Yep, we went there. Arguably the most divisive superhero movie ever made, Man of Steel is experimental, creative and brave.
From the thrilling opening – the greatest cinematic representation of Krypton ever filmed – to the goosebump-inducing final scene (“Welcome to the planet” indeed) Man of Steel gets so, so, so much right.
Unfortunately for its placement on this list, it also gets a couple of key things wrong. We’re not talking about the controversy surrounding the fact our hero – spoiler alert – kills Zod at the end; he does that in the comics and in Superman II, so we’re totally fine with that.
It’s the fact that, maybe, possibly, Superman and Zod do potentially throw themselves through one too many buildings in a bombastic finale. Though, actually, we like the fact that Superman – who’s still only just become a superhero, remember – struggles to defeat his enemy.
As an origin story, every element, from the narrative time-jumps to the emotional backstory, is full of surprises. Considering the fact this is a tale every audience member knew intimately before they bought a ticket, that’s actually pretty impressive.
And if the original Superman made you believe a man could fly, Man of Steel‘s astonishing early sky-bound sequences make you feel like you’re flying right along next to him.
2. Superman (1978)
Superman is an incredible film, creating the structure superhero cinema would stick to until Marvel was brave enough to tear up the rulebook with Iron Man. It’s got an astonishing score – as influential a piece of music as the Jaws theme. It’s got an iconic central performance, arguably the greatest superhero turn of all time.
But it’s not the best Superman film. As scene-setters go, it’s pretty unbeatable. But there’s no getting away from the fact it’s a flawed masterpiece – the Fortress of Solitude stuff is slow, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is lots of fun but he never feels like a real threat to our hero, and then there’s that earth-spinningly silly time-travel finale, the superhero cinematic equivalent to “it was all a dream”.
We know it’s a comic-book movie, and men can’t really fly, but we need at least some internal logic to suspend our disbelief, and it’s almost impossible to ignore the fact that Superman never uses his time travel special move again – for good reason, it would suck the drama out of every future conflict. “Hey, it doesn’t matter what happens here, Superman can just spin the planet backwards and sort it out retrospectively! Yay!”
Still, these are tiny, tiny flaws – it’s still a so-very-close-to-perfect movie. We just happen to think the next film is the better Superman movie.
1. Superman II (1980)
Superman II is a stunning sequel, up with The Dark Knight in terms of adding complexity, coolness and a brilliantly delivered villain.
As with The Dark Knight, a villain teased in the first film takes centre stage. Unlike The Dark Knight, this bad guy brings his pals with him, including Ursa, arguably the greatest bad-gal ever filmed. She’s certainly the only one to kick an innocent person so hard in the groin he goes flying through space.
But Superman II and The Dark Knight almost had even more in common. In early drafts Zod had a mate named Jak-El, described as “a psychopathic jokester, whose pranks and practical jokes are only funny to him when they cause death and suffering to others”. Sound familiar?
But Superman II is more than the sum of its villains. Christopher Reeve – so iconic in the first film – really starts to have fun in the sequel, and, with the line between Clark Kent and Superman starting to blur faster than a speeding bullet, he has a lot more to do here.
Margot Kidder, reportedly almost constantly unhappy on-set, brings fresh intelligence (let’s never forget that Lois was introduced in the first film struggling to spell a simple word, which is hardly Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriting) and bright-eyed spark to Lois, increasing the audience’s personal investment in the film significantly.
Much has been made of the Richard Donner cut (the director was fired during filming, with lost footage eventually replaced after a fan outcry), and it’s great, but the film’s ret-conned reputation does replacement helmer Richard Lester a disservice.
While we love the first film’s reverence, Lester’s approach – including cramming as much into every frame as possible, shooting awe-struck reaction shots, and making Superman’s powers almost casual in their delivery – was far more faithful to the comics. The combination of Donner’s straight-faced respect and Lester’s outlandish set-pieces conspired, much like Clark Kent and Superman themselves, to create the perfect superhero (movie).
But what makes Superman II so special is its humanity. By removing Superman’s powers, bringing him down to our level, Superman II, perversely, reveals the potential superhero in all of us.