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10 Best Superhero Movies
While it's true that superhero movies received quite the renaissance after Bryan Singer's X-Men in 2000, to say that X-Men "invented" the superhero movie, or even to say that X-Men "brought superhero movies back," really is a disingenuous statement. The truth is, while the frequency has increased greatly, the superhero movie has been a staple in American cinema since Richard Donner's Superman back in 1978. The Superman franchise, which ended in 1987, was almost immediately followed by the Batman series in 1989 which lasted until 1997, and there were several movies spattered throughout like Captain America in 1990 and Steel, also in 97, and then of course X-Men in 2000. That is an over 35 year run of superhero movies every few years in cinemas as well as made-for-television and direct-to-video. While it's true that the quality has, at times, been pretty atrocious, the movies have been there nonetheless. Here are my personal 10 best superhero films, in no particular order.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
While the main plot of Superman: The Movie wasn't the most profound, even by comic book movie standards, this was the film that made the superhero movie a legitimate genre. Prior to 1978, superhero movies were mostly Saturday afternoon matinees, and most times they weren't even the main feature but were relegated to chapter-based serials before the main feature. Superheroes were seen as just for children and movies based on them weren't seen as having any mainstream adult audience at all. All of that changed, however, when Ilya Salkind suggested to his father, film mogul Alexander Salkind, that they produce Superman as their next project after the wildly successful Three/Four Musketeers double movie epic.
While the concept is mostly derided these days, and somewhat unjustly, Superman: The Movie was the first film to use the "set in the real world" concept for a superhero movie. There were no aliens (apart from Superman) or malevolent robots or mystical imps from the 5th Dimension. The villain was Lex Luthor, and he had a very down to Earth, if ultimately silly, get rich quick scheme that involved military weapons destroying the West Coast of the United States. At the very center of the film was the romance between Superman and Lois Lane, and Richard Donner has even said himself that if the love story between those two characters didn't work, the picture didn't work. Superman: The Movie made the origin story of Superman into an epic, almost Steinbeckian, novel for the screen. There is a different feel in each of the three different environments the film finds itself set in. Krypton is very cold and stoic as an environment, and has an almost Shakespearean feel to the way the characters talk on that planet. Smallville is really where the Steinbeck influence takes hold, presenting the small farm town and quaint American life of the Kents in a very down-home way. Once the movie hits Metropolis, it becomes very much a comic book. The movie takes on a little more of a camp feel once it gets to Metropolis, using a lot of slapstick humor and embracing the roots of the character. Superman: The Movie was the movie that started it all, and we wouldn't have had a comic book renaissance in the early 2000s if we hadn't had Superman: The Movie in 1978.
Before Tim Burton got his emo hands on Batman, the mainstream only knew Batman from the Adam West television series and to many, that was Batman. However, the Dark Knight had been thriving in the comics since he was reinvented by Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams in the late 1960s, and cemented by the work of Frank Miller in the 80s. It was this movie, however, that brought the Dark Knight version of Batman to the mainstream, and put away the Caped Crusader persona forever. Many people today can't even stomach the classic Adam West version, finding it incompatible with the Batman they are familiar with, which started right here with Tim Burton.
Tim Burton took Batman out of the grey and blue tights and put him in the black body armor, which is still his movie costume in the most modern movies directed by Christopher Nolan (it has bee rumored, however, that while Ben Affleck's cape and cowl will still be black in 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the main body of his suit will be grey, not black, resembling Batman's New 52 look to some extent). It was Michael Keaton who first used the growling whisper, which has come to be knows as the "Batman Voice", which has in turn become a defining characteristic of the character. Jack Nicholson gave us a Joker that, while still being a bit on the silly side with his joy buzzer and squirting flower, while managing to give us a Joker that was also truly frightening. In fact, with the way Nicholson played the character, the deadly practical jokes served to make the Joker all the more sinister. Just as Superman: The Movie defined the genre for a mainstream, adult audience, Batman served to redefine that genre, making it much more gritty and hard-hitting.
Sam Raimi's Spider-Man was the first comic book movie to really embrace its comic book roots, and that continued through all three of the Raimi Spider-flicks. While updated and modernized, Spider-Man wore his signature red and blue costume, straight from the comics, and fought an actual real supervillain, the Green Goblin, without making it silly or dumbed down, which had already happened to Batman by this point with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. While Raimi did make a few changes to the character, like giving him organic webbing instead of having him use an external webshooter device, most of the changes were for the better and have even been adopted in the comic books. While X-Men set the stage for the superhero movie renaissance, it was Spider-Man that really set the tone for what that renaissance would end up taking.
