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.
- Jesse Eisenberg (DCEU) — Okay, I’m going to lose some of you right away, so let’s get this over with. I dislike all of Zack Snyder’s movies, especially those with Superman in them. But the worst part of his very bad Superman movies is, without question, Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Lex Luthor. There’s potential here to update Lex from an early 20th-century mad scientist to a 21st-century villain like Mark Zuckerberg. But Eisenberg’s jittery, manic take is all irritating style and no substance, coming off as the perfect embodiment of the phrase “a dumb person’s idea of a smart person.”
- Scott James Wells (Superboy, Season One) — When telling Superboy stories in the 1980s, it follows that Lex Luthor would not be a mad scientist or a businessman, but the preppy bully from a teen comedy of the area. With his surfer-blond hair and haughty handsomeness, former model Scott James Wells had the perfect look for a young Luthor of the “me generation.” Unfortunately, that’s about all Wells had. As the producers tried to retool the show from teen misadventures to superhero action, Wells’s limited acting chops couldn’t keep up and he was replaced for the series revamp in season two.
- Gene Hackman (Reeve Superman films) — Well, if I didn’t lose you with my Zack Snyder comments above, I’m sure to lose you now. Look, I love Gene Hackman. He is, without question, the greatest actor on this entire list, not only among the Luthor actors. But the fact of the matter is that neither Hackman nor director Richard Donner nor anyone else had any idea what to do with the character. Where Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder could find the right balance between ’40s sci-fi spectacle and ’70s New Hollywood grit, Hackman was utterly lost. He made disastrous decisions throughout all three of his film appearances, attempting goofy comedy in a nasty scene in which Luthor murders a detective, for example, and trying to realistic pathos to Luthor’s boasts about his own criminal genius; tonally, it just doesn’t work.
- Sherman Howard (Superboy, Seasons Two-Four) — Yes, I am putting the guy who played Bub the Zombie over the guy who played Popeye Doyle. Hear me out. Howard not only nailed the over-the-top camp Hackman failed to sell, but he launched it into the stratosphere. It’s clear that Superman producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind wanted a more Hackman-esque version of Luthor for their Superboy series, and Howard took that challenge and ran with it, chewing up every inch of network TV scenery he could find. There was no nuance to his performance. It was all cackling, mustache-twirling evil, and it filled the small screen in a way that no big screen Luthor could ever do.
- Jon Cryer (Arrowverse) — It’s hard not to pull for Jon Cryer, making amends for his turn as Lex’s doofus nephew Lenny in the disastrous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace by taking on the role of Luthor in the Arrowverse. And you know what? It’s a solid take! He’s appropriately sinister and charming when he needs to be, but Cryer never lets us forget the bullied nerd underneath, a man who needs to challenge Superman in order to prove his worth to himself. (Plus, I’m a sucker for those ridiculous disguises.)
- John Shea (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) — Right from our first glimpse of the cast, Shea revealed that Lois & Clark was going in a new direction for their Lex Luthor. This guy had hair! More importantly, Shea (even more so than Sherman Howard) followed John Byrne’s revision of the Superman comics, which changed Luthor from a mad scientist to a respected and amoral businessman. Shea played the character with more charisma than genius, making him (for the first time) a potential love interest for Lois and a proper challenge for the show’s hip ’90s Superman.
- Lyle Talbot (Atom Man vs. Superman) — A legendary screen actor with a long career on film and television, Talbot has the honor of being the first person to portray Lex Luthor on screen. He made his debut in 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman, a fun story about Luthor using an atomic beam (which kind of sounds like the opening of the Looney Tunes theme) to transport and commit crimes throughout Metropolis. Donning an impressive bald cap, Talbot cuts an imposing figure as Luthor, bellowing in his distinctive baritone about his plans to destroy the Man of Steel. Even for audiences who have never seen the character in the comics, Talbot makes us understand immediately why Luthor is Superman’s perpetual archenemy.
- Kevin Spacey (Superman Returns) — Feel free to skip this one, for obvious reasons: The revelations about Kevin Spacey’s behavior and allegations of sexual misconduct are horrifying and should be recognized as such in any discussion of his work, but I can’t deny that, purely as an actor, his performance as Luthor worked well for me in this film. Spacey’s arrogant disinterest nails the tone that Hackman struggled with. He’s properly menacing when he and his thugs terrorize a Kryptonite-weakened Superman, and he’s wonderfully hammy when shouting “WRONG!” at Lois. I wish so sincerely that it wasn’t true, in retrospect, and that Spacey wasn’t involved in a Superman movie (ditto for Bryan Singer), but here we are.
- Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville) — With the possible exception of voice actor Clancy Brown, no actor has so thoroughly captured Lex Luthor like Michael Rosenbaum. Charismatic and broken, sinister and seductive, Rosenbaum made you believe that someone so thoroughly evil could be seen as a hero by most people and could pose a formidable challenge for Superman. No matter how many crazy stories writers would throw at Rosenbaum to satiate the Smallville audience’s appetite for teen drama, he always brought the scene-devouring ham when needed (especially when sharing scenes with John Glover, who played Lex’s father Lionel), as well as genuine tenderness for romantic scenes and a chummy camaraderie with the series’ main cast.
- Pierre Watkin (Superman serials) — It’s a little unfair to treat Pierre Watkin harshly for playing what was little more than set dressing in the first two live-action Superman properties. Perry White exists here simply to issue assignments to Lois and Clark, but even by that low standard, Watkin is a non-entity, bringing zero nuance to the role of Superman’s boss.
- Allen Ludden (It’s a Bird…) — Okay, Snyder fans, here’s where I make amends. Sort of. Snyder’s movies are not the worst Superman property ever made. No, that dishonor goes to the 1966 Broadway musical It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman. Granted, I only watched the 1975 TV special, which is by all accounts worse than the stage production, but I can’t imagine any of the show’s mix of ’60s cheese and irreverence for the comics would truly work, regardless of the medium. I mean, they cast game show host Allen Ludden as Perry White, for goodness’ sake. His performance is winky and pleased with itself in all the worst ways.
- Jackie Cooper (Reeve Superman films) — With Cooper, we enter a solid run of “*Shrug*…he’s fine” on the Perry White list. In his four film appearances as Perry, Cooper is befuddled by Clark, exasperated with Lois, and belligerent towards Jimmy. He’s exactly what a gruff newspaper editor in the late ’70s should be, no more and no less. I have to think that Keenan Wynn, Donner’s first choice for the role, would have put some more flavor into the performance, but Cooper isn’t bad. He’s fine!
- Frank Langella (Superman Returns) — Langella is a fantastic screen presence, someone so good that he somehow made Skeletor into a three-dimensional Shakespearean villain. But as Perry White? He’s fine! He fits into Superman Return’s early-2000s milieu without seeming like an anachronism.
- Laurence Fishburne (DCEU) — Laurence Fishburne is the only person in this article who can challenge Gene Hackman’s “all-time greatest actor” in a Superman movie position. He’s especially great at bringing to life seemingly one-note minor characters, whether that be a doomed soldier never getting off of the boat, an orderly in an institution terrorized by Freddy Krueger, or Cowboy Curtis. Fishburne brings those impressive chops to what is essentially a thankless role, as crusading newspaper editors don’t really fit in Snyder’s dyspeptic world of destructive heroes. And you know what? He’s fine!
- Michael McKean (Smallville) — Leave it to a comedy legend to revitalize a classic character. Logic would dictate that big-city editor Perry White shouldn’t show up in Smallville, a series about Clark Kent’s teen years in a tiny Kansas town. But when McKean’s Perry starts drunkenly mocking patrons of a local bar, it all makes sense. This Perry is down-on-his-luck, worn down to nothing by his years as a crusading reporter and so shunned by the journalistic community that an Editor-in-Chief job seems far out of reach. Even as his Perry is bitter and cynical, McKean never lets us forget the energetic reporter he once was and the principled newspaperman he will become. McKean’s never better than his first appearance on the show, season three’s “Perry,” but he’s a delight every time he drops into Smallville.
- Lane Smith (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) — Of all the characters reimagined for this romance-heavy version of Superman, Lane Smith’s Perry White feels the truest to the comics. Yes, he loves Elvis and bumbles along with the Superman/Lois/Clark love triangle, but he’s still what you would expect from Perry White: a lovable grouch who has no tolerance for absent reporters…unless they bring him the story of the year. Equal parts tyrant and teddy bear, Smith effectively brought Perry White into the 1990s without losing any of his late-’30s charm.
