For many decades now, the Man of Steel has been far from a stranger on the silver screen. Indeed, Superman has been at the forefront of several major movies. The popular DC character is considered to be one of the most recognizable and beloved comic characters in history for good reason: He has been at the center of the blooming genre before superhero movies were the norm in Hollywood. It’s not hard to believe a man can fly.
That’s why I’m taking this moment to celebrate the long legacy of Superman’s cinematic history by ranking the Superman movies from worst from best, recognizing the good and the bad of his turbulent time on the screen. Because it’s safe to say that Superman has seen his fair share of highs and lows throughout multiple different interpretations and on-screen interpretations.
Upfront, let’s note this feature focuses on the live-action movies. Meaning, the treasure trove of animated Superman movies released over the years won’t be ranked here, nor will we be discussing George Reeves’ 1951 feature Superman and the Mole Man, 1948’s Atom Man vs. Superman or 1948’s Superman. With regards to the animated movies, there are way too many to discuss properly alongside the live-action stuff. Plus, when it comes to those three Superman features, they’re not as readily available as the other film titles that are discussed on this list.
Hopefully, you won’t take too much offense to their respective absences on this list. The lack of their inclusions says nothing about their quality, it should be noted. Without further ado, let’s fly over the filmography and take a look at Superman’s greatest lows and his most triumphant successes.
8. Justice League (2017)
To be perfectly blunt, Justice League is a mess. An entirely mismanaged slog of a failure, the flop of a film is a superhero team-up film with no proper sense of identity, tone or vision. Caught between a studio in damage control, a director’s chair occupied by two separate artists, a wavering script, an unclear focus, and everyone else who is lost in the shuffle, Justice League is a studio misfire that’s in complete and utter disarray, one that’s marred by slapdash editing and a condensed narrative that only makes the jumbled, near incoherent storyline even more confused and disorganized. It’s a movie that rarely — if ever — respects its DC characters. But, even though it’s a poorly-managed movie, it is still technically a Superman feature.
Superman is remembered more fondly for #Mustachegate rather than anything that this iconic superhero adds to this disheveled storyline, including a botched attempt to bring The Death of Superman to the screen. Turning Superman into one of the movie’s primary antagonists is a fascinating idea, if one that the movie has little-to-no idea how to handle properly. The abundance of reshoots are abundantly noticeable, even beyond Henry Cavill’s CG-ed upper lip, and it feels like it’s held together by shoestrings rather than a coherent story. It’s apparent that Superman’s place in this failed Justice League is terribly organized and unfocused. For a movie about a band of superheroes teaming up, this one never comes together.
7. Superman III (1983)
There is no denying that Richard Pryor was one of the truly great comedy legends; yet, he was never a great fit for the Superman franchise. At least, not in the way he was handled here. The actor made an admirable but awkward addition to Superman III, an odd sequel that often over-relied on the same well-trotted beats of the past two movies while also adding a lot more physical, slapstick comedy that doesn’t match the well-established pathos of the past sequel. The result is a bizarre mishmash of a movie that’s sorely missing the deft touch of Richard Donner. It’s bad enough to make a bad Superman film. It’s even worse to waste the precious time of one of our greatest comedians on such a poorly scripted, hastily-made sequel.
Both Superman and Richard Pryor deserved better than Superman III. Still, you must admit, it definitely doesn’t hurt to include Richard Pryor in your movie. The comic knows funny, and he provides what laughs he can, which ultimately makes it more entertaining than sitting through Justice League.
6. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)
Certainly among the goofiest of the Superman movies, which is saying something, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace is among the most readily criticized movies in the franchise’s history. Even Christopher Reeve, who co-wrote in addition to starred in this movie (his final appearance as the character), admits that it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been, to say the least. Nevertheless, this schlockier, more outright absurd Superman movie finds our lead launching all the world’s nuclear weapons into space, only for the planet to be met by the doom of Nuclear Man! Yes, it’s all silly stuff.
Still, if you watch it in the right mood, you’ll probably have a fun time with all its bizarre, wacky charms. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace is often derided as one of the worst movies ever made, even beyond being one of the worst comic book or superhero movies. With its cheesy effects and its clumsy, low-rent action scenes (provided by its production with Cannon Films), it is a very cheesy movie, but there is something to be admired in just how damn silly it is. After all, Superman is far from a realistic character, and it doesn’t hurt to own up to his inherent ridiculousness, which this movie does plentifully. In any case, in Superman’s ongoing quest for peace, the popular character was met with constant unrest. For a long time, The Quest For Peace‘s notorious terrible response was what kept the Superman franchise dormant. Thankfully, he found a way to fly back onto the screen again.
5. Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016)
There has been a lot said about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Much of which isn’t positive. There is a great deal to criticize about the film, but I’d rather spend this time celebrating what I do think works in Zack Snyder’s bold, audacious crossover cinematic event. The movie does attempt to continue the themes presented in Man of Steel, allowing Superman to have greater consequences and more mortal dilemmas than we’ve ever seen him face before. It’s a shame that these moments overshadow scenes where Superman could actually be shown helping and saving people, but I digress. While certainly filled with shortcomings, Batman v Superman is a visually spectacular, thematically weighted movie with big, lofty ambitions, but still better than some of the previous entries.
4. Superman Returns (2006)
Before Halloween (2018) and Terminator: Dark Fate, Superman Returns was one of the first Hollywood attempts at a legacy sequel. Specifically, Bryan Singer’s 2006 superhero flick (rather understandably) ignored the previous two sequels, Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, in order to complete Richard Donner’s trilogy more appropriately. The result is certainly better than the movies that came before it, if one that doesn’t quite live up to its own lofty ambitions. While Brandon Routh was a pretty darn good Superman, he was left in a movie that never quite escaped its reverence for the legacy of the character, resulting in a sequel that was perhaps a little too dull and lackluster for its own good. Though, it should be said that at its best moments, it’s a rousing sequel, one that captures an old-fashioned glee for Supes’ retro charms. Yet, that wasn’t exactly what audiences wanted.
3. Man Of Steel (2013)
Unjustly over-scrutinized in the scheme of things, Man of Steel is undoubtedly a flawed attempt to bring Superman’s mythos to the modern area. The film’s efforts to prove a more grounded, stylistic retelling of the character’s origins were often undermined by its overly bombastic finale, and it is safe to say that the movie’s religious allegories were far from subtle in their presentation. Nevertheless, Man of Steel is, at its best, a haunting, poetic take on the character, a movie that respects both the knowable and the unknowable of the legend, recognizing that he is no mere mortal and is willing to concede that the good in Superman represents what we should strive to be, even if we don’t succeed. The result is an uneven but often sensational cinematic experience that’s bolstered by a commanding performance from Henry Cavill, along with a triumphant score and gorgeous cinematography.
2. Superman (1978)
While it wasn’t the first superhero movie, Superman (1978) was certainly the movie that helped to pave the way for how we see the genre today. It was a conventional tale of Superman’s origins leading up to his cinematic battle with his greatest foe, Lex Luther (Gene Hackman). By modern standards, it is exceptionally quaint, which some might take as a slight against the movie. Rather, its simplistic charm is the movie’s greatest benefit. Warmly playing up the goofy beating heart of the character’s nexus, Superman is a rousing triumph of blockbuster cinema. It was the movie that proved once-and-for-all that a man could fly on the big screen. Superman’s bright, beaming presence served as the foundation for where the genre would go later.
1. Superman II (1981)
If the Superman saga has a cinematic masterpiece, it’s almost certainly Superman II. An invigorating cinematic continuation that properly improves upon its predecessor and successfully expands on its ideas, characters, and themes, Richard Donner’s superhero sequel is a major step up from its already strong predecessor, resulting in one of the finest superhero movies of the 20th century. It’s a thrilling, engaging effort, filled with memorable set pieces, pulsating action beats, and a great trio of no-good bad guys. It’s an absolutely exceptional Superman movie. It’s a shame that we might never get one better. Nevertheless, if this is the best we should expect to see from the DC character, there is certainly no reason to complain.
Hopefully, these movies aren’t the last we’ll see of Superman. The character remains one of the most beloved figures in pop culture history and for good reason. He is a beacon through which the morals of good, truth and justice prevail and those are themes that can connect with anyone, young or old. Hopefully, another filmmaker can find a way to properly capitalize on it, returning Superman to his former glory. Until then, we’ll have to settle for the movies we got — both good and bad. Also, when it comes to these listed titles, naturally, everyone has their own personal favorites. Therefore, be sure to hit the comments and let us know how you’d rank the Superman movies.