Spider-Man paved the way for a brightly colored superhero world, which directly paved the way for The Avengers. Spider-Man proved that superheroes could exist on screen in a truly comic book world, something even Superman didn't really do. It wasn't the first movie to do that, but it was the first movie to do it well and not have it end up campy and silly, and once again looking at children as their target audience. Spider-Man embraced its comic book roots and all superhero movies have been better for it.
The Avengers (2012)
The Avengers is considered by many to be the greatest comic book movie ever made. It broke all sorts of records, not just for superhero movies but for movies in general, on its way to becoming the highest grossing movie of all time, including television exhibition and home video sales (it already is the highest grossing film of all time in first-run theatrical exhibition). Now, I don't think it is the best superhero movie ever made. It was a great superhero movie, but I don't think it really lived up to the hype it got. However, it did break through a glass ceiling that had yet to be touched in the genre, it brought together characters from several movies into one superhero team. It did what had only been done in comic books until now, and it set a shared universe trend that it now being copied by everyone. Disney is trying to create a shared Star Wars universe, branching the main Star Wars series off to several spin-off films and even Dan Aykroyd has expressed interest in using the all female Ghostbusters reboot to create a shared Ghostbusters film universe. How that would work is anyone's guess, but talks are being had.
The Avengers, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, has changed the way all movie franchises are being made. And The Avengers was a very good movie in its own right. It had a feel to it that called back to all of the solo films that had come before it in the MCU. When Iron Man was on the screen, it felt like the Iron Man movies. When Thor and Loki were on screen, it felt like the Thor movie. When Captain America was on screen, it felt like the Captain America movie and so on. When the Avengers came together on screen it really felt like all of those movies had been crammed into a single hodge podge, which totally fit the narrative, because that was what the team was. I don't think it would be a stretch to say that Avengers: Age of Ultron is probably the most anticipated film of 2015, and a lot of that is because of the feeling the first Avengers left audiences with. It was just an average superhero movie, to be quite honest. It wasn't the movie itself that was a success, it was the novelty of seeing all of your favorite superhero movies come together into on movie, the same thing that made the Avengers comic book, and the Justice League of America before it, successful to begin with.
Iron Man (2008)
Iron Man was the movie that got the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe rolling. At first glance, Iron Man was just another superhero movie in a larger scheme of superhero movies. It was a really good movie and it held the interest of its audience quite well. It was brilliantly cast (Tony Stark is an alcoholic in the comic books, and if you're going to have a substance abusing superhero who better to play him than Robert Downey, Jr?). It was smart, funny and had a fair amount of action and explosions. It had everything movie goers want. But it wasn't what was in the movie that really captured its audience, it was what happened after the film's end credits. Tony Stark walked into his study and turned on the lights, only to be greeted by an eye-patch wearing Samuel L. Jackson claiming to be Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD, and he wanted to talk to Tony about The Avengers Initiative. It was this scene that made hearts leap into throats and turned its audience of grown men into salivating little boys. The Avengers? Really??? The next four years became eating up anything Marvel put out, waiting to see this one scene pay off. And pay off it did, and continues to.
The Dark Knight (2012)
Batman Begins was a redemption for Batman in film, after the travesty that was Batman and Robin, and then a few false starts in attempts to change direction after that. However, I think Warner Bros was maybe hedging its bets a little bit, just in case it turned out to be the character audiences were dissatisfied with and not the movies themselves. What I mean is, the title itself fits into the naming scheme of the previous films and the movie itself ends with a tease of the Joker. It really makes me wonder if Batman Begins hadn't done the numbers to warrant a sequel, if Warner Bros wasn't setting it up to try to play it off as a prequel to the already established Bat-films, as opposed to the first chapter in a new Batman franchise, which it ultimately ended up being. And seriously, with a few slight continuity errors, you really could see Batman Begins leading into the 1989 Batman film had fate taken it that way. But fate had something better in mind. Batman Begins was a huge success, and even set a reboot trend in Hollywood, garnering enough clout and dollars to warrant a sequel, which would blow the first one, and all other superhero movies (I think) to date out of the water.
