The Superman comics celebrate their 80th birthday this month, so we take a look at his activities on screens for 70 of those years
70 years of Superman on screen
Superman is 80 years old this month, so let's take a look at the actors who have brought the Man of Steel to the screen over the last eight decades.
The very first man to play the much-loved hero on screen, in 1948’s 15-part TV serial Superman, and again in the 1950 follow up Atom Man vs Superman. Unfortunately, Alyn found himself typecast after Superman, and refused to return for the 1951 series as a result. It may not have been his smartest career move. He never really recovered, and his best-known appearances since are cameos in Richard Donner’s 1978 movie Superman, and the 1981 spoof Superbman: The Other Movie.
Alyn’s loss was George Reeves' gain. The actor, who had previously appeared in Gone with the Wind and From Here to Eternity, stepped in for the 1951 pilot Superman and the Mole Men, which would lead to a six-season run in the role, lasting until 1958. Reeve sadly died the following year aged just 45, and a host of spin-offs and continuations would never come to light.
Superman would return to TV screens in 1975 with one appearance for David Wilson in a TV adaptation of the 1966 stage musical It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman.
Read more: Celebrating 80 Years of Superman
Unfortunately, the show was cheap looking and poorly received, and he wasn’t asked back.
Probably the best-known Superman on our list, Reeve played Clark Kent and his alter-ego in Richard Donner’s 1978 classic, Superman, and all three sequels, though Donner jumped ship after Episode II. Reeve trained for the role with Dave Prouse, who was also bulking up for his role as Darth Vader at the time, for the original movie. What a pairing that would make in the era of Alien vs Predator.
It took six years after the unloved final film in the main Superman franchise, 1987’s Quest for Peace, for the Man of Steel to surface on screen again (though a Superboy TV series featuring both John Haymes Newton and Gerard Christopher in the title role ran for four seasons between 1988 and 1992). Cain distanced himself from Reeve’s seminal portrayal by playing alter-ego Clark Kent as more assertive and less bumbling – he even beat Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane to a journalism award in one episode. The show ran for four seasons.
Welling played Superman for 10 seasons of Smallville from 2001-2011, the longest stint in the cape other than Reeve himself, who described Welling as “doing a good job” of stepping into in his cape. Reeve even played Dr Virgil Swan in seasons two and three of the show, but sadly passed away in 2004 before he could return for season four.
Just the one outing in red and blue for Routh, who took on the role in Bryan Singer’s 2006 reimagining, Superman Returns. The film attempted to offer an alternative sequel to the original pair of Richard Donner films, in the process erasing the memory of the disappointing third and fourth instalments following Donner’s departure. Singer definitely turns in a better version than either of those duds, but with a big money reboot already on the cards, Routh’s tenure was always going to be brief.
The current DC Extended Universe Superman had actually been initially lined up to take on the role in an early version of what eventually became Singer’s 2006 film. Zack Snyder was quick to reinstate him for the launch of the DCEU with 2013’s Man of Steel. Five films on, the franchise is still finding its feet, but there’s plenty more to come, with Aquaman next in December this year, and there have been signs recently that the makers are beginning to find their feet having been beaten out of the blocks in theatres by rivals Marvel.
There’s one last Superman you might have overlooked on our list. Tyler Hoechlin has pulled on the cape in four episodes of TV’s Supergirl since 2016. It’s hard to make too much of a judgement since he’s a supporting character with limited screen time to his name, but we like to be thorough.