I’ve written about Superman on this blog many times in the past. I think he’s the prime example of a great fictional character that few people know how to do well. Just look at Superman Returns or the current Grounded storyline. Talented writer/directors, who had been very successful doing other superhero stories, made both. When it came to The Man of Steel, they botched it up.
So what are the good Superman stories? Well, here’s a list of my favorites. They’ll be what I go back to if the Zack Snyder film is as bad as I’m scared it will be.
10. Superman and the Legion of Super Heroes
Here’s a recent story by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. In it, Superman travels to the future with his old friends, the Legion, and finds the Earth of the future has turned Xenophobic against races from other planets. Worst of all, they use him as their symbol, claiming he was born on Earth, not Krypton. Further complicating matters is the now red sun, which renders him powerless. This is a prime example of a fun Superman story laying out plain what the character stands for.
9. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
I’ve never loved the original Richard Lester cut of this movie. The original script, along with the Donner-directed bits, gave it some dramatic weight but Lester’s need to make it silly almost torpedoed the whole thing. Thank heavens enough of Donner’s original footage survived to put this together. It’s not a complete film or it would be higher up the list but what we got is good enough to make it.
8. Superman (Original Series) #1
This is the complete first Superman story Siegel and Shuster had to cut apart to make the page count for Action Comics #1. While it’s by no means sophisticated, every panel is bursting with energy. Superman never stops moving in it, foiling one evil doer after another. You can see why kids were so blown away when it came out.
7. All Star Superman
There are a lot of people who would make this number one. While I don’t put it that high, I understand why they do. Grant Morrison’s stories can sometimes go off the rails, trading narrative for ideas, but he centered this one with a strong emotional center. He and Frank Quitely show a true love for the character. It’s also bursting with joy, making Superman’s death at the end all the more glorious and heart breaking.
6. The Mechanical Monsters
I love the Fleischer Studios’ Superman shorts and this is my favorite one. It follows the same plot as all the other Fleischer films (villain hatches plot, Clark and Lois investigate, Lois gets in trouble, Superman rescues her, catches the villain, and they wrap it up with a twenty-second scene at the paper) but stands above the others in terms of its action and scope. I can only imagine how exciting it was for kids who had never seen Superman outside of comics to witness him bursting through steel doors and trashing giant robots.
This is the finale to Superman: The Animated Series. In it, a brainwashed Superman invades Earth on the command of his “father”, Darkseid. By the time he’s come to his senses, he’s an enemy of the state and no one trusts him anymore. In a rage, he goes to Apokolips, rips through Darkseid’s minions, and goes toe to toe with the big villain himself. He barely survives the experience. Superman learns he can’t beat Darkseid with his own methods and returns to Earth to pick up the pieces.
4. For the Man Who Has Everything
Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman head to the Fortress of Solitude for Superman’s birthday, only to find him in the grip of a black lotus plant, courtesy of Mongul. The plant puts victims in a catatonic state while creating a convincing dream of their fondest wish. For Superman, the dream is he’s a regular man on a never-destroyed Krypton. While Batman and Robin try to snap him out of it, Wonder Woman tries to survive battling Mongul. Once freed, Superman’s rage is downright frightening. One of my favorite elements is the end, where an unlikely hero takes Mongul down. The creative team behind this, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is the same one behind Watchmen and it was adapted very well for an episode of Justice League Unlimited.
3. Superman: The Motion Picture
Since this is the one almost everyone is familiar with, I won’t say much. Only that Christopher Reeve casts a long shadow over Superman for a reason. There is no one else who has ever embodied the role like him.
2. The Man of Steel
I’ve read a lot of people dogging on John Byrne’s Superman and I think it’s unwarranted. In 1986, Byrne was given license to update Superman for a new generation and in this mini-series, he started with Superman’s origin. I think a lot of die-hard fans still resent him for changing up the “real” Superman. At the end of the day, he created the mold for the modern version of the character. He’s not as powerful as a god, is fighting the status quo (more specifically, the corrupt Lex Luthor), was never Superboy, and most important, thought of himself as a human first and a Kryptonian second. He was the first version of Superman I could relate to.
1. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow
Did I say every Superman story has to be fun? Well, this one has great elements of fun but I have to admit most of it is sad. I just wrote about The Man of Steel which redefined Superman for a new generation. Before they did that, Alan Moore and Superman-stalwart Curt Swan set down the end of the Superman who’d been around since 1938. This is the classic Superman’s last stand against all of his foes and it’s heartbreaking. It does, however, end on a happy note which gives hope that our hero’s greatest desire might finally have come true.
Runners Up: Birthright, Superman For All Seasons, Red Son, Secret Origin, and Mxyzpixilated (from Superman: The Animated Series)