Which is why it's worth looking back on the previous Superman movies (there are five!), to see what worked and what didn't work. Hopefully "Man of Steel" will soar above them all, but even if it doesn't, there are some decent entries to fall back on.
Gallery | Ranking the Superman Movies
- 5. ‘Superman IV: The Quest for Peace’ (1987)
Timely to a fault, the fourth Christopher Reeve Superman movie had the hero singlehandedly ridding earth of its nuclear weapons (he says so in a speech to the UN). While the third movie might have been funnier, this one is endlessly sillier -- it involves an evil superhero clone named Nuclear Man and the (diminishing) return of Gene Hackman's villainous Lex Luthor. There's really nothing to even remotely recommend about "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," unless you're morbidly curious how the original string of movies came to a close. Spoiler alert: embarrassingly.
- 4. ‘Superman Returns’ (2008)
Here it is! The return of Superman! With a big name director who had successfully kickstarted another great superhero franchise with the "X-Men" movies, Bryan Singer! But almost everything about "Superman Returns" falters. For one, its funereally paced, which isn't a great thing when it's the first "Superman" movie since the late ‘80s. Secondly, it's far too reverential of the original Richard Donner "Superman." That movie is fine and all, but to really hold it in such high regard that you would try to photocopy it, sometimes word for word, for your $200 million + reboot? Really? Even the title sequence is exactly the same (complete with John Williams's iconic theme). Lex Luthor is the bad guy (again) and he's a real estate con artist (again), only this time he's played by Kevin Spacey (who actually seems to have more fun in the role than Gene Hackman). Having less fun: everyone else. Brandon Routh as Superman is a dud (even more so as Clark Kent), Kate Bosworth seems too young to be Lois Lane (especially when she's saddled with a kid), and Frank Langella, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Sam Huntington, and Kal Penn all just look like they'd rather be some place else. The movie's plot makes zero sense, too, turning Superman into a creepy stalker and having his superpowers consist solely of lifting heavy things and flying. Snooze.
- 3. ‘Superman III’ (1983)
AKA "the one with Richard Pryor," the third "Superman III" feels both hopelessly dated and yet somewhat underrated. Instead of trying to justify its comic book nature, as had been done in the first two movies, "Superman III" embraces it wholeheartedly, with returning director Richard Lester able to run wild and not simply try to recreate what Donner had done beforehand. The plot of "Superman III" is particularly nonsensical, involving an evil billionaire (Robert Vaughn) who utilizes a computer genius conman (Richard Pryor) to do all sorts of villainous nonsense with the aid of a vaguely "Terminator"-ish super-computer, including killing Superman. (See? Total nonsense.) But the performances are uniformly excellent, particularly by Reeve and Pryor. Adding to the over-exaggerated comic book nature of "Superman III" is the addition of some key elements from the comic book, including the introduction of Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole), one of Clark's old sweethearts who he reconnects with at a high school reunion. That sort of speaks to everything that's both wonderful and horrible about "Superman III" -- they waste time with him going to his high school reunion.
- 2. ‘Superman II’ (1980)
When the first "Superman" was put into production, an ambitious plan to shoot two films simultaneously was enacted. With the release date for the first "Superman" looming, director Donner put the sequel on the back-burner so he could finish the first film, then would return to it after that film was released. In between the original shoot and the pick-ups, Donner was fired and replaced by second unit director Richard Lester, who had served as a producer on the first film. Because strict Directors Guild regulations state that in order for the director to receive credit, they must shoot at least 51 percent of the movie, Lester went back and restaged sequences originally shot by Donner. But no matter who did what, "Superman II" makes for an incredibly entertaining movie, carrying over various plot points from the first film. The chief villain this time around is General Zod (Terence Stamp), a banished space terrorist released from the Phantom Zone, who has considerably more weight as a villain than Lex Luthor. Years later a "Richard Donner" cut of "Superman II," reinstating his original footage, was released. And the nerds rejoiced.
- 1. ‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978)
If for no other reason than, as the advertising materials suggested at the top of the poster, "Superman" made you believe a man could fly. The 1978 original, directed by Richard Donner with a script co-authored by literary don Mario Puzo, is a film of extreme earnestness -- everything about it is encased in upbeat optimism, from the lead performance of Christopher Reeve, as both the nebbish Clark Kent and his superhero alter ego, to Geoffrey Unsworth's sun-dappled cinematography to John Williams's truly unforgettable score. Sometimes this cheeriness comes off as corny but most of the time it works, like in the sequences where Superman is wooing Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). It's not the best superhero movie ever, but it succeeds at what it's trying to do, which is to create a realistic enough atmosphere in which Superman, as a character, is at least somewhat believable. A lot of this comes from Reeve, who is so amazing at being the klutzy reporter and the suave hero that it's almost like he's playing two roles. Overlong by at least a half hour and occasionally clunky, the original "Superman" is still the one most likely to leap tall buildings in a single bound.