The best Superman actors, ranked

Superman Man of Steel Henry Cavill
Image via Warner Bros.

As the original superhero, Superman has been depicted on film more times than most, as multiple actors have donned the Last Son of Krypton’s red trunks since his creation in 1938. And, while his portrayals haven’t tended to vary quite as much as the sometimes-campy, sometimes-gritty Batman, every new incarnation of Kal-El has brought something new to the table, from the messianic figure of Henry Cavill to the super-dad that is Tyler Hoechlin.

But who are the very best on-screen Supermen we’ve ever had? Across movie and TV, including both live-action and animated, there has been an abundance of Men of Tomorrow taking to the skies above Metropolis. Whether they starred in Golden Age movie serials or CW teen dramas, every one of them has been as valid as each other, although some obviously struck more of a chord with viewers and tapped into what has kept Clark Kent at the forefront of popular culture for the past 85 years.

So, as we approach the advent of yet another new incarnation of the character, following Cavill’s latest (and, we think, final) exit from the DCU, here’s a rundown of the 10 greatest actors to have played Superman.

Kirk Alyn

Image via Columbia Pictures

First of all, let’s give some props to the OG Man of Steel, Kirk Alyn. 10 years after his creation, Clark Kent made his first live-action appearance in 1948’s 15-part Superman movie serial. Cast in the title role was Kirk Alyn, hired due to his dancing experience and athletic build. Though a little hokey by today’s standards — especially his high-waisted costume — Alyn’s unflappable Supes established the core tenets of the character right out the bat.

Dean Cain

Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher in 'Lois & Clark'
Image via Warner Bros. Television

While he’s mostly known nowadays for airing his unwanted opinions on Fox News, Dean Cain was once a hero to a generation of DC lovers back in the 1990s. Lois & Clark: The New Adventures might have put the emphasis on the romance between its two titular leads over superheroics, but Cain’s charming everyman Clark Kent proved a likable take on the hero and he shared great chemistry with Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane.

Brandon Routh

Image via Warner Bros.

Superman Returns is a very flawed film, but it’s hard to deny that Brandon Routh was terrific casting as the Last Son of Krypton. While hampered slightly by being forced to do an impersonation of Christopher Reeve, Routh brings a lot of depth to a lovelorn and lonely interpretation of Kal-El. Fans were delighted when he eventually got to reprise his role in The CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event (opposite Tom Welling and Tyler Hoechlin, more on them later).

George Reeves

Image via Warner Bros. Television

While Alyn played Superman in two movie serials, George Reeves took over the role for his first feature-length outing in 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men, which proved so successful that it spawned the Adventures of Superman TV series. The hit show made Reeves synonymous with the character until the similarly named Reeve took on the role decades later. With his square-jawed looks and ex-boxer physique, Reeves was the perfect Supes for the time.

Tim Daly/George Newbern

Image via Warner Bros. Animation

Although many individuals have voiced him over time, the award for the very best animated Superman has to be shared by the two actors to play him in the seminal DC Animated Universe — Tim Daly, who starred in Superman: The Animated Series, and George Newbern, who replaced him in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Both men brought a grounded warmth and humor to the part, but they could also sell the hero’s strength and power, helping to ensure their shows were much more than just cartoons for kids in the process.

Tom Welling

Tom Welling as Clark Kent in 'Smallville'
Image via Warner Bros. Television/The CW

How does Tom Welling rank so high on this list when he never actually donned the cape? Well, that’s what he deserves for playing Clark Kent for 10 whole years on Smallville, making him the definitive iteration of the character for a whole generation. With no flights, no tights, Welling was able to explore the human side of the hero better than anyone else, before he eventually got to rip open his shirt to reveal the iconic ‘S’ shield in the series finale.

Henry Cavill

henry cavill superman
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

Zack Snyder’s glum reinvention of Kal-El might inspire devotion and derision in equal measure, but it can’t be denied that Henry Cavill was the only choice for the Superman of the 2010s. On top of looking like he’s walked straight off the comic book page, Cavill’s Supes convinces us that he’s a man with the whole world on his shoulders better than any other on-screen portrayal. Needless to say, it’s tragic his final turn in the character looks set to be that Black Adam post-credits scene.

Tyler Hoechlin

Image via The CW

While Tyler Hoechlin’s guest spots on Supergirl were enjoyable, the Teen Wolf alum has properly got to make his mark on the role in spinoff Superman & Lois — and he seriously impresses. Uniquely, Hoechlin’s Clark is the father to two teenage boys, allowing us to see him in a whole new light, at once more relatable and vulnerable, as he’s not so much fighting to save the world but protect his family. Unfortunately, the odds are season three will be its last, but let’s just hope it’s a strong one.

Christopher Reeve

Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s been exactly 44 years this December since he first took to the skies, but Christopher Reeve arguably remains the ultimate Superman to grace our screens. Nobody before or since has embodied both sides of Kal-El’s identity more adeptly — as shown by that moment from Superman: The Movie that’s always going viral. The likes of Cavill, Hoechlin, and Welling have done a tremendous job of living up to Reeve’s legacy in the intervening decades, but Reeve was the one who truly made us believe a man could fly.