Superman in Film
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Superman in Film

The fictional character Superman, an American comic book superhero in DC Comics publications, has appeared in various films almost since his inception. He debuted in cinemas in a series of animated shorts beginning in 1941, and then starred in two movie serials in 1948 and 1950. An independent studio, Lippert Pictures, released the first Superman feature film, Superman and the Mole Men, starring George Reeves, in 1951. Ilya, Alexander Salkind, and Pierre Spengler purchased the Superman film rights in 1974. After numerous scripts, Richard Donner was hired to direct the film, filming Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980) simultaneously. Donner had already shot eighty percent of Superman II with Christopher Reeve before it was decided to finish shooting the first film. The Salkinds fired Donner after Supermans release and commissioned Richard Lester as the director to finish Superman II. Lester also returned for Superman III (1983), and the Salkinds further produced the related 1984 spin-off Supergirl before selling the rights to Cannon Films, resulting in the poorly reviewed Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). Ilya Salkind commissioned a fifth Superman script before Warner Bros. acquired the rights entirely in 1993.

Over the course of eleven years, Warner Bros. would develop and then cancel Tim Burton's Superman Lives, which would have starred Nicolas Cage, Wolfgang Petersen's Batman vs. Superman, and the J. J. Abrams scripted Superman: Flyby, which went between directors Joseph "McG" Nichols and Brett Ratner. The studio hired Bryan Singer to take over the films in 2004, releasing Superman Returns in 2006, which starred newcomer Brandon Routh. Donner's director's cut for Superman II was also released that year. Despite positive reviews, Warner Bros. was disappointed with the financial performance of Superman Returns, and canceled Singer's proposed sequel. The studio nearly went into production of a Justice League film with George Miller directing and D. J. Cotrona as Superman, but it was shelved in 2008 and the film series was rebooted in 2013 with Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder with Henry Cavill starring as Superman. Snyder and Cavill worked together again in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League.


Film U.S. release date Director(s) Actor Story by Screenwriter(s) Producer(s) Distributor
Superman January 5, 1948 (1948-01-05) Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr Kirk Alyn Lewis Clay, Royal K. Cole, Arthur Hoerl, George H. Plympton and Joseph F. Poland Sam Katzman Columbia Pictures
Atom Man vs. Superman July 20, 1950 (1950-07-20) Spencer Gordon Bennet David Mathews, George H. Plympton and Joseph F. Poland
Superman and the Mole Men November 23, 1951 (1951-11-23) Lee Sholem George Reeves Richard Fielding Barney A. Sarecky Lippert Pictures
Superman December 15, 1978 (1978-12-15) Richard Donner Christopher Reeve Mario Puzo Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton Pierre Spengler Warner Bros.
Superman II June 19, 1981 (1981-06-19) Richard Lester (uncredited in 2006 director's cut)
Richard Donner (uncredited in 1980 release)
Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Tom Mankiewicz (creative consultant)
Superman III June 17, 1983 (1983-06-17) Richard Lester David Newman and Leslie Newman Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace July 24, 1987 (1987-07-24) Sidney J. Furie Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal and Christopher Reeve Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus
Superman Returns June 28, 2006 (2006-06-28) Bryan Singer Brandon Routh Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and Bryan Singer Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris Jon Peters, Bryan Singer and Gilbert Adler
Man of Steel June 14, 2013 (2013-06-14) Zack Snyder Henry Cavill David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan David S. Goyer Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas and Deborah Snyder
Batman v Superman:
Dawn of Justice
March 25, 2016 (2016-03-25) Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder
Justice League November 17, 2017 Zack Snyder & Chris Terrio Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Jon Berg and Geoff Johns
Zack Snyder's Justice League 2021 (2021) Zack Snyder & Chris Terrio and Will Beall Chris Terrio Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder HBO Max

Fleischer/Famous Studio Theatrical animated shorts

A shot from the animated short, "Showdown" (1942)


Superman first appeared in cinemas in a series of 17 theatrical animated shorts from between 1941 and 1943. They were released by Paramount Pictures. Of those seventeen, nine were produced by Fleischer Studios and further eight by its successor, Famous Studios.

Kirk Alyn serials

Kirk Alyn as Superman in a publicity still (1948)

Superman (1948)

The first appearances of Superman in live-action film were in a serial for Columbia Pictures in the 1948 Superman (serial) starring Kirk Alyn as Superman, Noel Neill as Louis Lane and Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen.

Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)

The second appearances of Superman in the live-action film were in serial for Columbia Pictures in the 1950s Atom Man vs. Superman starring Kirk Alyn as Superman, Noel Neill as Louis Lane and Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen.

