Every live-action version of Superman ranked from worst to best

More than any other comic book hero, Superman has been as defined by his portrayals off the page as he is within them. Whether it's the radio show introducing Kryptonite and Jimmy Olsen in the '40s or the way Christopher Reeve made audiences believe a man could fly in 1978, there's always been an element of the Man of Steel that goes beyond his original medium and into something more. 

But that raises the question: of all the actors to step into the role of Clark Kent and bring him from the four-color funny pages to the world of live action, who did it best? To answer, we've marathoned every bit of Supermedia that we could find, from the original serials all the way up to the DC Extended Universe.

Superman Returns, 2006 (Brandon Routh)

Superman Returns isn't just terrible, it's the kind of terrible that makes you wonder how it happened. It's mystifying on every level, starting with the fact that it's meant to be a sequel to the director's cut of Superman II—not the theatrical release, which was completed by Richard Lester, but Richard Donner's original version, which had only been released on DVD a few years earlier. That's a weird place to start with a project that's meant to reintroduce movie audiences to Superman after 19 years, even if you can get past the fact that it ignores the two sequels to Superman II that already exist.

Even beyond the confusing origins of the film, the version of Superman that the movie presents us is remarkably unappealing. After leaving Earth for five years to check and see if Krypton was still blown up (it was), Superman returns (like the title says) to find that Lois Lane has been spending the intervening years raising their five-year-old child. She doesn't know it's their child, though, because of all the things director Bryan Singer wanted to keep from Donner's Superman movies, Superman wiping Lois's memory with an Amnesia Kiss was one of them. With that established, Superman mopes around, basically stalking his ex-girlfriend for two hours and getting involved with Lex Luthor's latest real estate scheme and some hamfisted Christ imagery. 

The most frustrating part about the whole thing is that Brandon Routh is actually good in the role. He's got a great look, he comes off as genuine and heroic, and he's incredibly likable—he just happens to be playing a version of Superman that's none of those things. Fortunately, he'd go on to play another DC superhero, the Atom, on Legends of Tomorrow, and being likable is basically that guy's super-power.

Man of Steel and the DC Extended Universe, 2013 (Henry Cavill)

Trying to decide if Man of Steel's Superman is worse than Superman Returns is an extremely daunting task, but at the end of the day, it comes down to one thing: at least Henry Cavill's Superman does something.

Then again, it's what he does that's the problem. In Zack Snyder's unrelentingly dour take on Superman, the title character doesn't just resist heroism, he actively avoids it at every turn. And really, that actually makes sense when you consider that his dad, Frowny-Ass Kevin Costner, spends Clark Kent's entire childhood telling him that using his powers to help people is a bad idea. It ain't exactly "with great power comes great responsibility."

In the two movies in which the DCEU's Superman has appeared, you can really break his arc down into four big actions: the first thing he does is surrender, the second thing he does is kill, the third thing he does is get his ass beat by Batman, and the fourth thing he does is die. That's not really a great track record, and leaves us looking at a world that's a lot better off if Superman had never existed.

It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman, 1975 (David Wilson)

If it had happened a few years earlier (or with a slightly bigger budget), it's easy to imagine the TV version of Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, David Newman and Robert Benton's Broadway musical being a huge success instead of just becoming one of the most obscure outings in the Man of Steel's 80-year history.

Sure, it's campy, but it's not too far from the aesthetic that made Batman work in 1966, the same year the show made its theatrical debut. That style actually leads to some pretty cool stuff, too. The sets being drawn as flat, comic book-style backgrounds for the actors to play against—complete with panel borders drawn in—was a great idea, and there are a few really well-done gags. Plus, "You've Got Possibilities," the song in which a vampy femme fatale swings a meek Clark Kent around the room while undressing him (and almost exposing his costume and secret identity in the process) is a banger.

In practice, though, it just doesn't come together. Part of the blame has to come from the massive changes made to bring it from the Broadway stage to the small screen—the script was rewritten, four musical numbers were dropped and another one was added—but a lot of that has to do with David Wilson's Superman. Like almost everyone else in the cast, he feels like he's constantly winking at the audience about how goofy this entire thing is. He plays Clark Kent just a little too weedy and bored, and his Superman is a little too much of a blowhard to ever really want to see him win.

Superboy, 1988 (John Haymes Newton)

Before Smallville managed to carve out a solid decade on the airwaves, the story of a younger, pre-Superman Clark Kent found its way to syndicated television as Superboy. Set during Clark's college years in Florida, the first season was shot on a tight budget, but still managed to tell pretty interesting stories about its title character, played by John Haymes Newton.

