Superman has a reputation for being hard to adapt to film. There are the technical difficulties, of course: how do you make viewers believe that a man can fly? But in today’s CGI-heavy cinematic landscape, heat vision and super speed are minor obstacles.
No, if you listen to Hollywood, the problem is selling Clark Kent’s earnestness and nobility in a way that appeals to audiences trained to prefer quippy MCU leads and brooding antiheroes. (I think Hollywood would be better off if they stopped trying to make the same two movies over and over again, but I guess that’s why they don’t pay me the big bucks.)
Writers and directors have tried various ways to “solve” the “problem” of Superman over the decades, from teen angst to destruction porn to full-on song and dance. But which live action Supermen are the best? Well, that’s what we’re here to tackle today. I’m ranking every live action Superman adaptation to find the best of the best…and the worst.
I will be grading Supermen on a five-part metric:
- Supermanliness: Does the costume look good? Do the powers look good? Do I believe this man can fly?
- Clark Kentiness: A good Superman without a good Clark is nothing. Bonus points for a good transition between the two (I see you, Christopher Reeve!).
- Acting: Spoiler — these grades are going to be pretty high.
- Writing: Spoiler — these grades are going to be pretty low.
- Accuracy to the Comics: Do I recognize the Superman on the screen? Or is Zach Snyder directing?
I should also note that this list is, unsurprisingly, almost entirely white (Dean Cain is of partly Japanese descent). That will hopefully change soon, since Ta-Nehisi Coates is currently writing a Superman movie intended to star a Black actor, and hey, there’s no reason James Gunn’s planned version has to be white, either.
Without further ado, let’s check out the Men of Steel!
John Haymes Newton and Gerard Christopher
I’ll be honest: I hadn’t watched the 1988 Superboy series until I started researching for this article, and I could only get through two episodes, one with each lead actor (Newton played Superboy in Season 1, then was replaced by Christopher for the rest of the show). It inexplicably relocated Clark, Lana Lang, and Lex Luthor to a university in Florida for the first two seasons, then equally inexplicably re-relocated Clark and Lana to an internship at “the Bureau for Extra-Normal Matters.” Not only does neither setting reflect anything in the comics, but the whole concept of Superboy was no longer in continuity at that point. The college setting feels like a mix between Saved by the Bell: The College Years and a particularly cheesy PSA, while the BEM setting (oh, I see what they did there) is a particularly strange attempt at “the Daily Planet but not.” Both actors are…fine, I guess, but neither one rises above their thoroughly mediocre milieu.
Clark Kentiness: 2
Poor Henry Cavill. Never has a man looked so much like a drawing of Superman; never has a man been so betrayed by not one, but three screenplays in a row (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League). Cavill does his best, but his Superman is a murderer, his Clark Kent is barely present, and his upper lip is CGI. I’m so sorry, buddy.
Clark Kentiness: 1
Wilson played Superman in the 1975 television special of the 1966 Broadway musical It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman. (The role was originated on Broadway by Bob Holiday.) The musical is a satire, so it’s an incredibly goofy performance in an incredibly goofy production, but it’s also, like…not funny. Wilson has very little to do besides stand still while the female leads and villains dance around him, but he’s got a nice voice, at least.
Clark Kentiness: 3
Tom Welling played Clark Kent for 10 seasons of Smallville from 2001-2011, and Superman for the last scene of the last episode. It’s very hard to rise above “adequate” on a CW show, and Welling, though large and beautiful and affable — all very Superman things to be — didn’t manage it. (His costar Michael Rosenbaum takes home the trophy for Best Lex Luthor of All Time, though.) I’m grading Welling’s acting on a curve because it’s not his fault that the writing left his Clark so whiny and creepy, and he really does get to have fun during the many, many times his character is possessed/bodyswapped/red Kryptonited/etc.
Clark Kentiness: 3
Protip: If you make your Superman seem like a GIANT CREEP, you have failed at Superman. None of this is Routh’s fault, even if he was about 10 years too young to accurately match the timeline of Superman Returns’s world-weary Clark. He’s shiny and handsome and earnest, even as he *checks notes* stalks Lois and, um, doesn’t explain how he managed to impregnate her. Hm. Well, at least Routh got to take a mulligan and play Superman again in the CW’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” event.
