Amongst the total tonnage of witty exchanges and cultural criticisms that have denoted the oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino, it’s not exactly surprising that David Carradine’s speech about Superman in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 sticks out. Outside of the skeptical perspective of Mr. Tarantino, the character of Superman is largely seen as a symbol of America’s promise, a summation of our greatest faiths and toils to create a world free from murder, crime, greed, and intimidation, along with all other sorts of repression, corruption, and death. Where Batman is the symbol of the wealthy as civil-justice idealists, and of the personally damaging yet socially accepted disease that is vengeance, Superman is representative of all we hope America can be, all the good that we are capable of as a democratic society.
What makes the whole idea of Superman so fascinating, then, is that the hero is an alien, the last surviving son of Krypton, which is a fact at the center of Carradine’s speech to his former bride. As an immortal, he can only surmise so much about what humankind is, American or otherwise, and though he sees them as inherently good, kind, and brave, he also seems them as safe and a bit soft, which is how he conceives of Clark Kent, his alter-ego, as Bill so eloquently states. It’s the dichotomy between these two versions of the same being that powers the films that have been adapted from the DC Comics property originated by Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster.
At the core of the best Superman films is the actor who plays Superman and Kent, and that’s been perhaps the most consistent element of the Superman films that have been released thus far. Christopher Reeve, Henry Cavill, and Brandon Routh anchored films by the likes of Richard Donner, Zack Snyder, Richard Lester, Bryan Singer, and Sydney J. Furie, and have rendered even the most ludicrously wrong-headed material enjoyable. It’s the environment that surrounds Superman in these films that has shown variety, ranging from the stylish to the sober-eyed to the shallowly “dark,” and the effectiveness of these films has depended on how these filmmakers and writers envision the world that Superman lives in, how they envision Earth on the whole. And at their best, these films have given Metropolis, the city where our hero dwells, a buzzing, infectious energy; an addictive, progressive pulse of life to the society that Superman protects. In these worlds, filmmakers similarly convey what’s worth protecting in the real world, and what’s worth aspiring to even beyond the bounds of mortality.
So, given the importance of the Superman character to pop culture and his relevance in the wake of Henry Cavill’s performance, I decided to rank the Superman films that have been released thus far. Enjoy!