So in the comments on my post about Wolverine, Jason challenged me to name the best and worst superhero movies of all time. I think, wisely, Jason suggested I stick to
superhero movies that were actually adapted from comics or graphic novels.
Like any genre or sub-genre of film, there's a few shining stars, there's several in the mid-range, and then some movies that are epic in their failure to execute and/ or entertain. Those films often gain legendary status among geeks, as (in)famous as their more successful counterparts. But, of course, they enjoy the word-of-mouth "you haven't seen it? Oh. My. God." status.
The problem with superhero movies (much like sci-fi) is that there seem to be a far greater number of movies that hit the ultra-bad status rather than the very good.
So what did I pick?
How about this? Here's my top five in no particular order.
1) Superman: The Movie
Sure, its Metropolis scenes are hopelessly mired in the ill-conceived fashions of the 1970's, and the whole "Can you read my mind?" sequence is a test of anyone's patience/ sanity... But it also tells a deeply complete story on a scale that's still difficult to match. I still find the characters and motivations of everyone but Otis (read: RHPT) to be truly thought out from a writer's perspective. Cliche they may be these days, but lest we forget: Superman originated a lot of those cliches, so credit where credit is due.
Its hard to believe Reeve is in his early 20's (about the same age as Routh, who was often criticized as "too young") as he managed to define the character of Superman for a generation. Throw in Kidder's "tough city reporter", the essence of Lois Lane, and Hackman as a daffier-than-expected Lex, and it adds up to the capstone on a great cast.
Its also got one of the most memorable scores in all of filmdom, fantastic cinematography, amazing practical effects and manages to tell an amazing, epic story. Something almost no other superhero movie has managed to pull off.
And I know you think Superman II is better, but its far campier and goofier than what you remember. I assure you.
2) Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2
Spidey swung in on a web and saved the superhero movie for the 21st Century. When we'd come to expect dreck (more on that later), Sam Raimi's love of the wall-crawler in both the first and second installments hit pitch perfect with the audience and recreated the superhero film by actually paying attention to the original source material instead of dismissing it as kiddie-garbage.
Raimi, unlike Burton and his Batman, "got" Spidey in all the ways that mattered, and understood what had made the original source material work. Rather than slavishly try to hit all the beats, he distilled down why we love made the damn best two hours of a Spidey movie anyone could ask for.
Sadly, Spidey 3 was a terrific mess and a disappointment.
But Spidey 1, especially, is a hell of a lot of fun. Who didn't want to web-swing after that movie?
3) The Dark Knight
I grew up as a huge fan of the Burton films, but they never felt exactly like the comics I was reading when I'd head home from the store with Detective or Batman comics in my hand. The Dark Knight built on the based-in-comics foundation of the Goyer-assisted Batman Begins (which was great, but could have used more Year One), and sets Batman firmly in a world much more like our own. And then drags the audience along, like someone tied to a galloping horse for about two hours.
In many ways, the Batman comics WISH they were as we well put together as Dark Knight, and I don't think any writer since Morrion did "Arkham Asylum" or Moore and Bolland finished The Killing Joke has managed to make the Joker so completely frightening or menacing in a way that seems all too possible.
Sure, I've failed to do a Maggie Gyllenhaal "DITMTLOD" post, but the replacement of Katie Holmes as Dawes is not what makes me love the movie. Its just a rock-solid film from start to finish with clearly defined characters struggling in a world where morality is punished.
Also, the score is nothing to listen to for relaxation, but its a huge part of the environment of the movie.
4) Iron Man
It's a recent entry, and so I'm reluctant to place it so high in the rankings, but Iron Man is a great story of circumstance creating a hero from the complacent.
Its tough to imagine anyone but Downey in the role these days (Tom Cruise actually had the role locked up for a few years until the rights expired).
Had Iron Man not been overshadowed by Dark Knight's insistence on refining the genre, it would be the movie we'd all still be talking about (I am. I have it on Blu-Ray. Thanks, Jason!).
The movie was probably mostly there in the script, but its not too difficult to imagine how it could have gone wrong. Humorless. Forcing in the alcoholism angle of the 1980's too early. Too many one-liners. Someone deciding it was a kids movie, and could we lighten up the middle-eastern portion... So many ways it could have been nothing but, literally an empty suit of a movie. But Favreau and Downey found some perfect pitch to hit. Sure, its spirals into the same mad scientist/ my evil twin-ness of several other superhero movies, but its a great ride getting there.
Plus, I liked Gwyneth Paltrow again. Who knew?
If Dark Knight made me want to lay down for a while afterward, Iron Man made me want to stand up and cheer.
5) Justice League Unlimited
is not a movie. But it's available on Netflix, and is the best representation of the JLA I've seen. And that includes Morrison's JLA, to which I have a slavish devotion (Rock of Ages? Best. JLA. Story. Ever.).
It doesn't hurt to watch the preceding two seaons or so of the series "Justice League", or all the various seasons of Batman or Superman (also available via Netflix). But JLU's two seasons were a high point in American televised animation.
Brilliantly voice-acted, well-animated, and with a team of peopel scripting the thing at a level not seen on most prime-time shows (aside from, maybe, Lost or something...), JLU encapsulated everything there is to love about the DCU. Big stories with small, personal moments. A wide cast of characters fighting for the common good, questions of power and responsibility... all that stuff. Plus a wild array of villains and villainous plots, grounded by well defined characters on both sides of the good/ evil dichotomy.
Plus, Amanda Waller.
Its a great run on a great series. Never embarasrsed about being a show about superheroes, and never feeling that because its a show about folks in capes that it should be anything less than the best show they could make it.
If not for the greed of Cartoon Network officials (unhappy the toy money was going to DC and not to them), we would have had another few seasons. But I'll take what i can get.
And if you don't find anything cinematic in the season endings to either season, the Amazo episodes of JLU, the Dark Heart episode, etc... well, more's the pity. I love that they can do this on the comic page, and I love it that Timm, McDuffie and Co. brought me such imaginative work over so many episodes.
But I also don't mind their straight-to-DVD features. All of which have been worth picking up, in my opinion.
Obviously X-Men and X2 are great movies. Simply terrific at condensing down the expansive X-Universe. But the first film's ending is kind of goofy, and I'm not sure the second film's ending pays off the set-up of the film on the scale I would have preferred.
I actually like both of the recent Hulk movies for different reasons, and would gladly pay to see a sequel to the Edward Norton-starring Hulk. I really don't know what else you're going to do with the Hulk, so it worked for me.
Superman II and Superman Returns certainly get an honorable mention.
Hellboy 1 (but, sadly, not Hellboy 2).
I still like the short-lived Flash TV series, Seasons 1-3 of Smallville, and Wonder Woman.