- Bud Collyer's voice acting in the 1940s radio serial "The Adventures of Superman" set the standard for the character and established characteristic Superman tropes.
- Kirk Alyn's earnest performance as the first live-action Superman in the 1948 serial film laid the vital groundwork for future live-action Supermen.
- Gerard Christopher's portrayal of Superboy in the late 1980s live-action series captured a compelling coming-of-age tale of the Man of Steel.
Few comic book heroes are as iconic yet surprisingly complex as the Man of Steel. On the surface, he seems simplistic – the archetypal strongman in a cape. However, capturing both his physicality and underlying humanity in an acting performance is an exceptionally tricky balancing act. Many fine actors have portrayed Superman over the decades, but only a choice few have truly done justice to all the nuances of his character.
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Donning Superman’s red cape brings tremendous pressure. His steely frame and laser vision are the stuff of legend, but equally important is projecting his empathy, morality, and status as an outsider seeking to do good for humanity. Audiences need to believe in him completely.
This requires an actor who can compellingly combine confidence and vulnerability, strength and kindness, otherworldliness and relatability. Many have tried; some have fallen short in some regard. Either they couldn’t fully sell Superman’s sheer physicality, or they failed to convey the depth of his inner conflict.
With David Corenswet already set to become the next Superman, I think it’s time we celebrate those select few actors who cleared that very high bar. From Christopher Reeve, the quintessential live-action Superman, to voice actors like Tim Daly, who captured a compelling take on the character, we examine those turns that represent the pinnacle of bringing this complex comic icon convincingly to life in all his multidimensional glory.
10. Bud Collyer – The Adventures of Superman, The New Adventures of Superman
No discussion of history’s greatest Man of Steel performances is complete without recognizing Bud Collyer’s pioneering work as Superman in the 1940s radio serial The Adventures of Superman. Though perhaps less flashy than his successors on the silver screen, Collyer’s voice acting was utterly definitive for the character at the time.
Bringing Superman to life only through vocal inflexion, Collyer expertly conveyed the superhero’s commanding yet gentle personality. His delivery blended kindness, wisdom, and an unwavering commitment to truth and justice. Notably, Collyer used distinct voices for Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent, helping to differentiate between the hero’s dual personas.
For over a decade on the radio, Bud Collyer WAS Superman for a generation growing up with serial adventures. His vocal performance set the standard and established characteristic Superman tropes in the public consciousness. From the intro’s powerful “Faster than a speeding bullet…” to Superman’s characteristic “Up, up and away!”, Collyer’s voice acting remains an integral part of the Last Son of Krypton’s legacy.
9. Kirk Alyn – Superman (1948)
Long before big-budget superhero movies dominated the box office, Kirk Alyn made cinematic history by starring as the very first live-action Superman in the 1948 serial film. Though low-budget with rudimentary special effects, Alyn’s earnest performance wowed audiences and established key pillars of the Superman mythos on film.
At 37 years old, Alyn was one of the oldest actors to don Superman’s iconic costume on screen. And still, he looked the part. With his slicked black hair and chiselled jawline, Alyn cut an imposing, manly figure that evoked Superman’s comic book depictions. Beyond the suit, Alyn captured Superman’s steadfast heroism and upstanding moral code – while lending a light touch to playboy alter ego Clark Kent.
With Superman, Kirk Alyn made the seemingly impossible leap to bring the animated comic book hero into the real world. Though a bit outdated now, his earnest performance laid the vital groundwork for the future of live-action Supermen.
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8. Gerard Christopher – The Adventures of Superboy (1989-1991)
Though often overlooked, Gerard Christopher’s turn as the fledgling Superboy in the late 1980s live-action series captured a compelling coming-of-age tale of the Man of Steel rarely seen. Taking over from John Haymes Newton midway through the show’s run, Christopher lent an energetic charm and youthful exuberance to high schooler Clark Kent finding his feet as a budding superhero.
Free from the burden of expectations placed on more established takes, Christopher delivered an earnest, grounded performance that resonated with fans. His Superboy was not quite mature enough to be the infallible, world-famous Superman – allowing for refreshing vulnerability and uncertainty.
Both Christopher and predecessor Newton deserve credit for wonderfully expanding Superman’s canon in their own ways as The Adventures of Superboy traced the hero’s critical formative years.
7. Tyler Hoechlin – CW’s Arrowverse
The Arrowverse and Legends of Tomorrow‘s expansive connected world of DC heroes made the eventual introduction of Superman himself highly anticipated – yet Tyler Hoechlin’s portrayal deftly surpassed expectations. Debuting in Supergirl before recurring appearances across the CW’s shows, Hoechlin’s Superman embodies both the character’s idealism and his grounded humanity.
