Home > Lists > The Ultimate Evolving Superhero Movie List – Part 3

The Ultimate Evolving Superhero Movie List – Part 3

It can be hard to discern which films are worth your time. Now, I’m no expert on comic books, having primarily grown up getting to know most of these characters from films, TV shows, and video games, but I do have a love for superheroes just the same, and I do consider these mediums to be a part of the ever expanding reach of these characters beyond their comic book origins. As I write this, I also admit I’m running on a superhero high these days, as I just came off a string of reviews for The Dark Knight Trilogy. Also of note is that The Viewer’s Commentary not only reached its 100th post with the first portion of this list, but it is also coming upon its first anniversary, and I figured that I would do something grand to celebrate!

Initially, I was thinking, “Why not do an updated Top 10 Superhero Films list?” but that just came off as being not grand enough, and doubling that number still didn’t feel ambitious enough. So I set myself on a much grander mission: To make an ever-evolving list of not just the best or worst superhero films, but of ALL the superhero films I had ever seen, leading to the creation of this list you see before you.

Currently, I am limiting this list to just theatrically-released films, as that still provides me with a lot of ground to cover, though it will definitely begin to include exceptions for non-theatrical features such as Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Furthermore, I am abstaining from listing films that I have yet to see or have not seen in quite some time and, thus, do not feel comfortable passing judgment on. As such, there will be omissions, some of them obvious, some of them not so much, but that’s the beauty of the idea behind this project: It’s an evolving list.

So, as I see newer movies, re-watch forgotten ones, and also discover the ones that have somehow gone unseen by me, I will continue to add them to this list, which is also being given its own all-encompassing page here on The Viewers Commentary. Films will be neatly separated into the five easy categories – The Awful, The Bad, The Average, The Good, and The Excellent – and each film within each category ranked from least to greatest in quality (all my opinion of course). Do not consider this list or the commentary to be definitive reviews, but if I do have a review for the movie, rest assured that it will be linked to.

In this, the third and final incremental portion of this list before it goes into periodic updates, I present to you the current films in the latter half of “The Good” films section and, finally, “The Excellent” films, as well.

THE GOOD (Continued)

Kick-Ass

The premise of Kick-Ass is a fun one: What if an actual ordinary teenager became a superhero and found himself caught up in a crazy superhero world that had very real consequences? Unlike the noble Spider-Man or the tortured, existential teens at Professor X’s institute, Kick-Ass is a sort of cautionary wish fulfillment in that it proposes that, yeah, it might actually be kind of awesome, but it’s not without consequences, too. In a sense, this makes Kick-Ass a sort of coming of age tale, where young people step out of adolescence and into harsh realities, some of them way too early, such as the foul-mouthed, violence-loving but ultimately endearing Hit-Girl. It’s a movie that’s both very fun, with gobs of ultraviolence and humor and some fantastic performances from then-newcomer Chloe Moretz, Aaron Johnson, and even Nicholas Cage, but also quite serious about what it means to take on responsibility.

Hellboy

Though certainly not a horror film, Hellboy, based on the mid-90s Mike Mignola creation takes a lot cues from the genres of horror, fantasy, and sci-fi to create a world where the supernatural threatens the natural world quite often, only we aren’t usually aware of it, thanks to the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. The bureau just so happens to have a demon named Hellboy on its payroll, a creature who crossed over from a hellish dimension and into our own, only to be raised for the forces of good, rather than evil. Hellboy has tons of great visuals, including a creepy clockwork swordsman with a penchant for body modification, and the action and dreary settings are complemented nicely with some lighthearted humor and a genuinely sweet romance between Hellboy and Liz Sherman, a pyrokinetic whose sometimes uncontrollable abilities cause suffering to regular humans but are perfectly suited for a life with the heroic hellspawn. It doesn’t have the grandeur of many other superhero films, but it makes great use of its dark visuals combined with a lighter tone, and Ron Perlman leads the great cast in one of the best superhero performances you’ll ever see. Don’t let the name fool you – this is actually great fun for pretty much the entire family.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

