Superheroes: fictional characters doing impossible things in implausible costumes. Why is society so fascinated by them? Of course, they inspire us, and reassure us, and certainly entertain us. They also provide a platform for story-telling that is epic in scale – often allowing for sweeping sci-fi or historical drama, alongside intimate tales of relationships and familial bonds. It is hardly surprising that the world of film adopts – and occasionally spawns – so many of these characters as its own.
The potential for these crusaders to draw in audiences has been explored and expanded further than anyone could have imagined back when ‘Superman And The Mole-Men’ became the first superhero movie to hit cinemas in 1951. Since then, filmmakers have continually mined the realms of comic books, graphic novels, animation, TV, and even conceived their own original superheroes, in search of that most elusive of achievements: A good superhero film.
So what is the secret ingredient? What separates a Green Lantern from a Dark Knight? Most would argue that it all comes down to the script – simultaneously embracing the full potential of the superhero story-scape, while adding something new and fresh. The truly great superhero films – those that naturally rise to the top – aren’t just entertaining and inspirational, however. They use the superhero genre to draw us in, and reflect both us and the times we live in. We recognise aspects of ourselves in the hero, the villain, the bystanders or the struggle itself, and that’s why we love them.
This is a debate that has echoed through the ages, and shall continue forever more. In the meantime, however, here are the Top 50 Superhero Films according to writers at We Got This Covered. In theatres, or straight to DVD – for distribution deals and box office receipts are no guarantee of quality – these are the cream of the feature-length crop.Next
50) The Powerpuff Girls Movie
From the award-winning animated TV show created by Craig McCracken for Cartoon Network, The Powerpuff Girls Movie is a prequel to the series, detailing the origin story of this little band of superheroes.
With his home of Townsville terrorised by criminals, Professor Utonium attempts to create three “perfect little girls,” using a concoction of “sugar, spice and everything nice.” His unhelpful chimpanzee assistant, Jojo, shoves him during the manufacturing process, causing him to accidentally add ‘Chemical X’ to the mix – the full consequences of which are not realised until the girls go to school.
What follows is a tale of manipulation, greed, redemption and retribution, as it is revealed that this single laboratory accident has created not only three super-powered little girls, but also Mojo Jojo – a mischievous chimp whose brain has been mutated by Chemical X and is now super-intelligent and bent on world domination. As these two opposing forces are set on a collision course by the knee-jerk assumptions of the Townsville populace, an epic showdown is inevitable.
At first, The Powerpuff Girls may seem to be condescendingly cookie-cutter superheroes for girls – created by a clever man for his own amusement – but the story is, in fact, a beautiful subversion of that stereotype. The girls are surrounded on all sides by ineffectual, incompetent authority figures – from the bumbling Professor Utonium to the child-like Townsville Mayor – all of whom are constantly in need of The Powerpuff Girls to fix their situations.
This subversion – wonderful though it is – is merely framing for the central point, however. The film is really about the importance of self-acceptance. The Powerpuff Girls come under immense peer pressure to ‘fit in’ and change who they really are. They even consider using ‘Antidote X’ to erase their powers and please other people. But they – and the folk of Townsville – come to realise that their innate abilities are all valuable, when used in the right way, and they find acceptance and a place in society. Such a powerful message is all too rare in the entertainment media of today – especially for young girls.
49) Mystery Men
Mystery Men was slated to be one of the biggest late summer his of 1999 – that is, until it opened right after The Blair Witch Project and on the same day as The Sixth Sense. Although the film was a box-office dud, it is still a more inventive comic book effort than many of the adaptations that would fill theatres in the 21st century.
The movie was kitschy but never descended to camp, and had just the right amount of silliness to be fun without being dim-witted. Mystery Men may be about a crew of low-rent superheroes, but it boasts one of the finest ensemble casts of the day. Beyond the manic Ben Stiller leading the pack as Mr. Furious, it had strong comic actors like Paul Reubens, Janeane Garofalo and Hank Azaria mixing it up with stars known for their dramatic weight, like William H. Macy, Tom Waits and Geoffrey Rush (as the scenery-chewing Casanova Frankenstein).
While the film’s effects feel dated – as does the Smash Mouth tune during the end credits – it still holds up as a joyfully offbeat send-up of the genre.
Whatever hardcore fans of the Hellblazer comic series may think of 2005’s adaptation starring Keanu Reeves, Francis Lawrence’s Constantine is inarguably a clinic in visual prowess, most impressively crafting an inspired vision of hell that is simultaneously horrifying and awe inspiring (the director said he intended to mimic an “eternal nuclear blast”). The other aesthetic flourishes, complex angles and other little filmmaking tricks culminate in a world that seems both real and eerily detached from our own. And say what you will about Reeves and his well noted lack of range, but he is perfectly suited to the character that was consciously constructed for the film.
Additionally, and call me a heretic if you must, but Constantine demonstrates a rare instance where certain amendments to the comics actually added more dramatic complexity to the story. For instance, instead of being bestowed with the ability to see half-breeds, it was his suicide attempt which put him on the border of the land of the dead and the living, and his curing of lung cancer at the hands of Lucifer was done to give him another chance to fail at his redemptive task, rather than being tricked into doing so.
The supporting cast that shows up here is universally strong as well, with the standouts being Peter Stormare as the aforementioned Prince of Darkness, sporting simple white garb and oily, acid covered feet, and Tilda Swinton as the conniving angel Gabriel whose eventual fall is just one part of the film’s wildly satisfying climax. Rachel Weisz as twin sisters (and thankfully not love interest of John) and Shia LaBeouf as the damned antihero’s adoptive sidekick also do solid, grounded work in a feature swirling with the occult and bawdy. As a piece of moving art Constantine is a near marvel, and in an odd way it is a more stripped down superhero offering that manages to stand alone in a cluttered genre.
Packed with tragedy, psychodrama and explorations of the parent-child dynamic, Ang lee’s version of Hulk tears through the endless layers of origin re-boots and dives straight into the meat of the matter.
Just like the Marvel comic character on which it is based, this Hulk film was started and re-started countless times under countless guises, until the award-winning director carried it across the finish line. With Eric Bana in the title role of Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk, Nick Nolte as his deranged scientist father Dr. David Banner, and Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross, Ang Lee assembled an intimidating cast of talent to present a story that plays more like a Greek tragedy than standard comic book superhero fare.
Though it is essentially an origin story – depicting the terrible events that conspired to create the monster inside Banner the younger – the emphasis here is on the intense conflict between parent and child and, most importantly, its eventual resolution. That resolution is explored in different ways, with the physical violence of Hulk and his creator on one hand, and the muted, emotional violence of Betty Ross and her own father, General Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliott) on the other. At the film’s centre, however, is the constant and deep connection between Betty and Bruce – the calm eye in the midst of a dramatic storm.
Divisive upon its theatrical release, Hulk continues to stand as an example of the depth and meaning that can be achieved with comic book superheroes in cinema, when placed in the hands of visionary filmmakers.
46) Superman II
The making of Superman could be a movie in and of itself, between the struggles to get a script ready, the competition to find an actor to play Superman and the ambition to make two Superman movies for the price of one that eventually resulted in Richard Donner getting replaced on part II by Richard Lester. But like a lot of Hollywood production stories that tell of a rocky road between inception to the premiere, Superman II ended up being a hit with fans, forever burning into their memories the words, “Kneel before Zod!” and launching a thousands memes.
The sequel to the popular and influential first film picks up with a lingering thread from Superman, the trio of Kryptonian criminals led by General Zod who were sentenced to life being contained in the Phantom Zone. Unleashed on Earth, Zod and his compatriots begin to wreck havoc and even set up shop in the White House, drawing the admiration and loyalty of Lex Luthor. Meanwhile, Lois discovers Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same, and our hero toys with the idea of giving up his powers for a human life with Lois just as Zod and the gang call him out.
Lester (and to a certain degree Donner) create the perfect mix of action and character development, allowing Superman to be vulnerable as well as showing off what happens when he’s faced with a formidable villain. Also toned down is some of the goofiness from Superman, mostly due to Zod’s sidekicks not being doofuses (unlike Luthor’s), but if there is one bit of silliness that can’t be undone, it’s summed up in the word: “super-kiss.”
