One of the first superheroes to exist, Superman remains one of the most iconic comic book characters of all time. That is the ultimate truth. Like Batman, much of the character's success is owed in part to the silver screen. While Superman may not have as many movies as Batman, his films are arguably more important in terms of cultural impact (and just the long development history to bring the character to life). There is a reason why athletes like to celebrate touchdowns and dunks with a Superman celebration. The Superman movies are much more hit or miss than Batman's, though, but the series still has fiercely loyal fans.
Update July 1, 2023: With the recent announcement of the casting for Superman: Legacy, this article has been updated by Timothy Lindsey to include even more details on the Superman film history.
While it has been almost ten years since Superman had his own solo movie. While it was originally believed Henry Cavill would reprise his role as Superman after Black Adam, the decision was soon made to reboot the franchise. Superman: Legacy was announced by DC Studios co-president James Gunn, and the film recently cast its Superman and Lois Lane. Audiences are once again excited at the prospect of more Superman films. For audiences looking to get in the Superman mood following the announcement, here is every Superman film, from simple serials to huge crossovers, and every theatrically released Superman film in order of release. Since the character has been rebooted a few times, there are a few different chronological timelines for fans to follow and choose from.
Superman Movies in Both Chronological Order and by Release Date
- Superman - January 5, 1948
- Atom Man vs. Superman - July 20, 1950
- Superman and the Mole Men - November 23, 1951
- Superman: The Movie - 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 vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice - March 25, 2016
- Justice League - November 17, 2017
- Superman: Legacy - July 11, 2025
Superman first appeared outside the comics in 1941 with the famous Max Fleischer cartoons, and seven years later he made his live-action debut with Superman. Like Batman, Superman's first live-action appearance was in a 15-part serial released in weekly theatrical episodes. This original serial chronicles the origins of Superman. The titular hero is played by Kirk Alyn, who went uncredited; to maintain the illusion of Superman, Superman was credited as himself in the film. The story follows Clark Kent learning who he is, as well as facing The Spider Lady. The Spider Lady is an original creation and only just recently appeared in the comics.
The film's budget was very small, which didn't help the special effects. While a far cry from the blockbusters of today, these effects are still passable for the time and just add to the charm. After his origin is given in the first three parts, the episodes end with cliffhangers. Superman was already a popular character, but these serials boosted him to new heights. The success of these small Superman films not only led to a sequel two years later but also inspired the Batman serials. This early form of Superman is very cheesy and a product of the time, but fans should check it out to see his humble big-screen beginnings.
Atom Man Vs. Superman (1950)
Two years later, a new 15-part serial was released featuring the Man of Steel. Atom Man vs. Superman features Superman going up against the titular Atom Man. While this may seem like another original character, his alias is a name all too familiar. Atom Man is the alter ego of classic baddie Lex Luthor. Lex's first live-action appearance is portrayed by Lyle Talbot, who previously appeared as James Gordon in the 1949 serial Batman & Robin. Kirk Alyn reprises his role as Superman, once again going uncredited. This serial was much more traditional, being gimmicky and with each episode being a cliffhanger. However, this once again simply adds to the charm. Atom Man vs. Superman truly feels like an early Superman comic has come to life, like with the previous serial, Atom Man Vs. Superman gave the already highly popular character a huge boost.
Superman and The Mole Men (1951)
In 1951, Superman and the Mole Men were released in theaters. The black and white film featured George Reeves as Superman and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane. Clark Kent and Lois Lane arrive at a small town whose recent oil drillings have unearthed a mysterious race of creatures from the Earth, and the townsfolk are scared of these creatures, and Superman must step in to prevent a conflict between the two sides.
This led to a television series starring George Reeves named The Adventures of Superman, which helped solidify Superman as one of the most popular heroes on the planet. George Reeves played the character until his death on June 16, 1959. The circumstances around his death still remain a mystery to this date, but he left a lasting mark on the character.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
The words 'legendary' and 'iconic' are thrown around fairly often. If there is one film that truly deserves these titles, it is Superman: The Movie from 1978. This film changed the character forever and paved the way for other superhero films to follow. The film's groundbreaking special effects still hold up today and are a masterclass in the art. The film stars Marlon Brando as Jor-El; adding this icon and juggernaut of an actor just elevated the film's legendary status, and audiences quickly took the film seriously because of it.