As with most sequels to successful films, you can generally expect a higher budget, and Hellboy II does not squander its predecessor’s success, proving to be a fruitful endeavor for Guillermo del Toro to showcase his imagination even more than he was able to in the quieter previous film. Featuring an expanded cast, flashy fight sequences (complete with martial arts swordplay), and big special effects sequences like the forest god attack, the tooth fairy swarm, and the troll market, Hellboy II is not as intimate as the first film, but cashes in on our familiarity with the characters with a story of a grander scale, all the while continuing with the fantastic performances (though, as a fan of Frasier, I miss David Hyde Pierce as the voice of Abe). The film also features a far more interesting and nuanced antagonist in the form of Nuada, a creepy elf prince who seeks to reawaken the titular army and exact revenge against the humans, who have since forgotten their ancestor’s war on magical creatures – a plot detail that is explained through a wonderful animated sequence that only helps to elevate this highly imaginative and entertaining film above its predecessor.

Superman II

Now, see, I’m not entirely down on the Christopher Reeve films, am I? Though it’s not the first time that the world saw the Man of Steel soar through the air, and though there were several fights behind the scenes between original director Richard Donner and the Salkinds, Superman II takes everything that was great about the first film and uses the opportunity to either continue that greatness (Reeve and Kidder are brilliant and arguably better with more material to work with here) while it mostly loses much of the bad (the cellophane S-symbol is laughably ineffective and random, and Superman’s apparent ability to wipe memories with a kiss is dumb, but neither are anywhere near as bad as the “WTF?” logic behind the first film’s time travel gimmick). It must also be said that Superman gets a far more formidable villain this time, with Zod and cronies being far more of a credible threats than Lex and his clowns. While it kind of sucks that they had to hit that reset button at the end, Superman II is pretty much what all superhero sequels should be.

Batman Returns

Dark, weird, and quintessentially Tim Burton, Batman Returns is not a perfect film rendering of the Dark Knight, but it is one of the more fascinating and visually engaging. From the grotesque quasi-biblical parallels of the Penguin to the psychotic feminist Catwoman, whose mental state begins to unravel along with her costume, Returns is more like Burton taking pre-existing characters and using them to personify his idea of how weirdoes and outcasts cope in a world that punishes them for non-conformity. Though integral to the story and with Michael Keaton continuing to do well enough in the role, Batman himself tends to fall by the wayside here, while Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer, along with Christopher Walken as original creation Max Shreck, manage to carry the film with their outlandish and captivating performances. Not to mention the fact that the sets themselves are practically characters unto themselves. Gotham has never looked so Gothic.

X2: X-Men United

A vast improvement over its predecessor, for the longest time, this was one of the best superhero films ever released, and though later films have cast a shadow over X2 and knocked it out of the top slots, it still manages to hold up today, even despite some of its lesser performances (Halle Berry… again). The story ups the ante and manages to tie in Wolverine’s enigmatic origins with a greater threat to mutantkind, forcing the X-Men to make an uneasy alliance with Magneto in the process. Unlike the third film and the Wolverine spin-off, X2 manages to toss in a select few new mutants without feeling extraneous, finding actual purposes for their inclusion. Nightcrawler and Lady Deathstrike both feature in two of the film’s best action sequences, as wel, though they do pale in comparison to Wolverine unleashing his fury on the commandos infiltrating the school. Awesome.

