Top 10 Superhero Movies

by Eric Melin on March 8, 2011

in Top 10s

Are you ready for summer yet? This year we have no less than four major comic-book superhero movies coming out between May and July (“Thor,” “The Green Lantern,” “Captain America,” “X-Men: First Class”). 2012 will see Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” and a “Spider-Man” reboot. Some of the best comic adaptations (“American Splendor,” “Road to Perdition,” “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World,” “Sin City”) have nothing to do with men in tights, but this list is strictly a compilation of those masked adventurers who fight for justice. I already did a worst-of list, so this year I’m getting my engines revved up early for comic book fun in the theater with the Top 10 Superhero Movies. If you have an idea for your own list, email eric@scene-stealers.com.

batman_begins 200310. Batman Begins (2005)

After Joel Schumacher took a promising yet campy two-movie “Batman” series from Tim Burton, he turned it into a revolving door of cheese and onions with Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Carrey, and Nicole Kidman all embarrassing themselves thoroughly. By the time Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman franchise from the ground up, it was a prime example of an iconic hero thought to be lost forever. Nolan went polar opposite of Schumacher, grounding the tale in as much realism as possible, pitting the martial-arts-trained Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) against a Gotham crime boss. It would prove successful, but looking back it all seems like so much groundwork compared to the story that came next …

Superman-Returns 20069. Superman Returns (2006)

Bryan Singer’s elegant attempt to revive DC’s first big superhero is now looked at with scorn by the majority of comic lovers. It may not be a perfect film, but it has the most amazing art direction of any film on this list and a sense of total alienation. You see, unlike other superheroes, Superman isn’t one of us.

The poster alone, featuring a cursed God-like Superman (Brandon Routh) floating above the Earth, is a pretty different turn from the Christopher Reeve films that ended in ruins in the mid-80s. It has some plot problems for sure and suffers from a weak Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), but no Superman movie has captured the omnipotent creepiness of Clark Kent’s alter ego quite like this one. “Superman Returns” takes great pains to articulate both his “divinity” and the crushing effect on his psyche of a futile search for his past.

hulk-2003-helicopters8. Hulk (2003)

It is with much vigor that I sit here at the computer, snarl on my face, anticipating that most people disagree with me on this choice as well. I humbly ask you to watch “Hulk” again. Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) took tons of chances on this film, from the one-of-a-kind book editing style that mimicked the way you read comic books (and got virtually no recognition) to the psychological depths he was willing to plummet the audience into. On both counts, he alienated fans who wanted their hero (Eric Bana) less brooding, and their storytelling less showy. I’ll take this absurd family psychodrama with a twisted sense of humor and a hammy Nick Nolte over the by-the-books yawn-fest “The Incredible Hulk” any day.

zod-superman-II-19817. Superman II (1981)

The uneasy truce between the US and USSR is reflected in British director Richard Lester’s follow-up to Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman.” Finishing the film after Donner was fired, Lester re-shot tons of footage and added in a little bit of the campy sense of humor that made “A Hard Day’s Night” such a classic. That’s not to say “Superman II” doesn’t explore some heavy themes as well, though. Superman must be protector of the world after a bomb that he exploded in space was responsible for unleashing criminals from space—no doubt a comment on the similar watchdog role of the US at the time. It’s also a terrifically rousing piece of mainstream cinema with Reeve and Margot Kidder in some classic screwball situations and three of the most memorable superhero villains (General Zod, Ursa, and Non) for over 20 years running.

wolverine-statue-liberty-x-men-20006. X-Men (2000)

You can credit director Bryan Singer with kick-starting the modern trend of quality superhero adaptations that don’t pander to kids or buckle under the weight of their own responsibility. By introducing the mutant X-Men to the world with the utmost respect for the material, and framing the story with Magneto’s Holocaust experience, Singer established a tone that others have used in all the best movies since. The superhero fantasy genre is truly a 21st-century art form and Singer led the way in 2000. He handled the group’s outsider status (they are mutants after all) with a considerable amount of finesse and like the Hulk, placed them in more of a classic Universal horror position than that of the much-loved comic heroes of the past. It may not have focused on all members equally (sorry, Storm!), but the origin story of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin) made the unreal seem real, and the suggested backstory of Magneto (Ian McKellan) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) was enticing and laid the foundation for future discoveries.

spider-man-goblin-20025. Spider-Man (2002)

