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Every Superman Movie's Opening Scene Ranked

One of pop culture's most iconic, enduring heroes is Superman, a flagship character for DC Comics and its parent company Warner Bros. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938, Superman quickly leapt from the comic book page to adaptation into radio dramas, television series, and full-length feature film adaptations. 

Personified in the faces (and curls) of actors like Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavil, Kal-El's big screen adventures have had him defending the world while maintaining a secret identity as unassuming investigative reporter Clark Kent. Across Superman's cinematic history, the movies have seen varying successes and failures, with multiple generations seemingly struggling (or perfecting) the tone of what might be the most purely benevolent superhero of all. 

Below is a breakdown of the (often-iconic) opening scenes of all the Superman films, from the Man of Steel's debut in 1951 to his most recent adventures launching the DC Extended Universe. With the exclusion of ensemble films like "Justice League," would you rank them differently?

8. Superman III (1983)

The third Christopher Reeve film had the series leaning into unabashed camp; this was largely the result of the transition between Richard Donner (who had directed most of the previous two films and was jettisoned during the production of "Superman II") and Richard Lester (who was brought on by producers to finish the second film). The tastes of Lester (known primarily for manic, icon-crafting Beatles films "Help!" and "A Hard Day's Night") leaned more towards the slapstick, and with one of Hollywood's top comedians (Richard Pryor) being brought in to join the franchise, the opening scene aimed to cleanse the moviegoers' palate for this new tonal shift — for better or worse.

The orchestrated sequence depicts a seemingly typical afternoon in Metropolis, as the city descends into madcap chaos. As these events take a dangerous turn, it prompts Superman (Reeve) to leap into action, saving citizens from peril.

While the first two Salkind-produced Superman films had comedic elements to soften some blows, the stated intent of the franchise was right there on the original poster: "You'll believe a man can fly." Now, it seemed, the motto had become: "You'll believe that a girl in a low-cut dress can turn an entire city into a 3 Stooges short."

As a Rube Goldberg-like sequence of events (with said woman as the catalyst) unfolds, phone booths topple like dominoes, a blind man pushes a street-painting machine into oncoming traffic, Clark Kent (who literally helps produce newspapers) proves himself unable to pick up a newspaper without his strength ripping it, a bank robber gets chased down the street — and en entire generation of children became traumatized by the notion that at any given moment the family car could drive over a fire hydrant and drown everyone inside.

Such pratfalls play as more bewildering than amusing, and unfortunately this opening sets the tone for the entire film; decades later, "Superman III" feels like a "Batman and Robin" equivalent for the Man of Steel, warning all future filmmakers against the dangers of choosing derision over hero worship.

7. Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)

This George Reeves-starring trifle holds the distinction of being the first feature film to feature the Man of Steel, while simultaneously serving as a precursor to the "Adventures of Superman" live-action television series that would premiere the following year. Ironically enough, the tragic tale of Reeves would be re-told decades later in the film "Hollywoodland," with the actor played by ... a pre-Batman Ben Affleck. 

With production values that feel better suited for the small screen, actor Reeves' debut as the character has not aged well; the tone is set with the opening sequence of "Mole Men," which offers a brief introduction to Superman before jumping right into the movie's story.

The audience meets investigative reporters Lois Lane and Clark Kent arriving in the small town of Silsby for a report on the world's deepest oil well. Unbeknownst to the drilling company, the well has breached a community of subterranean humanoids, who emerge on the surface shortly thereafter. While Reeves and co-star Phyllis Coates (as Lane) bring endearing talents to roles that would endear them to a subsequent television audience, the film feels like a cheap sci-fi movie that just happens to star Superman.

6. Superman Returns (2006)

After years of stalled attempts to get a new Superman movie into theaters, director Bryan Singer essentially did everything in his power to make a Christopher Reeve movie without Reeve. From the music cues to the repurposing of old Marlon Brando footage (as Jor-El) to the casting of Brandon Routh (and a poster that even seemed to embrace the newcomer's Reeves-like features), the flick unfurled a tale about Earth in the wake of Superman going MIA for five years.

Appropriately enough, Superman isn't seen in the opening scene, as the audience is caught up to speed on how Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has filled this power vacuum via a release from prison, marriage to a rich widow, and a trip to the Fortress of Solitude to steal Superman's precious Kryptonian crystals. 

A dimly lit film that doesn't quite know what direction it wants to take its characters in once the Last of Krypton returns to Earth, "Returns" is another film that displays many of its qualities (for better or worse) in its opening moments. The attempted revival film kicks off on a strange, self indulgent note that denies its audience a triumphant, vibrant opening for the Man of Steel's return to the big screen. Looking back, much of the film has this carrot-on-a-stick vibe, dangling the glory days of Reeve before the audience without delivering much more than an echo.