George Reeves's film

Superman and the Mole Men (1951)

Superman and the Mole Men is a 1951 superhero film starring George Reeves as Superman and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane. The film was produced by Barney Sarecky and directed by Lee Sholem with the original screenplay by Richard Fielding (a pseudonym for Robert Maxwell and Whitney Ellsworth). Shot on a low budget, it served as a trial run for the syndicated TV series Adventures of Superman, for which it became a pilot two-part episode titled "The Unknown People".[1]

Original film series (1978-1987)

Christopher Reeve in 1985

Superman (1978)

In 1973, producer Ilya Salkind convinced his father Alexander to buy the rights to Superman. They hired Mario Puzo to pen a two-film script, and negotiated with Steven Spielberg to direct, though Alexander Salkind eventually chose someone else. Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman signed on to play Jor-El and Lex Luthor respectively, and Guy Hamilton was hired to direct. However, Brando was faced with an obscenity lawsuit in Italy over Last Tango in Paris, and Hamilton was unable to shoot in England as he had violated his tax payments. The Salkinds hired Richard Donner to direct the film. Donner hired Tom Mankiewicz to polish the script, giving it a serious feel with Christ-like overtones.[2]Christopher Reeve was cast as Superman. The film was a success both critically and commercially; being released during the Christmas season of 1978, it did not have much competition, leading the producers to believe that this was one factor in the film's success.[3]

Superman II (1980)

Shooting of the two films was marred by Donner's bad relationship with the Salkinds, with Richard Lester acting as mediator.[2] With the film going over-budget, the filmmakers decided to temporarily cease production of II and move that film's climax into the first film.[2] Despite Superman's success, Donner did not return to finish Superman II,[2] and it was completed with Lester, who gave the film a more tongue-in-cheek tone. Superman II was another financial and critical success, despite stiff competition with Raiders of the Lost Ark in the same year. In 2006, after receiving many requests for his own version of Superman II, Richard Donner and producer Michael Thau produced their own cut of the film and released it on November 28, 2006. The new version of the film received positive response from critics[4] and the stars of the original film.

Superman III (1983)

For the third installment, Ilya Salkind wrote a treatment that expanded the film's scope to a cosmic scale, introducing the villains Brainiac and Mister Mxyzptlk, as well as Supergirl.[2] Warner Bros. rejected it and created their own Superman III film that co-starred Richard Pryor as computer wizard Gus Gorman, who under the manipulation of a millionaire magnate, creates a form of Kryptonite that turns the Man of Steel into an evil self. The retooled script[2] pared Brainiac down into the film's evil "ultimate computer". Despite the film's success, fans were disappointed with the film, in particular with Pryor's performance diluting the serious tone of the previous films, as well as controversy over the depiction of the evil Superman.[2] Salkind's rejected proposal was later released online in 2007.[2]

Supergirl (1984)

Slater at Florida Supercon in 2016

Upon gaining the rights for the film Superman, Alexander Salkind and his son, Ilya Salkind, also purchased the rights to the character of Superman's cousin Supergirl.[5]Supergirl was released in 1984 as a spin-off of the Reeve films; Reeve was slated to have a cameo but he ultimately backed out of the production, although his likeness appears in a photo.[6] It stars Helen Slater in her first motion picture in the title role, while Faye Dunaway (who received top billing) played the primary villain, Selena; the film also featured Marc McClure reprising his role as Jimmy Olsen.[7] Even though the film performed poorly at the box office,[8]Helen Slater was nominated for a Saturn Award.[9]

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Cannon Films picked up an option for a fourth Superman/Reeve film, with Reeve reprising the role due to his interest in the film's topic regarding nuclear weapons. However, Cannon decided to cut the budget resulting in poor special effects and heavy re-editing, which contributed to the film's poor reception.[2] Warner Bros. decided to give the series a break following the negative reception of the last two Superman films.[2]

Brandon Routh's film

Superman Returns (2006)

Brandon Routh in 2006

Following several unsuccessful attempts to reboot the franchise, Bryan Singer, who was said to be a childhood fan of Richard Donner's film, was approached by Warner Bros to direct a new Superman film. He accepted, abandoning two films already in pre-production, X-Men: The Last Stand (which, coincidentally, would come to be directed by Ratner) and a remake of Logan's Run. The film uses the events of Superman and, to less of a degree, Superman II as backstory,[10][11] while directly not referencing the events of Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.[10] Singer's story tells of Superman's return to Earth following a five-year search for survivors of Krypton. He discovers that in his absence Lois Lane has given birth to a son and become engaged. Singer chose to follow Donner's lead by casting relatively unknown Brandon Routh as Superman, who resembled Christopher Reeve somewhat, and more high-profile actors in supporting roles, such as Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Singer brought his entire crew from X2 to work on the film. Via digitally-enhanced archive footage, the late Marlon Brando appeared in the film as Jor-El. Superman Returns received mixed reviews and grossed approximately $391 million worldwide.

In February 2006, four months before the release of Superman Returns, Warner Bros. announced a summer 2009 theatrical release date for a sequel, with Bryan Singer returning as director.[12]Brandon Routh,[13]Kate Bosworth,[14]Kevin Spacey,[15]Sam Huntington,[16]Frank Langella,[17] and Tristan Lake Leabu were expected to reprise their roles,[18] however, with the release of Superman Returns in July 2006, Warner Bros. was hesitant on moving forward with development. Warner Bros. President Alan F. Horn explained that Superman Returns was a very successful film, but that it "should have done $500 million worldwide. We should have had perhaps a little more action to satisfy the young male crowd."[19] Singer reacted incredulously to the studio complaints, saying, "That movie made $400 million! I don't know what constitutes under-performing these days ..."[20] Filming was supposed to start in March 2008;[21] no screenplay was ever written, but Singer would have titled it Man of Steel, with an interest in Darkseid as the main villain. Singer stressed that it would have been more action-packed than Superman Returns.[22] while writer Michael Dougherty was interested in using Brainiac. "In my mind, if the Kryptonians really were a space-faring race ... it would only make sense that there would've been colonies and off-planet missions ... other Kryptonians making their way to Earth seemed like a pretty big one. It wouldn't necessarily be evil right off the bat. That's too easy and cliché ... I think it'd be interesting to see how these other Kryptonians show up, land and have all these powers and [have to learn] how to adapt to them."[23]

