It's 2012, the year of The Avengers. And The Dark Knight Rises. And The Amazing Spider-Man. And Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. The superhero movie is generally an automatic blockbuster these days. You'd think the backlash would've started by now, but the nerds that generally start backlashes tend to love comic books, so we may be getting these for a while. The Man of Steel and Iron Man 3 are next year, by the by.
So in the interest of celebrating these films in the wake of Captain America: The First Avenger being snubbed for Best Original Score, let's take a quick look down memory lane to pick out the top ten superhero movies out there.
As an aside, there are a hell of a lot of great movies out there based on comic books that aren't in the superhero genre, so before you complain, they're not on this list. But check out Page 3 for a decent run-down of 'em.
Here we go!
10. THE ROCKETEER
A high-flying, good and old-fashioned adventure yarn that's generally underrated when comic book movies are considered, although it's thankfully gotten a 20th anniversary blu-ray release just last year. Dave Stevens' original series about hotshot pilot Cliff Secord, his best pal Peevy and his best girl Betty had to be Disneyed up a bit, since having a love interest based on Bettie Page who is often in various states of undress wouldn't fly, but oddly enough, having Jennifer Connelly play a gal named Jenny is a weird little homage to it anyhow. Billy Campbell has a great gee-whiz way about him as the guy who finds a rocket pack and becomes a hero, Timothy Dalton plays a perfect serial villain, and Alan Arkin is always entertaining. This is director Joe Johnston's first entry on the list, and it seems he's got a knack for these period heroes.
Veering in the complete opposite direction of the family-friendly style of The Rocketeer comes Kick-Ass, the edgy teen cult favorite about a kid (Aaron Johnson, who has also played John Lennon, by the by) who decides to become an actual superhero in a reality that's well aware of superheroes being fantasy characters. While it's mostly a black comedy, it's still pretty… well, kick-ass, and it's Nicolas Cage's best comic book movie role to date as the crusading father of the foul-mouthed hardass Hit Girl, played with show-stealing gusto by Chloe Grace Moretz. You can't go wrong with Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the bitchy bad guy, aka The Red Mist, either. Director Matthew Vaughn showed his chops with this one, and he's also got another notch on this list a little later on.
8. SUPERMAN + SUPERMAN II
"You will believe a man can fly." Indeed, the cultural impact of Richard Donner's original Superman film can't be overstated – but what can and has often been overstated is just how good a movie it actually is. Christopher Reeve is magnificent as Superman and perfect as the nebbish Clark Kent, but you have to forgive a lot of hokum and nonsensical plot points when you really stand back and look at it objectively. Spinning the world backwards to go back in time makes so little sense you almost have to close your eyes and pretend you're watching the better parts. Superman II at least has some legitimately threatening villains in General Zod and his goons, as opposed to the first film's bumbling Lex Luthor crew, but it also has the "magic amnesia kiss" and the inexplicable giant cellophane S-logo. Donner intended the first two films to be cohesive as a two-part epic, but shenanigans got him fired from the set of the sequel, but there is now a Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut available that tries to make things better, but there's only so far that could go, given the limitations and the need to rely on screen test footage, etc. If you combine the two films, though, there's enough fun and sentimental charm to keep them together on the list, although perhaps not as high up as some fans may insist. Feel free to gripe away.
One also can't overstate the impact of Tim Burton's 1989 reclamation of the Caped Crusader from the throes of Adam West malaise, providing the perfect bridge between the Bat-Shark-Repellant of old with its exaggerated style and the Dark Knight of today with its moodier, darker tone. Also, it stands up better on its own than 1978's Superman, although to be fair, it did have a decade's worth of evolving tastes and sensibilities to work with. Michael Keaton makes everything better as a very unlikely choice for Bruce Wayne, Kim Basinger is less grating than Margot Kidder and, of course, Jack Nicholson is being Jack Nicholson to the zillionth degree as the Joker. Plus, Jack Motherscratchin' Palance.
