Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 in the summer of 1938. An instant sensation, Superman was quickly brought to radio in 1940 and hit the screen in 1941. With Man of Steel on the horizon, every movie and geek culture website on the Internet has reflected on his past movie adventures. What separates Flickchart from all the others is that our ranked lists aren’t arbitrarily pieced together by a single writer, or even a select editorial team. Our empirical data comes from each and every Flickchart user, so we’re pretty confident that our list of the Best Superman Movies is the most accurate. Here are the top ten.
“You’ll believe a man can fly,” promised the poster tagline for Richard Donner’s spectacle. Christopher Reeve charmed the world as both a nebbish Clark Kent and as the noble Superman, supported by an all-star cast including Marlon Brando as his Kryptonian father Jor-El and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. From Reeve’s spot-on portrayal of Superman to the lavish production design, from the bar-raising special effects to John Williams’s majestic score, Superman established the template for the modern-era superhero movie. It would be another decade before Hollywood finally caught up to Superman.
“Kneel before Zod!” Originally conceived as a direct continuation of Superman shot concurrently by Donner, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind became concerned over the cost of production and insisted on releasing Superman prematurely, which in turn led to conflicts that to Donner being replaced by Richard Lester to complete the sequel. Lester brought a lighter touch to the story, trading Donner’s seriousness for comedy.
In 2006, Warner Bros. took an unprecedented step to rectifying the issue by allowing Donner to recut the film the way he originally envisioned. His cut was forced to rely on some less than ideal footage (for instance, one scene is actually Margot Kidder’s original screen test!) but viewers can clearly see the contrast in directorial vision. In any event, it’s because of Terence Stamp’s imposing performance as General Zod that audiences are stoked today to see how Michael Shannon plays the character in Man of Steel.
It isn’t just the novelty of the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel uniting against The Joker and Lex Luthor that makes this 1997 animated adventure so appealing, or even that it’s part of the vaunted DC Universe continuity that began in 1992 with Batman: The Animated Series and ran through Justice League Unlimited. It’s that for the first time in quite a while, storytellers did something original by inserting Bruce Wayne into a love triangle with Lois Lane and Superman. Plus, it’s always fun to watch Superman bash the snot out of machines and he gets to do a lot of that here.
Adapted from the first story arc in the Superman/Batman comic book, written by Jeph Loeb, Public Enemies sees Lex Luthor elected President of the United States. His first order of business? Finally rid himself of Superman! On the run, Superman and Batman have to do something they’ve never really had to do before: fight an enemy with the power of government behind him. Those who have read the comic book found the adaptation extremely faithful, and those who haven’t still enjoyed it as a standalone story. Plus, viewers enjoyed the thrill of having Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy reprise their voice roles as Superman and Batman, respectively.
Richard Lester continued and expanded the comedic direction of the live action movie series he introduced when he took over Superman II in the threequel. Richard Pryor guest stars as Gus, a computer programmer coerced by the megalomaniacal Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) to synthesize Kryptonite. That leads to the splitting of Superman into good and evil versions of himself. The premise is straight out of the Silver Age of comic books, and Gus’s scheme later inspired Samir in Office Space. There’s also a sweet-natured subplot of Clark Kent returning to Smallville and reconnecting with Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), for whom he has always carried a torch. Superman III isn’t for everyone, but it has its moments. Where else will you ever get to see Superman drunk in a bar with five o’clock shadow?
Superman hit the screen for the first time just three years after his debut in Action Comics #1 in this animated short film produced by the legendary Fleischer Studios for Paramount. The Fleischer brothers, Max (producer) and Dave (director), initially resisted taking the job for fear of how ambitious a project it would be. The Fleischers asked Paramount for the then-considerable sum of $100,000 per short…which Paramount surprisingly paid. They earned every penny – and an Academy Award nomination. Superman is as concise an origin story as has ever been told in any medium.
The Fleischers also contributed a key element to the Superman mythos through a storytelling decision they made. In the comic books, Superman could “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” but they felt that wasn’t particularly impressive to see in animation the way it worked on the printed page. Decades before Richard Donner made us believe a man could fly, the Fleischers gave Superman that power. He’s been flying high ever since.
Bryan Singer left the X-Men series in the hands of Brett Ratner to helm Superman Returns, which functions as a sort of “replacement sequel” to Richard Donner’s Superman and Superman II, eschewing the other two films in the series. Here, Superman has been away for several years in search of Krypton or any other survivors from his doomed birth planet. Returning to Earth, he finds that the world – and Lois Lane – have moved on without him. It’s as much a love letter to Donner’s films as it is anything else, even reusing the same credit fonts and John Williams’s “Superman March”, but there are some storytelling missteps that didn’t set right with a lot of viewers.
Brandon Routh was in the unfortunate position of not playing Superman, but playing Christopher Reeve playing Superman. He acquits himself nicely, but he was behind the eight ball from the beginning. Kevin Spacey hams it up terrifically as Lex Luthor, though, bringing a lot more presence to the role than had Gene Hackman.
In 2005, DC Comics established an “All-Star” label to allow big name comic book creators to tell stories outside the mainstream continuity. Famed writer Grant Morrison took on Superman with the twelve-issue All-Star Superman. Morrison reinvented the wheel, synthesizing previous incarnations of the character while also presenting a new story in the process: Superman is overloaded by radiation from the sun and has a short time to live. Until he dies, though, the radiation will continue to make him stronger and give him escalating powers. The animated feature hit most of the comic series’ plot threads, though some viewers wish it had been a little more streamlined.
The second of the Superman/Batman comic book arcs follows Public Enemies. Supergirl arrives on Earth, welcomed and embraced by Superman but regarded with suspicion by Batman. Lo and behold, the villainous Darkseid is pulling the strings this time. Superman is always at his most entertaining when he gets to really cut loose and use his powers in a no-holds barred fight and that’s what Apocalypse delivers. The middle act is a bit murky, but the final showdown between Superman and Darkseid is easily one of the most satisfying action sequences the Last Son of Krypton has had on screen to date.
#10 The Mechanical Monsters (1941)
Long before Superman went toe to toe with Darkseid, he fought an army of giant robots in The Mechanical Monsters. This short, the second of the Fleischer series, introduced another staple of the Superman mythos: Clark Kent uses a telephone booth to change into his Superman persona. The climax of the aforementioned Batman/Superman Movie is a direct homage to this classic short; on the DVD release, that chapter’s title is “Mechanical monsters”. Not only is the hand drawn animation still exciting, but the action takes place on a scale that live action Superman fights still haven’t topped… though perhaps that will change with Man of Steel.
On a personal note, my favorite Superman movie is Superman II (the Donner cut, of course) and my personal favorite that isn’t in the global top ten is the animated short, The Arctic Giant. Why? Because Superman fights a Tyrannosaurus rex. No, really.