Warner Bros. commissioned husband and wife duo Michele and Kieran Mulroney to write a script for a Justice League film in February 2007,[24] halting development for the Superman Returns sequel. The Justice League script was submitted to Warner Bros. the following June,[25] which prompted the studio to immediately fast track production. Singer went on to film Valkyrie the following month,[22] and George Miller signed to direct Justice League: Mortal in September 2007.[26] The script would have featured a different Superman in a separate continuity from Singer's film; Routh was not approached to reprise his role for Justice League: Mortal,[27] which ended up going to D. J. Cotrona.[28] The film nearly went into production in March 2008,[29] but the Australian Film Commission denied Warner Bros. their 40 percent tax rebate[30] and Cotrona's options eventually expired.[31] With Justice League: Mortal canceled, Singer renewed his interest in the Superman sequel that same month, stating that it was in early development.[20]Paul Levitz, president of DC Comics, still expected Routh to reprise the title role,[13] but Routh's contract for a sequel expired in 2009.[32] "Superman Returns didn't quite work as a film in the way that we wanted it to," Warner Bros. President of Production Jeff Robinov admitted in August 2008. "It didn't position the character the way he needed to be positioned. Had Superman worked in 2006, we would have had a movie for Christmas of this year or 2009. Now the plan is just to reintroduce Superman without regard to a Batman and Superman movie at all."[33]

Routh later reprised his role as Superman in the 2019 Arrowverse crossover "Crisis on Infinite Earths".

Abandoned projects

Superman V

Before the failure of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Cannon Films considered producing a fifth film with Albert Pyun as director. Cannon's bankruptcy resulted in the film rights reverting to Ilya and Alexander Salkind.[34] The story had Superman dying and resurrecting in the shrunken, bottled Krypton city of Kandor.[] The premise of Superman's death and rebirth coincidentally predated "The Death of Superman"

Superman Reborn

"In any good Superman movie, the fate of the whole planet should be at stake. You've got to have villains whose powers and abilities demand that Superman (and only Superman) can be the one who stops them. That's the only way to make the movie exciting and a dramatic challenge."

--Writer Jonathan Lemkin on writing Superman Reborn[35]:188

With the success of "The Death of Superman" comic book storyline, Warner Bros. purchased the film rights of Superman from the Salkinds in 1993, and hired producer Jon Peters to develop a new Superman film. Peters in turn hired Jonathan Lemkin to write a new script.[35]:188 Major toy companies insisted on seeing Lemkin's screenplay before the deadline of the 1993 American International Toy Fair.[35]:188

Lemkin's script, titled Superman Reborn, featured Lois Lane and Clark Kent with relationship troubles, and Superman's battle with Doomsday. When Superman professes his love to Lois, his life force jumps between them just as he dies, giving Lois a virgin birth. Their child, who grows 21-years-old in three weeks, becomes the resurrected Superman and saves the world.[35]:188-189 Warner Bros. did not like the script because of the similar underlying themes with Bruce Wayne's obligations of heroism found in Batman Forever.[35]:189[36]

Peters hired Gregory Poirier to rewrite the script.[35]:189 Poirer's December 1995 script had Brainiac creating Doomsday, infused with "Kryptonite blood". Superman has romance problems with Lois Lane and visits a psychiatrist before he is killed by Doomsday. An alien named Cadmus, a victim of Brainiac, steals his corpse. Superman is resurrected and teams with Cadmus to defeat Brainiac. Powerless, Superman wears a robotic suit until his powers, which, according to the script, are a mental discipline called "Phin-yar", return.[35]:189 At Peter's request, Poirier had Superman wear an all-black suit at the end of the script.[35]:189 Other villains included Parasite and Silver Banshee.[34] Poirier's script impressed Warner Bros.,[36] but Kevin Smith was hired to rewrite.[37] Smith thought that Poirier's script did not respect the Superman mythos properly.[35]:189

Superman Lives

Kevin Smith pitched Peters his story outline in late 1996, and was allowed to write the screenplay under certain conditions.[35] Peters did not want Superman to fly,[35]:190 arguing that Superman would "look like an overgrown Boy Scout."[34] Smith wrote Superman flying as "a red-and-blue blur in flight, creating a sonic boom every time he flew.[38] Peters also wanted Superman to fight a giant spider in the third act.[35]:190 Smith accepted the terms, realizing that he was being hired to execute a preordained idea.[35]:190 Smith was also forced to write a scene involving Brainiac fighting a polar bear at the Fortress of Solitude.[35]:190 The Star Wars 20th anniversary re-release in theaters also prompted Peters to commission a "space dog" that Brainiac could present to Luthor purely for merchandising appeal and toy sales.[37] Peters also insisted that Brainiac's robot assistant L-Ron was to be voiced by Dwight Ewell, calling the character, "a gay R2-D2 with attitude."[37]

Smith's script, titled Superman Lives, had Brainiac sending Doomsday to kill Superman, as well as blocking out the sun to make Superman powerless, as Superman is fueled by sunlight. Brainiac teams up with Lex Luthor, but Superman is resurrected by a Kryptonian robot, the Eradicator. Brainiac wishes to possess the Eradicator and its technology. Powerless, the resurrected Superman is sheathed in a robotic suit formed from the Eradicator itself until his powers return, courtesy of sunbeams, and defeats Brainiac.[38] Smith's casting choices included Ben Affleck as Clark Kent/Superman, Linda Fiorentino as Lois Lane, Jack Nicholson as Lex Luthor, Famke Janssen as Mercy, John Mahoney as Perry White, David Hyde Pierce as the Eradicator, Jason Lee as Brainiac and Jason Mewes as Jimmy Olsen.[] Affleck would go on to portray Batman in the DC Extended Universe, beginning with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016.

