With rumors that Henry Cavill might retire the cape and tights, the world awaits the announcement of the next Superman. The Man of Steel has graced our screens for over 70 years, but who has embodied the character best? We will be sticking to the mainstream film and TV portrayals of the Man of Steel, (sorry Indian Superman!)
In this list, we will also be discussing their perception of both Clark Kent and Superman, as well as the caliber of their performance as both.
TV’s original Superman, George Reeves is widely recognized as the first live-action version of The Man of Steel. Despite actor Kirk Alyn portraying the character in a number of movie serials. Back then, studios didn’t have the money or foresight to know whether the Adventures of Superman would be successful. It was a huge risk.
By wearing a simple, but rudimentary, costume and bursting through plaster sets, George Reeves made millions believe that Superman existed. He was funny, charming, and sweet. Unlike his successor of the same surname (almost), Reeves didn’t have as many wire-related stunts to deal with. Instead, he burst through walls and bounced out of windows on trampolines. Contrary to his comic-book counterpart, there was very little difference between Reeves’ Clark Kent and his Superman.
Both were suave, intelligent, and charming. However, his Superman was a beacon of justice with a smile you’d expect from the world’s greatest superhero. For six seasons, a generation of kids saw a man soar through the air and protect the innocent. Without Reeves’ mainstream success, the rest of the portrayals on my list would not exist.
We are not worthy. Second on our list is the standard viewers judge all other Supermen by. Classically-trained-actor Christopher Reeve took on the part of Superman in Richard Donner’s groundbreaking superhero epic. With lavish sets and an award-winning stunt team, the whole world was watching Reeve. In a seemingly effortless turn, Christopher Reeve made everyone fall in love with his sweet, charming, and strong Superman.
The scene where he first saves Lois from a helicopter as John Williams’ score reaches its crescendo is perfect. The chemistry between Reeve and Margot Kidder was electric and arguably one of the most believable superhero couples on screen. Despite long hours, and an incredibly comfortable harness, he made the world believe a man could fly.
Reeve went on to play Superman in another three films (two of them of questionable quality). Nonetheless, his performance never waned or became less charming or believable. Christopher Reeve is Superman.
Putting The Clark In Kent
Reeve’s key additions to the character were his subtle physical and vocal performances as Clark Kent and Superman. Clark slumped; he was nervous and cowardly. He tripped over his words, and himself, regularly (even at the expense of Lois Lane’s lack of interest).
Except, Superman was none of that. He was calm, strong, charming, and honest. The differences between the two were so major that they appeared on-screen like two separate characters. Clark Kent, as a disguise, goes way beyond just the glasses. There is no way you would believe Clark was a superhero if you met him in real life. And that is the genius of the character, and Reeve’s mark on it.
After an almost ten-year hiatus from big and small screens, Superman needed reinventing for the modern world. Metropolitan newspapers were failing and the selfishness and greed of the 80s/90s had changed the social landscape. Enter Dean Cain and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. This 90s TV show told the story of Superman’s adventures through the lens of his relationship with Lois.
Their daily life revolved around chasing stories and discussing Superman all while Clark fell for Teri Hatcher‘s Lois Lane. In this world, Superman had to really fight for his place among the cynical folk of Metropolis. Despite the superhero essence happening in the background, the show was more about Lois and Clark’s relationship.
Dean Cain played Clark as an unsure, but assertive young man, frustrated by the cynicism surrounding him. His role was to allow Lois to see the good in herself and other people. His Superman, however, was a no-nonsense type of guy. He was straight to the point and blunt with his enemies.
However, he also managed to cultivate the romance and sensitivity inherent in the character. Cain said he would have loved to have seen Lois and Clark/Superman’s relationship evolve through marriage and family life.
Somebody saaaaaaave me! The WB’s/CW’s Smallville was a long-running show that followed teenage Clark Kent. Throughout the show, he learned about his alien heritage and trained with his powers. The creators, Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar made a firm “no tights and no flights” promise before the show began. They insisted that the show was about Clark and his journey to becoming Superman.
The young actor, Tom Welling, played Clark (who we see grow into The Man of Steel for over ten years). At the beginning of the show, Welling is very unsure of himself and an outcast (just like all teenagers). However, add in the fact that you’re an alien and you have the perfect metaphor for teenage isolationism. As the show went on, and Clark discovered more about himself, we saw the internal struggle of being Superman. (What’s right VS. what’s right for him.)
