In the last decade or so, cinematic adaptions of comic book super heroes have become as ubiquitous as professional sports in American Culture. The very phrase “comic book movie” has become a charged term, eliciting passionate responses from pretty much anyone with even a passing interest in film. Cinephiles and critics often deride the genre as an increasingly repetitive example of Hollywood squeezing all it can out of existing safe franchises. On the other side of the spectrum, studio executives seem to salivate at the the idea of milking any and all 4-color super heroic concepts for all they’re worth, creating a climate where a comics-based super hero film that makes under 500 million dollars is, for all intents and purposes, considered a bust, and any that grosses under 700 million is soft. In the middle of these critical and commercial poles sits millions of audience members. The small minority of comic book fanboys obsessively nitpick every aspect of the films, debating even the smallest changes from their source material, while the general audience continuously plunks down their money to dutifully attend midnight screenings and fund 100 million+ opening weekends to feed their seemingly insatiable appetite for big budget heroics.
Personally, I fit into an oddly small subset of said audience, a comic-book fanboy of the highest order who also happens to have a cinema degree and has seen over 5000 films, so my opinions on comic book films are, to put it bluntly, strong. Some of these films have been transcendent moments of escapist cinema for me, some have been incomprehensible drek that have left me angry, and many have been caught in a mediocre no-man’s land between those two extremes if I even remember them at all. With this Top 25 List I’m not aiming to change anyone’s opinions, but rather to simply to show how the fan-side of me and the cinema nerd side have shaped what I like to see in a superhero film.
A few caveats before we begin:
-While cinematic adaptations of comic book heroes are nothing new (characters such as Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Captain Marvel were starring in serials as early as the 1940’s) the “modern age” of comic book films is almost universally acknowledged to have started with the 1978 release of Richard Donner’s Superman, and that’s the point I started from.
-I’ve chosen, for the purposes of this piece, to only include films based on characters from either the main DC or Marvel comics universes. In layman’s terms, I didn’t consider films based on comics published outside of the “Big 2” (Sin City, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc), nor did I consider DC/Marvel films based off of books that took place outside their main universes (Watchmen, V For Vendetta, etc.)
-This list is based solely on my opinions, not the financial or general critical performance of any of the films.
-I’m not writing full-on reviews of the films. Rather, I’m writing short write-ups of my opinions on pros/cons and how each film ended up where it did on my list. However, some films will inevitably get longer write-ups than others.
-With those rules in place, I put together a list of the 52 films that fit the criteria, and ranked the Top 25 of them for your reading pleasure.
25. Thor: The Dark World (2013): This sequel to Thor barely squeezes its way into the Top 25, and is easily the weakest Marvel Studios film outside of 2008’s stinker The Incredible Hulk. It’s not bad by any means really, but it’s just kind of there. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki still have their bickering brothers chemistry down-pat, and the final battle in London is a pretty impressive set-piece, but even those high points can’t save the film from a lack of threatening antagonists, and a general post-Avengers malaise. This film led some to fear that the second phase of Marvel Studios films would be underwhelming until a certain super-soldier saved the day, but we’ll get to that.
24.Batman Returns (1992): Everything is darker in Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel, from the characters, to the violence, to Gotham itself. The main cast elevate the film considerably, with Michael Keaton leading the way. His Batman is more violent, and his Bruce Wayne even lonelier than in the previous film. As the film’s primary villains, both Danny Devito and Christopher Walken turn in solid performances (as Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot and businessman Max Shreck) but neither approach the brilliantly madcap menace of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Michelle Pfeiffer is engaging as the enigmatic villain/anti-hero/love interest Selina Kyle/Catwoman, and has a strong, if underutilized chemistry with Keaton’s Wayne/Batman. Unfortunately, the performances are let down by the script. While logical enough to follow, the villains objectives change so frequently (going from Shreck trying to build an electricity guzzling power plant, to attempting to get Penguin elected mayor while trying to destroy Batman’s reputation, to Penguin kidnapping the children of Gotham’s upperclass) that the climax of the film falls flat. At the time, the film’s darkness was criticized (ironic, considering that darkness would be a universally praised theme during Batman’s 21st century cinematic resurgence) which led to the day-glo campy sequels Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, neither one of which are anywhere near this list.
23. Thor (2011): Of all the single hero Marvel Studios films, Thor was the one I had the most doubts about reaching a mainstream audience due to the tricky nature of humanizing a mythic god. Marvel overcame this hurdle almost entirely thanks to some brilliant casting. Chris Hemsworth brings a perfect mixture of godly-arrogance and naive innocence to the tile role, and Tom Hiddleston basically steals the film as Thor’s layered trixter brother Loki. The two, along with a solid supporting cast, carry the film through a relatively weak plot, and perfectly set the stage for a film that’s much higher on this list.
