We’ve had the unique benefit (some would say misfortune) of seeing multiple actors take on the roles of some of our most iconic characters. Each actor has added a different degree of themselves while simultaneously either trying to respect or step out of the shadow of their predecessors. With last weekend’s release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we’ve decided to look back at all the live-action, feature film versions of Superman, Batman, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor and determine which performance of each of the characters is the best.

Superman

Christopher Reeve (1978, 1981, 1983, 1987)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

For many, Christopher Reeve still is Superman and will always be. Possessing genuine charisma that went unmatched then and still goes unmatched now, Reeve breathed life into both Clark Kent and Superman. His Kent was a bumbling, oafish farm boy who was instantly endearing. His Superman was the idealized father figure, someone you’d want to play catch with and would fill you with pride just by smiling at you. And there are few comic book movie scenes more powerful than Superman’s absolute anguish while he holds a dead Lois Lane is his arms and decides to travel backward in time. Under Reeve, it was easy to see how no one could put two and two together and realize that Clark Kent was Superman. While all of the films, even the vastly superior first two entries, are often more interested in caricature than character, Reeve remained a constant welcome presence. While his threats were never very formidable, and some of the plots points don’t hold up well, Reeve’s Superman carried the franchise and delivered on the first film’s promise that we would believe a man could fly.

Brandon Routh (2006)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

The first mistake of Superman Returns was that Bryan Singer tried to adhere to closely to Richard Donner’s Superman, without understanding that a large part of what made Donner’s film work was the time and the fact that we had never seen superhero movies like that before. While Superman Returns beat the Cinematic Universe craze, it came on the heels of what are inarguably two of best superhero stories of the 2000s, Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins. Routh couldn’t measure up to Reeve or a script that refused to modernize any of its concepts or provide a worthy internal or external crisis. The fault with this Superman lies in the plodding nature of the film, instead of Routh himself. Anyone who watches him weekly on Arrow or Legends of Tomorrow knows that Routh has the charisma and star-power to make a convincing and likable superhero. His Clark Kent was solid, if a bit too “deer in the headlights,” but his Superman was static and a bit of a stalker. Stuck in the middle of two interesting takes on the character was this unfortunately boring portrayal.

Henry Cavill (2013, 2016)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Man of Steel introduced many to a Superman who lacked the complete sense of joy in being a superhero, and instead played up the religious allegory aspects of the character. While many have accused Cavill’s performance of being stiff (especially when compared to the dynamism of Reeve), there’s a great deal of subtle emotional depth to his character. He’s contemplative and unsure of himself and his place in the world. While this is a far cry from some of our most popular Superman stories, he feels perfectly situated in the anxieties of our modern world. Cavill’s Superman displays an awareness of the fact that he’s an outsider, a position that is furthered in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Out of all the Superman actors Cavill has had the toughest job because he’s had to portray a superhero in a world that questions what heroism even means.

Winner: Christopher Reeve’s performance is unmatched in sheer brilliance, and it had such a major effect on our ability to differentiate Clark Kent from Superman. Even when the films faltered, especially in the latter two, Reeve was always compelling to watch. He brought Silver Age sensibilities to films that refrained from taking advantage of the full scope of the stories at their disposal. It’s impossible to watch Reeve’s Superman performance without grinning, and it remains one of the most compelling performances in film history.

[socialpoll id=”2346555″]

Batman

Adam West (1966)

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

Adam West’s Batman is defined by its era. West’s Batman wouldn’t work in any other time and for modern fans of the character, he is decidedly un-Batman like. But as a satire of the ’50s and ’60s Batman comics, West was spot-on. West fully understood the absurdity of the character and the concept and dove right-in. His comedic-timing was unparalleled and whatever the film lacked it complexity, it made up for in absolute insanity.

Michael Keaton (1989, 1992)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Fans decried Michael Keaton’s casting when it was announced he would play Batman. DC Comics had just revitalized its entire line a few years prior and The Dark Knight Returns was still on everyone’s mind. The idea that a comedian would tackle the Dark Knight seemed crazy. And crazy it was. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne was unhinged (“You want to get nuts? Let’s get nuts!) and his Batman heroically grim – his lack of humor becoming humorous. He cast an unexpected shadow as a man tormented by his own mental illness and desire for a normal life. Tim Burton’s interest in the villains instead of Batman prevented Keaton from fully being able to delve into the character for any extended period of time. But his final scenes in Batman Returns in which Batman unmasks and pleads with Catwoman to spare the life of Max Shrek remains one of Keaton’s best deliveries to this day.

