Superman Movies Ranked From Worst To Best

Correction 5/3/22: A previous version of this article stated that the three super-villains in "Superman II" were freed from the Phantom Zone by the nuclear missiles launched by Lex Luthor in the first movie. Zod, Ursa, and Non were actually released by the detonation of a terrorist group's hydrogen bomb that was tossed into space by Superman.

What's that up in the sky? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It's a list of the Superman movies, ranked worst to best.

Kal-El — better known as Superman to the residents of the DC Universe — is the ultimate immigrant, a refugee from a dying world. Found and raised by Martha and Jonathan Kent in west Kansas, he learned about his extraterrestrial origins at the same time that he began developing mighty superpowers. Later in life, Clark Kent would take to the skies in a red and blue costume, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.

Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster (themselves both children of Jewish immigrants) in 1938, Superman escaped from comics into the world of animation (in the superb Fleischer Studios cartoons) in 1941, and then to live action 7 years later in the form of actor Kirk Alyn, who starred in a number of Saturday morning serials. For expediency, however, we're only considering the live-action, feature-length films on this list — and only ones in which Superman has a starring role (so, not his blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo in "Shazam"). Up, up, and away — to the first entry!

10. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Only two years after Sylvester Stallone tried to end the Cold War through the medium of pugilism in "Rocky IV," Superman meddled with world affairs in "Superman IV," determined to rid the world of nuclear weaponry. However, Lex Luthor had broken out of prison again and, with the aid of handy radioactive material, cloned Superman, creating the Nuclear Man, a being just as powerful as the Man of Steel but decidedly more tanned — a Man of Bronze, if you will.

After the fallout (sorry) of "Superman III" and its less-than-stellar box office take, "Superman IV" had a troubled origin and shoot. With only a fraction of the budget of the previous movies and new producers, corners ended up cut. Milton Keynes, a town in Buckinghamshire, England, ended up standing in for New York, and the opening prison scenes were shot in a quarry outside of Hertfordshire in the UK, a location better known for hosting Doctor Who's Cybermen and Daleks than Kryptonian super-beings.

The whole thing feels rushed and cheap, little more than a risible and cynical money-making exercise. There are some who would argue that Nuclear Man was a poor villain, too — however, he managed to wipe out the live-action Superman franchise for two decades, which is no small feat.

9. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Turn the brightness on your televisions up and the bass on your speakers down — it's a Zack Snyder DCU movie!

Expectations were high for this one — it had even been teased nine years before release as an Easter egg in Will Smith's "I Am Legend." Loosely based on the last act of Frank Miller's seminal Batman story, "The Dark Knight Returns," "Batman v Superman" sees Henry Cavill return as Superman to fight, snarl, and growl at Ben Affleck's Batman for three hours. 

Following directly from the events of "Man of Steel," the movie sees Bruce Wayne, believing that Superman is a threat to humankind, decide to take out the Last Son of Krypton. He does this over 183 drawn-out minutes of set pieces that are either too quick and too loud to follow or too dark to comprehend. And then, in true comic book style, our heroes are forced to confront a common foe, and all is forgiven.

The film is more successful as an introduction to Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman than it is at being a character study of the two conflicted leads; this is the first "versus" film since "Freddy vs. Jason" in which you don't really want either of them to win. The "Martha" denouement is hilarious though, I'll grant the movie that.

8. Justice League (2017)

After his daughter's death, director Zack Snyder left post-production on "Justice League" and was replaced by Joss Whedon. Whedon had previously  found success with Marvel, writing and directing "Avengers" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron," and Warner Bros. thought he would bring some of his magic to DC, imbuing "Justice League" with the same spirited combination of humor and action. 

He didn't. What starts off promisingly enough quickly devolves into a CGI-heavy blur of dull action scenes. Much has been said about the poor effects used to remove Cavill's moustache, but that's the least of the worries in a film where every fight looks like it's come straight from a computer game. The plot involves Steppenwolf — the obscure DC supervillain, not the band responsible for the 1968 single "Born to be Wild" — attempting to retrieve and reunite lost Mother Boxes to destroy the Earth. Character arcs are picked up and abandoned, and Steppenwolf, despite being played by an actor with the gravitas of Ciarán Hinds, has little to do, and even less motivation to do it.

Superman fans will be disappointed, as the character himself is underused. In Whedon's cut, Superman is the cinematic equivalent of a smart bomb from the arcade game "Defender." He's simply wheeled in to take out the big bad guy; a mere weapon of mass destruction, albeit one draped in over-saturated blue and red. Considering the ugliness that was going on behind the scenes, it should have been no surprise that "Justice League" failed to capture what makes Superman special. It turned out to be kryptonite to cinema audiences, too, barely breaking even on its massive budget.

