He’s an icon, he’s an alien, he’s an American who represents humanity’s ideals through his actions and character. It’s been more than 80 years since his debut in Action Comics #1 and his blue bodysuit, red cape, boots, and briefs are still instantly recognizable among the growing list of comics characters with which mainstream audiences are acquainted. Superman remains the most powerful, most iconic, most misunderstood superhero in part thanks to his perceived perfection. The super-fast, super-strong, invulnerable alien Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created all those years ago has since seen his mythology and list of powers balloon to satirical proportions.
Along with 1000+ issues of Action Comics, the man of steel has been adapted into several television, radio, and film series. Superman movies spanning back to the iconic 1978 iteration have grossed more than two and a half billion dollars combined across nearly five decades. News of a new Superman movie in development means it’s time to map out where the character has been on the big screen before. For the uninitiated, the production order of these films is the recommended viewing order.
Superman Movies in Order of Release
First up, here are the Superman movies in order of release.
Superman – December 15, 1978
Superman II – June 19, 1981
Superman III – June 17, 1983
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace – July 24, 1987
Superman Returns – June 28, 2006
Man of Steel – June 14, 2013
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – March 25, 2016
Justice League – November 17, 2017
Zack Snyder’s Justice League – March 18, 2021
Superman Movies in Chronological Order
The Christopher Reeve Era
With a story by Mario Puzo, writer of both the book and the film The Godfather, music by John Williams (Star Wars), and breathtaking special effects, Superman set the standard for superhero cinema for decades to come. Director Richard Donner partnered with the animation team and the cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, to replicate some visual effect techniques for the opening of the film. Christopher Reeve embodied the bumbling milquetoast Clark Kent and the confident, charming Superman beyond parallel in this origin story. It’s also the introduction of Krypton, Zod (Terence Stamp), and Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor to the series.
Superman II (1980)
Production for Superman II was well underway before Superman (1978) was released. Due to his dedication to the soon-to-be-released Superman movie, Richard Donner was removed as director during the final leg of filming and replaced by Richard Lester (The Three Musketeers). Production was further complicated by the passing of legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth in 1978. Still, the movie is a direct follow up to Superman, and it features the Kryptonian villains introduced in Superman, as well as a return by Gene Hackman. The sequel received a recut in 2006, dubbed Superman II: The Donner Cut, that more accurately reflects Richard Donner’s original vision for the film. Either version will demonstrate why Superman II remains one of the best superhero movies ever made.
Superman III (1983)
The first entry in the series untouched by Donner, Puzo, or Unsworth, Superman III tries to split screen time between Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor (The Toy), and an evil Christopher Reeve. It’s a wackier iteration that attempts to incorporate more humor into the already rather light-hearted series. It does away with the surreal, dream-like presentation of the previous two as it attempts to blaze a new path forward for the franchise.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
The final and shortest entry in Christopher Reeve’s tenure as Superman, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace follows the Man of Steel on his path to ridding the globe of nuclear weapons. Framed during the cold war, Superman sets out to denuclearize humanity while his archnemesis Lex Luthor, still played by Gene Hackman, once again escapes from prison. Luthor creates the Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow), a solar-powered soldier, in his fight against Superman. Frankly, the movie is not widely appreciated and is considered an unceremonious end to Christopher Reeve’s embodiment of the character.
The Brandon Routh Film
Superman Returns (2006)
Superman Returns ignores the continuity of the past two films and is intended as a spiritual follow-up to Superman and Superman II, so chronolgically it could fit right after Superman II, but you’d then have to not count the following Reeve films. In Superman Returns, Superman returns to Earth following a five-year trip to see what remains of Krypton only to discover Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from prison in his absence and is plotting something sinister. It was a box office success generating nearly $400 million in worldwide sales but was also tremendously expensive (it cost at least $200 million) so was not hugely profitable. Brandon Routh’s turn as the son of Krypton is still celebrated by fans of the film who received another look at his Superman in the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event. Unfortunately, Superman Returns has become more problematic with time due to allegations of predatory behavior by the director Bryan Singer and star Kevin Spacey.
The Snyder Universe
Man of Steel (2012)
The first Superman film of the post-Dark Knight era of superhero films is the blockbuster sci-fi spectacle, Man of Steel. Directed by Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300), Man of Steel features all of his trademark stylings and introduces Henry Cavill to the world as Superman. The first film origin story since Superman (1978) embraces the science fiction side of Superman, and it depicts him more realistically than past treatments. A star-studded cast, with a focused, villainous performance from Michael Shannon, a beautiful Hans Zimmer score, and jaw-dropping visual effects made this more austere adaptation an explosive setup for the planned Snyder-verse.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is the ambitious follow up to Man of Steel, and it introduces Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Batman (Ben Affleck), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to the Snyder-verse. Set shortly after the devastating Kryptonian assault on Metropolis in Man of Steel, and Superman stands alone as a godlike alien showing up unceremoniously across the globe to aid and save at his availability. The U.S. government attempts to wrangle in his efforts due to geopolitical concern, and Superman is stalked by his longtime comic book arch-nemesis Lex Luthor. Luthor manipulates a late-in-his-tenure Batman and freshly revealed Superman into a super fight before unleashing Doomsday, an alien abomination, on Metropolis. Controversy still surrounds the dark tone and the killer Batman, but Affleck ain’t the first murderous Batman. A director’s cut dubbed Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition improves the theatrical work by adding the extra 30 minutes this movie needs to balance the weight of its ambition.
Justice League (2017)
Another, possibly, unceremonious ending for Superman comes by way of 2017’s Justice League. In the weeks following Superman’s death, Bruce Wayne sets out to assemble a group of heroes to combat an incoming alien invasion. A director swap near the end of filming, due to tragedy, saw Zack Snyder exit the project and Joss Whedon (Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron) step up to finish it. The final result of the rewrites, reshoots, and Superman’s CGI-scrubbed mustache create a messy trilogy piece. Post-release investigations into on-set behavior by Whedon along with allegations of misconduct from multiple Justice League cast members—plus the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League—make this movie age even worse.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Justice League (2017) was so different from previous footage used for marketing material that some fans began begging to see Snyder’s original vision for the film, before he left at the beginning of post-production. And after a few years of refusal by Warner Bros., HBOMax announced in 2020 that they would allow Snyder to finish and release Zack Snyder’s Justice League. In 2021, viewers got to witness the resurrection of Superman in a whole new light. The Kryptonian who sacrificed himself at the end of BvS is at peace as the protector of Earth as he confronts the New Gods for the first time. While he doesn’t arrive until about halfway into the movie, his absence is almost a character unto itself. He still swoops in to save the day, not just with the might of his alien abilities, but by being the hero who inspired the inhabitants of Earth to join him in the fight to protect the planet.
Where to Watch Superman Movies Streaming Online
The following Superman movies are currently streaming on HBO Max:
- Superman II
- Superman III
- Superman IV
- Superman Returns
- Man of Steel
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
- Justice League
- Zack Snyder’s Justice League
For even more Superman stuff to enjoy, seek out Superman and Lois on the CW, the recently wrapped DC animated film series set in the New 52 Timeline chronology, or Superman: The Animated Series, both of which are also streaming on HBO Max.
Are you ready for the new mission to Yoshiwara?
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