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: https://archive.org/details/arctic_giant
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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/His_Girl_Friday but with alien superpowers and fewer mid-20th century gender attitudes.