As we enter a new era for the first and most iconic comic book superhero in history, Superman’s cinematic past is worth looking back to see the legacy DC Studios co-executive, writer and director James Gunn will build on. Man of Steel franchise. Which means it’s time to count down and rank every Superman movie from best to worst.
Last week, I ranked all of Henry Cavill’s appearances as Superman, including even his appearances, and you can read that ranking here.
Let me start by noting that Superman has appeared in a total of 11 live-action feature films across every decade from the ’50s through today, excluding the ’60s – and those are the ones I’ll rank for a moment.
The character also appeared in two of the 1940s live-action series; Seven live-action television shows spanning each decade from the 1950s to the present, with the exception of the 1960s and 1970s; and numerous animated films and TV shows, including the acclaimed Fleischer Studios, animated shorts in the 1940s and cartoons in every decade from the 1960s through 2020.
This means that Superman has been present in theaters and on television since his creation almost all the time until today, with only a few rare exceptions. Few pop culture characters have as much representation and constant adaptation across all media, and among DC Comics superheroes only Batman has comparable numbers.
Superman also has the advantage of most of his live-action and live-action adaptations being good or great, with only a few bags being mixed or bad overall. He has a variety of storytelling styles and portrayals, contrary to the misconception that is common when discussing his potential for adaptation, which speaks to the depth of the character and his legendary resonance in our world.
So, some rules for my list. I decided to rank every DC live-action movie featuring Superman as either a main character or a major supporting character. I did not include Henry Cavill’s cameo Black Adam Or a headless Superman cameo in it Shazam!because this would essentially be more of a ranking of those particular films than of the cameos themselves.
But if you included cameos ranked neatly according to the merits of Superman’s appearance, then they would have come in last. decapitated Shazam! A cameo finally runs, and Black Adam Cavill’s brief cameo is next to last, simply because those two scenes don’t outweigh the many good or great Superman moments even in the last movie on my list.
This is a list about Superman and his movies, and I think it’s worth noting that while at least one is bad (and arguably two or three, especially by today’s standards), there are still reasons to recommend and watch every one of the 11 movies on this list. The actors playing Superman do great jobs in all of them, and while some of them are quite cheesy and generally poorly written, they still contain hidden gems and insightful moments that are made better by the great performers.
Now, without further ado, here’s the countdown and ranking of every Superman movie, from worst to best!
11. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace – Easily the worst movies on the list and among the worst superhero movies, with a terrible villain, terrible dialogue, overly camp, and poor visual effects. But Christopher Reeve never gives less than 100%, delivering an inspiring and heartwarming performance of Clark Kent/Superman against overwhelming odds.
10. Superman and the Mole Man – Oldies certainly shows the fatigue of age, but it’s still always a faithful and dignified portrayal by George Reeves of the early Superman of the comics, in a story with a strong moral compass and some nostalgic fun aided by a breezy 58-minute runtime.
9. Superman III – Yes, it’s very campy and a lot of the main plot just doesn’t work at all. But then again, Reeve’s super strength is the fact that he’s so perfectly embodied Superman that every time he’s on screen, he lights up and elevates the material. So the fact that it already contains so many good Clark and Superman moments is a huge bonus here.
8. Justice League (theatrical cut) – Joss Whedon’s inferior version of the team is still pretty good if viewed as live action Super Buddy, and Henry Cavill still has plenty of his arc in flair, so we get a good resurrection and return to hopeful heights with Clark and Superman. But wow, removing the mustache is still pathetic…
7. Superman Returns – Whatever we say about what went wrong with the movie, this is still a compelling revival of the Donner Reef for modern times, and Brandon Routh’s Superman was awesome. This is the first “very good” movie on the list, serving as a beautiful cinematic culmination of Donner’s films. I still hope he gets a sequel.
6. Batman v Superman – The most controversial movie on the list is the one that asks how the world could really handle an indestructible alien. Cavill is great at portraying a man torn between duty to the world and to himself, and his bitter realization that his duty to himself always requires him to put his duty to the world first.
5. Justice League Zack Snyder – Certainly the greatest pure DC superhero movie ever, and a beautiful declaration of Superman’s ability to inspire and overcome any odds. Even when he’s not on screen, his presence is most felt. Cavill’s true swan song performance is as stunning and triumphant as anyone could hope for.
4. Superman II (theatrical cut) – It’s still one of the best superhero sequels ever, despite being the first ever attempted, and it builds on the spectacle and comic vibes of the original. Christopher Reeve is charming, and the film’s close examination of Clark/Superman wanting his life and the sacrifices he makes is testament to how far these first two movies have come.
3. man of steel – The Zack Snyder reboot is great and gets better with age, sort of a re-imagining of Donner’s first two movies mashed together and modernized within the pseudo-realism of Christoper Nolan-David Goyer’s approach to DC superhero cinema. Cavill’s first outing was impressive and there’s only a hair behind Movie #2 here…
2. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut – Donner’s original vision is like a whole new movie and a superior effort in almost every respect. This is a version that feels like a complete sequel and chapter two of the original movie (and closer in quality). In fact, the Superman: The Movie And the Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut She is the clearest inspiration for screenwriter David Goyer to reimagine the two films as one big story and with a dose of modern social and political commentary.
1. Superman: the movie – There’s a lot to be said for why Donner’s genre-starting masterpiece in 1978 remains the greatest Superman movie of all time. It’s ambition, it’s passion, it’s commitment to perfecting Superman and superhero storytelling right out of the gate, its instantly iconic movie, everything about it just feels right, and even the campy elements contain an exhilarating, jaw-dropping spectacle that makes up for its flaws. You can read more of my thoughts on it Superman: The Movie here.
Here, dear readers, are all 11 Superman Movies in order from worst to best, and let me tell you it wasn’t an easy list to compile and arrange, but it was a lot of fun to re-watch to prepare.
I’m sure this ranking will cause some controversy among fans, so as always you can look in the comments below or find me on social media to discuss your do’s and don’ts of the ranking. And remember, these are my analytical and ranking preferences, so they may not always match yours. But if you love Superman, love his movies, and want to think about and discuss them, I hope you appreciate all the movies rated here and appreciate the fact that the Superman base is big enough and diverse enough to house many different points of view.
Check back soon for more updates and reports on the DCEU and what co-CEOs James Gunn and Peter Safran have in store for the future of DC superheroes.
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