Andrew Edward Davies takes on the tough task of sifting through the myriad of superhero films, many released in the last decade, to deliver the genre’s ten best movies.
The superhero movie has become one of Hollywood’s most profitable genres, which of course leads to many films within this world of fantasy and adventure. Superhero films, with the rare exception of something like The Avengers, aren’t the novelties they once were ten years ago when the prospect of seeing an X-Men or Spider-Man film was really exciting and new.
Still, within the genre, some fine and entertaining films have been made and it is still evolving in some very interesting ways. Here are the top 10 films of the superhero genre.
Please note – this top 10 contains significant spoilers for the following films: X2: X-Men United, Captain America: The First Avenger, Unbreakable, Spider-Man 2, and The Dark Knight.
10. X2: X-Men United (Bryan Singer, USA, 2003)
After director Bryan Singer kicked off the superhero movie renaissance of the 2000s with X-Men (2000), he returned to helm this sequel. The action is on a much larger scale this time, with the X-Men having to form an uneasy allegiance with their enemy Magneto (Ian McKellen) in order to save their mentor Professor X (Patrick Stewart) from General Stryker (Brian Cox), who plans to use Professor X’s psychic powers to kill all mutants. There’s also the added intrigue of Stryker’s connection to Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) past. It all culminates in a tragic sacrifice by Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and an intriguing set up for her possible resurrection as the Dark Phoenix. Unfortunately, the Dark Phoenix saga didn’t get the payoff it deserved in X-Men: The Last Stand but the ending of this film is still one of the best set-ups for a sequel in superhero film.
9. Watchmen (Zach Snyder, USA, 2009)
Alan Moore’s landmark graphic novel Watchmen had long been thought un-filmable but in 2009 director Zach Snyder, with his trademark visual style brought the graphic novel to the screen. The film was, for the most part, faithful to the source material, even keeping it as a period piece set in the 1980s during Richard Nixon’s third term as President. The opening credits sequence, showing the history of superheroes in America, set to Bob Dylan’s “The times, they are a’changin” perfectly sets the tone for the film, which takes place in a world where the idealism surrounding superheroes is extinct. Jackie Earle Haley is terrific as Rorschach and gives Christian Bale’s Bat-voice a run for its money.
8. Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, USA, 2011)
What makes Captain America such an enjoyable and unique entry amongst the current crop of superhero films is the fact it’s a period piece. Taking place during WWII, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is too puny to join the military but after his determination catches the eye of Russian scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), Rogers gets selected to be America’s first super soldier. After being injected with the super soldier serum, a Nazi spy sabotages the experiment, leaving Rogers the only super soldier. Director Joe Johnston perfectly captures a retro 1940s feel and Evans makes Rogers’ earnestness appealing and rather charming. The film also has a surprisingly melancholy and bittersweet ending: “I had a date.”
7. Iron Man (Jon Favreau, USA, 2008)
Robert Downey Jr. solidified his comeback in this film with what has become his career defining role as billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark. Stark is a weapons manufacturer who, after being captured and nearly killed in Afghanistan during a missile demonstration, escapes using a suit of armour. This becomes a prototype for the Iron Man armour that Stark uses to help mankind. Iron Man is both breezy and fun as well as being a thoughtful character study. Downey is very funny but also has the gravitas to make us believe Stark’s transformation. His budding romance with his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) also makes it a really good romantic comedy.
6. Hulk (Ang Lee, USA, 2003)
Ang Lee’s film puts a twist on the whole Jekyll/Hyde nature of the Bruce Banner/Hulk character in which it is Bruce’s (Eric Bana) father David Banner (Nick Nolte), a genetics researcher, who essentially created the Hulk. The gamma radiation that had transformed Bruce in to the Hulk in the traditional origin story has unlocked the genetic mutation already within Bruce. This is a result of David’s self-tested experiments affecting his pregnant wife. The film is about the sins of the father being passed on to the son as well as how David and General Thaddeus Ross’s (Sam Elliott) battle has affected the lives of not only Bruce but of Ross’s daughter Betty, Bruce’s colleague and the woman he loves. It’s this psychological subtext that makes Hulk a tragic story. Lee’s use of comic book panels is a cool stylistic choice and Nolte is effective as the increasingly insane David. When the film was released, it didn’t exactly please audiences who were expecting a more upbeat action film in the vein of the first Spider-Man film but it’s actually one the most psychologically intriguing superhero films.
5. Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, 2000)
After the phenomenal success of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan had the daunting task of creating a worthy follow up. That film was Unbreakable, a story about a man, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) who becomes the only survivor of a train accident and suffers no visible injuries. He soon begins to discover, with the help of a man named Elijah Prince (Samuel L. Jackson), that he’s essentially a superhero. When Unbreakable came out, it didn’t have the same impact as The Sixth Sense, but it’s arguably as good as or even better than The Sixth Sense. It’s probably the most stripped down and grounded superhero film yet made – as well as being a somber meditation on the concept of superheroes and the meaning they have in our lives. The film is an origin story for David and the ending of the film chillingly ties the origin story archetypes together by having David discover who his arch nemesis really is.
