Before the 1978 blockbuster epic Superman: The Movie, the character had certainly appeared in film before, beginning with cartoons and movie serials (neither of which will be included in our ranking of every Superman movie). He wasn’t even the first superhero to get the film treatment. However, released to rave reviews and huge box office earnings, and directed by the legendary Richard Donner, the 1978 Superman is unquestionably the beginning of the superhero movie genre as we recognize it today.
While the character’s success on the big screen has been hit or miss since 1978, Superman remains one of the most recognizable and popular superheroes of all time. From George Reeves essentially starring in a glorified TV pilot in 1951, to the recent and controversial depiction of Superman in Zack Snyder’s DC Cinematic Universe, the character has endured. We’re going to take a look through a sizable chunk of superhero film history as we rank the Superman movies worst to best.
Superman Movies Ranked
10. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Director: Zack Snyder
Batman and Superman have been slapping each other around for decades now. A big budget Hollywood blowout between the two had been a dream of fans of either or both characters for years. It took Warner Bros’ ambitious efforts to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a live-action showdown to occur.
Set after the events of Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) is now a global figure of power, awe, and controversy. Some consider him to be a savior. Others, including Bruce Wayne (a strong Batman performance by Ben Affleck), are not so sure.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice also has some stuff about Lex Luthor (an exhausting performance by Jesse Eisenberg), the catastrophic monster Doomsday, and a lot of Superman/Jesus Chris allegory to contend with. The result is a thoroughly depressing mess. The conflict between Superman and Batman never really picks up momentum, as we are subjected to a sluggish, pretentious, and ultimately frustrating film-watching experience.
Snyder’s concept for Superman is grim, boring, and deeply flawed. It is an aggressive blowback against everything the character stands for, and it crushes almost anything you might like about this comprehensive cinematic mistake, including a minimally entertaining battle between Supes and Batman in basically an Iron Man suit.
After the disastrous reception for Batman v Superman, the 2017 Justice League wasn’t off on a particularly good foot. The dismal response afforded the 2016 Suicide Squad didn’t help things either. Following a severely troubled production period, which saw Joss Whedon brought in to eventually make everything a little crappier, the film was released with enthusiasm from only a small but dedicated fandom.
On any list of comic book movies, let alone a specific Superman list, it’s hard to recommend Justice League to anyone. The film is a cluster of two very different directors trying and failing to do something with the seemingly straightforward story of Batman gathering a team of heroes. The plan is to get Superman out of the ground, since he’s been pretty dead since Dawn of Justice, and then tackle the oncoming threat of Steppenwolf.
This could have been one of the most interesting cinematic depictions of the Superman mythos to date. It wasn’t. The dreariness of the film’s aesthetics, script, and overall tone means another bleak Snyder epic to slog through. None of this ever amounts to very much fun. It’s once again disappointing to see a good Superman actor in Henry Cavill get so little to work with.
Simply put, Zack Snyder’s depiction of Superman flies (no pun intended) in the face of much of what has worked for the character on the big screen in the past. Man of Steel is a lengthy Superman origin story, and while Henry Cavill’s evolving Superman provides a significant element of sincere interest, Man of Steel still feels like an overlong betrayal of the character.
Opting for a morose, emotionally-shuttered Superman, with more Christ allegories to pepper the proceedings, Man of Steel rarely feels like a Superman movie. While Snyder should be commended if nothing else for wanting to do something definitely different from this character, there is a strong argument to be made that he simply took Clark too far in a direction that left many pining for the days of Christopher Reeve.
Despite a fantastic villain performance by Michael Shannon, and supporting turns by Amy Adams as an unremarkable Lois Lane, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Clark’s adoptive parents, and Russell Crowe as an excellent Jor-El, Man of Steel just isn’t much fun. Even the battles between General Zod (Shannon) and Superman, which seemingly obliterate entire city blocks while destroying humanity wholesale, is tedium personified. There are some beautiful moments in this film, but they’re few and far between.
Okay, so this is barely a movie, but Superman and the Mole Men nonetheless meets the minimum requirements for inclusion on this list. At approximately 60 minutes in length, this glorified pilot for the enduringly likable TV series The Adventures of Superman just hits the Screen Actor’s Guild’s current minimum for feature length running time. Some lists don’t include it all.
But we are, and that’s partially because George Reeves as Superman is still an incredible depiction of this character. So much so that any minor quibbles about Superman and the Mole Men, which did indeed play in theaters, are irrelevant. Reeves set a strong bar without much in the way of a budget or a particularly interesting story (mole men gently terrorize a small town).
So, how does it come ahead of movies with bigger budgets, better production values etc? Because for all its flaws, this movie is nonetheless almost burdened with charm. Reeves’ Superman is still a standard to aspire to, which includes his take on Clark Kent. The great Phyllis Coates also makes for a dynamic Lois Lane. The plot, as goofy as it becomes sometimes, also gets points for a message emphasizing tolerance.
Warts and all, it wouldn’t hurt whoever writes the next big Superman outing to at least glance at this.
6. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Director: Sidney J. Furie
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace marked the end of Christopher Reeve’s unmatched association with the character. It remains a minor tragedy in the context of his performances that he went out on such a grim note: Superman trying to end nuclear war amidst the machinations of Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman popping in to pick up a paycheck after skipping Superman III).
Superman IV was produced by the infamous Cannon Films company. Among other things, that means the budget for this film was significantly lower than in previous installments. It certainly shows in almost every single scene, most notably during Superman’s battle with Luthor’s Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) creation in outer space.
