The Ultimate Evolving Superhero Movie List
It’s funny to think that there ever was a time when superhero movies weren’t really the cash grabs that they seem to be these days. Even after the 1978 release of the first theatrical Superman film brought along with it higher production values and a certain level of seriousness to the material, superhero films continued to largely be considered high-risk material and no one was really able to capture that same level of respect and anticipation as 1989’s Batman. Despite going through another slump in the 90s, these days, it’s hard to imagine a year going by without a few studios trying to cash in on the superhero craze.
With 2012 seeing the successful release of two especially remarkable achievements in the realm of superhero films, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, and with original properties like Chronicle and The Incredibles already proving that superhero films don’t have to be adaptations of pre-existing comic book properties to be successful, it’s very clear that this trend isn’t going to die down any time soon. Heck, regardless of quality, even films like My Super Ex-Girlfriend illustrate that the “superhero genre” isn’t really a “genre” at all, but rather an easily malleable plot device.
All that being said, 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 is not only now on its 100th post, but 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.
Though many may claim that Batman & Robin is one of the worst major Hollywood productions of all time, period, I would beg to differ. At least Batman & Robin is an interesting mess. I would then point out that this is likely because many of these people just plain forgot about Elektra. But I remember. I remember a very bored and pouty Jennifer Garner playing “damaged,” counting her steps and scrubbing floors as if suffering OCD alone gave her character some forced idea of depth. I remember the dull reverse Stockholm syndrome love story between Elektra and the man she was supposed to assassinate. I remember the film’s most notable buzz at the time of its release was the lesbian kiss between Elektra and Typhoid Mary. And I remember the eye-rolling twist toward the end regarding one of the most annoying characters in the film coming into their own. Basically, I remember this being quite possibly the worst, most boring superhero film I’d ever seen.
The sin that Catwoman commits is thinking that it’s fulfilling both female and male fantasies at the same time. I’m not really sure how female empowerment equated taking on an evil cosmetics corporation and their aging, diamond-skinned supermodel villainess while dressed like some furry fetishist hooker in the minds of the filmmakers, however. Maybe they intended it as an allegory for being comfortable in your own skin and not worrying about what the world says, but it’s hard to take that message seriously when the film wants you to believe that just because Halle Berry’s wearing poofy shirts and curly, long hair, everyone considers her “plain” looking. To pull that off, it would take either lots of ugly makeup or the dedication and acting chops of Charlize Theron in Monster. Unfortunately for fans of the Catwoman character, though, Halle Berry has neither.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
While the first film was littered with very boring performances, the second, in an attempt to become edgy, sees Cage going unhinged, with his transformations into the hellspawn hero accompanied by manic twitches and fits of explosive laughter. It’s like if someone stuck a squirrel in his pants, and that squirrel’s claws were laced with … I dunno… acid or something. I don’t do drugs. Throw in a young mother and her troubled kid, who has a sort of John Connor-like relationship to Cage’s Terminator-like role, and a demonic cult made up of lawyers and politicians (“the devil’s solders”), and you have yourself one hell of a crappy movie. Speaking of which, you also get to see Ghost Rider piss flames, which, I guess, sums the movie up quite nicely.
As much as I’d like to see a good supernatural horror/superhero/Western mashup movie, Jonah Hex barely even has a meaningful story to tell and takes great liberties with the source material, too, sticking Hex’s origins into a blender and adding a dash of supernatural by giving him the heretofore unseen ability to converse with the dead. The story involves John Malkovich as an ex-Confederate soldier-turned-terrorist coming into possession of a doomsday device in an attempt to get revenge on the North. Hex is hired by the President to stop him in time for the Centennial celebration, and somehow this also involves a prostitute. Even Malkovich seems to be tired from the start, as he’s not even putting on that usual weird Malkovich charm, and Josh Brolin, despite being a skilled and likely perfectly suitable actor for the role, is forced to simply mutter, grumble, and shoot guns. An ugly-looking film with a distracting heavy metal soundtrack that struggles to make anything on screen look awesome, Jonah Hex is about as inspired as the filmmakers’ decision to cast the personality-free Megan Fox as a hooker.
The best thing I can say about this film is that the number of Green Lanterns there are means that the franchise can easily be rebooted without too much reason to call foul. Though it doesn’t surpass the 2 hour mark, depending on which version you watch (there’s an honest to goodness extended cut), Green Lantern feels like it drags on an extra hour longer thanks to an incomprehensibly packed story that never fully develops any of the plot threads and actors who would probably be better off doing anything else but this movie. Ryan Reynolds lacks conviction as Hal Jordan, Blake Lively is anything but as love interest Carol Ferris, and Peter Sarsgaard’s Hector Hammond is a neurotic, increasingly grotesque-looking mad scientist whose most intimidating power is whining a lot. The special effects budget is wasted on aliens that mostly just stand in the background and a CGI costume that makes Reynolds look like a glowing, spray-painted display at Bodies: The Exhibition. Perhaps more tragic, however, is how DC and Warner Bros. obviously hoped this would be their Iron Man, as there are attempts to seed a greater DC Cinematic Universe here, but let’s just hope that, whenever Justice League comes out, we can all just forget about this movie and start over again.
