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.