First appearing in the pages of Action Comics back in 1938, Superman has come to define what it means to be a superhero. The blue suit, red cape and muscle-bound physique of the Man of Steel have long been iconic, and the character’s traditional values have been a hit since his debut, those interested in the comic series’ fantastical tales of heroism seeking more from Superman across different forms of media for over 8 decades.
Making his debut on screens in the form of animated shorts and live-action serials throughout the 1940s, Superman would be the focus of his first feature length film in 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men. A symbol of American exceptionalism and an easily identifiable hero in anyone’s book, Superman became the very first superhero to get the blockbuster treatment with Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman. Donner’s Superman was a smash at the box office and would prove just how successful superhero films could be, inspiring generations of fantasy-action filmmakers within the superhero genre and beyond. Since then, Superman has appeared in numerous comic book flicks, even appearing as recently as 2021 in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
In this edition of Ranked, we at The Film Magazine are analysing the 7 leading appearances of the Man of Steel on the big screen, from Superman and the Mole Men in 1951 to Man of Steel in 2013, and ranking each Superman film from worst to best in terms of quality, longevity and importance, to determine which of Clark Kent’s many adventures deserves to be recognised as the best, and which should be acknowledged as the worst…
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7. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Although ranked last in our list of Superman movies, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace sets the tone for every other Superman movie to come. Fun. No matter how bad a Superman movie may be, it is impossible not to enjoy yourself.
That being said, Christopher Reeve’s fourth outing as the character is as bad as they come. Although the film boldly tackles the threat of nuclear annihilation – which was relevant for the mid-to-late 1980s – the film’s cheesy approach creates a final product that is hilariously of its time.
To make matters worse, much of the charm of the previous three films is completely lost. The movie’s writing portrays Lois Lane as though she only tolerates Clark Kent due to his connection with Superman, and it comes across as though she only cares about Superman because he makes for a good story. It presents Lois as totally selfish, making Clark’s previously goofy yet charming efforts to court Lois feel more sad than sweet.
Christopher Reeve’s deeper involvement on this fourth venture as both a writer and a second unit director do show just how much he cared about the character, but even Reeve couldn’t save this doomed production under the infamous Cannon (film company).
If you like films that are so bad they’re good, then The Quest for Peace can be enjoyed, and comes complete with terrible effects, an anti-climactic slow motion fight in space, terrible visual effects and the most ‘80s villain of all time. But to most of us, it’s hard to believe that this was released just 2 years before Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).
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6. Superman III (1983)
No subtitle for this film. Although, maybe there should have been. Perhaps a new title altogether. “Richard Pryor Meets Superman” probably would have been a more apt title, given that the film often feels more like a Richard Pryor comedy vehicle rather than a tale of the Man of Steel.
It may be the second lowest ranked film on this list but Superman III features some of the greatest Superman moments put to film, such as the now famous chemical plant fire scene and the Evil Superman vs Superman Fight. On top of this, Clark Kent’s new love interest, Lana, makes for a change from the Lois/Clark dynamic that was, frankly, spent by the time Superman III was released.
However, almost all of the positives of Superman III come within the film’s first half, before taking a total nosedive in quality with the second half. Superman’s “evil deeds”, such as blowing out the Olympic torch, straightening the leaning tower of Pisa and aggressively flicking peanuts are just some examples from the incredibly comical Evil Superman’s time on screen.
Terrible Richard Pyror slapstick and boring villain aside, Superman III can be enjoyed as being more than just a bad movie, this Richard Lester directed effort offering a number of things to appreciate even close to four decades later.