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

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by Jessica Kiang
June 10, 2013 12:04 PM
32 Comments
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Superman Returns Routh
The Middle of the Pack: “Superman Returns”
Oh, Bryan Singer, you brought such a lot to your take on Superman: a perfectly cast lead (for our money, Brandon Routh did a fine job as both Clark and Superman, nodding to but never directly ripping off Reeve’s incarnation), a perfectly cast villain (Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor), some really outstanding visuals and some interesting, potentially fertile ideas (Superman’s son; the world needing/not needing a savior). So how the hell did you forget to pack any stakes? Our level of childhood investment in the Superman franchise is such that we were genuinely excited to witness Superman’s return after the 19-year hiatus occasioned by the awful critical, and poor commercial, reception of “Superman IV” so really the most damning thing we can say is that apart from a brief flutter when John Williams’ iconic tune rang out for the first time, we were almost completely unmoved by “Superman Returns.” As handsomely mounted and solidly played as it was, it is also so un-involving as to be a bit dull in parts, especially with the ham-fisted handling of what should have been a home-run addition in the father-son theme. The miscasting of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane (just too slight and pretty a presence to bring any depth of feeling to an underwritten role), and the lack of any surprise around the paternity of her son, or indeed even of any particular moments of interest as the boy discovers his powers, bar one flinging-of-a-grand-piano, mean that at its emotional heart, the film is empty. 

Superman Returns Lois
And so we start to look at the window dressing like Parker Posey’s outfits (terrific) instead, and to wonder about other things, like whether James Marsden is ever not going to be cast as the guy who gets the girl that the hero truly loves? And in the meantime we’ve kind of lost any attachment to the plot, which is something about creating a new land mass and submerging half of North America in the process, a nod to the first “Superman” film's real-estate swindle-style plot. But couldn’t they have chosen a more interesting thing to nod to? It really is a case of a film that had everything going for it, a big budget (somewhere north of $200m, we’re told), a passionate director with a track record in superhero films, an audience (well, us anyway) practically panting in anticipation and even the blessing of original “Superman” director Richard Donner, but, at 154 minutes instead of flying by like a bird or a plane, “Superman Returns” just sits there, pretty but inert. It was hardly a flop, pulling in just under $400m worldwide, and for a few years afterward there was (occasionally quite firm) word of a sequel with all the principal cast and Singer returning -- apparently the mooted sequel was the reason Singer hopped off the talent carousel that continues around the “Logan’s Run” remake to this day. But one by one, the key players fell by the wayside, attracted to other projects or simply frustrated by the lack of action (hey! like the viewers!) until in 2008 Warner Bros. announced a reboot rather than a sequel was in the works. And the rest is “Man of Steel” history, or at least it will be, come this weekend. Gotta feel a bit sorry for Routh.

Choice quote: Superman: “You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one..”

Superman II Lois and Superman
Second Best: “Superman II”
You know, in the hard, cruel game of film criticism (obviously regarded as one of the toughest professions out there, right up there with lumberjack-ing or oil rig roustabout-ing), sometimes your heart has to take a backseat to your head. “Superman II” is probably our favorite of all the Superman films to date, but with the best will in the world, we can’t pretend it actually stacks up better over the years as a film than Donner’s original “Superman.” So we’re giving it the second spot on the list, though our inner child is all like “What’s up with that?” and stomping off to its room heartbroken. Despite the tendency to lurch into comedy oddly at times (an inclination that would then be expanded to “Airplane”-levels of zany antics in “Superman III”) and some effects that just look terrible now even if they BLEW OUR YOUNG MINDS back then (the Phantom Zone prison thingie the trio of evildoers are trapped in was astounding back in those innocent times; looks a bit shit now), "Superman II" does still boast some great elements. And chief among them has to be Terence Stamp’s Zod who is just an infinitely more threatening and interesting villain than Hackman’s Luthor, and still stands as the series’ best (no wonder that’s where Zack Snyder & Co. are returning to for “Man of Steel”). 

Superman II Zod & Gang
The real edge of menace he brings, plus the feeling that Superman could actually get beaten here (and then of course he does, temporarily), mark this film out as something special in purely story terms. And with Superman electing to shuck off his powers and responsibilities for Love, and coming to realize the wrongness of that decision, it feels like here he has the most involving and satisfying arc, pitted for once against a truly worthy adversary who also brings to light his inner struggle. It’s a shame, then that while a laudable effort is made to encompass all shades from light to dark, the lighter ”campier” elements are widely credited to Richard Lester who replaced Richard Donner when Donner disagreed with the more comedic direction in which the producers wanted to go, and the stitches between the two contrasting styles are very visible, even more so in retrospect than at the time, thus pulling “Superman II” up short of greatness. Everywhere except in our heart of hearts where nostalgia still has us standing on the stairs wrapped a bin bag screaming “Kneel before Zod!” at the family cat.

Choice quote: General Zod: “This ‘super-man’ is nothing of the kind; I've discovered his weakness...He cares. He actually cares for these Earth people.”

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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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