Robert Rodriguez was offered the chance to direct, but turned down the offer due to his commitment on The Faculty, despite liking Smith's script.[35]:191 Smith originally suggested Tim Burton to direct his script,[37] and Burton signed on with a pay-or-play contract of $5 million. Warner Bros. originally planned on a theatrical release date for summer 1998, the 60th anniversary of the character's debut in Action Comics.[36]Nicolas Cage, a comic book fan, signed on as Superman with a $20 million pay-or-play contract, believing he could "reconceive the character."[35]:192 Peters felt Cage could "convince audiences he [Superman] came from outer space."[39] Burton explained Cage's casting would be "the first time you would believe that nobody could recognize Clark Kent as Superman, he [Cage] could physically change his persona."[40]Kevin Spacey was approached for the role of Lex Luthor,[40] while Christopher Walken was Burton's choice for Brainiac,[41] a role also considered for Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman.[]Sandra Bullock, Courteney Cox and Julianne Moore had been approached for Lois Lane, while Chris Rock was cast as Jimmy Olsen.[41]Michael Keaton confirmed his involvement, but when asked if he would be reprising his role as Batman from Burton's Batman films, he would only reply, "Not exactly."[]

Filming was originally set to begin in early 1998.[42] In the summer of 1997, Superman Lives entered pre-production,[35]:193 with an art department employed under production designer Rick Heinrichs.[40] Burton hired Wesley Strick to rewrite Smith's script. Smith was disappointed, stating, "The studio was happy with what I was doing. Then Tim Burton got involved, and when he signed his pay-or-play deal, he turned around and said he wanted to do his version of Superman. So who is Warner Bros. going back to? The guy who made Clerks, or the guy who made them half a billion dollars on Batman?"[35]:193 When Strick read Smith's script, he was annoyed with the fact that "Superman was accompanied/shadowed by someone/something called the Eradicator."[35]:193 He also felt that "Brainiac's evil plot of launching a disk in space to block out the sun and make Superman powerless was reminiscent of an episode of The Simpsons, with Mr. Burns doing the Brainiac role."[35]:193 However, after reading The Death and Return of Superman, Strick was able to understand some of the elements of Smith's script. Strick's rewrite featured Superman as an existentialist, thinking of himself to be an outsider on Earth. Superman is threatened by Brainiac and Lex Luthor, who later amalgamate into "Lexiac," described by Strick as "a schizo/scary mega-villain."[35]:193 Superman is later resurrected by the power of 'K,' a natural force representing the spirit of Krypton, as he defeats Lexiac.[35]:193

Art designer Sylvain Despretz claimed the art department was assigned to create something that had little or nothing to do with the Superman comic book, and also explained that Peters "would bring kids in, who would rate the drawings on the wall as if they were evaluating the toy possibilities. It was basically a toy show."[35]:196 Peters saw a cover of National Geographic, containing a picture of a skull, going to art department workers, telling them he wanted the design for Brainiac's space ship to have the same image. Burton gave Despretz a concept drawing for Brainiac, which Despretz claims was "a cone with a round ball on top, and something that looked like an emaciated skull inside. Imagine you take Merlin's hat, and you stick a fish bowl on top, with a skull in it."[35]:196 Concept artist Rolf Mohr said in an interview he designed a suit for the Eradicator for a planned scene in which it transforms into a flying vehicle.[43]

"We got the Kevin Smith script, but we were told not to read it, because they knew he wasn't going to stay on the movie. So we used Kevin Smith's script as a guide to the sets we might be doing, and we waited and waited for the new script to come in, but it never did."

--Art designer Sylvain Despretz on designing Superman Lives[35]:194

Burton chose Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as his primary filming location for Metropolis,[35]:197 while start dates for filming were pushed back.[36] A minor piece of the Krypton set was constructed but then destroyed, and Cage had even attended a costume fitting.[] The studio was also considering changing the title Superman Lives back to Superman Reborn.[44] Deeming Wesley Strick's script too expensive, Warner Bros. enlisted the help of Dan Gilroy to rewrite it into something more economically feasible. Gilroy lowered the $190 million budget set by Strick's draft to $100 million. However, the studio was still less willing to fast track production, due to financial reasons with other film properties,[] having Gilroy turn in two drafts.[45] Ultimately, Warner Bros. chose to put the film on hold in April 1998, and Burton left to direct Sleepy Hollow.[36] At this point in production, Warner Bros had spent $30 million on developing the film.[35]:198 Burton, citing various differences with Peters and the studio, said, "I basically wasted a year. A year is a long time to be working with somebody that you don't really want to be working with."[46]

