Let me admit at the outset that I’m a Batman fan, through and through, but I wouldn’t deny that Superman IS, without a single shred of doubt, the single most recognizable and iconic superhero on this planet. The ‘S’ shield on his chest, a symbol for hope for many in the comic book kingdom, is an instantly identified icon across the world, and even my parents who are oblivious to the comic book world identify Superman as a heroic being of immense power. The sheer volume of print and other media the big blue boy scout finds himself in, is massive, to say the least. Apart from being at the spearhead of most of DC’s iconic Justice League storylines, the story of Krypton’s last son jettisoned to a blue planet where he would grow up to be no less than a god, has been adapted to the big screen quite a number of times, even though the success rates have been varying.
Actors Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, and Henry Cavill (and George Reeves in a lesser known indie Superman flick) have portrayed the gleaming beacon of hope on the silver screen, donning the cape and tights, squaring off with the immense gallery of villains exclusive to the Superman-verse, casually saving the Earth from a meteor shower or rescuing his one lady-love in distress repeatedly, albeit laden in flavour and style, and wearing an ever effervescent smile that has allowed him to become the symbol of the American cultural system the world over. In the current golden age of comic-book movies, where Superman finds himself part of a larger ensemble of heroes, the DCEU, we attempt to rank Superman’s cinematic appearances from seemingly worst, to his absolute best comic book incarnation spelt out on celluloid, spanning close to seven decades. Here is the list of all Superman live-action movies, ranked from worst to best.
8. Superman IV: Quest for Peace (1987)
There is no better way to say it, the fourth installment in what could have been a great Superman franchise turned out to be an absolute stinker and spelled doom for the ongoing Superman films, and those in the pipeline. In a way, the direction the last two Superman films went in completely mirrors the direction taken by the last two Batman films by Schumacher, ultimately bringing an abrupt end to their respective franchises. It is frequently counted among the worst films ever made, was a commercial and critical flop, equally bashed by the fans, and the reasons for it, (if you have watched the film, you’ll know) are multifarious. There is so much wrong with ‘Quest for Peace’, both movie making-wise and the depiction of its titular hero, that Superman was put in involuntary cinematic limbo for two decades owing to the bloodbath at the box office and tabloids accompanying its release.
7. Superman III (1983)
If ‘Superman IV’ marked the end of a potential franchise, ‘Superman III’ was the beginning of the end. As stated earlier, the third installment in the first Superman franchise went the campy, comedic way, much like the last two Batman films, and overdid it, especially with the inclusion of Richard Pryor in the cast as Gus Gorman. Pryor was a fine comedian who stood for something important, but the slapstick didn’t fit in too well for a Superman movie. The special effects looked archaic, even though the same VFX team that worked on ‘Superman II’ returned for the third part. The villains too, that formed an important part of the first two Superman films, were a lacking presence in this one. Ross Webster, the film’s main antagonist, was an original character created for the film; a villain who planned on taking over the world’s coffee (!) and oil supply, and later becomes hell-bent on destroying Superman. The film faced critical backlash upon release, although Christopher Reeve was praised for his portrayal (which was a constant at that point), and was barely able to recoup its production budget.
6. Superman Returns (2006)
One of the many attempts to revive Superman on the big screen, but one of the fewer ones that saw the light of the day. Superman Returns serves as a ‘homage sequel’ to the first two Superman films, and no surprise there, ignores the events of III and IV. Brandon Routh was cast as the new Superman, facing off against Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, in this Bryan Singer directed film that has Superman returning to Earth after a 5 year-long hiatus. When it released, comparisons to Christopher Reeve’s Superman were inevitable and we all know such a comparison would land you on the wrong side of the scales. In my opinion, ‘Superman Returns’ could have been much better, stuck somewhere in between the nostalgia of the past and building a future, as a result of which, the end product too turned to be only mildly satisfying. WB soon realized that a reboot was the way to go, and Superman was hence prepped for another reentry.
5. Justice League (2017)
Following his supposed demise in 2016’s divisive ‘Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice’, Superman was touted to return in this year’s much anticipated DC superhero team-up, ‘Justice League’. (At this point, I hardly consider this a spoiler, however, you were warned). One of the youtube comments on the last trailer of JL that got me immensely hyped read: “The return of Superman will make or break this movie!”, and I agreed with the gentleman a 100%. JL was in many ways course correction for the DCEU. How much of it actually worked is a question in consideration, seeing the film’s fate at the box office. The death of Superman served as a backdrop for the heroes to come together, for majority of the first half of the film. However, the return of Superman in the second half, a glimpse of his dark side squaring off against the heroes, especially Batman and Wonder Woman, and the ‘complete’ league coming together in the end, with Superman almost single-handedly beating Steppenwolf, formed some of the best bits of the ensemble film. While some fans cried that they finally got Superman right, adrift from Snyder’s dark, conflicted take on the character in the last two films, I digress a little saying that the transition could have been more gradual, but mostly agree. The Man of Steel’s story comes full circle here, although they could have done with a film or two in between.
Not withstanding the CGI mustache removal, Henry Cavill seems to enjoy the ‘lighter’ take on the character, his bits with the Flash forming some of the more endearing bits of JL. An overall enjoyable flick with Superman at the helm of a larger ensemble, that could have been SO much better.
4. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (Ultimate Edition) (2016)
I have, on several occasions before this, defended BvS in front of a pitchfork wielding crowd ready to crucify the film, and I will continue to do so. Not because it’s an excellent film; we know it’s not, by any measure, but because I felt that it was over-criticized on some common aspects plaguing most superhero films today, while some really good aspects of it were overlooked in the process. As for Superman, the film was a continuation of Snyder’s conflicted take on the character from ‘Man of Steel’ (2013), which I happen-ed to like, especially highlighted in the Ultimate Edition or the Director’s Cut. The film puts forth a Superman in doubt, unsure of his place in the world while already having saved it once, all the while facing backlash and suspicion on account of the collateral damage left in the wake of his battles with the Kryptonians. A scene midway, with Superman standing alone, unscathed after everyone surrounding him dies following an explosion at the capital, and another one at the day of the dead in Mexico where he rescues a girl from a building on fire, sums it up perfectly, and are golden moments in an otherwise dark film. Hans Zimmer’s score was utter perfection, inkeeping with the rather sombre tone of the film. The addition of Ben Affleck as Batman in a universe co-habited by Superman (and other metahumans) was cherry on the top of a somewhat undercooked rum and raisin cake.
Read More: All Batman Movies, Ranked
3. Superman II (1980: Theatrical Cut, 2006: The Richard Donner Cut)
If you follow the news based on DC movies, chances are that you may have learnt about WB’s penchant of micro-managing their superhero films, as has been the case with the recent ridiculous two hour limit on ‘Justice League’. Now this dates back to WB abruptly changing directors on the ‘Batman Returns’ sequel and ‘Superman II’. Richard Lester is credited as the director of the original, theatrical cut, but the Warners later recovered footage from the original sequel shot by Donner at the time, which had to be changed by Lester for the theatrical release, and released it as the ‘Richard Donner Cut’ in 2006, alongside ‘Superman Returns’. The Donner Cut feels like a more complete vision, especially since it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the first films for comedic relief in moments of tension, rendering a rather loony feel to the proceedings.
Christopher Reeve is excellent as usual, cementing his turn as Superman this time around. Special mention to Terence Stamp’s portrayal of the authoritative General Zod, which is menacing and entertaining in equal measure. It scores slightly less than the first in terms of quality, which is an absolute winner, but is undeniably more fun.
Read More: Best Spider-Man Movies
2. Man of Steel (2013)
As good an origin film as any, ‘Man of Steel’ is also one of my personal favorite superhero films. With MoS, WB sought to reboot the Superman films they had previously tried to revive with ‘Returns’, and kickstart DC’s own cinematic universe. Following an explosive beginning showcasing the destruction of Krypton and Zod’s exile, the film undertakes a more introspective, personal tone, where a young Clark, still discovering his powers and coming to terms with his identity, is shown struggling in the world he has made his home. The casting in this film is one of its major strengths, without which it would have lost half of its impact, be it Henry Cavill as the titular man of steel, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Lawrence Fishburne as Perry White, or Diane Lane as Martha Kent. The aces in the sleeve here are Michael Shannon as the film’s antagonist General Zod, excellent as usual, Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, presenting earthly pearls of wisdom to a young, distressed Clark, and Russel Crowe as Jor-El, appearing as a cipher, much like the ghost of Hamlet, making Clark aware of his lineage and that he was always meant for greater things, giving us one of the finer monologues in superhero films. (In time, they will join you in the sun!) Not to forget, Hans Zimmer’s score is an absolute winner like always, and ‘Flight’ coupled with the stunning visual of Superman’s first take-off is a goosebumps-inducing delight.
Sometime following the oil-rig sequence in the film, Chris Cornell’s ‘Seasons’ plays out in the background. The lyrics of it perfectly sum up the best bits of the film for me, the more human, ‘Clark Kent’ bits of it. And that is where the film scores, more than the staple, CGI world saving bits, which also happen to be good enough.
Read More: Best DC Movies
1. Superman (1978)
Reigning in high on nostalgia and a great amount of old world charm, ably put on Christopher Reeve’s ‘super’ shoulders, the first Superman live action, studio backed film, that came out all the way back in 1978 continues to be the best Superman film to date, in my opinion. However, there is nothing less that I would expect when you have names like Richard Donner, Mario Puzo and Marlon Brando attached to the project. The film is special on more accounts than one, frequently termed the first modern superhero blockbuster. The storytelling neatly balances major aspects of Superman’s life, both its brief term on Krypton and his escapades as the ‘special’ kid on Earth. The special effects seem mind-boggingly amazing for the decade, and the film is the source of many of the catchphrases related to Superman that are, even to-day, put to use by loyal fandom. Even though, Henry Cavill does a commendable job at the role and immensely looks the part, satisfactorily reckoning a new Superman for the new generation, it is Christopher Reeve who is to date termed the definitive on-screen Superman. Finally, as stated in one of my earlier reviews, the movie’s tagline says “You’ll believe that a man can fly”, and it solidly delivers on that promise.
Read More: Upcoming DC Movies