He would make mistakes, hurt the ones closest to him, and doubt himself. But this compelling insight into the growing pains of the character was something I go back and explore often. The vulnerability of Tom Welling was so engaging and human to the audience. But equally, he was the Superman we know and love. He helped people see their best parts and gave bad guys a look that said,
‘You’re in trouble now.’
If you love Superman, and haven’t seen this remarkable show, I implore you to binge watch all ten seasons. It will not disappoint.
After an almost twenty-year-big-screen hiatus, Warner Bros. and DC decided to give The Man of Steel another try. Director Bryan Singer rejuvenated Superman by making a sequel to Richard Donner’s Superman II (retconning III and Quest for Peace). Casting Christopher-Reeve-look-alike Brandon Routh as Superman, the film looked set to be a hit.
Despite that, the movie received poor critical and commercial reception due to a convoluted plot, over-indulgent tribute tone, and little action. Nonetheless, Routh was fantastic. More than just an impersonation of Reeve, Brandon Routh made the character his own by exploring his emotional core.
Returning to Earth a number of years after Superman II, Clark finds Lois married with a young son. Her successful career down to an article named, “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman.” This personal betrayal and realization that his adoptive world has left him behind breaks Superman’s heart. One scene shows Superman flying into the night sky, with tears rolling down his cheeks.
This Superman is emotionally damaged and insular, unable to confide in his once best friends. There is one line from the film that will always stick with me. It sums up the brilliance of Routh’s performance. As he takes Lois for a fly around Metropolis, they stop and look down at the world below.
You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior. But every day I hear people crying for one.
Superman, Superman Returns
That vulnerability and sadness, mixed with a strong duty to do what’s right, is a perfect encapsulation of Superman.
As the MCU rages ahead in popularity, DC prepared their own universe of films. They enlisted Watchmen and 300 director, Zack Snyder, to take the helm. First and foremost, Snyder’s Man of Steel was a sci-fi epic. Stunning visuals of alien ships, strange lifeforms, and mythical sets filled the first few minutes of the film. The British actor, Henry Cavill, received the task of introducing Superman to a new generation. With his beefy physique, he truly represented raw strength and power.
This Superman portrays his inexperience and how outmatched and unsure of himself he is. The suit’s colors are a muted red and blue, seemingly to represent the uncertain man within it. Cavill’s Superman is a Man of Steel. He is strong and powerful but not actually a beacon of hope and justice.
This is by no fault of Cavill but of the filmmakers. He receives very little room to shine or explore the core of the character. He’s written with all strength and little substance. Because of this, there is no real distinction between Clark Kent and Superman; they’re basically the same person. In the sequels, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, Cavill receives more exploration of Superman. He is even allowed a few hopeful moments. However, the magic of the character is somewhat lost.
Having said that, I love Henry Cavill and know how much he loves the character. He has been itching to play the hopeful version since the beginning but understood they were working up to it. Unfortunately, recent news seems to say that he might not get his chance.
Appearing alongside Melissa Benoist‘s Supergirl, Tyler Hoechlin is the latest actor to don the tights and cape. In the world of CBS/CW’s Supergirl, Kara is just beginning her crime-fighting career. Her more experienced cousin has been protecting the planet for a few years.
Tyler Hoechlin plays this universe’s Man of Steel, and he is so much fun. He’s cheeky, funny, and strikes a good balance between serious and full of hope. He plays an experienced Superman, who’s fully in control of his powers and any situation he finds himself in. He also takes on the role of mentor to his younger cousin.
His Clark Kent is a lot of fun too. His modern take on a clumsy nerd is refreshing, calling back to the source material of 80 years. There are also rumors that his Superman might receive his own show. Hoechlin models that a perfect blend of old and new can reinvigorate a character, giving them new life throughout generations.
Superman: Who Is The Most Super Of Them All?
This is a tough choice. With every episode and film, these actors have stepped into the shoes of the world’s greatest superhero. They attempted to get audiences to relate, root for, and love the Man of Steel. In terms of who we think of when we hear “Superman,” Christopher Reeve would be first on my list. His clumsy and vulnerable Clark Kent mixed with his strong and honest Superman embody the spirit of the hero.
However, I watched Smallville throughout my teenage years. The struggles and fears that Clark felt helped me through a tough time, allowing me to understand the character’s core. Overall, Tom Welling is the best Clark Kent and Christopher Reeve was, and always will be, the best Superman.