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Where Will 'Man Of Steel' Rank? Rating The ‘Superman’ Movies From Worst To Best

Features
by Jessica Kiang
June 10, 2013 12:04 PM
32 Comments
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Ranking The Superman films
Perhaps you’ve heard about a little movie that’s opening this week called “Man of Steel.” The small, under-the-radar, kitchen sink drama follows the adventures of one Superman as he struggles with the kind of identity issues familiar to many x-ray sighted, preternaturally strong orphan aliens gifted with the power of flight, and saves humankind from a terrible peril. Our review will be coming later today, and while we’re not going to include “Man of Steel” in our rating of the Superman films right now, come back next week when more of us have seen it and you can argue over its correct placement.

Part of what makes Superman so compelling is how, all the way back in the 1930s, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel basically cannily repackaged a whole host of ancient myths and archetypes into a brightly-colored, exciting new format -- the comic strip -- and how in the years since, the Superman story has essentially ingrained itself into our collective pop culture experience to the point of becoming itself one of those very myths. But if the Superman story now exists in a kind of timeless, unassailable position in the hive mind, the films it inspired don’t necessarily share that honor. Often reflecting the times they were made in, in rather obvious and distracting ways (computers! nuclear paranoia!), not all the movie incarnations come close to embodying what’s so endlessly engaging about the Superman story. Here’s how we reckon the existing theatrical releases stack up against each other, in reverse order of quality.

Superman IV
Worst: “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace”
This is probably the nadir of Superman movies this far for so, so many reasons, but chief among them has to be simply the shoddiness and cheapness of the whole endeavor. With original producers the Salkinds having sold the rights to Cannon Films, a low-budget outfit at heart, production costs were cut from the outset, with Christopher Reeve recalling, about the scene outside the United Nations building which was shot for budgetary reasons in Milton Keynes, England, that “[we were] hampered by budget constraints and cutbacks in all departments...Even if the story had been brilliant, I don't think that we could ever have lived up to the audience's expectations with this approach.” And sheesh is the story ever not brilliant. Reeve is game, and Gene Hackman returns as Lex Luthor after his principled absence from the third film, but the supporting cast are horribly underwritten, from Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) to hardheaded businesswoman Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) who’s seemingly turned from her ruthless tabloid ways by a single glimpse of Clark Kent. 

Worst, it’s all in service of a dull, preachy plot about nuclear proliferation that builds to undoubtedly the single lamest foe our onscreen Supes has ever faced in Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow, voiced by Gene Hackman). While ostensibly supposed to be a kind of inverse (almost Bizarro) Superman, borne of the Kryptonian’s DNA and forged in the radiation of the sun, in fact Nuclear Man is hampered by the absolute worst Achilles heel: he shuts down completely when not standing in direct sunlight. So, yeah, Superman with his laser beams and super-strength and flight and everything is a teensy bit under-matched when his foe can be defeated by shade, or, you know, going inside. Which makes it all the more ridiculous that Supes has to move the moon to cause an eclipse in order to best him. 

Superman IV Lois

It’s basically a huge d’oh of a movie from beginning to end, and to think that there exists somewhere a rumored additional 45 minutes of footage, featuring a second Nuclear Man (actually the first chronologically, and even weaker than the one who remains) that was cut out because of poisonous test screenings… the mind boggles. And don’t get us started on the awfulness of Jon Cryer as Luthor’s nephew (who actually refers to Superman as “the Dude of Steel!”), or the sudden obsession Nuclear Man develops with Lacy or... we could go on. Interesting aside though, part of Reeve’s deal in donning the cape a fourth time was that Cannon would finance his next project. The result, “Street Smart” may not have troubled the box office in any big way, but it’s an interesting little film that did a great job of launching Morgan Freeman to stardom and to a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. In all other ways, ‘The Quest for Peace’ is a failure, and director Sidney J. Furie, with the exception of the Diana Ross Billie Holiday Biopic “Lady Sings the Blues,” has the kind of back catalog of titles that make you wonder if you’ve strayed into a parallel universe -- everything sounds like a movie you’ve heard of, but isn’t it.

Choice quote: Superman: “You've broken all the laws of man, Luthor. Now it looks as though you've broken all the laws of nature, too. I can only assume you must have hidden a device of some kind on one of the missiles I hurled into the sun.”

