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Rating the Actors Playing Superman

Updated on December 4, 2010

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

Look! Up in the Sky!
Look! Up in the Sky!
Christopher Reeve from the Superman movies
Christopher Reeve from the Superman movies
George Reeves from the Adventures of Superman TV show
George Reeves from the Adventures of Superman TV show
Tom Welling from Smallville
Tom Welling from Smallville
Dean Cain from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
Dean Cain from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
Brandon Routh from Superman Returns
Brandon Routh from Superman Returns
Kirk Alyn from the original Superman TV Series
Kirk Alyn from the original Superman TV Series
John Haymes Newton from Superboy
John Haymes Newton from Superboy
Gerard Christopher replaced Newton on Superboy
Gerard Christopher replaced Newton on Superboy
Bob Holiday from the 1966 Broadway Musical, "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman!"
Bob Holiday from the 1966 Broadway Musical, "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman!"
David Wilson from the TV adaption of the play
David Wilson from the TV adaption of the play

Strange Visitor from Another Planet

From an early age, I was always interested in comics. Predictably, the first comic book I read starred Superman, the “strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men”. This imaginary survivor from the planet Krypton has fascinated fans of all ages since his creation in 1938. He has been featured in the DC titles Superman, Action, Superboy, the Legion of Superheroes, the Justice League of America, the Justice Society of America, and World’s Finest Comics, among others.

Superman has been more than a comic book legend, however. He has appeared in movies and television shows for more than 60 years, and has been portrayed by a number of actors. Who are they? The names of the actors that have portrayed Superman over the years include Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, Bob Holiday, David Wilson, Christopher Reeve, John Haymes Newton, Gerard Christopher, Dean Cain, and most recently Brandon Routh and Tom Welling. My task today is to rate them. Who offered the best portrayal of the Man of Steel? Whose performance put the “Super” into “Superman”? My rankings are as follows:

1. Christopher Reeve (1952-2004). Reeve portrayed Superman in four motion pictures between 1978 and 1987. The first movie was a classic, not just by the standards of superhero or action movies, but by any standard. Reeve gave us a performance that captured both Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent. He was tall, good looking, and visually perfect for the role. He brought naïve sincerity to the role that suited an alien perfectly—even if the alien grew up in Kansas. Each movie was inferior to its predecessor but Reeve stood tall, even when the plot was as inane as the offerings in Superman III and IV. It was also interesting to note how unchanged he looked after 9 years in the role. Chris Reeve is my runaway choice for the best Superman ever.

2. George Reeves (1914-1959). George Reeves played Superman in the movie, “Superman and the Mole Men”, which served as the pilot for the television series Reeves starred in from 1951-1958. The series was as much about Clark Kent as Superman, as the activities surrounding Clark, Lois, Jimmy and Perry White drove many of the storylines. Reeves seemed more comfortable as Clark than as the Man of Steel anyway, and his portrayal of the Daily Planet reporter was outstanding. As Superman he mostly jumped out of windows to fly through the air or stood motionless as thieves and hoods fired guns at him to no avail. As Clark he came across as mature, calm and in control—which one would expect from a being with great powers. Although he essentially played Superman and Clark as the same personality, he was the best Clark of all.

3. Tom Welling (1977--). Currently stars in the WB hit series Smallville, a weekly show airing since 2001. Smallville tells the story of a young Clark growing up and learning to become the hero he is destined to be. Although the series has pitted him against most of the foes Superman faced in the comics, the premise of depicting Clark before he became the hero has allowed Welling to avoid donning the red-and-blue tights. Welling’s acting skills have been up to the challenge of making a comic character seem real, and he offers a sensitive portrait of the lonely alien from another world. Like the George Reeves version, however, Clark takes center stage, perhaps symbolized by the lack of the customary solitary curl resting upon Clark/Superman’s forehead.

4. Dean Cain (1966--). Starred as Superman in “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” from 1993-1997. Although storylines for some of the episodes were supposedly taken from the George Reeves series, this series was the most tongue-in-cheek (while lacking the farcical qualities of the third and fourth movies). Cain possessed limited acting skills but grew nicely into the role and offered a handsome, well-dressed Clark Kent while again invoking George Reeves with Superman’s greased-back hairdo. A good supporting cast helped the show while Cain found his rhythm, and by the end of his four year run he was offering some very good moments.

5. Brandon Routh (1979--). Starred in the 2006 motion picture “Superman Returns”, and hopes to reprise the role in future films. Tall, handsome and looking very much like Christopher Reeve, Routh invoked Reeve perhaps too much and never appeared capable of adding anything unique to his portrayal. This might be the fault of the script he was given, which seemed intended primarily to pay homage to the 1978 Superman movie. Its depiction of both Superman and Clark were molded after that first film and seemed content to give us Reeve’s interpretation without adding much to it. While watching this movie I continually found myself wishing it were Chris Reeve on the screen—a bad sign for Brandon Routh. However, I would love to see him portray Superman again and provide him the opportunity to show what he could do with more original material.

6. Kirk Alyn (1910-1999). Alyn was the first actor to portray Superman on screen with the 1948 film “Superman” and its 1950 sequel, “Atom Man versus Superman”. He looked good as Superman and made a convincing Clark. Alyn portrayed Clark differently than his Superman, helping the audience believe that no one should suspect the two were one man. Alyn was apparently offered the starring role in 1951 but turned it down, paving the way for George Reeves. (The movies weren’t ready to portray Alyn flying through the air in 1948, and the flight scenes were animated. It was reported they tried to show him flying by suspending him from wires but the wires were easily seen and the footage replaced.) While this version of Superman looks very dated now, it was undoubtedly quite impressive for its time.

7. John Haymes Newton (1965--). John Haymes Newton starred in the first season of “The Adventures of Superboy” in 1988. He looked good in the costume but the show was only average and Newton’s performance seemed stilted and awkward throughout. This might have been a result of bad scripting, with conversation that sounded too much like comic book dialogue and too little like real people speaking. Newton rarely rose above the mediocrity of the material, and the show seemed dated with performances reminiscent of ‘70s television.

8. Gerard Christopher (1959--). Christopher replaced Newton after the first season of “Superboy” but didn’t change much, which once again suggests the scripts are to blame for a weak performance instead of the actors. Christopher made a good-looking Superboy but somehow seemed artificial to me, almost as if we knew he wasn’t supposed to look this way. His acting was no better than Newton’s either, as we were treated to three more years (1989-1992) of wooden performances that lacked feeling or charisma.

I have intentionally omitted two names from my list because I never saw them in the role of Superman: Bob Holiday (1932--) and David Wilson (1949--). Holiday portrayed Superman in a 1966 Broadway musical, “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman”, and Wilson played the title role in a 1975 television adaption of the musical. I am certain both men were outstanding as the Man of Steel, but I never saw them and felt unqualified to rate their performance.

While any listing has to have someone come in last, I enjoyed every portrayal of Superman that has been offered to us. There is just something about this story that is appealing, no matter who is playing the lead, which might just be why this character has entertained so many for the last 70 years. Thanks to each and every actor mentioned for contributing to the legend of Superman.

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