There are certain expectations that come with playing Superman. They aren’t necessarily fair or easy ones. But a character with a history that spans more than 85 years means that every audience has their own idea of how the Last Son of Krypton should look, sound, and act. The good news is that every major actor to wear the cape in the movies or on TV has been worthy of the role in their own way, each bringing some essential component of the character to the forefront with their performances.
And, of course, now those expectations are going to be placed on a new set of caped shoulders. With the recent announcement that David Corenswet (Pearl) will play the Man of Steel in James Gunn’s Superman: Legacy in 2025, it’s a good time to look back at all the Kryptonian actors who have worn the cape before.
But before we get started, we should point out that this list is not intended to be a comprehensive listing of Superman actors (apologies to John Rockwell and Bob Holiday). Instead, these are the guys who made the most impact in the cape, who played the role in long running TV shows or big screen movies. A list of Superman voice actors would be far too long for this piece, too, but I had to make an exception for one guy (our first entry!) because he’s far too important to leave off.
Up, up, and away…
Adventures of Superman radio show (1940-1951), Superman animated cartoons (1941-1943), New Adventures of Superman (1966-1970)
While it may seem unfair for Bud Collyer to be the only Superman voice actor to make a list devoted entirely to guys who actually wore the tights on screen, leaving him off would be a crime. Bud Collyer’s essential place in superhero mythology is based on several factors: he was the first actor to portray Superman in the media (both on the radio and in the classic Superman animated cartoons from the Fleischer and Famous studios), the strength of his performance, and the sheer volume of his years as the Man of Steel.
The 17 animated Superman adventures aside (the FIRST superhero cartoons ever produced, and still some of the best ever made), Mr. Collyer took on the Clark Kent/Superman role for roughly 2,000 (yes, you read that right) radio episodes that aired between 1940 and 1951. By dropping his voice nearly an octave as he announced, “This looks like a job…for Superman,” Bud let radio audiences know in no uncertain terms that Clark Kent had made the dramatic switch between his two identities.
Collyer’s tough talking, no-nonsense Superman perfectly embodied the socially conscious “champion of the oppressed” that the character was first envisioned as, and his adventures routinely touched on themes of equality, tolerance, and anti-fascist sentiment. He returned to the role once again in 1966 for Filmation’s The New Adventures of Superman animated series (alongside many other members of the radio show cast), which had a decidedly more sci-fi bent. Interestingly, Collyer’s greatest fame came not as Superman, but as the host of popular game shows in the early days of television such as Beat the Clock and To Tell The Truth.
Bud Collyer, the only Superman of radio, the silver screen, and television, logged more hours as the Man of Steel than any actor in history, a record that will never be broken. So, with apologies to other great Superman voice actors like Danny Dark, Tim Daly, or George Newbern…Bud Collyer is the yardstick by which most other Men of Steel must be measured!
You can listen to thousands of Superman radio adventures starring Bud Collyer over at Archive.org!
Superman (1948), Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
Surprisingly, it took Superman a full decade after his first appearance in 1938’s Action Comics #1 to make it to the big screen in live-action, with contemporaries like Batman and Captain Marvel beating him to cinemas by several years. And while Kirk Alyn’s two serial outings as the Last Son of Krypton, Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950) aren’t exactly the highlights of Superman’s live action history, you can’t really blame the actor or his performance for that.
Movie serials seem particularly archaic to modern audiences, if they’re remembered at all. Essentially low-budget, often throwaway fare, they’d tell an adventure or sci-fi or Western story over the course of 12 to 15 “chapters,” each one totaling about 15 minutes. Audiences of the era would buy their movie tickets, but first be treated to not only trailers, but also newsreels, animated cartoons (which is where those Bud Collyer-voiced Flesicher Studios Superman adventures played), and a chapter of a serial before the feature film would begin. The better serials boasted terrific stuntwork and fights despite their crude special effects, and superhero serials in particular often relied on the leads (or at least their stuntmen) to put on convincingly badass performances.
The muscular, athletic, and graceful Alyn (he was a dancer before taking up acting) brought an energetic grace to the Man of Steel, and he played Clark Kent as earnest and cartoonishly mild-mannered. While Mr. Alyn’s flying scenes were accomplished via animation, watching him sprint around at top speed, toss bad guys around, and leap into and out of frame to simulate takeoffs is certainly superheroic enough.
Mr. Alyn was the first actor to feel the sting of the Superman role, appearing uncredited in the serials (the role of Superman was listed in the credits as played by, wait for it…Clark Kent). He took another swing at serial stardom with Blackhawk (another comic book character, who will allegedly star in a Steven Spielberg movie from WB) in 1952, and spent the next decades appearing in Westerns and assorted small TV roles. He did return briefly to Superman, though, when he appeared in a brief cameo as Lois Lane’s father in 1978’s Superman: The Movie.
