Top 25 DC/Marvel Super Hero Films Part 1: 25-21

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.

Thanks all,
Brian.

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An Infinite Five or A Final Slap? The Pros and Cons Of The How I Met Your Mother Finale.

“And they fucked it up. Officially and totally FUCKED IT UP! #HIMYM”

The above was my initial, live-tweeted reaction to the end of How I Met Your Mother’s series finale when, with the blessing of his children, the 6-years widowed Ted Mosby decides to pursue a romantic relationship with Robin. Judging by everything I’m seeing online today, from both fans and the media, my gut-reaction seems to be the general consensus reaction to the ending. Yet after a second viewing, I sit here conflicted. Part of me hates the way the show ended, yet there’s another, less emotionally invested voice in my head saying it was genius. So instead of going off on a 100% opinion one way or the other, I’m simply going to write down what I loved and what I hated about the ending in a Mosby-style list of pros and cons and let you draw your own conclusions. Just a couple of caveats before I begin; I am a die hard HIMYM fan, bordering on obsessive some might say. Thanks to DVDs and Netflix, I’ve seen every episode a double digit amount of times, and compulsively followed the show’s continuity and in-jokes. Going hand in hand with that, I feel like the downfall of the show in later seasons has been greatly exaggerated. If anything, the nadir of the show was seasons 4 and 5. Finally, and obviously this plays a big part in my opinions here, I’ve always been a staunch opponent of Ted and Robin ending up together.

Pros:

-It Was The Plan All Along: Unless Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have access to a time machine (and if they do, I really want to know where the damn pineapple came from) they’ve been sitting on the footage of Penny and Luke giving Ted their blessing to go after Robin for 8 years, which means that the Mother being dead/Ted going back after Robin was the endgame since at least Season 2. I honestly give Bays and Thomas a lot of credit for sticking with their plan and vision all these years, since they had to know it would be massively divisive, especially after devoting the better part of three seasons to Barney and Robin’s relationship.

-The Ted and Robin Dynamic: Ted and Robin, thanks in no small part to the acting of Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders, always had the most layered relationship on the show, both before, during, and after they dated. The two lived together for the better part of three seasons, shared numerous in-jokes, and constantly went to each other for advice. Robin was always leaning on Ted to be there for her, and he in turn was always desperate to make the grand gesture for her (see the talk they have at the end of Doppelgängers, or pretty much the entirety of Symphony of Illumination).

-The Lack of A Barney and Robin Dynamic: I know the Swarkles fans will have my head for this, but I was never that into the Barney and Robin relationship. Smulders and Neil Patrick Harris had a definite chemistry together that showed through in their scenes together, but Barney and Robin’s relationship was never truly defined. Their characters were similar, but that doesn’t make them a great couple by itself. They definitively had their moments (Sandcastles In The Sand, The Final Page, pretty much all of season 9) but frankly it seemed like they were together more out of insecurity (both looking for familial fulfillment) than true romantic love.

-HIMYM Was Never Presented As A Fairy Tail: I hate to use the word realism when describing any television show (don’t kid yourself, they pretty much all have unrealistic hyper-reality elements), but even amongst it’s Canadian Pop Stars and slap bets, HIMYM always seemed to at least keep some semblance of a reality base, as opposed to giving the characters exactly what they wanted in a Disney-esque fairy tail way. Marshall and Lily both made major compromises to their dreams (being an environmental lawyer and artist respectively) so that their marriage could work, and eventually found fulfillment down related yet different paths than their initial dreams. Barney’s “legendary” bro-life, no matter how fun it looked, was always presented as a ticking clock that would would eventually expire and leave him alone. But instead of going down the easy path and having Barney find “the one” (or stay with Robin and have her be “the one”) they went down the more realistic path of their being no woman who Barney could have a long-lasting monogamous relationship with. Instead, the writer’s chose to have Barney find fulfillment in parenthood. A gutsy choice, but one I was personally sold on thanks to NPH’s sheer brilliance in the hospital scene. Even the gang itself splintered, with parenthood/jobs/marriages/moves to the suburbs suddenly ending their regular night’s at the bar, just like any real group of friends. What does all this talk of realism have to do with Ted and Robin ending up together? Ted, from the start of the series was seeking the most fairy tail ending of all the characters. He wanted the perfect wife, who he could live in the perfect house with, and have the perfect kids with, and perfectly grow old together with. But as the above examples show, HIMYM like real life didn’t often do “perfect.” Instead illness robbed Ted of his perfect life, and forced him to pick up the pieces. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Ted was supposed to have been pining over Robin the whole time he was with Tracy, I think his feelings only resurfaced as he slowly put his life back together after Tracy’s death.

