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All the Superman movies, ranked
Superman comes in many shapes. Well, one shape, many haircuts. Well, one haircut. But many faces. And it’s never a bad time to reassess the various outings the iconic red pants have had over the years. Whose Superman was the most super?
We’ve ordered them from worst to best, and you should probably brace yourselves for a few surprises along the way. So, whip off your glasses, run to your nearest phone box, twirl around a bit, and then maybe put your glasses back on because you might need them if you want to read the following.
8. Superman Returns (2006)
Okay, so before you grab your Kryptonite pitchforks/aim your heat vision in our general direction because we’ve ranked Bryan Singer’s Christ allegory below Christopher Reeve’s attempt to secure world peace (which everyone else agrees was the nadir for the franchise), hear us out.
Quest For Peace might be terrible and nonsensical, but it was actually also pretty honourable. There’s something sort-of Superman-esque about Christopher Reeve’s decision to use the iconic hero to spread a sincere message of peace – he co-wrote the anti-nuclear, arms-race exploring script in a genuine attempt to educate his audience.
Unfortunately, all he managed to do was confuse kids about whether it’s possible for ordinary people to breath in space for an extended period of time, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
This is supposed to be about Superman Returns, and if you can feel us putting off discussing it, that’s because Superman’s meant to be an icon of positivity, and Superman Returns brings out our inner Lex Luthor.
It’s just awful, guys. It so fundamentally misses the point of the character it feels more like a prequel to My Super Ex-Girlfriend, or a Hancock spinoff. Superman would not abandon humanity for a gap year. He wouldn’t then come back from his hols and decide to spend his free time hovering outside his previous partner’s house, using his x-ray stalkervision for extra creepy ex-boyfriend vibes.
Then there’s Clark’s illegitimate kid, which is the weirdest and most unnecessary subplot this side of Tommy Wiseau’s relationship with the flower-shop dog in The Room. Let’s leave aside the sexualisation of Superman (he’s never sired a son in the comics, presumably because no-one could bring themselves to draw that), and focus on the fact that it adds absolutely nothing to the main narrative aside from the bit where Superman’s son chucks a piano. Which admittedly is pretty awesome.
But piano-throwing isn’t enough to save this interminably long, impossibly boring, and painfully unfunny film.
Superman Returns is easily the worst instalment in the franchise. We’ve now watched it three times, and we’d rather put Batman & Robin on than suffer through it again.
7. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)
Getty ImagesGeorges De Keerle
So, on to Quest For Peace. We defended it above, now we’re going to turn on it like the fickle friends we are. Because, let’s be fair, it’s pretty ridiculous.
We’ve already alluded to the moment Nuclear Man takes Lacy into space dressed in nothing but a ’80s power suit, and she appears to instantly evolve the ability to breathe without oxygen (for ages!) but, quite frankly, the film’s so filled with silly moments, it’d take us the lifespan of Doomsday (centuries, basically) to outline them all.
It had a fairly tortured journey to multiplexes – it was the first and last Superman movie to be produced by cinematic cheese-factory Cannon Films, who ran out of money during production – and it would have taken a miracle for The Quest For Peace to live up to the originals.
Christopher Reeve struggled with the budget cuts, finding it tough to transition from scenes shot in New York featuring hundreds of extras in the early instalments, to filming, as he put it, “at an industrial park in England in the rain with a dozen pigeons thrown in for atmosphere”.
So, a failure but, as we mentioned above, ultimately a noble one. Reeve’s superheroic dreams for the project might have been hampered by the film’s clumsy delivery, but the intention to promote peace still reflects the man’s inherent goodness.
6. Superman III (1983)
Much-maligned on release, Superman III is far more fun than you remember.
After all, any film that contains an evil Superman, and one of the greatest fights in the franchise (that scrapyard scrap takes some beating) can’t be all bad.
Christopher Reeve is magnificent in this film. His evil Superman is so distinct from his previous performance, it’s almost as though he’s being played by a different actor. His slow transformation from grinning good-guy to grimacing groupie-fiend is surprisingly subtle, rather than a sudden switch.
With the make-up, hair and costume departments also on point and in tune with Reeve’s performance (Supes’ look gradually gets more grungey to match our hero’s descent), this is arguably the best hero-goes-bad turn in cinema history.
Just watch Spider-Man 3 to see how hard the feat is to pull off.
Oh, and Richard Pryor apparently got paid $4 million for this film, a million more than the star. Which, in our opinion, is absolutely brilliant.
5. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Should Zack Snyder’s dark, dark mash-up be this high up the list? It’s a divisive film in a divisive franchise reboot, but we enjoyed parts of it. You might argue that Batman‘s Super-smashing metal outfit is daft, but is it as daft as the robot spawned by a computer in Superman III?
Plus, you’ve got the arrival of Wonder Woman (“I thought she was with you”) to lighten up all the testosterone-heavy grunting and frowning.