7. Superman III (1983)

As much a comedy vehicle for Richard Pryor as a Superman film, the absence of both Richard Donner (director of the best parts of the first two movies) and Gene Hackman is sorely felt in "Superman III." Pryor plays Gus Gorman, a genius computer programmer hired by Luthor stand-in Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn). Webster produces some artificial red kryptonite, which turns Superman evil and vindictive, while he and Gus work on a massive supercomputer to try and take over the world.

The scenes in which a disheveled Superman acts out his worst instincts are one of the most entertaining elements of this muddled movie — seeing him straighten up the Leaning Tower of Pisa and blow out the Olympic torch is a lot of fun. Reeve is clearly having the time of his life in this role. It's a shame that the supercomputer plot takes the main stage. The early '80s saw a proliferation of movies involving computers ("Wargames," "Tron," and "Weird Science") in which it's clear that the writers and directors weren't entirely sure what the tech was capable of. "Superman III" is one of them.

However, the movie is notable for a scene in which Webster's sister Vera is captured by the supercomputer and painfully transformed into a cyborg. It's up there with Nazis having their faces melted at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and likely gave nightmares to more than one young super-fan.

6. Superman and the Mole Men (1951)

Clark Kent and Lois Lane travel to a small town called Silsby to write a story about the world's largest oil well, but upon their arrival find out that it has been shut down due to complications. However, at night, strange (and potentially radioactive) mole men emerge from the well, causing panic in the town.

The theatrical film "Superman and the Mole Men" was the lead-in for the syndicated '50s TV series, and was later adapted into a two-part episode of the show. George Reeves makes for an excellent Clark Kent, cutting quite the figure in his suit and trilby, and his Superman is suitably heroic — barrel-chested and square of jaw. Phyllis Coates also makes for a memorable Lois, strong-willed and resourceful; she was rightfully given top billing alongside George, at his insistence.

The effects may have dated poorly, but the plot is ahead of its time, similar to that of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," which came out the same year. The mole men are sympathetic — it's the townsfolk who are the real threat. Even back in the '50s, when most science-fiction revolved around a monster of the week, the Man of Steel was preaching tolerance. Superman appears too rarely in this film, but "Superman and the Mole Men" is well-paced and entertaining viewing, and can be watched online for free.

5. Man of Steel (2013)

We haven't been subjected to Superman's origins quite as much as we have to Batman's, but "Man of Steel" brings us firmly into reboot territory again, effectively condensing the storylines from the first two Richard Donner films into a single movie. We open on Krypton, as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) cuts down considerably on his babysitter bills and childcare responsibilities by launching his only child off into deep space just as Michael Shannon's Zod tries to overthrow the Kryptonian council. Zod and his cohorts are captured and banished to the Phantom Zone. Meanwhile, we follow the infant on Earth, who grows into the hero we know and love.

Henry Cavill was a terrific choice for Superman, looking like he stepped straight from the pages of the comic, but his Clark Kent is slightly less convincing. The unfortunate truth, however, is that Cavill is a wonderful Superman that needs an equally wonderful film to be in. 

"Man of Steel" treads old water, reinventing the classic story for a post-9/11 world. The familiar suit is no longer that, now being armor, its bold colors muted and bleached. Metropolis, as much a character in the other films as any human (or Kryptonian) is now just a generic, smoggy New York clone. The ending is bleak and miserable, with none of the sense of hope or wonder that the better films on this list embody. "Man of Steel" is efficient and entertaining, but as cold and sterile as the Phantom Zone.

4. Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

There's a scene in "Superman III" in which Superman takes a lump of coal, squeezes it in his grip, and produces a diamond — an apt metaphor for Zack Snyder's "Justice League" cut. I'll admit to being cynical about this experiment prior to release, but the resulting movie is a vast improvement on its predecessor. Despite its overly long run-time, the Snyder Cut gives Whedon's film a super-polish, giving characters room to breathe, and taking dangling plot threads and resolving them in satisfying fashion. Snyder's film really is a different movie, and it's infinitely better for it.

The basic premise is the same. Steppenwolf is, however, made a more credible menace — he's given proper motivation, and we get to see him in all his glory fighting Amazons and Atlanteans. The League itself feels less like a disparate group of ragtag characters, and more like a cohesive unit. The character that benefits the most is Ray Fisher's Cyborg, now given a proper story arc. The Snyder Cut is much of an origin tale for Cyborg as it is the tale of the formation of DCs premier super team. 

Even before his resurrection, Superman gets more to do. As he should, Superman serves as an example to aspire to; the Justice League forms because of what he stood for. The Superman who eventually returns to life here is much more like the Superman we've come to know — kind, heroic, and inspirational. The only thing that lets it down is a Snyder-esque return to form at the close: a flash-forward to a timeline in which Superman has become tyrannical and murderous. But hey, at least they fixed that danged moustache.