Disappointed by the lack of progress on the film's production, aspiring screenwriter/comic book fan Alex Ford was able to have a script of his (titled Superman: The Man of Steel) accepted at the studio's offices in September 1998. Ford pitched his idea for a film series consisting of seven installments, and his approach impressed Warner Bros. and Peters, though he was later given a farewell due to creative differences.[34] Ford said, "I can tell you they don't know much about comics. Their audience isn't you and me who pay $7.00. It's for the parents who spend $60 on toys and lunchboxes. It is a business, and what's more important, the $150 million at the box office or the $600 million in merchandising?"[45]

With Gilroy's script, Peters offered the director's position to Michael Bay, Shekhar Kapur and Martin Campbell though they all turned down the offer.[34]Brett Ratner turned down the option in favor of The Family Man.[47]Simon West and Stephen Norrington were reportedly top contenders as well.[] In June 1999, William Wisher, Jr. was hired to write a new script, and Cage assisted on story elements.[48] Cage dropped out of the project in June 2000,[] while Wisher turned in a new script in August 2000, reported to have contained similar elements with The Matrix.[34]Oliver Stone was then approached to direct Wisher's script, but declined.[34] Peters offered Will Smith the role of Superman, but the actor turned it down over ethnicity concerns.[49] The film's backstory was covered in the 2015 documentary film The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened?.[50] Kevin Smith directed the ninth episode of the second season of Supergirl, which was titled "Supergirl Lives" as homage to "Superman Lives".[51]

In November 2016, Kevin Smith said that he was open to having the Superman Lives script be adapted as an animated film, with Nicolas Cage voicing Superman and Michael Rooker voicing Lex Luthor.[52] In October 2017, Batman vs. Two-Face writer Michael Jelenic stated that he originally pitched an animated film based on Smith's Superman Lives script, saying that Warner Bros seriously considered it for a long time.[53] According to Jelenic, Cage would have loved to voice Superman in the film, but the idea never materialized and his pitch was abandoned.[54] Cage was ultimately cast to voice Superman in the animated film Teen Titans Go! To the Movies based on the Teen Titans Go! TV show, which was released on July 27, 2018.[55]

Batman vs. Superman

Although it was widely reported that McG had become attached to Attanasio's script, in February 2002, J. J. Abrams was hired to write a new screenplay. It would ignore "The Death of Superman" storyline, and instead, it would reboot the film series with an origin story,[56] going under the title of Superman: Flyby.[34] The project had gone as far as being greenlit, but McG dropped out in favor of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.[57] The studio approached Wolfgang Petersen to direct Abrams' script;[58] however, in August 2001,[59]Andrew Kevin Walker pitched Warner Bros. an idea titled Batman vs. Superman, attaching Petersen as director. Abrams' script was put on hold,[58] while Akiva Goldsman was hired to rewrite Walker's draft which was codenamed Asylum.[60]

Goldsman's draft,[61] dated June 21, 2002, introduced Bruce Wayne attempting to shake all of the demons in his life after his five-year retirement from crimefighting. Dick Grayson, Alfred Pennyworth, and Commissioner Gordon are all dead. Meanwhile, Clark Kent is down on his luck and in despair after his divorce from Lois Lane. Clark serves as Bruce's best man at his wedding to the beautiful and lovely Elizabeth Miller. After Elizabeth is killed by the Joker at the honeymoon, Bruce is forced to don the Batsuit once more, tangling a plot which involves Lex Luthor, while Clark begins a romance with Lana Lang in Smallville and tries to pull Bruce back. In return, Bruce blames Clark for her death, and the two go against one another. Part of the script took place in Smallville, where Clark goes into exile with Lana Lang. However, Lex Luthor is held to be responsible for the entire plot of Batman and Superman destroying each other. The two decide to team up and stop Luthor.[62]Christian Bale, who was being considered for the lead in Darren Aronofsky's Batman: Year One adaptation at the time,[63] was simultaneously approached by Peterson for the Batman role. Peterson confirmed in a 2010 interview the only other actor he approached for Superman was Josh Hartnett.[64] Warner Bros. canceled development to focus on individual Superman and Batman projects after Abrams submitted another draft for Superman: Flyby.[60]Christopher Nolan would later cast Bale as Batman the following year in Batman Begins. In the opening scene of I Am Legend, a large banner displays the Superman symbol within the Batman symbol in Times Square. It is meant as an in-joke by writer Akiva Goldsman, who wrote scripts for Batman vs. Superman and I Am Legend.[65]

Superman: Flyby

Turning in his script in July 2002, J. J. Abrams' Superman: Flyby was an origin story that included Krypton besieged by a civil war between Jor-El and his corrupt brother Kata-Zor. Before Kata-Zor sentences Jor-El to prison, Kal-El is launched to Earth to fulfill a prophecy. Adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, he forms a romance with Lois Lane in the Daily Planet. However, Lois is more concerned with exposing Lex Luthor, written as a government agent obsessed with UFO phenomena. Clark reveals himself to the world as Superman, bringing Kata-Zor's son, Ty-Zor, and three other Kryptonians to Earth. Superman is defeated and killed, and visits Jor-El (who committed suicide on Krypton while in prison) in Kryptonian heaven. Resurrected, he returns to Earth and defeats the four Kryptonians. The script ends with Superman flying off to Krypton in a spaceship.[34]

