Ranking Every Superman Movie Ever Made
I did it with the Batman movies so I figured I'd do it with the Superman movies, too. To be honest, I planned on doing it before “Man of Steel” opened last Friday but time got away from me, and unlike some folks I can't turn back time.
So here you go: worst to first of every Superman movie ever made.
Everyone looks too old, while the subplots (aerobics and hostile takeovers) remind us of everything we hated about the '80s. The story? Awful. Spurred by an annoying kid, Superman unilaterally, dictatorially, decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons, but because Lex Luthor places a Superman hair and a gold suit in one of the rocket capsules, a villain, Nuclear Man, emerges. The real villains here are the producers, Monahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the Israeli cousins who bought the rights to Superman but slashed his budget in half when other pet projects failed. As a result, big scenes became small, the global became local, and everything looks fake fake fake. Watching, you won’t believe you once believed that a man could fly.
Super wall-building ray
If Kirk Alyn played Superman with wide-eyed bombast, George Reeves takes it down a notch. Or 10. His indifference to the role permeates the character. His Clark Kent is strong and smug, his Superman vaguely disgusted and contempuous. He messes with both the first and second amendments—convincing Lois not to publish a story and (in a hilarious scene) disarming an entire Texas town. The movie's main action consists of a midget in bald wig and furry suit being pursued over nondescript brush and hills by rednecks. It's a dry little movie filmed in a dry little backlot.
We get gags. We get evil Superman. But most of all we get Richard Pryor doing unfunny bits: drunk, “Patton,” white guy. He plays at Superman with a tablecloth as his cape, then skis off a high-rise and walks away, looking, not astonished at surviving a 40-story fall, but simply embarrassed. He should. Think of everything they could’ve done with this movie and look at what they did. Look at what they did to my boy.
“Atom Man vs. Superman” feels cheaper than its predecessor: more stock footage, more shots of Clark Kent ducking behind the same file cabinet, and one episode, about Superman's origins on Krypton, is essentially the entire first episode of the first serial retold. Meanwhile, the titular Atom Man, Lex Luthor's secret identity, looks like they took a jug, cut out eyeholes, sprinkled on glitter, and plunked it on Lyle Talbot’s poor head. You know the scene in “Duck Soup” where Groucho gets his head stuck in a pitcher and Harpo draws a Groucho face on it? Like that. On the plus side, in Chapters 14 and 15, Superman beats Slim Pickens to the punch by riding a nuclear missle out to sea. Yee ... ha?
“This is a job ... FOR SUPERMAN!” Except this is a Superman who doesn't do his job. He strolls into The Daily Planet in the middle of the day, then spends most of the movie clumsily flirting with, revealing his secret identity to, Lois Lane. At the Fortress of Solitude, he actually gives up his superpowers so he can get laid. Meanwhile people are dying and the President of the United States is kneeling before Zod. Too late he remembers what his job is and begs for it back. “FATHERRRRRRRR!” he cries. But father, Marlon Brando, is in litigation with the movie's producers, the Salkinds, who also fired the first movie's great director, Richard Donner, for this movie's crappy director, Richard Lester. Apparently they didn't like a man doing his job.
Super dry look
The plot is typical of the serial genre, which has to stretch things out over 15 episodes. Our villain, the Spider Lady, is after the mysterious reducer ray, “a force more powerful even than the atomic bomb!” Basically it’s a ray gun. First she tries to steal it. Then she hires “a brilliant scientist with a warped mind,” to invent a kryptonite gun. That goes nowhere. Then she kidnaps the original inventor and forces him to create a second reducer ray. He refuses, but complies under torture. But he needs “mono chromite.” It takes a few chapters to get that, at which point he refuses again. So now he’s hypnotized. Etc. etc. Even so, this is our first live-action Superman, and former dancer Kirk Alyn looks like he's having fun in the tights.
A lot of “Superman II” was filmed along with “Superman: The Movie,” but then its producers canned director Richard Donner and brought in Richard Lester; and Lester brought along his own sensibility; and it wasn't good. Donner's version begins with one of the most charming scenes in any Superman movie. In the Daily Planet offices, Lois draws glasses on a photo of Superman, and a light-bulb goes on. Then she spends the next five minutes teasing him. Then she opens a window and falls out. “You won’t let me die, Superman!” she cries. He doesn’t. But he doesn't reveal his identity, either. It’s fun, clever, sexy. It’s better than any scene in Lester’s version. And it wound up on his cutting-room floor. You watch it and want to call Superman. Because we wuz robbed.
Brandon Routh is actually several years older than Christopher Reeve was when he first put on the cape; he just looks younger. But Kate Bosworth? She was 22 when they filmed this. And she has a 5-year-old? From a consummation six years earlier? That’s some awkward math. Kidder and Reeve were adults in a gritty adult world—New York in the 1970s—but these two look like kids and act like kids. Lois assumes her pain is the world’s pain, while he can't get over the fact that she's angry that he left for five years without a word. Even so, the movie brings cohesion to the whole Donner enterprise. Superman travels to Krypton to discover he's its last son, then travels back to Earth to find out he isn’t. He goes searching for Krypton but finds it in his own backyard.
The good changes to the Superman mythos include: 1) wanderlust, bearded Clark; 2) people freaking when Supes first shows up; and 3) Lois Lane figuring out his secret identity before anyone else knows he even exists. The bad includes: 1) the adventures of Jor-El, free-thinking scientist; 2) the codex; 3) the whole Kryptonian natural childbirth movement. And the ending, but not for the reasons others say. I'm just bummed Superman couldn't figure out a smarter way to defeat Zod. “Mind over muscle, Superman?” Lex Luthor said in the first Chris Reeve movie. Here, it's muscle over mind. Again.
Here’s creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz on what happened when Christopher Reeve finally got his screen test:
He hopped off the balcony and said, “Good evening, Miss Lane.” And [cinematographer] Geoffrey Unsworth looked over at me and went [makes impressed face]. Because the tone was just right. He went through the test and we just knew we had him.
The movie was Kryptonian in its advancement. It took another 11 years before we got Tim Burton’s “Batman” and another 11 years after that to get to Bryan Singer’s “X-Men.” Twenty-two years: an entire generation. Back in the mid-1970s, Hollywood, enamored of disaster and devil movies, didn’t think much of superhero movies. But it only lacked the light to show it the way.