The first time I saw Spider-Man swinging between two New York City skyscrapers in this movie, I felt like I was a kid again. When I saw the Green Goblin flying around on his sled, I almost peed myself—simple as that. CGI technology had advanced to the point where scenes like this could be convincingly rendered and it was amazing. Who knew hat in five or six years it would all feel so rote and stale. The origin story of Peter Parker is told perfectly, and Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire have so much chemistry it should be illegal. Director Sam Raimi was the perfect choice to mix the aw-schucks attitude with flashes of darkness and he gets all the details right. Peter Parker’s campy Spidey-talk is pitch-perfect, and his regret is palpable as well. Much like “X-Men,” “Spider-Man” did a fantastic job of making you care about Parker, setting the stage for one more truly amazing adventure and a whole lot of self-discovery.

2008_iron_man-iron-monger4. Iron Man (2008)

The central theme of “Iron Man,” like any good superhero flick, is responsibility. Appropriately, the screenplay flirts with the question of whether man can use industry and technology for betterment or whether those staples of American life will use man instead, isolating us from their effects on society. Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” isn’t really willing to get too deep into this age-old quandary, however, because it’s too busy having a ton of self-aware fun. Robert Downey Jr. is the perfect Tony Stark, exuding lots of braggadocio and just enough of a conscience. The fact that “iron man” is both a whopping power punch of summer entertainment and a criticism of the military-industrial complex only makes it cooler.

ledger-joker-window-dark-knight3. The Dark Knight (2008)

Christopher Nolan’s script and direction in this culturally relevant crime drama are nothing short of miraculous. Heath Ledger’s re-invention of the Joker is as exciting as anything that was onscreen in the last five years, and fine turns by Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart bolster the idea that this is not merely a Batman movie. It’s really an ensemble piece. Weaving multiple storylines and themes together in a film that explores the fine line between security and fascism in such gloriously entertaining fashion isn’t easy, and Nolan proved himself again to be a mature, world-class filmmaker with this superior sequel. In addition, the plot unfolds with more and more urgency until Batman must ask himself if more of the Joker actually exists under his skin that he’d like to admit. “The Dark Knight” proves that anyone who puts on a suit to fight crime must have some deep psychological issues and it explored that idea in a way that was less heavy-handed and obvious than Zack Snyder’s misfire “Watchmen.”

nightcrawler-x2-x-men-united2. X2: X-Men United (2003)

Since when did sequels get better than the originals? Since the millennial “X-Men,” “Spider-Man,” and “Batman” series all grew. Unfortunately, it turns out that rule is only good once: Look out, Nolan! “X2″ is better than “X-Men” because the mutant struggle is taken to a new level—fanaticism has entered the political mainstream and battle lines must be drawn. Since the main characters were already introduced, Singer is able to focus more on the film’s central ideas about racism and bigotry. He juggles the dark overtones and misfit humor expertly, as well as staging a couple of groundbreaking action scenes. Everything we know about the X-Men is deepened in this soulful sequel. Loyalties are shattered, others are strengthened, and everything in the story has a personal connection. It is relevant fantasy filmmaking at its best and it’s a crying shame that Singer bailed before he was able to direct “The Last Stand.”

doc-ock-spider-man-21.  Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Sam Raimi is responsible for—hands down—the best superhero movie ever. (Don’t believe me? Ask AFI.) Since the first “Spider-Man,” the “Evil Dead” director has grown with more confidence, more humor, a better grasp on the character, and more general swagger. Balancing multiple storylines and tones, but keeping Peter Parker’s crisis of responsibility in clear focus for the entire film, Raimi looked to be invincible. His technical prowess put the audience in the middle of swooping camera shots and amazingly staged fight scenes, never forgetting to keep the entire fable grounded emotionally. Raimi’s slapstick comedic touches are just the trick when the constant abuse heaped on Peter Parker gets to be too much.

That said, the hospital scene with Doc Ock’s tentacles fighting back is horror-movie terrifying.  On top of all that, “Spider-Man 2” becomes a touching fable about growing up, probably thanks to novelist Michael Chabon‘s finishing script touches. The weight of responsibility on Peter Parker’s shoulders is almost unbearable, but he manages it all with that unmistakable pluckiness. If only the magic could have lasted for one more film. The maybe we wouldn’t have a reboot already…

Want to see the flipside of the coin?

Top 10 Worst Comic Book Movies Ever

 

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kyle Rohde March 8, 2011 at 8:01 am

Interesting list – I’d have a hard time putting Dark Knight #3 after those two though. Spiderman 2 and X-Men United were good, but not better than Dark Knight.