Only mildly better than its sequel, if only because it features a more restrained performance by Nicolas Cage and a more coherent plot, Ghost Rider is still a terrible film, with Cage and Eva Mendes having absolutely zero chemistry and the villains very little charm or bite. This film attempts to be, of all things, a sort of romantic comedy, too, as Mendes spends a great deal of the movie swinging back and forth in her opinion and pining for Johnny Blaze, at one point even getting nervously drunk while waiting for him to show up for a date and asking the waiter, “Do you think I’m pretty?” The concept of the Ghost Rider is an interesting one, with Johnny Blaze having sold his soul to the devil and unwittingly becoming his hitman, and the relationship between the two villains, that of father and son, could have so easily tied in thematically with Johnny Blaze’s guilt over his father’s death, but Ghost Rider never thinks that deeply about these things and is content to just give you a story about the devil’s Goth offspring trying to usher in the apocalypse with a side helping of romance. Meh.
Batman Forever heralded the end of the brief Batman renaissance, returning to the camp stylings but none of the humor from the 1960s TV incarnation and introducing the infamous bat-nipples. Val Kilmer flops as the dullest of all the actors to ever play Batman, while the biggest crimes committed on screen are the butcherings of Two-Face and Riddler, played by Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey, who were apparently trying to make up for a lack of Jack Nicholson. Introducing Robin was a fruitful idea at this point in the film franchise, and Chris O’Donnell likely could have held up in the role, too, if he had been given better material (“Holey rusted metal, Batman!… The rocks. They’re metal and full of holes.”). He, Michael Gough, and Nicole Kidman are really the only ones involved with this garish waste of film looking like they attempted to do something dignified with their roles, but even halfway decent actors in half the cast can’t balance out the sheer awfulness of this penultimate entry in the first Batman film franchise.
It may be technically worse than Forever, with all of the same faults metastasizing by this point, but as a so-bad-it’s-good movie, it succeeds at being so horrifically inept so as to become more entertaining than Forever, and that’s gotta count for something, right? As such, I rank it just slightly above that film. There’s really not much else I can say about this, however, without repeating everything that has been said before. Schwarzenegger’s ice-based one-liners, Uma Therman’s drag-queen-without-the-irony Poison Ivy, and whatever the hell was going on with Alicia Silverstone have all been widely lambasted by this point, but if you’re still not into the whole ironic viewing thing, take solace in the fact that it’s one of the few times that a critical bomb impacted a studio so strongly that they actually decided to take time off from attempting to cash in again and instead focused on actually making something that was worth your time.
The laws of diminishing returns hits the Blade film series pretty hard in the third installment which sees Marvel’s day-walking dhampir hero teaming up with Jessica Biel and Ryan Him-Again Reynolds to take on Parker Posey and her cadre of vampire sidekicks, who have recently resurrected the vampire king (or something) himself, Dracula. Foregoing the typical cape and widow’s peak and even the grotesque design of Nosferatu, Blade: Trinity envisions a Dracula who wears tight leather pants and apparently spent an eternity lifting weights and keeping up with the trendy vampire mass marketing of the modern world (insert Twilight joke here). Biel is in uber-chick Mary Sue mode, while Reynolds mouths off so much, it eventually starts to feel like some of his jokes are beginning to stick until you realize you’ve just become desensitized to it all. Wesley Snipes only seems to liven up when it’s time for an action sequence, but otherwise it feels like he’s playing second fiddle to the considerably less interesting supporting cast. At least the vampire Pomeranian is a more credible threat than the nuclear poodle of Hulk.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
While I’m sure that Christopher Reeve’s motivations behind story idea for the fourth film were pure, the attempt at a political allegory being wrapped up in a superhero film just comes off as cloying. Created during the final but nonetheless tense years of the Cold War, Superman IV sees the Man of Steel attempting to rid the world of all nuclear armaments, only for Lex Luthor to return and create a superbeing known as Nuclear Man, created from a follicle of Superman’s hair and the nuclear reaction of dozens of bombs being cast into the sun. The film is annoyingly altruistic, featuring a laughable scene where Superman marches into the United Nations with a flock of true believers, gaining the support of all the world’s leaders, and making a speech so ham-fisted, the only tears you’re likely to shed are from how much of a suckerpunch to the gut this movie is. Oh, and Superman now apparently has the ability to reform the Great Wall of China just by looking at it now.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
For a time, I couldn’t decide whether The Last Stand or this movie was worse, but in watching them back to back for this list, I think I have a winner, and it’s definitely Wolverine’s solo film, which features a ludicrous number bad action sequences and gobs of fake-looking special effects. More offensive is that, however, is that while the third film wasted several supporting characters and a potentially fruitful story, Wolverine wastes film appearances by fan favorites Emma Frost, Gambit, and a tragically silenced Deadpool in what are basically extended cameos. Hugh Jackman is still a great Wolverine, and they at least put an actual actor in the role of Sabertooth this time, but this spin-off sheds very little insight on Wolverine’s past that we didn’t already know from the first and second films and, to be quite honest, didn’t even really need to know in the context of the films in the first place. Some criticized First Class for disrupting the continuity set up between the first films and this one, but I’m going to stand up for the better film and say that it’s Wolverine that should be retconned out of existence, not the other way around. And good riddance, too.