Still, for all those who thought that Man of Steel was too epically violent, and all those who thought that Superman Returns was too tame and emo, there’s a lot that can be learned from Superman II in finding the right balance. And on top of it all, you have Christopher Reeve there to perfectly embody the dual sides of the heroic character, while Terence Stamp chews the scenery as Zod.
Superman II isn’t perfect, and it kind of sags in the middle, but there’s a lot to be learned about how to properly give your hero a sequel from the lessons in this film.Previous Next
45)The Incredible Hulk
Many moviegoers and comic book fans were angry with Ang Lee’s brooding, bloated 2003 film Hulk. And Marvel does not like their fans when they are angry. So, only five years after Lee’s film hit the big screen, Universal and Marvel went for round two, releasing a film featuring Dr. Bruce Banner and the mean, green monster.
Ang Lee’s version may have been the thinking-man’s Hulk, but as a great number of moviegoers and comic book fans rightly noted, Bruce Banner’s daddy issues and psychological trauma was not what audiences wanted to see. They wanted to see the Hulk smash. As blockbuster entertainment, Louis Leterrier’s swiftly paced, action-heavy thriller was just the antidote audiences wanted.
Edward Norton gives a suitably intense performance as Bruce Banner, as he tries to manage his anger while dealing with a surmounting number of personal and perilous conflicts. He grounds the movie, and character, with earned pathos.
The film also delivers top-tier work from great characters actors like William Hurt (General Ross), Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Sterns) and Tim Roth, who almost steals the movie with a ruthlessly insane take on Emil Blonsky/Abomination. The climactic showdown between the Hulk and Abomination is still one of the finest finales in Marvel’s oeuvre of comic-book adaptations.
44) The Wolverine
After the overwhelming disappointment of the first attempt at a solo film for Wolverine, many were skeptical about James Mangold’s efforts to revitalize the character. After all, we had seen Hugh Jackman as Logan enough times to know that despite the fact he’s awesome as the character, there’s just no way that Wolverine can succeed under the restraints of studio control and a PG-13 rating. Then, The Wolverine hit theaters, and all skepticism was slashed to pieces.
Part of the reason why this film is so successful is it doesn’t try to be an X-Men movie. Really, it doesn’t try to be a comic book movie at all, though it clearly is one. It’s a story about internal turmoil caused by the pressures of living forever. Throw in some villains and battles that rival some of the best action movies, and that makes for a pretty epic film.
There’s also the fact that Jackman gets better as Wolvie every time he takes on the character. In The Wolverine he’s more jacked, more furious, and more in-tune with the character than ever before.
43) Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Parts 1 & 2
One of Warner Bros. Animation’s most staggering achievements to date, this two-part adaptation of the classic Frank Miller graphic novel is terrifically true to its source material while capable of standing on its own as a miniature Batman epic.
Both films are boosted by detailed, stylish animation and brilliant voice performances from Frank Weller (an older, potentially unhinged version of the Caped Crusader), Michael Emerson (the Joker, portrayed with enough chilling psychopathy to rival Heath Ledger’s acclaimed performance) and Ariel Winter (Kelly, the best on-screen version of Robin since, well, ever).
I’ll give you fair warning that this is not a Batman story for the whole family. The Dark Knight Returns is often brutally and ruthlessly dark in its quest to capture the gritty realism and anguish of Miller’s work. All of the scenes that shocked readers back in 1986 are faithfully depicted. But that’s part of what makes it such an indispensible instant classic – the two-part film successfully introduces Miller’s comic to a new generation of fans, and for that alone it deserves inclusion on this list.
Director Jay Oliva really gets the Batman character, and it shows in the finished product. The Dark Knight Returns is a wildly ambitious, deeply respectful and remarkably gripping story that ranks among the best interpretations of the Dark Knight legend. It’s simply mandatory viewing for fans, both devoted and casual.
42) Punisher: War Zone
When you ask most people what their favorite movie based on a Marvel superhero is, it’s not likely they’re going say Punisher: War Zone. After all, the film was a complete flop both commercially and critically, and made the previous Punisher movie seem like an unqualified success in comparison. Here’s the thing, though: Punisher: War Zone is actually kind of awesome. It is an over-the-top bloodbath featuring action so crazy that it becomes gleefully cartoonish.
There is a great episode of the How Did This Get Made? podcast featuring the film’s director (Lexi Alexander), who until Punisher: War Zone had really only done indie dramas, and comedian Patton Oswalt, who is a huge fan of the film. One of the revelations in the podcast is that the movie studio forced Alexander to insert a scene featuring parkour (which was seemingly mandatory for every action movie at the time) and Alexander got her revenge by having the Punisher blow up the parkour-practicing bad guys with a rocket launcher. And that pretty much sums up the tone of the movie right there.
Punisher: War Zone was never going to win any Oscars, but it is tremendously fun for what it is: a self-aware, gleefully violent take on Marvel Comics’ most violent superhero. At a time when comic book movies were going the dark, serious route of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, Punisher: War Zone took a hard left turn into utter insanity. You’d be hard-pressed to find another superhero movie like it.
41) The Punisher (2004)
Across all comic book properties that have made their way to the big screen, The Punisher still seems to be one fans of the genre bemoan the most. It’s not that there aren’t admirers among us, it’s just that over three films, a quarter century, and three different Frank Castles, no one attempt has captured the source material’s soul in its entirety. That being said, 2004’s The Punisher is about the closest we’ve received and in its own right is a very entertaining action film with plenty of deliciously bombastic touches that add layers of dark humour to what can at times be unrelenting grimness.
In the end, what keeps the film held together at its core is the performance of Thomas Jane as the revenge seeking widower, left for dead with lead in his chest and plenty more pain in his heart. Castle’s transformation from loyal man of the law and loving father and husband is one we’ve seen before in other revenge actioniers, but Jane brings the physicality and determination we would expect from a force that could bring down an entire crime syndicate – solo. Likewise, the small moments of solace he shares with Rebecca Romijn’s Joan, John Pinette’s Bumpo and Ben Foster’s Dave are gentle touches in this otherwise ugly world. They also hinted at further things to come from a sequel, which did not, unfortunately.Previous Next
A comic book movie not based on any comic, Unbreakable revisits the banner days of director M. Night Shyamalan, still basking in the critical acclaim and Oscar glow of The Sixth Sense, back when he was the next Spielberg and a face of the future of filmmaking. But while Shyamalan’s reputation has taken a nose dive without a parachute, Unbreakable stands on its own as excellent storytelling and as an Icarus-like fable about those whose ambitions take them too close to the sun. Fittingly, such mythmaking is right at home here, as what Shyamalan did with Sixth Sense, a master class of style and atmosphere, he does again with Unbreakable, a haunting, down-to-earth take on the comic book hero’s origin.
Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, an everyman security guard who is the sole survivor of a devastating train crash. As David struggles with his own survivor’s guilt, he’s visited by a man named Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a purveyor of original comic book art who fills David’s head with ideas of destiny and super-powers; why has David never been sick, why has always been drawn towards protector jobs, and how does he always seem to know when someone is up to no good? Elijah believes that he and David are connected by their fates. While David is seemingly “unbreakable,” Elijah suffers from a rare disease where his bones are as brittle and weak as ordinary glass. “We’re on the same curve, just on opposite ends,” Elijah explains.
Obviously, this being pre-Last Airbender Shyamalan, the focus is less on the big-budget set pieces like alien invasions and skyscraper destruction, and more on creating suspense and drama, exploring the real world implications of someone dealing with even moderately superhuman abilities, and how that would affect them, their life and their family.
Willis finds in Dunn a complex hero who, in a real way, is much more vulnerable than any of the he-men he’s portrayed in other films, despite Dunn’s super-human abilities. As always, Jackson is a great foil for Willis and the two work well together building a unique and intricate friendship over the course of the film. Shyamalan’s skill as a filmmaker has never been more refined, and at this point of his career, his trademarked twisty ending had yet to feel contrived. At the time, Unbreakable was seen as a sophomore slump when compared to the breakout success of The Sixth Sense, but looking back on it there’s a sense that Shyamalan peaked when he put his own unique spin on the comic book movie.