As for why he only lasted a single season when the show ran for four, well, it's complicated, but one very clear reason involved Newton's tendency to do his own stunts. After a couple of near accidents, he asked for a 20 percent pay raise to cover the extra work he was putting in (and presumably also asked the crew to stop swinging him into power lines and trees), and the producers balked at shelling out more money, even though the show was a success. There was, however, another factor: as the show wrapped up its first season, Newton received what he calls "an illegally issued traffic citation," but what other sources identify as a DUI charge. Either way, it resulted in Newton leaving the show, and the role passing to Gerard Christopher for the next three years.

It's worth noting that while brief, Newton's performance was fondly remembered enough that when animator Robb Pratt made a pair of short fan films inspired by the classic Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, he asked Newtown to reprise his role, this time as the adult Man of Steel.

Superman, 1948 (Kirk Alyn)

Here's the weirdest thing about Kirk Alyn's tenure as Superman: while his name did appear on the posters, identifying him as the actor who played Clark Kent, Columbia Pictures never actually credited him in the serial itself. Instead, they promoted the film as starring Superman, taking some time off from fighting crime and saving the world to make his motion picture debut.

Looking back, it seems like a pretty bizarre promotional choice, but in all honesty, Alyn really did sell it. Even though his two stories as Superman suffer from many of the same problems that you see in other adventure serials of the era—they're incredibly repetitive and despite winding up as the highest-grossing serials of their day, they're clearly filmed with the smallest possible budget—they've got a lot going for them, too, and Alyn's a big part of that. His big smile and hell-raiser attitude were a great match for the early iteration of the character.

There was one truly bizarre thing about the serial version of Superman, though: since they didn't have the budget for a live-action special effect, all the scenes of Superman flying were done by showing Alyn's very human form quickly turning into an animated cartoon that would fly around before landing behind something, so they wouldn't have to animate the landing. It's as weird as it sounds, but still pretty fun.

Supermen Donuyor, 1979 (Tayfun Demir)

Is Turkey's 1979 bootleg action epic The Return of Superman good? No. No it is not. Is it, however, absolutely worth watching, if only to see how truly insane it is? Yes.

When Richard Donner's Superman hit theaters in 1978, it was a massive success worldwide. Unfortunately, that didn't mean much to Turkish moviegoers, owing to political conditions that kept America's major pop culture exports from finding a home on their screens. That didn't deter filmmaker Kunt Tulgar, though, who decided to carry on the tradition of low-budget "Turksploitation" remakes by putting his own spin on the Man of Steel. And it's amazing… for certain values of "amazing."

This is a movie in which a suspiciously scrawny Superman comes to Earth from a Krypton that appears to be decorated by Christmas tree ornaments, and the shots of Superman flying are done by dangling a Ken doll in a homemade Superman costume on a string. So no, it's not what you'd call good, but Tayfun Demir's performance is certainly unique, and incredibly entertaining.

The Adventures of Superboy, 1989 - 1991 (Gerard Christopher)

After John Newton left the Superboy television show, the title role for the second, third, and fourth seasons passed to Gerard Christopher, who benefitted from joining a show that was already a success. As a result, he had a lot more to do than his predecessor, both on and offscreen—Christopher actually ended up writing two episodes of the series himself, including one in which Superboy had to keep his identity a secret while undergoing psychoanalysis.

He also had the benefit of being a little older and having a little more experience. Despite the fact that he was playing a sophomore in college, Christopher turned 30 the year he landed the role, and the experience he brought to the table shows. There's a sincerity to his portrayal of Superboy, and while his Clark Kent was purposefully a little nerdier than Newton's, to bring him closer into step with the producers' desire to have him line up with Christopher Reeve's bumbling, stuttering Clark from the films, that's hardly a bad template to step into.

Smallville, 2001 - 2011 (Tom Welling)

With 218 episodes over the course of ten season, Smallville's Tom Welling put more time into playing Clark Kent than any other live-action performer. But then, that's also the problem.

Smallville famously had an approach rooted in producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar's simple rule: "no tights, no flights." The idea was that their focus would be on a young Clark Kent in the years before he decided to become Superman, figuring himself out as his powers developed, with the series ending as Clark made the choice that would define him as an adult. Unfortunately (or incredibly fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it), Smallville was a huge success that took ten years to finally get around to that end point that had been in place since the beginning.

