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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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Best: “Superman”
An “event movie” back when that concept was still in its infancy (“Jaws,” widely regarded as the first such, was only three years prior), the first “Superman” film still sits atop the canon in large part due to the fact that, in being essentially an extended origin story, there’s a built-in simplicity to the narrative arc that doesn’t then need to be greatly embellished with bells and whistles that almost always age badly. And so it’s still to this day a satisfying watch, aside from the ever-problematic “turning back time” ending (which was clearly Donner’s go-to ending of choice, see ‘Superman II: The Donner Cut" below), and pacing that to the modern eye can certainly lag at times. 

Arguably Reeve was never better than here, his charming goofiness as Clark as he falls in love for the first time, gets his first job, moves to the Big City all providing a perfectly relatable counterpoint to the cape and boots heroics of Superman. And this is Hackman’s best outing as Luthor too, in which the cartoonish aspects of the later films had not yet overwhelmed any sense of him as a real threat to Superman, and with Supes himself really only finding his feet as a superhero, villain and hero are here more evenly matched than they would be any other time, except with Zod. 

And the film of course benefits from taking on the origin story, rather than being a "continued adventures of..." (“Man of Steel” as a reboot, will cover some of the same ground), so there is a kind of built-in emotional core to the simple corn-fed goodness in which Clark is raised and how that wars with and then ultimately complements his super-ness. With the emphasis on story (that is, character and narrative and theme) over just plot, boasting Marlon Brando’s crazily expensive cameo as Jor-El and achieving a relative grounded-ness and tonal consistency that none of its sequels would manage, “Superman” was the first, and is still the best (so far) movie version of the Man of Steel we’ve seen.

Choice Quote: Young Clark: "I mean every time I kick the football I can make a touchdown. Every time! I mean, is it showing off if somebody's doing the things he's capable of doing? Is a bird showing off when it flies?"

Bonus features:

Supergirl” is a trashy, dull and generally piss-poor spin off/would-be cash-in that is so lazily thrown together that the phrase “pocket of trans-dimensional space” is all the explanation we ever get for the continued existence of an entire Kryptonian city after the death of the planet. Helen Slater is a pretty but blank bambi in the title role, and though the cast is packed with ringers (Peter Cook, Mia Farrow, Peter O’Toole, Faye Dunaway in a grotesque red wig that makes her look like King Charles II), it’s clear all of them have just turned up for the paycheck. A nonsense plot about Superman’s female cousin traveling to earth to retrieve a gizmo essential to supporting life in her home city (which is apparently made out of chewing gum and cling film -- perhaps part of the problem?) the film skirts around the Superman canon, including using Lucy Lane (Lois’ sister) and Jimmy Olsen (Mark McLure, the only actor to appear in all 5 of the 70s/80s Superman efforts) as supporting characters, without actually landing the Christopher Reeve cameo it was originally supposed to have that might have lent it some legitimacy. Isn’t it always the way that just the week you’re off-planet solving some ill-defined galactic problem or other, the cousin you had no idea you had, and fellow survivor of a race you thought completely obliterated otherwise, comes to visit? It’s really pretty awful, and not wholly part of the Superman movie canon, (though the Salkinds again produced it), so we didn’t include it in our rundown. However if we had, it would probably have stolen the booby prize given to “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” for bottom place. 

Choice quote: Jimmy Olsen: “It's all right, Supergirl. We never saw you.” Lucy Lane: “We never even heard of you.”

And finally, we couldn’t not mention the 2006 edition of “Superman II: The Donner Cut.” If anyone is credited with being the definitive Superman director to date, it’s Richard Donner, despite having only 1 1/2 of the films here really to his name. The story goes that Donner shot a lot of footage for “Superman II” concurrently with “Superman,” but then fell out with the producers who wanted more goofiness and hired Richard Lester as director for the sequel instead. Lester for his part, used some Donner footage, and cleaved more or less to the same storyline, but he re-shot a great deal too. Which meant that there was in fact a lot of original footage never seen in the film, and it was that that Donner mined for the DVD Blu-Ray of his director’s cut. The result is a film in which it's claimed that 83% of the footage used is Donner’s, and it makes it a very different movie from the theatrical version. While it would be unfair to try and include it in the main list, as it never got a theatrical release and there’s still nearly a fifth of it that would not have been shot the way Donner had envisaged, and some of what is there is unfinished test footage, having watched both versions we can say that the Donner cut does certainly have fewer tonal inconsistencies than the version we saw in theaters, and that was one of the main issues with that film, that kept it from our top spot. 

But it’s not like there would have been no comedy at all in this version, as it should be remembered that Hackman’s refusal to return to film scenes with Lester meant that all the footage we’ve ever seen of Luthor was shot under Donner’s tutelage. And that gets pretty broad (which it can, because Luthor is here more of a sidekick villain to the Phantom Zone trio’s actual threat) -- I mean, a balloon escape? Other notable differences are in the treatment of the Lois and Clark relationship which is more nuanced and more tipped in Lois’ favor here (the fundamental silliness of her “ace reporter” schtick not allowing her to see past a guy’s glasses is at least partly addressed) and a more dramatic and thematically resonant scene of Superman regaining his powers, rendering literal the “father becomes the son” motif, and richer for being able to use the Marlon Brando footage that the producers dumped from the theatrical version to avoid paying Brando his fee. However it’s not all aces, as the ending goes back to the “reversing time” well of the first film, and leaves you with the frustration of having watched a whole (very good) film about stuff that never actually happened. To say nothing of the illogic of having Clark Kent go back and beat up the guy in the truck stop when the original incident would never have happened… Who’s to say what could have been, but it is possible that Donner’s “Superman II” would have topped this list. This version, however, indicates that as much as it may have addressed some of the Lester version’s issues, there would have been some others introduced which to our mind would likely have meant it was always going to play second fiddle.

Choice Quote: Superman: “Father... if you can hear me... I failed... I've failed you, I've failed myself... and all humanity. I've traded my birthright... for a life of submission in a world ruled by your enemies…”

And there we have it. Aside from Singer’s incarnation splitting the list down the middle, we have essentially the law of diminishing returns in action when it comes to the original Superman franchise. Or do you disagree?

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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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