39) Afro Samurai
Adapted from the manga of the same name, Afro Samurai serves as proof that Samuel L. Jackson can do literally anything. Following the life of a young boy who witnesses his father’s murder, it is one of the best comic book revenge stories ever. The titular samurai’s quest to retrieve the Number 1 headband from his father’s killer throws tons of colorful assassins in his way, giving him the opportunity to violently dispatch each and every one of them in a gory fashion.
This is definitely one of the more adult comic series out there, and the animation handles surprisingly mature themes deftly. Jackson’s voice lends itself perfectly to the characters, and the cartoon has a style that stands on its own as uniquely beautiful and detailed. The sequel, Afro Samurai: Resurrection is just as good, and both are worth a watch if you consider yourself a fan of adult-themed comics.
38) Wonder Woman
Though Wonder Woman is an equal to both Batman and Superman in longevity, popularity and the epic nature of her story, Hollywood studios have avoided a live-action Wonder Woman movie at all costs. Thankfully, comic book author Gail Simone went ahead and wrote an animated version with Michael Jelenic, which was directed by Lauren Montgomery. Their film, which inexplicably went straight to video, is loosely based on the Wonder Woman comic book arc ‘Gods and Monsters’ from the late 1980s, and is widely regarded as one of the best animated superhero films of all time.
The film sets out the origin of the conflict between the Amazons – a race of warrior women – and Ares, God of War. In battle, Amazon Queen Hippolyta, beheads Ares’ soldier Thrax – her son conceived when Ares raped her. Hippolyta defeats Ares, but is prevented from killing him by Zeus. Instead, the Amazonians are given the remote island of Themyscira as their home, and are charged with imprisoning and guarding Ares. Hippolyta is granted a daughter – warrior princess Diana – and life rumbles on until USAF Colonel Steve Trevor is shot down over the island. As Diana (soon to become Wonder Woman) defies her mother and wins the right to escort Steve Trevor home, Ares plots and executes his escape plan, and a terrible string of events are set in motion.
While the original cut of the film was handed an R rating due to extreme violence and brutality, deft editing saw that reduced to a lower certificate, without detracting from the impact of the story themes. Parent-child relationships, psychological trauma, violence against women, patriarchal privilege, and the fight for justice all feature heavily in this gripping tale that is both epic in scope and sure-footed in execution.
37) The Punisher (1989)
This one is also known as “The Forgotten Punisher” or “The One Without the Skull Shirt.” In fact, other than the name, and the rough outline of a man who’s lost his family launching a one-man total war against the mob, you’d be hard pressed to call this The Punisher. Adding insult to injury, this movie was made in the shadow of Tim Burton’s Batman, the big-budget adaptation of the Marvel character’s thematic ancestor, and New World’s $9 million budget couldn’t hold a candle to the $50 million that Warner Bros invested in their hero. But despite all that, one must not discount the cheesecaked 80s awesomeness of Mark Goldblatt’s 1989 rendition of the Marvel Comics vigilante, which starred Dolph Lundgren in the title role.
Wisely, the film shirks the traditional superhero origin. Why wise? Well, because The Punisher’s not that complex, and let’s face it, Lundgren’s chiseled granite features maybe be good for ass-kicking, but not so great for emoting. Instead, we get right into the story five years after Frank Castle, an ex-cop who was presumed dead in a car explosion that killed his family, has donned the guise of “The Punisher” and brutally slain almost all the criminals within the city limits, racking up an impressive body count of 125. With Punisher’s war on the mafia nearly successful, an even deadlier threat moves into his turf, the dreaded Japanese yakuza. There’s also a subplot where Louis Gossett, Jr. plays Castle ex-partner seeking to end his colleague’s nocturnal activities.
For the average comic book fan, it’s easy to discount Goldblatt’s comparatively small time efforts against future bigger budget Punisher flicks, especially with scenes of the titular character meditating naked, employing martial arts as often as a machine gun, and the almost racist portrayal of the yakuza. Also, what’s the deal with Punisher’s crazy drunk actor snitch who says everything in Iambic pentameter? Some may criticize the choice of Lundgren for the part, but he’s perfectly suited to robotically taking out thugs and mob bosses with literal break-neck efficiency. As a film, The Punisher may fit more comfortably in the oeuvre of small budget 80s action flicks like Roadhouse or Cobra as opposed to the more recent Marvel movies, but we’re also spared the complications. There’s no conspiracies, no plots, and no dramatic twists, just bad guys to kill and one man with the moral ambivalence to make it happen again and again. No skull shirt required.
36) Man of Steel
One of the more controversial choices on the list, Man of Steel is still a worthy addition simply because of how bold of a film it is. Audiences were split by Zack Snyder’s reinterpretation of the timeless origin story of America’s superhero, but we’re here to say that it is actually a fantastic film. Both Snyder and Christopher Nolan have created a new Superman for a new generation, pitting him against the greatest evil he has ever faced and forcing him to make controversial decisions, and it all works.
The creative decisions made were done so for a reason, and they all avoid treading on the established Superman films by daring to be different. Clark Kent is no longer a saint who can save every single person in the city from death, but rather a conflicted man who has to choose between saving a race of people who fear and mistrust him or giving in to his own kind, giving up his humanity in the process. It’s the story of a conflicted hero making mistakes while trying to do what he genuinely thinks is best for mankind. The fact that the final hour is a beautifully shot masterpiece of superhero action is just the cherry on top of the shiny, new cake.Previous Next
35) Ghost World
Ghost World succeeds in bringing the essence of its source material to the screen, as we meet Daniel Clowes’ comic book characters, Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer – two teenage social outcasts, aimlessly facing life after High School graduation.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff (Bad Santa), this comedy-drama depicts a tumultuous summer for Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), as they find themselves at a crossroads. Unable to find any real direction in their own lives, these two best friends distract themselves by focusing their energies on Seymour (Steve Buscemi) – a lonely man whose personal ad searching for a woman he met captures their attention. Over the summer, in which they engage in cruel manipulations and taunting, the two young women find their respective paths diverging, despite their attempts to cling to their manufactured ‘norm.’ As the consequences of their actions unfold, lives begin to unravel and their situations are irrevocably changed.
Ghost World is a film that has found its audience over time. Crafted with the highest quality – with many award nominations and wins to prove it – it is a deceptive movie, seemingly one thing at first glance while at second glance, another. Initially, Enid and Rebecca are intensely unlikeable characters – wandering aimlessly, judging everyone around them, and manipulating people and situations to their own ends.
However, this is, in fact, something else entirely – something far more subtle and insidious. Ghost World is the story of two young women pushing against the social conventions that have simultaneously rejected and constrained them. They are in limbo – a social ghostly plane – where they are neither included, nor afforded the opportunity to leave. This deeper duality resonates loudly for many social groups – particularly teenagers and women – making the film and the source material, important works of art.
34) Iron Man 2
Iron Man wasn’t exactly a superhero A-lister before his metal boots were filled by Robert Downey Jr., but after 2008 there was no doubt that this was arguably the best synthesis of actor and hero in the history of comic book movies. In making a sequel, if the high expectations coming off a strong first entry weren’t bad enough, there was the growing the pressure of tying everything into The Avengers and paying lip-service to the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, combined with a couple of behind-the-scenes personnel hiccups, it’s a wonder that director Jon Favreau was able to hold it all together the way he did. And while Iron Man 2 may be the least successful of the Iron Man films, it’s by no means a mediocre entry in the genre.
Naturally, the best part of the film is Downey’s portrayal of billionaire-genius-playboy-philanthopist Tony Stark, now firmly ensconced in his dual role as Iron Man, and resting on his laurels as a superhero while dealing with his own mortality as a result of the side effects of using the tech that saved his life and allows him to be Iron Man. Tony’s growing recklessness threatens his status as world protector, and just in time for Ivan Venko (Mickey Rourke), the disgruntled son of Tony’s father’s former partner, to come looking for revenge. Rourke doesn’t have much of a role to play other than mumbling about revenge and butchers in a thick Russian-esque drawl, but damned if he isn’t great, as is Sam Rockwell as Stark’s rival Justin Hammer, who has just a little bit of Iron Man envy.