6. X2: X-MEN UNITED/X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (tie)
For the longest time, X2 stood alone as the best X-Men movie ever made. The first one was admirable, but confined due to its low budget and an uncertain reception (as only the second big Marvel movie behind Blade at the time), and the third was a Brett Ratner mess, and then X-Men Origins: Wovlerine cancelled out the coolness of Liev Schreiber with whatever that thing that was supposed to be Deadpool turned out to be. Bryan Singer's X2, however, managed to capture the best sense of what X-Men adventures are, with the fantastic opening Alan Cumming's Nightcrawler sequence, to Hugh Jackman's Wolverine berserker fits, to the endlessly watchable eloquence of Ian McKellen's Magneto, to the best of Halle Berry's Storm, to the greatness that is Brian Cox as the dogged William Stryker. Everybody had a chance to shine, and it really hit hard with the sociopolitical aspects of mutantkind.
Then came Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, which was flying under the radar last year as almost an afterthought with the big debuts of three other comic book icons. While not without its problems (the tragic miscasting of January Jones as Emma Frost comes to mind), the stylish 1960s historical fiction approach, as well as the powerful charisma of Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto being strong enough to make straight men question their sexuality brought this new film to life in a vibrant, exciting and different way than you see in most superhero films. James McAvoy brought a fun whimsy to the young Charles Xavier as well, and the Hellfire Club's general style made it a perfect fit for the era of this story.
5. SPIDER-MAN 2
The first one had a Power Ranger villain and the third one was a bit muddled towards the end, but the second installment in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy remains the best one they've made (and likely won't be threatened by this years Twilight-lookin' Amazing Spider-Man). Alfred Molina's Dr. Octopus is the most realistic villain in the series, and the dueling moralities of James Franco's Harry Osborn makes for compelling viewing. The action sequences are at their best, and the train fight between Tobey Maguire's Spidey and Doc Ock is breathtaking. When Mary Jane bolts from the altar toward the end with that huge smile, we finally understand why Raimi cast Kirsten Dunst, as it echoes the comics version of the "jackpot" acutely. The ace in the hole is the pitch-perfect J.K. Simmons as the inimitable J. Jonah Jameson, who is so fantastic that he helps you ignore any flaws in the rest of the movie.
4. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
Joe Johnston returns with one of last year's surprises, bringing Marvel's Sentinel of Liberty to life in a way that beautifully weaves in the cheesier aspects of the concept of a 'Captain America' via a USO tour, complete with the fantastic "Star Spangled Man" theme song, while never losing the gravitas of Steve Rogers, a skinny kid from Brooklyn who just wanted to do whatever he could to help out the war effort. Chris Evans, who previously excelled in playing snarky hepcats, does a great job of reining all that in to play the modest, earnest hero, and his romance with Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter is just so heartbreakingly understated, showing us the wistfulness of an era gone by. Plus, Hugo Weaving's nefarious Red Skull is entertaining in his arrogance, and every movie should have Tommy Lee Jones showing up to spout off hilarious lines all the time.
3. BATMAN BEGINS
Here we go. Christopher Nolan. A superhero to superhero fans everywhere. With his first installment in his trilogy, Nolan actually managed to make the first Batman movie that was actually about Batman and not his villains. Grounding Bruce Wayne's world in a gritty reality and pulling a little wool over some fans' eyes by announcing Ken Watanabe as R'as Al Ghul and then hocus-pocusing Liam Neeson in as the real deal, Nolan knew exactly how to make the Caped Crusader work in the modern era. Christian Bale played the dichotomy between public playboy and private brooder well, and bringing in Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth and Gary Oldman as James Gordon helped everyone realize that the supporting cast is just as crucial to the mythos as the Bat himself. Then there's Tom Wilkinson's engaging mob boss Carmine Falcone, and who can forget Cillian Murphy's creepy turn as Jonathan Crane, aka The Scarecrow? Perhaps best of all? No Robin!
