Next week the CW will air a three-part superhero crossover of Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl, and besides featuring Nora Fries (Mr. Freeze’s usually Popsicle wife), and Crisis on Infinite Earth character the Monitor, it will also finally introduce us to the CW DC-verse’s version of Lois Lane.
And that’s great—because you really can’t tell a good Superman story without, at some point, introducing Lois Lane. She’s crucial to Superman’s character. More crucial even than either set of parents or villains like Lex Luthor. She humanizes the character and allows him to have flaws and weaknesses and interesting feelings that are unrelated to Kryptonite.
Also she’s a flaming badass and the First Lady of Superhero comics.
In honor of Lois’ impending Elseworlds arrival, let’s look at her predecessors in TV and film, and because the internet loves a good ranking let us go ahead and rank them. Please feel free to disagree with this, the most scientific of rankings, in the comments, but know that I, a lifelong fan of all things Lois Lane, am probably right and you are probably wrong.
Also please note that Lois Lanes from direct-to-video adaptations of comics have been excluded, as have some one-off Lois Lanes from shows like Batman: The Brave and the Bold. If you disagree or feel I have unfairly excluded a particularly good Lois Lane please email me at email@example.com. [Ed’s Note: It’s a trap! -Jill P.]
In 1966 a very, very bad (Tony-nominated!) musical adaptation of Superman went up on Broadway. While not as awful as other superhero adaptations on the Great White Way, it was still not good. But it was also popular—or at least popular enough to warrant an adaptation for TV in 1975.
Enter Leslie Ann Warren, who would later go out for the same role in Richard Donner’s adaptation. Warren is a very good actress, and her screen test for Donner’s version is just lovely, but in It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman she’s a ditzy and horny gal—Lois Lane reduced down to her most offensive Silver Age version.
In the ‘80s, Superman was experiencing a massive resurgence thanks to the ‘78 film, the ‘80s Superboy TV show, and John Byrne’s recent major retooling of the character for the comics. So a new cartoon was commissioned. It didn’t last very long and is often forgotten for later, better cartoon versions of the character.
Notably, this was the first version of Byrne’s Superman to make it onto TV or film, which means Superman is the mask, so to speak, and Clark Kent is the person.
Lois Lane doesn’t appear in every episode, but Ginny McSwain does a decent job of giving us an ‘80s working woman—as showcased in a not-great cartoon for kids. The most fun is that McSwain, who was also a director, actually directed some of Lois Lane’s first episodes for the cartoon.
Kate Bosworth doesn’t deserve the blame for what a stinker Superman Returns was. It’s not her fault someone decided a film about deadbeat dad Superman would be a good idea. Or that it would be great to have Lois hook up with Superman and never, ever know he’s actually her friend Clark Kent.
The film sucks away most of her agency, and Bosworth’s Lois possesses none of the cutting remarks or sass we’ve come to expect from the character.
But her Lois is probably also immortal; she suffers so many killing blows in the film, without dying, that there’s no other explanation for her survival by film’s end.
Not all Lois Lanes are called Lois Lane. The character is herself an archetype: The erstwhile reporter fascinated with the mysterious new hero in the city. A lot of women have been cast in the role, but The Flash’s Candice Patton, as sometimes dogged reporter Iris West, is certainly one of the best version of the character we’ve seen in a while. Their first interview, a hallmark of the superhero/reporter romance, is teasing and flirtatious, but crucially Iris never seems like a dummy when she doesn’t put together that her best friend and her new hero are the same person.
But Iris is just the right mix of honored, suspicious, and curious. She’s since become the de facto leader of Team Flash and proven that you don’t need to have powers, punch bad guys, or be a genius hacker to be a hero. Doing the right thing, highlighting injustices, and just being a good person are every bit as important as being able to travel back in time to save a parent.
Amy Adams is one of the best actresses currently working—she has the kind of talent that is very unique and very rare. When the script and direction serve her, her Lois Lane is handily one of the best versions of the character.
The problem, of course, is that the scripts of DC films she appears in never actually serve her and usually give her almost nothing to do. So while her Lois Lane is very smart—working out who Clark Kent is, and getting proof, after meeting him exactly once—she’s also rarely allowed to be anything more than the woman that Superman loves. It’s frustrating, because damn is Adams great.
Noel Neill, who starred in the first two Superman serials and later in the second through sixth seasons of the ‘50s Adventures of Superman, has the distinction of being the very first woman to play the role of Lois Lane in live action. For a lot of people—especially the baby boomers who grew up on the ‘50s show, she’s the defining version of the character. Her Lois is a good reporter, but she’s a little less no-nonsense than other versions. She’s enamored with Superman and seems to genuinely like and appreciate Clark. She can also have a good time, and never seems ridiculous when she’s donning dumb disguises or being suddenly brainwashed by a villain.
Phyllis Coates is the other Lois Lane that acted opposite George Reeves’ friendly dad version of Superman. While Neill has the honor of being the first actress to play Lois Lane in live action, Coates is the first to play her in a film: Superman and the Mole Men. She also starred as Lois in the first season of the live-action show. While a little more maternal than Neill’s Lois Lane, she also had a tendency to be more antagonistic—having no desire to fall for Clark Kent’s aw-shucks charm that could border on smug smarm.