The Dark Knight once again turned Batman on its head. I believe that Batman is one of the most versatile characters in comics. He's never the same from one interpretation to the next, and they are all Batman. The Bob Kane/Bill Finger Batman was different than the Dick Sprang Batman, which was different than the O'Neil/Adams Batman, which was different than the Frank Miller Batman, which was different than the Tim Burton Batman, which was different than the Joel Schumacher Batman, which was different than the Dixon/Nolan Batman. And with The Dark Knight (and Batman Begins as well), we got yet another new interpretation of Batman. Much like Iron Man, The Dark Knight succeeds on all levels. It was written well, directed well, cast amazingly (if Jack Nicholson's Joker made us cringe, Heath Ledger's truly kept us awake at night) and it stayed true to its source material while distancing itself as far as it could with anything that had been done with Batman before. The Dark Knight was so successful and set such a standard for a cinematic Batman that Warner Bros reportedly offered Christian Bale $55M to reprise his role for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Bale declined and now it looks as though we will be getting yet another new interpretation when Ben Affleck dawns the cowl in 2016. Only time will tell if the new Batman can live up to the impossibly high standards set by The Dark Knight.
Like the majority of Americans, and even a large portion of comic book fans, I had never read a Hellboy comic book before this movie came out. I had heard of it, but I am the type of person who is very comfort zone oriented in the comics that I read. I like what I like and I don't generally stray too far from that, unless something really, really interests me about something new. I freely admit that I miss out on a lot of good stuff being that way, but that is just how I am. I very rarely take a chance on something new. I am not as particular about the movies I go to, however. With movies you get trailers and TV spots and other advertising that you don't get with comic books. I have a pretty good idea of whether or not I am going to like a movie before I go to see it. I don't have those assurances with comic books, so I very rarely stray from my comic book comfort zone unless something is recommended by someone I trust. So I never read Hellboy, but I loved this movie and now I do read Hellboy. That is what is great about these movies. They are basically one big advertisement for the books. When you look at sales of a particular title, they usually soar around the time a movie is released. But that only works if the movie is good.
Hellboy is played by Ron Pearlman, who had previously been in Blade II, which was also directed by Guillermo del Toro. The fact that not many were familiar with the Hellboy comic, I think, did this movie extremely well. It was new. It was different. It was, on a lot of levels, something that no one had ever seen before, but it was also very much a comic book superhero movie and it owned that. Hellboy is fun, exciting, and something that was just really new and fresh. It was The X-Files being investigated by an X-File. And it had something for everyone. It was science fiction, action/adventure, superheroes, monsters, everything. Hellboy was extremely well written, it had an interesting storyline and the visuals, as with all Guillermo del Toro movies, were spectacular. There is really nothing to dislike about the Hellboy movie. Well, nothing except maybe the sequel, but that's a rant for another topic.
Mark Millar's last original creation to make it to the big screen, Wanted, had had all of the superhero elements completely neutered from the final product. And that was really a shame, because Wanted was an amazing graphic novel and a truly unique superhero reading experience, and I would still love to see a true representation of that story on the screen, preferably as a television miniseries. Thankfully, that didn't happen with Kick-Ass at all. While there are many changes from page to screen, as there almost always are and they are almost never bad changes, the final film was extremely true to the source material in tone and in actual story for a large part of it. The costumes were drastically different, except for Kick-Ass, and while the costumes from the book had a more homemade feel and fit in the world much better, the movie costumes were very true to what movie superhero costumes were and they still worked in the Real-Life Superhero world the story creates.
One of the highlights for me in the entire movie was Nicolas Cage. I think we can all agree that Nicolas Cage has gone insane in his later years. Actually, I'm not convinced that he hasn't been crazy the entire time, and no he's such a major Hollywood player that he doesn't have to hide it anymore, but either way, I think we can all agree that he is absolutely insane now. He was fired from The Green Hornet for wanting to play the character of Chudnofsky, a Russian mob boss, with a Jamaican accent. He wanted to play a Russian character as a white man with a Jamaican accent. Let that sink in a little bit. The man is disturbed. In this movie, he insisted on playing the character of Big Daddy as Adam West. Only in costume, but he wanted to play it with Adam West's mannerisms and speech patterns. That idea is insane on its face, and by all rights, Cage should have been fired from this movie as well for suggesting something so totally ridiculous. But it totally works! It works so well that I couldn't imagine the character being played any other way. I read the character in Adam West's voice now when I re-read the books. It was one of the rare cases where the fine line between crazy and brilliant blurs and becomes non-existent. It was an acting decision that shouldn't have worked at all. It should have been silly and taken everyone out of the film, but it turned out to be one of the best parts of the movie and Mark Millar owes a great debt to Nicolas Cage for making that decision and giving Big Daddy an unintended dimension that he wouldn't have had if the character had been played by John Travolta.