Iron Man 2 is also fun for the fan service. Amongst the other newcomers is Stark’s fellow-future Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, subbing for the originally cast, but too busy to serve Emily Blunt), while Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle stepping in for Terrence Howard) gets a promotion from BFF to sidekick when he puts on the armour of War Machine. There’s a lot of talk about “The Avengers Initiative” and some stuff going on in the “southwest district” (that’s code for Thor foreshadowing), and even though all that weighs down the film’s midsection, fans were still hanging on every morsel and detail. Iron Man 2 didn’t push the character in strange new directions, but it helped sell the idea that a coherent movie universe and tying one film to the next was indeed possible.
After more than ten years languishing in development hell, through various re-writes and many directorial changes, the world finally met Hancock – the belligerent and alcoholic amnesiac with superpowers. Based on an original screenplay by Vincent Ngo, the final script was shaped by Vince Gilligan (The X Files, Breaking Bad), eschewing all traditional superhero narrative structures and presenting a story of epic scale in an intimate fashion.
Hancock (Will Smith) is a disaster in human form. His clumsy, drunken actions cost his city millions of dollars in damages, and he is regarded with disdain by the general public. When he crosses paths with Public Relations man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) – saving his life on a railroad crossing – Ray sets about rehabilitating Hancock’s public image. Unbeknownst to Ray, his connection to Hancock goes much deeper and further than simply owing him his life.
The film is the first foray into big-budget visual effects for director Peter Berg (Very Bad Things, The Kingdom) and, bolstered by a team of producers including Akiva Goldsman, Michael Mann, and Will Smith, it became one of the most successful of 2008, grossing over $624 million at the box office. This is notable because Hancock does not fit the standard superhero movie template. Firstly, it is not based on a comic book or graphic novel – Hancock, as a movie, is an original idea specifically conceived to subvert the superhero movie genre. Secondly, Hancock is the only superhero movie to feature a non-white lead character, and thirdly, the story features a fully-formed, strong female character (Charlize Theron) who single-handedly takes the film, and turns it on its head.
Succeeding on every level – from script to performance to overall direction – Hancock dispenses with the linear origin story trope and instead allows the audience to discover the characters and their histories in a natural and organic way. A refreshing experience, to say the least.
Although not the best of Sam Raimi’s trilogy, the first Spider-Man is still one of the best superhero films of all time simply because it hits so many of the right notes. Peter Parker’s rise from lonely nerd to New York City’s savior is common knowledge to generations of fans, and Raimi transferred it to the screen with care and style. It also helps that Tobey Maguire was the right amount of nerdy and conflicted hero, making him a great candidate for the role.
Spider-Man was one of the first superhero movies to gain mainstream acclaim and success, setting the stage for Marvel to start dominating the market with quality titles. It absolutely nailed the death of Uncle Ben, Peter’s need for revenge and the growth of Spider-Man from a vigilante to a heroic symbol of the people, fighting for good in a city filled with evil and ungratefulness. Despite the slew of Amazing Spider-Man titles slated to hit theaters in the next decade, the original will always remain a classic.
31) Batman: Year One
Batman has a long track record of cinema gold, but many of his quality stories have been told through animation, and a majority of them are just as good as (if not better than) their live action counterparts. Of these cartoons, one of the most recent and, frankly, one of the best is Batman: Year One, a story chronicling Batman’s first year of stalking the streets of Gotham alongside Commissioner Gordon’s rise through the ranks of Gotham PD.
Based on Frank Miller’s excellent comics, the film tells a story full of violence, mistakes and life-changing decisions as Bruce Wayne’s and Jim Gordon’s lives cross paths for the first time, setting the stage for the relationship that later helps to define both men. It’s an old tale redone with style and heart, and one of the best animated Batman stories to date. The voice acting from the likes of Bryan Cranston is top notch and the animation itself is beautiful.
If you’ve never seen the Bat in cartoon form, Year One is the place to start.Previous Next
Hellboy is that rare comic-book adaptation that manages to be simultaneously scary, hilarious, thrilling and even romantic. Credit director Guillermo del Toro, who stages every frame with a gorgeously lit, unmistakably sinister ambiance that complements the film’s bizarre premise – the adult son of the Devil is a sarcastic, cigarette-chomping loner who protects humans by repeatedly beating the snot out of other supernatural creatures. It’s a plot that, if handled by anyone other than del Toro, would have likely fallen into self-parody, but the director’s delicate, loving touch works wonders.
Nothing about Hellboy should work, but everything does, from the unlikely, red-hot chemistry between Perlman’s devil-horned antihero and Selma Blair’s pyrokinetic badass Liz (Selma Blair) to sprawling action sequences involving a stunningly original hellhound with an uncomfortably long tongue. An incredible performance from a nearly unrecognizable Ron Perlman, along with Guillermo del Toro’s eerily gorgeous direction, elevates Hellboy far above typical comic-book adaptations.
29) Iron Man 3
Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 made it abundantly clear to me that Iron Man is my favorite superhero. How else could Black so perfectly tailor every single element of his film, a sprawling studio blockbuster of mammoth proportions, to expertly advance Tony’s intensely human arc of identity and insecurity? ‘Complex characterization’ is not a strong enough term to describe what he and Downey Jr. accomplish here. This is an insightful and engaging psychological analysis of an impossibly rich and fascinating central character, and alongside Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel it may be the current pinnacle of the superhero film as character piece, for me at least, surpassing even Nolan’s Dark Knight films in terms of cutting to the heart of what makes the title figure tick, and vibrantly defining what audiences love about him in the process.
Iron Man 3 is also tremendously funny, of course, and endlessly intriguing, and bombastically exciting as only the greatest comic-book blockbusters can be. I am convinced this is a watermark for the genre – the second Marvel has delivered since May 2012 – and the only proof I ever need to defend that, cinematically speaking, Iron Man is not only the best Avenger, but the most emotionally rewarding costumed hero of them all.
No single film has done more to bring superhero movies into the modern age than Bryan Singer’s X-Men. Without its success, we probably would not have the Marvel cinematic universe as we know it today. X-Men broadened the appeal of its titular superheroes for an audience beyond fans of the comic book. One of the ways it did so was by jettisoning the loud, colorful uniforms of the comics in favor of black uniforms, a stylistic change that helped prevent the characters from looking silly on the big screen.
Now, big screen superheroes are back to wearing multi-colored uniforms—which is good, because if everyone wore black it would get a little boring—but the colors are a bit more muted. That’s because filmmakers have learned an important lesson: what looks good on the printed page might not necessarily look good on a movie screen.
X-Men had a lot more going for it than just cool-looking uniforms, though. It was also superbly cast. There was Patrick Stewart as Professor X, Ian McKellen as Magneto and of course, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Can you imagine any other actor playing Wolverine at this point? Even when X-Men: First Class brought in new actors to play the rest of the heroes, Jackman still returned for a cameo as Wolvie.
Now that the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past will be bringing both casts together, it’s an especially exciting time to be a fan of the mutant super-team. But none of it would have been possible without the first X-Men film proving there was a big market for films based on the Marvel universe.
How can you make a film about a bunch of gods work in a universe where things have been thus far established as essentially rooted in the mishaps of experimental science? Why, hire noted Shakespearean expert Kenneth Branagh to direct them in a film that combines celestial fantasy with fish-out-of-water laughs, of course. Why was Thor so good? Kenneth Branagh, as those who’ve seen its tepid sequel can no doubt attest. Oh, and there is that other reason.
Tom Hiddleston. As Loki, he’s arguably the most enjoyable facet of the Marvel Cinematic universe so far introduced, bringing his obvious relish in playing the character to three movies so far with a guaranteed role in future outings. He’s like the opposite of the seemingly ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson. Hiddleston’s not in it for the paycheck. He LOVES it, and each film he appears is in that much better off for it.