As a result, Smallville's Clark became a victim of his own success, forced by the rules of the show into an indecisiveness that even Hamlet would find a little annoying. The show went on long enough that it even outlasted the original setting of the title, and Clark ended up doing pretty much everything you'd expect to see a grown-up Superman do: he graduated high school, moved to Metropolis, got a job at the Daily Planet, fell in love with Lois Lane, started wearing a costume—a red leather jacket with a Superman logo, though, not the forbidden tights—founded the Justice League, fought Doomsday, died, and came back to life, the whole bit. The thing is, he only did it as "the Red-Blue Blur." If we ever get around to ranking Red-Blue Blurs, he'll be at the top of the list, but as Superman, he leaves a little to be desired.

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, 1993 - 1997 (Dean Cain)

If Smallville erred on the side of putting too much focus on Clark Kent and the DCEU movies went to the other extreme and barely bothered to include Superman's alter ego at all, Lois & Clark struck a balance that few other portrayals of the character have managed to even come close to.

The trick is right there in the title—"Lois & Clark" comes first, with "Superman" tacked on at the end, almost as an afterthought to clarify things for people who weren't quite sure if there were other Loises and Clarks that could headline a TV show—but emphasizing the love story inherent in Superman didn't detract from the action. Instead, it did the opposite, adding a level of drama that would get readers invested in the same kind of ongoing soap opera that kept comics readers coming back for more without ever letting it get in the way of super-powered action.

The single best thing that Lois & Clark ever did was, after three different fake-outs, calling the episode where the title characters got married "Swear To God, This Time We're Not Kidding." That said, a close second was the way that Dean Cain's take on the Man of Steel got the dynamic of the secret identity right: Superman is what he does, Clark Kent is who he is.

The Adventures of Superman, 1952 - 1958 (George Reeves)

Even though the show was on the air for over a hundred episodes, the most defining moment for George Reeves' tenure as Superman didn't happen on the screen. It happened in real life.

Reeves was acutely aware of the fact that kids looked up to him, to the point where he even quit smoking so that he wouldn't be caught by a photographer and set a bad example for his younger viewers, and pushed for scripts that would give good messages about respect and tolerance of others. The downside to that was that when he made public appearances in costume, a few children would attempt to test Superman's invulnerability with a quick punch or a kick to the shins. At one appearance, a kid took things much further by bringing his father's pistol in an effort to see if bullets really would bounce off Superman. Reeves, thinking quickly, convinced the child to hand over the loaded gun by explaining that while bullets most definitely would bounce off of his own Kryptonian body, the ricochets might endanger the other people in the crowd.

The show itself might've ignored the Man of Steel's established villains in favor of pitting him against generic mobsters, and there might've been some pretty weird plots involved—like the one with Superman walking through a concrete wall over the course of about ten minutes by concentrating so hard that he becomes intangible—but that's how convincing Reeves' smiling, barrel-chested Superman was.

Superman, 1978 - 1987 (Christopher Reeve)

If you go looking for people's thoughts about Christopher Reeve's performance as Superman, one thing you'll read over and over is that he looked like he stepped off the pages of the comics and into the real world. That's not quite right, though. The truth is that Reeve embodied the idea of Superman so well that the comics had to change to keep up. His easy smile, his reassuring confidence; it's all there on screen. He even made the eye-popping costume look great, and did such a great job with the double identity that it was easy to believe the citizens of Metropolis would overlook the meek, slouchy Clark Kent as a disguise for Superman. 

Looking back at them years later, the movies themselves can be wildly uneven—III and IV aren't as bad as you remember, and the first two aren't as good, as evidenced by the fact that it takes Superman 45 minutes to show up in the first one and then he immediately starts finding himself in scenes like the one in which Lois Lane recites lyrics to a song about whether he can read her mind—but Reeve's performance remains unassailably great in virtually every way.

Supergirl, 2017 (Tyler Hoechlin)

There's a moment in the second season of Supergirl where everyone at the DEO—the alien-focused government agency that offers up most of its title character's supporting cast—is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Kara Zor-El's more famous cousin. When he does show up, Superman lands, and then spends the next few minutes smiling and shaking hands with everyone, learning their names and greeting them not as an alien savior, but someone who sees them as equals. That's the moment where it was clear that the show's producers understood Superman as well as they understand his cousin.

Hoechlin's take on Superman has a warmth and honesty that goes perfectly with the world the show has created, an affable attitude and humanity that doesn't go away when he takes off his glasses. He might not have the tenure of some of the other Supermen on this list, but what we do have is a note-perfect version of a hero who's here to help, and that's what makes it work.