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The Superman Franchise (Theatrically Released Feature Films): The Definitive Ranking

Superman was the first real cinematic superhero. That opening from the first Richard Donner film was meant to open up the world to a new world of films based on comic books, a new kind of mythic story for the modern child in all of us. But…the Salkinds owned the rights through the seventies and early eighties and they sabotaged everything about it from the start, beginning with the firing of Richard Donner before he had finished filming the large dual production of the first two live action color films.

The move to Cannon films, surprisingly, did not save it, and Superman has since been rebooted a couple more times. He’s the symbol of truth, justice, and the American way, as the American bit has steadily been stripped from his identity. There was essentially one vision of Superman: Richard Donner’s vision, that was steadily degraded and then revived in almost religious tones by Bryan Singer before the franchise went into remission again. Revived later by Zack Snyder in much less colorful tones with a diminished sense of fun but increased sense of myth and scale, the newest version has been far less universally embraced than before. I like it, though. It seems to be over, though. Who knows what version will come next.

Still, here’s what we have. All theatrically released Superman films, ranked. Definitively. It’s kind of my thing. Check out the rest of the definitiveness in my other Definitive Rankings.

12. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

“Nothing matters. It’s a cheap exercise in exercising the rights by Cannon to try and squeeze some quick dollars from the name before the franchise fell into cinematic dormancy for two decades. It’s not even really worth making fun of. It’s kind of just sad.”

11. Supergirl

“At best, this is silly nonsense, but there was real money behind this. It was the final nail in the coffin of the Salkinds having anything to do with the Superman franchise, and it was a deserving end. They had absolutely no idea what they were doing, and hiring Jeannot Szwarc, the director of Jaws 2, was the exact kind of strange choice I would have expected.”

10. Superman III

“The height of this film is probably Reeve’s performance as Dick Superman. He snarls pretty good, and it’s amusing. Other than that, not even Richard Pryor can lighten things up.”

9. Superman and the Mole-Men

“What was I expecting from this? Great art? No, not really. I was expecting competent serial-like thrills, and this fell below that. Stolid, stilted, and not really all that exciting with a curious story that seems to just be about how America is kind of awful, Superman and the Mole-Men is just not that much fun.”

8. Justice League

“Still, the movie has its charms. Its second half works pretty basically after the flagging first half. It looks good, and there are winning performances all around. It’s mildly entertaining, but nothing exactly special.”

7. Superman

“I was honestly ready to love this movie after years of not seeing it, happy to leave behind the bad taste from my last viewing. However, I just couldn’t get into it after a certain point.”

6. Zack Snyder’s Justice League

“It’s good.”

5. Superman Returns

“I admire the film more than I actually love it. I enjoy it as spectacle first with enough to tie it all together so I don’t completely disengage between the action beats. It’s not great, but as a near-religious exploration of some silly comic book movies from the late 70s and early 80s, it’s entertaining.”

4. Man of Steel

“I love the ambition of the film. It’s desire to reach beyond mere spectacle and enter into something of mythic scale is quite well handled. I also like Superman’s challenge in finding how to make himself known to the world, and it ultimately comes out of necessity and to make up for his own contribution to the violence being visited upon Earth. It’s rough, though.”

3. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (Ultimate Cut)

“All in all, though, the Ultimate Cut of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a ride through a complex plot with some interesting stuff on its mind at the same time. There’s great spectacle along the way as well. It could have used more time as a script to hammer some stuff out and clear some stuff up, but as it is, I find it an entertaining three hours.”

2. Superman II

“It may sound like I’m being dismissive of the film, but I think it’s a pretty good adventure. It’s first half is overburdened by the Niagara Falls stuff, and the central idea ends up underserved, but the adventure is still exciting even if it doesn’t fully take advantage of its concept. The action is clear and fun. There’s a single story at play that fairly well balances several moving parts including Zod and his minions, Superman’s romance to Lois, and Lex Luthor all at the same time. It could have been better, but it’s still a pretty good time at the movies.”

1. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

“It’s Superman done best in cinematic form. It’s Superman treated as a real character with real motivations and his actions having real consequences. It’s big action. It’s Terence Stamp and Gene Hackman in scenery chewing mode. With a different ending, I think this could have been great. With the ending, it’s still very good. It also might be Donner’s best film.”


