Look, Up In the Sky: Revisiting Superman's Big-Screen Adventures

From Kirk Alyn to Henry Cavill, with all the stops in between.
Courtesy of Photofest

"You'll believe a man can fly." That was the promise offered on posters of 1978's Superman (also known as Superman: The Movie).

The movie wouldn't be the first time that man had attempted onscreen flight — who could forget 1941's The Adventures of Captain Marvel, 1949's King of the Rocket Men serial, or even the 1950s Superman serials? — but it would, at least, be the most believable.

DC Entertainment's iconic hero may not share the big-screen success of his fellow Justice Leaguer Batman, but with seven stand-alone movies — and two post-war movie serials — he's done quite well for himself, fighting for truth, justice and occasionally the American way (as long as the pressure of the international market doesn't interfere).

But which, if any, of these movies can make the audience into believers?

Superman/Atom Man vs. Superman (1948/1950)

While the various Superman serials suffer from the stilted characterization and pacing of their contemporaries — every 15 minutes or so, a cliffhanger that turns out to have been based around a misunderstanding or tricky camera work! — Kirk Alyn manages to make his woodenness work in a strangely charming way, and Noel Neill makes a great Lois Lane. You wouldn't believe a man could fly, however; Alyn turns into a cartoon whenever he's needed in the air, with all of the flying sequences hand-animated.

Superman and the Mole Men (1951)

A pilot for the Adventures of Superman TV series that made it into the theaters, the first Superman movie is fine enough, although it suffers from a threat so generic that, when the movie was recut as a two-part story for the Adventures series, the term "Mole Men" was excised entirely without it making too much of a difference. Again, the highlight of the entire thing is Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates), who makes Superman (George Reeves) look a little dull by comparison. Still, at least it's Reeves doing the high-flying act, as unconvincing as it looks.

Superman: The Movie (1978)

It's tempting to imagine how Richard Donner's first Superman might have been received in today's hyper-critical landscape — while hardcore fans might have been excited by the fact that it was the most expensive movie ever made at the time of release (It had a budget of $55 million, which seems almost amusingly small these days), it's almost certain they would have been upset by Gene Hackman's comedic take on Lex Luthor and Christopher Reeves' Clark Kent, even more clumsy and meek than in the comic books of the period. Nonetheless, this remains a charming, fun movie that makes you want to believe in Superman, even if some of the special effects haven't really held up over the last almost-four decades and the climax includes the most ridiculous Superhero ex machina move ever. (Spoilers: reversing the Earth's spin really wouldn't turn back time.)

Superman II (1981)

Whether it's the winning camp of Terence Stamp as General Zod ("Kneel before Zod" being one of the all-time famous nerd-movie lines, let's face it), a plot that not only involved Lois figuring out Superman's identity but also Superman giving up his powers for true love or simply the fact that a whole generation of kids felt the first stirrings of hormonal awakenings thanks to Sarah Douglas's Ursa, Superman II is an almost universally beloved superhero classic. With good reason. While it suffers from some pacing issues, from today's vantage point, it feels very much like the prototype of the modern superhero movie, right down to the fight against unbeatable odds that suddenly, for little reason other than the movie's running time, become surprisingly winnable. Of the Reeve-era movies, this is the highlight — but considering what followed, that's not too surprising.

Superman III (1983)

Where do you go after you've introduced Superman's arch-nemesis, followed by his physical equals? Comic book fans could have selected a number of threats, but producers inexplicably chose a Richard Pryor/Robert Vaughn team-up for Superman's third threat and the result is … a mess. Tonally all over the place, featuring a plot that makes little sense and sidelining the supporting cast of the previous movies in favor of a high school reunion plot that no-one wanted, it would be a sad end to the series if it wasn't for what was to come.

Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)

Oh, Superman IV. It means so well — nuclear disarmament is a fine thing for Superman to promote, after all — but rarely has a movie seemed as if absolutely no one involved was dedicated to it, with all of the cast appearing to phone in their performances, a story that wastes its characters (especially Hackman's Lex Luthor, returning after being absent for the third installment) and some especially subpar special effects. After this, Superman disappeared from the big screen for almost two decades, but that almost felt like a good thing.

Superman Returns (2006)

Bryan Singer's attempt to resurrect the Superman movie franchise featured a great cast, some impressive special effects and that classic John Williams score from the first movie, but was badly let down by a story that felt 100 percent wrong for the character. Whether it was out-of-character moments — Superman stalking Lois, Superman leaving his loved ones to go out into space (especially when Lois was pregnant with his kid), Superman skipping out on Luthor's trial, the list goes on — or the lack of exciting action sequences, the movie felt like a curious misfire despite the best intentions of all involved. Pity poor Brandon Routh, who really did deserve better.

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel is the Superman movie that most divides fans, however — those who dislike it vehemently do so, upset at the pacing, tone and, most of all, climax where Superman kills Zod in order to save a human family. For my part, I actually really like it; while I'm not convinced that the murder was necessary for the plot (Superman, you can fly and move at super-speed, you could easily have gotten Zod out of that situation quickly. You know that, right?), the movie's grounded tone and uncertain-yet-hopeful hero comes across as particularly appealing, and the final exchange is perfect as the ending to a Superman movie:

Which Superman movie is the best? It depends on which Superman audiences want to see; Man of Steel could possibly be too dark for many, but Superman: The Movie too light-hearted. The platonic ideal Superman feature hasn't been made just yet, but perhaps Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will show Henry Cavill as a Man of Steel who's as hopeful and morally steadfast as Ben Affleck's Batman seems to be haunted and on the edge of corrupt, and get a little closer — while winning over new fans in the process.

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