The Best Superman Films and Other Things Not Ranked

I had intended to follow up this list about Batman with an equivalent list about Superman but I found it doubly difficult. Firstly the major film offerings are fewer in number and while varied in quality they are less varied in approach. Secondly, the small screen offerings are better. Really only the early 1990’s animated Batman has had a significant impact on shaping the overall image of Batman. Whereas, the film serials, the Max Fleischer cartoons and more recent TV series have all helped define and popularise Superman.

So rather than good v bad or a ranking here is a mix of the good and the interesting.

Max Fleischer’s Superman Cartoons. These are genuinely gorgeous to look at but carry with them 1940’s cultural baggage. The 1942 “Japoteurs” cartoon is particularly unpleasant in its use of ethnic stereotypes and fear mongering.

However, if you want a giant t-rex defrosting and running amuck in the big city and Lois Lane being sassy try this:

Internet Archive has 17 of the cartoons available.

George Reeves became famous as Superman in the 1950’s TV series. Pre-dating that fractionally was a movie feature starring Reeves as Superman entitled Superman and the Mole Men It is a more serious attempt at Superman than the TV series that followed and has a not-terrible anti-bigotry plot about a small town in conflict with glow-in-the-dark subterranean beings.

Superpup is a thing I didn’t know existed until today and well, it is a thing. An intended spin-off/parody of the George Reeves TV series, it features “Bark Bent” as the mild-mannered reporter who is secretly Superpup.

All the actors have dog heads aside from a small puppet mouse that lives in Bark Bent’s desk drawer.

Richard Lester’s Superman II starring Christopher Reeve remains my favourite movie version of Superman.


It manages to convey a real threat, balances humour and seriousness, and has some genuine dilemmas for the characters. Also Terrance Stamp.

Christopher Reeve was a consistently good Superman/Clark Kent who found a way to make both characters feel genuine and consistent with one another. While the later sequels went off the rails, Reeve was rarely unconvincing.

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman couldn’t quite find the balance between kitsch and superhero adventures. but Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain proved to be an effective double-act. With a focus on the relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent the series identified the strongest element of Superman as a character. Even the title (in the US anyway) realised that Lois Lane was as important as Superman if a show about Superman was to be interesting.

Smallville applied the Buffy treatment to Superman and while it shifted the love interest to teenage-Clark’s high-school girlfriend Lana Lang, the show retained a focus on Clark Kent as a person navigating his relationship with other people. It initial monster-of-the-week approach gave way to more complex plots that then gave way to confusing storylines. As with Lois & Clark, an interesting show began to conflict with a basic flaw in Superman as a character. It is hard for Superman to have a story of personal growth and change – Smallville appeared to anticipate this by having a character who wasn’t yet Superman as such.

Superman Returns. I had high hopes for Bryan Singer’s attempt at Superman given his track record and his overt intent for the film to act as a sequel to Superman II rather than as a reboot. Yet, the film doesn’t quite work. Kevin Spacey is fun as Lex Luthor but the story lacks fizz. The film did attempt a more complex relationship with Lois Lane but the net effect was too serious.

The less said of Zak Snyder’s Superman the better. I’ll concede that the effects and set pieces are good. Man of Steel was less bad that Batman versus Superman but the flaws were similar. Even a weak episode of Smallville manages to be a more interesting take on Superman than Snyder’s version. Despite a prolonged backstory to emphasise’s Clark’s human & humane upbringing, Snyder wants Superman to be an alien figure who is distant from humanity and troubled by that. Unfortunately, that just makes Clark Kent seem oddly emotionless and Superman too angsty. I could see how with a tighter story and the film being about some other superhuman being that it could work but as it stands the film just doesn’t work.

I hesitate to suggest Steven Moffat should be attached to any more iconic SF characters but…a good Superman story does need elements that mix cosmic SF and superhero action with a romantic comedy sensibility, and that brief sounds Moffat-like. The more watchable Superman versions have had stronger Lois Lanes (OK Lana Lang and then Lois Lane for Smallville) *and* humour between Clerk and Lois. The basic setup of a New York (OK ‘Metropolis’) newspaper and 1940s aesthetic imply wit and banter.

Like this but with alien superpowers and fewer mid-20th century gender attitudes.

17 thoughts on “The Best Superman Films and Other Things Not Ranked

  1. There’s a lot wrong with this but you do get a few things right, so let’s emphasize that!

    1. Christopher Reeve was a brilliant physical actor, whose embodiments of Clark and Superman were landmark performances. Shame about the words they put in his mouth.
    2. Margot Kidder also turned in terrific performances as Lois, and her chemistry with Reeve makes the first movie forgivable and the second kind of…good!
    3. Superman II really is better than Superman, itself perhaps the single most loathsome venture in superhero cinema prior to, well, everything Zach Snyder ever did.

    Smallville may well have gotten good; I never got out of S1. No points off here!

    Now, a few gentle corrections. 😀

    Lois and Clark is the greatest live-action take on Superman and the only really good one.

    The Timmverse animated series is indispensible, the single greatest take on the character period. Dana Delany’s voice is the best Lois Lane. Clancy Brown’s voice is the best Lex Luthor.

    All of the above is, of course, meant with nothing but love, love, love. Also love.