2. IRON MAN
Director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. proved in 2008 what studios are already seeming to forget in 2012, if the trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man is any indication – not all comic book movies have to be dark, edgy and angsty to succceed. With Downey turning billionaire playboy weaponsmith Tony Stark into an extension of himself, infusing him with his unrelentingly charming brand of cocky smarm, and Favreau embracing the concept of Iron Man so much that he even used the Black Sabbath song in the trailers, they made a film that was an absolute blast for nerds and non-nerds alike. Downey's Stark takes delight in flustering Terrence Howard's Rhodey and Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts by completely living the life we all expect billionaires to live – before and after his moral awakening. When Jeff Bridges as archenemy Obi Stane screams at his underlings that "TONY STARK BUILT THIS IN A CAVE! WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!" it's not only funny, but it's proof positive that this cast and crew had created a character so dynamic that the Marvel comics would have to follow suit.
1. THE DARK KNIGHT
Yeah, yeah, predictable, maybe, but come on. This is the superhero movie that actually won an Academy Award in one of the major categories, thanks to Heath Ledger's electrifying performance as the Joker. The Dark Knight was a perfect storm of elements that managed to turn Christopher Nolan's sequel into a mind-blowing phenomenon, and the creation of the Clown Prince of Crime as an absolutely devastating force of nature was a huge part of that storm. Trading up to Maggie Gyllenhaal from Katie Holmes certainly helped the emotional core of Bruce Wayne's story, but what was truly amazing about this film is Aaron Eckhart's performance as Harvey Dent. Most fans go into a movie eager to see the villains, but Eckhart made Dent such a compelling and charming crusader for justice that his fall from grace and transformation into Two-Face truly felt like a saddening tragedy rather than just a necessary story point to get to the supervillainy. I don't know a soul who didn't walk out of this film with a whispered 'wow' on their lips, and honestly, I'm surprised Nolan didn't walk away from the franchise after this one, as it's going to be impossible to top.
HULK/THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Ang Lee's Hulk had cool comic-panel stylization, astute and cerebral characterization of Bruce Banner, pitch-perfect daddy-crazy from Nick Nolte and Sam Motherscratchin' Elliott as Thunderbolt Ross. Louis Leterrier's Incredible Hulk had great pacing, intense action, Tim Blake Nelson as a future Leader and a legitimate bad guy monster for the Hulk to fight. If we could combine these two films using only the best elements from both and dropping the worst – and if we could get the CG believable enough to never take us out of the movie, we'd have a pretty damn awesome Hulk movie. As it stands, though, we've got two admirable but flawed works, and nothing carrying over into the Avengers movie besides the green guy. Good luck, Mark Ruffalo.
A small, straightforward movie about Wesley Snipes and Kris Kristofferson killing the ever-lovin' crap out of suckhead vampires nonetheless kickstarted the entire superhero movie renaissance by finally giving Marvel cinematic legitimacy. Some motherfuckers are always tryin' to ice-skate uphill.
Kenneth Branagh did what many people thought was impossible – making an entertaining movie based around the God of Thunder and all his mystical trappings that still fits in the reality of the Marvel Studios universe. Chris Hemsworth brought a greatly amusing hubris and humanity to this Asgardian humbled by spending time on Earth with Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings. It would certainly be #11 on this list – maybe #10 if I wasn't on a Rocketeer kick lately.
Zack Snyder has to be admired for attempting what even he viewed as impossible – adapting the complex and dense work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, which could really only be done justice as an extended HBO miniseries at best, into one feature-length film. He also should be commended for taking it on anyway if for no other reason than to prevent it from becoming some bastardized modern-day version, instead striving to be as true to the original text as he could… while changing the ending and blowing out the action scenes and giving us a profoundly uncomfortable extended sex scene just because he could. It's an applause-worthy effort with the best intentions, but it just didn't quite work as well as it needed to.