Pair this with some decent action, the ever-likeable Natalie Portman (who’s more than made up for saying yes to George Lucas by now, doncha think?) and the revelation that is burl incarnate, Chris Hemsworth, whose comic chops make his interactions with earthlings one of Thor’s many little delights. This one’s a keeper, and stood tall as the best of the bunch ‘til The Avengers, with Thor and Loki in starring roles, rolled around a year later.
26) Batman Returns
The perceived knowledge amongst fanboys/girls now that Nolan’s Batman = great, and Burton’s Batman = lame, really is a tad revisionist and a little ignorant to the notion of multiple interpretation. While I do agree that time has not necessarily been kind to Burton’s Batman films, there is still something in them, and particularly in Batman Returns, which is singular and rather original. Embracing this movie will come down to whether or not you are on side with Burton’s style of filmmaking (before he became a self parody of himself) and if you are, then there is much to delight in.
Batman Returns is in some moments quite unbelievably strange and for that it is to be admired. It has The Penguin biting noses, spewing black liquid and eating raw fish. It has Michelle Pfeiffer being pushed out of a high storey window, being revived by cats and going home to make a professionally-made, lycra catsuit. It has penguins operating missiles in order to kill first born children and it has Christopher Walken, seemingly by virtue of the fact he’s Christopher Walken. It is profoundly strange. Burton’s hand is much heavier in his vision of Batman, almost to the extent that Batman (1989) and this feel a universe apart. That’s no bad thing though. Retrospectively and in light of the Nolanverse, Batman Returns feels even stranger, even weirder and even darker than it did on initial release.Previous Next
25) Road To Perdition
Sam Mendes’ sophomore feature is the most formally conventional and arguably the least stylized movie of the list. Despite being complimentary of the comic book source, Mendes took a big departure from the story and its pulpy trappings, elevating it by referring strongly to revered gangster movie classics such as the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.
That is not to say that Mendes is above the comic, not at all (although fans certainly accused him of it), but the film is heavy with portent and weighty in both its themes and its ornate cinematographic composition (beautifully done by legend Conrad L. Hall). For this story, however, Mendes’ weighty seriousness perfectly matches the tone of the material, or his adaptation of the material, at least. Amongst gangster violence and a hugely cartoonish performance from Jude Law, there is a rather moving, brilliantly observed tale of fathers and sons being told and it is to Mendes’ great credit that these elements don’t over balance each other.
It is also worth mentioning that Road to Perdition features the final onscreen performance of Paul Newman, and it’s one of his finest. For that alone you should check this one out.
It is very rare in the world of movies that we have sequels that are better than their predecessors. However, when looking this list, it seems that superhero and comic book movies are the genre that bucks this trend. Superhero sequels, simply because first films spend a lot of time doing set up, tend to have a lot more depth of character, far more compelling plots and great new actors coming in to play additional characters.
The narrative of X2 is simple: genocidal ex-General wants to rid the world of mutants and the X-Men must stop him, but within that there are themes that are quite profoundly dealt with and the characters you love (particularly Wolverine) get a lot more to do. The mutant metaphor basically represents whatever oppression of ‘minority’ groups you want it to and Singer allows that to be open to the audience, much more than he did with the first X-Men film.
X2 is better written, better directed, better acted and has more intelligence than its predecessor. It is, in its own right, a pretty great film and shows the burgeoning of superhero movies not just being about fist-fights, silly costumes and flashy visual effects, but being about something more profound and rich.
Following the success of Robert Rodriguez’s CGI-heavy adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City, another Frank Miller graphic novel transitioned to the big screen two years later. This time the action moved from the mean streets of violent noir fiction to the more distant past, where shirtless warriors with bulging biceps engaged in vicious, brutal combat. The film had a different director (Zack Snyder), but CGI still played an important role in making the adaptation a faithful recreation of the graphic novel’s aesthetic.
Now we take it for granted that superhero movies are going to feature an overabundance of CGI to make the action look as fantastical as possible, but at the time 300 released it was still somewhat novel of a concept. Of course, with the film having such a unique look, it didn’t take long for other, lesser films to start mimicking its style. Look at the trailer for Hercules: The Legend Begins for one example of a groan-worthy copycat. There’s even a proper sequel due out next year. Let it never be said that Hollywood doesn’t know how to milk a cash cow.
Next time you see a bunch of burly, barely-clothed men engaging in mortal combat in a vaguely homoerotic fantasy setting, remember where it started: with this uncomfortably xenophobic tale of a small band of white Europeans fighting off a horde of dark-skinned invaders from the Middle East.
22) Hellboy: The Golden Army (2008)
Guillermo del Toro improves on the already terrific Hellboy with this majestic, imaginative sequel. The Golden Army finds our hero, along with Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and Liz (Selma Blair) battling an evil elf who is determined to raise a lethal mechanical army and destroy humanity with the help of a magical crown. Though markedly less ambitious in a storytelling sense than the first film, The Golden Army is funnier, more confident and filled with visually dazzling action sequences.
Del Toro circumvents the typically derivative nature of comic-book sequels by upping the stakes and providing a surplus of his trademark, darkly poetic visual sophistication. The exquisite detail of the director’s expertly conceived set pieces, paired with Perlman’s award-worthy turn in the lead role, make The Golden Army one of del Toro’s greatest accomplishments to date. And when you consider that his other works include Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos and Pacific Rim, that’s saying something.
Despite the critical acclaim and specific treatment methods of the films that have come in its wake, and most obviously those as directed by Christopher Nolan, if I’m in the mood to take a trip to Gotham for a few hours I’ll always head to Tim Burton and 1989’s Batman. It’s a curious adaptation for the Caped Crusader – one in which the Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, and one in which Batman seems never to have sworn off killing criminals himself – but it’s so rich in 1980s visual sleaze thanks to Anton Furst’s spectacularly realized Gotham City, which seems to have got lost in time somewhere between the decade it was filmed and the decade the character debuted.
It stars a comic actor in an entirely serious role, it features a soundtrack of original music by Prince to sit alongside a score by Danny Elfman and it establishes Batman as someone who wears black leather in a Gotham where the cops wear black leather. Everything is just such an exaggerated version of what it should be. It manages in more senses than one to contradict key foundational elements in the construction of the character but it all just congeals into one gigantic summer blockbuster with no rearview mirror and the sorely underappreciated Robert Wuhl in a supporting role that should have made him a star.
With the above in consideration and the top billing of Jack Nicholson’s Joker, it’s almost not a Batman film at all, and yet it’s definitely one of my favourite non-animated efforts featuring the Caped Crusader and one that I’ll always go back to.Previous Next
20) A History of Violence
When you hear the idea of a David Cronenberg comic book adaptation you know that you’re going to get something completely adverse to your expectations. And that’s exactly what he does in his adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s A History of Violence. The story is indeed one of pulp fiction: a mild mannered coffee shop owner, Tom Stall, is forced to violently defend his business from two thugs which leads to a case of mistaken identity with gangsters from Philadelphia who believe Tom is the runaway brother of their boss.
Pure, genre pulp. But in the hands of a master like Cronenberg this isn’t just pure pulp fiction. Like all of his genre work, the director deftly creates an extremely entertaining, highly crafted generic surface that covers a sublimely crafted subtext, rich with deeply thematic elements. In this case the thematics are right there in the title: The weight of a violent past, is violence ever redeemable? What does it mean to bury and hide a history of violence?
Of course, we also have the fantastic performances. The leads, Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, have never been better and two sublimely scene-chewing performances from the ever reliable Ed Harris and William Hurt provide stellar support.
This is hands down one of the Canadian maestro’s finest films and a deserved entry into this list.
19) X-Men: First Class (2011)
I could begin and end this description with ‘Jennifer Lawrence in body paint,’ but X-Men: First Class is much more than just that. After the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand, First Class was the injection of energy, intelligence and unabashed coolness that the series needed to get back on its feet.
