Superman’s Top Cinematic Moments

Richard Donner’s run on DC’s Action Comics Superman title begins next month, so I thought this would be a great time to look back at the ten best Superman moments.

Since Superman has such a huge tapestry of history from which to choose, I’m limiting this list to the five modern Superman movies—beginning with Donner’s Superman from 1978.

Though most people who care have probably already seen the movie by now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a spoiler warning here since information from Superman Returns appears in this list.

#10 Reversing the magic kiss
Film: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

No, you didn’t read that wrong. I’m actually including a scene from Superman IV as a top ten Superman moment. Though Superman IV was certainly the worst of the movies, far too many people simply toss out the whole thing as being a complete waste of time.

I specialize in finding the good in disappointing franchise installments. I’m also a Star Trek fan, after all. And even Superman IV had its moments.

Lois and ClarkFaced with a tough decision on just how far to directly interfere with human affairs, Clark reveals his true identity to Lois once again. “You’re the only one I can talk to, Lois,” he tells her.

All of her hidden memories from Superman II come flooding back. Though the moment is fleeting, Superman/Kal-El is able to be his one, true self with Lois.

“‘Never love one of them above the rest. Love all humanity instead.’ That’s not fair,” he tells her sadly before kissing away her memories once again.

#9 The people rise up
Film: Superman II (1980)

After battling Zod, Ursa, and Non throughout Metropolis, Superman appears to have been soundly defeated. A crowd on the street gathers. “Superman is dead,” one of them says in disbelief. “They killed Superman,” says another.

“Let’s go get them.”

With that, the people Superman has sworn to protect band together to face down the three supervillains who have apparently killed their hero.

Super breath mixed with director Richard Lester’s slapstick humor puts an end to the moment quickly, however. Perhaps the Donner version coming in November will offer a better take on this moment.

#8 Clark (almost) tells all
Film: Superman (1978)

Just after the “Can you read my mind” flight with Lois, Superman changes to his Clark disguise and arrives at her apartment for their date. As Lois gets ready, Clark seems to make a decision.

He takes off his glasses, straightens his posture, smiles—almost relieved—and says, in his serious, Superman voice, “Lois, there’s something I have to tell you. I’m really—” but as she re-enters the room, he loses his confidence and trails back into Clarkspeak, quickly putting the glasses back on: “—I mean, I was, at first, really nervous about tonight, uh, but then I decided that, well, darn it, I was going to show you the time of your life.”

Still mesmerized by her flight with Superman, Lois replies, “That’s clark, Nice.”

Reeve does an incredible job throughout the movie, but this simple little scene is perhaps his best acting performance. The transformations in his inflection, posture, and demeanor between the Superman and Clark personas are brilliant here and make the disguise much more believable than it is with other actors.

#7 Lois saves Superman
Film: Superman Returns (2006)

How many times have we seen Superman save Lois Lane over the years?

She notoriosuly manages to find her way into trouble, time after time. In Superman Returns, she gets to turn the tables in one scene and save him for a change. I’m sure this isn’t a true Superman first, but certainly the first time for the movies.

Being a hero when you have nearly unlimited superpowers at your disposal is one thing, but risking your life to save another when you’re just an average human being is quite another.

However their relationship ultimately works out, it is quite obvious that Lois still has a love for Superman in her heart.

#6 Superman gives everything up
Film: Superman II (1980)

Faced with the ultimate choice of love versus superpowers, Superman chooses love and gives up all of his powers in order to be with Lois. “Mother, I love her,” is his simple yet poignant explanation to a concerned hologram of his Kryptonian mother.

Apparently, “super style” is one of his lost powers, too, for he is transformed into an ordinary man in regular clothes with a dorky haircut. Even Lois seems momentarily taken aback.

Whether or not it violates “Superman ethics,” the pair wind up in bed and Jason (or, as I prefer to call him, Jay-El) is presumably conceived—though he won’t make his first appearance until Superman Returns. We’ll save Superman movie timeline fun for a future installment.

Unfortunately for Superman and Lois, it turns out that he gave up his powers at the worst possible time. But how were they to know that General Zod, at that very moment, was taking control of the Earth?

#5 Clark defeats Superman
Film: Superman III (1983)

Though not a stellar entry, Superman III also had some redeeming moments. The best of these was “The Enemy Within” style battle between Superman’s dual personalities.