Clark Kentiness: 2
Before Christopher Reeve, George Reeves was Superman to a generation of fans, thanks to six seasons of 1952’s Adventures of Superman. Reeves is admittedly somewhat staid and paternalistic in the role, and the pacing is very slow to modern sensibilities, but it is the ’50s, after all. The effects are pretty good, given the budget, and the Daily Planet banter reasonably snappy. There are worse ways to spend a sick day than a few hours of George Reeves in syndication — and the famous “Panic in the Sky” episode, later adapted back in to the comics, Superboy, and Lois & Clark, really is that good.
Clark Kentiness: 4
Alyn was the first actor to portray Superman in live action, in a 15-part film serial from 1948 — the most profitable serial in movie history. As with most low budget Superman projects, we get a lot of Clark and minimal Superman, but that’s not a bad thing. Alyn’s Clark has a wonderful balance of fumbling dorkiness and sly humor, especially when bantering with the tremendous Noel Neill as Lois. But he gives his Superman a weird, awkward body language halfway between “half-hearted ballet dancer” and “10-year-old boy playing Peter Pan in his school play,” and the fact that most of the effects are just literally a cartoon drawing of Superman doesn’t help — though it is pretty funny every time it happens.
Clark Kentiness: 4
I was convinced this small, scruffy werewolf was wildly miscast as Superman until he first guest starred on Supergirl and sunshined his way into my heart. Hoechlin — who plays Superman on Superman & Lois and in various CW crossovers — has to contend with the usual nonsense writing and budget CGI of that most Forever 21 of networks, but he radiates such a joyful, warm energy that I can sometimes kind of forget whatever the hell they’re doing with the twins. It’s also the first time we’ve seen a good Clark in ages; the flashback montage of him and Lois first falling in love is worth the price of admission alone.
Clark Kentiness: 4
I think it might be illegal to say anything bad about Christopher Reeve, but don’t worry, because I would never. Reeve, who starred in four theatrical films from 1978 to 1987 — Superman, Superman II, Superman III, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace — is still the iconic Superman to generations of fans, and it’s not hard to see why. He exudes decency, he looks incredible in that leotard, and the effects, at least in the first movie, absolutely hold up. (The less said about some of the silliness in Superman II, the better.) His Clark is a little more pathetic than I’d like, but overall it’s very accurate to the Bronze Age comics these movies are drawing on, and Reeve gets bonus points for that phenomenal moment in the first movie when we see him “transform” from Clark’s body language to Superman’s. My only criticism is that the writing starts out bad (YES, I SAID IT) and gets worse as the series goes on, but I must admit a fondness for the terrible Superman IV no matter what my fellow Rioters think.
Clark Kentiness: 4
I want to be very clear here that I am only grading Cain on his performance as Superman in four seasons of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, because I find his politics abhorrent. But Lois & Clark remains my favorite Superman adaptation by a country mile, and Cain is a big part of that. His Clark is the wittiest and most charming version we’ve ever gotten, he looks great in the suit, and though the special effects are a bit hampered by, you know, the ’90s of it all, the show is very clever in its use of practical effects. And of course, the chemistry between the two leads is scorching, because Lois & Clark knows that Superman is a will-they-or-won’t-they workplace romcom above all other genres. Most importantly, the show gets Superman on a fundamental level. The line “Superman is what I can do. Clark Kent is who I am” is still my high water mark for Understanding Superman.
Clark Kentiness: 5
As I mentioned earlier, there are (allegedly) two Superman movies coming our way in the next few years. Will they displace Reeve and Cain at the top of the list? Or will they bump the Superboy boys out of the bottom slot? Only time will tell, but if I could give Mr. Coates and Mr. Gunn a bit of advice, based on my analysis, it would be this: a good practical effect will get you miles farther than anything fancy; earnestness matters more than a cool-looking costume; and for the love of god, give your Clark a sense of humor. Thank you!