Superman

1978, Film Export A.G. et al

Ilya Salkind had a vision to bring Superman to the big screen in a big way. He'd wanted Steven Spielberg to direct, but Spielberg was busy with Close Encounters. So Richard Donner got the job, and he delivered. Likely the biggest challenge was casting the titular character; dozens of A-listers were considered, but casting director Lynn Stalmaster kept pestering Donner to choose Christopher Reeve, and he eventually prevailed—thankfully so, because Reeve was born for the part.

In re-watching Superman, it can be just a little startling to realize this is still a 70s film. The writing may be a little dated and some of the effects a bit rough, but it all still holds up well principally because it was intentionally camp, which was and remains its saving grace.

       

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Superman II

1980, Film Export A.G. et al

If Superman II feels like more of the same, that's because it was shot simultaneously with the first release. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite hold together as well, in spite of a gaggle of big names. The endearing camp style got a bit out of hand, and it feels less earnest. As it happens, this didn't cause any box office damage, and it performed well.

     

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Superman III

1983, Cantharus Productions et al

Considerable behind-the-scenes drama resulted in a change in production personnel, and the outcome was to prove disastrous. Richard Pryor's presence helped reduce the tone from camp to trash. It's actually painful to watch.

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Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

1987, Cannon Films et al

Assuming (correctly) the franchise was dead, Ilya Salkind sold the rights to Cannon Films, and in an obvious money-grab, Cannon dragged a reluctant Christopher Reeve—as well as Gene Hackman, amazingly—back in front of the cameras for one last time. The outcome was spectacularly awful in every respect. Reeve later revealed that the studio had run out of money during production, and released an unfinished film. Superman IV is now considered to be among the worst films ever made.

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Superman Returns

2006, Legendary Pictures et al

Director Bryan Singer was inspired to reboot the franchise while he as filming X2, and with Richard Donner's encouragement, Singer got production under way with Warner Brothers. The result, while nowhere near as successful as Christopher Nolan's Batman, was infinitely better than what immediately preceded it. Brandon Routh, while lacking Christopher Reeve's twinkle-eyed innocent charm, delivered a somewhat more nuanced "adult" performance. Although the film did well at the box office, its somber tone gave the producers second thoughts about a sequel, making Superman Returns a one-off.

   

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Man of Steel

2013, Legendary Pictures et al

Zack Snyder is anything but subtle, so it's perhaps no surprise that his image of Superman is a battering ram brought to life. Armed with well north of $200 million, he kept throwing characters and effects and explosions at the screen until something stuck, even after audiences had gone deaf. Brit Henry Cavill's performance was a marginal improvement over Brandon Routh's, although it still lacked Christopher Reeve's charisma. Amy Adams created a much stronger, more pleasing Lois Lane than her predecessors, and she shared some nice chemistry with Cavill—on the rare occasion Snyder wasn't blowing stuff up, anyway. Cavill's Superman also made a subsequent appearance in the roundly panned Batman v Superman Justice League entry.

   

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