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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 …
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.
8. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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…
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