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  2. You forgot Tyler Hoechlin who plays a pretty good Superman (better than the last couple of big screen attempts) in the Supergirl TV series, which is an all around lovely take on the mythos.

    Lois and Clark is probably my favourite Superman adaptation, though I’m also fond of the Christopher Reeves movies, particularly Superman II.

    Smallville was good for the first few seasons, but then it went on much too long. Gotham is trying to do something similar with the origin of Batman and is IMO doing it better, especially since their Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle are played by actors who really are teenagers, so you watch them growing up in real time.

    There were also a few Superman movie serials in the 1940s, starring Kirk Alyn, though I’ve never seen them.

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      1. I’m really fond of both of them. Supergirl takes a frothy superhero show and injects political subtexts to make JCW explode on the spot into it. Plus, it made me like Callista Flockhart.

        Gotham is a gothic crime drama featuring a teen Bruce Wayne as well as pretty much every Batman villain you can think of before they became what they are. It’s totally bonkers and marvelously entertaining. I wrote a bit more about why I enjoy it on the Batman thread.

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    1. Interesting to hear your take on Tyler Hoechlin. I haven’t seen his Superman, but I wasn’t terribly impressed with his acting chops in Teen Wolf.

      I gotta say, though, that I’m pretty indiscriminate so far as Superman actors go. I have appreciated the — ahem — physical assets of just about all of em. Dean Cain couldn’t act his way out of a wet paper bag, but he was plenty good looking back in the day; and I always thought that Tom Welling did a good acting job in addition to his aesthetic qualities.

      Speaking of brilliant physical actors and slightly off-topic — I watched Avengers: Civil War the other day. I’ve always been a big Paul Bettany fan, and there’s one scene with what’s-her-name the witch girl that impressed me so much, where he’s preventing her from leaving but his whole body shows how much he wants to not just restrain her but to *protect* her. Only a few seconds, but I was struck by it.


      1. I have never seen Teen Wolf (the TV series, that is – I have seen the Michael J. Fox movie from the 1980s), but Hoechlin makes a good Superman (much better than Henry Cavill who’s just awful). Superman is also just a guest star, it’s Kara’s story, not Clark’s. Coincidentally, both Dean Cain and Terri Hatcher from Lois and Clark have guest parts in Supergirl. Dean Cain plays Supergirl’s adoptive father, while Helen Slater (Supergirl in the 1980s) plays her adoptive mother. Terri Hatcher plays an evil space queen and she makes a fabulous villainess.

        I think Paul Bettany does a very good job in the Avengers movies. The Vision is a flat out ridiculous character with a flat out ridiculous appearance, but Bettany somehow makes him work. He’s also excellent at portraying the attraction between Vision and Scarlet Witch with just a few looks and gestures.

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      2. She only shows up halfway through season 2, but season 2 is better than season 1 anyway. Besides, Supergirl finally managed to do something decent with the Martian Manhunter who is one of the sillier Justice League members.

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      3. It’s probably more Zac Snyder’s than Henry Cavill’s fault, but Cavill’s Superman may look like the Man of Steel, but is apparently some kind of evil bizarro version.


  3. Christopher Reeve will always be the best Superman and Clark Kent.

    In his infrequent appearances, Tyler Whatsis is doing a good job as both. He’s less of an innocent than Reeve’s Clark, but still genuinely a good guy.

    “Supergirl” is a wonderful show! There are so many good parts for women, the relationships and friendships are great, there are realistic (not stereotype) lesbians, and Jimmy Olsen goes by James and is a tall gorgeous black man who’s nobody’s sidekick. Martian Manhunter is awesome. We watch it live, with ads and everything! The yearly sweeps crossover with “The Flash” never fails to be adorable. And this year’s mega-crossover musical episode was both an excuse to have everyone sing (incl. Jesse L. Martin, Victor Garber, and of course John Barrowman) and wear 30’s outfits and was also good.

    “Gotham” is completely wacko and has decided to just lean in with it. It realizes it’s a live-action comic book. Something outrageous happens, and you’re all “Sure. Of course. Why not.” Sean Pertwee is a kick-ass Action Alfred.

    DC TV is doing so well, with “Gotham”, “Supergirl”, and the interlaced Flash, Arrow, and Legends. Pity the movies are so bad (except WW). I don’t watch Arrow or Legends except in crossovers, but they seem a’ight. Arrow himself’s got too much white boy manpain for my taste, pretty as he is.

    Anyway. Everyone should watch Supergirl.

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    1. The best parts of Arrow were always the exercise sequences. Very inspiring. 😉 But I got tired of the series after the first coupla seasons.

      With your glowing review I’ll have to try out some Supergirl. I also got tired of The Flash series, but the kid who plays the Flash was good, IMHO. I was sad that he seems to not have gotten the movie part? That was a shame.


      1. I watched some of Season 1 Flash (on a very long plane trip) and I wasn’t won over although it had many likeable elements. I also some of that Legends of Tomorrow series but disliked it.


  4. The simplest description of Man of Steel I heard was from a local SF con.
    “When Zack Snyder is operating from within his dark, cynical wheelhouse, he can produce some absolutely amazing pieces of cinematic work. Unfortunately, Superman is not within his wheelhouse.”

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