3. Superman Returns (2006)

Effectively a cold reboot of the franchise, with director Bryan Singer making an indirect sequel to "Superman II," "Superman Returns" revolves around Superman's return to Earth after a five-year absence. Reeve was, of course, irreplaceable, yet fresh-faced Brandon Routh does an admirable job. His Clark Kent is suitably awkward and clumsy, and his Kal-El is stoic and confident. Spacey's Luthor is a little bit of a misfire, though, with the actor channeling Gene Hackman's Lex after the comics had changed him from a comedic foil to a genuine threat.

However, there are genuine surprises. It would have been too easy to make Lois' new boyfriend unlikeable, but the script does the opposite. James Marsden's Richard White (nephew of Daily Planet editor Perry) is kind, smart, and resourceful — Lois certainly does have a type. Besides, the scene that reintroduces Superman to the world — a magnificent set piece in which he saves a plane from crashing into a crowded baseball stadium — is beautifully realized. It's a throwback to the Christopher Reeve days, showing off Superman's selflessness and heroism.

Newer movies seem to have forgotten Superman's core ethos. From "Man of Steel" onwards, the bold primary colors of Superman's suit and cape have become less saturated, and the plots have darkened alongside them. "Superman Returns" may have its flaws — Singer is very keen on hammering home the Superman-as-Christ allegory, right down to the Kryptonite spear piercing his side — but at least it's always optimistic. The same can't be said for Cavill's outings, in which Superman spends as much time beating up his fellow heroes as he does taking on supervillains.

2. Superman: The Movie (1978)

The tag line for "Superman: The Movie" was "You'll believe a man can fly." The entire film hinged on getting that right; if you can get the audience to invest in an outlandish premise like an alien superhero, you've won the battle. They needn't have worried; director Richard Donner bottled lightning. The combination of believable effects, a lead actor who was convincing both as Superman and Clark Kent, and a rousing score by John Williams made for both an incredible movie and a resounding success.

What may seem familiar now was new then. "Superman: The Movie" begins on Krypton with Jor-El and travels to Earth, where Ma and Pa Kent raise young Clark. Departing the small-town life of Smallville to the tempting big city lights of Metropolis, Clark gets a job as a reporter at The Daily Planet. Little do his fellow employees realize that the awkward Mr. Kent is Superman.

"Superman" does an excellent job introducing all of the character's core elements, yet never feels crowded. We're introduced to Superman's true love, Lois Lane, as well as kryptonite, the radioactive material that's the character's Achilles heel. Of course, every good hero deserves a good villain. Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor is an overly ambitious crook who makes for a perfect foil, a character as mean and evil as Superman is good.

But really, it all comes down to the lead role. Reeve is a revelation, inhabiting the character with every fiber of his being. All that keeps "Superman: The Movie" from taking the top spot is an unconvincing ending; the "Superman turns back time" cop-out seems excessive, even for a character who can fly, bench press six sextillion metric tons, and shoot lasers from his eyes. Donner certainly did make us believe he could fly though — Reeve positively soars in the role.

1. Superman II (1981)

Shot back-to-back with "Superman: The Movie," "Superman II" sees the return of the Metropolis Marvel. Long before the MCU established the tradition of ending films by having your lead square off against a similarly-powered version of themselves, this movie had Superman confront three Kryptonians. General Zod, Ursa and Non were three super-villains who had been banished into the Phantom Zone — a parallel dimension where residents exist in a ghost-like state — only to be freed by the detonation of a terrorist group's hydrogen bomb, tossed into space by Superman.

Viewing humanity as an insignificant subspecies, the Kryptonians try to conquer Earth with their newfound powers, while Zod seeks to destroy or subjugate the Last Son of Krypton in particular. Lex Luthor (Hackman), ever power-hungry, betrays humankind, allying with Zod. It's terrible timing all around, as Superman has just given up his powers in hopes of living a normal life with Lois Lane. Terence Stamp (Zod) is a delight; part megalomaniac, part Disney villain, he's a snarling, seething and malevolent force — Superman's contrast in every way. His second, Ursa, is as cruel as she is beautiful, and mute Non is the super-strong and silent type.

The Richard Donner cut of "Superman II" is an improvement on the cinematic cut, but they're both worthy of the top spot. Seeing Reeve in the role he was born to play — he's still arguably the best actor to ever don the suit and cape — in a fight to the death against similarly-powered villains is as amazing as it sounds. There's a genuine sense of jeopardy, and the villains are surprisingly callous and cruel. Top that off with a satisfying punch-the-air ending, and you've got Superman at his absolute best: honorable, heroic, and inspirational.