How French visionary director Michel Gondry, better known for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, got involved with this film is beyond me, as there was nothing about his previous works that screamed, “This man should revive this almost forgotten franchise.” But it happened, and this is what we got: a joke-ridden reimagining of the character starring Seth Rogen, Cameron Diaz, and Jay Chou, presented with a glitzy, frenetic visual style that ultimately adds nothing to the movie. Chou is admittedly quite cool in the role of Kato, a role that launched Bruce Lee to stardom back on the 60s TV series, and if he were paired up with someone other than Seth Rogen and given a story that treated him better than he is here, I’m sure that we would all be getting an eagerly anticipated sequel that explores his origins or something. While I like Rogen when he’s in the right roles (and in the right doses), he’s terribly miscast here in the lead role, his gruff, dopey demeanor sapping away any of the character’s mystique and strength – not that the script really cares much about world building or seriousness here. Overall, it actually kind of reminds me of the Rush Hour series… with far, far less charisma and a talented director somehow making a worse movie than a movie directed by Brett Ratner.
The Punisher (2004)
The Punisher desperately wants to be a quality superhero film, but the theatricality with which the story unfolds is so laughably overblown, it’s really quite hard to take any of it seriously. The film’s dark story is further undercut by a desire to also make the movie entertaining through humor. When your story involves a man’s entire family being horrifically gunned down before his eyes and his pursuit to hunt down those responsible, however, it hardly feels appropriate to have the vengeful antihero take part in a battle with a muscle-bound Russian assassin choreographed to “La donna è mobile” as the film cuts to the comic relief characters dancing around, lighthearted, in a kitchen and lip syncing to the music. Thomas Jane obviously wanted to do right by the material, but his attempts to come off as a vindictive badass actually make the Punisher seem aloof and pouty. As with all things, though, actors can only do so much with what little they’re given, and The Punisher hardly lives up to is potential.
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie
Here’s the thing about this movie: It was totally awesome when I was, like, 8 when it first came out, and it’s unlikely that those nostalgia goggles will ever be completely removed from my eyes – I still kinda get that same feeling of excitement at seeing the teenagers with attitude I watched and imitated as a kid leap into an adventure with a bigger budget. Objectively, however, the TV series I loved as a kid was never actually that good, and neither is the movie that it spawned. Starring the same line up of Rangers that featured on the series at the time, yet also somehow falling out of continuity with the series (many of the same plot points were retraced in the TV series with different explanations so as to make use of the Super Sentai footage the series borrowed from), the film adaptation introduces a new threat in the form of Ivan Ooze and his army of giant… birds…. Ivan, of course, seeks to rule the universe and the Rangers are the only ones who can stop him, though they have to go through a journey of self-rediscovery first and unleash new ninja powers and toys to sell upon the world. There’s not really much more to this movie than seeing the Rangers do the same thing they did every week on TV, only with flashier production values. Notice I didn’t say “better,” as the heavy cheese factor and bad acting of the show are joined by CGI so bad it’ll make you wish they had stuck with the low-tech miniatures. It’s still a mildly fun ride if you liked the show as a kid, but for anyone else, it’s probably best to leave this movie back in the 90s.
Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis are great fun as Johnny Storm and the Thing, while Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, and Julian McMahon ruin whatever good is brought to the table by their co-stars. As Mr. Fantastic, Gruffudd mistakes having no discernible personality for being super intelligent, and as Sue Storm, Jessica Alba is given the hard task of trying to look natural as a light-skinned blonde scientist. With a name like Victor Von Doom, it’s easy to see why Julian McMahon and the filmmakers thought his character was supposed to be a campy joke, but the villain who has posed as a serious threat to nearly all of Marvel’s heroes in the comics is treated like nothing more than a romantic rival gone bonkers here. It’s perfectly fine to have a lighter series of superhero films, especially for a family unit like the Fantastic Four, but there’s a fine line between brevity and treating the series and its characters like a joke in and of themselves, and whether or not that was the intent, that’s essentially what this film does.