22. Man Of Steel (2013): Whenever I think of 2013’s Superman reboot, the first words that come to my mind are mixed bag. Generally the film is well cast and acted, with solid special effects. It’s not the horrifically terrible film some make it out to be, nor is it the perfect Superman film that smaller minority make it out to be. Rather it’s a flawed film, beset by some major missteps that negate many of its positive qualities. For example, the film takes an interesting path, eschewing much of the normal Superman mythos, by having Kal-El abandon his Clark Kent identity as a young adult to wander the world, become Superman, and fight a massive battle before re-adopting his Clark Kent persona and becoming a Daily Planet reporter only at the end. However, part of this path includes what I’d consider butchery of Jonathan Kent. Instead of being the slightly overprotective but strong moral center that the he has always been, the character is portrayed as so paranoid over his adopted son’s abilities being discovered that he tells a young Clark that he should have let a bus-load of school children drown to death rather than risk them seeing his powers as he saved them. While this may seem like a nitpick, this change fundamentally alter’s the idea that while Superman’s powers are Kryptonian, his moral core and desire to defend the greater good were instilled in him by the Kents. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t talk the two big issues that have dogged the film’s climax. First, the destruction of Metropolis. I don’t have the issue with this that many people do and think it pretty accurately depicts two what would happen if two super-powered beings had a knock-down drag out fight in the middle of a major city. On the other hand, Superman’s killing of Zod to stop him from murdering several humans with heat vision does bother me, but not for the reasons many would expect. I don’t have a problem, in theory, with the concept of Superman killing if its his only possible option. However, the film simply doesn’t portray it is such. In the micro sense, Superman could have simply covered Zod’s eyes, or turned Zod’s head upwards, or bashed Zod’s face into the ground, or any other number of physical solutions to stop Zod from murdering the civilians in the train station as opposed to snapping his neck. In the larger macro sense, I understand the argument that “in that moment, Superman realized there was no other way to stop Zod” but it just doesn’t hold water to me dramatically. It’s also tough to convey that to the audience when, as stated above, the action that action that Superman kills Zod to prevent could have been avoided so many ways. I could write much more about the pros/cons of Man Of Steel (and perhaps I will in the future, if any reader’s are interested) but I’ve already spent more time on it here than I intended to. Suffice to say that, while it’s immensely flawed, there were elements of MOS that I enjoyed and hopefully it’s Batfleck-helmed pseudo-sequel Dawn of Justice learns from those flaws and gets itself a spot higher on a revision of this list.
21. X-Men (2000): Comic book superhero films were in a bad way at the turn of the century, largely due to the epic bomb that was 1997’s Batman & Robin. While 1998’s Blade (about a vampire hunter whose comic adventures had little more than a cult following) had been a hit, it’s comic book roots were severely under-played in its marketing, most likely due to the aforementioned Bat-Nipple bomb. Two year’s later, director Bryan Singer’s X-Men premiered, and many in both the Hollywood and comic book communities were closely examining the film’s performance closely to see if the public still had an appetite for cinematic super heroics. Financially, the film was a huge hit, but possibly more importantly it redefined many of the genre’s tropes. Singer’s team didn’t wear the spandex costumes of their comic counterparts, opting instead for black leather combat outfits. The film also went for a more serious approach, eschewing campy one-liners for discussions between Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier and Ian McKellen on whether the series’ titular mutants (basically an allegory for any minority you want them to be) deserved to live amongst normal humans, be seen as a threat to normal humans, or rule normal humans in between large scale fight scenes that used CGI effects to produce spectacular super powers. Granted, the first X-Men film isn’t perfect. It could actually be called Wolverine judging by the amount of time given to Hugh Jackman’s character compared to the other X-Men (a running theme of the series) and Magneto’s plan to turn a delegation of world leaders into mutants with a ray broadcast from the Statue of Liberty’s torch is hokey even for comic book villainy. However, even with these issues the film isn’t anywhere near bad, and it’s influence can be felt in almost ever superhero movie that’s come out since, including many of the ones further down this list.
I hope you guys enjoyed this, even if you disagree with my choices. I look forward to discussing this with anyone who wants to, whether in this blog’s comment section, Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere else you can get a hold of me. More that anything else, I hope you come back for Part 2.