Superman III Pryor
Second Worst: “Superman III”
First, a small confession. While we’re not going to go to bat for the quality of this film in any way, a recent re-watch did remind us just how many moments and scenes from “Superman III” are somehow firmly ingrained in our subconscious (no doubt generational) -- from the kid unconscious in the path of the thresher to Richard Pryor skiing down the side of a skyscraper, to “bad” Superman smashing bottles of booze by flicking peanuts at them off a bar, to good Superman freezing and then dropping a lake onto a chemical fire. Elements that failed to stay with us, however, include the villain, the goal of his plot and the entire final act of the film. Which is kind of appropriate, because the film is really little more then a series of sketches, which range from the funny -- Pryor’s role here may be ill-conceived, but he’s got moments and we’re not sure why but the totally unfounded scene where he shows up dressed as a four-star general from the Pentagon always makes us laugh -- to the tiresome, viz the extended silliness involving a blind man, some marbles, a hole in the ground, and a mime. If Hackman’s Luthor was never the most terrifying of arch-villains, Robert Vaughn’s Webster is even less so (Vaughn stepped in after Hackman refused citing the producers’ mistreatment of Richard Donner as his reason) and is marooned in a logic-free plot that relies so blithely on the audience’s ignorance of these new-fangled “computers” that, now at least, it kind of ensures you’re smirking through even those few scenes that aren’t actually played for laughs. 

Superman III Drunk

Of course, not having any superpowers of his own, Webster would hardly be much of a match for Superman, so -- and this is where the film really trips over its own tail -- the plot contrives to have Superman go "bad" (signaled by developing a 5 o’clock shadow, hitting on Lana Lang and, er, straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa). And then "bad" Superman gets to fight himself (as Clark Kent, for some reason) because of that power we never knew he had and never displays again, to essentially bi-locate. It made us wonder if the fight scene was not actually meant literally, but as some sort of metaphor for Supes slaying his demons, but then why is it so long, and laboriously involved in a I-put-you-in-a-compacter-you-crush-me-with-a-magnet type way? Anyway, it’s all very silly, but it does feature Pamela Stephenson in the sexy villain sidekick role (Billy Connolly’s wife and a contestant on the only season of the UK’s "Strictly Come Dancing" that we watched, and she was robbed.) So there’s that, and Richard Pryor’s comedy slow-take reactions to enjoy.

Choice quote: Evil Superman to Clark Kent: “Come on chicken! You've been on my nerves for a long time!”

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32 Comments

  • Rick | November 26, 2013 11:30 PMReply

    Man of Steel was horrible. Bland colors, no story, and WAY too many scenes where someone gets knocked into tomorrow. I found my mind wandering during the movie, and at most could not wait until it was over. There was no personal flavor as in the Chris Reeve series and no brightness of anything scene or color wise. Why directors insist on shooting this type of dismal color scheme is beyond me, and had no place in this movie.. it added even more gloom to an already gloomy film.

  • JADE | October 21, 2013 9:51 PMReply

    I absolutely loved Man of Steel; I thought that the plot was a fabulously refreshing take on the classical story. My only issue with this fantastic film was the casting of Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Don't get me wrong, I don't NOT like Amy - but I just really hated her in this movie.

  • someoldguy | July 9, 2013 11:23 PMReply

    I couldn't disagree more with almost every point you made about Superman Returns in your article, including on the casting of Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor (a great actor to be sure but not a great Lex Luthor). What I loved so much about Superman Returns was the feeling of childhood nostalgia that the movie evoked. Bryan Singer perfectly captured the best elements of the first two films and expanded upon them. It's funny that you hold such a disappointed opinion of Superman Returns, yet its rating on Rotten Tomatoes is nearly twenty percentage points higher than Man of Steel, with all of its supposed awesomeness. Although Superman Returns was lacking in action I, for one, didn't miss it: the story was one more aimed at grown-ups (who, unfortunately, don't care much for superhero movies) than adolescents. Man of Steel, on the other hand, so lauded by lads everywhere for its intense action scenes, rings hollow because of those same action scenes. It frustrates me to no end that since Lord of the Rings: Return of the King moviegoers are somehow rendered dumb by a monotonously long "climax"; apparently, a monstrous, drawn-out CGI battle lacking any pacing or true suspense is the modern audience's idea of what constitutes a great film. Fortunately, the critics still display some understanding of what makes a film worth watching (hence Man of Steel's 54% Rotten Tomato rating).

  • Donella | June 28, 2013 12:31 AMReply

    In order of preference: Superman (1978), Superman II, Superman Returns, Man of Steel. Mario Puzo's story and screenplay; John Williams's majestic music score; memorable dialogue; character development, warmth, and humor; romantic chemistry between Lois and Clark; charismatic villains with Gene Hackman and Terence Stamp; and the myth surrounding Krypton and Marlon Brando's Jor-El mean the difference between classic cinema and an empty shell filled with noise and violence.

  • Arnold Schizopolis | June 22, 2013 12:57 PMReply

    For me, Superman 1978 Extended and Man of Steel are tied. Rest of my list: http://letterboxd.com/schizopolis23/list/superman-films-ranked/

  • Donella | June 21, 2013 2:00 PMReply

    Now, son of Jor-El, BOW BEFORE ZOD.