Brett Ratner was hired to direct in September 2002, originally expressing an interest in casting an unknown for the lead role, while filming was to start sometime in late 2003.[66]Christopher Reeve joined as project consultant, citing Tom Welling, who portrayed the teenage Clark Kent in Smallville, as an ideal candidate. Reeve added "the character is more important than the actor who plays him, because it is an enduring mythology. It definitely should be an unknown."[67] Ratner approached Josh Hartnett, Jude Law, Paul Walker and Brendan Fraser for Superman, but conceded that finding a famous actor for the title role had proven difficult because of contractual obligations to appear in sequels. "No star wants to sign that, but as much as I've told Jude and Josh my vision for the movie, I've warned them of the consequences of being Superman. They'll live this character for 10 years because I'm telling one story over three movies and plan to direct all three if the first is as successful as everyone suspects."[68] Hartnett in particular was offered $100 million for a three-picture deal.[69] Walker explained that "I could have made a gazillion dollars on that franchise. I could probably have bought my own fleet of jets or my own island. You know what? I don't need it."[70]David Boreanaz, Victor Webster[71] and Ashton Kutcher auditioned, along with Keri Russell as Lois Lane,[72] but Kutcher decided not to pursue the role, citing scheduling conflicts with That '70s Show, the Superman curse and fear of typecasting,[73] while Boreanaz had to back out due to obligations with Angel.[71]James Marsden stated in a 2006 interview that at one point he was approached by Ratner.[74] Although it was never formally announced, Matt Bomer confirmed he was in the running for the lead role, being Ratner's preferred choice at the time. Bomer would later voice the character in the 2013 animated film Superman: Unbound.[75]Amy Adams had also auditioned for Lois Lane, and would eventually win the role eight years later when she was cast in Man of Steel.[76]

Superman: Flyby was being met with a budget exceeding $200 million, not including money spent on Superman Reborn, Superman Lives, and Batman vs. Superman, but Warner Bros. was still adamant for a summer 2004 release date.[57]Christopher Walken was in negotiations for Perry White, while Ratner wanted to cast Anthony Hopkins as Jor-El, and Ralph Fiennes as Lex Luthor, two of his cast members in Red Dragon.[77]Joel Edgerton turned down a chance to audition as Superman in favor of the villain Ty-Zor, before Ratner dropped out of the project in March 2003, blaming casting delays,[78] and aggressive feuds with producer Jon Peters.[]

McG returned as director in 2003, while Fraser continued to express interest, but had fears of typecasting.[79] ESC Entertainment was hired for visual effects work, with Kim Libreri as visual effects supervisor and Stan Winston designing a certain "prototype suit".[80] McG approached Shia LaBeouf for Jimmy Olsen, with an interest to cast an unknown for Superman, Scarlett Johansson as Lois Lane and Johnny Depp for Lex Luthor.[81] The director confirmed in a 2012 interview that Robert Downey, Jr. had been cast as Lex Luthor.[82]Neal H. Moritz and Gilbert Adler were set to produce the film. McG also commissioned Josh Schwartz to rewrite the Abrams script. He wanted to shoot in Canada, which would have cost $25 million more than WB's preferred Australian locale. McG also shot test footage with several candidates, including Jason Behr, Henry Cavill, Jared Padalecki,[69] and Michael Cassidy[83] before leaving, blaming budgetary concerns and filming locations. He opted to shoot in New York City and Canada, but Warner Bros. wanted Sydney. McG felt "it was inappropriate to try to capture the heart of America on another continent."[84] He later admitted it was his fear of flying.[82] Abrams lobbied for the chance to direct his script,[85] but Warner Bros. replaced McG with Bryan Singer in July 2004, resulting in Superman Returns, that was released in 2006.[86]

In August 2013, Geoff Johns mentioned that Warner Bros. was considering turning unproduced scripts and screenplays into original animated films and had expressed interest in making an animated adaptation of the Flyby screenplay.[87]

Justice League: Mortal

In February 2007, during pre-production for The Dark Knight, Warner Bros. hired husband and wife screenwriting duo Michelle and Kieran Mulroney to script a Justice League film[88] featuring a younger Batman in a separate franchise.[89]George Miller was hired to direct the following September,[28] with D. J. Cotrona was cast as Superman,[90] along with Armie Hammer as Batman.[91] Filming had nearly commenced at Fox Studios Australia in Sydney, but was pushed back over the Writers Guild of America strike, and once more when the Australian Film Commission denied Warner Bros. a 45 percent tax rebate over lack of Australian actors in the film.[92] Production offices were moved to Vancouver Film Studios in Canada for an expected July 2008 start and a planned summer 2009 theatrical release date,[93][94] but Warner Bros. ultimately canceled Justice League following the success of The Dark Knight. Hammer's option on his contract lapsed and the studio was more willing to proceed with Christopher Nolan to finish his trilogy separately with The Dark Knight Rises.[95]

DC Extended Universe (2013-present)

