We are currently living in the age of the superhero. Not a single playground child these days doesn't have an elaborate fantasy of donning a colorful outfit and fighting off an onslaught of imaginary criminals. Superheroes are enjoying a powerful renaissance at the movies as well, and, looking back over the last few months, there have been six feature films to speak of with some manner of costumed vigilante, including the rather good X-Men: First Class, which comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.
In honor of the be-caped, be-masked, and be-tighted strongmen merrily swinging, flying, skulking and kicking ass through the dark recesses of our adolescent fantasies, here is a list of the five best superheroes from movies. Enjoy.
5. IRON MAN
It may be difficult to feel relatable sympathy for an ultra-rich playboy with his own well-publicized empire, a seemingly Solomon-like coffer of cash, and access to all the cool toys, but Iron Man has one advantage over most of the other superheroes: he is completely self-made. Most heroes (at least those with superpowers; I realize that Batman doesn't stand up to this kind of test) usually seem to luck into their abilities, and take to fighting crime for personal reasons. Tony Stark saw that his weapons company was doing ill, had a legitimate (and convincing) change of heart, and decided to use his engineering smarts to essentially make himself into a superhero. Seeing the Iron Man suit in action in Jon Favreau's 2008 feature film is a delight, and seeing the flip and intense Robert Downey Jr. dig his teeth into the role, make Iron Man one of the better superhero films of the current cycle.
4. THE ROCKETEER
Joe Johnston's 1991 film The Rocketeer is so well-beloved by an entire generation of young boys that I feel a mite churlish describing it here, but, should there be some youngsters who have not yet had the pleasures of this upbeat and solid superhero flick, consider this a strong recommendation. The Rocketeer, played by then-unknown-and-still-unfortunately-largely-unknown Bill Campbell was a handsome small-town pilot who lucked into a prototype jetpack being hidden from the growing Nazi party. He dons the pack, puts on an awesome art-deco helmet, and flies around doing good. He also got to wear that awesome double-breasted leather jacket, which is, in my mind, an important element of his heroics. The Rocketeer never took off as a franchise, but still soars in the imaginations of thousands.
3. THE MYSTERY MEN
More a spoof of superheroes than an actual superhero flick, Kinka Usher's 1999 film Mystery Men still has the good fortune to be slick, funny, and way more entertaining than it has any right to be. The Mystery Men were the “B” crowd of superheroes, enjoying none of the publicity of their far more capable contemporary Captain Amazing. When the Captain is kidnapped by Casanova Frankenstein (played with sniggering glee by Geoffrey Rush), it's up to The Mystery Men to save him. Do they have powers? Kind of. Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) can get really, really mad. The Shoveler (William H. Macy) can shovel well (“God gave me a gift!”). The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) can fling forks (but never knives) with deadly accuracy. Watching the antics of the Mystery Men was a hoot, but there was something genuinely heroic about their desperate need to do good for their beloved Champion City. Sure, there was plenty of ego, but I always liked to think that they were driven by a superhero's altruism, and wouldn't let the fact that they were mere shovelers stand in the way.
The original superhero epic as far as I'm concerned, Richard Donner's 1978 classic Superman set so many standards it's hard to keep track. The film's tagline was “You will believe a man can fly.” For the millions who saw the film, they almost did. Superman, as immortalized by Christopher Reeve, was pitch perfect. He was seen as a pure-hearted Boy Scout type, who still had the strength to fight for his convictions, and the intelligence to do the right thing. Many have criticized Superman for being a little too invincible; after all, if nothing can harm your hero, he's never truly in danger, nothing would be at stake, and all drama would disappear. Luckily, Donner's film, and Reeve's acting, helped make Superman into a dynamic character who had to actually use his wits (and not just his invulnerability) to triumph over the bad guys, all the while dealing with his own identity crises; it's gotta be hard being the only space alien on Earth. I hope the new upcoming Superman movie has the same sort of fresh-faced innocence that made the 1978 film so great.
Always remember the hyphen. Spider-Man, who first hit cinemas in 2001 with Sam Raimi's immensely popular film, is, in my mind, the archetypal superhero. He fulfills the usual requirements: costume, superpowers, fighting crime, secret identity…but what sets him apart is his reason for fighting crime. Batman has a personal vendetta against criminals. Superman believes in America. The X-Men fight prejudice. Spider-Man fights because, well, it's a moral obligation. The famed catchphrase “With great power comes great responsibility” is more than just a bumper sticker slogan. It can be considered a life philosophy. If you are capable of doing good, then you are morally obligated to do so. I've read some old books by frothing dead white Europeans that didn't put it so succinctly. What's more, Spider-Man started out as a nerdy high school brainiac, which is exactly what we comic book-readers were when we discovered the character. Of the Spider-Man feature films to date, Spider-Man 2 is the clear champion, and one of the best superhero films I have seen.
