While Superman—also known as Clark Kent, also known as Kal-El—may tend to look youthful in his many on-screen appearances, the character is now in his sixth decade of major feature films.
While that seems like a long time—and, really, it is—there are only a handful of movies featuring the character, and most of them are not connected to many others. What does that mean? Well, let's start out with Richard Donner's Superman, the 1978 movie that started it all. The movie spawned three sequels and a spinoff of its own (some good, some not so good), but, basically, the buck stopped there. The Henry Cavill Superman you've seen in the last half decade is entirely unrelated.
Now, that being said, Superman is a classic character of the superhero genre. He first appeared on Action Comics #1 way back in 1938, and has been famous ever since. It would make sense if someone wanted to learn everything about the character simply by watching all of his movies. And, honestly, we wouldn't blame them. If you wanted to do this, we have eight films (a couple movies have alternate versions) that we'd check out watching. Again: some are better than others. But if you want the full story, they're all out there to be watched as your heart desires.
One of the really great things about diving into the world of cinematic Superman is that the movies are all readily available; just about every depiction lives comfortably on HBO Max (due to the Warner Bros rights). That means not only the movies we get into below, but also animation series and films, along with TV shows like the new Superman and Lois series (for Smallville, however, you'll have to go to Hulu). With each movie we get into below we'll still include the individual Amazon rental link, because there is, of course, the chance that you aren't an HBO Max subscriber and just want to watch one movie here and one movie there. But for a larger binge, that subscription should serve you well.
So, just like with our recommended order of watching all the Batman movies, we're basically going in chronological order by release here. But since most of these movies aren't really connected, you can basically start anew with each section. Want to just watch Christopher Reeve? Go for it! Maybe you're more into the newer stuff. Also works!
So, here we go. Keep in mind, this is Superman, after all. These roots go deep. And we're starting way, way back.
The Reeve era
Director Richard Donner's 1978 Superman is one of the OG superhero movies, and it holds up pretty well. If you like the sort of Marvel Cinematic Universe model of today: action and tension, but also lots of humor and fun, then this first Superman movie should be right up your lane. First and foremost: great cast. Christopher Reeve was an unknown when cast as Superman/Clark Kent, and so he basically became synonymous with the character. Past that, though, we have a little actor you may have heard of: Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Superman's scientist father on Krypton, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, and Gene Hackman as the quintessential supervillain Lex Luthor.
Superman II (1980)
If you like Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor (who returns here, alongside Reeve and Kidder), just wait for Terence Stamp, who enters Superman II as Krypton's evil General Zod: one of Superman's most famous foes. The plot here basically centers on Superman renouncing his powers in an attempt to live a normal life with Lois Lane—you can probably guess how that's going to pan out. Still, Superman II is a blast and was a huge hit for a reason.
Superman III (1983)
Superman III, also known as "the one with Richard Pryor." It captures a lot of the fun of the previous movies—Superman flying!—and replaces the rest—Gene Hackman, most of Margot Kidder's role—with Pryor. And Pryor is great! But it's just not quite up to par with the others. Still, worth a watch for the Clark Kent enthusiast.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
With Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the original Superman run goes out not with a bang, but a whimper; the movie has a plot on getting rid of all nuclear weapons from the world, and only has an 11% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and that sounds about right. Even Gene Hackman's return as Lex can't help us here.
The brief rebirth
Superman Returns (2006)
Following The Quest for Peace, the Superman franchise took a break for nearly two decades. When it returned, it was in the hands of X-Men director (and proven creep) Bryan Singer in the form of Superman Returns. The movie takes an interesting approach. While the actors are all new (other than archival footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El), it serves as not a reboot, but a sequel to Superman II, ignoring the latter two movies. Brandon Routh is a formidable if not super memorable Superman, while Kate Bosworth takes over as Lois Lane, Frank Langella plays newspaper editor Perry White, and another creep in Kevin Spacey is sadly the best part of the movie as our new Lex Luthor.
While the slightly overstuffed and overcooked (2.5 hours) movie's not a disaster, it's probably for the best that the franchise took another break after 2006.
Man of Steel (2013)
On the heels of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC made plans to start a universe of their own, calling it the DC Extended Universe, or, DCEU. The Iron Man of these movies was Zack Snyder's standalone Superman film, titled Man of Steel. While many of the older Superman movies went for a fun and light tone, Snyder's movies went entirely the other direction; Christopher Nolan is an executive producer, and Man of Steel certainly looks to capture the grit of his Dark Knight Batman movies.
Here, we get introduced to a new Superman in Henry Cavill. All things considered, he's not bad, but Man of Steel is probably his worst go as the character—as these movies go on, he gets more and more comfortable in the role. The always-great Michael Shannonisn't at his best as villain General Zod here, and Amy Adams is our new Lois Lane. The movie comes with what you basically expect: an origin story, a lot of fighting, and a whole lot of destruction at the end.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Man of Steel wound up serving as a prologue of sorts to the event films that Zack Snyder eventually wound up leading for the DCEU. The first of these major events was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which got a lot of attention and made a lot of money back in 2016, but received a sub-par response from critics (29% on Rotten Tomatoes).
While there's certainly plenty to critique here, Cavill continued to come into his own as a Clark Kent/Superman in the middle of a public god complex in the afteremath of the first film. He was once again joined on screen by Adams as Lois Lane. While the film's title and art pits Superman against this universe's new Batman (Ben Affleck), the movie's real villain is an unsurprisingly animated Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, who brings a fidgety energy to the iconic villain that makes him actually feel pretty fresh.
Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Yes, we could've included the cinematic version of Justice League that landed in theaters back in 2017, but we'd recommend just skipping that one and instead opting for Snyder's infinitely better (and infinitely longer) director's cut. Everything just makes more sense in Zack Snyder's Justice League, and works better in general—and the performances speak for themselves. If you were stretched for time, then, sure, I guess we could make a case to watch the theatrical version of Justice League. But if you're reading this story, you're already on some sort of Superman marathon—so why not just go big?
While the completed Zack Snyder's Justice League is believed to be the end of the Snyderverse's version of things, it's far from the end for Clark Kent. It's been reported that Ta-Nehisi Coates is working on a script to reboot Superman, with J.J. Abrams producing. Henry Cavill has also said that he still wants to play Superman in movies. Part of the exciting thing about what the DCEU is doing—with Robert Pattinson's The Batman trilogy and Michael Keaton's appearance in the upcoming The Flash film both existing—is that both of these versions of Superman can theoretically exist. We'll see what winds up happening, but it's safe to say we haven't seen the last of Superman on the big screen.
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