Superman is a notoriously tough character to get right.
There was a glorious time when writers simply needed to show Superman rescuing a cat from a tree or punching a mugger and readers would love it. In the years since those simpler times, the world changed quite drastically. Suddenly, heroes needed to be as complex as the evils they fought. Suddenly, the idea of “pure good” seemed childish.
Even if you put aside Superman’s moral code, there’s still the issue of his wide array of powers. For years, we simply didn’t have the technology needed to showcase Superman in all of his glory. Many wires were snapped trying to make people believe a man could fly.
That’s why there’s something so special about a great Superman adaptation. A Superman story come to life should make you feel like you’ve just looked up at the sky and witnessed the Man of Steel himself flying by. It should challenge the limits of the character and the expectations of the audience.
We’d be lying if we said that every Superman adaptation has accomplished that feat, but hey, Superman would be a lot less interesting if kryptonite didn’t occasionally make an appearance.
Here is Every Adaptation Of Superman, Ranked From Worst To Best.
Superboy was a 1988 series that told the story of Superman’s earliest years. Interestingly, it aired about a year after DC basically abandoned the Superboy characters with the release of The Man of Steel. That should have been the first indication that all was not well in Smallville.
The biggest problem with Superboy was that everyone treated it like it was doomed to fail. The series earliest episodes were shot on an incredibly small budget that made it hard to showcase Superman doing anything really special. Even worse, the show’s writers were often forced to come up with original villains that were anything but.
Things picked up a little more in the second season, but Superboy lacked the technical majesty of the Superman movies and the retro charm of the old Superman serials. It turned Superman into far too generic of a character.
16 The Adventures of Superboy
Technically, Superboy and The Adventures of Superboy are the same show. Superboy was simply renamed The Adventures of Superboy during the third season. However, the two are so vastly different that we’d be remiss not to separate them here.
The Adventures of Superboy saw Clark Kent and Lois Lane start working for The Bureau for Extra-Normal Matters. Interestingly, that idea came about before The X-Files was on the air. This shift in premise came with a far darker overall tone believed to have been inspired by the success of Tim Burton’s Batman.
That tonal shift helped add some genuine weight to the show’s storylines, but it did little to help make The Adventures of Superboy feel like an actual Superman show. This monster of the week series occasionally played with the Superman mythos, but too often focused on what made the villains interesting.
15 Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was a fascinating little television experiment. Basically, DC really wanted to have another Superman show on the air and was willing to bend the character to the requests of network executives in order to make it happen.
That led to a show that can best be described as a four-season romantic comedy starring Superman, as played by Dean Cain. The series focused more on the relationship between Lois and Clark and less on Superman’s heroic adventures.
It was a fascinating experiment that was certainly charming, but it’s hard not to look back on this show and wonder who it was intended for. Our best guess would be “families,” but the more adult relationship storylines and the more childish Superman stories have all been done better elsewhere. Still, the show did have its moments.
14 Super Friends
Can you imagine being a kid in 1973 and seeing that someone had made a show featuring all of your favorite DC superheroes? At a time when few superheroes starred in their own movies or shows, Super Friends delivered them all.
There’s a timeless innocent charm to this series that perfectly fits the Superman character. Everything is colorful, villains always get what’s coming to them, and every hero is a paragon of truth and justice. All of that is great.
However, Super Friends is really only enjoyable in small, YouTube clip-sized chunks. That’s especially true as it relates to the contributions of Superman, who could easily destroy the show’s various threats but is usually relegated to using heat vision or superstrength near the end of the episode.
13 1948 Superman Serials
In 1948, Columbia broadcasted a 15 part series of Superman shorts across various American theaters. These shorts would air before the feature presentation and almost always ended with a cliffhanger designed to get the audiences to return next week.
While the basic Superman mythology is in-place (there’s kryptonite, the Daily Planet, and alter-ego Clark Kent), these serials strived to tell their own plot. For instance, Superman battles a villain known as The Spider Lady rather than Lex Luthor.
These serials are certainly dated, but they do capture the unfiltered wholesomeness of Superman’s character at that time quite well. The producers didn’t even credit star Kirk Alyn for playing Superman, and instead said they managed to get “Superman himself.”
