It seems Tyler Hoechlin is your favorite live-action Superman, but can you rank the actors from worst to best as you see it (of the current actors, I'm not sold on Hoechlin yet, but I think it has more to do with my dislike of his costume—particularly how the cape attaches—that it distracts me from the character, while Cavill seems to physically look perfect for the part and certainly is capable of the acting and charm, but the script he has to work with is lacking)?
Leaving out Kirk Alyn, John Haymes Newton and Gerard Christopher, since I’m not familiar with their performances:
7. Tom Welling
I feel kind of bad about this one. I grew up watching Smallville, y’know? And in terms of sheer man-hours devoted to the role, Welling has more of a claim to being Superman than anyone other than Bud Collyer. But he…wasn’t great, in retrospect. I suspect it was largely a matter of the material he was given; he did well whenever he actually had something to do, whether as dorky reporter Clark Kent intermittently throughout the final season, or various cases of amnesia/mind control/body-swapping/Red Kryptonite exposure. But outside maybe a sweet spot after he’d grown into the role and before he visibly started to get tired of it, and occasionally when getting to spar with (better) actors like Durance, Rosenbaum, and Glover, he had a weird stiffness when playing regular Clark Kent that for the most part didn’t translate into charm once he couldn’t bank on teen awkwardness anymore, and while that frankly made him a pretty honest depiction of the increasingly dicey version of the character he was written as, it didn’t make for a great take on Superman.
6. Henry Cavill
Cavill’s been more let down by the material than anything else - the unfortunate unifying factor of the bottom three here. When the movies let him be great, he really is great, whether promising Martha that he isn’t going anywhere even after learning the truth about Krypton or fighting for the stories he believes in against Perry White. For the most part though he just seems to be called on to look varying degrees of sad and solemn, asked to call on none of the charm he showed in, say, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Granted his Superman has a lot to be down about, but there’s no range on display here; I don’t doubt he’s got a great take on the character in him, but for now it’s being kept under wraps.
5. Brandon Routh
Of all the reasons Superman Returns was such a damn shame, maybe the biggest was that it buried any chance of seeing the performance out of Brandon Routh that he so clearly had to offer. He’s a great dorky Clark, a charming Superman, and when the stars line up just right, he really manages to capture the idea of Superman as a melancholy figure - his take doesn’t just seem to be bearing the weight of the world in the philosophical abstract, but much more palpably feels an entire planet crying out for him, knowing he can never save them all but always trying anyway out of unconditional love, very much in line with Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s take on him in Hitman. Unfortunately all that takes up maybe 10-15 minutes of runtime, spending the rest of the movie stalking his ex with a neutral expression until he gets shived by Kevin Spacey and regurgitates Brando at his secret kid. Superman Returns was weird, ya’ll.
4. Dean Cain
I was honestly surprised with myself when I decided Cain won out as the best of the rest outside the big three - I thought for sure it’d be Routh. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while Routh’s take is definitely closer to the version of Superman I had in my head, it’s compromised in a way the Superman of Lois & Clark never was: like the take or not, this is a perfect realization of the Superman the creators of the show clearly had in mind. His Clark’s funny, clever, warm, and vulnerable, and while it feels weird for him to be acting that way in the glasses these were the Byrne years, so as an expression of his ‘real’ self it’s pretty on-point. His Superman’s the weaker end, stilted even given it’s supposed to be him putting on a performance in-universe, but there’s such an unironic earnestness there that it typically slid back into charming.