Val Kilmer (1995)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

On paper, Val Kilmer sounded like a pretty great Batman. He’d proven to be a solid action hero in Willow, showcased he could be a dick in Top Gun, and could handle exploring a tortured mind in The Doors. But Kilmer is largely forgettable in Batman Forever. He has the look down, but his measured performance is almost entirely boxed out by Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones who go straight to 11 and stay there. Kilmer wasn’t bad but with his co-stars and Joel Schumacher at the helm, he just didn’t fit in with the film.

George Clooney (1997)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

The much maligned Batman & Robin has become something of a cult classic over the years, one of those so-bad-it’s-good movies that you have to see to believe. But Clooney never dives into the absurdity of the film, instead choosing to remain rigid and deliver only the worst of lines completely straight. He’s the least memorable part of an admittedly memorable movie, because he seems like the only actor holding on to his ego. It’s impossible to forget that you’re watching Clooney so the film would best be retitled George Clooney & Robin.

Christian Bale (2005, 2008, 2012)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy brought a new level of acting to superhero movies. Sure, we’d had some really strong performances before, and numerous screen-legends got their stab at either hamming it up or phoning it in in a comic book movie, but Nolan’s films ushered in a new level of prestige (excuse the pun). In Batman Begins, Bale wonderfully captured Bruce Wayne’s disillusionment, drive, and public mask of the reckless playboy. His gravel-voiced Batman was a novice, prone to mistakes, but fixated on the belief that he could be something more than just a man. This fixation continued in the sequels, but Bale was also allowed to explore possibility that Bruce didn’t want to be Batman forever. While his Batman was less of a paranoid control freak and detective than the comic version, Bale’s Batman possessed a humanity and skill-set that didn’t seem far removed from our modern word.

Ben Affleck (2016)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck brings a tragic sense of bitterness to the role. His Bruce Wayne has an abrasive public charm, but he’s also a man who hates himself and would much rather be Batman than Wayne. Affleck’s Batman is a man with history, a man whose impossible war on crime has pushed him past the hero he originally sought to be. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice displays a Batman who is scary, one that we could see criminals cowering from. This Batman has a weight to him, not only in form but also in terms of his violence. His controversial decision to take lives not only calls back to the character’s roots but also shows the continued effect of his inability to cope or heal – an aspect that mirrors the place of violence in our world. Affleck’s Batman is an angry child, drawn into conflict because he wants to matter.

Winner: It really was a tough call between Bale and Affleck. Bale’s Batman showed man’s ability to transcend into legend. Affleck’s Batman is showed man regressing to his most primal state. Both are exceptional performances, but Affleck’s Batman comes closest to the modern source material, while offering enough differences to be relevant in the here and now. Bale’s Batman was the perfect Batman for his time, and Affleck’s Batman shows all the signs of being the perfect one for now. There’s plenty to explore in terms of his fragile mental state and how Bruce Wayne can become a hero again after his encounter with Superman. While many decried his casting when it was first announced, Ben Affleck will surely end up being one of the most celebrated parts of this cinematic universe.

[socialpoll id=”2346557″]

Lois Lane

Margot Kidder (1978, 1981, 1983, 1987)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Margot Kidder filled Lois Lane with little quirks that balanced out her “go get ‘em” attitude. Her crush on Superman is understandable but so was Superman’s crush on her. With her inability to spell correctly, her smoking habit, and impulsive nature, Kidder’s Lois Lane defines the flawed human being and is identifiable not only for an audience but for a man who is largely flawless. While the poem she narrates during Superman’s and her flying scene is still a little cringe-worthy, Kidder’s Lois Lane is consistently amusing, especially during her scenes with Clark Kent. Not only was she worth turning back the world for but she did help define Lois’ role in the comics for the decades to come.

Kate Bosworth (2006)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Kate Bosworth was 23 when she was cast as Lois Lane, and she didn’t possess the kind of worldliness, experience, or heartbreak to make for a convincing Pulitzer Prize winning journalist or mother to a five-year old son. Bosworth seemed entirely lost in the role of Lois Lane, and there wasn’t a single spark of chemistry with any of her Superman Returns cast mates. Superman Returns positioned Lois as the audiences’ anchor but she was portrayed so unsteady and unconfident that it was impossible to build any sort of emotional connection to her or the world she was tasked with leading us through.