It's been said that a hero is only as good as his nemesis, and without a grindstone, some superheroes would never become sharp. A superhero must be balanced by a villain, or they are largely dull, and wouldn't be fun to watch in a film. (I'm sure Superman would do just fine curing the world's problems of famine, or Storm from the X-Men could do a lot of good irrigating barren lands, but they wouldn't come alive unless they had a tangible bad guy to fight.) The villains are always the more enjoyable roles to play, and usually stand out as the more interesting characters. What makes someone want to do good can seem childish compared to what makes a character evil. Lets look at some of our villains, shall we?
5. WILLIAM STRYKER
William Stryker from Bryan Singer's 2003 film X2: X-Men United gets a special mention on this list mostly for the smarmy and evil performance by the sublime Brian Cox. Stryker is a man obsessed with tracking down and imprisoning all superpowered mutants, and will stop at nothing. But, rather than be a pushy and gun-obsessed thug, or a wildly cackling James-Bond-villain type, Stryker seems to have an eye for strategy. He uses what's at his disposal, and quietly executes orders with a calm aplomb that is chilling. It's no wonder this guy was chosen to play Hannibal Lecter once (I'm referring to Michael Mann's Manhunter, by the way). By the time we get to the film's end, Styker is not only using mind control drugs to manipulate the otherwise stalwart Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) into using his powers for evil, he is also torturing a relative, and may have had something (and as we learned in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, actually had an awful lot) to do with the mysteries and memory loss of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). That's one insidious bastard.
4. LEX LUTHOR
In the comics, Lex Luthor is a scary criminal genius. In the movies, as played by either Gene Hackman or Kevin Spacey, he is a bit more comical. But both versions of the character have one thing in common: They are ordinary (albeit very smart) human beings who can actually, through sheer will, pluck, and the occasional gigantic death machine, give the usually invincible Superman a run for his money. I like this conceit. The creators of Lex Luthor could have made him an alien to match Superman's powers (as J.J. Abrams once reportedly attempted), and had regular equalized battles with two flying, caped superbeings, but instead made him a hard-working industrialist type with nothing more than riches, brains, and a healthy resentment toward Superman. More shades of philosophy: The herd resents the powerful. He strikes back. The battle is endless.
3. MING THE MERCILESS
Flash Gordon is a wet blanket. As played by Sam J. Jones in Mike Hodges' 1980 spectacular, Flash comes across as a bohunkular blonde boob with enough brains to toss a football, and little else. He can handle himself in a fight, sure, but he's not where the pleasures of this gaudy and campy film come from. The true delight is watching the classy Swedish actor Max Von Sydow rub his hands in villainous glee as Ming the Merciless. He has little motivation for doing the bad things he does (i.e. destroying entire planets, torturing its inhabitants, kidnapping the hot chicks), other than that he seems to enjoy himself immensely. He gets a ticklish glee from causing pain. He uses his stolen riches to make his pleasure palaces larger, and his outfits shinier. If any of us became a supervillain, my guess is we'd be something like Ming.
He's been played by Ian McKellan, and Michael Fassbender, and he was played in vastly different ways (one was an old-school homo-superior with a tired view of humanity, the other as a hurt young man), but Magneto, like Spider-Man, is fascinating less because of his powers, and more for his motivations. While it's pretty freakin' awesome being able to control metals with your own personal magnetic fields, Magneto is actually a thoughtful man who does villainous things in the name of equality. This parallel has been drawn before, but Charles Xavier is a Martin Luther King-type who believes in peace and non-violence, while Magneto, his counterpart, strongly resembles Malcom X in his rage, and his inherent need for retribution. Only Magneto has metal powers to back up his threat, and a team of superpowered thugs on his side to help him. And, with McKellan or Fassbender in the role, you have a wicked glee that is required of all good villains.
1. THE JOKER
Of course. I'm sorry to be so obvious with my number one, but the Clown Prince of Crime is so indelible, and such a good monster, that no one could possibly take his place. In 1966, The Joker was played by veteran Spanish actor Cesar Romero. Romero played him as a giggling weirdo with no other motivations other than mania, a need to gain riches, and an irresistible joy in playing pranks. You couldn't take your eyes off him. Plus, I admit, I was fond of the mustache covered in makeup. In 1989, Jack Nicholson played him, and he was amazing in the role. He was a mob made man who was accidentally disfigured, and, having little left to live for, joyously begins to take down the crime system he was always a part of, only to put, in its place, something more evil. Nicholson is so much fun in the role, and even a little scary. In 2008, though, Heath Ledger blew us all out of the water with an Academy-Award-winning performance as the Joker, and he not only had the giggling weirdness of his predecessors, but was also FLIPPING TERRIFYING. He was like if Sid Vicious had dynamite, and a stronger anarchist streak. If Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange met Batman. There’s both joy and fear in The Joker, and that makes for a grand villainy that's hard to top.