Boosted by stellar performances from Lawrence, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, the film bounces along with remarkable confidence and energy without skimping on the dramatic heft of its source material. Matthew Vaughn’s stylish direction lifts First Class above standard comic-book fare by never forgetting the extraordinary nature of his characters but also never painting them as anything less than human. The sleek, smart script traces our favorite mutants to their early days and provides imaginative characterizations that will surely make the upcoming Days of Future Past a force to be reckoned with.
Boasting terrific performances, a clever story, deft direction and a strong sense of fun, First Class more than lives up to its name.
Just when it appeared that a recent excess of found-footage movies had come to a close, Josh Trank arrived on the scene with this confident and innovative superhero (or is it supervillain?) origin tale. Chronicle centers on three friends, Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), who stumble across an unknown object in a hole in the ground. When the mysterious object gives the trio telekinetic abilities, they must learn to harness their powers.
Trank’s brilliantly simplistic documentary-style direction allows Chronicle to thrive as a believable, complex and unpredictable superhero thriller. DeHaan gives a star-making performance as Andrew, whose abusive home life and unpopularity at school makes him a danger to everyone around him, while Russell is equally effective as Matt, the agonized voice of reason.
Chronicle is a breathtaking accomplishment. It’s one of the best found-footage movies since The Blair Witch Project and one of the best superhero movies in recent memory.
17) Captain America: The First Avenger
The fifth instalment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (after Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 and Thor), Captain America: The First Avenger is essentially the junction point for narrative threads from several Marvel movies – ahead of the giant film, The Avengers – as well as introducing potential new ones, such as the character of Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). The film charts the journey of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), from slight, sickly US soldier-in-training, to accomplished Super Soldier headhunted by S.H.I.E.L.D.
Director Joe Johnston immerses us entirely and flawlessly in 1940s America, where Steve Rogers is selected for transformation into a Super Soldier, via a specially formulated serum – much to the surprise of his fellow recruits. As the newly christened Captain America, Steve Rogers’ innate decency and courage, bolstered by his new-found super-strength and agility, lead him to make huge strides in the fight against the Nazis. He soon finds himself a nemesis, however, in the form of Red Skull (a wonderfully menacing Hugo Weaving) – leader of terrorist organisation Hydra, and Head of Weaponry for Adolf Hitler. Red Skull has himself been in receipt of a shot of Super Soldier serum, making him more than a match for Rogers.
Despite the, at times, transparent jingoism on display, Captain America: The First Avenger is a well-crafted film and is highly enjoyable in its own right. Though it is its vital position within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that makes the movie a must-see, it is testament to the quality of writing by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely that this sizeable feat was accomplished with such confidence and success.
16) The Amazing Spider-Man
We can debate the necessity of a remake just five years after Sam Raimi’s disappointing Spider-Man 3 all day, but that doesn’t change the fact that Marc Webb’s version cuts to the core of Peter Parker’s teenage angst in a way Raimi’s films never could. Transforming the character into a snarky, misunderstood loner is just one of the film’s many smart moves. Its talented cast, led by Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, is another.
As Peter, Garfield embodies the skinny, mouthy webhead of comic-book lore, inflecting every line with a cocky bravado that masks but never overlooks the character’s tormented origins. Meanwhile, Stone turns Gwen Stacy into a spirited, capable romantic interest, lending The Amazing Spider-Man a touching romantic side that serves it well.
These two, coupled with Webb’s slick and confident direction, allow the film to exist as more than just another take on the webslinger – instead, The Amazing Spider-Man succeeds as both a thrillingly emotional outing, the likes of which the character has never seen, and as a promising new beginning.Previous Next
15) Batman Begins
While many people look towards The Dark Knight as being the bastion of heralding in a new era of comic book filmmaking and adaptation, it is in Batman Begins where Christopher Nolan really began revitalizing the genre. It’s the film where Nolan was crafting the foundations for a totally new way of imagining superhero movies, a way which was inventive, fresh and as many critics said: “the finest screen adaptation of Batman.”
Nolan’s handsomely crafted origin story has become just as influential as its highly revered sequels and has kind of become the last word in origin stories. Indeed, many other comic book film origin stories mirror Batman Begins’ structure exactly. Films such as Iron Man and Man of Steel are hugely indebted to Nolan’s storytelling, demonstrating just how important the director’s first Bat feature is. It has become kind of fashionable now to undermine Batman Begins but people are reticent to forget that it is easily the most cerebral of the trilogy featuring terrifying, drug induced hallucinations, the grimmest Gotham City ever put on screen and a gritty realism to the criminality that made this a startling reinterpretation of one of our greatest comic book superheroes.
14) Dredd (2012)
“Are you ready, rookie?” With one expertly growled line, Karl Urban created the definitive cinematic portrayal of 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd. Pete Travis’s grimy adaptation of the comic strip is the Dredd tale you’ve been waiting for, as well as a bloody good time.
Dredd cunningly exploits its confined set – crime-ridden apartment complex Peach Trees, home to the ruthless kingpin Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) – for maximum suspense and carnage. When Dredd brings the aforementioned rookie (a perfectly cast Olivia Thirlby) into Peach Trees on a seemingly routine follow-up to a gangland triple homicide, all hell breaks loose and the duo rise to the top of Ma-Ma’s hitlist, incurring the wrath of hundreds of armed-to-the-teeth convicts.
Travis’s stylish direction and Alex Garland’s faithful, bare-bones script allow Dredd to present the desolate Mega City-One as it was always meant to be seen – as a cesspool of crime, ostensibly controlled by ruthless judges. Travis’ refusal to develop Dredd renders him a wildly entertaining enigma of a character, as well as one of the most badass heroes in cinematic history. Despite all the fan action, it’s likely we won’t see a sequel, but at least we’ll always have Dredd, one of the most gleefully violent, madly entertaining comic-book adaptations of all time.
Matthew Vaughn’s spunky, stylish adaptation of the controversial Mark Millar comic stands out as one of the strangest, most audacious comic-book adaptations of all time. Charting the transformation of Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) from high-school outcast to costumed hero, Kick-Ass fully capitalizes on its ballsy premise with pitch-black satire, raucous laughs, startling ultra-violence and enough profanity to make Eminem blush.
While Johnson makes for a strong protagonist, Chloe Moretz is the real star of Kick-Ass. As pint-sized hero Hit-Girl, the actress is daring, hilarious, startling and completely unforgettable. The film courted controversy at the time of its release, when Moretz was only eleven but her character was both viciously sociopathic and ruthlessly foul-mouthed. It would have been a tough role for any actress, but Moretz took it on with gusto, delivering a charismatic, star-making performance.
Moretz aside, Kick-Ass wins points for going for the jugular with its stinging satire of comic-book culture. The daffy psychology behind costumed heroes is front and center, and the film doesn’t go for easy answers or life lessons. It’s a gritty, fast-paced, unapologetically explicit thrill ride, as well as a biting satire of the modern superhero that more than lives up to its name.
12) The Incredibles
The Incredibles may well have been at the point of its release Pixar’s greatest triumph. OK, OK, Toy Story 2 could give it a run for its money, but jeez, what a film. Family drama. Spy parody. Superhero deconstruction. Visual splendour. Ingenuity in spades. It’s got SO much going for it. You can watch it for a different reason every time and never run out of things to be floored by.
It owes a little of its excellent story to Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which in 1986 posited the then-revolutionary question of how superheroes would work in the real world. Bob Parr is sued and forced into exile and subservience in a job that is frankly beneath him. He is deeply unhappy about it and despite a stable if fraying marriage and three awesome kids (they really are), he pines after a life of adventure. When the opportunity comes calling, thanks to the cynically observed machinations of the quite-likeable Syndrome, naturally it plunges he and his superpowered family into some serious shenanigans, but not at the expense of personal drama, which manifests beautifully through doubt, overconfidence and the fear of losing everything in senses material and literal.
The film expertly lampoons comicbook tropes, but treats them with dignity and a sense of reverence that elevates it beyond spoof. It sits within one genre while flirting with others and never once feels like it has too much on its plate. I daresay it is a perfect film.