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2 Nathaniel R March 8, 2011 at 8:21 am

This is the only time i’ve seen anyone match my top 2. I wholeheartedly agree with their tippity top ranking. Spider-Man 2 and X2 don’t have the list-advantage of being as sober as The Dark Knight but ultra seriousness is not a qualitative attribute, it’s just an attribute.

Still, X-Men (2000) is way too high. It’s so basic and it’s tentative low budget feel really dooms it for the long haul and to see it above Superman II?

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3 Eric Melin March 8, 2011 at 9:00 am

I knew that putting SM2 and X2 above The Dark Knight would be controversial–and I couldn’t have summed it up better, Nathaniel.

About X-Men: Yeah, it does look pretty low budget these days, but thematically it does a great job of setting the stage. Maybe some of the action sequences fell a little flat, but I almost think of it as intertwined with X2, so maybe that’s why I ranked it higher than Superman II. Regardless, I love what Lester did with that film (minus Supes throwing the red “S” at the end).

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4 warren-j March 8, 2011 at 9:19 am

Eric, my man, I’m with you 100% on Ang Lee’s ‘Hulk’ and ‘Superman Returns.’ I think both were excellent films that suffered from their position in a genre with poor standards.

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5 jessica maria March 8, 2011 at 9:22 am

I love this list, and I agree with the top three completely…and usually keep that opinion to myself.

I’m actually just so glad to see Superman Returns on the list. I really loved that movie – saw it twice in the theaters – and I wish it got more recognition for how wonderful it looks. The Bosworth casting as Lois still irks me though.

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6 Alan Rapp March 8, 2011 at 9:31 am

Wait, so Bryan Singer’s bastardized remake of Richard Donner’s classic makes the cut but not the original? And Hulk? Really? Sigh.

I actually like most of this list (although I would have chosen a few different movies) but leaving off Unbreakable is a slight I shall not stand for! It’s the perfect super-hero origin story – all the more impressive for leaving out the usual trappings.

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7 FilmGuru March 8, 2011 at 9:47 am

Brave choices! I might have juggled the order a bit, but I do think this is a solid list. My one recommendation to you, watch the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II and see if it doesn’t go up in your list. I really think it’s a much better film than what the studio gave us.

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8 Aaron Weber March 8, 2011 at 9:51 am

Really, Eric? How do you possibly do this list and not mention the finest superhero movie ever made? Brad Bird’s amazing The Incredibles, which besides being the Fantastic Four film Fox didn’t know how to make, is the only superhero film that figured out how to incorporate the powers into story, instead of making them such a focus. Not a single instance of slo-motion (all the action takes place at the speed in which it occurs, which is far, far more impressive than hyper-slo motion)! Really amazing action set-pieces, and remembering above all else that comics are supposed to speak to the best in us, not the grim-est. A great story, memorable characters, and the feel of a fully fleshed out world without having to spend so much time on backstory and origins.

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9 chris March 8, 2011 at 10:19 am

Buckaroo Bonzai!?!?!

Great list otherwise, although it strikes me that Superhero movies seem to be a more recent development, other than as previews

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10 Hai March 8, 2011 at 10:28 am

Great list. Eerily close to my personal top ten.

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11 Jimmy March 8, 2011 at 11:06 am

I enjoyed this list…. for the most part.

Hulk and Superman Returns… ballsy moves.

I just thought Iron Man 2 was several notches above Iron Man.

X-2′s saving grace: Nightcrawler. And Spidey 2 is definitely my favorite of the three. Yeah, and they’re rebooting it too early.

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12 dan March 8, 2011 at 11:19 am

I appreciate Spider-Man 2 and X2 being above Dark Knight. But I think Batman Begins should be higher. It never gets the love I think it deserves. Although I’m happy its on the list. Is Hellboy not a superhero?

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13 Xavier March 8, 2011 at 2:42 pm

I agree with Aaron about the incredibles, nice call. I still think that the Dark Knight is the best superhero film it had better action scenes, a tighter story and phenomenal acting which spidey 2 and X2 just fall short of.

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14 JJ Duncan March 8, 2011 at 3:32 pm

I liked “Hellboy 2″ more than five of the movies on this list (still has 87% freshness too!). The story was better than the first and the creature creation was some of Guillermo Del Toro’s best work.

“Flash Gordon” might win a spot on my Top 10. Best superhero theme music ever.

“Blade 2″ would make my list.