31 thoughts on “The Superman Franchise (Theatrically Released Feature Films): The Definitive Ranking”

  1. I would disagree with the placement of a number of entries here, but that’s the internet. Instead of arguing, I will give you my favorite Superman moment, from the “Justice League” animated series Christmas entry, “Comfort and Joy.” (I think I’ve mentioned this before, but who cares.)

    Martian Manhunter, having no place to go for the holidays, is invited by Superman to spend Christmas with him and the Kents. Pa Kent notes that “this little guy [Superman] was crazy for Christmas. We wrapped his presents in lead foil so he couldn’t peek.”

    Clark looks puzzled for a moment. “You mean, Santa wrapped them.”

    It’s possible that he was just playing along for Martian Manhunter’s benefit. But I like to think that the ultimate boy scout DID believe in Santa Claus.


    1. You’ve got to at least tell me your number one. I’m genuinely curious.

      And I haven’t heard that bit of Superman. It makes me smile. I love the idea that he’s just so good that he could never consider Ma and Pa Kent lying to him even about Santa.


      1. Number one would probably be Donner’s 1978 film. I haven’t seen it in years so that’s probably not as well thought out as it should be, but it’s best in my memory.

        I guess my list would be more of the films I don’t like. To my thinking, Superman has been very poorly served by the movies. The problem, I think, is Superman himself. He’s too good, and too pure, to be a very interesting character. Unlike Batman and most of the Marvel heroes, there’s no dark side to him, no flaws, nothing for an actor or writer to really work with. Superman films have to be all story, cos there’s not much character to build. (Yeah, that’s unfair.) Superman always functions best, ironically, as part of a team (the Justice League animated series did him best).

        I haven’t seen Superman II in ages (either version). And I kind of enjoy BvS, but in the same way I enjoy Michael Bay’s “Armageddon.” It’s big and stupid and you can turn your brain off for a couple of hours.

        Blah blah blah, bonk bonk on the head.


      2. The ones that try to give Superman something interesting character wise end up getting dismissed by many fans because that’s not Superman, it seems. So, filmmakers try to address the problem of him being too good, but it changes the character too much for fans to accept.

        It’s an interesting predicament.


      1. Yeah, JL really understood the maxim: “Superman is actually Clark Kent, while Bruce Wayne is actually Batman.” It also understood well how part of JL is giving each member a chance to shine.

        That’s one reason I consider Synder Cut the more true to the spirit film because in his each member is given more of a chance to show off.

        So many great moments from that show. I love this one of Flash saving the day:


      2. well there’s all kinds of different continuities now. by far the big two films are Batman’s: Mask of the Phantasm and Sub-Zero. After that it’s just direct to DVD niche fun.


  2. As is the case with DC, the DCAU version is the ‘best’ or most definitive.

    I hate the way Man of Steel removed the goodness and mythology of Superman, but story wise it is the most consistent.

    I think the first half of the first Superman is probably ‘the best’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Snyder had a vision for what he wanted to do with Superman. A lot of people don’t like the vision, but he applied it equally to the film so it’s cohesive.

      It’s hard to say that about the earlier films, except Donner’s cut of II. I really suggest you check that out at some point. Do you have a Movies Anywhere account? I could share it with you through that using their My Screen Pass thing.


    2. The DCAU also has Superman’s best speech, when he’s preparing to go toe to toe against Darkseid:

      “I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control, even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can’t you, big man. What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut lose, and show you just how powerful I really am.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember watching Superman 1 so many times at my grandparents house because they had the VHS of it…

    I would definitely put it above Superman Returns, right around Man of Steel.

    My problem with Man of Steel is that I feel like it was edited wrong. I want to rip a copy of the movie and reedit it. (It also bugs me that they executed the church scene so poorly.)

    Can agree with you on the versions of Superman 2. There was a channel on youtube once doing some really interesting things with re-edits of that film but it looks like that has been nuked now.

    I also have to admit an immense enjoyment with Superman 3’s Supes vs Clark Kent fight. That sequence alone almost drags the film up a notch or two.

    *sigh* This is just making me realize that rather than movies, maybe one should just rank Superman clips from movies.


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