5. Man of Steel (2013)

The DC Extended Universe began in earnest with Zack Snyder's first (non-"Watchmen") DC superhero film, debuting Henry Cavill as Superman.

Right out the gate, the movie set out to be more brooding, action-packed and darker in tone than the preceding Superman movies, opening with a painful scene of childbirth and the ensuing battle for the fate of Krypton. The film begins with Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) giving birth as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) quickly whisks the child away. Boasting some incredible world-building via glimpses of what a pre-explosion Krypton looks like, the film then jumps to the new father pleading with the planet's ruling council to heed his apocalyptic warning, General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his loyalists, instead, lead an insurrection and seize power.

With its visual effects-heavy spectacle and action hero aesthetic, the extended prologue made it clear that Snyder's vision was going to make for a very different Superman. Embracing his bombastic filmmaking sensibilities, the architect of the so-called "Snyderverse" set the visual tone of the DCEU, even before Cavill's Kal-El could be glimpsed in the iconic blue and red costume.

4. Superman (1978)

The launch of the first Donner "Superman" film was nothing short of a cinematic event, boasting widespread critical acclaim and earning over $300 million at the worldwide box office. 

With star Christopher Reeve delivering an iconic performance as the Man of Steel, "Superman" covers the Kryptonian's upbringing on Earth before he becomes the world's greatest hero. However, one of the weaker parts of the overall film is its opening sequence on the planet Krypton, chronicling the cosmic society's final moments before the planet itself is destroyed.

Featuring an odd framing sequence that presents the movie as a story being told by two children, 

The opening sequence reveals a cold, clinical Krypton that inspires a sense of detachment rather than sympathy. General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O'Halloran), having been caught red-handed and immediately brought to trial, stand accused before a series of haunting faces who condemn them "guilty!" and dispatch them to the Phantom Zone. His moment as prosecutor concluded, Jor-El (Brando) and his wife send their only son to Earth as Krypton crumbles around them.

Powered by one of composer John Williams' most soaring themes (and possibly the most adorable baby ever committed to film), the sequence is nonetheless jarringly detached and moribundly paced compared to the rest of the film. An odd decision to augment the cinematography of Krypton in a perpetual haze and brightly lit costumes (likely to cover up deficiencies in special effects) does little to improve the 1978 film's enduring visual legacy. But wow, those opening credits are about as iconic as it gets.

3. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

In a way, the opening sequence of "The Quest for Peace" does a good job conveying that it is the end of an era for the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. As a Soviet spacecraft runs into difficulties in orbit, Superman arrives to save the day, cementing his status as a hero for the whole world, regardless of political division. This is followed by Clark returning to the Kent family farm in Smallville to consider whether he should sell it now that both of his adoptive parents have died.

For all the flaws in "Superman IV," the opening sequence brings enough sincere heart and superhero derring-do to make it feel like a course correction from the tonally off-putting "Superman III." Sure, the visual effects may not have aged particularly well, but watching Reeve in the suit one last time is a powerful reminder of a man who was born to play that role. "The Quest for Peace" starts off on a strong note that, unfortunately, is not maintained as the movie progresses with its languid story.

2. Superman II (1980)

While Zod and his associates Ursa and Non were briefly seen at the start of "Superman II," the circumstances behind their exile are revealed in the opening sequence to the 1980 film. This prologue sets the personal stakes for the Kryptonian villains as Zod vows to achieve his revenge on Jor-El for condemning him. This scene is followed by a breezy introduction for Superman in the theatrical cut, with the Man of Steel saving Lois from a terrorist plot in Paris.

With director Richard Donner replaced by Richard Lester in the midst of production, this 1980 sequel feels like the last movie in the initial run to have the grandeur of the first film. The prologue effectively introduces the movie's main antagonists while tying it in directly with the legacy of the preceding film to give Superman a threat like never before. "Superman II" may not be without its flaws, but the opening sequence is not one of them.

1. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

With 2016's "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" promising a superhero showdown between its marquee characters, the opening scene immediately connects the two powerhouses. After a brief recap of Bruce Wayne's tragic childhood leading to him becoming the Batman, Superman and Zod's climactic battle from "Man of Steel" is revisited. However, with the resulting mass devastation laying Metropolis to waste (including a Wayne Enterprises skyscraper), Bruce witnesses the destructive potential of Superman firsthand, setting the film's feud into motion.

While it is a bit tedious to see the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne yet again, filmmaker Zack Snyder delivers the most stylish cinematic interpretation of the tragic Batman origin to date. What's more effective is the "Man of Steel" climax from Bruce's perspective, with the Dark Knight charging headfirst into the carnage while maintaining his civilian persona. The world was never the same after the arrival of Superman, and the "Batman v. Superman" opening conveys this perfectly.