This is the only film on the list that isn't based on a comic book. Superheroes are most identified with comic books, and it was comic books that made superheroes mainstream with the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1. But superheroes have never been exclusive to comic books, and a few of them even existed before Superman's debut in pulp novels. Superman is credited as being the first superhero, but The Phantom and Zorro both pre-date Superman (and before you say Zorro isn't a superhero, just stop. If Batman is a superhero, then so is Zorro). Superheroes have existed in other media besides comic books since the beginning of the 20th Century. The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet both had their debuts on radio. Hancock tells the story of a super-powered being who has no knowledge of where he came from, why he has the abilities he has, or why he doesn't age. You see, he woke up in a hospital with amnesia some 70 years before the beginning of this film. Hancock is a homeless drunk, who helps out when he can, but he doesn't always do things properly (according to a population who thinks every superhero should be as clean cut as Superman). Hancock often causes property damage while trying to save people or apprehend criminals, and is often chastised for it. He also has a bad attitude and smells of booze, and that probably has a bit to do with it as well. Either way, Hancock has come to develop and "I don't give a f**k" attitude. That is until he saves the life of a marketing agent who is so grateful that he decides to help Hancock change his image and helps teach him how to really be a superhero, tight Wolverine outfit and all.
Hancock gave us something that very few, if really any, superhero movies bring to the table. Hancock had substance. Hancock had an actual story that was about actual stuff that could actually pertain to real people. Hancock is a story about a lost soul who finds redemption, and it's also about reconciling your past. Other superhero movies try to have substance, but they very rarely succeed. Iron Man tried to be about similar themes, especially redemption and reconciling your past, but it really only grazes the surface of those themes while Hancock is actually about them. Hancock also has a great cast that turns in a bunch of fantastic performances. Hancock actually leaves very little to be disappointed about.
I know this one is going to get me some hate comments. I don't care. Watchmen should have been met with resounding praise, especially from fanboys. If anything, Watchmen has proven that fanboys don't really know what they want and because of that, you can't pay any attention to their internet rants. Fanboys often complain when a film deviates from the source material, even when those deviations make the piece better, or at least more suitable for film. They often deride films for reasons that have nothing to do with quality, and they get it into their heads that something is bad and they believe it, even when it isn't true. Ghost Rider, for example, was being chastised before it was ever even released, simply because it wasn't rated R, as most fanboys thought it should be. And to be honest, I didn't know it was rated PG-13 until I was standing in line at the movie theater to see it and I noticed the rating on the movie poster. I took for granted that Ghost Rider would be rated R, because it just seemed as though it should have been. But being rated PG-13 didn't make the movie bad. Ghost Rider wasn't a great movie at all, and that is why it isn't on the list, but it wasn't as terrible as fanboys would have you believe. You know what was terrible? Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which was rated R. So you can't listen to fanboys, they lack any sort of logical reasoning. And that can be proven with Watchmen.
The original complaints about Watchmen were that the film's third act deviated from the source material, turning something silly and cartoonish into something that works in live action and made for an interesting climax. Now, however, the main complaint seems to have shifted, and now fanboys are saying that Watchmen is an example of how staying too close to the source material can be detrimental. Seriously, fanboys, make up your damn minds! Is straying from the source material bad, or is clinging to it too closely bad? Watchmen was almost word-for-word the graphic novel. It stayed true to all of the themes and style that garnered so much praise for the graphic novel when it was first released in the 80s. Watchmen is a mystery that actually keeps you guessing through most of the film. The visuals were amazing, the costumes, while different from the book, were fantastic and the acting, by mostly unknown actors, was phenomenal. Even the actors who were established, like Stephen McHattie or Carla Guigino became the characters they were portraying and you never saw them as those actors, but just the characters they so wonderfully brought to life. If I had actually ranked these films instead of just listing them randomly, Watchmen would have been a huge contender for the top spot. Just as Watchmen was one of the most prolific comic books of its time, so too is the movie one of the most prolific superhero movies of its time, and quite possibly for the rest of time.