Much like Batman, Superman has had his fair share of different portrayals and all of them have different fanbases among comic book fans across the board. However, despite DC moving forward from the unfortunate tragedy of Justice League with sequels to Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam as well as kickstarting a new Batman and as of late finally getting started with the Flash movie, WB has made no plans to do a Man of Steel 2 despite Henry Cavill being open to reprising the role. Nevertheless I’m here to rank all portrayals of Superman on the big screen from worst to best.
8. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
Despite the efforts of Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Gene Hackman they can’t save this travesty. This just really does not care. The visual effects recycle the same shot of Superman flying into the camera. You can clearly see people hanging from wires, visible black curtains in what’s supposed to be outer space, and horrible blue screen. This movie had so many plots involving the nuclear war, Lacy having a crush on Clark, school kid Jeremy convincing Superman to take a stand, Lex Luthor escaping from prison and creating Nuclear Man none of which ever comes full circle. Mark Pillow’s Nuclear Man is a complete joke and as for Jon Cryer’s Lenny Luthor, well…thank god the man can portray a great Lex because he is downright insufferable here. All in all, this is a disaster that ended Superman on the big screen for years.
7. Superman III
With Richard Donner completely out of the director’s chair for this one (he shot 75% of the second movie and it even has its own cut) the decline in quality really shows. It’s far more comedy driven than adventure driven and so much of the scale of the challenges Superman faced are completely downplayed and so much of things that established this Superman in this movie from the previous movies are discarded with little to no mention. And then there’s Richard Pryor who co-stars as Gus Gorman and his dopey demeanor gets old fast and takes so much away from the weight. Now there are a few upsides: One is Annette Toole as Lana Lang. Two is that Christopher Reeve still shined through the bad spots of this movie particularly with the scene where the good Clark Kent and Evil Superman battle for dominance. But overall it treats its world as a wacky cartoon world rather than a comic book world. And the comedy shines way too much over the deepness.
6. Superman Returns
In an attempt to remedy the mistakes of the last two movies came this one 20 years later that completely ignored those events. To its credit it does have respect for what made the first two movies so well regarded but sometimes to a fault. It’s not really doing much new with the themes, scenes, and plot elements. Brandon Routh is definitely a charismatic actor but, in his attempt, to capture that classic Reeves spirit, there’s not much room for much else with him. Him and Kate Botsworth’s Lois Lane felt a tad too young with bland chemistry and her version of Lois was a tad too bitter. All in all these two felt less like the two bringing these characters to life and rather just two people playing these characters. I will say the one upside is Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor who does capture that dark and scary vibe. But overall this is a small movie for such a big superhero. And not doing anything new for Superman overall.
5. Batman v. Superman
Technically this counts since it is a Man of Steel sequel amongst many other things. While it does attempt to continue the themes and dilemmas Man of Steel presented, it is overshadowed by a lot of things around the character. Firstly, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is downright irritating (once again thank you Jon Cryer). The motivations between of Batman and Superman while there were rather flimsy and weak that I could not manage any investment. By the time we reach the famous Batman v. Superman fight I wasn’t rooting for either of them. And the way it resolves itself with the whole Martha thing yeah, I’m sorry I’m not buying that crap for a minute no matter how hard people try to find meaning in it. What really gets me is how overly serious this movie tries to take itself. I mean I don’t expect DC like joke-filled the way Marvel is (and even they ought to pull back a bit on comedy) and I get that they’ve done well with seriousness with the Dark Knight trilogy which even for any qualms I have in 1 and 3, has the perfect balance of seriousness but also genuine heart and is one of my favorite superhero trilogies of all time. But they try so hard to copy that same formula here and the thing is…Superman isn’t Batman.
4. Man of Steel
The latest take on Superman is one that definitely has its fair share of good and bad. I liked the take on Krypton in the opening as well as Russel Crowe’s Jor-El and Michael Shannon’s General Zod (though he did seem to be hamming it up at times particularly with the whole “I WILL FIND HIM” thing). Earth shows a legitimately frightened response to Superman’s presence. And it definitely has far more and better action than any other Superman movie on this list. But I do have my qualms with it. First I get the idea of building Superman as this religious symbol but it does not have subtlety. Second while I’m not against the idea, the non-linear childhood did nothing for the story nor in learning more about Clark. Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Amy Adams as Lois were great choices to portray these classic characters and give them a fresh new spin but they’re mostly just there to give exposition. And honestly the amount of death and destruction caused throughout Metropolis and Smallville wouldn’t be a big deal when the army and citizens accept him as a friend in the middle of a city in ruins. While I’m definitely not against the idea of killing Zod (I mean they did it in the second movie just fine) it could have been handled better. And I know he has his share of defenders, but I did not like Jonathan Kent in this movie. They just really made him unlikable and the way he talked didn’t feel so much like a father. And I get his outlook on why he thinks Clark shouldn’t use his powers but it does so to a fault. All in all this is a very polarizing movie and whether you like it or hate it, it’s far from a bad Superman but it isn’t something I’m going to consider the definitive Superman movie either.
3. Superman II
While Lester’s comedic approach did cause the movie to come up short in some areas taking the movie into slapstick territory and some of the powers they gave to Supes while it is a neat homage to the Silver Age comics, were just plain plot conveniences. That being the battle with Zod has a grand scale to it, Reeve shined once again, Stamp gave quite the presence as Zod, and I did like Clark and Lois getting to explore their relationship here. But this movie overall just feels incomplete.
2. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
Released in 2006, while it is still incomplete much like the theatrical cut, riddled with continuity errors, had to use Lester’s footage, and screen tests to complete itself, proves to be much better. Donner’s direction knew when and when not to use humor whereas Lester often took a shot at a cheap visual gag. The scenes with Marlon Brando as Jor-El in this movie had a vast amount of emotion. The Phantom Zone criminals had a lot more menace to them. And even Lois is characterized in her relationship with Clark a lot more. All in all this is a movie that has a stronger characterization of Superman and definitely is far better to make the classic Superman’s legacy everlasting.
Yeah I know it’s predictable but I LOVE this movie. Yeah it lacks action,yes the effects are awful, yes the outfit looks ridiculous, and the dialogue is cheesy. But the performances and story carry so much heart and charm. The actors’ and characters’ choice of words, expressions, and overall body language carry so much subtlety and yet say so much. Those few minutes of Jonathan talking to Clark before his death are so quiet yet so powerful. And the way it compares to Brando’s Jor-El shows how both guide Clark in their own ways to becoming Superman. And Reeve is just so natural and comfortable in playing this character and I like how well they differentiate him from Clark Kent. And that charm shines through the other cast members as well. The only really big flaw to this movie I can think of is when Superman somehow turns back time to save Lois at the end. But overall it establishes so much of what a great superhero narrative ought to be. Heck it’s so well done that Kevin Feige of Marvel views it as the perfect archetype of a superhero origin story and has him and other Marvel crew members sit down and watch it before working on an MCU movie.
No one knows what the future of Superman will hold. Maybe Henry Cavill will get a chance to reprise his role again. Maybe he won’t. CW’s versions have some ideas but really have no interest in going with any of them. But I will always enjoy the Donner Superman movies the most, despite having no shortage of flaws. They just have that strong narrative with great performances to bring the best in it. How do you rank the Superman movies? Any you disagree with? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!