When I was a kid I was always super excited at the thought of going to the convenience store down the street (Bushy John’s – for real), to pick up new comic books. On special occasions, my father would drive me across town to the comic book store – Dragon’s Lair (named after and including the arcade game) where I could go to town on obliterating my allowance. I grew up wanting to be a super-hero, someone like Hawkeye, because I knew that I probably wasn’t actually going to develop super powers (although a part of me still holds out hope). As I grew up, I took a hiatus from comics when I discovered girls, and my entertainment outlet shifted to movies and TV. About a decade later, I came across a Wizard magazine where I learned that one of my favorite artists as a kid (George Perez) was drawing one of my favorite childhood comics (the Avengers). I’ve been buying comics every week since.
I always dreamt of going to Comic-Con as a kid. Back then it was just comics, but now it is a pop culture touchstone and covers more non-superhero entertainment than it does the spandex set. It’s the perfect representation of my problem. One of the more difficult things for me to reconcile, as a massive devourer of all things entertainment, is trying to serve the comic book fan in me while also serving the movie fan in me. This is not as easy as you would think, as a fair number of comic book movies are crap.
It seems like every few weeks there’s a new comic book showcase on the big screen, something my inner-twelve-year-old gets positively rigid about. This year so far we’ve had Captain America: Winter Soldier, X-Men Days of Future Past, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. And we still have Guardians of the Galaxy coming up. The upcoming Superman/Batman mash-up dominates the news cycle every few weeks. I find myself constantly in discussions over my favorites and what worked and what didn’t. I will never tire of this, but in order to keep a little bit of my thoughts for posterity, I’ve put together a list of my 10 Favorite Super-Hero Films. I use that language deliberately so that I can classify certain things that weren’t actually a comic book prior to the film, and I don’t have to worry about including things like V for Vendetta that despite their comic book origins don’t feel connected to the majority of the movies on this list. Those are the only rules I gave myself.
A lot of this was born out of my distaste for the latest Amazing Spider-Man film. Look, I get it, Andrew Garfield is a much better actor than Tobey Maguire, and he’s able to capture the quippy and wiry version of Spider-Man that is the best version of the character. But the film was a piece of shit. It was a jumbled mash of characters, Green Goblin is barely introduced before being tasked with the emotional weight of the film. Rhino is non-existent, save for a coda that was paying off a montage rather than a character arc. And Electro felt like he was plucked from the Schumacher Batman movies (you know, the terrible ones). Throw in about seven other plots that go nowhere, too much googly eyes from the leads that over-foreshadow the final act, and a general lack of cohesion – the film fan in me was angry. The comic book fan wasn’t thrilled either.
Look, I’m not a slave to source material. I think things need to be adapted for a broader audience, and as long as you are true to the spirit of the material, you’re generally in good territory. I couldn’t give two shits about whether or not Spider-Man’s webshooters are organic or mechanized as each idea worked in the context of their films. I care about story, mood, tone, character, plot and all those things.
Also, I haven’t seen Man of Steel. Here’s the thing. I really don’t like Superman as a character. I think he’s terribly uninteresting and it would take a strong director to bring him to life on the big screen in a way that is engaging and exciting. Zack Snyder is not that director. He’s shown with his previous movies that he is all style and no substance. And given that his Sucker Punch is the worst slash most-offensive movie I’ve ever seen, I can’t imagine there is anything I would enjoy in Man of Steel. This is my list. I’d love to read someone else’s.
The anti-super-hero movie. Here, when the titular teenager tries his hand at vigilantism he gets his ass handed to him pretty regularly. He doesn’t get the girl, or the love of his city. He starts a loser, and ends the movie as a loser…in green spandex. The nihilistic approach speaks to the general fan’s bloodlust while also exposing its emptiness. While Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s main “hero” is a great central figure, the high points revolve around Chloe Grace Moretz’ Hit-Girl: a foul-mouthed ten-year-old terror whose closing battle is one of the greatest in comic book filmdom.
