1. Superman/Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve, Superman, 1978; Superman II, 1980; Superman III, 1983; Superman IV: The Quest for Peace)
Two of the four movies he appears in are awful. He constantly and randomly gets new powers out of nowhere that hadn’t been established previously, (Saran-wrap S? Memory erasing kiss? Telekenesis? Ringing a doorbell from far away?) leaving the audience baffled. The end of the first movie had him traveling back through time. His archenemy is treated as comic relief and not taken seriously.
Still…was there any doubt who number one was?
Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman is the most iconic superhero movie performance of all time, bar none. It’s also the best. And that’s saying nothing of it being one of the most iconic performances in the history of film, of any genre.
If you sit back and think about it, Superman is a hard character to get right…and an especially hard character to make sympathetic and likable. He’s an alien, he’s nigh-invulnerable, and his human “alter ego” is actually a disguise. He’s supposed to be the ultimate standard that humanity looks up to, and he’s the paragon of truth, justice, and the American way. It would be very easy to treat him as some sort of Christ figure (which we saw in Superman Returns) instead of a real, sympathetic character.
And yet, Christopher Reeve’s Superman is very, very sympathetic, likeable, and relatable. And in figurative terms, very human…while still being spectacular and larger than life.
How do they pull this off? Well, there are a lot of ways. We see his wants, his desires, and his flaws. We get a glimpse of the honest life he lived growing up, and felt sympathy for him when his adopted father dies. We see his more down-to-earth and human moments.
But all of that would be for nothing if not for Christopher Reeve’s acting. Even if the script didn’t include those humanizing moments, Reeve makes sure we feel for him regardless.
The movies were saddled with one of the most ridiculous premises in all of fiction – that Superman can wear glasses and this makes it so that no one recognizes him as Clark Kent. In the films, while it’s still pretty dumb that no one recognizes his face, Reeve absolutely sells the different personalities perfectly. As Superman, he’s the perfect example of justice – he’s stoic, heroic, and has a commanding presence. Clark Kent is the perfect every man – he’s clumsy and weak, but has a huge amount of charisma and is incredibly likable. It really can’t be emphasized enough how fantastic Reeve is able to pull off both completely opposite roles – creating one of the most commanding and one of the most likable characters in all of film at the same time.
The best example of this acting comes in Superman II, where he transforms before our very eyes without even changing into the Superman costume. After Clark falls into the fire and isn’t harmed, he can’t deny Lois’s suspicions that he’s Superman anymore. Resigned, he takes off his glasses and admits it. It’s pretty incredible how Reeve is able to distinctively transform from one character into a polar opposite one just by removing his glasses and changing his posture and tone of voice.
Some people see Clark Kent the way he was described in the speech from Kill Bill – that he’s Superman’s parody of the human race, which he finds himself superior to, and whenever he wakes up in the morning, he thinks of himself as Superman, not Clark Kent. I think there’s a lot of truth to this regarding this portrayal, but I’m not entirely sure it’s all that simple. Personally, it seems to me that whenever he’s Clark Kent, he’s not just putting on some sort of performance – in those moments, he really IS Clark. He’s not necessarily bumping into things on purpose himself, he just runs into them because he’s currently a bumbling guy. I think this is partially demonstrated by the scene I described earlier where he trips and falls into the fire – he’s trying to keep his identity concealed from Lois and doesn’t want to confirm her suspicions, so falling into the fire is definitely not a deliberate choice he made. If all the clumsiness was entirely an act and he purposefully sees and chooses when to bump into things or trip or whatnot, he wouldn’t have fallen into the fire. (And it’s not because he secretly wanted to show Lois, having gone to great lengths to avoid showing her his powers earlier.) He just tripped because, well, right now he’s Clark Kent, and he’s a clumsy guy. I’m also not 100% sold that he always refers to himself as Superman, either, especially when in the Clark Kent guise. I mean, he was born and raised with the name Clark Kent, and didn’t get the moniker Superman until he was already an adult.
In any case, the first movie is an all time classic (time travel weirdness aside), but I enjoy Superman II even more. Part of this is because the portrayal of General Zod, (providing Superman with three enemies who are equal to his power level that are legitimately intimidating) is a much better choice for a villain than the “Gene Hackman and his wacky henchman” comedy hour. But I also like the arc that Superman gets as a character. Like I said earlier, we still can relate to him because we see that he isn’t infallible and he does have flaws and makes bad decisions at times.
The most obvious case of this, of course, is when he decides to give up his powers to try to live a normal life. On paper, this is an incredibility selfish decision, to no longer protect people so he can settle down, but even though the audience knows that this is a selfish and bad move we still can’t help but feel sorry for him and see where he was coming for him, and we don’t lose sympathy for him. We see him contemplating the misery of the fact that, as Superman, he’ll never be able to have a truly happy life, and his chemistry with Lois is good enough that we can feel why he would succumb to such a decision. And then when he gets beat up by the guy hitting on Lois later on, we see in Reeve’s face that he knows he’s made a bad decision and didn’t fully understand the consequences, and he eventually learns from his mistake.
Regarding Superman II, one thing I really like is how at the end, Superman uses his wit and ingenuity to defeat the villain rather than just his brawn or actual powers. The moment where he crushes Zod’s hand and we realize that he reversed the power draining technology is fantastically satisfying.
On another note, in both of the first two movies the special effects still hold up today for the most part, and are incredible for the time they were built. Donner’s intention was to make the audience believe that a man could fly, and he most certainly did.
I only want to briefly touch on the last two films, and only relating to the character himself. Obviously, everyone knows that they’re total crap. In Superman III, the idea of creating an evil Superman was a potentially great idea, as it could have dealt with his latent feelings of superiority over the rest of the humans, and we could see the real terror that could happen if he turned bad. Instead, we never really get a glimpse of what could possibly fuel the evil Superman’s intentions, or really what the real Superman was thinking underneath it all while he was under the influence of the fake Kryptonite. And all he really does is stupid acts of vandalism that are played for laughs – straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, hardy har har. Superman 4, as you know, is probably even worse, but I don’t even want to begin to describe the philosophical problems inherit in that film. Superman decides to get rid of all nuclear weapons…everyone is okay with it and hands them over…and then at the end of the film Superman decides he shouldn’t interfere with such things but we don’t even really understand what caused him to change his mind. That should tell you all you need to know. Oh, and the visual effects take a complete nosedive, we can see strings when people are flying now and tons of green screens.
Still, what do you think about when you think about Christopher Reeve’s Superman? You don’t think of the Richard Pryor lack-of-comedy hour or bad green screen fights with Nuclear Man. Those movies have been forgotten, buried. I had a lot of problems with Superman Returns, but one thing I’ll give it a huge amount of credit for is deciding to completely ignore the later two films. They chose to ignore them, and so have I, and so should everyone.
No, when people think of Christopher Reeve’s Superman, they think of the majestic scenes, the ability to have a commanding presence even when wearing a colorful costume, they think of the charm, the chemistry he had, the likability, the seamless ability to shift between the majestic Superman and the likable, bumbling Clark Kent on a whim and make us believe that they are different people. It’s the greatest comic book superhero portrayal of all time, and it’s number one on this list.
In any case, that wraps up my rankings for good. I hope you guys enjoyed reading it. Obviously no one else is going to go through and rank all of them, but I would be very interested in seeing other people’s lists of what their top and bottom fives (or even tens) would be. Thanks for reading!