- Kirk Alyn was the first actor to portray Superman in live-action in the 1948 serial, bringing physicality and enthusiasm to the role.
- George Reeves became the iconic Superman for an entire generation in the 1950s, with his commanding presence and authoritative portrayal.
- Christopher Reeve remains the quintessential Superman, making the hero and his alter ego, Clark Kent, seem like distinct individuals.
Superman sure has been through a lot since first swooping onto newsstands back in 1938, let alone into live-action. Death, rebirth, cataclysmic destruction – just your average day for the Man of Steel. His origin story has had more reboots than a ’90s boy band, but The Last Son of Krypton is still all about Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Well, mostly. The motto depends on who’s writing him.
One thing hasn’t changed, though – Supes remains one of the greatest, most iconic caped crusaders out there. It’s no wonder the hero has kept coming to movies and series for the past eight decades.
With David Corenswet announced as the next man donning the famous blue-and-red in James Gunn’s upcoming Superman: Legacy, we figured now’s the perfect time to look back at all the live-action Supermen of years gone by. From those classic 1940s black-and-whites serial movies to the Dean Cain mushy days on Lois & Clark and Henry Cavill’s broody portrayal, we’ll trace the many faces who’ve played Kal-El over the decades. Here’s every live-action Superman actor in order of appearance.
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1. Kirk Alyn – From 1948 to 1950
Kirk Alyn suited up as the very first actor to portray the Man of Steel in live-action. After cutting his teeth as a dancer and acrobat, Alyn leapt onto screens in 1948’s Superman serial, bringing his physical chops to the role. Through 15-minute bursts spread over 30 episodes (and 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman sequel), Alyn punched, dashed, and tumbled his way into comic book lore.
Sure, the special effects look quaint by today’s standards. But with grace and enthusiasm, Alyn made those early black-and-white adventures utterly thrilling. Alyn proved a man doesn’t need CGI to make you believe they can leap tall buildings in a single bound – just some acting skills and some serious heart.
What an honour it is to be known as the world’s first live-action Man of Steel.
2. George Reeves – From 1951 to 1958
Before he flew onto TV screens in Adventures of Superman, George Reeves first brought his commanding presence to 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men. Built like a linebacker with a no-nonsense glare, Reeves certainly looked the Man of Steel part.
Perhaps a bit too much Red Son and not enough All-Star Superman, Stern’s intimidating frame personified the Last Son of Krypton’s authority.
For nearly a decade, from ’51 to ’58, Reeves’ Supes was the only one an entire generation knew. Black-and-white antenna TVs nationwide invited this Kryptonian crimefighter into living rooms, even if the flying effects never quite took off. His tragic death in ’59 cut short his reign, but his portrayal remains an integral chapter in Superman’s history.
3. Christopher Reeve – From 1979 to 1987
More than four decades later, Christopher Reeve remains the quintessential Superman. Gliding onto the big screen in 1978’s game-changing Superman film, his face launched a thousand comic book blockbusters. Toweringly tall, Reeve had the Kryptonian looks down pat. But his brilliance was making the hero and his modest alter ego, Clark Kent, seem like utterly distinct people.
Reeve went on to reprise the role in three sequels – 1980’s Superman II, 1983’s Superman III, and 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Over a decade, he left an indelible mark on pop culture history.
For many fans of the Man of Steel, Reeve remains THE face of Superman in live-action. This was that immortalized Reeve – one that essentially kickstarted the history of modern superhero movies.
4. John Haymes Newton – From 1988 to 1989
Long before Tom Welling graced Smallville, there were John Haymes Newton blazing trails as TV’s first teen Superman. When Superboy debuted in 1988, chronicling a college-aged Clark Kent, producers needed a fresh-faced young star.
With just a few minor credits to his name, Newton landed the part, becoming the youngest actor ever to don the iconic cape on screen. However, with ratings declining after a season, Newton’s time as the Boy of Steel was cut tragically short. After just a single season, he was replaced in a controversial recasting.
Even if just for one brief, shining moment, his enthusiasm brought a youthful spirit to the would-be hero still growing into his legendary boots.
5. Gerard Christopher – From 1989 to 1992
When John Newton flew the coop on Superboy after just one season, diehard Superman fan Gerard Christopher finally got to don the iconic cape he’d coveted from the start. Vowing to outlast his predecessor, for three seasons from ‘89-‘92, the strapping Christopher brought energy and enthusiasm to the Boy of Steel.
While ratings never quite took off, fans adored the unknown actor who embodied Superboy’s goodness and charm. Christopher delighted in bringing his comic book idol to life – cape gliding, bullets bouncing, and bad guys cowering. His Clark Kent radiated affable awkwardness, while his Superboy exuded strength and even nobility.
Though the show ended after just four seasons, Christopher far outlasted Newton to carve his own niche as TV’s adolescent Man of Tomorrow. Proving heart is as vital as looks for any Superman, Christopher carried the torch through Superboy’s fledgling years.
6. Dean Cain – From 1993 to 1997
.Dean Cain won hearts in the ‘90s as the Man of Steel in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. The romance-heavy series dared to ask – what if Supes was actually…sensitive? Ditching action for soapy drama, it focused on Clark Kent’s love for intrepid reporter Lois Lane, played by Teri Hatcher in this version.
