Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finally arrived in theaters last week, and as always, fans are throwing around hyperbolic statements galore, declaring it either the best or the worst Superman movie ever. The latter group has been much more vocal, and some are even petitioning to have Snyder removed as director of the upcoming Justice League.
But hold on. Let’s fly up to the top of the nearest skyscraper and get a little perspective. Was it (and its predecessor Man of Steel) really that bad? Even if you feel it was not good, Superman still has over 75 years of history behind him; that means a whole lot of stories from different eras. And yes, we’re pretty confident that this dirty dozen is worse than anything Snyder has ever had to offer. Here are the 12 Worst Superman Stories of All Time.
12. Superman Red/Superman Blue (comics storyline)
Ending a larger arc where Superman’s powers were already kind of weird (he could be either an electrical being in a containment suit or a normal human), one of his enemies split him into two beings, blue and red, who had the same powers, the same Clark Kent identity, and most awkwardly, the same marriage to Lois Lane. Blue was reason and Red was emotion, but they were both such jerks that Lois ended up kicking them out of the house until they could reunite somehow, and that was when the super-stalkers of two worlds showed up to fight over both.
What could have been a goofy, charming story (like the short “imaginary story” from which it takes its name) was soured by generic giant monsters and these addled Supermen acting like bad Spock and Kirk role-players, neither one of them considering why Lois might not be cool with becoming a bigamist. It also just went on forever and ever. The gimmick became so oppressive that when it was resolved with no explanation at all, everyone just shrugged and pretended that was fine, rather than invite this nonsense to go on one second longer.
11. “Olsen’s Millions,” The Adventures of Superman (TV)
Once upon a time, this 1950s adventure TV series was an exciting addition to any kid’s day, but it hasn’t exactly weathered the years well. George Reeves was a bit long in the tooth to play Superman at the start of its six-year run, and the acting could be charitably described as “broad.” Jimmy Olsen stories can be hit or miss, too, as the attempt to give young viewers/readers someone to relate to can turn condescending in a hurry. But none of those stories, not even Superman: The Animated Series’ “Superman’s Pal” (which Bruce Timm called a personal worst), were quite so bad as this exercise in privilege.
Jimmy, interviewing a senile old millionaire cat lady, nearly kills one of her pets and yet still somehow ends up being rewarded with a million dollars. He immediately becomes the world’s biggest spendthrift, hiring a butler who promptly teams up with a crook to steal Jimmy’s money. But in Jimmy’s defense, everyone and everything in the heist plot is stupid: Jimmy and Lois for falling into a trap, the crooks for leaving their captives alone and unrestrained in a spare room, and magical smoke signals that can only be sent by burning Jimmy’s money down to the very last dollar. If you saw it for free, you’d still want your money back.
10. Smallville (TV series)
Smallville had its charms and could even be excellent in its early days, but even from the start, it often seemed to be spinning its wheels, hemmed in by its prequel status. Then it got popular enough that its creators and network executives refused to cancel it, and what should have been a simple story of “Superman in high school” got drawn out for ten damn years, in which Clark Kent, just like all the rest of us, continually fails to become Superman.
Much like George Reeves, Tom Welling didn’t even look young enough for the age he was playing on the first day of filming, certainly not young enough to be that bright boy brimming with potential that the series kept telling us he was. Watching Smallville was like dating that whiny, mopey slacker from your high school because you just knew he’d really be something if he applied himself, and you felt sure he’ll change one day. Everyone has to grow up sooner or later, right? But no. He never will. Never.
9. Superman: Grounded (comics storyline)
As the auteur behind Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski came into comics with one of the best writing reputations of anyone who’s joined the field. During several high-profile jobs, including this one, he whittled that reputation down to shavings. The problem with this story isn’t the basic concept, which is kind of neat: Superman goes on walkabout across the U.S. to reconnect with humanity or at least America.
The problem is the execution. JMS’s Superman is sometimes an obnoxious, pranking jerk, sometimes a wildly ineffective, impractical problem-solver, and most often, a pretentious bloviator, the kind of person who says “I don’t have all the answers” and then tells you what all the answers are. Eventually abandoned by JMS and finished by other hands, the story was also the last time we saw married Superman as the main attraction in the comics, a less-than-inspired end for a version of the character who’d been the Superman from 1987 to 2011. (Though after DC’s planned “Rebirth,” who even knows?)