To this writer, his earnest Superman feels less like the version of the character appearing in the comics and radio shows of the era, and more like the “super-uncle” characterization that would take hold in the following decade.
Superman & The Mole Men (1951), Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)
George Reeves’ portrayal of Superman/Clark Kent turned the traditional alter ego dynamic of the character on its ear. Reeves had a prolific if undistinguished big screen career in the ’30s and ’40s, having appeared as one of the Tarleton twins in Gone with the Wind, and then in dozens of less prestigious productions. The ruggedly handsome Reeves, with his broad smile and lantern jaw, turned Clark Kent, not his caped alter ego, into the central figure of The Adventures of Superman’s seven season run on TV. Reeves’ Clark was charming, confident, and (occasionally) two-fisted and willing to wade into danger sans cape, business suit, glasses, and all. So much for “mild-mannered!”
It’s that tougher approach to Superman and Clark Kent that makes Reeves’ Man of Steel feel much more like the Superman of the 1940s rather than the era that this show was airing. Lacking the budget for big sci-fi menaces or supervillains (not even Lex Luthor appeared on this show), The Adventures of Superman usually concerned itself with low level criminals, con artists, crooked politicians, and the occasional non-Luthor mad scientist. Reeves’ performance feels like it comes straight out of Bud Collyer’s radio days, with the show’s theatrical pilot film, the low budget but superb Superman & The Mole Men, serving as a terrific parable about racism and anti-communist paranoia in the early 1950s.
While Reeves wore a padded costume to accentuate Superman’s physical power, his deep voice and the easygoing authority he projected (no actor has yet matched Reeves’ looks of bored exasperation as some useless hoodlum empties his gun at Superman) made him the definitive Superman for a generation. Spend some time with the first season of The Adventures of Superman to see some surprisingly tough, noir-flavored crime and newsroom drama that just happens to feature Kal-El every now and then.
Reeves only intended Superman to be a brief stopover in his career, rather than a defining role, and as he feared, he was severely typecast, and sadly committed suicide in 1959.
Superman: The Movie (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Arguably the best known and most beloved portrayal of Superman belongs to Christopher Reeve, and with good reason. Despite only wearing the cape for four films, most of which were marred by uneven direction, scripts, and special effects after 1978’s unmatched Superman: The Movie, the stage-trained Reeve embodied both a convincing physicality and the altruistic sincerity of the character like nobody before or since.
Reeve made audiences believe a man could fly thanks to what appeared to be his own absolute belief that he could do so, while his training as a pilot allowed him to turn his wire-and-blue-screen flight sequences into convincing displays. Even more impressive, Reeve hid his 6’4, 225 pound frame as Clark Kent with changes in posture, voice, and mannerisms that might actually make you believe that folks could be fooled by a pair of glasses and an ill-fitting suit. That’s no easy task.
Having gotten his start on stage and on daytime soap operas, Reeve threw himself into the role of Superman, adding 50 lbs of muscle to his tall, thin frame in order to play the Man of Steel (he was assisted in his training by none other than David Prowse, the powerlifter who filled out Darth Vader’s suit in the original Star Wars trilogy). In the days before sculpted muscle suits became de rigueur for superhero costumes, Reeve had to cut a convincing figure in blue spandex, playing the Last Son of Krypton as a gentle, soft-spoken friend to humanity and his Clark with the affable charm of Cary Grant.
Like many Superman actors, Reeve feared being typecast in the role, and that did indeed play into his career throughout the ’80s, despite notable starring turns in gems like 1980’s Somewhere in Time (opposite Jane Seymour) and Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap (alongside Michael Caine). A 1995 horseback riding accident left Mr. Reeve a quadriplegic and he spent the rest of his life as an advocate and activist, making public appearances and giving inspirational speeches. This author was lucky enough to attend one, and it was incredibly moving. During this period , Reeve tried his hand at directing, and even returned to the Superman world as Doctor Virgil Swann on Smallville. Reeve died in 2004, but to many fans, he remains the definitive Superman.
John Haymes Newton
Welcome to the underrated section of this article. The syndicated Superboy TV series, which focused on the adventures of Superman while he was in college, ran for four seasons, and is mostly (but unfairly) forgotten by all but the most devout fans of the Man of Steel. It’s a fascinating show for about a dozen reasons, but one of them is that it’s the rare TV show to have to recast its lead after the first season. Which brings us to John Haymes Newton.
Newton played both his Superboy and Clark Kent a little more low-key and serious than Christopher Reeve. His Superboy had a tougher approach and lower tolerance for nonsense than we’ve come to expect from most screen Supermen, while his Clark Kent was more of an alienated outsider than a mild-mannered klutz…a portrayal that predated Smallville by over a decade. His more capable Clark and almost two-fisted Superboy feels almost like a modern interpretation of George Reeves’ Adventures of Superman portrayal. Newton certainly looks the part, wearing one of the best live action Super-suits ever put on screen, and his lean, muscular build made his Superboy look like he stepped right out of a Kurt Schaffenberger drawing.