Amplified by a kryptonite variant, Superman’s darker personality traits have taken over. (Interestingly, the “evil” Superman suit worn by Christopher Reeve for these scenes greatly resembles the muted colors of Brandon Routh’s Superman suit from this year’s installment.)

Unable to be held below the surface for long, Superman’s “good” personality traits take on the physical form of a strengthened version of Clark Kent.

The junkyard battle that ensues could well have saved the movie had it been expanded into the film’s climax.

#4 Superman kneels before Zod
Film: Superman II (1980)

Betrayed by Lex Luthor and facing the prospect of Lois being killed by Ursa, Superman once again steps into the molecule chamber to give up his powers.

(Observant audience members noted that Superman retained his super style this time: the classic Superman suit and hairdo remained in place, rather than converting to dork style.)

Defeated, Superman returns from the chamber and kneels before Zod. Almost unable to contain his glee, Zod commands, “Take my hand and swear eternal loyalty to Zod.”

Superman takes his hand. Zod’s victory over Earth is now complete.

Complete, that is, until there is the not unpleasant sound of Zod’s bones crushing as Superman reveals that it is actually the villains who have lost their superpowers. Incredible moment.

The Superman ethics of what happens next will also be saved for some future column.

#3 Superman’s rage
Film: Superman (1978)

This movie makes it quite clear that Clark fell for Lois the moment he met her. As he sits down at his typewriter on his first day at the Daily Planet, he can’t seem to keep his eyes off of her while she pays attention to everything except him.

Clark/Superman’s love for her builds throughout the film. As Luthor’s scheme unfolds in the finale, however, Superman is unable to stop both nuclear missiles in time. The earthquake which ensues traps Lois.

Superman arrives too late to save Lois and she dies. Superman, the greatest superhero ever, has failed. And for Superman, the failure is absolute.

For he has lost Lois.

In his eyes, the rage builds. There is a silence. A moment of peace. Until Superman lets out a gut-wrenching roar and tears off into the heavens. He had been powerless to save his adoptive father, but he was not going to let that happen to Lois.

Was reversing the Earth’s rotation to turn back time and allow Superman to save Lois a Hollywood cheat? Maybe. But the film makes it work.

Though the sheer strength required to pull off such a feat would seemingly make any future battles quite pointless, the scene is more about Superman’s humanity than it is his superpowers. Torn between differing paths offered by both of his fathers, Superman chooses the path of his Earth father. Though not born of Earth, Superman proves he is as human as any of us.

#2 The return of Superman
Film: Superman Returns (2006)

Since nineteen years had passed since his last appearance on the big screen, Superman’s return to Metropolis . . . and theaters . . . had to be big. Could director Bryan Singer and star Brandon Routh pull off the impossible and make us believe again?

As a private space plane plummets out of control back to Earth with Lois aboard (of course), Clark chooses to resume his Superman identity and save her.

While appropriately reverential to the earlier movies, Superman Returns shows off what can be done with today’s effects in this spectacular sequence, wowing 2006 audiences in much the same way that 1978 audiences were wowed with the best Superman scene ever. . . .

#1 Superman begins
Film: Superman (1978)

The first Superman movie has an epic scope. It is well over an hour into the film before Superman makes his first appearance in Metropolis. But this is one of those rare movies where the payoff is actually worth it.

Clark exits the Planet building and notices a commotion on the street. A helicopter accident has left Lois dangling from the top of the building and her purse plummets to the ground.

Realizing that he must now take very public action for the first time, Clark looks for a discrete place to change. He glances at a phone stall (a nod to the classic phone booth changes of previous Superman incarnations) and makes his way to a revolving glass door.

The John Williams music begins to kick in as Clark rips open his shirt in classic form to reveal the S. The audience cheers and Superman arrives just in time to save Lois as she falls.

Lois and Superman“Easy, Miss, I’ve got you,” he tells her.

“You’ve got me. Who’s got you?” she asks, incredulous.

The helicopter falls over the edge, too, straight for them. Lois screams, but Superman is unconcerned, easily grabbing the helicopter with a free hand and landing them both safely on the roof with the Williams theme in full force. At that moment, the movie has us.

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There you have it, Superman’s ten best cinematic moments ever.

At least as of today.