This isn’t the best Superman show of its era - more on that later - but its post-war approach to the character has a place in pop culture.
12 Superman Returns
Superman Returns tends to attract pure venom from many comic book fans who talk about it. This 2006 movie was criticized for being too long, tonally bizarre, kind of boring, and too dependent on the nostalgia of the Christopher Reeves' Superman movies. Those are all fair points.
However, Superman Returns was arguably the film Superman needed at the time of its release. It matured the Superman character but didn’t try to darken him too much. Brandon Routh’s portrayal of the hero wasn’t the best we’ve ever seen, but it did feel right for the universe that Bryan Singer was trying to create.
Plus, you do have to credit the movie for not trying to tell an origin story and instead utilizing the fact that most people know who Superman is and just wanted to see him return to an increasingly grim world.
While Superman was referenced in Supergirl since the show’s earliest episodes, fans wondered whether the man of steel would ever actually appear on the show. Those questions were answered when Tyler Hoechlin debuted as Superman during the show’s second season.
Hoechlin’s take on Superman isn’t the best we’ve ever seen - he doesn’t really come across as a living god - but the man’s Clark Kent is actually quite good. Hoechlin approaches Clark Kent like the guy that Superman wishes he could be, had he not been born into rather odd circumstances. It’s less of a disguise and more of a vacation from Superman’s responsibilities.
We’d be interested to see what Hoechlin would do with the character if given a little more breathing room - say a feature film - but his work on Supergirl is quite good.
10 Superman Vs. The Elite
Superman vs. The Elite roughly follows the classic 2001 story “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, & the American Way?” Both stories deal with a group of anti-heroes called The Elite who kill villains and criminals. Their popularity and effectiveness raise questions regarding whether or not Superman’s methods have a place in the modern world.
We’ve seen similar stories before, but Superman vs. The Elite does an incredible job of justifying Superman’s methods by conveying the true extent of his power. It argues that Superman must be better than us because he is so much more capable than us.
While Superman vs. The Elite does suffer from a strange animation style that doesn’t always fit the story, it's a fascinating look at why the world’s most powerful hero sticks to a code.
We’d be lying if we said we’re confident that Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are universally beloved pieces of entertainment that will be enjoyed by millions for years to come. They’re very controversial movies that seem to have at least as many detractors as fans.
However, they are united by Henry Cavill’s brilliant portrayal of Superman. Cavill has genuine on-screen presence but is still able to pull off the Clark Kent routine when he needs to. He rarely has to, though, as Cavill’s Superman is typically portrayed as more of a god than a man trying to pass as a mortal.
While that darker side of Superman is sometimes overplayed in the recent DC movies, it is nice to see a big screen version of the character that gets to use his full range of abilities.
8 Fleischer Studios Superman Cartoons
Even though the Fleischer brothers only produced nine of the 17 episodes that make up the collection typically known as the Fleischer Superman cartoons, it would be a crime not to credit them with the entire run given how revolutionary their work was.
This early ‘40s animated series of shorts features a jaw-dropping art style that was surprisingly dark and mature for its time. It’s easy to see that these shorts were the inspiration for later DC works like Batman: The Animated Series.
Visuals aside, these shorts are also credited with shaping the modern Superman character by introducing the famous “Faster than a speeding bullet…” line and giving Superman the ability to fly. Yes, Superman didn’t fly before he did so in these cartoons.
The only reason we have the adaptations ranked above this is because they built on the great work that went into the revolutionary Fleischer animated shorts.
7 Superman: The Animated Series
Superman: The Animated Series debuted shortly after the almost universally acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series. While Superman’s cartoon doesn’t enjoy quite as large of a following as Batman’s does, it was a surprisingly mature take on the character that ranked among the best children's shows on all of television.
Superman: The Animated series was never afraid of telling a story that could be considered too complicated for children, but it was a much more “fun” show than Batman: TAS. Reports indicate that the showrunners originally wanted to present a darker take on Superman, but the vision we got does fit the character quite well.