Losing Gene Hackman and, for the better part of the film, Margot Kidder as well, Superman III tries to make up for its losses by bringing back Clark’s old high school flame Lana Lang and making the film’s new original villain, Ross Webster, more Lex Luthor-like than Hackman’s Lex Luthor. Neither of the replacements has the same charisma as the other actors, however, and the infamous addition of Richard Pryor to the cast makes this third entry in the franchise even worse than it already was. His character largely serves the purpose of delivering bad jokes whenever producer Ilya Salkind couldn’t find space to fit in some slapstick. The goofier, more jokey tone of the film is immediately evident with the opening Rube Goldberg sequence involving a blindman painting traffic lines, a rich old man getting paint dumped on his head, a wind-up penguin toy walking through traffic while on fire, and, yes, a mime tripping over spilled gumballs. It’s all surely an attempt to poke fun at Metropolis’ perpetually endangered residents and their need for Superman to solve all their problems, both big and small, but this sort of thing was more appropriate in the 1960s Batman series than it is in a respectful adaptation of Superman. An early film example of how bad things can get when studio executives think they know better than filmmakers who actually care about the source material. At least Christopher Reeve continued to shine as Clark, Superman, and even an evil counterpart Superman in a thematic fight between good and evil.
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Take what I said about the first film and it pretty much applies here, too, only now Jessica Alba now has blue contact lenses and even more pancake on her face to distract from her terrible miscasting, though I will admit that Gruffudd has somewhat livened up in the role of Reed Richards. With the origins out of the way, the second film is able to dive into the action sequences much earlier and also have much more fun with Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis dynamic. The film’s title is a bit of a misnomer, as the Silver Surfer doesn’t necessarily rise up so much as he shows up, flies around, and then talks about how an ominous “he” is “coming” before getting captured by the American government, but I guess “Silver Surfer, Herald of Doom” was a bit too corny. The Surfer looks cool, but his motivations for doing what he does don’t seem nearly as tragic when you consider how incredibly selfish it is, and the return of Doctor Doom was unnecessary. With Galactus reduced to a mere cloud, the awe-factor of his arrival and the annoyingly quick deus ex machina nature of his defeat feels less like a climax to an epic superhero film and more like an unwelcome giant space-fart coming to earth and being Febreezed away.
Now, I happen to see the potential of Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock, but as someone who is barely familiar with the character, I can understand if more hardcore fans would disagree. As a movie, however, Daredevil is barely serviceable as entertainment, which is a shame, since Daredevil’s powers are genuinely awesome. I had less of an issue with the sonar-like visual representation of Daredevil’s powers than most, but I was less taken by Colin Farrel’s Bullseye, who is a tired mixture of the amusing over-the-top psycho-madman trope and bad costuming. While Garner is more lively here than she was in her later spin-off, her character’s descent into vengeance and her eventual downfall as a result is shallow, and her faulting Daredevil for her father’s death inexplicable. Affleck at least seems to be enjoying his stint in the costume, and, as with most of the bad movies on this list, if he were given a better script to work with, I still say that he could have pulled off a respectable performance.
Punisher: War Zone
Where the first theatrically released adaptation attempted to be a thoughtful, more emotionally involved film and failed spectacularly, this one just tries to outgun it, and, you know, for what it’s worth, it’s all the better for it. With the whole set up of the Punisher’s origins largely being nothing more than a vague memory, the story is a lot more streamlined and, somehow, becomes all the more interesting, as the Punisher comes to grips with the guilt he feels for accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent while pursuing the pulpy disfigured villain Jigsaw, who is later joined by his maniacal brother “Loony Bin Jim,” who is apparently a cannibal. Ray Stevenson seems far more at home in the role than Thomas Jane did, and the supporting characters are more in sync with the tone of the rest of the film, as well. It’s still not all that good a movie, as it still feels like there’s a more promising Punisher film to be made, but as an action-packed, ultra-gory B-movie, it’s serviceable.
I can appreciate that Ang Lee saw the dangers in the temptation to make a straight up action film starring Marvel’s most destructive hero, but in attempting to tap into the emotional and psychological part of the character, he overshot his goal and created a dreary, mind-numbing film about Bruce Banner coming to terms with his father’s abuse. Despite the stylish use of comic book panel-style transitions and split screen, the film’s pacing is dragged down by having way too much exposition, the filmmakers obviously trying to tell audiences, “See, we’re really taking this seriously! We respect you!” But Eric Bana is an uninteresting Bruce Banner, and Jennifer Connelly is passable at best as the empathetic Betty Ross. Nick Nolte’s villainous father role is yet another one of those crazy, self-important pontificators, with an added dash of mad scientist and crazy homeless man for variety. The special effects aren’t horrific, but the Hulk never feels like he actually exists in the film’s reality, and the action is relegated to the middle battle with the mutant dogs and when the raging Hulk clashes with some tanks in the desert, the latter of which is admittedly a highlight of the film, a taste of what this film could have been.
