Superman remains one of the world’s most iconic and beloved superheroes, thanks in large dpart to his presence on the silver screen. The blue Boy Scout has been a part of some of the best and worst films in history, but for the most part, he has made an indelible mark on popular culture by appearing in some of cinema’s best and most influential superhero movies.
Even though this is a “best” Superman list, we will include Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Superman III with Richard Pryor, which aren’t great but still have some redeemable qualities. Now that Henry Cavill’s Superman has officially returned to the DC Universe with more of him to come in future films, here’s a ranked list of the best Superman movies of all time.
9. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)
In Christopher Reeve’s final film as Superman, the Man of Steel faces off against Nuclear Man, a superpowered villain created by Lex Luthor from the hero’s DNA. Unfortunately, Reeve’s character went out not with a bang but a whimper, as this film is ruined by its ridiculous story, glaring plot holes, and terrible special effects. Much like Batman & Robin, this fourth Superman film all but broke its franchise while ranking as one of the worst movies ever made.
8. Superman III (1983)
This film showed Superman facing off against evil industrialist Rob Webster as the latter tries to get rid of the Kryptonian and take control of the world’s oil supply with the help of computer programmer Gus Gorman. During this conflict, the Man of Steel’s mind becomes corrupted by a mock piece of kryptonite created by Gorman that splits him in two, forcing Clark to confront his darker half in battle. Superman III was hampered by its overly campy tone and Richard Pryor’s goofy performance as Gorman, but as always, Christopher Reeve gives his all as both the good and evil Superman.
7. Justice League (2017)
After Superman’s death at the hands of Doomsday, Batman seeks to forge a team of metahumans to fend off the alien Steppenwolf’s invasion of Earth. After director Zack Snyder left the production following his daughter’s death, Joss Whedon tried to satisfy fans by presenting a more comedic and lighthearted story. Unfortunately, this resulted in the movie being an inconsistent mess that disappointed fans and casual moviegoers alike.
In a film that’s rife with problems, one of the most glaring issues audiences had with this movie was Superman’s unconvincing CGI mouth. However, he also suffers from cringe-inducing jokes and a lack of smooth character development. While Henry Cavill’s Superman is more hopeful and confident than in his previous films, the change feels too forced and jarring, making his resurrection in the movie not as rewarding as it might have been.
6. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition (2016)
Seeing Superman as a threat to humanity, a fearful and furious Batman goes to war with the Man of Steel, only to realize that the evil Lex Luthor has manipulated him into getting rid of Superman. He and Superman eventually team up with Wonder Woman to defeat Lex Luthor and his nigh-unstoppable monster, Doomsday. Many people were disappointed by this film when it premiered in theaters, but the longer “Ultimate Edition” restores some important scenes that fill some pressing plot holes and sets a stronger foundation for the Justice League’s war with Darkseid. Thanks to the “Ultimate Edition” and the #ReleasetheSnyderCut movement, Batman v Superman managed to gain a massive cult following.
Audiences had hoped to see a titanic showdown between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel, but for better or worse, the movie focused more on the ideological conflict between both heroes while setting up the birth of the Justice League. It also presents a compelling struggle with Clark trying to be a hero in a world that hates and fears him, which raises the question, “Can there be a Superman in the modern world?” Though a lot is going on in this film, Zack Snyder undeniably forged an ambitious, bombastic, and thought-provoking story that, despite the controversy and its flaws, remained fresh in moviegoers’ minds as one of the most memorable superhero films of all time.
5. Superman Returns (2006)
Set in the same universe as Christopher Reeve’s films, Superman Returns follows the hero five years after he leaves Earth to explore the ruins of his home planet, Krypton. Even though the people of Earth welcome his return, he has trouble mending his relationship with a now-married Lois Lane and their son, Jason, especially when Lex Luthor returns to cause havoc.
Though the film isn’t one of the more popular Superman films, particularly due to its long runtime and lack of action scenes, it is still an underrated blockbuster that helped rebuild the franchise for modern audiences with its more serious tone and advanced visual effects. Brandon Routh also gave a stellar performance as one of the best live-action Supermen ever, which got a well-deserved return in the CW’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover event in 2019.
4. Man of Steel (2013)
Warner Bros. launched the DC Universe with this gritty retelling of Superman’s origin story. Man of Steel presents a dark realism by portraying the Last Son of Krypton as an illegal immigrant feared by the U.S. government. Though Supes is unsure about his place on Earth, he steps up to become the planet’s greatest protector when General Zod arrives to turn his world into a new Krypton.
Not all audiences were fans of the film’s dark tone and muted colors, but Man of Steel does have many exhilarating fight scenes and terrific performances, particularly from Henry Cavill. While his iteration of Superman isn’t the hero that most people are familiar with, he still embodies hope not because of what he is but because of what he could be, inspiring those he encounters to have faith in him.
3. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Just as Superman rose from the dead, so did Zack Snyder’s version of Justice League finally see the light of day after four years of fans campaigning worldwide. In his cut of the film, Snyder brings the League together as it was meant to be in a four-hour superhero epic worthy of Earth’s greatest heroes. Compared to Joss Whedon’s version of the film, which was rife with problems including cringe jokes, bad CGI, a short runtime, and little character development, the Snyder Cut is a cinematic masterpiece.
Each character of the Justice League is given a much better portrayal in this movie, especially Superman. Rocking a cool black suit and a non-CGI mouth, Superman returns in a glorious new way to join the Justice League in their war against the forces of Apokolips. Not only that, but Clark’s second chance at life allows him to discover who he is and to become the symbol of hope that the Earth desperately needs. This Superman truly feels like the hero that comic book fans know and love, and audiences are now glad they’ll get to see more of him in the future.
2. Superman II (1981)
After Superman unknowingly frees General Zod and his allies from the Phantom Zone, he decides to give up his powers so he can live a normal life with Lois Lane, which spells danger for all of humanity when the evil Kryptonians arrive on Earth. Like Justice League, Superman II experienced creative strife when director Richard Donner was replaced with Richard Lester, causing a drastic change in the movie’s tone and plot.
Disregarding the theatrical film’s overabundance of camp, Superman wiping Lois’s memory with a kiss, and the hero somehow throwing the “S” from his chest at one of the villains, Superman II is still considered a superhero classic. Nevertheless, the “Donner Cuts” released decades later is arguably the better version due to its more balanced tone and less questionable ending.
1. Superman: The Movie (1978)
This film made the world believe a man can fly. Director Richard Donner created the first superhero blockbuster by bringing the Man of Steel to the big screen, presenting the titular hero’s birth as Kal-El, his upbringing as Clark, and his rebirth as Superman. After he makes a name for himself as a superhero, he falls in love with Lois Lane and battles Lex Luthor for the fate of America.
Though not every aspect of the film aged well, specifically its visual effects, unrealistic story, and Gene Hackman’s campy Lex Luthor, it’s a classic tale that continues to serve as the template for the many superhero movies that came after it. Christopher Reeve also established himself as the quintessential Superman, setting the bar for the many other iterations that came after him.
All of these Superman movies are currently available to stream on HBO Max.