- John Hamilton (The Adventures of Superman) — There’s no question here. In Superman’s first appearances, the editor of the Daily Star (not the Daily Planet) was even less of a character than the guy Pierre Watkin played. Julian Noa, the first actor to play the role on the radio, gave some basic contours to the man, but it’s John Hamilton who made Perry White into Perry White. Not only did Hamilton perfect the balance of the tough-but-lovable boss, but he also established Perry’s signature catch-phrases, barking “Don’t call me chief!” at Jimmy and exclaiming with surprise, “Great Caesar’s ghost!” Since John Hamilton’s turn as Perry White, every actor who followed is just trying to emulate John Hamilton.
- Mehcad Brooks (Supergirl) — Brooks plays one of the most supportive and compelling characters in Supergirl. An infinitely patient friend to Kara, Brooks’s character remains empathetic and caring even when he’s recounting his troubled youth or putting on a mask as the superhero Guardian. So why is he in the bottom slot here? Because he’s a handsome and confident journalist who hangs out with Supergirl, not an awkward nerdy photographer palling around with Superman! As is often the case with Supergirl characters (especially members of my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes), James Olsen is Jimmy in name only. (Also, Brooks is at the bottom because I’m going to pretend that murdered CIA agent Jimmy Olsen from Batman v. Superman never existed).
- Aaron Ashmore (Smallville) — As a fan of the X-Men movies, I was pretty excited when Ashmore showed up on Smallville (it took a while for me to figure out that his twin brother Shawn played Ice Man, not Aaron). Unfortunately, where McKean figured out how to bring the comic book character into the show’s teen drama milieu, Ashmore got lost in the show’s pre-CW style. His Jimmy served the show’s various romantic plotlines well, but gone was the pluck and charm of Superman’s pal. And thanks to Smallville’s timeline shenanigans, turns out he isn’t even the real Jimmy!
- Justin Whalen (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, seasons 2-4) — There’s nothing inherently wrong with Whalen’s performance as the second actor to be cast as Jimmy in season two of Lois & Clark. His Jimmy is a nice kid, an affable tag-along for the central couple’s adventures. But even when Jimmy got a more central storyline, those adventures lacked the campiness of the superhero action or the fun of the romance.
- Sam Huntington (Superman Returns) — Jimmy Olsen isn’t a character that makes much sense in the 2000s. Cub reporters don’t exist anymore. Heck, newspapers hardly exist, at least not in the way they once did. So while Huntington doesn’t get much to do in Superman Returns, it’s pretty impressive that he feels like classic Jimmy Olsen without seeming like a total anachronism in a movie set in 2004.
- Tommy Bond (Superman Serials) — Bond certainly brought the right energy to his portrayal of Jimmy in the 1940s serials. Earnest and eager, Bond’s Jimmy always showed up to lend support to Lois and witness Superman’s amazing feats. However, at the age of 22 in Superman, the former Little Rascals star feels a little too old and way too physically big to play a teen sidekick. Not only does Bond have a physicality that feels wrong for Jimmy, but he towers over Lois and almost looks Kirk Alyn’s Superman in the eye. As a result, Jimmy feels a bit like the “large adult son” meme, a grown-up acting like a kid.
- Michael Landes (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, season one) — Of all the characters needing an update for Lois & Clark, Jimmy Olsen posed the greatest challenge. A bowtie-wearing reporter-in-training with a Superman watch didn’t fit in the glamorous world of ’90s adult soap operas. Putting his Generation X spin on Superman’s pal, Landes fit the bill. His Jimmy provided some much-needed snark to the glitzy proceedings, but he never lost Olsen’s fundamentally good nature. Sadly, producers deemed Landes too old to play the teen sidekick to Lois & Clark, and he was replaced after one season.
- Jack Larson (Adventures of Superman) — Although Jimmy was far more fleshed out in comics and radio than his boss, Jack Larson defined the role as much as John Hamilton defined Perry White. Although he was already 23 when the show premiered and 30 when new episodes halted production, Larson had a childish spirit that endeared the character to the Daily Planet staff. When I think of Jimmy Olsen, it’s Jack Larson who first comes to mind.