All good things must come to an end, and perhaps no other good franchise had a disappointing third entry as devastating as the first Spider-Man films. Where the first two films had heart and genuine characterization for both heroes and villains, Spider-Man 3 became a funnel for Sam Raimi’s temper tantrum after he was forced to squeeze Venom in to appease studio executives and ignorant fans who thought that darkening up this franchise was just what it needed after the spectacular second film. The fact of the matter is that Raimi could have and possibly was going to make a pretty solid movie featuring the perfectly cast Thomas Hayden Church in the role of the tragic Sandman, with a bit of Green Goblin II thrown in for good measure, but with the symbiote and Venom being shoved into the script, too, Raimi seemingly stopped caring and ended up treating the movie like a science experiment for mixing bad ideas, a strutting, Jazz-dancing emo Peter Parker being one of the more notable ingredients. The film devolves from unstable experiment to a disastrous explosion by the end of the film, and no character makes it out unscathed. It’s not the worst superhero film in the world and is at times amusing in its own little ways (said strutting is awful, but somehow entertainingly so), but as a capper to Raimi’s trilogy, it’s a huge letdown. I was at least pretty amazed to find out that Kirsten Dunst actually has a pretty great singing voice, making Peter’s rude interruption at the jazz bar all the more annoying. Somebody put that girl in a musical already!
X-Men: The Last Stand
Too much. That can largely sum up all of Marvel’s film franchises that make it to number three so far. Mediocre film auteur Brett Ratner was brought in to replace Bryan Singer, and, as such, the whole tone of the film takes on this weird vibe where every character is snapping back at each other with one-liners like “Don’t get your panties in a bunch!”, “I don’t answer to my slave name,” and the classic “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” This was maybe to emphasize the dissolution of several relationships in this film, either through death or ideological differences, but it really only has the effect of making most of the characters rather annoying. Not that you really get to know anyone since the movie packs in so many new characters and plot threads, it’s hard to care about anything and anyone involved. Cyclops, Rogue, Mystique, and even Professor X are tossed aside, but several other new characters are barely even given names. In the only bit of genius the film has, Kelsey Grammer being cast as Beast was inspired, but when we have to keep track of the Iceman/Rogue/Shadowcat love triangle, the rendered-pointless Dark Phoenix development, the whole mutant cure thing, and Magneto’s war on humanity, there’s just too much in too little time to care.
Despite some amusing performances from Will Ferrell and Tina Fey, Megamind just never quite gelled for me as that entertaining of a movie. It has its moments, such as Ferrell’s emphatic mispronunciation of words as villain Megamind and the at first shocking demise of hero Metro Man, but the whole meta schtick in this film is really rather dull and, as a result, so is the movie. Many loved it. I did not so much. And that’s pretty much it.
This is half of a good film, but the latter half falls apart as it tries to throw in an unsatisfying twist and explain to the audience the hero’s backstory, which never really carries with it the weight that the filmmakers likely intended. The problem is that the concept of an unlikable drunk with special powers who doesn’t exactly enjoy being a hero was far more interesting before everything was explained and had Will Smith, for once, playing someone who was intended to be an abrasive ass. Smith has a reputation for working well with his costars, and the same can be said for his relationship with Jason Bateman. Bateman plays a regular man who is saved by Hancock and ultimately becomes his PR rep, inviting Hancock into his home, where Hancock instantly clashes with Charlize Theron’s chilly wife character. It’s that relationship that ultimately makes the film fall apart, and everything interesting about the film and its two male leads starts to be overtaken by the filmmaker’s apparent attempt to make it something that it shouldn’t have been: more comic book-like. Good while it lasts.
While many laud the more serious approach to the Batman character, there’s some value in recognizing just how ridiculous the whole concept is, especially the villains and Gotham’s over-reliance on the Caped Crusader. The 1960s Batman TV series has become notorious for its portrayal of the former Dark Knight as a campy, pontificating, self-important blowhard with a moronic kid sidekick, but, to be quite honest, that concept is a lot funnier than some modern Batman fans will likely admit, and the film adaptation of the series is a fun, ridiculous ride, with hilarious jabs at Batman’s gadgetry (a collection of “Oceanic Repellent Bat Sprays”) and the often bizarre crimes committed by his rogues (dehydrating the world leaders into powder and holding them ransom). Perhaps my most favorite scene involves Batman’s overlong attempt to dispose of a bomb safely only to constantly run into unassuming obstacles like nuns, a marching band playing “Bringing in the Sheaves,” and a family of ducks. “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” The film slows down significantly in the climax, possibly due to the fact that it starts to focus way too much on low-budget action and not enough on continuing the ridiculous humor.
