Superman made his debut in the pages of Action Comics #1 in 1938, and within just 10 years, the first of nine Superman movies would reach the big screen, preceded by a radio show and theatrical animated shorts.
In fact, since 1940 there has not been a decade where there hasn’t been some version of the Man of Steel in production, whether in the form of feature films, TV shows, cartoons or even a Broadway musical. That tradition continues in 2025 with the arrival of David Corenswet as the character in writer/director James Gunn’s Superman Legacy.
But what we’re focused on here are the nine Superman movies released between 1948 and 2013, reverse-ranked from 9 to 1. Whether your Superman is Christopher Reeve, Henry Cavill, George Reeves, Brandon Routh or Kirk Alyn, they’re all here in their red and blue costumed glory.
Superman movies, ranked
9. Atom Man Vs. Superman (1950)
Atom Man vs. Superman would represent round two for Broadway dancer and singer turned actor Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel. This, like it’s 1948 predecessor Superman, was presented in movie serial format, meaning that the story would unfold in weekly installments of 15 to 20 minutes in length over the course of 15 weeks.
In this one, Superman goes up against Atom Man (actually arch enemy Lex Luthor as played by Lyle Talbot) who is holding the city of Metropolis for ransom. Quality wise this one is a step up from the first, but there is a repetition and a lack of energy that hinders it from soaring.
8. Superman (1948)
Superman movies, as well as Kirk Alyn as Superman and Noel Neill as Lois Lane (she would play the character on television as well), make their debut as Metropolis is threatened by the machinations of the mysterious Spider Lady.
Definitely fun and Alyn does well as Superman, but this 15-chapter adventure is marred by low production values, highlighted by the fact that every time Superman takes flight, he’s transformed from Alyn into an animated Man of Steel.
7. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Speaking of low production values, on the eve of production Superman IV: The Quest for Peace‘s budget was slashed in half from $35 million to $17 million, and it absolutely shows. Christopher Reeve’s fourth and final turn as the Man of Steel decides to do the one thing the governments of Earth have been unable to do: rid the world of all nuclear weapons.
Enter Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman reprising the role from earlier films) to screw it all up by using Superman’s efforts to create an evil clone that he commands to destroy his enemy. The sub-par effects give an amateurish feel to the entire production and the script doesn’t hold together very well. Still, it is another opportunity to see Reeve play the character and some would say that in itself is worth the price of admission or the time spent streaming it. This one was a box office disaster and as far as Superman movies are concerned, there’s no question why.
6. Superman III (1983)
The third entry in Christopher Reeve’s Superman films, and although production values remain as high as what was established in the first two installments, this one is hampered by the fact that someone thought that it would be a brilliant idea to have Richard Pryor co-star, which had the effect of turning this into a Pryor movie co-starring Superman.
Director Richard Lester goes for slapstick humor throughout and it just doesn’t work. Two highlights, though: Clark Kent returns to Smallville for his high school reunion and rekindles a bit of romance with Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole, who would go on to play Clark Kent’s adopted mother on the Smallville TV series), and Pryor’s Gus Gorman exposing Superman to a piece of artificial Kryptonite, which has the effect of turning him evil and culminates in a pretty cool junkyard battle between Superman and Clark Kent.
5. Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
Released in 1951, this was a prelude to the Adventures of Superman television series that would air throughout most of the 1950s before going into reruns forever. The story takes place in a small town that serves as home to the world’s deepest oil well, which has inadvertently allowed “Mole Men” from the center of the planet to reach the surface, where a mob is gathered to murder them.
This is where Clark Kent and Lois Lane are covering the story of the oil well, and it comes down to Superman protecting these diminutive people from humans with murder on their minds. It’s a tight little sci-fi film, but what’s amazing is how both George Reeves as Clark Kent and Superman and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane nail their characters from the first moment they’re on screen, leaving no question as to why Reeves’ represented the one and only Superman for a generation of viewers. Coates would play the role of Lane for the first season of the TV show.
4. Superman Returns (2006)
There was about a 10-year period where the Superman character was trapped in movie development hell, including a version called Superman Lives which would have seen Tim Burton directing Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel. In the end what we got was director Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which serves as a quasi-sequel to Superman: The Movie and Superman II. The story begins with Superman returning to Earth after five years of being away, where he discovers that the world in general — and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in particular — having moved on. What his role is in the lives of both is at the core of Superman Returns.
