amount of screentime yelling at other heroes. His strict adherence to the rules just makes him seem so mortal and undercuts his entire aura.
13 BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS PART 2
While Superman has always been willing to fight for the American Way of life, he’s never been an actual government agent. In Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 2, a nuclear explosion led to martial law across the country. Of course Batman had Gotham under control. The government didn’t like this and sent Superman after Batman, leading to the showdown everyone wanted.
Mark Valley voices this weird Superman who just follows orders without really thinking them through. In the end, Batman won, because he used more than brawn to win. Yes, it’s a Batman movie so this makes sense, but how can we possibly believe in Superman’s strength when not only does he lose a fight to a guy with no powers, but he’s also been reduced to being a government stooge?
12 SUPERMAN: UNBOUND
There’s nothing particularly wrong or offensive about Matt Bomer’s voice portrayal of Superman in Superman: Unbound. He’s dating Lois, helping Kara and ultimately saves everyone from Brainiac shrinking and capturing cities. The one real problem is that he’s just there. He doesn’t do anything to set himself apart from all the other Superman actors. The normalcy of all this, takes away all the extras that make Superman so special.
When he uses his powers to defeat the bad guys, it’s not surprising. It’s true Superman has never been as flashy as some of the other members of the Justice League (we're looking at you Barry), but that doesn’t mean he has to be boring either. While it’s nice to see him settle into a regular life, he still has the world Super in his name. Overall it’s completely forgettable, which is the one thing Superman should never be.
From the moment it premiered on CBS, everyone was wondering when Superman would show up on Supergirl. With its second season move to The CW and full entrance into the Arrowverse, the show jumped right in by having Tyler Hoechlin play Kara’s cousin in the first two episodes. Fans took an instant liking to his easy portrayal of both Superman and Clark.
However, the show is called Supergirl, so when he returned for the season two finale and was brainwashed into fighting Kara, she won. This is not a knock against Supergirl, as she’s an awesome heroine, but the show went out of its way to have Superman note that she may be more powerful than him. While great for the series, it does go against everything we’ve ever known about the Man of Steel.
10 SUPERMAN RETURNS
Superman Returns often gets a bad rap as being a boring superhero movie, and it is. From Clark trying to integrate back into the Daily Planet to Lex’s stupid plan to take over with Kryptonite islands, it’s just not that interesting. However, none of this applies to Brandon Routh’s Superman. He not only looks the part, he is believable every second he’s on-screen.
Unfortunately, the script requires that he essentially get shanked during a fight like it’s his first day in prison. True, the knife was made of Kryptonite, but still we’ve seen him get hurt much worse and walk it off. Other than showing him flying, lifting planes and stopping bullets, this movie goes out if its way to make Superman look weak and unimportant.
9 BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
In Man of Steel Henry Cavill plays Clark as a lonely guy trying to hide his abilities and understand them. He doesn’t really become Superman until the overly long third act. In Batman v Superman, he is now a full-fledged hero, who is said to be much more experienced at saving people. And yet, he is outsmarted at every turn and loses the big fight.
While this film is meant to launch the start of the Justice League, it’s a Batman movie and Superman is just a secondary supporter in his story. Sure he has all the requisite powers and displays them spectacularly, he just never seems like the powerhouse he’s supposed to be. As matter of fact, once Wonder Woman shows up, he drops from second to third banana.
8 ALL-STAR SUPERMAN
All-Star Superman is perhaps the most heartbreaking Superman story. It’s about a man who knows for a full year he’s going to die. After a robot fight near the sun, Superman is exposed to too much solar radiation and finds out he has a year to live. He chooses to spend that time doing what he does best, saving people and loving Lois. James Denton voices a more vulnerable Superman than we’ve ever seen.
Yes, he displays great feats of strength, but we also get see his cleverness, compassion and genuine love for the people of Earth. In his final moments, he defeats Lex Luthor, then fixes the sun, saving the world one final time. In showcasing Superman’s emotional maturity, Denton reveals the real source of his power.