Another well-known actor to join the film was Gene Hackman. Gene played classic Superman villain Lex Luthor, in a performance that is often compared as the touchstone to other portrayals of Lex. While these two actors took top billing, the titular role was given to a then-unknown actor. While he wasn't known yet, he would soon become synonymous with the name Superman.
Christopher Reeve seemed like the character of Superman had actually left the pages of DC Comics and made a movie. To this day, so many fans claim Christopher Reeve doesn't simply play Superman, he is Superman. He manages to play Clark Kent and Superman as two different characters. His Clark is hunched over, clumsy, and speaks in an unsure and nervous manner. As Superman, he stands tall, has a deep voice, and is an imposing but warm figure. Christopher Reeves is, and always will be, the portrayal that all other versions of Superman will be compared to. Margot Kidder plays Lois, and her sassy and independent attitude would be the groundwork for all other versions from that point forward.
The film features one of the best John Williams scores, and in doing so created arguably the most iconic superhero theme of all time. This theme song has stuck with the character for decades, even appearing in Superman projects that aren't connected to this one, such as Smallville and the theatrical cut of Justice League. It was recently featured in the end credits of Black Adam which saw the return of Henry Cavill as Superman. For fans of the character, this is the Superman story. It may be corny at times, but this is the film that truly started the superhero film. One viewing, and you will truly believe a man can fly. It made fans want to become superheroes in their own right. Simply put, it is one of the great superhero films of all-time because of its great cast, storyline and special effects.
Superman II (1980)
Superman was such a popular character, that late director Richard Donner filmed a sequel while simultaneously filming the first movie. Due to rising tensions between Donner and the producers, production on the second film was halted in order to complete the first. Over 70% of the film was completed when it was halted. After the first film proved successful, Richard Donner was fired, and Richard Lester was brought on to finish Superman II, most of which he re-shot. The majority of the cast and crew objected to this decision, and they only returned to do re-shoots due to contractual obligations. If this sounds familiar, that is because a very similar incident occurred decades later with Justice League.
Also like that film, the original director eventually returned to complete his vision for the film. Both the theatrical and Donner cuts have the same plot, however. Before Krypton was destroyed, Jor-El helped banish three criminals into the Phantom Zone. These criminals, led by General Zod, eventually escape and travel to Earth, seeking revenge on Kal-el for his father's sins. More than 40 years later, Superman II is actually preferred by many fans over the original film. Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Gene Hackman all reprise their roles, and Terence Stamp gets an expanded role as General Zod, giving a fantastic performance.
The film blended drama, action, and comedy in a perfect manner. At the heart of Superman II was the relationship between Clark and Lois. Clark is faced with a dilemma: choose to be with the woman he loves or remain a nearly immortal hero. The film does a great job of showing the pros and cons of sacrifice and how the smallest decisions can have devastating repercussions. This outline for a superhero giving up their powers in the sequel has been so influential to the genre it is featured in Spider-Man 2 and Wonder Woman 1984.
The biggest change between the theatrical and Donner cuts, however, is the ending. The Donner ending is essentially the same as the first movie, where Superman travels around the world so fast that he reverses time. In the theatrical cut, Superman kisses Lois so hard that she loses her memory. Neither ending is great, and fans are split as to which one is better and are sour notes to end otherwise great films.
Superman III (1983)
While the third entry in the Superman film series has its fans, most agree that this is where the quality began to dip. Richard Lester returns to the director's chair, much to the disapproval of the cast, namely Margot Kidder. She was so outspoken against the producers firing Richard Donner that her role was reduced to a mere cameo. Richard Donner had big plans for the series, and none of them were used, the most interesting of which being Donner's original plan to involve Brainiac.
Superman III features a huge tonal shift from the previous two and is much campier, featuring some jarring comedic moments. The film follows Superman as he fights not Lex Luthor, not a Kryptonian threat, not even Brainiac. Instead, he fights a corrupt business tycoon looking to gain wealth. Perhaps the most interesting element of the film is the introduction of a synthetic Kryptonite. When exposed, the Kryptonite literally splits Superman into two.
Due to the absence of Lois, Lana Lang is depicted as Clark's love interest, played by Annette O'Toole, who would go on to play Martha Kent in Smallville and was one of several performers from the films to appear in Smallville, others include Terance Stamp, Margot Kidder, and of course Christopher Reeve.
