All men are created equal, but few can become Superman. Throughout the DC Comics character’s 75-year history, the World’s Finest superhero, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, has been played by a handful of handsome (but non-threatening) men whose jaws have all varied in levels of chisel. But who among them is the best of the best?
Last week, the CW’s Supergirl producers cast Tyler Hoechlin, from MTV’s Teen Wolf and Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some, to play Superman for the second season, debuting this fall. Hoechlin, who looks like a millennial Clark Kent, will continue the legacy a dozen or more have left behind and etch his place in Superman fandom forever.
But until then, let’s explore Superman’s previous incarnations and arbitrarily rank ‘em. Not counting radio serials, video games, and animated shows like Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice, who has played Superman to the best of his ability?
14. David Wilson, from It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman (1975)
In 1966, Bob Holiday “flew” (quite literally) as Superman in an honest-to-goodness musical on Broadway, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman. It was no Rodgers and Hammerstein, and it closed in just under four months. Still, some TV exec thought it was a good idea to bring it to television, and so in 1975 ABC aired a “special” that even Superman couldn’t prevent.
David Wilson, who looks the least like Superman out of anyone on this list, wears a Party City-caliber costume while smiling set to totally dead silence. It isn’t just bad, it’s downright unnerving, and Wilson’s awkwardness only emphasizes everything awful about it.
13. Bob Holiday, from It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman (1966)
And almost to the surprise of no one, the real Broadway show isn’t any better. There’s a bad track record of superheroes on Broadway, but It’s a Bird… didn’t need Bono to make it suck.
12. Tayfun Demir, from The Return of Superman (1978)
In 1978, Turkey underwent a political schism that prevented the country from importing American films. So Turkish director Kunt Tulgar decided to make one himself, watching Donner’s Superman in Paris and strip-mining it for things that Turkish audiences would find appealing.
I honestly can’t tell you how good or bad Tulgar’s star, Tayfun Demi, plays the Man of Steel, but at one point the director uses his daughter’s Ken doll to film Superman flying over castles and oceans. That might say everything for me.
11. John Newton, from Superboy (1988)
Before Smallville could explore Superman’s awkward high school years, CBS (which also dabbled in other DC heroes like in 1990’s The Flash) aired Superboy, in which a young Clark Kent only begins to understand his Kryptonian origin and superhero identity.
In the show’s first season, John Newton played the Boy of Steel but was dreadfully underwhelming in the role. After the actor was arrested in a well-publicized DUI, he was dropped by the producers for the rest of the show’s run and replaced by Gerard Christopher. (We’ll get to him in a sec.)
10. Kirk Alyn, from Colombia’s Superman serials (1948)
Like DC’s Dark Knight, Superman also had a 15-episode serial with Colombia in 1948 starring Broadway actor Kirk Alyn. Everything about Alyn’s Superman feels like a forerunner to George Reeves, but Alyn surprisingly holds up as a relic of an older time, which is precisely how we see Superman today. And Alyn didn’t have a George Reeves or Christopher Reeve to model his performance after.
9. Matthew Bomer, from Toyota Commercials (2009)
Before his starring role in White Collar, Matthew Bomer donned the spandex and cape for a Japanese Toyota ad in 2009. Bomer flies over a Prius using his x-ray vision to look under the hood, though I’m sure the driver would have pulled over if Superman asked politely.
Bomer says nothing, but his look and swagger as both Clark Kent and Superman immediately put him over Turkish bootlegs and bad musicals.
8. Gerard Christopher, from Superboy/The Adventures of Superboy (1988-1992)
After Newton was fired from CBS’s Superboy, the producers replaced him with actor and real Superman-fan Gerard Christopher, who later took on producing and writing duties as the show was retitled The Adventures of Superman for its last two seasons. Christopher brought a livelier energy to his Clark Kent than Newton, even though Newton nailed the “stoic alien” thing which is kind of important.
7. Henry Cavill, from Man of Steel (2013), Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice barely got DC’s efforts going and Man of Steel was a mess. But Henry Cavill could be the defining Superman of this generation, if Zack Snyder hadn’t been directing him.
Physically, Cavill practically leaps off the pages from the New 52. Emotionally, Cavill rarely demonstrates warm moments Superman is/should be known for, but he does; the final scene in Man of Steel when he tells the general he’s from Kansas is one of those times, if you squint. Squint really hard, and look past the fact he destroys a $12 million satellite like a jerk.
6. Dean Cain, from Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997)
In what may be the least “superhero” show to have Superman, The New Adventures of Superman upped the daytime quality between Clark Kent and Lois Lane with Dean Cain as Kent — and he was actually good! It’s hard to be a compelling superhero when the show you star in is more focused on being a rom-com (Hear that, Arrow?), but Cain fleshed out Superman just fine for the show’s audience who more than likely have a library of romance novels on their shelves.
5. Brandon Routh, from Superman Returns (2006)
Brandon Routh’s range is better suited for the charismatic Ray Palmer in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, but his turn as Superman in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is about as classic as you can get. Singer was clearly obsessed with Donner’s vision for the Man of Tomorrow, and Superman Returns is a faithful, if also troubled homage. But Routh rocked it, even if he should have had more to say. The scene below remains one of my favorite anything of Superman to this day.
4. Tom Welling, from Smallville (2001-2010)
Spanning 10 years and 200-plus episodes, Tom Welling’s Clark Kent learns to become a hero in Smallville, a show that was initially embarrassed to be about Superman.
Showrunners Mark Millar and Alfred Gough had a strict policy: “no flights, no tights,” exemplifying early 21st century pessimism toward old-fashioned sensibilities. But the show eventually ditched that notion, welcoming characters like Green Arrow, Booster Gold, Impulse, Black Canary, and even Supergirl, while Welling himself suits up for the first time in the series finale. No matter how frustrating Smallville was, the closing scene made everything worth it.
3. George Reeves, from Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)
One of the first icons to flesh out superheroes into the bold age of television (One reason: It began to broadcast in color halfway through its run, which really popped with Superman’s costume), George Reeves made viewers believe a man could fly in Adventures of Superman. Reeves’s Superman was more than just an affable guy: He was a decent, kind role model that instilled good values in the show’s tremendously impressionable audience.
Reeves’s Superman is arguably a precursor to Christopher Reeve’s more definitive Man of Steel decades later, but Reeve would not have been as resonant if not for memories of Adventures of Superman stored in our cultural memory banks.
2. Christopher Reeve, from Superman (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Was there any doubt? No one, absolutely no one, fit the mold for Superman better than Christopher Reeve, who is inseparable from the legacy of the Superman character himself. Even in the lesser exciting installments, Reeve’s interpretation is the yardstick that we measure all Supermen today. Reeve’s scene with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane sums up a whole cultural idea in the span of several minutes, and it’s anchored entirely by its immortal performances.
Reeve’s Superman was warm. He was funny, charming but not arrogant. He inspired hope and optimism in an era when hope and optimism weren’t in vogue. There’s far more to the legacy of Richard Donner’s Superman movies that go beyond its star, but it truly doesn’t get any better than Reeve.
1. Elijah Wood, from “The Death and Return of Superman” (2012)
No Superman is this GIF-worthy.