8. “Superman in the Slums,” Action Comics #8
Early Superman was considerably more of a radical than he is today, taking on more problems on behalf of the 99% than just preserving the social order. Sometimes this could be really satisfying power fantasy, like when Superman “solved” World War II by hauling off and kidnapping Hitler and Stalin. But Jerry Siegel’s good intentions weren’t the same as actual knowledge of what it would take to fix most problems. Like the time he had Superman destroy every car in every impound lot in Metropolis to “declare war on reckless drivers.”
Or this twelve-page epic, where Superman decides the entire cause of juvenile delinquency is low-income housing, sees a newspaper about relief efforts for a cyclone, and decides to smash all the homes of the poor. City Hall, which apparently has infinite amounts of money and is just looking for reasons to spend it, rehouses all the poor in “splendid” style, because that’s how gentrification works. So if you’re still upset about the property damage in Man of Steel and early BvS, remember — Superman may have just been trying to motivate urban renewal!
7. Superman Returns (film)
And speaking of Man of Steel, one of the reasons it didn’t make it onto this list is that it at least had a consistent point of view of the character, even if it was a controversial one. Superman Returns (directed by Bryan Singer, who really should’ve known better) is choked with nostalgia for the morally simon-pure Christopher Reeve Superman of the early modern films (right down to casting a Reeve lookalike).
And yet Singer also elects to make Superman a deadbeat dad who has skipped out not only on a pregnant Lois, but on the whole planet, just to travel to Krypton for five years without telling anyone but his mother what he was doing. Kevin Spacey makes a passable Gene Hackman-esque Luthor, but campy stories about destroying the Western seaboard to make a killing in real estate don’t really mix with portentous, Superman-as-Jesus-Christ action sequences. But mostly it’s the deadbeat dad thing.
6. Superman: At Earth’s End (graphic novel)
Finally, someone figured out what everyone hates about other Superman stories: all those super-powers he keeps using instead of giant guns. In the distant future, Superman’s presence forced the nations of the world into an accelerating arms race, which led to a nuclear holocaust, so now unfiltered sunlight is somewhat scarce, and though Superman’s powers have kept him alive and healthy for over a hundred years, he barely has enough juice to punch one android through the chest before he has to start leaning on futuristic firearms.
And he needs those to stop the twin clones of Adolf Hitler, their disciples and a whole colony of mutant Batmen. That probably sounds just dumb enough to be awesome, but given how out of character Superman is throughout this adventure, it is in fact just dumb enough to be really, really awful.
5. “Superman’s Day of Doom,” Superman #157
There sure are a lot of people in Superman’s life with the initials “LL!” Mostly girlfriends like Lois Lane, Lana Lang and Lori Lemaris, but also his mother Lara-El, Lex Luthor, Supergirl’s secret identity Linda Lee, Lightning Lad of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and a long list (wink) of more obscure examples. You could probably write a great story about all these LLs, or just put together a “mystery” that gives its readers absolutely no hope of guessing the correct answer.
In this misfire, Lois, Jimmy and Clark get a “predictor machine” that answers their every question, including who will save Clark if he’s in danger that day, with “LL.” But the machine works, so which of those aforementioned LLs will save Superman? The story spends panels and panels on Superman wondering about this while dying of Kryptonite exposure, but then he’s saved by “none of the above,” but by a young Little Leaguer. Far more interesting is that the machine predicted Superman would definitely marry an LL, so all those Clark-Lex shippers still have a reason to hope.
4. “Superman’s New Power,” Superman #125
Thanks to a dose of space radiation, Superman loses all his powers except his invulnerability and gains the power to shoot a mini-Superman out of his fingers, which can then do everything he used to be able to do and does his bidding. Well, things like that just tended to happen in the DC comic books of the 1950s and 1960s. But what’s weird is how babyish Superman is about this, increasingly resenting the mini-him for stealing his spotlight, until he decides to destroy the thing by sending it against a meteor shower with Kryptonite.
Mini-Superman stops that shower, but then, in the end, takes a Kryptonite bullet for Bigger Original Superman, whose powers bounce back as soon as the little guy dies. Superman mulls, “I wonder, did it have a life of its own which it sacrificed for me, or was it just carrying out my thoughts before I could put them into words? I… I’ll never know!” Note that he does not say: “Should I maybe feel guilty that my finger-Pokemon is dead from Kryptonite, just like I wanted it to be?”
