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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”