  • randy | June 18, 2013 9:00 PMReply

    The best superman movie ever

  • Rick | November 26, 2013 11:33 PM

    I don't know which one you're referring too but it CAN'T be Man of Steel as "the best Superman movie ever." I'd rather watch the Richard Pryor one than this piece of crapola again. Like so many movies now the story gets totally lost in the effects, and being so many of them, they all begin to run together where you're simply tired of seeing the same thing over and over again. The lack of story, dismal colors and just total nonsense make it difficult to enjoy a movie such as Man of Steel.

  • TrueFan | June 17, 2013 7:48 PMReply

    Man of Steel was great for action, but once it got to the actual plot, they fucked up. Last I checked, Superman had morals, and he doesn't kill. Good fuck up, Nolan.

  • Donella | July 1, 2013 1:45 AM

    Superman did not kill Zod in Superman II. He threw Zod down the ice crevice. Lois knocked Ursa into the crevice. Non fell into the crevice because he thought he could still fly. At no point does the audience see or have confirmation of Zod or Ursa or Non's death. In fact, there is a filmed scene that did not make it into the theatrical version that shows Zod and friends being lead away by law enforcement. This is in keeping with Superman's character, to neutralize criminals and then turn them in for punishment. So it's possible that the Kryptonians were only imprisoned in the crevice. It is not known for sure. All there is to go on is canon, which Snyder and Nolan did not follow though Donner did.

  • Christopher James | June 21, 2013 6:35 PM

    Actually, Supes did what he had to do. And, as far as the not killing thing goes, it mostly applies to his adopted planet, and for a history lesson, go back and watch Superman 2, he did kill Zod in that movie. In the comics he tried to kill off Doomsday. Superman will kill, but the threat has to huge.

  • Christopher James | June 21, 2013 6:34 PM

    Actually, Supes did what he had to do. And, as far as the not killing thing goes, it mostly applies to his adopted planet, and for a history lesson, go back and watch Superman 2, he did kill Zod in that movie. In the comics he tried to kill off Doomsday. Superman will kill, but the threat has to huge.

  • Christopher James | June 21, 2013 6:34 PM

    Actually, Supes did what he had to do. And, as far as the not killing thing goes, it mostly applies to his adopted planet, and for a history lesson, go back and watch Superman 2, he did kill Zod in that movie. In the comics he tried to kill off Doomsday. Superman will kill, but the threat has to huge.

  • Christopher James | June 21, 2013 6:34 PM

    Actually, Supes did what he had to do. And, as far as the not killing thing goes, it mostly applies to his adopted planet, and for a history lesson, go back and watch Superman 2, he did kill Zod in that movie. In the comics he tried to kill off Doomsday. Superman will kill, but the threat has to huge.

  • Christopher James | June 21, 2013 6:34 PM

    Actually, Supes did what he had to do. And, as far as the not killing thing goes, it mostly applies to his adopted planet, and for a history lesson, go back and watch Superman 2, he did kill Zod in that movie. In the comics he tried to kill off Doomsday. Superman will kill, but the threat has to huge.

  • Daniel | June 16, 2013 7:21 AMReply

    This list gets my stamp of approval.

  • scott | June 15, 2013 5:24 PMReply

    I am a big fan of the superman movies and comics...even the tv shows and I love chris in the original movies but Henry Cavill was amazing and I personally think he is the best we have seen..but with respect towards chris we wouldn't have this movie with out him doing the original.

  • JAB | June 10, 2013 11:52 PMReply

    Routh did a very nice job at channeling Reeve, but otherwise Singer's film was static & lifeless. Stamp's Zod is an all-time great bad guy. The 1st Superman --Donner's 1st-- had the advantage at being fresh & it soared. Superman II suffered from the tonal seesaw it had but, at times --Zodtimes-- it was great movie.
    If any actor can match or surpass Stamp's stamp on Zod then it is Michael Shannon. This is an example of great casting that evidently the studio wasn't initially thrilled about. I like the rest of the cast. I think Russell Crowe is an better actor than Brando, but I admit to generational bias.
    Obviously the involvement of Nolan & Goyer ramps up the expectations, but remember that Zack Snyder gave us one of the all-time great comic book/superhero movies in "Watchmen". It may be this century's most under-rated movie.

  • JAB | June 10, 2013 11:52 PMReply

    Routh did a very nice job at channeling Reeve, but otherwise Singer's film was static & lifeless. Stamp's Zod is an all-time great bad guy. The 1st Superman --Donner's 1st-- had the advantage at being fresh & it soared. Superman II suffered from the tonal seesaw it had but, at times --Zodtimes-- it was great movie.
    If any actor can match or surpass Stamp's stamp on Zod then it is Michael Shannon. This is an example of great casting that evidently the studio wasn't initially thrilled about. I like the rest of the cast. I think Russell Crowe is an better actor than Brando, but I admit to generational bias.
    Obviously the involvement of Nolan & Goyer ramps up the expectations, but remember that Zack Snyder gave us one of the all-time great comic book/superhero movies in "Watchmen". It may be this century's most under-rated movie.