3. The Death of Clark Kent (comics storyline)
While Red/Blue went on too long, this story was far too short: Clark “retires” his secret identity at the start of it to protect his loved ones, but he’ll be putting the glasses back on literally the first issue Lois has a chance to tell him “No, come on, stop being stupid.” The real problem with this story, though, is the villain who learns that identity: Kenny Braverman, AKA Conduit, whose childhood bouts of poor health and adult super-powers both came from Kryptonite, and whose demanding father wished Clark were his son instead.
That’s not a bad idea for a bad guy, but Braverman is an unstable mass of unbelievable emotions with an even more unbelievable backstory — something about being a “rival organization” to the CIA. He flipflops between normal behavior and homicidal rage so quickly, it’s hard to believe anyone would trust him to get the coffee, let alone assassinate foreign nationals quietly.
He is also ridiculously unsuccessful at killing Superman’s loved ones, because the plot requires Superman to think Lois, Jimmy and his parents are dead, so they all survive on their own without him rescuing them. Then Conduit absorbs a crapton of electricity so that he can kill Superman, but accidentally kills himself instead. He does manage to whisper “This is your fault” to Superman as he dies, though. Sick burn! Guilting Superman for your failings! How many times has Luthor tried that? Oh…7,184? Never mind, then.
2. “A Walk on the Darkside/The Suicide Snare,” Action Comics #592-593
How awful is Sleez? Let’s put it this way: Planet Apokolips has a high-ranking minister named “DeSaad” whose only talent is being good at torture. Sleez got kicked out of Apokolips for being more sadistic than DeSaad was. He was a depraved mind-controller who captured Superman and the very married superheroine Big Barda, then hypno-roofied them into starring in porn videos until Barda’s husband, Mr. Miracle, rescues them both.
Writer-artist John Byrne, who was normally great in this period, left it ambiguous whether Barda and Superman did anything worse than tongue-kissing (Sleez at least had a little trouble breaking Superman down). But he didn’t seem to have considered the extensive counseling Barda, Miracle or Superman might have needed after this little adventure in mental violation. No, the story just happened, and then no one involved ever spoke of it again. Sleez managed two more appearances, decades apart, before Darkseid’s brother said “enough already” and killed him.
1. Superman IV (film)
If you are one of those disappointed by Batman v Superman, you might be inclined to give all the Christopher Reeve films another look. He wasn’t just powered by the sun, he had plenty of sunshine left over to shine on the rest of us. Plus, S4 is about nuclear disarmament! That’s as hippie Superman as you get! But the road to cinematic hell is paved with good intentions, and just because Superman IV‘s heart is in the right place doesn’t mean its brain — or budget — is anywhere to be found.
The actors are bored, the action is boring. Batman v Superman may not be interested in your father’s version of Superman, but unlike this snooze, at least it’s interested in something. Also, while the “amnesia kiss” in Superman II could be justified as the only way to spare Lois pain, Superman IV compresses the whole Lois subplot of Superman II into a few minutes, implying that Clark just reveals his identity to Lois whenever he wants a heart-to-heart and wipes her memory afterward again and again, which is, shall we say, a little more ethically dodgy.
Dishonorable Mention: Superboy Prime
This character didn’t get too many stories “of his own,” but he was a bad idea from the start that just kept getting worse. The world of Earth-Prime was our world, a world without superheroes in it, but somehow this kid named “Clark Kent” started manifesting Superman-like powers there. That wrecked the whole concept of Earth-Prime, but fine, whatever, DC was planning to destroy that whole world anyway, leaving “Clark” a refugee.
Because Earth-Prime was our world, “Clark” knows all about other Earth’s superheroes from reading comics…but he stopped reading them around 1985, when he lost his home world. “Clark” started to react with blistering rage to anything different from the “perfect” comics he remembers. Soon enough, he became a killer and gathered up enough power to threaten whole squadrons of heroes, even those who could normally challenge Superman.
Finally he ended up back on Earth-Prime, which wasn’t destroyed after all — because reasons — and became what he was always meant to be: a parents’-basement-dwelling Internet troll. There are a whole lot of story ideas that people accuse of being an insult to the readers, but few of them are quite this literal about it.
Did your most hated Superman story make the cut? Let us know in the comments below.