My average section seems to be bogged down by comedies, but the fact of the matter is that very few of the great superhero films have also been comedies. That isn’t to say that there aren’t any good comedic superhero films, but, there are few that are great. Take, for instance, the oft forgotten Mystery Men. The performances are all pretty much awesome here, with Ben Stiller’s pathetic portrayal of the 90s-era angry hero being particularly amusing, but while jokes like the Sphinx’s cryptic mentoring style are pretty amusing, some of the others, such as Invisible Boy’s not knowing he’s naked, fall flat. The concept of a sort of C-list Justice League taking on the world’s most sinister supervillain (Geoffrey Rush as the fancy mad scientist Casanova Frankenstein) in the place of the world’s greatest hero (Greg Kinnear as the sponsor-endorsed, publicity-seeking Captain Amazing) is fun, however, and, unlike most of the comedies on this list, the flat jokes are scattered about more evenly amongst the better ones, leading to a more satisfying experience.
Unlike Megamind, DreamWorks Animation’s other supervillain feature, Despicable Me, is a more charming and amusing effort, with more attractive and imaginative character designs, including the little yellow jellybean guys called Minions (who are used far more sparingly than the trailers suggested), and more colorful, expressive animation than its counterpart. As wannabe ubervillain Gru, Steve Carell brings his usual charms to the role, even as he’s trying to be nasty to three ubercute little girls he’s fostering as part of his bizarre master plan to steal the moon and beat his rival villain, Vector, at being the most despicable villain. I didn’t fall in love with the film as pretty much everyone else seemingly did, but Despicable Me is a perfectly fun family film that will unfortunately very likely be driven into the ground by tue forthcoming sequel and the recently announced Minion-starring spin-off.
Blade wasn’t particularly too well known when he got his first film adaptation, but the daywalking half-vampire hero is widely credited for bringing back superhero films from the depths of a Batman & Robin-shaped pit to become a surprise hit with audiences and, as a result, Marvel’s first true film success. It wasn’t particularly well liked by critics, but for once, the audiences were largely right in defying them. Making up for its rather straightforward plot is a lot of sleek action, entertaining performances, and just an all around cool atmosphere. Wesley Snipes is particularly awesome in the title role of the sword-wielding vampire hunter, and the supporting cast of Kris Kristofferson and Stephen Dorff keep things alive. N’Bushe Wright is kind of a boring leading lady, but she’s at least given a few more things to do here than the usual needy love interest and actually takes on an active role in the plot. Blade’s mother? Not so much.
Pretty much on par with its predecessor, Blade II finds Guillermo del Toro doing some preliminary superhero work for his far superior adaptations of the Hellboy comic. He takes the first film’s sleek action-over-exposition mentality and manages to formulate a somewhat more compelling plot while still remaining true to the formula. With humans and vampires alike threatened by a new race of monster that craves the bodies of both species, Blade finds himself compromising and joining forces with the vampires and, through the process, confronts his prejudices as he starts to fall in love with their leader’s daughter. The Romeo & Juliet-styles romance isn’t particularly compelling, but it isn’t distracting nor particularly detrimental to the overall film either. It must be said that the new CGI effects are dated, at best, but all of what made the first film so entertaining remains in the sequel. If only Donnie Yen wasn’t relegated to such a cameo-level role.
While not nearly as dark as the comic that inspired it (not that I would know firsthand, to be quite honest, but it must be noted, all the same), The Mask is pretty much an excuse to have Jim Carrey act like a cartoon with sleek, cartoon-like special effects used to enhance his already elastic face and body to Tex Avery-like proportions, and is one of three films from 1994 (the others being Dumb & Dumber and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) that kick-started Jim Carrey’s rise to fame, while also being Cameron Diaz’s debut film, too. The Mask is light on story and heavy on spectacle, but being a movie that was made at a time when Jim Carrey’s ability to make audiences laugh actually matched that of his level of fame, The Mask holds up as pure entertainment. It’s also worth mentioning that the CGI effects hold up very well for a movie released in a year that saw both action films (Jurassic Park) and dramas (Forrest Gump) making expert use of the increasingly prevalent technique.
I’m sure I’ll be crucified for placing this movie here, but for all the great performances that this film contains, there are several other factors that hold it back from greatness in my mind. Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder shine as Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane, but Gene Hackman’s campy Lex Luthor, accompanied by annoying, bumbling sidekicks played by Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty, just does not make for a credible threat against Superman. It almost feels like he’s a mandatory villain in a film that, to be quite honest, probably didn’t even need one in the first place. Imagine a film where Superman came to terms with his false humanity, helping people with common but big disasters, while allowing the relationship with Lois to blossom, and what you would have is half of what’s here, only expanded and better. Save the supervillains for a sequel where Superman seems to know what he’s up against but then faces a new threat (which eventually did came to fruition). For all the great Krypton scenes, the John Williams score, and moments of brilliant performances by the two lead actors, you have things like the terribly miscast Jeff East as a young Clark Kent, those two idiotic sidekicks and Lex’s neutered threat level, and, possibly worst of all, the suspension of disbelief-shattering concept of Superman flying around the earth backwards to reverse time and bring resolution to the film’s climax (not to mention the fact that the freaking planet is spinning in the wrong direction when this happens). I know that some would call this nitpicking, but this nonsensical, deus ex machina ending quite honestly drives me nuts to the point of wanting to hate this film, if not for all the good that it does bring to the table. I can overlook plot holes for most movies when I can fill in the blanks myself reasonably enough, but quite frankly, I cannot reconcile that logic to even this fantastical film, and so the first Superman is irreparably flawed in my eyes.