It would have been nice to see the writers throw caution to the wind more often and tell slightly bolder Superman stories, but this still stands as one of Superman’s finest adaptations.
6 Justice League: New Frontier
Justice League: New Frontier is an animated film based on the highly acclaimed DC: The New Frontier comic series. The movie and the series tell a slightly altered take on DC history that imagines what would have happened if Silver Age heroes had fallen into decline following the Cold War.
The story is good, but what really sells this concept is its visual style and how DC’s biggest heroes are portrayed. That’s especially true of Superman. The Man of Steel retains some of his more modern darker elements but is still striving to be a bastion of good in dark times.
What really sells Superman in this story is the voice work of Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan. There’s an unwavering enthusiasm to MacLachlan’s voicework that comes across as genuine, but is still backed by a sense of power.
5 Justice League Unlimited
Everyone was quite excited to hear that producer Bruce Timm had signed on to help Cartoon Network’s Justice League Unlimited series. Timm was the creative mind behind much of Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series, and many fans felt that he would surely work that same magic when given access to DC’s best heroes.
Justice League Unlimited was a great show. Even though the writers had to try to devote equal time to every hero, the show's Superman stories were usually a highlight. It's clear that the series' creative team had a soft spot for the Man of Steel. In fact, the show’s producers lamented not being able to write more stories that focused on heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman.
Ultimately, though, it was voice actor George Newbern's incredible presence that really puts Justice League Unlimited over-the-top as an all-time great portrayal of the hero.
4 All-Star Superman
The All-Star Superman series is one of the greatest Superman stories ever told. Grant Morrison imagined a Superman who didn’t let the weight of the world crush him because he knew that he could bear it.
The animated adaptation of All-Star Superman does a tremendous job of living up to Morrison’s vision of a Superman stripped down to the essence of his character. All-Star Superman is one of the few pieces of Superman entertainment that manages to tread into dark waters without ever really allowing Superman to succumb to its depths.
Superman is supposed to be a bastion of hope for a planet that often finds itself in need of a hero. All-Star Superman does a brilliant job of capturing that sometimes complicated character.
3 The Adventures of Superman
It's difficult to overstate the historic significance of The Adventures of Superman. You have to remember that the idea of a superhero show in 1952 was still something of a foreign concept. That’s especially true of a superhero show that tried to appeal to more than just children.
Yet, that’s exactly what The Adventures of Superman was. It was sometimes violent, usually clever, and surprisingly dramatic. No matter how dark things may have gotten, though, audiences of all ages tuned in to watch George Reeves portrayal of Superman. As Clark Kent, Reeves was a dutiful reporter who felt truly human. As Superman, you just knew that he was there to save the day.
The Adventures of Superman was a product of a different era, but it never feels outdated. It’s a time capsule of everything we love about Superman.
Smallville was mocked by many people when it was first announced. Superman in high school? Good luck with that.
What we soon discovered was that Smallville’s showrunners knew exactly what they wanted to do with the character. The series dealt with the joy of being Superman as often as it dealt with the horrible burdens of being a living god. It saw Superman struggle to conceal his abilities while also trying to discover who he really is in the first place.
Best of all, it found a purpose for many of Superman’s best secondary characters and portrayed them as genuinely important pieces of Superman’s life.
Smallville's quality waned a bit towards the end, but at its best, this was a Superman show that dared to portray Earth’s mightiest hero as someone who is just as confused by the trials and tribulations of life as we are.
1 Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner Superman Films
What else could it be?
You know, it’s actually quite amazing that Christopher Reeves’ and Richard Donner’s vision of Superman has truly stood the test of time. You’d think that they’d be looked at as corny or outdated. Instead, the duo of Donner and Reeves managed to capture the essence of Superman better than a legion of television and film creators before and after ever have.
Donner deserves credit for recognizing that Superman is meant to be an unwavering fountain of good whose struggles often echo our own. Reeves deserves credit for finding a way to portray Superman as both powerful and personable at the same time. John Williams deserves credit for delivering one of the greatest character themes ever.
In the end, this was a perfect storm of talent coming together to deliver a timeless portrayal of the definitive superhero.
Which version of Superman is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!