Henry Cavill in 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

In June 2008, Warner Bros. took pitches from comic book writers, screenwriters and directors on how to restart the Superman film series.[96] During story discussions for The Dark Knight Rises in 2008, David S. Goyer, aware that Warner Bros. was planning a Superman reboot, told Christopher Nolan his idea on how to present Superman in a modern context. Impressed with Goyer's concept, Nolan pitched the idea to the studio in February 2010,[97] who hired Nolan to produce and Goyer to write[98] based on the financial and critical success of The Dark Knight.[33] Nolan admired Singer's work on Superman Returns for its connection to Richard Donner's version, and previously used the 1978 film as casting inspiration for Batman Begins. Zack Snyder was hired as the film's director in October 2010. Principal photography started in August 2011 in West Chicago, Illinois, before moving to Vancouver and Plano, Illinois. The film stars Henry Cavill as Clark Kent / Kal-El / Superman, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Michael Shannon as General Zod, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El. The film was released in June 2013.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

David S. Goyer and Zack Snyder respectively wrote and directed a sequel to Man of Steel.[99][100]Christopher Nolan was expected to return as producer, albeit in a lesser role than he had in the first film.[101] On June 16, 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported that the studio was possibly planning to release the sequel in 2014.[102] Warner Bros. announced that Superman and Batman would unite in a new film which would be the follow-up to Man of Steel, set for release in 2015.[103][104] Goyer stated at the Superman 75th Anniversary Panel at 2013 San Diego Comic-Con International that Batman and Superman would face off, and titles under consideration were Superman Vs Batman and Batman Vs Superman.[105] On August 22, 2013, it was announced that Ben Affleck was cast as Batman.[106] On December 4, 2013, it was reported that Gal Gadot was cast as Wonder Woman.[107] The film was released in March 2016.

On January 17, 2014, it was announced that the film had been delayed from its original July 17, 2015 release date to March 25, 2016, in order to give the filmmakers "time to realize fully their vision, given the complex visual nature of the story".[108] On January 31, 2014, Jesse Eisenberg and Jeremy Irons were cast as Lex Luthor and Alfred Pennyworth, respectively.[109] In an official press release, Snyder described the casting of Eisenberg as Luthor by stating, "Having Jesse in the role allows us to explore that interesting dynamic, and also take the character in some new and unexpected directions."[110]

Justice League (2017)

Shortly after filming had finished for Man of Steel, Warner Bros hired Will Beall to script a new Justice League film in June 2012.[111] With the release of Man of Steel in June 2013, Goyer was hired to write a new Justice League script, with the Beall draft being scrapped.[112] In April 2014, it was announced that Zack Snyder would also be directing Goyer's Justice League script.[113] Warner Bros. was reportedly courting Chris Terrio to rewrite Justice League the following July, after having been impressed with his rewrite of Batman v Superman.[114] During post-production of the film, Zack Snyder left the film due to the death of his daughter.[115]Joss Whedon took over the project and wrote and directed reshoots.[115]

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

The divisive reaction toward the final cut of Justice League, with Zack Snyder leaving directorial duties and the final cut of the film in the hands of Joss Wheadon, has led to an argument comparing the situation to the one experienced by the film Superman II. Both Justice League and Superman II feature a director that was replaced, for different reasons, before the completion of a film, which led to a second director coming in and making substantial changes to the tone of each film. Although the reasoning behind each director's departure differs, Richard Donner was able to complete his cut of Superman II in 2005.[116] In the belief that Snyder had shot enough material for a finished film, a campaign for a "Snyder Cut" was started to allow Snyder to receive a similar treatment to Donner. Arguments are made that Snyder's vision would be more cohesive to the previous films than the actual theatrical cut, which Snyder has refused to see. Warner Bros. initially remained silent regarding any intention of making a "Snyder Cut".[117] In March 2019, Snyder confirmed his original cut does exist, and stated that it is up to Warner Bros. to release it.[118] Despite this, in November, Variety reported that Warner Bros. was unlikely to release Snyder's version of Justice League in theaters or on HBO Max, calling it a "pipe dream".[119] In December, however, Snyder posted a photo in his Vero account, which showed boxes with tapes labeled "Z.S. J.L Director's cut", and with the caption "Is it real? Does it exist? Of course it does."[120] On May 20, 2020, Snyder officially announced that HBO Max will be releasing his cut of Justice League on their service in 2021.[121] The cut will cost $20-30+ million to complete the special effects, musical score, and editing, and will be a four-part miniseries of Snyder's original vision of the film, with each installment being an hour long.[122][123][124] Snyder stated this version will be non-canonical to DC Extended Universe continuity, but it would exist alongside the films he had created.[125] It was also revealed that Cavill, Affleck, Gadot, Momoa, Fisher, and Miller would be returning to help complete the project.[126]

Untitled Man of Steel sequel (TBA)

In October 2014, a Man of Steel sequel was announced with an intended release between 2016 and 2020.[127] In August 2015, Jon Schnepp told DC Movie News on the Popcorn Network that the studio was rumored to have George Miller as the director for the sequel.[128][129] In June 2016, Russel Crowe confirmed that a Man of Steel trilogy was originally planned before it was scrapped due to the announcement of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.[130] In August 2016, The Wrap reported that the studio had announced that the sequel was in development as a top priority for the studio and getting the character right for audiences was of tantamount importance.[131] The news of a standalone Superman film were later confirmed by Dany Garcia, Henry Cavill's manager.[132] While promoting Arrival, Amy Adams confirmed work has begun on the screenplay.[133] Shortly after the release of Justice League, Cavill revealed he is under contract to play Superman for one more film.[134]

DCEU cameos (2016-present)

In addition to major roles, Superman has made various cameo appearances in other DCEU films:

  • Although he does not appear physically, Superman is heavily referenced in Suicide Squad (2016). In the one-year aftermath of Superman's death, intelligence officer Amanda Waller convinces Washington D.C. officials to allow her to assemble Task Force X, a team of dangerous meta-human criminals intended to be used to intervene in deadly missions for the United States government, in case the next Superman might not be as good.
  • In Shazam! (2019), Superman makes a brief appearance at the end of the film. He is not played by Cavill due to his unavailability, but rather Ryan Hadley, body-double of Zachary Levi.[135] He appears from the neck down after Billy announces to Freddy Freeman that he invited another person to sit with them at lunch. Upon seeing him, Freddy gasps in shock.