Perhaps I set my expectations so low that I enjoyed this film far more than it likely deserves, but it’s my list so, whatever – I liked it quite a bit. The performances are reasonably solid, especially from lead actor Dane DeHaan as the picked-on outcast Andrew, and the cash-in concept of the found footage film is given new life, as the developed powers of the three lead characters allow the camera to be more dynamic and show more interaction between all the characters than other films of this ilk. Aside from showing what actual teenagers would do if they developed superpowers, the film is basically an expansion of the superhero origin story and ends at the birth of the hero and the villain, allowing the development and understanding of these young characters to be the focus. Chronicle is a more straightforward and smaller minded film than most other superhero films, but that’s what sets it apart from its many peers.
The superhero film scene has become so mainstream in the past decade that it was really only a matter of time until the indie film scene brought its own twist to the proceedings, complete with indie film quirky sensibilities and humor. Super is notable in that its heroes are possibly more psychotic and violent than the film’s villain. And yet, despite his brutality, you can’t help but root for him – or at least see the logic in his thinking. Frank (Rainn Wilson) is a man who has suffered a lot throughout his life, a fact that has left him psychologically scarred. When his wife leaves him for another man who reintroduces her in her former bad habits, Frank has an emotional and mental breakdown that has him perceiving a vision from God, inspiring him to exact the kind of justice that sees all crimes as being equal. (“You don’t butt in line! You don’t sell drugs! You don’t molest little children! You don’t profit off the misery of others! The rules were set a long time ago! They don’t change!”) You’re either going to like the film or you’re not. Super is brutally violent, but realistically so, and it has an uncomfortable sort of absurdist humor throughout, which kind of works, as it’s narrated from Frank’s damaged perspective. Ellen Page nearly steals the show as the sidekick who isn’t so much motivated by morality or pain so much as she is the thrill of having a justifiable excuse to exert power over others (including Frank in an uncomfortably amusing scene in her apartment).
Though it probably has one of the lamest one-liners in mainstream film history (hint: it’s the one involving toads and lightning), X-Men followed up Blade as one of the most significant film adaptations at that time and became an even bigger hit with audiences and critics and starting a film franchise that has continued on to this day. It lacks the ambition and scale of later superhero films, but Bryan Singer’s take on the Marvel’s mutants returned superhero films to a level of respect by remaining reasonably faithful to the source material, right down to its topical allegories about acceptance and prejudice. It helps that Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, and Hugh Jackman are pretty much perfect for their roles, and, for the most part, the rest of the cast is also acceptable – save for Halle Berry, who is both too young and too boring as Storm.
Face it: Adaptations will always have to make changes to fit a new medium. This adaptation of the once thought to be un-filmable graphic novel by Alan Moore is finally brought to the film medium by Zack Snyder, who sought to assuage Moore’s typical (and mostly understandable) repugnance towards any adaptation of his works by being as faithful as he could to the original story. At times feeling like a miniseries without the breaks, Watchmen isn’t without its pacing issues, especially in the extended cut of the film, but the fascinating depiction of an alternate history where costumed heroes and villains played crucial roles in real life events alongside real world public figures translates very well to film. Billy Crudup’s detached Dr. Manhattan is skillfully rendered, visually, and he is used in adequate moderation. Crudup is appropriately stoic as the god-like superhero among a crowd ofmasks, but Jackie Earle Haley’s dedicated performance as the mysterious detective Rorschach honestly steals every scene he’s in from everyone else. A complex and challenging film, for better or for worse, Watchmen is nonetheless a remarkable achievement – and it has one of the best title sequences in recent times, too.
Violent and wonderfully satirical, RoboCop is not only all about the action, but is also actually about the action and society’s fascination with violence, right down to reveling in its own depiction of people being torn to pieces by bullets and exploding in bursts of copious amounts of gore. It also calls into question our trust and over dependency on a system to take care of us without considering the costs. When RoboCop is asked what advice he has to the kids by a local new reporter, his response, “Stay out of trouble,” is at once amusing, advisable, and threatening. RoboCop is the highest form of a trashy movie, one that is superficial as a means to an end, which makes it both thought-provoking and yet also highly entertaining.