V for Vendetta

Though Alan Moore has a legit reason to be upset about the film’s toning down and libertarianizing of his anarchist graphic novel, V for Vendetta is nonetheless a successful film in its own right. Unlike most superheroes, who typically fight to mostly uphold the law of the land, the hero of V for Vendetta is instead a freedom fighter who challenges an oppressive government has been able to pacify its people into falling under its totalitarian, highly moralistic rule. Though the film climaxes with a fight that makes some questionable use of the Wachowski’s bullet time effects, most of the ammo slung in the film is in the form of words, as the theatrical V almost never dispatches the corrupt politicians and clergy without some form of rhetoric being delivered. Hugo Weaving, never seen without the signature Guy Fawkes mask, plays V with charisma and believable conviction. Most of the other performances are just fine, as well, with Natalie Portman and Stephen Rea holding their own as the conflicted Evey and Detective Eric Finch, respectively – two people, one ordinary and one government, who get caught up in V’s plot to return power to the people. Most superhero films are content to just focus on the star characters or discuss responsibility and good vs. evil, but V for Vendetta is one of the few that manages to competently address real world social issues and politics in an engaging, competent, and intelligent manner.

Thor

Of all the individual members of The Avengers to get his own film, I can only imagine that Thor may have been the hardest to adapt. Unlike his teammates, he lacks a quasi-scientific basis in reality and possesses powers that those in our world would generally call magic. As an arrogant prince from another dimension who inspired humans to worship him as the god of thunder in ancient times, Thor had an inherent ability to have alienated audiences completely. Luckily, Marvel Entertainment and their unorthodox choice of Shakespearean director Kenneth Brannagh understood this potential and capitalized on it by giving us an awesome film that taught its hero the value of humility, exiling the hero from his homeworld to a lesser dimension and forcing him to earn back that power. Thor features gorgeous renderings of Asgard and awesome action sequences throughout. Chris Hemsworth embodies Thor perfectly and shows off his deadpan comedic timing as the arrogant fallen god, and Tom Hiddleston helps to create one of the more menacing yet sympathetic villains in Loki. Natalie Portman finally gets a chance to let loose in a quality film with her intelligent but girlishly infatuated portrayal of scientist Jane Foster, too. Aside from maybe Iron Man, Thor is the most fun you’ll have with one of the pre-Avengers films.

X-Men: First Class

After the disastrous Last Stand and Wolverine, it seemed as though the franchise that had helped kickstart the modern era of superhero films was on the brink of going the way of the first Batman films. Never underestimate the power of desperation, however. While the previous films made more money than this 1960s-set period piece, Matthew Vaughn’s reimagining of the first X-Men team’s formation was an entertaining, stylish, and even moving stroke of brilliance. Though many of the heroes featured in the film aren’t nearly as iconic as those featured in later-set films, it helps to sell the idea that these guys were underdogs, training to eventually become one of the greatest superteams history would know, and the film’s integration of their origins to a secret history behind the real world events of the Cuban Missile Crisis was great. The film is also helped along by the fantastic performances of the cast, led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, who portray much younger versions of Professor X and Magneto and manage to make them their own. No easy task given that they’re supposed to become Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Ignore the continuity issues it creates with the previous Wolverine spin-off. This is the true history of the cinematic X-Men universe.

Captain America: The First Avenger

When Joe Johnston was announced as the director for this, the final non-ensemble film before the great assembly, I was worried. Kenneth Brannagh was a risky choice for Thor, but at least he had a reputation as a great director. Though Johnston has had some minor hits, including Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, and October Sky, he also lays claim to Jurassic Park III and picked up the pieces of The Wolfman remake, with little success. Rumors of a musical number only managed to churn the already uneasy waters. Turns out, however, that Johnston was a great choice, and along with Chris Evans, they captured the sincerity, heart, and genuine patriotism necessary to bring Captain America’s story to film while having some great fun with an alternate history take on World War II. The special effects, including the shrinking of a pre-super soldier Evans, and even the rumored musical number were integrated perfectly into the character’s story and development. Captain America features one of the more cartoonish villains in the Red Skull, who never quite reaches the level of menace necessary, but it’s still an exciting and heartfelt adventure that also neatly ties together all the necessary elements necessary to lead into The Avengers.