With sparkling eyes and an easy smile, Cain made women worldwide swoon for both identities of this down-to-earth Superman. Rather than focusing on epic battles with Lex Luthor and Doomsday, these Supes fought more for the love of his plucky lady.
Cain brought a sensitivity and humour perfect for this pioneering super-romcom. And with Lois finally learning his secret identity, audiences got to watch their friendship blossom into romance. Cain’s tender heart made him the perfect Superman for the ’90s.
7. Tom Welling – From 2001 to 2011 (Reprised in 2019)
Tom Welling spent a decade growing into the Man of Steel on the small screen, starring in Smallville from 2001 to 2011. Welling portrayed Clark Kent in his formative teen years – no flights nor tights allowed.
While perhaps controversial for purists, Welling’s coming of age from awkward outsider to confident hero resonated with millions of viewers. While he rarely wore the iconic suit, through ten seasons, Welling embodied all the values of Superman. As Clark, he showed goodness, humility, and heart, while his few portrayals of the proper Man of Steel were few but well-earned.
When he finally got to wear Superman’s costume decades later for the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, fans all agreed it was worth the wait. By charting his own path, Welling became the Superman for an entire generation. And even with restrictions, he let the innate light of the Man of Steel shine through this fledgling hero – no S shield needed.
8. Brandon Routh – 2006 (Reprised in 2019)
Few actors have faced the Herculean challenge of following Christopher Reeve’s iconic footsteps as Superman. But Brandon Routh took up the mantle (and cape) with grace in 2006’s Superman Returns, playing a Man of Steel back from a 5-year absence.
While the film itself received mixed reviews, Routh won praise for channelling Reeve’s charm while making the role his own. With chiselled features and an imposing frame, he was every inch the noble Kryptonian champion. And when Routh later reprised his Clark Kent in 2019’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, he got to show new depths.
His older, grieving Superman sported the iconic red and black S shield from Kingdom Come – the first and only time we’ve seen this in live-action. While fate conspired against his films taking flight, Routh’s reverence for Superman’s legacy won him a place in the pantheon of Superman legends.
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9. Henry Cavill – From 2013 to 2022
No actor since Christopher Reeve has so fully embodied everything Superman stands for as Henry Cavill. Stepping into the red boots and cape with 2013’s Man of Steel, Cavill brought power, nobility, and warmth back to the greatest superhero of all.
With leading man looks and a bodybuilder’s frame, Cavill was born to play Kal-El. But beyond the chiselled Kryptonian perfection, he captures Superman’s heart – kind eyes brimming with compassion when he’s not slamming bad guys through buildings.
In later DC team-ups like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Cavill’s soulful take enthralled millions of fans the world over. Though, sadly, his red-caped stint was cut short after only a few films, with Black Adam being his final official appearance.
But even if Cavill never officially dons the “S” shield again, he’s forged an unbreakable link with the icon. His moving tributes and visible love for the role prove no one better understands the Man of Steel’s humanity. Though fate may deny him more blockbuster flights for now, Cavill’s status as a Superman for the ages is undeniable. Henry Cavill is easily known for being one of the best live-action Superman actors out there.
10. Nicolas Cage – 2023
Fans had to wait more than two decades for Nicolas Cage’s Superman to see the light of day, but 2023’s The Flash finally fulfilled that wish. Well, kind of. In the film’s final moments, we get a glimpse into DC’s multiverse, showing us different versions of the Man of Steel through the ages.
One of those Kryptonians is a PlayStation 2 rendition of Nicolas Cage, showing up as he fights a giant spider. This is all a clever reference to the cancelled Superman Lives – a project that would have been directed by Tim Burton.
11. Tyler Hoechlin – From 2016 Until Now (On TV)
After Henry Cavill’s truncated time as the DCEU’s Superman, fans craved a more classic, upbeat take on the icon. Enter Tyler Hoechlin blazing onto the small screen scene in 2016’s Supergirl. The actor effortlessly captured the Man of Steel’s warmth and nobility – with just a touch more vulnerability.
Bringing charm and sincerity to the quintessential Clark Kent, Hoechlin soon became a recurring face across The CW’s shared Arrowverse. In ensemble crossovers, he vibed beautifully with cohorts like Green Arrow and Supergirl. Then, in 2021, came his victorious graduation into a starring role in Superman and Lois.
The ongoing family-focused series lets Hoechlin shine as both a commanding hero and a loving husband/father. After years of tortured theatrical takes, his spirited adventures are a reminder of Superman’s uplifting roots.
12. David Corenswet – Coming Soon
As Henry Cavill’s Superman era ends, a new beacon of hope flies onto the silver screen under James Gunn’s visionary watch. Starring in 2025’s Superman: Legacy is David Corenswet, a relatively unknown actor who certainly looks the Kryptonian part.
Standing tall like Christopher Reeve before him, the actor has some big (red) boots to fill. But Gunn’s golden touch has reinvigorated struggling franchises before. Remember what happened to the Suicide Squad movie?
Corenswet may be untested on the A-list stage, but sometimes it just takes that Superman spirit to soar to greatness. Here’s hoping this inspiring legacy launch starts the new DC era off with the optimism and enthusiasm the genre deserves (and desperately needs right now). He just might become the best live-action Superman actor of all time. Time will tell.
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