11) Iron Man
This is the Marvel film that started the revolution in superhero films. It wasn’t Marvel’s first foray into Hollywood, but it was the first of many fantastic films that chronicled the individual Avengers and remains the best. Whether you look at the story of the rich narcissist who looks to better a world he wronged or the pitch-perfect casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, everything works in Iron Man.
Although the first iteration of the series relied more on story than action, it managed to introduce an important superhero to audiences, both satisfying fanboys and creating a slew of new followers at the same time. The series has continued to be one of the best in Marvel’s stable, and as long as RDJ continues his role, these films will go down in history as some of the best superhero tales ever.Previous Next
10) Spider-Man 2
I don’t want to harp on about Spider-Man 2 taking hold of that old saying about diminishing returns in movies and webbing it to the side of a building far far away, partly because I don’t want to go over well-covered ground and partly because Spider-Man 3 all but erased that goodwill, but damn if it ain’t a sight better than the already impressive first Spider-Man effort from Messrs’ Raimi and Maguire.
It all came down to Alfred Molina, if you ask me. As Doctor Otto Octavius, his introduction as a mentor for Peter Parker, as a loving husband and as a genius scientist earned him more brownie points than penguin boys flushed down sewers or adopted, sneering manchildren in the ‘villain justification’ scheme of things. His performance is mannered and quiet, making his transformation into Doctor Octopus – still the greatest supervillain name of all time – never quite whole. He’s never all-the-way there, which makes his efforts all the more tragic and forgiveness all the more ready to come pouring out when he comes to his senses near the film’s climax.
You know, after THAT fight on the train, and THAT fight up the side of the building. Throw in budding tensions between Peter and Harry, James Franco sporting the best haircut this side of Keanu Reeves’ 90s efforts, a great Danny Elfman score, beautiful New York photography, an endearingly earnest script and a whole lot of signs that scream ‘this is better than the first one,’ and you truly have a great superhero film.
9) Superman: The Movie
Based on the famous DC Comics character, Richard Donner’s award-winning film represents an origin story – not only of the character, but also of the modern superhero film genre as a whole.
Superman: The Movie is the thorough depiction of our hero’s journey – from Kryptonian infancy to Earth, from Smallville to Metropolis, and from Metropolis to the world. As this three-act journey unfolds, so does our hero’s experience, personality and ethos – taking the values and lessons learned from his adoptive Earth family, the Kents, and combining them with those from his biological father, Jor-El, imparted through the Fortress of Solitude. His Kryptonian powers and exemplary humanity make him a true ‘super-man’. As an initial franchise instalment, Superman: The Movie is perfectly constructed.
Though the story of Superman was already firmly part of the western world’s social consciousness – with his popular comic book series and adaptations in radio and TV – it was not until he hit the big screen that he became a truly beloved icon worldwide, thanks to a performance by Christopher Reeve so pitch-perfect that his interpretation would become the yardstick by which all subsequent Supermen would be measured.
The combination of a revelatory Reeve, big-name stars such as Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, a well-crafted script and ground-breaking visual-effects meant that Superman: The Movie would take its place in film history as a bona-fide game-changer. Earning over $300 million in box office worldwide during its original theatrical run, this is the film that blazed the trail for every superhero franchise that followed.
Poor ol’ Blade. He’s not been treated well since Stephen Norrington’s 1998 horror-action romp. He’s suffered at the hands of Guillermo Del Toro and David Goyer in a pair of abysmal sequels and languished in near-obscurity in the Marvel Comics from which he spawned. He’s not even allowed a place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that’s changed the face of comicbook adaptation in the last few years, and yet he’s arguably responsible for all of it, as the first major success in adapting Marvel’s output. Blade, and you’ll have to excuse me for swearing but this is a movie that truly deserves it, is fucking awesome.
Wesley Snipes deserves the most credit for playing the single most badass vampire hunter in the history of cinema and making an essentially cold and spiteful character so bloody cool. He has his work cut out for him in the form of an ancient sect of vampires led by Udo Kier and a young upstart vamp’ in Stephen Dorff’s Deacon Frost. One of the film’s most enjoyable features is its adherence to a strict 1990s philosophy of pairing dark nightscape photography with metal and techno music, and though it was one of the last successful proponents of this style it was also one of the best. It also stars Kris Kristofferson, who in blasting through a wall and exclaiming “catch you fuckers at a bad time?” instantly became the coolest Cool Old Guy ever. Forget vampire wrestlers and forget Luke Goss – this is the essence of 90s sensibility, grim violence, twisted humor and everything a Blade movie should be.
7) V For Vendetta
It’s impossible not to remember, remember James McTeigue’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s Guy Fawkes-inspired graphic novel V For Vendetta. Starring Hugo Weaving as the titular V and Natalie Portman as Evey, it may not be a word for word adaptation, but there are few comic book movies that are better.
A good majority of the film’s magic comes from Weaving’s performance as V. From his verbiage as he voraciously vilifies with his vast vocabulary to the more tender moments when we’re able to see that he still is human, despite hiding beneath a mask, he takes the full range of the character and nails it. Of course, Natalie Portman is nearly as impressive, taking on the transformation of her character with such skill that it makes for a heartbreaking journey. Rarely have we seen a comparable leading duo for a comic book movie, and the film greatly benefits from their performances.
Of course, it would be nowhere near the movie it is if it weren’t for the visuals. Obviously the fight scenes and the explosions are incredible, but the whole world is created in such a way that it’s beautiful to look at. It’s much more stylized than most popular films in the genre, but it’s done in such a way that it draws people in instead of turning them away.
At its core, it’s a story with a lot of fascinating ideas centered around the anarchist theme. Whether you’re on board with the politics or not, there’s no denying that it’s a meaningful story, chilling at times, and an all around thrilling film. Despite many ardent fans complaining that the book wasn’t faithful enough to the source material, it brought Moore’s work to the mainstream and made it relevant for more than just comic book fans. That led to V’s Guy Fawkes mask being adopted by far more than just die-hard anarchists who happened to love Moore.
The film’s had an impact in the years since it released, and there’s a good chance it could stand the test of time and be remembered as one of the most significant comic book films of the modern era.
6) The Dark Knight Rises
The epic conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was just that – epic. While both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have elements where they surpass this third film, never were the stakes any higher. Gotham is faced with its biggest threat yet in the form of a soon to self-detonate nuclear bomb while Batman is halfway across the globe with a broken back, wasting away in a deep, dark pit.
No matter what details you want to discuss in terms of the characters Nolan created for this film, the way he adapted established characters, or how sharp the smaller aspects of the film are, eventually you’ll just keep coming back to the grand scope of it all. It’s huge in every way, including its supervillain.
Where Nolan really succeeded in the trilogy, above everything else, was with the villains and The Dark Knight Rises is no exception. Say what you want about Bane’s voice, but Nolan’s take on the character made for yet another fearsome foe. It’s especially impressive considering how horrible the previous live-screen iteration of the character was. Tom Hardy is able to give an intimidating and intelligent performance, despite not having use of the most movable part of his face. There’s never any doubt that he actually could be the one to break the bat, and the expansiveness of his scheme makes him all the better.
It’s almost the perfect cap to a trilogy. Everything comes together in a completely satisfying way, but it’s never overly-predictable. Few times in the history of cinema has a trilogy felt so complete and so fulfilling to watch. It certainly has never happened in a comic book trilogy prior to this one. The ending isn’t so open-ended that it leaves room for speculation about a sequel, yet it still has enough to it that it leaves you wanting more, which many fans definitely do. If Nolan ever directs another comic book movie again, all fans of the genre should consider themselves blessed. But until that unlikely day, we’ve got the Dark Knight Trilogy to look back on and its wonderful conclusion to enjoy.Previous Next
5) The Avengers
The Avengers shouldn’t have worked. The idea of building a film mythology of the big Marvel characters to lead up to one ensemble work featuring Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, alongside other favorite characters: Loki, Nick Fury and Agent Coulson, is an insane one for a studio to make. Not only that, it would take a writer, director and team of hugely talented creatives to pull it off, find a narrative that would work and would allow all the characters time to breath and each stand out amongst this clash of big personalities.