Batman

This film was so good, and Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Joker so masterful, it’s easy to see why people didn’t think that Nolan’s films would manage to reach the same level set by Tim Burton’s first crack at adapting the character’s world to film. One of the biggest marketing successes in film history, Batman managed to create hype through its merchandise and actually managed to deliver on the anticipation, while also returning Batman to his gritty roots in the eyes of the mainstream public. From the gloomy set designs of Gotham, the gorgeous Danny Elfman score, and all those wonderful toys at Batman’s disposal, a great deal of attention was paid in making this film not just respectful towards the source material (if not exactly faithful) but also just a very well-crafted film in general. Though Nicholson stole the film away from… pretty much everyone else, Batman still does well by its hero.

THE EXCELLENT

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Originally meant to go straight-to-video, Warner Bros. apparently saw the potential in this animated film, based on the amazing TV series, and decided that it was fit for theatres. Though the animation was relatively rough as a result, its dark atmosphere and surprisingly edgy storyline helped Mask of the Phantasm rise above even its live action peers, with Roger Ebert later calling this criminally under-seen film their superior. Unlike most other Batman films, Phantasm emphasizes Batman’s detective skills as he investigates the serial murders of Gotham City’s worst mobsters at the hands of a vengeful new vigilante. The action sequences are conservatively interspersed throughout, but the finale is all the more effective because of it, and the excellent use of flashbacks helps to gradually shed light on the new villain while showing a young Bruce taking his first steps as what would become Batman. This film is a large part of why, when a lot of people think of Batman and Joker, they still think Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to this day. I’m one of them.

Iron Man

Robert Downey, Jr.’s turn as Tony Stark will go down in history as pretty much one of the greatest performances as a superhero ever put to film. Tony’s journey from an arrogant and carless playboy to a slightly less arrogant but significantly more conscientious hero was made all the more entertaining by Downey’s committed performance and comic delivery, not to mention a smart script that balanced humor with careful character development. Obadiah Stane wasn’t exactly the best villain ever, even with Jeff Bridges in the role, but Gwyneth Paltrow actually managed to be one of the rare superhero beaus who isn’t merely just “not annoying,” but is surprisingly integral to the hero’s development while being an entertaining character in her own right. The action and special effects are awesome, too – Iron Man’s attack on the terrorist invaders is one of the greatest hero debuts ever.

Batman Begins

When I first saw the trailer for this film, I got chills. It was truly the highlight of my going to the theatre to see The Village. The film itself? Blew me away. While a vocal minority have complained that Christopher Nolan’s take on the franchise isn’t the “true Batman,” what we got here was one of the most respectful takes on a comic book franchise ever, a film that fully understands its characters’ motivations and the lore behind them but adapts them for its own purposes. Not to mention, holy crap, the Tumbler! I was scared of what that “thing” was going to do to the once sleek Batmobile, but now it’s my favorite version ever. Batman Begins is often forsaken by fans in favor of its immediate sequel, but one should never forget that this was the film that got it right first and set the bar so high.

The Dark Knight Rises

The perfect conclusion to the trilogy? Quite possibly! Featuring more action, a larger cast, more gadgets, and a plot that’s so dense, it requires 2 hours 45 minutes to tell the whole story. And even then it’ll still leave you wanting more! The returning actors put on some of their best performances here, and newcomers Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt serve only to enrich the proceedings. Rises had a tough act to follow after The Dark Knight, and it was probably never going to live up to some of the lofty expectations many were holding, but, somehow, Rises manages to come incredibly damn close. It may be the least realistic of the trilogy, but its script takes bold chances and manages to tie every theme up into a neat and exciting package.

Spider-Man 2

Sam Raimi’s second Spider-Man film is pretty much my Superman: The Movie. It’s one of the most inspirational superhero films that you will ever see. The performances are fantastic, with Tobey Maguire perfecting his take on Peter Parker and Alfred Molina owning the role of the tragic Doc Ock. Special effects are improved from the first movie, with Spider-Man feeling like he has weight, and there’s also that sensational train sequence, where all of these elements come together to incredible effect. Hell, I even love that whole “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” montage – it’s so goofy and yet so appropriate!