09. Iron Man 3
If it’s not obvious yet it will be by the end of the list. I’m not a huge fan of the origin story. Only Kick-Ass really tracks as one. It’s because the origin story usually one I’ve seen multiple times (and in the case of the Amazing Spider-Man – multiple times on the big screen), and it’s rarely the most interesting thing about the characters, though Hollywood keeps trying. The Iron Man movies get a lot of mileage out of excellent casting. Robert Downey, Jr. is one of the best casting decisions in the history of superheroes. But the first Iron Man spent too much time on his building a suit. And the second one was worthless save for a twenty-second scene with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). With Iron Man 3, Iron Man gets to be Iron Man, the hero of his own story, and it evolves how the solo hero movies will work post-Avengers.
08. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Not quite a super-hero movie, but there are flying people with powers in it, so it’s here. Following the adventures of a hapless young lad (Michael Cera) as he must conquer all of his new girlfriend’s former loves in order to win her heart, Pilgrim has a freedom and style that most other adaptations can’t abide. Borne out of the Bang! Zoom! Zap! Era of comics yet clearly for the those that grew up in the video game era, the story establishes a sweet (and crazy) tone that makes it a more romantic story than anything else on this list and does a nice job preaching metaphorically what most films do in blunt storytelling.
07. Batman Returns
Okay, this will be sacrilege to some (spoiler alert : Burton’s Batman is not on this list), but I do think Burton was able to capture a great style with both of his gothic Batman movies. And if I could lump the two together, I would. But I just happen to like the second one better. While the first one was solid, the follow-up had more engaging villains – Michelle Pfeifer’s Catwoman and Danny DeVito’s Penguin are darker, weirder and more interesting than Jack Nicholson’s Joker; a more intriguing story for Batman (Michael Keaton – still the best Batman); and just had a stronger excitement all around it. Everyone is able to balance the campiness with the right amount of seriousness without veering too far in either direction (Nicholson’s Joker was too campy. Batman Begins was too serious).
06. Spider-Man 2
As I mentioned above, I think the casting in the new films is better, and upon rewatch there are a few moments I might cringe at, but it’s still the best representation of this character on screen. It helps that he’s also fighting his most iconic villain, and even more so that they were able to capture Doc Ock for the screen in a way that stands apart from the comics. As Spidey works to find the balance in his life – between superheroing and school, between the adventure and his heart – his struggle is the perfect epitomization (a word I may’ve just made up) of his catchphrase (“with great power, comes great responsibility”).
05. X2: X-Men United
There are roughly a gajillion characters in the X-Men movies and this one manages to give most of them interesting and clear motivations even while shifting loyalties. There are some amazing sequences – Nightcrawler at the White House, Wolverine vs. Lady Deathstrike, Pyro shifting to the dark side when confronted by the police (my personal favorite), Mystique’s raid on Stryker’s base, and the entire attack on the school. And they even found a way to kick off the Dark Phoenix saga (one of comic book’s greatest, even though it was completely failed by X-Men 3). It’s the only X-Men movie that is really about anything and even though I’m enjoying the First Class movies, this is the pinnacle for the mutants.
04. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
It’s almost as much of an Avengers movie as the Avengers was, and in many ways it’s a better movie – more of superheroic Bourne movie than straight comic flick. Winter Soldier takes one of recent history’s best comic stories and truncates it for the screen, quite successfully. That there were audible gasps in the theater when Winter Soldier’s identity was revealed is testament to how well it’s done. Captain America is about a man out of time, and the loneliness and isolation that is brought on by that. He’s also the greatest leader known to man and it’s core to his character that he’s essentially a normal man whom gods (like, Thor) follow into battle. Chris Evans was a little green the first time around but he’s really grown into the role and has demonstrated that he fits the character.
Every character gets at least one great moment in this movie, as simple as Maria Hill’s rescue of the captured crew or as complex as the attack on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Johansson gets to have more fun here than in her previous appearances and manages to straddle the line of her murky allegiances that makes Natasha such an interesting character. She also gets to kick quite a lot of ass. Anthony Mackie is a great addition as Sam Wilson, Cap’s long time partner. Speaking of which, Sebastian Stan pulls off the Winter Soldier quite nicely.
