Although Superman first appeared in pages of 1938’s Action Comics #1, no single medium could contain the Last Son of Krypton. Within ten years, the Man of Steel started showing up on toy store shelves, in a radio show, and, of course, on the screen. Since the 1948 Republic Pictures serial Superman starring Kirk Alyn, we have always had a human face to go with the world’s first superhero, a tradition that continues today with Tyler Hoechlin in the new Arrowverse series Superman & Lois.
But while we could discuss the individual merits of the many men who have donned the Man of Tomorrow’s signature red trunks, I’d argue that any Superman adaptation is only as good as its supporting cast. Superman stories live and die by their portrayals of ace reporter Lois Lane, Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen, Daily Planet editor Perry White, and, of course, the diabolic genius Lex Luthor. Instead of ranking the different Clark Kents (Clarks Kent?) and their alter egos, I find it far more interesting to rank the various live-action takes on his supporting cast.
Below are what I consider to be the best live-action versions of Lois, Jimmy, Perry, and Lex. I’ve left off other important characters—particularly Ma and Pa Kent, Jor-El and Lara, and Lana Lang—largely because their portrayals are so uneven. How could I properly judge John Schneider and Annette O’Toole’s many hours as Clark’s parents Jonathan and Martha Kent in Smallville against Edward Cassidy and Virginia Caroll’s 30 seconds of screen time as “Eben” and Martha Kent in 1948’s Superman? For the same reason, I’ve left off Elizabeth Tulloch from Superman & Lois. She seems great in the role of Lois, but it isn’t fair to pit her scant appearances so far against those of other actors.
Also, I need to lay my cards on the table: I adore Superman, but there have been so many variations on the character over the past 80+ years that I need to be more specific as to what I look for in the character. My ideal Superman stories are John Byrne’s Man of Steel, All-Star Superman, and the recent Superman Smashes the Klan. Although I love parts of all the live-action Superman adaptations, so far no one version has fully captured everything I love about Superman and his friends.
Still there? Good! Let’s go up, up, and away and count down into the worst to best versions of Superman’s live-action supporting cast.