Of the Sam Raimi flicks, I liked “Darkman” better than the first “Spider-Man.” “Spider-Man 2″ rightfully the best in the bunch.

Is “The Matrix” a superhero movie? Curious what other people think.

Tim Burton’s second “Batman” movie was amazing. Burton and Nolan have both successfully captured different takes on the character.

“Superman Returns” was a mess.

“Hulk” was a mess. I interpreted Ang Lee’s comic-booky edits as a weakness. He couldn’t figure out how to make a movie (where one thing happens at a time) out of a comic book, which has to employ some very creative art and writing techniques in order to tell a story as clearly as possible. We’ve seen plenty of directors deftly handle non-linear editing without leaning on similar editing crunches. (See “Pulp Fiction.”)

If “Watchmen” doesn’t make the cut, can I nominate it for best Superhero movie trailer? I remember getting chills the first time I saw that thing (the one with the Smashing Pumpkins remix). Too bad the movie didn’t really live up.

Lastly, I know it’s more fun without “Dark Knight” in the top spot, but calling it anything other than the Best Superhero movie ever is being contrary for the sake of being contrary.

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15 Randall March 9, 2011 at 8:12 am

I haven’t seen all of your top 10, but the ones I’ve seen are good choices–including the underrated Ang Lee Hulk. I agree with Mr. Weber about The Incredibles, and I’d have to argue for an earlier Brad Bird film as well: The Iron Giant. It may not immediately register as a “superhero movie,” but the titular character works through the questions of identity that so many of these other characters do, and by the course of events and self-determination, he becomes a true superhero (“I’m Superman”). It’s such a terrific, moving, underrated film. It would probably take the top spot if I were to make this list.

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16 Will March 9, 2011 at 8:17 am

After watching “Dark Knight” more and more, I have come to the opinion that it is a bit overrated. I know the fan boys will kill me, but I find that it takes way too seriously. Plus Bale’s Batman Voice and Heath Ledger get pretty annoyoing after a while.

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17 Reed March 9, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Eric, as many have said here, it’s a great list. And I’m 100% with you on the Top 3. And on Hulk, too. The biggest failing of that movie was the ridiculous look of the Hulk (and that bad CGI scene outside the cabin with the hulk-dogs). I think if they would have toned the “incredibility” down a bit, it would have been much more appreciated.

I still don’t get how you liked Superman Returns so much – I found it unbearable. The first X-Men was really lacking to me. Batman Begins as well. I haven’t had the desire to watch either a second time. But they both did a great job of setting the table. The three I’d slide in to replace them:

Blankman*
Watchmen (I didn’t read the book – probably helped me out on this’n)
Robocop (qualifies as within the genre I think)
Kick-Ass (only seen it once – may change my mind)

(*just kidding – Blankman is terrible)

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18 Robert March 15, 2011 at 3:05 am

wow that was bad, you got half the movies write, not in the right places but there on there and the others don’t desever to be on this page. . . . . . . FURTHER MORE. . . . . What the F*** is this about. . . . . How can you not have SUPERMAN The Movie not on there and then again why is he not at number 3!. Superman Christopher Reeve The first Superhero ever, the most powerful, who we should all inspire to be like or learn from and simply put the BEST superman and BEST Superhero MOVIE EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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19 Robert March 15, 2011 at 3:07 am

I meant Number #1. Superman The Movie!!!

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20 Fanatic March 24, 2011 at 9:22 am

Hey i really like your list! I will put
1 spiderman 2
2 watchmen ( haters go away)
3 dark knight
4 hulk ang lee ( haters go away)
5 x2
6 batman returns
7 spider man
8 batman timb burton
9 iron man
10 batman begins
11-superman returns ja

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21 Redneck May 8, 2012 at 9:45 pm

1 spiderman 2
2 dark knight
3 hulk ang lee
4 watchmen
5 batman returns
6 iron man
7 spider man
8 avengers
9 superman returns
10 thor fighting with captain america

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22 David Bruce Murray July 17, 2012 at 6:12 pm

I have high hopes for _The Dark Knight Rises_, but I don’t think _The Amazing Spider-Man_ should bump anything off of this list.

I don’t think _The Avengers_ would make my top ten either. It wasn’t as good as _Batman Begins_, which is currently in the tenth spot on your list, but I might rate it equal with one or two that you rated higher.

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23 Eric Melin July 18, 2012 at 11:18 pm

I think TDK Rises and Avengers would both make a new list…which I suppose will be coming soon now…

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