We all have one essential idea what Superman should look like, according to artist Joseph Shuster’s original design that first appeared in the premiere issue of Action Comics in 1938. The blue tights, red boots and cape, and “S” emblem (later retconned as the House of El crest) have been a constant in the pages of DC since the very beginning (with a few alterations, big and small, along the way). Yet, when it comes to live-action adaptations, there are actually a few Superman costumes that run the risk of being unrecognizable.
By that I mean, for instance, the shot of Henry Cavill wearing the famous black suit in the Justice League Snyder Cut teaser probably would leave some of the more casual superhero movie audiences a little puzzled if they had never seen Clark Kent wear it in the comics after his post-Doomsday resurrection. I, for one, would probably choose that as the greatest live action Superman costume to ever hit the screen, big or small. Of course, that is not the one we were given in the original theatrical cut, an unforgivable broken promise in the eyes of many, so until the new version’s official HBO Max release, it will have remain to off the following list.
In the meantime, however, I have sifted through all the best known live-action Superman adaptations, movies and TV shows included, and compiled nine of the other costumes worn by the Man of Steel himself that I find to be of the highest quality, aesthetically speaking. Based on the criteria of comic book accuracy, practicality, believability and overall badass appearance, this is my ranking of the greatest Supersuits in live-action media, ranked in ascending order.
9. Tom Welling - Red Leather Jacket (Smallville)
To me, this clearly well-meaning design has a bit of an awkward “flashy biker” vibe, if you get my drift/ Still at least it's more unique than digitally projecting the Superman Returns costume onto Tom Welling, which is the “official reveal” we got at the very end of the Smallville series finale. The red leather jacket bearing the classic “S” emblem debuted in Season 10 of the popular prequel series and was actually Clark Kent’s second attempt at a pre-Superman costume. We will get to the first (and much cooler, I believe) design soon enough.
8. George Reeves (Superman And The Mole Men)
While I described the last entry as giving “flashy biker” vibes, I think of homemade pajamas when I see George Reeves’ costume, which debuted in the 1951 feature-length film Superman and the Mole Men before becoming a staple of the Adventures of Superman series the following year. Now before you denounce me for what may have sounded like ridicule of this iconic design, I do notice and admire its comic book accuracy, even if it does pale in comparison to more modern costumes. Furthermore, I have no doubt these red and blues (or, more accurately, black and whites at the time) sparked a moment of unforgettable excitement for any young fan of the Man of Steel.
7. Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman)
Speaking of “homemade,” this costume was literally homemade by Clark Kent’s mother (K Callan) in the pilot of this Emmy-nominated 1990s series. Dean Cain played the lead, alongside Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane, of ABC’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which reimagined the Man of Steel’s story as a cheesy romantic dramedy of sorts with a costume to match the tone perfectly. Fortunately, the suit saw some improvements as the series continued, such as swapping out the velcro-attached cape for one tucked under the blue tights, and I would regret not giving Cain extra points for having one of the largest chest emblems of any live-action design.
6. Tom Welling - Black (Smallville)
I understand the irony of where I rank this costume despite my recent praises of comic book accuracy and how Tom Welling’s Season 9 outfit is clearly more faithful. However, I admire the black trench coat approach of this costume, which showed up in Season 9 of Smallville, more as it invokes a unique noirish detective quality and, practically speaking, blends in during nightly adventures far more effectively than a red leather jacket. Furthermore, and once again, it is better than a CGI Superman Returns suit.
5. Brandon Routh (Superman Returns)
Speaking of, if there is one thing Bryan Singer’s polarizing continuation of 1980’s Superman II did right, it would have to be the suit worn by Brandon Routh. It does bear darker shades of blue and red, and a smaller, but more raised, chest emblem than Christopher Reeve’s costume (which, despite a breach in continuity, I almost find more cinematically appealing), but take a closer look at that emblem and you will see a collage of tiny House of El crests. That small, but very intriguing detail (along with the “S” on his belt buckle, too) is enough to convince me that Routh deserved his Superman reprisal… which we will get to soon.
4. Tyler Hoechlin (Supergirl)
One thing that I do not particularly admire about Brandon Routh’s suit is the red undies worn over the blue tights. I realize that Joseph Shuster’s illustration pretty much made that a tradition that has applied to many other superhero costume designs, but I have always found it unnecessary and believe it does not translate as well to live-action. That's genuinely essential to where I rank Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman outfit which he first appeared in on Supergirl in Season 2. I cannot say I care much for the way his cape is attached or the four golden etchings that surround the chest emblem for whatever reason, but everything else about this is A+ in my book.
3. Brandon Routh - Kingdom Come (Crisis On Infinite Earths)
While it is prone to put comic book fans up in arms, sometimes breaking tradition can be good. And no, I am not talking about the outside undies again since this suit actually does incorporate that. I am specifically referring to how Alex Ross reimagined the Superman costume for DC’s Kingdom Come crossover, with a less defined “S” on a black background in the chest emblem and darker belt, too, which was such a simple, yet astonishing change of pace that demanded a live-action translation. It finally did in the Arrowverse’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, as worn by Legends of Tomorrow star Brandon Routh, who had never looked better in the role.
2. Christopher Reeve (Superman: The Movie)
Despite my personal reservations over the red underwear and brighter color schemes, those elements were used to perfection in 1978 when the late Christopher Reeve brought the Man of Steel to life in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. It could also be the fact that the costume appeared in four movies (more than any so far), how authentically it captured that era’s comic book design or just Reeve’s mirror image resemblance to the character, but this Superman costume remains the definitive style in the eyes of many decades later. I would proudly justify that claim, even if my preferences lean toward what more recent years have seen.
1. Henry Cavill (DC Extended Universe)
Throwing the prize at the current cinematic iteration sounds like the obvious choice, but I truly believe the DCEU costume deserves it for much more than recency. The color shades matching the character’s darker interpretation, the subtle and rightfully more otherworldly look of the crest, the thankful lack of red underwear and the way it all fits on Henry Cavill’s angelic frame gives this Superman the most imposing and cinematically rich appearance yet, which is also how I felt about Batfleck’s costume design in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. There has always been something cheesy or cartoonish to note about the previous live-action suits, but not at all on this one, earning Cavill’s Man of Steel the gold.
Well, what do you think? Do you give a “hallelujah” for Henry Cavill’s red and blues too, or is putting Christopher Reeve second to anything else a greater offense than Lex Luthor’s worst crime? Let us know in the poll and comments below, and be sure to check back for additional information and updates on Superman’s legacy in live-action media, as well as even more ranked lists related to your favorite comic book movies and TV shows, here on CinemaBlend.
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Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.