Brandon Routh is great as Clark Kent and Superman, managing to capture the essence of predecessor Christopher Reeve while adding enough of his own touches to keep things fresh; and Kevin Spacey does nicely as an unhinged Lex Luthor with nothing but revenge on his mind — which he comes pretty damn close to achieving in a confrontation with the Man of Steel.
The problem is that there’s too much of a focus on the challenges facing the relationship between Superman and Lois, the fact that Bosworth is way too young to properly convey her character as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and there simply isn’t enough action. Superman desperately needed to hit something. There are some amazing visual effects, including the rescue of a shuttle in freefall by Superman.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of the film is that Routh would never get a chance to play the character on the big screen again.
3. ‘Man of Steel’ (2013)
What is gods walked — and fought — among humanity? That’s the thesis posed by director Zack Snyder as he creates what is perhaps the most realistic take on the character of Superman as presented in any of the Superman movies.
It’s the origin story — baby Kal-El rocketed to Earth from the doomed planet Krypton, adopted by the Kents, instilled with the morality that would drive him ever after and coming to Metropolis to meet Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and begin saving the world — but so much more.
As Clark Kent discovers who and what he really is, he must go up in battle against Kryptonian villain General Zod and his followers, who want to terraform Earth into a replica of their home world, noting that “a foundation must be built on something” (meaning we’re all dead).
The performances across the board are great, ranging from British actor Henry Cavill’s performance as angst-ridden Superman, Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, Adams as Lois, Russell Crowe as Kal-El’s father, Jor-El to Michael Shannon’s chilling portrayal of Zod.
There is just so much to admire in this film, though where Snyder loses the audience is in the wonton and seemingly endless destruction created from the battle between Zod and Superman in Metropolis. A couple of minutes of snipping could have made all the difference. Still, a largely enjoyable Superman of the modern age.
Notably, Cavill would reprise the role in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, both versions of Justice League (the 2017 theatrical one credited to director Joss Whedon, which has been deemed a disaster; and the 2021 four-hour Snyder-cut of the film, which has been critically acclaimed).
2. Superman II (1981)
At the time of its release, many critics heralded Superman II as being better than the first film, though that seems to have dissipated a bit over the decades. Still, in terms of Superman movies there is lots to love here, including the burgeoning romance between Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane and an aerial battle in Metropolis between Superman and Kryptonian villains Zod, Ursa and Non (played respectively by Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran).
The plot in a nutshell is this: Superman forsakes his powers so he can love Lois Lane, the villains arrive to threaten the world and Superman has to find a way to get his powers back and save everyone and everything, except his and Lois’ relationship. Richard Lester steps in to take over directing from Richard Donner, and the differences between the two are obvious, with bits of the former’s slapstick humor approach (which would be much worse in Superman III) appearing here and there. Still, great rousing fun.
1. Superman: The Movie (1978)
To this day, 1978’s Superman: The Movie is held up as the near-perfect model of what a superhero movie (and especially Superman movies) should be. The advertising tagline for this one was, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” and they were absolutely right. Cliched as it may be by now, Christopher Reeve does look like he stepped off the comic book page as Superman, and he does an incredible job of painting a very different and bumbling Clark Kent that you’d never suspect was actually the Man of Steel.
What else do we get? How about Marlon Brando as Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El; Gene Hackman as arch villain Lex Luthor, who hatches a James Bondian plot to detonate a nuclear bomb on the San Andreas fault, thus dumping California into the ocean and creating much more value to his currently-worthless land; Margot Kidder capturing the feistiness of Lois Lane, she and Reeve truly bringing the romance between their characters to life in a way it had never been done on screen prior; the absolutely incredible and iconic theme composed and conducted by John Williams; and the work of director Richard Donner, whose determination to keep it real pays off like gangbusters. It is definitely super, man! (sorry)
The video above is actually the opening credits for Superman II, but what it is, is actually a recap of Superman: The Movie played out against the John Williams theme.
For more movie round-ups, keep reading!