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My Top 10 Favorite Action Scenes in Superhero Movies (SPOILERS)
Technology and the evolution of storytelling have really changed filmmakers’ abilities to create realistic and effective action sequences in movies. The superhero genre has really benefitted from these advances, and filmmakers have been able to really capture the abilities and situations that these characters face in the original source material. These days, there are no limits to what can be done on screen, and as a result, audiences have been given the opportunity to see their favorite heroes in all their glory. Below are 10 of my favorite action scenes in superhero movies ranging from the Superman era to the recent Marvel dynasty that is currently ruling the genre.
Batman (1989) – Race To the Batcave
Synopsis: After saving Vicki Vale from the Joker, Batman races her away to the bat cave through dark woods where he can provide her with information on how Gotham can avoid being poisoned by the Joker’s deadly toxin.
Why It’s Great: After a very long, villain-centric first act, it’s finally time for some action, and this is the climax of a sequence of events that includes crashing through the museum roof, swinging Vale to safety, racing through the streets of Gotham, and fighting some goons in an alley. The Batmobile looks its best barreling down the dark, wet roads, blowing leaves into the stylish, Tim Burton woods as a vocal-rich score plays on. Vicki Vale’s reaction to the car speeding towards the cave wall only to have the door open at the last second is priceless. Batman is his stern, sinister self, refusing to speak or let Vale get too close of a look at him. Though they’re not being chased, and no one is in peril, it’s still an action packed and thrilling scene to watch.
Superman (1978) – Saving Lois For The First Time
Synopsis: After her helicopter becomes stuck on some cables on the roof of The Daily Planet, Lois Lane is thrown from the helicopter and falls toward the ground before being swooped up by Superman in mid-air. On their way back up to the roof, the helicopter falls toward them, and Superman picks it up with one hand and flies both it and Lois to safety.
Why it’s Great: The use of practical effects is astounding for its time, and the sequence still holds up today. From Superman using a revolving door to change costume, to speeding up the side of the building to grabbing the falling helicopter with one hand while holding Lois in the other is incredible. You find yourself holding your breath with the spectators on the ground below, and you can feel the strain as Lois hangs out the door of the helicopter for as long as she can before she lets go. Some signature Richard Donner humor is thrown into the dialogue with Lois exclaiming, “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” It’s totally worth the wait of the hour long origin story that sets up the movie and its three sequels.
Spider-Man (2002) – Avenging Uncle Ben
Synopsis: When his uncle is shot and killed by a carjacker, Peter Parker seeks revenge, running into a back alley to suit up and cut off the thief who is being chased by the police. Here, he uses his powers for the first time and gets his revenge, unintentionally causing his uncle’s killer to fall out a window to his death.
Why it’s Great: Fueled by vengeance, this scene shows Spidey successfully swinging for the first time. He bursts into that back alley like a rocket as the music swells. Nearly every power is exhibited from wall climbing to jumping before he takes a second to prepare to swing off of the building. That stylish Sam Raimi close up as Peter leaps off of that building, grasping his webbing exhibits a range of emotions that Peter goes through, from anger to fear to excitement. The camera follows Peter through the air as he hooks to another building before detaching and swinging awkwardly down the road, his body sprawling around as he falls and then catches himself with more webbing. The choir kicks in as you witness this boy doing something both animalistic and fantastic, years in the making, on to one of his first and most important battles in his superhero history. He leaps onto his uncle’s car, avoiding gunshots and causing the carjacker to crashing into a gate. Peter pursues him through an abandoned building. More of Raimi’s fight techniques are employed as Peter slams the thief’s head through some window glass before confronting the villain face to face just before he stumbles backward to his death. Of course, Peter doesn’t intentionally kill him, but he still has blood on his hands, even though it was done in an act of revenge and guilt for letting that thief get away when he did.
Superman Returns (2006) – The Plane Crash
Synopsis: After a malfunction in the plane that Lois is on, covering an innovative shuttle launch, Superman spends his first day back at work first saving the damaged plane from being launched into space with the shuttle and then from falling to earth in a fiery crash.
Why it’s Great: This is a very long sequence, especially for a first big action sequence in a movie. The set up is long and drawn out, but it pays off as the plane becomes fused to the launching shuttle and then is irreparably damaged. Success is imperative being that Lois is onboard and not strapped in to her seat. As she bangs around the plane while in zero gravity, things don’t get much better as they plummet to earth. She finds her seat but then is hit with falling bags and buckling seats with the other passengers. The speed with which the plane descends and Superman’s inability to slow it down until the very last possible moment makes for a fun, chair gripping finale before he stops the plane just before it hits the baseball field and then sets it down safely.
Batman Forever (1995) - Saving Robin and Chase
Synopsis: After The Riddler and Two Face kidnap both Bruce’s girlfriend and Batman’s new sidekick, he is given the ultimatum of saving one of them from a steep drop to their deaths. When the button is pressed, Batman dives for them both and succeeds in catching them and hooking them to safety.