  • JAB | June 10, 2013 11:52 PMReply

    Routh did a very nice job at channeling Reeve, but otherwise Singer's film was static & lifeless. Stamp's Zod is an all-time great bad guy. The 1st Superman --Donner's 1st-- had the advantage at being fresh & it soared. Superman II suffered from the tonal seesaw it had but, at times --Zodtimes-- it was great movie.
    If any actor can match or surpass Stamp's stamp on Zod then it is Michael Shannon. This is an example of great casting that evidently the studio wasn't initially thrilled about. I like the rest of the cast. I think Russell Crowe is an better actor than Brando, but I admit to generational bias.
    Obviously the involvement of Nolan & Goyer ramps up the expectations, but remember that Zack Snyder gave us one of the all-time great comic book/superhero movies in "Watchmen". It may be this century's most under-rated movie.

  • JAB | June 10, 2013 11:51 PMReply

    Routh did a very nice job at channeling Reeve, but otherwise Singer's film was static & lifeless. Stamp's Zod is an all-time great bad guy. The 1st Superman --Donner's 1st-- had the advantage at being fresh & it soared. Superman II suffered from the tonal seesaw it had but, at times --Zodtimes-- it was great movie.
    If any actor can match or surpass Stamp's stamp on Zod then it is Michael Shannon. This is an example of great casting that evidently the studio wasn't initially thrilled about. I like the rest of the cast. I think Russell Crowe is an better actor than Brando, but I admit to generational bias.
    Obviously the involvement of Nolan & Goyer ramps up the expectations, but remember that Zack Snyder gave us one of the all-time great comic book/superhero movies in "Watchmen". It may be this century's most under-rated movie.

  • Scott | June 10, 2013 9:54 PMReply

    I personally believe "Man of Steel" will rank among the highest if not the Highest rating in Superman film history. It's got the best feeling of the character that's been portrayed in the longest time since the '78 film plus it's own originality to the mix. It's got the best chance of knocking cheese to the side and nailing a home run.

  • Millmac | June 10, 2013 3:53 PMReply

    In Donner's cut of the 2nd film, after Superman had turned back time, he obviously still remembered the truck stop incident. It didn't matter that it had now not occurred - Clark/Supes went back to teach the trucker a lesson anyway because he was clearly a bully whom the owners and other customers were afraid of.

  • WRONG | June 12, 2013 11:21 AM

    Except...there is dialog within the scene that refers back to the previous scene. All of the characters in the diner seem to remember what happened.

  • TheoC | June 10, 2013 2:04 PMReply

    Excellent list, I loved Routh's Superman if not the movie. I also had a soft spot for Marlon Brando's CGI head.

  • TheoC | June 10, 2013 2:01 PMReply

    Excellent list, I loved Routh's Superman if not the movie. I also had a soft spot for Marlon Brando's CGI head.

  • kinnity | June 10, 2013 1:45 PMReply

    I did the ZOd thing too. Still do sometimes

  • eduardo | June 10, 2013 12:34 PMReply

    Wow, way to sum up Sydney Furie's career. He only made The Ipcress File, the best Harry Palmer film by far, the unjustly forgotten anti-war film The Boys in Company C and the vastly underrated The Entity, one of Scorsese's favorite horror films.

  • eduardo | June 10, 2013 12:33 PMReply

    Wow, way to sum up Sydney Furie's career. He only made The Ipcress File, the best Harry Palmer film by far, the unjustly forgotten anti-war film The Boys in Company C and the vastly underrated The Entity, one of Scorsese's favorite horror films.

  • Robert | June 10, 2013 12:19 PMReply

    "Jaws" was the first "event" movie.... ?Not "The Godfather" or "The Exorcist" or "Cleopatra" or "The Sound of Music" or "Gone With the Wind" or "Birth of a Nation"??? Or at least a dozen others?

  • Robert | June 10, 2013 12:18 PMReply

    "Jaws" was the first "event" movie.... ?Not "The Godfather" or "The Exorcist" or "Cleopatra" or "The Sound of Music" or "Gone With the Wind" or "Birth of a Nation"??? Or at least a dozen others?

  • Walter | June 12, 2013 1:26 AM

    No. It was "Jaws." And by "event movie," he probably meant that in a "summer blockbuster" way as "Jaws" is considered the advent of the summer blockbuster, followed by Star Wars and on from there.

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