-The Blue French Horn: I must say, as upset as I was that Ted and Robin ended up together, I teared up at the final scene. The shot for shot homage to the scene from the pilot, including Robin’s dogs and the Blue French Horn hit all the right nostalgic notes.

Cons:

-Tracy: Quite frankly, the HIMYM creative team did too good a job creating the mother. While I’m sure there would have been backlash, I don’t think it would be nearly as strong had they introduced her in the series finale (or the episode before that) and then done the exact same passing away/get with Robin storyline. Instead they, and Cristin Milioti crafted a beautiful character over the 22 episodes of Season 9. The 200th episode dedicated to her character (How Your Mother Met Me) justified the existence of a ninth season all by itself. Her connection with Ted went much deeper than the quirks they shared (which by themselves are no stronger than the similarities between Barney and Robin) but to the fact that they shared the same strong belief in a universal ordained love. I’m sure Bays and Thomas were trying to make the mother lovable, so that the audience would be hit by her death just as hard as Ted was, but I think it backfired. Instead, she seemed like a brilliantly written/portrayed character who got sacrificed so that Ted could have his cake and eat it to, RE: having kids and ending up with Robin.

-Virtual Reset Button: Everything we were told at the end of the finale (Barney giving up his womanizing ways after having a child and devoting his life to her, Marshall and Lily having 3 kids, successful careers, a house in the suburbs, Ted going after Robin 6 years after the mother died) could have been told to us at the end of the second season and still would have made the same amount of sense in relation to the characters development and respective status quos. Granted, there are few bigger proponents of the “HIMYM was about the journey, not the destination” idea than me, but to basically make the final 7 seasons of events and character development seem superfluous stretches that mighty thin.

-Radnor’s Acting As Future Ted: I love Josh Radnor as Ted Mosby, but I had a real problem with the way he played the final scene. Now, I’m sure it was constraining to have to react off the 8 year old performances of the kids telling him to go after Robin, but I still don’t like the implication that he was solely telling the story as a backdoor way of asking the kids permission. Maybe if he had played it/it had been written that Ted came to the realization that he’d been talking about Robin the whole time when Penny said it, as opposed to that being his ulterior motive, it would have played better. Now it just makes Ted look a bit sleazy and makes his whole story feel a tad dishonest, which is not at all how I want to remember Ted.

-Somewhat Devalues The Pilot: Television pilots are tricky thing to rate. Even the best tend to be exposition dumps, as they have to firmly establish the setting, premise of the show, and basic character traits of the cast in an attempt to sell the show. The HIMYM pilot is no exception, though it’s better than most. That said, it’s ending is phenomenal. To hear Future Ted say “And that’s how I met your… Aunt Robin” after 22 minutes of clearly being led to believe that she’s the mother is a great twist, especially if one goes into watching the episode cold to other knowledge about the series. While granted, the moment still works in-story since she’s still Aunt Robin to the kids at that point, it loses a lot from an audience perspective knowing that they end up together. It goes from a brilliantly executed swerve to a technicality.

So there you have it, my major pros and cons to the HIMYM Finale. Even after writing all that down, I still don’t know how I feel. That’s not me trying to placate either side of the argument, just honesty. One thing I do know is that this doesn’t at all change my love for the show as a whole. In a lot of ways I grew up with this show. It was something I was obsessed with in college, and helped me get through graduating, losing friends, and the death of family members. I’ve seen several people remark that the ending “ruined the show” or that they “can never watch it the same way again” and frankly I feel bad for them. If it pisses you off that much, just end the show with the wedding episode whenever you watch it. You’ve seen almost all the big moments of Ted and Tracy’s life in flash forward by that point anyway, and you get to have Barney and Robin together. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to debating this with some of you for years to come.