Amy Adams (2013, 2016)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Amy Adams’ Lois Lane has an incredible spark to her. She’s ballsy and unafraid and despite this great set-up she’s underused in Man of Steel. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice corrects much of this by giving her a larger presence and an investigative plot of her own (one that doesn’t fully come to fruition but hopefully will in the Ultimate Edition). While she still gets placed in the damsel in distress position of her predecessors she also gets to be a hero. When Superman tells Lois she is his world, we believe it because of the incredible strength and love that radiates from her performance. Hopefully she is a character we get spend a lot more time with in future DCEU films, especially with her being “the key.”

Winner: As annoying as that narrated poem in Superman: The Movie is, Kidder exhibits all the qualities that make the character Lois Lane. Amy Adams has the potential to be the most interesting version of the character, but she needs more screen time and more of an arc before she can fully earn that. Kidder has a strong arc across those first two films (ignoring the memory wipe at the end of Superman II), and she and Kent make the perfect odd-couple.

[socialpoll id=”2346558″]

Lex Luthor

Gene Hackman (1978, 1981, 1987)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Listen, Gene Hackman is a screen legend who has given us numerous iconic roles that couldn’t be more pitch-perfect in their delivery, but Lex Luthor is not one of them. Hackman’s Lex Luthor is too silly to take seriously as a real-threat and his interest in real estate is not only uninteresting but distinctly un-Luthor like. The idea of a man surrounding himself with idiots to make himself feel smarter is an interesting direction for a villain, but it doesn’t make Lex Luthor threatening. For a character who should always be several steps ahead, Hackman’s Luthor always felt impossibly behind with his successes being a result of sheer luck and cowardice rather than genius. Lex and Superman’s relationship is one of the most interesting one in all of comics, and unfortunately these movies don’t get within an inch of exploring that. Hackman is never a chore to watch, but his performance still feels like a missed opportunity.

Kevin Spacey (2006)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor is one of those all-time perfect casting decisions that seems too good to believe. Unfortunately, Superman Returns forced Spacey into a reprisal of Hackman’s Luthor, albeit with a darker edge. There are standout scenes from Spacey in the movie and he is undoubtedly the best part of the entire film, but the decision to once again go with a land miser instead of a mad scientist/businessman is an incredible disappointment. House of Cards fans know how wonderful Spacey could have been as Lex given the opportunity to really make the role his own. Instead he’s left treading in another man’s bootprints, and Spacey should never have to tread that way.

Jesse Eisenberg (2016)

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

When you’re watching Jesse Eisenberg, no matter what the performance, it’s impossible to forget you’re watching Jesse Eisenberg. Sometimes this can be an advantage and other times a distraction. Eisenberg’s Luthor works to his advantage, delivering a Lex unlike any we’ve ever seen. He’s full of tics, yes, and clearly has some mental issues, but there’s also something very real about his characterization — a seething rage founded on his own incapability. There are many facets of him that are different from all previous depictions of Lex, but we finally get to see him as a mad scientist, businessman, and political provocateur. We’ve previously discussed Batman and Superman as two fathers of America, and America is Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Superman is the father with all the power, who much of the world sees as great while having no knowledge of his inner life. Luthor equates this to his own philanthropist father. Batman is the father built on fear and jealousy of his own lack of power, and abuses what little control he has. Luthor equates this to his father as well, the side of him that grew up in Germany controlled by a dictator and whose presumable jealousy and emotional scars led him to abuse his son. Eisenberg taps into all of this and delivers an interesting take on what may be the most difficult role in the film.

Winner: While Eisenberg’s Luthor still may not be the Lex Luthor many of us wanted, his take is fascinating and driven by our modern fixation with information as true power. He displays his potential as both a Superman villain and a Batman one, and Dawn of Justice is his origin story, one that could potentially lead to a more familiar version of the character. Strange tics and all, Eisenberg’s Luthor is unquestionably the most psychologically compelling of any of the feature film Luthors who preceded him and closest to the thesis that has driven Luthor in decades of comic stories.

[socialpoll id=”2346560″]

Featured Image: Warner Bros.