Now starring in Superman & Lois, Hoechlin’s portrayal has been nothing short of unique. Neither overshadowed by special effects nor weighted down by the mantle, Hoechlin channels Superman’s integrity while highlighting his humanity. His multidimensional turn demonstrates one need not be larger-than-life nor gritty to be a riveting, modern Superman.
6. Tim Daly – Superman: The Animated Series (1996-2000)
For a generation growing up enraptured by the 1990’s Superman: The Animated Series, Tim Daly’s commanding yet soothing voice performance as the titular hero represented the pinnacle of the iconic character. Though prior live-action work like Christopher Reeve’s had defined Superman cinematically, Daly’s vocal work was equally definitive and formative.
Daly’s delivery could shift seamlessly from gentle and understated as Kent to commanding authority as Superman without losing warmth. Like Kevin Conroy’s legendary Batman voice work, Tim Daly IS the Superman voice for countless animated DC fans.
Masterfully voiced alongside Dana Delany’s Lois Lane, Daly headed up an experience that captured minds young and old. His rich vocals gave dimension to a Superman who felt larger than life yet intimately real.
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5. Brandon Routh – Superman Returns (2006)
Cast in the unenviable role of assuming the mantle of Christopher Reeve’s beloved Superman, Brandon Routh defied doubters with a performance overflowing with charisma in 2006’s Superman Returns. Paying homage to Reeve while making the role his own, Routh continued the legacy with aplomb.
Undeniably bearing a resemblance to his predecessor, Routh channelled Reeve’s charm yet charted fresh territory with his take – lending emotional depth to the struggle of resuming Superman duties after a long absence.
Routh, unfortunately, never got to reprise his Superman due to the underwhelming box office. Yet for many millennial fans during the superhero boom, his turn in Superman Returns served as an influential gateway into the mythos.
For some, Brandon Routh remains one of the best Superman actors of all time.
4. Tom Welling – Smallville (2011-2011)
Few Superman iterations have presented the Man of Steel quite as memorably as Tom Welling did, starring in the smash hit Smallville. Centred on Clark Kent’s coming-of-age journey into heroism, Welling compellingly depicted someone struggling with extraordinary powers and responsibilities.
Welling embodied the angst and uncertainty of youth over ten seasons without superpowered exploits (for the most part.) Even while the show’s “No tights, no flights” rule prevented him from fully becoming Superman on screen, Welling still gave glimpses of the legendary hero Clark would one day become in the series iconic finale.
After a decade of charting the road to Superman, his emotional farewell perfectly encapsulated the heart of the role – and the purpose he’d finally found.
3. George Reeves – Superman and the Mole Men, Adventures of Superman
George Reeves made history starring as the first live-action Superman to grace television screens in Adventures of Superman – cementing his place as a pioneering pop culture icon. Premiering in 1952 and running through 1958, Reeves’ serial enthralled kids weekly with black-and-white adventures that captured quintessential Superman tropes.
Reeves’ commanding screen presence dazzled audiences anyway. Tall and patricianly handsome, he simply looked the Superman part – from his chiselled features to perfectly coiffed hair. Adventure after adventure, he laid vital groundwork for all onscreen Superman characterizations to come.
2. Henry Cavill – Zack Snyder’s DCEU
Among a crowded field of Superman stars, few have tackled the mantle with such obvious reverence and enthusiasm as Henry Cavill. Getting his big break as the DCEU’s Kryptonian champion in 2013’s Man of Steel, Cavill finally fulfilled his childhood dream of playing the icon. That innocent excitement translates wonderfully on-screen years later through his charming screen presence.
Whether in standalone outings like Man of Steel or as part of the wider Justice League roster, Cavill’s Superman radiates nobility, strength, and quiet fortitude. He lends emotional depth to the lost alien gaining purpose on his adoptive home planet.
Also, he went head to head with Ben Affleck’s Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – and that alone makes him one of the greatest Supermen who ever appeared on the silver screen.
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1. Christopher Reeve – Superman (1978) Saga
Topping any list of the definitive on-screen Supermen is the late and great Christopher Reeve – whose iconic turn in Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman made audiences believe a man could fly. Capturing the role’s full essence like no actor before or since, Reeve’s influence hovers over the part to this day. His rendition remains the gold standard all successors strive towards.
As the Last Son of Krypton, Reeve simply embodied Superman. He projected undeniable strength, morality, and hope that fully aligned with the public perception of the hero. Reeve nailed the intrinsic goodness in Kal-El. Yet crucially, his clumsy Clark Kent also charmed with endearing moments of slapstick comedy.
Through four films, Christopher Reeve defined Superman for the modern age with heart and verve – in the process, steering the genre towards contemporary success. Decades later, Reeve remains the quintessential Superman template that lives on in spirit through his successors’ work.
Will we ever get a better Superman actor than Reeve? Maybe not.
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Tell us, who do you think is the best Superman actor?