Also new to the cast is Richard Pryor as Gus, a bumbling bit of comedy relief that most fans agree is not needed. This was the first film in the franchise to receive mostly mediocre to negative reviews. There are still some things to like in the film, however. At the end of the day, this film did nothing to further the story of Superman and is a mostly forgotten entry. It wasn't as praised as the first two, but it didn't earn the level of infamy the following film did.
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)
Just like the Batman series, Superman's fourth film has gone down as one of the worst comic book movies in history. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace exists purely to deliver an anti-nuclear weapons message. The film's first issue is that the production company is none other than Canon Films, one of the most infamous movie studios of the '80s. Canon was famous for churning out tons of 'so bad it's good' movies, and to some, this could be considered one of them.
Shortly before production began, Canon suffered a massive financial blow that negatively affected this film. While the first movie was filled with groundbreaking effects, this film cut corners in the worst ways possible. Most famously is the shot of Superman flying that is reused numerous times throughout the film. Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Gene Hackman all return, although none of them really wanted to. Reeve only agreed to return if he received a huge pay increase and he had a hand in writing the story.
The film follows Superman as he sets out to destroy every single nuclear missile on the planet. Looking to rid the world of his foe once and for all, Luthor sends some of Superman's DNA into space with the weapons. This inexplicably creates Nuclear Man, a superbeing with Lex Luthor's voice for some reason. Needless to say, the disappointing sequel to the classics bombed both critically and financially. The movie's forced message heavily distracted from what little plot there was, and the special effects were laughably bad even in 1987, while none of the returning actors seemed to care.
This film was, unfortunately, the last Superman film featuring Christopher Reeve. In 1995, Reeve had an accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. For the remainder of his life, he still sought to entertain the masses. Reeve is remembered not for this film but for bringing the character of Superman to life in a way that had never been done before and probably won't be done again. His final days were spent running various organizations, namely ones specializing in Stem Cell Research. Christopher Reeve passed away in 2004 and will always be remembered as a superman. That is for certain.
Superman Returns (2006)
After the humiliating failure that was Superman IV, the franchise laid dormant for nearly 20 years. During that time, all four of the Burton/Schumacher Batman films were released. An attempt was made to bring Superman back to the big screen in the '90s with Tim Burton directing and Nicolas Cage playing Superman. That would have been a crazy production in its own right. That is for sure. However, the failure of Batman & Robin killed the project.
After the success of Smallville, which lasted 10 seasons, it was clear that there was a renewed interest in the character. Following in the footsteps of 2005's Batman Begins was Superman Returns in 2006, helmed by X-Men mastermind Bryan Singer. Rather than being a full reboot, Superman Returns loosely follows the first Christopher Reeve movies while disregarding the third and fourth films.
Sometime before the events of the film, Superman leaves Earth when he believes Krypton may have survived. He returns five years later after discovering this is not the case and that Lex Luthor is up to his old tricks. The movie is a huge step up in quality from the previous two films. Many criticize it for various reasons, but most agree it is a solid entry in the series, with Superman's plane rescue being one of the best depictions of the character put to screen. Perhaps the biggest revelation is that Lois Lane's son is actually the son of Superman.
While the film was successful both financially and with critics, Warner Bros. was disappointed as the movie didn't perform to their expectations (while it performed on par with Batman Begins, that film was much cheaper than Superman Returns). The movie was set to have a sequel in 2009, but the plans were scrapped in favor of a reboot. Brandon Routh has been highly praised for his turn as Superman and later returned as a future version of his Superman in The CW's Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover. Fans are clamoring for him to get another go at the character, be it a theatrical movie or a streaming series.
Man Of Steel (2013)
After the conclusion of The Dark Knight Trilogy and with the success of the MCU, Warner Bros. decided to make their own cinematic universe, thus launching the DC Universe (or DCU). The movie to kick it off was Superman's first film in seven years, Man of Steel, and the first time he has been fully rebooted since 1978. For the first time since 1980, General Zod is the villain, with Lex Luthor not appearing. Henry Cavill appears as Superman, and most fans agree his performance is comparable to Reeve's. The movie does take a darker look at the character, and this is where much of the criticisms come from, particularly regarding Superman taking a life. Man of Steel was a mixed film with critics and audience but still a box office hit and kick-started a new cinematic universe. It was the start of something new, something refreshing for DC fans.
