A bunch of actors have played Superman on the big screen, from Christopher Reeve to Henry Cavill, and iconic directors ranging from Richard Donner to Zack Snyder have interpreted his story. He’s the original superhero, with possibly the most famous backstory and roster of superpowers in comic book lore.
So, anyone who dares to take on the task of making a movie about him has a pretty tall order to fill – and a lot of rabid fans to please. From the colorful, cheesy movies of the ‘70s to the grit and gloom of the DCEU, here are all of the live-action Superman movies ranked from worst to best.
8 Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
No great superhero blockbuster was ever made on a shoestring budget by a lazy director. The downfall of this movie, Christopher Reeve’s final as Superman, is a combination of penny-pinching by the studio and a director with zero innovative ideas.
The whole thing was shot in rainy England – whether the scene is set at the headquarters of the United Nations or in Clark’s rural childhood home in Smallville, it was shot in England – and the special effects look terrible. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is full of plot holes, shockingly cheap special effects, and poor writing. The whole thing is one giant, heaping bomb.
7 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
This movie is a big, fat, overstuffed mess from start to finish. It serves as the DCEU’s Iron Man 2, swapping storytelling for universe setup. Superman’s arc in the movie is actually an interesting one, as he is put on trial for his actions in Man of Steel. Fans found his actions in that movie to be controversial, so it was a nice next step to have him face the consequences for it.
In the end, as he sacrifices himself to take down Doomsday, he redeems himself. In theory, it’s a great second chapter in Superman’s DCEU journey. But it gets bogged down in carrying on the DCEU and setting up all the other Justice League members’ future appearances to be a good movie.
6 Superman III
During the production of Superman II, visionary director Richard Donner clashed with the studio and was replaced by Richard Lester, who reshot most of the movie. The studio then ditched Donner completely and brought on Lester full-time to direct Superman III from scratch. Christopher Reeve is still as great as ever in the role of Superman, but the movie itself is so bad.
Almost every decision that led to what Superman III eventually became was wrong. Richard Pryor was a genius and might just be the greatest standup comic who ever lived, but he does not belong in a Superman movie. This threequel throws out the heart and soul of the first two in exchange for stupid puns and cheap gags.
5 Man of Steel
Man of Steel is far from the worst Superman movie ever made. However, like most origin story movies, it doesn’t stand many rewatchings as there are long stretches – particularly the lengthy Krypton sequence with Russell Crowe – that really drag on. Plus, director Zack Snyder gets the tone all wrong with a grim and gloomy (and pale) imitation of The Dark Knight.
You can’t make a grounded Superman movie, because he’s not just a guy who beats up criminals – he’s an alien who can fly – so you need to reflect that in how the movie looks. It can’t be gritty. Also, Superman would never take a life, so the ending ruins the whole thing.
4 Justice League
This movie has a patchy plot and tonal inconsistencies, but these can be somewhat forgiven when you know what was going on behind the scenes. The plot being patchy is a result of Warner Bros. cutting the movie up and demanding it be a certain length in response to the criticisms levied against Batman v Superman. But they made these demands too late in the game – the story threads had already been written and shot, so removing them led to a bunch of glaring plot holes.
The spotty tone is a result of Zack Snyder leaving the project due to a personal tragedy and being replaced by Joss Whedon. Snyder had been making the movie as one of his gloomy, highly color-graded epics, and then Whedon tried to shoehorn in his usual humor and light tone. It didn’t work – Snyder and Whedon’s directorial styles are like chalk and cheese, which makes the latter the worst choice to complete a movie half directed by the former.
3 Superman Returns
While Brandon Routh wasn’t the perfect casting choice to play Clark Kent, his one and only movie Superman Returns was masterfully made. It struck the tone just right as a big-budget CGI movie adaptation of the world’s first superhero. It wasn’t as dark as DC Films’ similar reboot Batman Begins, but it wasn’t too light to be enjoyed by a modern superhero audience.
The movie was filled with iconic moments, like the bullet being fired from a gun and then crushing against the Man of Steel’s skin, which works because it’s not just a great moment like Zack Snyder fills his movies with – it’s there for a reason. It’s there to establish just how powerful he is (and it’s incredibly effective).
2 Superman: The Movie
“You’ll believe a man can fly,” ran the iconic poster tagline for Superman’s big-screen debut. While those effects look dated and almost laughable today, they were genuinely groundbreaking back in 1978. This is one of the few origin story movies that stands rewatches, because it tells Superman’s sprawling origins in the first act and then focuses on the villain’s plan and the love story for the rest.
It’s like Batman Begins and The Dark Knight rolled into the same movie. The movie has all kinds of iconic moments, from Superman catching Lois Lane (“You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”) to reversing the rotation of the Earth to travel back in time. No superhero fan has ever been disappointed by it.
1 Superman II
Despite some behind-the-scenes drama with tensions between director Richard Donner and the studio, Superman II is a resounding success. It set the stage for all great superhero sequels to come – from Spider-Man 2 to The Dark Knight – as it delves deeper into the title character in an all-action plot that’s as much about the villainous General Zod as it is about the Man of Steel himself.
Christopher Reeve develops the title role into two different characters – Clark Kent and Superman – just like Christian Bale, Tom Holland, Mark Ruffalo, and Tobey Maguire would all go on to do in their own superhero roles.