The character of Supergirl has always faced a conundrum—she has all of Superman’s powers, but no Lois Lane to humanize her. The TV show wisely added Alex Danvers, her foster sister who knows her secret and worries about her even when she’s fighting bad guys that can’t hurt her. But the show’s best move was to give Supergirl a very, very smart reporter to mentor her, as Lois mentors Clark, and to call bullshit on her, as Lois does with Clark and Superman.
Cat Grant is normally a foil for Lois Lane in the comics, but in Supergirl she takes on the role of friend, confidante, and sometimes antagonist who does not appreciate knowing someone is purposely entertaining dual identities. Calista Flockhart’s chemistry with Melissa Benoist is also so good—and their mimicking of the classic Lois/Clark/Superman triangle so exact—that you’re honestly surprised when romance is never even put on the table.
Lois Lane was noticeably absent from early seasons of the Superman prequel, Smallville. Instead, her cousin Chloe took on the role of the reporter trying to root out Clark’s secret. But by season four it was clear Lois herself needed to make an appearance, and Erica Durance crashes, literally, into the series with the fast-talking gusto of the ‘40s reporters Lois was based on. Durance quickly develops a rhythm to her dialogue that Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday would be proud of.
The downside to Durance’s Lois is that she spends nearly six seasons in the dark on Clark’s secret and often comes off as...kind of stupid because she never puts two and two together. She also seems to lose her clothes, or is forced into revealing costumes, a lot. But Durance manages to make those moments almost feel empowering instead of embarrassing, and her chemistry with Tom Welling’s Clark Kent is absolutely sparkling.
In the ‘90s Teri Hatcher became famous for a photo of her wrapped up in nothing but Superman’s cape, but it would be a mistake to assume her Lois Lane is all flash and no substance.
Okay...it’s a lot of flash. The ‘90s version of Superman was intended to be a riff on Moonlighting—a will they/won’t they romance and procedural that just happened to focus on Lois Lane and Clark Kent. This means that, in an effort to keep Clark’s secret from Lois, Lois has to get hit with the dumb ray. A LOT.
But once Lois is in on the secret, the show turns into a genuinely fun examination of what a committed relationship between Superman and Lois Lane would actually look like. There’s an entire episode about Clark trying to find the nerve to tell Lois she has to stop recklessly chasing stories just because she knows he’ll always drop what he’s doing and save her from bullets, terrorists, or both.
When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Lois Lane back in 1938, they were partially inspired by the fast-talking lady reporters of cinema—specifically ones like Glenda Farrell’s Torchy Blane. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Amy Archer, from The Hudsucker Proxy, shares many of the same influences, and she distills them into a singular vision that seems to pop straight off the page of the early Superman comic books.
She’s a little reckless, immensely talented, and not afraid to lie and cheat to get her story. She’s also stuck being in love with a complete goof of a guy from the middle of nowhere who’s been thrust into the spotlight and finds himself being perceived as someone much more heroic than he actually thinks he is.
I know, I know, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is iconic! She’s nearly as iconic as Christopher Reeve’s Superman! How is she not number one!
For me it’s entirely because of this sequence:
But look. Her Lois is still top three, and might even be number one if you forget that time she recited a poem in flight.
That’s because her Lois—even in a very dated film like Superman—is unabashedly modern without it ever being in your face. Later Lois Lanes tend to sort of wink at the camera as they saunter through to show how hip and cool they are. But Kidder pulls it off simply through confidence.
She doesn’t have to show off the 40 kinds of martial arts she knows or how well she can shoot a gun. She can just be a really good reporter that sees the beauty in an intimidating sun god from another world. And few Lois Lanes quite humanize Superman like Kidder’s version.
One of the earliest adaptations of the character. Joan Alexander’s performance, and Fleischer’s wonderfully silly stories, would set the tone for many of Lois Lane’s appearances in comics and cartoons for decades to come. This Lois isn’t a good enough reporter to work out who Superman really is, and she lacks the obsessive drive some later Lois Lanes possessed to prove Clark Kent and Superman are the same. Yet she’s a tough as hell gal eager to get the story, even if that means infiltrating the bases of mad scientists or fighting off Nazis.
Alexander, it should be noted, played Lois Lane in the extremely popular radio serial of the ‘40s, and in the ‘66 cartoon. Thus for an entire generation, she was the de facto voice of Lois Lane, and her brassy and assertive voice would set the tone for Lois for decades afterward.
From 1997 to 2006 there was a single voice across all DC cartoons in the animated universe created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm: Dana Delany. Adopting the brass of Joan Alexander, the sass of Jennifer Jason Leigh, the confidence of Margot Kidder, and a certain amount of heart uniquely her own, Delany set the high water mark for all Lois Lanes before and since.
Lois is typically a side character in the story of Superman—the love interest who is just interesting enough to have her own fans. But Delany’s Lois had arcs of her own and feelings and romances and a whole life outside of Superman. She was also a force of nature to rival all monsters and natural disasters Superman faced.
And that, ultimately, is what defines the best Lois Lanes. They’re a step above the rest of us. A good Lois Lane doesn’t perceive Superman as a god, but as an equal, and Superman, ultimately, perceives her as the same. That’s something no other character gets to claim.
Correction 11/7/18 10:54am EST—The best Lois Lane of all time was previously referred to as Dana Delaney. That is incorrect. Her name is Dana Delany, and you have no idea how much I regret the error.
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