Man of Steel follows Clark Kent as he learns not to be ashamed of his powers but to use them to protect his new home. For his entire life, Clark Kent was ashamed of his abilities, and as an adult goes into exile from the rest of the world. Once he learns his true destiny, a Kryptonian army led by General Zod arrives to seek revenge for their capture at the hands of Superman's father. Throughout the film, Superman learns what it takes to be a hero. Through loss, sacrifice, and doing unspeakable things, he realizes that in order to be a true hero, he must embrace his human side. As stated before, the film isn't nearly as cheerful as the Christopher Reeve-led films, and many agree it is too preachy at times. The film still has a loyal fan base, and Cavill became a fan-favorite version of Superman.
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Following Man of Steel, the second film in the DCEU is Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice shows how the world is split by the existence of Superman. Many believe they have been blessed with a protector who will fight tooth and nail to ensure their safety. Others, such as Bruce Wayne, believe that Superman is a ticking time bomb who will just attract more destruction and will destroy Earth should he see fit. The two greatest and most popular heroes in the DC Universe take center stage.
After seeing the destruction of Metropolis firsthand and up close, Bruce comes out of retirement and takes to the streets as Batman after an eight-year absence. Batman is much more brutal than ever, and this gets the attention of Superman. These two titans being pitted against each other is all part of Lex Luthor's plan, which is to create his own Kryptonian monster to keep them occupied.
Ben Affleck appears in his first appearance as Batman and Cavill returns as Superman in this polarized entry. The film disappointed many fans, although, over time, it has gained more and more fans. The biggest complaint is the fact that the film feels more like a feature-length post-credits scene than its own movie. Most of the movie is more concerned with building up to Justice League than telling its own story.
The biggest thing that happens in the film is that Superman sacrifices his life in order to defeat Doomsday. Seeing Superman die not only affects the audience, but it affects Bruce Wayne to reign in his humanity. This was the first time the character was seen to die on the big screen, and is a loose adaptation of the Death of Superman comics. Inspired by Superman's selfless act, Bruce decided to form a team along with the help of Wonder Woman, setting the stage for Justice League.
Justice League (2017/2021)
For a while, the final appearance of Cavill as Superman was in Justice League. The theatrical cut of the film may have brought back John Willams' legendary score, but it also featured Superman with his infamous CGI lips. Zack Snyder left the film during post-production after the death of his daughter, and Joss Whedon took over. He heavily re-shot the film and created a hostile environment on set. After Justice League was released to mixed reviews from critics and fans, Snyder's cut of the film was released in full on HBO Max in 2021, and this is the version most fans do indeed prefer. Superman's death causes the three Mother Boxes to awaken and summon Darkseid and his army to Earth.
Batman and Wonder Woman form the Justice League but soon realize they need the help of Superman. They resurrect him using the Boxes, but he is hostile at first. After remembering who is during a visit to Smallville, Superman joins the league to take on Darkseid. This film was DC's version of The Avengers. Superheroes fighting evil together at the same time.
Superman remained a presence in the DCEU for years after, even if Cavill did not actually appear. In Shazam!, Superman appears in the end scene, but due to scheduling conflicts, Cavill's face is not shown, and instead, he is shot from the neck down. Superman cameoed in Peacemaker and The Flash, but his face was never shown. The character did appear in the end credits of Black Adam, teasing a potential showdown between the two characters. However, shortly after the movie was released, it was announced Superman would be recast.
Superman: Legacy (2025)
The next Superman film is set to be released on July 11, 2025. That film is called Superman: Legacy. David Corenswet, who will take on the leading protagonist role of Superman and will be paired with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel star Rachel Brosnan as Lois Lane. It will be the 11th film in the franchise's history and the latest installment. It is set to be the true start of the new DCU that James Gunn has planned, and he will both write and direct the film.
This new film will explore Superman's upbringing and heritage, from both his Kryptonian parents but also his adopted human family. The Authority, a team of DC anti-heroes who will also get their own DCU film, is rumored to appear in the movie. Casting is currently underway, and production is set to begin in 2024. It has been a long time since Superman got his own solo film. By the time it hits theaters, it will have been twelve years since the release of Man of Steel. Over a decade, in fact. If Superman: Legacy does well, the future of the DC Universe is extremely bright.