Recurring cast and characters

List indicator(s)
  • This table only includes characters which have appeared in multiple film series that featured Superman.
  • A dark grey cell indicates the character was not in the film, or that the character's presence in the film has not yet been announced.
  • A V indicates a voice-only role.
  • A P indicates an appearance through photograph(s).
  • A Y indicates a role as a younger version of the character.
  • A A indicates an appearance through archivial footage, stills or audio.
  • A C indicates a cameo appearance.
  • A U indicates that the actor or actress was not credited for their respective role.
  • A S indicates an appearance through use of special effects.

Non-recurring characters


Box office performance

dagger indicates that the film in the series is currently playing

Film Release date Box office gross
North America Other
North America North American
gross when adjusted
for inflation
December 15, 1978
$134,218,018 $526,120,935 $166 million $300,218,018 [136]
Superman II June 19, 1981 December 4, 1980 $108,185,706 $335,699,022 $82.2 million $190,385,706 [137][138]
Superman III
June 17, 1983
$59,950,623 $153,892,628 $20.2 million $80,150,623 [138][139]
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
July 24, 1987
$15,681,020 $35,289,185 $21 million $36,681,020 [138][140]
Superman Returns
June 28, 2006
$200,081,192 $253,751,040 $191 million $391,081,192 [141]
Man of Steel
June 14, 2013
$291,045,518 $319,443,245 $377 million $668,045,518 [142]
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
March 25, 2016
$330,360,194 $351,935,298 $542.3 million $872,662,631 [143]
Justice League November 17, 2017 October 26, 2017 $229,000,000 $238,855,145 $428.9 million $657,900,000 [144]
Total $1,382,818,709 $2,100,265,278 $1,828.6 million $3,211,421,146 [145]

Critical and public response

Film Rotten Tomatoes Metacritic CinemaScore
Superman 94% (68 reviews)[146] 86 (11 reviews)[147] N/A
Superman II 87% (52 reviews)[148] 87 (11 reviews)[149] N/A
Superman III 29% (52 reviews)[150] 44 (9 reviews)[151] N/A
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace 11% (46 reviews)[152] 24 (10 reviews)[153] C[154]
Superman Returns 75% (267 reviews)[155] 72 (40 reviews)[156] B+[154]
Man of Steel 56% (335 reviews)[157] 55 (47 reviews)[158] A-[154]
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 28% (425 reviews)[159] 44 (51 reviews)[160] B[154]
Justice League 40% (397 reviews)[161] 45 (52 reviews)[162] B+[154]

Home media


The initial four Superman films were released previously on VHS, and throughout the film series' history, three box sets of the films have been released by Warner Bros. The first occurred on May 1, 2001, when The Complete Superman Collection was released both on DVD and VHS, containing that year's DVD/home video releases of Superman, Superman II, Superman III, and Superman IV. The set was valued at US$49.99 for the DVD release and US$29.99 for the VHS release, and received positive reviews.[163]

The four Christopher Reeve films were again released on November 28, 2006, in new DVD releases to coincide with Superman Returns, also released in that year. Superman was released in a four-disc 'special edition' similar to Superman II, which was released in a two-disc special edition. Both Superman III and IV were released in single disc 'deluxe editions', and all four releases were available together in The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection, an 8-disc set that was valued at US$79.92. Like the 2001 set before it, The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection received positive reviews.[164]

Also on November 28, 2006, a 14-disc DVD box set titled Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition was released, containing Superman, Superman II, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, Superman III, Superman IV, Superman Returns, and Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman, among other releases. All contents of the set were housed within a tin case. The set was valued at US$99.92, and received extremely positive reviews when first released.[165] However, after only a day on the market, Warner Bros. announced that there were two errors discovered within the set. The first was that the 2.0 audio track on Superman, was instead the 5.1 audio track already on the disc. The second was that the Superman III disc was not the 2006 deluxe edition as advertised, but the 2001 release instead. The set was soon recalled, and Warner Bros. offered a toll-free number to replace the faulty discs for people who had already purchased the set.[166] Due to popular demand, a corrected set was released and Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition returned to store shelves on May 29, 2007.[167]

On October 14, 2008, another Christopher Reeve Superman film collection was released, entitled Superman: 4 Film Favorites, containing all four films, but with far less bonus material than previous sets. The collection was a 2-disc DVD-18 set that included the first disc of both special editions from the 2006 release and both deluxe editions.

On April 1, 2011, it was announced that the entire Superman anthology would be making its way to Blu-ray for the first time. The anthology box set was released on June 7, 2011.[168]

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