The Incredibles

Leave it to Pixar to craft easily one of the greatest superhero films of all time. Pixar, together with Iron Giant director Brad Bird (who also voices Edna Mode, superhero costume designer extraordinaire), crafted a believable world where superheroes once protected the streets but were then sued into going into hiding, struggling to find their place as extraordinary people in a world that demanded that they be ordinary. It’s a great commentary on our society’s tendency to settle for and even celebrate mediocrity, and it also features some of the best superhero team dynamics in the Parr family, who form a sort of Fantastic Four of their own. The voice acting – featuring Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, future “Nick Fury” Samuel L. Jackson, and Jason Lee – is top notch, and the movie’s stylized designs, 60s spy thriller-inspired score by Michael Giacchino, and just all around sense of fun make for one of the most widely acclaimed superhero films ever.

The Avengers

I had a very hard time putting this one over The Incredibles, but I have to give it to Marvel for their ambitious and admirable idea that managed to be a huge success. The Avengers is pretty much everything that you could have wanted it to be, except maybe if it had somehow shoehorned in appearances from Spider-Man or Ant-Man (the latter being essentially impossible thanks to licensing, the other forthcoming in what Marvel is calling “Phase Two”). Joss Whedon was seen largely as a risky choice for director, having only directed a big screen continuation of his Firefly TV series previously, but he paid off in aces, as he brought along his experience with ensemble casts and comic book knowledge (being a frequent comic book writer himself) and managed to apply them to a film that not only had to juggle multiple superheroes, but multiple big-name actors who had committed years of their lives to join this project and act out insane action sequences with each other. Luckily, each of the actors know their characters and embody them perfectly, including newcomer Mark Ruffalo, who I admit is not only a solid replacement for Ed Norton but also a surprising improvement, and The Avengers even manages to give some great new scenes that help develop the Black Widow character beyond just being the hot butt-kicker she was in Iron Man 2. About the only character who gets shafted is Hawkeye, who spends a majority of the movie being Loki’s mind-controlled lackey. Still, with so many awesome character moments and interactions and a cast that totally clicks, The Avengers is one of the most ambitious film projects ever taken on, and Marvel Entertainment’s ambition was worth it just for this film. On to Phase Two!

The Dark Knight

What can I say about The Dark Knight that hasn’t been said a million times already? While I’m obviously a Batman nutcase, it isn’t just my fandom that has influenced my decision to put this film into the top spot (… not just…). It’s the performances, not just from Heath Ledger, but also from Christian Bale, who maybe went a little throaty on the gruff voice but managed to convey a palpable sense of rage in a mad world that was escalating around him, and Aaron Eckhart, whose Harvey Dent began as a believably sincere force for good only to take a dramatic fall from grace and end up an incredibly tragic villain, and also Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaced Katie Holmes and helped to make the Rachel Dawes character a major player in the proceedings beyond being the girl waiting in the wing for the man to come back to her. Christopher Nolan may have come into the Batman film series not being that familiar with the comic books, but he took the time to understand who they were in relation to each other, and he took those relationships and used them to craft one of the most engaging thrillers of all time while still serving up some of the most amazing action you’ve yet seen in a Batman film. You liked the Tumber? Meet the Batpod! And then, yes, there is Heath Ledger’s transcendent, Oscar-winning final performance as the Joker, a terrifying reinterpretation of the character that kept the morbidity, lost the camp, and embodied the manic glee the character feels by committing his crimes. Here was a Joker with something to say about society, coming out of nowhere to serve as a counterpart to Batman – no backstory, no hints of former aliases. Just the perfect embodiment of destruction and chaos. The Dark Knight is the best superhero film. Period.

SEE THE FULL AND EVOLVING LIST HERE!

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