James O'Barr's original comic series had cool imagery while being sort of self-indulgent, but Alex Proyas' film translation capitalized on the concept and look and made it completely bad-ass. What would have been a star-making role for Brandon Lee would up leading to his tragic demise on set, but the film he left behind is enduringly relevant and unassailably cool. Michael Wincott as the nefarious Top Dollar is also crucial to the film's success.
Woody Harrelson's little-seen but oddly compelling turn as a slow and delusional guy who strives to be a superhero to take down the mysterious Captain Industry would have made this list as well, but technically, it's not actually based on a comic book. Still, it's fun and certainly worth seeing – and hey, it's another superhero movie featuring Kat Dennings. Plus, Elias Koteas has a great turn as a scumbag.
While this list is intentionally limited to superheroes, there is a much wider variety of comic book movies than just the vigilante variety. Here's a quick rundown of comic-based films you should also check out that don't necessarily involve capes.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD
When you see this movie, you will realize that you have never seen anything like it before. Director Edgar Wright's fantastically stylized madness is the perfect way to make Michael Cera believable as the alterna-dude hero who must fight his way through Ramona Flowers' (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) Seven Evil Exes (including "Captain America" Chris Evans and Jason Schwartzman) to win her heart. It's packed dense with crazy antics and modern ideas.
V FOR VENDETTA
Whether or not you believe this to be an acceptable adaptation of Alan Moore's original story about a masked crusader striving to undermine a corrupt British government, its influence in today's political sphere – particularly with Anonymous and the Occupy movement – is undeniable. Hugo Weaving's hugely charismatic turn as V is to be commended, especially for his being willing to never show his true face in the film. "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
John Wagner and Vincent Locke created the graphic novel this David Cronenberg film was based on back in 1997, and not enough people know that. Viggo Mortensen stars as mild-mannered a cafe owner in small-town Indiana whose reluctant heroics in saving the patrons of his restaurant from murderous robbers bring him the wrong kind of attention – from criminal jerks he used to run with back in his secret former life in Philadelphia. William Hurt nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and Josh Olson's adapted screenplay also got a nod.
ROAD TO PERDITION
Sam Mendes' adaptation of Max Allan Collins' work gives us Tom Hanks in a dramatic gangster role as a conscience case who eventually runs afoul of his father figure and mentor Paul Newman, and that makes it a must-see. It's moody, it's emotional, and it also sports great villainous performances from Daniel Craig and Jude Law and an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
AMERICAN SPLENDOR & CRUMB
Paul Giamatti does a fantastic star turn as the cantankerous indie-comic legend Harvey Pekar in the brilliant Oscar-nominated dramatization of his trials and tribulations with the same name as his long-running series American Splendor, while Terry Zwigoff's weird documentary about Pekar's friend and collaborator R. Crumb provides a unique insight into a bizarre artist's mind.
Zwigoff's comic-book movie chops were proven once again with this adaptation of Daniel Clowes' emotional work about a pair of misfit girls (Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson) who start to grow apart after high school because one wants to start growing up and the other can't help but remain completely disaffected by the options she has in her life – leading her into an odd relationship with an odd music nerd named Seymour (Steve Buscemi). Plus, Dave Sheridan as the amazing nunchuck freak is not to be missed. "It's America, dude. Learn the rules."
Also of note: Zwigoff taking on Clowes again with Art School Confidential.
Marjane Satrapi's animated film based on her own graphic novel memoir of her childhood amid the Iranian revolution and her troubled adolescence as she came of age in Europe was nominated for an Academy Award, not to mention winning the Jury Prize at Cannes. This is a struggle for freedom of expression and peace with oneself from a perspective not often seen in film.
Frank Miller has gone completely insane of late, but he did write a lot of stunningly gritty and starkly-rendered noir tales that Robert Rodriguez and his massive cast had a lot of fun combining into one slick movie ripped right from Miller's graphic novel pages. Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, Rosario Dawson, Brittany Murphy, Carla Gugino, Jessica Alba, Jaime King, Benicio Del Toro, Nick Stahl, Elijah Wood and more. Yeah, you gotta watch this movie.
You gotta watch all these movies.