And all that is great, but the true art of this Cap movie is the backdrop story of Shield and what it means to the big picture of the Marvel universe. One of the fun parts of reading comics is the shared world aspect, how something that happens in an issue of Captain America could affect something going on in an issue of Iron Man could connect to what’s going on in an Avengers comic, and it appears that Marvel is reveling in that. The dismantling of Shield has consequences beyond this movie. It’s already transferred over to the Agents of Shield TV series, and will likely lead into the next Avengers movie (it seems that some of the groundwork from Iron Man 3 will as well). The Shield machinations give this movie more of a spy thriller feel, and helping in that regard is the casting of Robert Redford as Alex Pierce, on of the Shield turncoats. Redford brings a weight to the main villain, he’s not a cartoon charlatan, or mustache-twirling mountebank, he’s just a man with a plan, which has always been one of the leading causes of the destruction of civilizations in the history of humanity.
Winter Soldier is a great movie. It paces quickly, has some great action sequences, three-dimensional characters, true heart and even sets up the franchise for future installments. The first Captain America was fun, but nothing about it indicated the follow-up would be so strong.
03. Marvel’s The Avengers
And then there’s the Avengers. Now, I will admit there’s a bias at work here. The Avengers was my favorite comic book growing up and Joss Whedon is my current favorite creator. So this movie had a lot going for it before I even walked in. But really, that should make it more difficult to capture my enthusiasm because my expectations were so high. And yet, it still exceeded them. Really there was a lot working against it as well. You may have noticed that the four movies leading into the Avengers (the first Captain America, the first two Iron Mans, the first Thor and the Incredible Hulk) don’t appear on this list, mostly because I didn’t love any of them. They each had their moments, but were mostly good attempts. I felt I was doomed to continued mediocrity. Couple that with the fact that some of my all-time least favorite Avengers are: Thor, Black Widow, and the Hulk. So it wasn’t a slam dunk.
And yet, it was.
For the Hulk to go from my absolute least favorite Avenger to one of the best parts about the movie is astounding, especially since two movies beforehand couldn’t grasp the character. Even with minimal screentime, the inherent dichotomy of the character was on display, culminating in one of the best moments of the movie (Banner consciously Hulking out while playing off his 70s catchphrase). Throw in the greatest sucker punch in film history and his smashing Loki around like a rag doll and the Hulk is one of the highlights of the movie. And he’s just one of the heroes.
Everyone gets their moment. Black Widow outsmarts a god. Thor has brother issues. The Iron Man vs. Captain America dynamic is established. Hawkeye gets kicked in the head. The whole structure, with the individual parts struggling to make a whole, culminates quite directly in a scene in the final battle where Captain America becomes Captain America, the greatest tactician ever. It was also the moment that Chris Evans fully gelled as Cap for me. As he directs each character, spelling out their unique purpose on the team, he ends with a nice, winking “And Hulk…smash,” unleashing the jade giant. It was the perfect Avengers Assemble! moment, which was the entire crux of the movie.
Whedon was able to appeal to the comic nerds (like me!) while making the super hero film palatable for film fans (like me!) as well.
02. The Incredibles
What’s incredible about The Incredibles (sorry), is that it is so many movies in one. There’s the straightforward action flick, complete with amazing sequences of super powers on display. There’s the drama of a family struggling to evolve where the husband has lost his reason for being. And there’s the subtle but ever present anti-Bush-era Republicanism stance that simplicity is best and intelligence is to be feared. It’s also a visually stunning animated kids movie where jokes involving Edith Head and evisceration aren’t out of place. It’s everything.
After superpowers are banned, former heroes Mr. Incredible and Elasti-girl settle down with their three kids, teenage Violet, tween Dash and baby Jack-Jack. Despite being gifted (Mr. Incredible is super strong, Elasti-girl can stretch her body, Violet can turn invisible and create force fields, Dash is superfast and Jack-Jack, well at the beginning of the movie he can’t do anything), the family hides out in Normaltown USA, keeping their powers secret for fear of being found out. To escape from the monotony, Mr. Incredible sneaks out at night with his super-pal Frozone hoping to come across a fire or bank robbery they can thwart.
Every scene of the amazing is balanced with the mundane – not in a boring way, but in a way showing the reality of these characters. Their struggle is real because despite the animation, they are some of the most well-drawn characters (sorry) of any movie on this list (or elsewhere).