Why it’s Great: As much as people love to poke fun at Schumacher’s Batman films, (and believe me, they have their problems) they have their moments. This scene clearly illustrates the two lives that Bruce Wayne is torn between. The Riddler doesn’t anticipate his being able to save them both, and as the two victims fall at a rapid speed, Batman dives after them. The brassy score and intercut close ups and wide falling shot adds drama and excitement to this climactic scene which always brings me back to being nine years old and watching it in the movie theater. I still hold my breath as the grappling hook snags Chase and bounces her to a stop and Robin uses his gymnast skills to pull his hands over his head from behind his back so that Batman can reach for him and catch him in the nick of time.
X-Men: The Last Stand – The Phoenix Rises
Synopsis: When a team of soldiers fires plastic guns spewing needles laced with “the mutant cure” at Jean Grey, Jean unleashes her wrath as The Phoenix and destroys everything in sight.
Why it’s Great: While I agree that The Phoenix’s powers did not get the treatment that they deserved in this adaptation of the character, you have to appreciate what does appear on film. This final showdown demonstrates her destructive power. She takes out the soldiers and then flies for the first time, floating up onto a hill where she can look down at her victims. Everything is turned to dust, including both humans and mutants, and gravity is thrown out of whack in her presence. Those inky black eyes and blue veined skin are unsettling as she stares calmly in her raging demeanor. The water around Alcatraz flies up into the air like a reverse waterfall, and debris floats around them. As she rips the flesh from Logan’s adamantium skeleton, you see the lengths he must go to in order to stop her, both physically and emotionally. As she is killed, the water and debris fall to the ground along with her, creating a calm, smoky and cemetery-like atmosphere.
Iron Man 3 (2013) – The Plane Scene
Synopsis: One of The Mandarin’s henchmen disguises himself as The Iron Patriot and uses the suit to kidnap the President of the United States while in midflight on Air Force One. His exit causes the rest of the crew onboard to be sucked out into the air where they are falling to their deaths. Iron Man employs a “barrel of monkeys” technique to have the 13 falling people link together so that he can carry them to safety just before they hit the water.
Why it’s Great: This scene is a welcome sidebar from this intricate movie, which, for nearly an hour, has not featured any Iron Man scenes. Tony is stripped of his gadgets and comforts for a good chunk of this film, but once he gets his suit back, it’s not long before he uses it in an intense, action-packed scene. The impressive stunts and clever carry out of the rescue are fun to watch as Air Force One blows apart overhead. Tony orders everyone to “grab your monkey,” and he steers them toward each other so that no one is left to plummet to a watery grave.
Batman Returns (1992) – The Penguins Attack
Synopsis: After his original plan to kidnap and murder all of the first born sons of Gotham falls through, The Penguin hooks a rocket to each of his pet penguins and sends them to Gotham Square where he intends to launch the rockets and damage as much of the city as possible. Meanwhile, Batman races to the scene in the bat boat and, with Alfred’s help, is able to turn the penguins around and catch the villain from doing any catastrophic damage.
Why it’s Great: It may seem dopey and awkward to have rocket-clad penguins attack Gotham City, but it’s a stylish and sinister revenge in the Penguin’s unique style. He begins with a Shakespearian-style speech, ordering the penguins to punish all of Gotham before they dive into the water one by one and swim to the surface to start their march to Gotham Square. The seemingly harmless penguins waddle through the snowy streets as Batman races to the scene underground and uses a signal to turn them all around. To deliver on the promise of explosives, the rockets still detonate, just not where The Penguin had intended, and there is even hand to hand combat between the hero and villain that ends with The Penguin falling to his death back into The Penguin exhibit as the zoo explodes around them.
Capitan America:The Winter Soldier (2014): Nick Fury Chase Scene
Synopsis: Nick Fury is under attack in his SHIELD car and has to use his quick thinking and the built-in toys to save himself from The Winter Soldier.
Why it’s Great: Nick Fury has always been one of the coolest characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but this scene captures what a good agent he is and how smart and impressive he can be when in peril. He makes use of his gadgets and instincts and quick thinking to get himself out of danger. The Jason Bourne-style car chase with loud sounds and the intensity of probable failure shows that Cap and The Black Widow are not the only superheroes in the film.
The Dark Knight (2008) – Car Chase
Synopsis: While transporting convicted criminal and self-professed Batman, Harvey Dent, to another prison, The Joker and his men intercept the parade of police vehicles involved in the transport, and Batman must come to the rescue to save Dent from The Joker’s attack.
Why it’s Great: The lack of music and gun and vehicle sounds lit with the dull, city street lights make this a very realistic sequence. A lot is at stake with The Joker’s track record, and Harvey is in grave danger. Batman’s entrance helps to ease the tension, and even when the Tumbler is destroyed in a sacrificial jump, Batman pulls a fast one and breaks out the Bat Pod without leaving the scene, culminating in a show down that tempts Batman into the breaking his “one rule” to avenge the apparent death of Jim Gordon. But he refuses to stoop to his enemy’s level, ending with a temporary victory for the good guys in The Joker’s capture and securing Harvey’s safety.
What are your favorite superhero action scenes? Leave your responses in the comments below!