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, or at least one super folk, I can't turn back time.
So here it is: my ranking (worst to first) of every Superman movie ever made. Feel free to add yours in the comments field.
The principles (particularly Lois and Jimmy) look too old for their parts, while the subplots (aerobics classes and hostile takeovers) remind us of everything we hated about the '80s. The story? Awful. Spurred by an annoying kid, Superman unilaterally decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and does, but because Lex Luthor places a Superman hair and a gold suit in one of the rocket capsules, a villain, Nuclear Man, emerges, with whom he battles all over the heavily dropshadowed globe. But the chief villains in the movie are its producers, Monahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the cheap bastards who bought the rights to Superman but fearing bankruptcy slashed the budget from $40 million to $17 million, losing great technicians in the process. As a result, big scenes became small scenes. The global became local. A grand vision was replaced by the rinky-dink. It looked fake ... fake ... fake. Watching it, you won’t believe that you once believed that a man could fly.
Blue eyebeams are for repairing the Great Wall of China.
The theme of small-town intolerance is particularly fascinating here since Superman himself is rather intolerant. If Kirk Alyn played Superman with wide-eyed bombast, George Reeves takes it down a notch. Or 10. For decades, Reeves’ was considered the touchstone performance, the one and true Superman, but I was never a fan, and I’m even less of one now. Reeves’ 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. “You saved my life,” the movie's chief villain says in amazement at one point. “That’s more than you deserve,” Superman sneers back. It's a dry little movie filmed in a dry little backlot. Its main action consists of a midget in bald wig and furry suit being pursued over nondescript brush and hills. The whole thing makes me vaguely nauseous.
A half hour of this.
We get gags. We get evil Superman. We get an early ‘80s version of what computer programming is like. (Psst: Magic.) But most of all we get Richard Pryor doing unfunny bits. Here he does drunk, here he does “Patton,” here he does the bland white-guy voice. 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 looks embarrassed throughout. 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.
I'm with Vaughn here.
“Atom Man vs. Superman” feels cheaper than “Superman” (1948), the previous Kirk Alyn serial. We get more stock footage: floods, fires, etc. We get redos from the first serial: Clark Kent ducking behind a file cabinet and emerging, a second later, to a triumphant blast of music, as Superman. One episode, about Superman's origins on Krypton, is essentially the entire first episode of the first serial retold. Meanwhile, the titular Atom Man, Luthor's secret identity, is a terrifying figure in a … Naw. It looks like they took a jug, cut in eyeholes and a mouthhole, 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?
Is that a nuclear missile between your legs or are you just happy to see me?
Remember “This is a job ... FOR SUPERMAN”? Well, 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, and wining and dining Lois Lane. At the Fortress of Solitude, he actually gives up his superpowers for her and the two sleep together in a silver bed that seems stolen from Andy Gibb’s 1970s pad. Meanwhile people are dying and the President of the United States (in a bad toupee) is kneeling before Zod. How can we not hate him at this moment? The movie is set up so we hate Superman. Too late he remembers what his job is and begs for it back. “FATHERRRRRRRR!” he cries. But father is in litigation with the movie's producers, the Salkinds, who didn't want to pay him 11%. They 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.
Superman and Lois in Andy Gibbs' bed. He just wants to be her everything.
The plot is typical of the serial genre. The Spider Lady, who never once leaves her mountainside lair, tries to get the mysterious reducer ray, “a force more powerful even than the atomic bomb!” Basically it’s a big ray gun. First she tries to steal it. No go. Then she employs Dr. Hackett, “a brilliant scientist with a warped mind,” who invents a kind of kryptonite gun. That doesn’t work, either. Then she kidnaps Dr. Graham, the original inventor, and forces him to create a second reducer ray. He refuses. After he’s tortured, he complies. But he needs “mono chromite.” It takes a few chapters to get that, at which point he refuses again. So he’s hypnotized. But now he needs an “activator tube” from Metropolis U. Blah blah blah. By Chapter 14, the reducer ray finally works. Spider Lady’s first target? Her own men in jail. Her second target? The Daily Planet building. At 3:00. By then, though, everyone converges on her lair: Jimmy, Lois and eventually ... Superman, When the Spider Lady tries to run away, she’s electrocuted by her own spiderweb. Crime don’t pay, kids.
Superman watches the Spider Lady fry in 1948's “Superman” serial, with Lois and Jimmy behind him.
The best part of the Donner cut is how they open the movie. In Lester’s version, Clark Kent strolls into The Daily Planet office at midday and you wind up wondering why Clark isn’t at work, why he doesn’t know about the terrorists, and why he keeps detonating nukes in space when his mother has already warned him against it in those Kryptonian lesson plans. Here’s what Donner does. Lois sees Clark across the room, and draws a suit, glasses, and a fedora on a photo of Superman. Wah-lah! She ain't dumb. And what does she do with her suspicions? She teases him. Perry calls Lois and Clark into his office and gives them an assignment to pose as a honeymoon couple at Niagra Falls. She’s game, he’s worried. She talks about flying up there and pokes him in the ribs. “You know, fly?” she says, then flaps her hands like a bird, like Jack Nicholson’s Joker would do eight years later. 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. It’s clever. It’s sexy. It’s got pizzazz. 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.
Supercute. And on the cutting room floor in the Lester version.
Too young. Brandon Routh is actually several years older than Christopher Reeve was when he put on the cape; he just looks younger. But the Lois Lane casting is worse. Kate Bosworth 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. Why the world doesn’t need Superman? Really, Lois? She assumes her pain is the world’s, her resentments ours. And he can’t get past the fact that she wrote the article? That she was angry that he left for five years without a word? What is he—a Vulcan? Even so, the movie has some poignant moments. It brings cohesion to the whole Donner/Singer 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.
This headline says it all. Other Daily Planet headlines available here.
Divide this movie into changes that are good and changes that are bad. For me, 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 changes include: 1) the adventures of Jor-El, free-thinking scientist; 2) the codex; 3) the whole Kryptonian natural childbirth movement. And the ending? Which everyone is debating? Yes, 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.
Henry Cavill's Superman: Not exactly greeted with cheers from the U.S. military.
Director Richard Donner’s watchword during production was “verisimilitude,” which begins and ends with Christopher Reeve. He’s the greatest superhero casting ever. He’s not only comic-book handsome, he’s an actor. He makes the worst secret identity ever—I’ll put on these glasses and no one will tell—believable. Here’s creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz on what happened when 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 years ahead of its time. It 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.