7 JUSTICE LEAGUE
Justice League is considered one of the best superhero cartoons ever made. It’s also one of the best representations of the Justice League as a team. This is where longtime fans finally got to see all their favorite heroes work together. Justice League also showed the real birth of the Superman/Batman relationship. George Newbern perfectly captured Clark/Superman’s leadership capabilities, as well as his unfailing loyalty to the rest of the League.
He was often seen using his regular array of powers, but as part of a team he had to figure out how to use them in tandem with other various heroes. While we’ve always known Superman was the most powerful man in the world, somehow showing him as part of a team made him seem even stronger.
6 SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
Following the success of Batman: The Animated Series, it wasn’t long before fans began to wonder when they would get a similar show chronicling Superman’s adventures. Superman the Animated Series didn’t disappoint. It was like a comic book come to life. There were even occasional crossover episodes with Batman. It featured all the best aspects of Superman. Tim Daly perfectly encapsulated every part of Clark and Superman’s personality.
Much like Kevin Conroy did for Batman, Daly is the quintessential voice of Superman. Not only do we get to see his superpowers, Daly also effortlessly lets fans see Superman’s inner strength through his friendships with Jimmy and Bruce, and of course through his complicated relationship with Lois. For many fans TIm Daly is the voice they hear while they’re reading comic books.
The WB was a network famously geared toward young viewers. It’s lineup included Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. The channel decided to build on its sci-fi following with a series about a teenage Clark Kent, who discovers that he’s different when his body starts going through the changes that every young person experiences. Every week a new power emerged and Clark had to figure out how to control it and use it to beat some other kid who had just gained a weird new power and was using it for evil.
Tom Welling gave fans a chance to see how hard it really is to be Superman. He has to be strong enough to contain uncontrollable abilities, while also dealing with all the problems that come from being a teenager. For a certain generation of fans, Tom Welling is their Superman.
4 LOIS AND CLARK THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN
Before superheroes took over TV networks and movie theaters, Superman made a successful return to the small screen in 1993 with Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. It starred Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane and Dean Cain as Clark Kent/Superman. The show began with Clark’s move to Metropolis and Superman’s first appearance in the city.
By this point, all his powers were fully developed, but he had to figure out how to use them to fight crime. Cain often displayed Superman using his brain and his abilities to solve the problem. Since Cain generally spent more time during the episodes as Clark than as Superman, viewers got a chance to see how the strength of Clark Kent informs the superhero life of Superman.
3 THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN
As the first TV Superman, George Reeves was the public’s first big glimpse at the Man of Steel. Seeing him on The Adventures of Superman was the first chance audiences had to understand what it meant to be a superhero who could fly, had super strength and was bullet proof. He was the Superman without any weaknesses. Reeves portrayal of Superman was the template for every live action superhero project that came after it.
The limits of '50s television may not give the flash of newer productions, but Reeves was still able to make viewers believe that he actually had superpowers. As one of the first live-action versions of Superman, he helped set the bar for what fans expected the Man of Steel to be.
2 SUPERMAN (1948)
As the first Superman, Kirk Alyn was the one whose performance convinced producers that the character could work on screen. Other than Christopher Reeve, he looks more like the original comic book version of the character than any other live action Superman. Despite the limitations of 1948 production values, Alyn had an infectious enthusiasm that made him instantly believable as the Man of Steel.
He almost replaced George Reeves during tense contract negotiations, which just proves that even after his tenure as Superman was over, many still considered him the better version. Superman fans owe him a real debt of gratitude for launching a timeless franchise. His influence and legacy alone makes him among the most powerful actors to inhabit the role. It’s very unfortunate that Alyn has become the Superman that time forgot.
1 SUPERMAN II
Many of the actors on this list have done a great job embodying the Man of Steel, however there is really only one Superman that instantly pops into everyone’s head. Christopher Reeve is the quintessential Superman. In Superman the Movie, Reeve introduces Clark Kent/Superman and lets fans in on the full backstory of his life. It’s Superman II where he hits his stride.
By now, he’s an established hero and is fully comfortable with his Superman life, but he still struggles to find balance between his two identities. Facing down Zod and conquering his inner demons gives Reeve a chance to display the full range of Superman’s emotional strength and its connection to how he uses his powers. Christopher Reeve is the Superman all the others are compared to.
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