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Battle Royale: Superman Vocal Actors
Who delivers the Man of Steel best?
By Rob Vaux
February 21, 2011
Battle Royale: Superman Vocal Actors
© DC Comics/Robert Trate
When we did our Battle Royale for Batman’s voice actors a few weeks ago, there really wasn’t any question of who would win out. We went forward with it as a means of showcasing some of the other great performers who played the Caped Crusader, but Kevin Conroy stands head and shoulders above the competition. Superman, though… Superman is a much different story. Over twenty performers have delivered the Man of Steel to us in cartoon form, many of them great, but none of them definitive. (Frankly speaking, Christopher Reeve is the greatest Superman, but as a live-action performer, he doesn’t qualify for this list.) We’ve picked the top nine in the field for an elimination duel to the (figurative) death. Which Steel is the real deal? Let’s look at the contenders.
Radio and the Fleischers
The very earliest days of the character saw a very strong actor make his case. Bud Collyer starred in “The Adventures of Superman” radio show in the early 1940s. He later revised the part for the Fleischer studios’ classic Superman animated cartoons… and eventually did the voice for the first Filmation cartoons in the mid-1960s. Collyer provided a number of touches that later became indelible parts of the character. Notably, he dropped his voice when going from Clark Kent to Superman, helping to sell the notion that no one could deduce his secret identity. Even more notably, his desire to take time off from the radio show prompted the writers to create a little thing called Kryptonite, putting Supes out of the action while the other characters figured out a way to rescue him. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Filmation cartoons gave way to Hanna-Barbera’s long-running Super Friends series in the early 1970s. Collyer was replaced by actor Danny Dark who served Man of Steel duties for over thirteen years on every incarnation of the Super Friends. Dark cut his teeth as an advertising spokesman, and lent his voice to a number of prominent ad campaigns. His Superman was bold and assertive, carrying the right combination of imposing strength and reassuring morality. In the process, he served as the first introduction to the Man of Steel for an entire generation, watching their hero come to life on Saturday morning.
Superman: The Animated Series and The Justice League
The success of Batman: The Animated Series in the early 1990s led to a new interest in a Superman animated cartoon. The resulting Superman: The Animated Series proved as big a hit as its predecessor, thanks in part to another piece of spot-on casting. Tim Daly delivered a newer, humbler Clark Kent to comic book fans. His decency was self-evident rather than loudly proclaimed; he went about his job with quiet certainty rather than do-gooding bravado. Daly reprised the role in a number of DC Comics direct-to-video features, often appearing opposite Kevin Conroy’s Batman.
The Superman animated series led in turn to a new Justice League animated cartoon, and with it came yet another voice: George Newbern, appearing alongside an ensemble of superheroic talent. Newbern performed Man-of-Steel duties throughout both the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited series, as well as Static Shock, The Return of Black Adam short, and a cameo on The Batman opposite Rino Romano’s Caped Crusader.
DC Comics Films and Young Justice
In addition to Daly and Newbern, three other actors have voiced Superman in various DC Comics original DVD releases. Kyle MacLachlan played a 1960s-era Man of Steel in Justice League: The New Frontier, with Mark Harmon taking over on Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Actor Adam Baldwin headlined the first in the DVD series, Superman Doomsday, which recreated the famous “Death of Superman” storyline from the comics. A fourth performer – James Denton – is due to portray the Man of Steel in the imminent All-Star Superman. Finally, the ongoing Young Justice series features veteran voice-over actor Nolan North as Clark Kent/Kal-El, watching over the show’s young superheroes.
We drop the field from nine to four very quickly: North and Denton haven’t been around long enough to create a lasting impression, while the three direct-to-video “one shot” performers lack the longevity to claim the top spot. That leaves Collyer, Dark, Daly and Newbern, who we’ll divide into “old school” and “new school” camps for the semi-final duels. For the more recent portrayals, Newbern did great, but he never would had the chance if Daly didn’t knock it out of the park on Superman: The Animated Series. Daly wins the showdown and moves to the finals. The older portrayals are a little less clear cut. Countless Gen Xers still hear Dark’s voice when they see the character and thirteen years is a long time to for such consistency. Collyer, however, was not only first, but he played Superman in three different formats (radio, television, movies) over the course of three decades. With an honorable showing from Dark, the nod goes to his opponent.
So who gets the top slot, Daly or Collyer? The former offers a proud legacy, ushering the Man of Steel into the 21st century. But Collyer was there at the beginning: helping to put a stamp on the character that influenced every comic book, movie and TV series that followed. It’s the definitive trump card, leaving Collyer the undisputed champion.