There also the inherent joy and celebration these heroes have with their powers. While most superhero movies have their characters struggle with the burden of being awesome (see #6, especially), this movie lets them celebrate their abilities. Mr. Incredible is frustrated because he’s not being used to his full potential (cue metaphor alert). While Dash is being chased by some bad guys he has a smile across his face, because, dude, he can run on water. One of the best scenes in the movie has Elasti-Girl stretching across several corridors only to find herself getting stuck amidst the closing doors. It’s fascinating (these aren’t problems I’ve ever faced) and still grounded in the family drama (she’s rescuing her husband).
The voice-work is stellar: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Wallace Shawn, Elizabeth Pena and Sarah Vowell (!!) are all, sorry, incredible. Even director Brad Bird shines voicing the diminutive fashion advisor to the super set, Edna Mode (“No Capes!”).
As a story about a family of superheroes, the Incredibles is a better Fantastic Four movie than any Fantastic Four movie. With the Pixar animation machine behind it it’s a visual treat and stunning just to look at. And with the heartfelt writing and directing of Brad Bird (the man behind some amazing Simpsons episodes) it’s a completely engaging movie that holds up against the greats in any category – comedy, drama, family, superhero, action, adventure, animation, whatever. It’s that good.
01. The Dark Knight
And in many cases the top 3 here could’ve been interchangeable. I could watch any one of them every day and not tire of it. But in terms of the balance and serving my hunger for story, action, and outright enjoyment, my favorite (today) is The Dark Knight.
The thing that The Dark Knight does so well, that was kind of done in Batman Begins and that was never done in the first four (five if you want to count ’66), is that it never loses focus on Batman being the most interesting character in the movie. Yes, even with the Joker there. The movie also underscores why sequels to superhero movies are often thematically stronger to their predecessors, because as I’ve said, the struggle with being a superhero is infinitely more interesting than simply becoming one. This is one of the reasons The Incredibles was so strong, because it was smart enough to start the story in the middle. With Batman Begins handling that pesky how he became Batman story, The Dark Knight is free to pick up a little farther down the road.
Gotham City is still full of crime and corruption, but Batman (Christian Bale, still intense and gravelly voiced) has been making small inroads. The criminals are afraid of him. The police are chummy with him. The new district attorney, Havey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), just wants to meet him. And ADA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal stepping in for Katie Holmes) still pines.
Knight further cements Batman’s role in Gotham City while at the same time shining a big, bright light on what makes him special as a superhero: he’s just a man. He’s not bulletproof. He’s not invincible. He makes bad decisions. He steps over the line. But he does what’s needed of him.
Enter the Joker. Those only familiar with Nicholson’s campy take on the iconic villain might not appreciate the lengths the film goes to establish exactly why he’s the perfect foil for Batman. Batman is deep, methodical. He’s the world’s greatest detective. He is all ego, in terms of Freud’s structural model of the psyche. He is organized, structural, and cognitive. The Joker is nothing more than the id unleashed without tether to the ego or superego. He is the lack of structure personified. Batman can’t figure him out because there’s nothing there to figure out.
A lot of the media coverage went to Heath Ledger and his now Oscar-winning performance as the Joker. It’s understandable, a decent actor on the cusp of becoming a legend dies suddenly and this is the first role he left behind. And while I doubt he would’ve won if he hadn’t passed, I do think he still would’ve been widely celebrated. You see, it’s one thing to play crazy. You’ve got a bag of tricks, you can go to extremes, show off to the hilt, leaving teeth marks in every bit of set. That’s not what Ledger does. Ledger just loses himself in the role. There’s never an off moment. Never a point where you see the performance begin. Every time the camera zips past him his eyes they betray a completely maniacal presence. The way he licks his lips like a caged lizard is never not creepy. He’s completely unleashed here, and yet, there is nothing campy or over the top about his performance. He just is the Joker.
The climactic struggle of the film plays homage to some great comic book conundrums of years past, while still feeling plausible in the context of the movie. The denouement shifts focus to Dent, whose character evolution sees him as the superego to the Batman’s ego and Joker’s id. It is Dent that becomes the driving force of the movie. It’s in those final moments where director Christopher Nolan really shines a light (or bat-signal, perhaps) on what makes Batman Batman. He becomes what Gotham needs. And if Gotham needs to chase him, he will run.