The Superboy TV show isn’t for everyone, mostly because of occasionally subpar production values, bizarre scripts (especially in the earliest episodes), and some questionable performances. While Newton did his best to bring something new to the role, the first season of Superboy is mostly for the completists out there.
The Adventures of Superboy (1989-1991)
Often overlooked (like his predecessor), Gerard Christopher put in more hours as the Man of Steel (or Boy of Steel, in this case) than most of the other actors on this list. He put on the costume for an impressive 73 half-hour episodes over the course of three years, taking over the role in the second season of Superboy after John Haymes Newton hung up his cape. Christopher looked like a Superman comic come to life, with a build that reflected John Byrne’s contemporary broad-shouldered take on the character, and he wore the most comic book accurate version of the Superman costume ever seen on screen.
While his predecessor, Newton, was saddled with a number of bad scripts and poor production values in his earliest episodes, Christopher’s tenure as Superboy was marked by an improvement in the scripts, special effects, and an increase in recognizable comic book guest stars. By the time the show reached its third and fourth seasons it was a Superman show in all but name, right down to Clark and Lana (not Lois) working in a very newspaper-like environment.
Gerard’s Superboy was closer in temperament to Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel, and similarly he played Clark Kent as a traditionally clumsy also-ran. At one point, he was even considered as Christopher Reeve’s replacement for a rebooted Superman film franchise in the early ’90s, and he auditioned for (and won!) the role for the Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman TV show before the showrunners learned he had already worn the cape and instead gave the role to…
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997)
Say what you will about Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, but when it worked, it really worked. The first season of Lois & Clark is about as accurate a translation of the character dynamics found in the Superman comics of the early ’90s as you’re ever likely to see, and the genuine chemistry between Dean Cain’s Clark Kent and Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane made them one of the all-time great screen portrayals of the famed duo.
While Cain’s convincingly muscular and athletic frame (he played football at Princeton and had a brief stint with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills) wasn’t done any favors by an odd-looking supersuit, his charming, everyman Clark Kent (who expected Lois to love him, not his cape-wearing alter ego) was a fresh take on the otherwise traditional Clark/Lois/Superman triangle. If you were to compare him to previous actors, Cain’s Superman falls somewhere between George Reeves’ no-nonsense Man of Steel and Christopher Reeve’s more gentle portrayal. His Clark, on the other hand, is far from a comedic foil, and is instead a competent professional, and one perfectly willing to compete with his own caped alter ego for the affections of the woman he loves.
While the show doesn’t quite hold together in its later seasons, at the very least, Superman fans owe it to themselves to check out (or re-watch) the first season of Lois & Clark, which in its best moments feels more true to the spirit of the comics of its era than many other attempts to bring Superman to life. That first season in particular makes a genuine stab at its core concept: that it’s a newsroom drama and romantic comedy that only occasionally features Superman, and a big reason why that succeeds is because of Cain’s performance. He later returned to Superman lore on the Supergirl TV series as Jeremiah Danvers, the foster father of Kara Zor-El.
Smallville went to great lengths to pretend it wasn’t really a Superman show, but one look at Tom Welling, even in the show’s earliest episodes, said otherwise. Welling’s chiseled features reminded some of Christopher Reeve, but by the end of Smallville’s impressive 10 season run, he had carved out his own place in the Superman mythology. Welling was perhaps the first actor to truly nail that “third” side of Superman, which is neither Clark nor the superhero, both of which are put-ons to some degree, but instead the guy who can only truly be himself when he’s at home with his parents and most trusted friends.
While Smallville may have taken a little too long showing Clark’s journey to become the hero we all knew he could be, by the end of it, Welling had earned his cape. 218 hour-long episodes puts Mr. Welling in some pretty distinguished company as far as time spent as Superman…even if we never really got that “S” until the last shot of the show! He even made an appearance on Crisis on Infinite Earths for a terrific cameo that neatly tied up the story of the Smallville Clark Kent.
Superman Returns (2006), Crisis on Infinite Earths (2015)
Superman Returns is a polarizing film. On the one hand, its perceived lack of superheroic action and the controversial decision to have Superman father a child hurt its box-office returns and prevented a sequel. On the other hand, its reverential (some might say, too reverential) approach to the mythology established in the Richard Donner Superman film endeared it to many others. It also practically pioneered the “legacy sequel” format that has since been adopted by virtually every franchise under the sun, but that’s another story entirely.