As seems to be the perpetual problem for superhero movies, the villain is disappointing – Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor-as-Mark Zuckerberg is the weakest screen Luthor yet – but the climactic battle between Supes, Bats, Wonds and Doomsday, the genetic spawn of Zod and Luthor, is exciting stuff. And while you might fault Zack Snyder for his narrative consistency or his take on the characters, you can’t deny he’s got visual style.
4. Justice League (2017)
So much depended on the DCEU’s first proper team up. And it was… pfff. It’s not as good as Man of Steel, but it was better than Dawn of Justice. Which is something.
Do we sound like we’re non-committal? You should read our original review. We were harsher then, calling it “a movie made so clearly by committee that the entire runtime passes without troubling the audience with a single emotion”.
Given that Superman’s actually dead for much of the film, it’s more of a Batman film than a Superman film anyway.
3. Man of Steel (2013)
Warner Bros. Studios
Yep, we went there. One of the most divisive superhero movies ever made, Man of Steel is experimental, creative and brave.
From the thrilling opening – the greatest cinematic representation of Krypton ever filmed – to the goosebump-inducing final scene (“Welcome to the planet” indeed) Man of Steel gets so, so, so much right.
Unfortunately for its placement on this list, it also gets a couple of key things wrong. We’re not talking about the controversy surrounding the fact our hero – spoiler alert – kills Zod at the end; he does that in the comics and in Superman II, so we’re totally fine with that.
It’s the fact that, maybe, possibly, Superman and Zod do potentially throw themselves through one too many buildings in a bombastic finale. Though, actually, we like the fact that Superman – who’s still only just become a superhero, remember – struggles to defeat his enemy.
As an origin story, every element, from the narrative time-jumps to the emotional backstory, is full of surprises. Considering the fact this is a tale every audience member knew intimately before they bought a ticket, that’s actually pretty impressive.
And if the original Superman made you believe a man could fly, Man of Steel’s astonishing early sky-bound sequences make you feel like you’re flying right along next to him. If only it could have captured some of the innocent joy of the greatest Reeve moments, in place of the leaden-skied, beetle-browed Zack Snyder aesthetic that ultimately depresses more than it exhilarates.
2. Superman (1978)
Superman is an incredible film, creating the structure superhero cinema would stick to until Marvel was brave enough to tear up the rulebook with Iron Man. It’s got an astonishing score – as influential a piece of music as the Jaws theme. It’s got an iconic central performance, arguably the greatest superhero turn of all time.
But it’s not the best Superman film. As scene-setters go, it’s pretty unbeatable. But there’s no getting away from the fact it’s a flawed masterpiece – the Fortress of Solitude stuff is slow, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is lots of fun but he never feels like a real threat to our hero, and then there’s that earth-spinningly silly time-travel finale, the superhero cinematic equivalent to “it was all a dream”.
We know it’s a comic-book movie, and men can’t really fly, but we need at least some internal logic to suspend our disbelief, and it’s almost impossible to ignore the fact that Superman never uses his time-travel special move again – for good reason, it would suck the drama out of every future conflict. “Hey, it doesn’t matter what happens here, Superman can just spin the planet backwards and sort it out retrospectively! Yay!”
Still, these are tiny, tiny flaws – it’s still a so-very-close-to-perfect movie. We just happen to think the next film is the better Superman movie.
1. Superman II (1980)
Superman II is a stunning sequel, up with The Dark Knight in terms of adding complexity, coolness and a brilliantly delivered villain.
As with The Dark Knight, a villain teased in the first film takes centre stage. Unlike The Dark Knight, this bad guy brings his pals with him, including Ursa, arguably the greatest bad-gal ever filmed. She’s certainly the only one to kick an innocent person so hard in the groin he goes flying through space.
But Superman II and The Dark Knight almost had even more in common. In early drafts Zod had a mate named Jak-El, described as “a psychopathic jokester, whose pranks and practical jokes are only funny to him when they cause death and suffering to others”. Sound familiar?
But Superman II is more than the sum of its villains. Christopher Reeve – so iconic in the first film – really starts to have fun in the sequel, and, with the line between Clark Kent and Superman starting to blur faster than a speeding bullet, he has a lot more to do here.
Margot Kidder, reportedly almost constantly unhappy on-set, brings fresh intelligence (let’s never forget that Lois was introduced in the first film struggling to spell a simple word, which is hardly Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriting) and bright-eyed spark to Lois, increasing the audience’s personal investment in the film significantly.
Much has been made of the Richard Donner cut (the director was fired during filming, with lost footage eventually replaced after a fan outcry), and it’s great, but the film’s retconned reputation does replacement helmer Richard Lester a disservice.
While we love the first film’s reverence, Lester’s approach – including cramming as much into every frame as possible, shooting awestruck reaction shots, and making Superman’s powers almost casual in their delivery – was far more faithful to the comics. The combination of Donner’s straight-faced respect and Lester’s outlandish set-pieces conspired, much like Clark Kent and Superman themselves, to create the perfect superhero (movie).
But what makes Superman II so special is its humanity. By removing Superman’s powers, bringing him down to our level, Superman II, perversely, reveals the potential superhero in all of us.