Yet Superman IV is also, at the very least, one of the most entertaining trainwrecks of its time. This isn’t a particularly good movie on any front, although Jon Cryer is a blast as Luthor’s nephew and sidekick, and Mariel Hemmingway as a potential new love interest for Superman is also surprisingly fun. Then there’s Christopher Reeve, whose dedication to this film at least carries things a little further than they would otherwise. Even in a bad Superman movie, he’s still the best Superman actor of all time.
Superman III is a departure from the past two films in a variety of ways, including a tone that is sometimes obnoxiously over-the-top.
Still, there are several good things going on in Superman III. Annette O’Toole is supremely likable as the poorly written Lana Lang, and Richard Pryor as Gus on its own is a solid turn for Pryor. Christopher Reeve as Superman also grounds things to at least some degree. His physical battle against his darker half is one of the most exciting and dramatic sequences in this entire ranking of Superman movies. Reeve got an opportunity to explore different facets of Superman’s personality here, and he makes the most of it.
While distinctly miserable as a Batman movie experience, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is actually a shockingly better movie when appreciated specifically as a Superman story. The same problems that plague the story, pacing, and depiction of the Man of Steel in other Snyder films is still apparent here. It just gets the benefit of being a much more fleshed-out, even complex story.
Perhaps it’s because the movie makes us wait a decent stretch of time before Superman (Henry Cavill) is resurrected. The focus of this journey actually builds to a desire to see what’s going to happen, which is missing from a lot of what Snyder’s done with the character. The presence of other Justice League members, including Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and Ray Fisher as a compelling take on Cyborg, also adds an emotional element that doesn’t often work elsewhere. Superman’s inevitable return is actually pretty exciting by the time we get to it.
As the film drags us across 4+ hours to cosmic warfare against Steppenwolf, Zack Snyder’s Justice League also showcases a Superman restoring his humanity. This gives the film a number of scenes that add something more human and less Ayn Rand. Henry Cavill gets to do his best acting as Superman here, and that’s noteworthy in of itself.
Another movie on this list that has an obsession with depicting Superman as Jesus? Apparently. However, while Superman Returns goes for this notion in a way even more on-the-nose than Snyder, it’s also the last time to date that a movie understood the appeal and strengths of Superman.
An immigrant from another world, Kal-El adopts the name Clark Kent, the culture and beauty of his adoptive species, and the colors of Superman as a beacon of sincere and profound hope. This is a basic premise that every Superman movie should work from. No exceptions.
While a little sluggish in its running time and pacing, Superman Returns at least starts on the best note possible. The entire sequence of Superman (Brandon Routh, excellent as both Clark Kent and his alter ego) rescuing a plane can stand with anything in the next two entries. The rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to this standard, but a complex story between Clark and Lois Lane (a stellar Kate Bosworth), who fell in love and got married after Superman disappeared for five years, works more often than not.
Essentially a soft reboot of the Christopher Reeve era, Superman Returns has strong villain performances, with Parker Posey and Kevin Spacey as Luthor making for a sometimes-bizarre dark comedy threat. While this doesn’t culminate in anything quite as exciting as the beginning, this was a good way to bring us back to Metropolis.
Despite a very troubled production history, which saw Richard Donner replaced with Richard Lester, who contributed what many consider the worst moments of the film, Superman II is exceptional entertainment. Picking up after the events of the first film, Christopher Reeve returns for another absolutely perfect performance as both Superman and Clark Kent. The film starts strong and, depending upon which version of the movie you’re watching, never runs out of gas.
Superman II successfully creates a meaningful danger by introducing three of the most vicious criminals in the history of his long-gone home planet Krypton. Led by General Zod, played by a suitably intense Terence Stamp, the criminals have everything Superman has. Coupled with a willingness to commit acts he would never do, the trio creates an investing amount of tension in not only their first appearance, but when they do battle with Superman on the streets of Metropolis.
Even with this going on, Superman II still finds time for a fantastic Gene Hackman Lex Luthor performance and some genuinely good storytelling in the love triangle between Lois, Clark, and Superman. This movie had to top an instant cinematic classic. Some argue it did. Even if it didn’t, for this ranking of Superman movies, we’re still talking about one of the best superhero movies ever made.
The moment in which superhero movies became relevant in popular culture. Superman: The Movie proved to be one of the most thrilling and surprisingly moving film experiences of the decade. Anchored by a career-defining Christopher Reeve as the Last Son of Krypton, Superman: The Movie is still one of the most thrilling and surprisingly moving superhero movies ever made.
For a Hollywood product, the film displayed a heartfelt exuberance for the ideals of its title character, and every single piece of this movie reflects that fact. You can start with the legendary John Williams score and include Richard Donner turning in an epic with action and adventure movie overtones. Even when the movie dips into the ridiculous, Superman: The Movie remains pure in how much you can enjoy it.
A sweeping origin story that spends ample time on Superman taking on Lex Luthor’s bid for global dominance and destruction, this movie finds time to hit every possible storytelling and superhero movie requirement note. None of it feels quite as polished as superhero movies do today, but that’s arguably part of this film’s continued appeal. Every performance contributes, as well, particularly Gene Hackman as Luthor (with Ned Beatty as a scene-stealing sidekick), Margot Kidder as a formidable Lois Lane, Jackie Cooper as Perry White, Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen, and there’s also Marlon Brando as Superman’s father Jor-El, which is memorable, if nothing else.
Superman: The Movie may never be replaced as the best Superman movie ever. While many of the other films highlighted here are quite good, with Superman II being nearly on-par, nothing has quite captured the uniqueness and potential power of Superman as a character.
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