4. The Avengers (Joss Whedon, USA, 2012)
Doing an Avengers movie was the cinematic equivalent of rolling across a tightrope on a unicycle, all the while juggling various objects. Remarkably, writer/director Joss Whedon was able to make a film that was very cohesive and focused, given that it was focused on no less than six superheroes. Thankfully, most of them already had their own solo film (or with Iron Man, films) that allowed audiences to get to know their back-stories, making it easier to just jump right in to the story. What’s great about The Avengers is how character driven it is. Whedon understands the appeal of a movie like this isn’t just the prospect of seeing all these superheroes fight together but to see how their personalities clash against each other. The budding friendship between Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is wonderful in how it shows how similar these two men are. Even Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, (a.k.a Black Widow), in her scenes with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Tom Hiddleston’s villainous Loki, feels like a more fully rounded character than she did in Iron Man 2. The movie is also really funny, with some visual gags involving the Hulk that were arguably the most crowd-pleasing moments of the summer. The movie opened doors to numerous possibilities regarding the Marvel Cinematic Universe that will be very exciting to see. Not to mention the success of the film seems to have led Warner Bros. to get that other superhero team movie up and running.
3. Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, USA, 2004)
Spider-Man 2 finds Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) trying to balance being an ordinary guy while also being a superhero. It’s a pretty simple thematic conflict and one that gets to the heart of why Spider-Man is the most relatable of all superheroes: he is just a regular guy and regardless of his super powers the poor guy just can’t catch a break. He can’t keep a job, his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) hates Spider-Man, and he can’t make it to Mary Jane’s (Kirsten Dunst) play. And sadly, as much as he loves Mary Jane, he can’t be with her because of the risk that puts her in. The villain of the film is Dr. Otto Octavious (Alfred Molina), who, after an accident during a demonstration, has his eight mechanical arms fused to his body, giving birth to Dr. Octopus. The fight between Spider-Man and Doc Ock on top of a moving train, and Spider-Man’s attempt to stop it once Doc Ock destroys the controls, is outstanding. At the end of the film, once Mary Jane knows Peter is Spider-Man she decides she’s going to stand by him regardless of the risks. It’s a very sweet note on which to end the film. It shows that despite Peter’s hardships, his life can be pretty great.
2. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2008)
After director Christopher Nolan resurrected the Batman film franchise with Batman Begins (2005), he directed this sequel, one of the most ambitious, darkest and morally grey superhero films of the modern era. The Dark Knight puts Batman in the context of a post 9/11 world where Batman and Gotham City has to ask how far they’re willing to go to fight terrorism and chaos, represented in the film by Heath Ledger’s the Joker. Tragically, this would be Ledger’s last completed performance before dying of an accidental overdose in January 2008, six months before the film was released. His performance is completely transformative. He walks the line between being darkly funny and just plain frightening, all in the same scene. Joker is a great villain because his motivations are purely to cause chaos and anarchy, which makes him even scarier. There’s no way to negotiate with him. As he tells District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), “I’m just a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one. I just do things.” But while Ledger is great, the film is also a fine ensemble piece, showing us not only Bruce Wayne/Batman’s (Christian Bale) perspective, but the perspectives of Harvey and Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) as all three try to take down the mob in Gotham City but soon find they cannot stop the Joker. Harvey ends up scarred on one side of his face, becoming Two Face and Harvey’s tragic fall is the emotional crux of the film. Batman’s sacrifice to take the fall for Harvey’s crimes shows that Harvey has to be that ray of hope for Gotham that Batman can’t be – at least not yet. The final shot of Batman riding away on his Bat pod, an outcast, is breathtaking and a great reinterpretation of Batman’s role in Gotham.
1. Superman (Richard Donner, USA, 1978)
Superman takes the top spot because even with aspects one could find dated – as well as there being arguably more complex superhero movies – this is still the quintessential superhero film as well the one to which every superhero film since owes a depth of gratitude. This wasn’t the first time a superhero was seen on screen, nor was it the first time Superman was seen on screen – there was of course the 1950s television series starring George Reeves. But this was the first big budget blockbuster superhero film. The tagline read “You’ll believe a man can fly” – which sounds quaint today but represents the magnitude of what director Richard Donner was doing. The film also contains what is arguably the definitive performance of a superhero – Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman. Reeve is great at playing both the mild mannered journalist Clark Kent as well as the larger than life Superman. It really does feel like two separate identities, which is what these superheroes are essentially about most of the time: two identities within one body. The film has great supporting turns by Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor and Ned Beatty as Lex’s henchman Otis. Margot Kidder can also be argued to be the definitive Lois Lane. The romance between her and Superman shows Lois letting down her defenses, even while she mostly ignores Clark. Her and Superman’s night flight is still magical to this day. The whole film has the kind of magic many modern superhero films, with their overabundance of CGI, lack. It definitely had an impact on Bryan Singer, whose Superman Returns (2006) is a nostalgic and melancholic tribute to the original film. It still makes you believe a man can fly, and it soars very high indeed.
Honourable Mentions: Batman (Tim Burton, USA, 1989), Batman Returns (Tim Burton, USA, 1992), Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2005), Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, USA, 2010) Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, USA, 2002), Super (James Gunn, USA, 2011) Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, USA, 2006), X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, USA, 2011)
Your turn – what are your favourite superhero films?
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