Thankfully, Marvel chose not only the right person for the job but arguably the only one who could have conceivably done the job. Despite not having a great track record in the film world, Joss Whedon has demonstrated through numerous works in TV that he knows how to craft stories and juggle a lot of characters, which he does here absolutely beautifully. Most importantly, he is also someone who knows how to appeal to fanboys without pandering to their every whim and he can also preach to the unconverted, hence the film’s impressive global box office haul.
All that said, the most considerable contribution that Whedon brings to this overwhelming franchise is (aside from a fairly poor opening) a brilliant lightness of touch and a wicked sense of humor that fits absolutely perfectly. Indeed, it was a funnier film than most “comedies” of 2012 with stand out, laugh out loud, memorable character moments and it would have been a huge mistake to go the way of Nolan and turn The Avengers into a real world, gritty crime drama.
The fact that Whedon knows this whole thing is ridiculous and actually finds moments to mock the sheer ludicrousness of what we are watching (Thor: You have no idea what you’re dealing with. Iron Man: Shakespeare in the Park? Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?) demonstrates a great understanding of his audience and of the material he is working with.
The fact it even exists is impressive and the fact it works to the extent it does is nothing short of a miracle. And that is down to the bold producing power of Kevin Feige and the genius of Joss Whedon.Previous Next
4) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
When the first volume of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel was published, Universal Studios quickly began to plan a film adaptation. The story of Canadian musician Scott Pilgrim, who meets his dream girl in delivery person Ramona Flowers, only to discover that he must defeat her seven Evil Exes in order to be with her, lent itself well to a cinematic re-telling. It had romance, action, comedy, tension and a raft of interesting characters. It just needed a director with the capability of bringing such a visually challenging project to life.
Enter Edgar Wright – he of the Shaun Of The Dead/Hot Fuzz genius. Co-writing (with Michael Bacall), producing and directing the film, Wright set about assembling the perfect cast, soundtrack, and essentially putting a stunning graphic novel onscreen, in live-action. With Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim – a man the audience needs to root for, even when he’s being less-than-decent – and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona Flowers – a woman the audience needs to want to fight for – Scott Pilgrim vs. The World had its central, conflicted couple. Add to that, the League of Evil Exes – Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Shota Saito, Keita Saito and Jason Schwartzman – and Scott Pilgrim struck the right balance between recognisable faces and unknowns.
While the cast is excellent, and the screenplay great, Edgar Wright is the star of this show. Bringing to bear his unique and striking visual style (the roots of which can be found in Spaced – his British Simon Pegg/Jessica Hynes/Nick Frost sitcom from 1999), he succeeds in transferring the stunning artwork of O’Malley’s creation from page to screen, incorporating the elements of video game structure, as Pilgrim wins additional lives and points with the defeat of each Evil Ex.
Though, inexplicably, it never gained momentum in box office receipts at the time of its theatrical release, this award-winning film continues to secure an audience on DVD/Blu-Ray, appreciative of the high artistic quality on display.Previous Next
Zack Snyder’s epic adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel is one of the most reverent and ambitious comic-book films ever made. The director’s attention to meticulously capturing the finest details from the comic make watching Watchmen a markedly unique experience. Perhaps more than any other superhero film, Watchmen feels like a stylish graphic novel playing out on the big screen.
Snyder transfers the comic’s bleak, uncompromising tone and tricky political agenda while never forgetting that Watchmen is made to entertain. The complex philosophical questions that the film poses are almost as disturbing as the answers that it provides, but that’s part of what makes it such a compelling work. A brilliant cast, led by Jackie Earle Haley’s mesmerizing Rorschach and Billy Crudup’s transformative portrayal of the all-mighty Dr. Manhattan, makes the film’s intricate narrative structure (which spans 45 years and is set mostly during an alt-history Cold War) more palatable.
Watchmen was ill-received by some precisely because of why I love it so much: because it doesn’t assume that it knows better than its source material. Snyder’s near-religious devotion to the graphic novel allows his film to succeed as a magnificent, sprawling adaptation of one of the most important literary works of the 20th Century.Previous Next
2) Sin City
Sin City is less like a movie about a comic book than a comic book that just woke up one morning and wandered into your nearest cinema. It is the purest embodiment of the comic book form in cinematic translation to date and a dazzling example of a work of fiction occupying two separate modes of presentation in a barely indistinguishable manner. It’s also got guns and cars and hot chicks and Michael Madsen and an exploding Irish guy and three different directors. It is thrilling from start to finish, and has left such an impression that despite the copious failures of its masterminds Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller in the eight years since its release, its 2014 sequel A Dame To Kill For is still awaited with bated breath, evaporating against the chilly night in the dark heart of Basin City.
It’s not hard to see why it has come under criticism from the fairer sex, though. Its three stories present a psychotic embodiment of manhood and women don’t fare too well outside their roles as things to be avenged, things to be fought over or things to wear absolutely no clothes at all, all night every night. I can’t quite defend this, but I can accept it as part of Miller’s vision in which every facet of masculinity is questioned and in some sense championed. It’s insane, yes, but it’s comprehensively insane.
What’s probably created the biggest impression for viewers since its 2005 release is its visual style. Shot almost entirely on green screen (as the Blu-Ray’s copious extra features can attest to), the film is presented in a tricked out monochrome with flashes of red, blue and yellow working effectively to highlight the intensity of moment that Rodriguez and first-time director Miller want to get across. It also features one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled, including Mickey Rourke at the peak of his noughties comeback, Bruce Willis playing against type as a seriously ill aging cop and Elijah Wood as silent slasher Kevin. At no point in its execution did its handlers wonder how Miller’s Dark Horse comic would translate to screen. Instead, they just stuck it all right up there, and it works beautifully. An absolute triumph.Previous Next
1) The Dark Knight
The best superhero movie of all time is also one of cinema’s greatest accomplishments. When critics consider the best films ever made, a few selections usually bob to the surface: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Schindler’s List, etc. No one could have imagined that a superhero sequel would ever face off against those titles. And yet, many critics out there, myself included, would nominate Christopher Nolan’s stunning Batman opus to join the ranks of cinema’s greatest.
Why is The Dark Knight so brilliant? Perhaps it’s because, despite initial appearances, the film is not just an endlessly quotable superhero movie. It would be more accurate to call it a sprawling crime saga, for it operates on a far more sophisticated plane than any other comic-book adaptation to date.
It’s a weighty meditation on the nature of the antihero and the unending battle between good and evil, society and anarchy, and order and chaos. It works as a blockbuster, to be sure, but The Dark Knight also works on political, moral and philosophical levels. It’s a parable for post-9/11 America and the War on Terror, a simultaneous condemnation and exultation of the vigilante and a dissection of the public defender.
At the center of it all is Heath Ledger’s mad-dog portrayal of the Joker, a terrifying force for chaos so compelling that he’ll haunt your dreams. The actor’s transformative, physically grotesque performance is worthy of every accolade it received. He’s the perfect counterpoint to Christian Bale’s intensely controlled Batman; as the Joker says in one memorable scene, “Kill you? I don’t wanna kill you!… You complete me.” He’s serious, and Ledger sells his conviction with such unnerving gravitas that you’ll immediately believe in the character’s lunacy.
Artistically, it’s unforgettable. Credit Wally Pfister’s haunting cinematography and Nolan’s masterful touch. Gotham City positively teems with corruption, and the shadows on screen are so gorgeously dark and deep that it’s easy to get lost in them. The opening bank robbery is a straightforward work of art, gripping in its creativity and assurance, while the rest of the film is packed with brilliantly shot chases and fight sequences, ones which never neglect the symbolic side of the film’s narrative.
When people look back on the ’00s as a cinematic era, there’s no doubt in my mind that The Dark Knight will be considered the decade’s finest accomplishment. It’s the superhero epic that comic-book devotees deserved, as well as the one the genre needed to break out into the mainstream. It absolutely deserves to sit atop this list.
Tell us, what are your favorite superhero movies and what do you think of our picks? Let us know in the comments section below.Previous