- Marc McClure (Reeve Superman films) — If Larson’s so iconic, why does Marc McClure get the top spot? Because McClure had the harder task. TV audiences in the ’50s could believe a teenage kid might be palling around with Superman and shooting pictures for the Daily Planet. That’s a much harder sell in 1979, and yet McClure made it work. He’s particularly great at the end of Superman: The Movie, as his “aw shucks” energy brings back anyone turned off by the “flying around the world” climax and sells them on the movie’s triumphant final moments. His version may not be iconic, but Marc McClure was the first Jimmy for many moviegoers.
- Lesley Ann Warren (It’s a Bird…) — Remember how great Lesley Ann Warren is in Clue? Yeah, just try to focus on that if you’re ever faced with this musical, watching her reduce one of the greatest characters in pop culture to a flirty ditz, running through the Daily Planet newsroom trilling, “Scoop! Scoop!”
- Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns) — Outside of those who are reprehensible human beings in real life, Bosworth’s Lois is one of the worst parts of Superman Returns. As much as Bryan Singer tried to ape the tone of Richard Donner’s Superman movies, he totally missed the mark with Bosworth, who comes across with zero screen presence, here. Sure, maybe a Lois Lane abandoned by her ex, absentee-father Superman, would be a little less peppy than Margot Kidder, but she should at least have some sort of presence. Bosworth’s Lois is a black hole in the middle of the film.
- Phyllis Coates (Adventures of Superman) — While later portrayals of Lois Lane would emphasize her aggressive and cutting nature, Coates found a world-weariness in Superman’s best gal. Already a seasoned reporter, nothing shocks Coates’s Lane, and she has little time to suffer fools. This approach sometimes came off as lackadaisical, as if Lois couldn’t even bother to be worried about the plot of the story she was currently in. But when the time came for reacting to danger, Coates had a scream to rival the final girl of any ’80s slasher flick, and her chemistry with George Reeves’ guileless Clark Kent made for compelling human drama.
- Amy Adams (DCEU) — On paper, Amy Adams is an ideal Lois Lane. Not only is she one of the best actresses in the business, but she also already effectively played a version of Lois with her Hepburn-esque take on Amelia Earhart in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, Snyder has almost nothing interesting for Adams to do, limiting her role to that of a talisman to bring Superman back from Lazarus Pit insanity. She does nail the few good lines she gets (“Well, here it’s an ‘S’…” for example, but one can’t help but wish that she had a meatier role.
- Erica Durance (Smallville) — Durance is exactly how I picture a young Lois Lane to be. She’s still principled and driven, a little world-weary already, and she knows what she likes when she gets a glimpse of Superman’s bare butt. She also falls for the better TV version of Oliver Queen! But at the end of the day, Durance is playing teen/young adult Lois instead of Lois fully formed, which is an inherently less interesting character, thus the lower ranking.
- Teri Hatcher (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) — On paper, making a romantic comedy centering on the Superman/Lois/Clark love triangle sounds like a potentially terrible idea. Where Lois came right out of the gate in Action Comics #1 as a tough, independent woman, she too often became a lovestruck girlfriend in her own comics. Certainly, some aspects of the heart-eyed Lois do return in Hatcher’s performance. But she never loses the dignity of the character, always making Lois the type of woman to fluster a Man of Steel.
- Noelle Neil (Adventures of Superman) — Commentators (rightly) praise Margot Kidder for her ’70s feminist version of Lois, but it’s important to remember that the character started out that way. Sure, she was quickly softened and needed to be reclaimed by actresses like Hatcher and Kidder, but we cannot forget that Noelle Neil gave us a great Lois from the start. With an icy stare stronger than Superman’s laser vision and a voice that cut with conviction, Neil’s Lois established the key ingredient of the central Superman love triangle. When she played the character, audiences immediately understood why Superman loved her.
- Margot Kidder (Reeve Superman films) — Of course it’s Margot Kidder! People often cite Christopher Reeve’s performance as the definitive Superman, but Kidder is just as iconic. Lois Lane must be the person who inspires Superman, someone who is just as brave and principled as the Man of Steel, just without his awesome superpowers. Kidder’s performance is bold, authentic, and funny. She’s the perfect Lois Lane, the kind of person that Superman aspires to be.
I’m sure many of you have already made it to the comments to tell me I’m wrong about Zack Snyder or that I’m disrespecting Hackman. But where else was I wrong? Am I being too mean to Bosworth? Too nice to McClure? Should I have given my Superman rankings too? (What’s the point? Christopher Reeve is the best. No one else is close).
Originally published in March 2021.