I’ll avoid the unpleasantness of pointing out just how far Shyamalan has fallen and just say that this is a fairly underrated film, one that takes place in a world somewhere between comic book fantasy and ours, an intriguing concept that allows Shyamalan to explore the symbolism of comic books and how they parallel the truths of our own reality. The struggle of Bruce Willis’ security guard character as he comes to terms with his apparent invulnerability and the impact this has on his personal life is engrossing, and the intimate, shadowy atmosphere of the film is unlike anything you’ll see in most other superhero films. The pacing is slow, but deliberate, and while the ending comes so suddenly and likewise ends so abruptly that some may understandably experience mental whiplash, it does raise several intriguing questions about the relationship of superheroes, supervillains, and the relationship between good and evil.
The Incredible Hulk
An improvement in several ways over its out-of-continuity predecessor, this second film in Marvel’s Phase 1 build up to The Avengers is a simple but exciting film that showcases some serious pacing and special effects improvements – ones that don’t necessarily have to do with just the passage of time between the two films. The script allows for far more action sequences while still allowing the audience to feel an emotional connection to the lead character, with Edward Norton being a far more sympathetic and interesting Bruce Banner. As the film’s villain, Emil Blonsky, Tim Roth is also more exciting, interesting, and threatening than the crazed daddy played by Nick Nolte previously. Fans of the comics will find lots of references and hints at a bigger universe, while fans of the TV show also get Lou Ferrigno voicing the Hulk and a little bit of familiar piano music, too. It may not be the best film it could have been, but it is undoubtedly a fun action flick and a necessary step towards The Avengers.
There are really only one or two things that Superman Returns does wrong, and they are admittedly fairly major. The first is the fact that Kate Bosworth is, to put it simply, wrong for the role of Lois Lane and single handedly causes the film to lose a lot of its emotional impact as a result of being the most dislikable character in the film. The second is the fact that it attempts to tie into the Christopher Reeve films, tossing aside the last two films and serving as a second sequel to Superman II. This holds the film back from being a bit more creative than it could have been and largely saddles the film with the burden of carrying on the beloved continuity in a respectful manner without establishing its own. But as much as those things bother me, Superman Returns is honestly the first time that I felt any significant feeling towards the character as a hero. Bryan Singer’s take on the character finally gave the character the cinematic gravitas to enable me to actually see Superman the way that a citizen of Metropolis would, and that accounts for a great deal of my affection towards this movie. Brandon Routh admirably mimics Christopher Reeve’s performances as both Clark and Superman without making a mockery of it, and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor adds back the menace that was lacking in Gene Hackman’s performance. Parker Posey carries on the humorous villain sidekick with wit and intelligence, making her actually an asset to the film rather than a detractor, too. It’s a fairly flawed movie, but what it does right is so strong, even powerful, that I can forgive it.
Like the first X-Men, Spider-Man is a mostly faithful adaptation of its source material that gets a great deal right while still showing that it’s a franchise trying to find its footing. Unlike with X-Men, the first Spider-Man has aged much better and is a great deal more fun, too. From Willem Dafoe’s campy Green Goblin to Tobey Maguire’s “golly gee” nerdy performance, Sam Raimi’s film affectionately captures the lighthearted tone of the early comics that he very likely read in his younger years and translates it to the screen for modern audiences, even giving cinema scenes and lines that will forever be remembered: the upside down alley kiss between Mary Jane and Spider-Man, and Uncle Ben’s resonant line, “With great power comes great responsibility.” While some may not like that Mary Jane is far less a firecracker than she was in the comics (Raimi was possibly trying to merge her character with Gwen Stacy), the supporting cast is nonetheless very strong, with Rosemary Harris being a particularly wonderful Aunt May.
Iron Man 2
There seems to be a strong backlash against this film for not living up to the first film, with some going as far as to say that it’s actually “terrible.” Though it’s certainly not nearly as strong as Iron Man, the second film is still an action-packed thrill ride with yet another great performance by Robert Downey, Jr. Tony Stark may not go through the same level of character development as he does, but Iron Man 2 continues to develop Stark’s personality, showing his tenuous relationship with the government while grappling with his newfound responsibilities as a hero, boyfriend, and CEO, as these responsibilities begin to clash in his life and even with his health, as the very thing keep him alive is also the thing that is poisoning him. Overall it’s more of the same, but that’s not such a bad thing, really.
The Amazing Spider-Man
Sony’s quick shuffle to maintain the film rights to the Spider-Man character and away from Disney and Marvel results in a surprisingly strong reboot to a series that many felt was unnecessary. Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker tosses out the notion of his intelligence making him a social outcast and makes him just an everyday awkward kid who doesn’t know where his place is in life, a dilemma fueled largely by the fact that he was abandoned suddenly by his parents at such a young age. The romance is handled far better here than the sometimes soapy dramatics and broad emotional swings of Raimi’s films, with Garfield and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy having much more charm together as a couple, but this does seemingly come at the cost of the Lizard being not nearly as interesting as Raimi’s better villians (though he’s nowhere near as bad as … well, anyone in the third). The reboot is darker, but only in that it’s a different universe, and it’s not at the expense of being fun. The same spirit that made Raimi’s first two such successes is transplanted to this new start with effective results.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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!
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.