What most fans agreed on, though, was Brandon Routh’s thoughtful, sincere performance as Superman. While his Clark Kent was as indebted to Christopher Reeve’s version as the rest of the film was to Richard Donner’s vision, Routh’s Superman was a quietly heroic figure, haunted both by his place as the last son of a forgotten world and by his own decisions about his personal life. Superman Returns never got a sequel, and Routh was replaced by the time 2013’s Man of Steel rolled around, but he wasn’t done with the DC Universe yet.
For one thing, he returned to superheroics as Ray Palmer, the Atom, first on Arrow and then as one of the key figures in DC’s beloved Legends of Tomorrow. While it looks like Routh’s DC days are behind him, it’s likely that he’ll be even better remembered as the Atom than he is as Superman, which we’re sure nobody could have seen coming. However, despite all this, he did get a curtain call as the Last Son of Krypton.
Routh returned to the red cape with 2018’s spectacular Crisis on Infinite Earths TV crossover. Playing what appears to be the same version of his character from Superman Returns, albeit a little older and now rocking an incredible version of the Kingdom Come Superman costume, potentially the best live action Superman suit of all time, his Man of Steel finally got some deserved closure, and one last Reeve-esque camera flyby.
Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League, Black Adam (2013-2022)
The most two-fisted Superman we’ve yet seen, Henry Cavill struck the balance between the haunted Last Son of Krypton and the altruistic hero that studios have been looking for for years. Nobody can doubt Cavill’s chiseled looks or incredible physique, and he not only made audiences believe a man could fly…but that he could punch people through buildings. Lots of buildings. Perhaps too many.
Cavill had flirted with the role much earlier in his career, having been considered for the role when JJ Abrams was in charge of a reboot in the early 2000s, and again when Superman Returns was in its earliest stages. While Cavill doesn’t spend much time in the “traditional” bespectacled Clark Kent role, his Superman runs the gamut from Christopher Reeve’s serene sincerity to George Reeves’ “don’t mess with this guy” cool. While he caught some flack for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the studio pivoted to a more traditional take on Kal-El for Justice League (whichever version of the film you prefer).
Unfortunately for Cavill, and for fans, he never got a chance to fully explore the role. Despite countless opportunities for him to don the cape again in cameos in various DC projects, shifting leadership and priorities at WB led to Cavill’s Superman often being seen as the poster-child for what didn’t work about their early attempts to get the DCEU shared universe moving in earnest. And then, in an almost cruel twist of fate, he finally appeared in a cameo at the end of DC’s Black Adam, having been assured by exiting Warner Bros. execs that he was back as the Man of Steel and that new projects were on the horizon…plans that apparently were never finalized and were immediately nixed by new DC Studios bosses James Gunn and Peter Safran.
Cavill was a good sport all through his time as Superman, and has done just fine making a name for himself as a bona fide action star in his own right with roles in Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Netflix’s The Witcher. He’ll do just fine. But it’s a shame that he never got a chance to truly shine as the Last Son of Krypton.
Supergirl (2016), Crisis on Infinite Earths (2018-2019), Superman & Lois (2020-2024)
Who would have thought that a werewolf would make such a good Superman? Former Teen Wolf star Tyler Hoechlin immediately won fans over with his portrayal when he first appeared as a guest star during the second season of Supergirl. Perhaps the most easygoing and friendly Superman since Christopher Reeve, and with a Clark Kent portrayal that was both suitably “mild-mannered” and warm without taking cues from more comedic takes like the aforementioned Reeve or Gerard Christopher, Hoechlin was the perfect fit to take on the role in what was quickly becoming the most expansive version of the DC Universe ever put to live action.
By the time he returned for the massive Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover as a key player (and where he even got to play against the returning Brandon Routh), the writing was on the wall: Hoechlin was truly Superman, and along with co-star Elizabeth Tulloch as Lois Lane, was too good to be confined to guest star roles in the Arrowverse. The CW and WB TV quickly did the right thing and announced Superman & Lois (note who, rightfully, gets equal billing with the Man of Steel) as a standalone series, which took a little snippet of dialogue from the final scenes of Crisis and turned it into the central concept of the show: Lois and Clark are parents of twin teenage boys.
With Superman & Lois, which took the most famous husband and wife in superhero history out of Metropolis and put them back in Smallville raising their sons, Hoechlin cemented his place in Superman history. It’s perhaps the most unique take on the Man of Steel mythology (and the Lois/Clark relationship dynamic) ever put on screen, and it particularly allowed Hoechlin to stretch out and show sides of Clark Kent you’d never have expected. But it’s that initial warmth that defined his portrayal that remains at the heart of it.
Hoechlin and Tulloch are the best screen pairing of these iconic characters since Reeve and Kidder, and it’s almost impossible to separate their performances, since so much depends on their chemistry. Nevertheless, Hoechlin effortlessly balances the superheroes with the other qualities of the character, and the show will return for a fourth and final season next year…and then Hoechlin will hand off the cape to David Corenswet on the big screen for 2025’s Superman: Legacy.