3. George Reeves
I thought for awhile about 2 and 3, ultimately concluding that what was asked of George Reeves was a fair deal simpler. He didn’t much differentiate between Superman and Clark, and his booming radio announcer voice made clear we weren’t supposed to be measuring his performance in terms of whether or not he seemed like a real person. What he was called on to show though, and what he had out the wazoo, was raw charisma. When Jimmy asks him why he burst through a wall rather than using a door and Superman replies with a grin “Well, this seemed a little more spectacular,” you’re 100% willing to buy into that explanation, because yeah, it was spectacular, because Superman’s fantastic. And he could more than hold his own with the best of them when asked to work with more serious material, whether wandering through an amnesic fog in Panic In The Sky with only his instinctive decency to guide him, or here, in the final scene of The Dog Who Knew Superman, where Clark has to deal with a dog not only adoring him, but recognizing him in both identities:
2. Christopher Reeve
I gave Tom Welling his well-earned due earlier, but if you really want to talk about a guy with a solid claim to being Superman, Christopher Reeve didn’t just embed himself on the psyche of a generation, but is still held up today as the unequivocal standard by which the role is set. In all likelihood he’ll always be ‘the’ Superman, in the same way as Sean Connery will always be James Bond, and Bela Lugosi will always be Dracula. He shone like the sun in the costume, he was believably such a wimpy klutz out of it that no one would guess they were the same even when it was staring them in the face, and if anyone has any lingering suspicions that he just had the easy task of playing two extremely arch roles to the hilt, they might be forgetting this bit:
Was it perfect? I don’t know about that - if nothing else there were one or two awkward line readings, and the identity division is so sharp that it’s hard to tell when you’re getting a glimpse of the real guy underneath all the identities. But while I definitely question how much of a positive impact on Superman those movies themselves really had in the long run, Reeve’s performance on its own was an undeniable revelation, everything he did reverberating with such a sincere and powerful sense of decency and love for his fellow man that it not only brought Superman to the life, but frankly changed him forever for the better.
1. Tyler Hoechlin
I expected nothing out of this guy. Not that I by any means thought he’d be bad, but when I heard some dude from Teen Wolf was gonna appear on an episode or two of Supergirl, my reaction was about as intense as…well, what you’d expect upon hearing that some dude from Teen Wolf was showing up on Supergirl, even given who he was playing (granted I’ve never seen Teen Wolf and don’t actually especially know what Teen Wolf is, beyond that it’s based on that werewolf-playing-basketball 80s movie written by…wait, Jeph Loeb?!). Looked fine - and it became clear he actually really did look the part once behind-the-scenes pictures started to come out, rather than that godawful original promo picture - and I figured he’d belt out his best Reeve/Animated Series/Cartoon-on-the-side-of-a-cereal-box brand Generic Superman Performance to cheer Kara on before vanishing into the sunset forever outside of the opening credits. I was plenty interested in the potential long-term ramifications of Superman being allowed on TV again in any capacity for the first time since the 90s, given the influence that suggested Geoff Johns had as the new DC President and what that could mean in terms of other characters showing up down the line, but I wasn’t inclined to think of this as anything other than a stepping stone, only notable in its own right because it meant someone would be wearing the s-shield.
Then we actually saw him.
Where the hell has this guy been all these years? Was he grown in a goddamn laboratory for the part? How did the best Superman ever end up in a minor recurring guest spot on the CW Supergirl show?
It would be so, so easy to leap to the idea that he simply works as a jack-of-all-trades: he’s almost as charming as Reeve, just about as confident as Reeves, nearly as vulnerable as Cain. But that would be selling what he’s doing short - especially given that he probably hasn’t had the opportunity to stretch as far as he could in any of those directions, as his role so far has very much been as Supergirl’s backup dancer. What it comes down to is his general demeanor and how he incorporates those aspects into a whole that feels more fully-realized than any portrayal before him. His Superman and Kent are not only distinctive to the point that within the heightened reality the show occupies you can buy that people think of them as different people, but you can see threads from both of them connecting back to the real Clark you see around Kara. He’s open and warm and authentic in a way none of his predecessors quite were, and he’s able to turn on a dime into steely determination or outright fury while remaining recognizable. He’s above everyone’s heads and vaguely alien at times without ever seeming detached or less than entirely loving of the people around him, able to admit his fears and failings while staying strong and capable of changing for the better, utterly and palpably good without ever sliding into naivete or cartoonishness. In short he has range and nuance, and thanks to that along with the air of laid-back friendliness he brings with him, he more than anyone else to put on the suit feels like a real person. And somehow, that real person feels as much as anyone ever has like Superman. And that’s a hell of an achievement. So someone give him his own goddamn show already.