You can pooh all over the fact that I claim to know what I’m talking about when it comes to film, but you cannot smear that on my reputation as a superhero movie buff. I’m no Brainiac (boy, I hope Superman fans are reading this) and I haven’t seen everything, but if there’s a genre that I can definitely say I know what’s good and what’s bad, it’s this one. So, I thought a fitting way to start my Top 10 on Movie Muse would be with the ten best superhero movies made to date:
10. The Crow (1994)
I stumbled upon this ’90s cult revenge classic one summer with my friend Michael back in high school, and it’s safe to say there’s never been a better “you killed my family/wife now DIE mother*****r” movie. The Crow might not be your standard man in spandex fighting for justice (though KISS-style make-up seems a doable replacement), but blood-thirsty vigilante heroes are a big subdivision of the superhero genre and “The Crow” deserves to be its Top-10 representative. It also didn’t hurt the cult status when star Brandon Lee died during filming when a bullet fragment caught in a prop gun got lodged in his spine – especially when his character comes back from the dead to wreak havoc on his murderers. Definitely one of the more unique films to come from comic roots.
9. Batman (1989)
The Caped Crusader’s first go around on the big screen deserves a Top-10 spot for one reason: Jack Nicholson. Generations to come will be raving about Heath Ledger as The Joker and rightfully so, but Jack’s performance made this movie and brought some much-needed insanity to the villains of cinema. Tim Burton’s imagination and quirky sense of humor made this one of the more unique superhero films that has ever been made, but it’s Nicholson’s wild characterization and instant one-line classics that make Burton’s vision work. “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?” No, Jack, can’t say that I have, but I’m intrigued enough by it that I’ll gladly let you punch me in the face.
8. Watchmen (2009)
They said the greatest graphic novel of all time could never be filmed, and Zak Snyder proved them wrong. If nothing else, “Watchmen” was a visual masterpiece that captured the beauty of Alan Moore’s tome about self-appointed superheroes in an alternate 1980s America. Treating the graphic novel like a bible, however, does account for some problems in the film (along with one of the corniest sex scenes), but great performances, a visionary director and the greatest opening credits sequence I’ve ever seen (it’s worth watching for that alone) separates “Watchmen” from the big pile of criticized superhero movies.
7. Superman (1978)
The daddy of the superhero genre, “Superman” proved that what we once believed only existed on booklet pages and in our imaginations could come to life in an incredible way on the big screen. Many films today have come by and done it better, but “Superman” is the most memorable superhero film of the 20th Century. Few characters are defined by an actor (just look at the Batman franchise), but Christopher Reeve has always been Superman despite the numerous actors who’ve played the Man of Steel on film and TV over the years. He brought the complexity and soft side to Superman and Clark Kent, and the comic relief of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor and his cohorts added a nice balance. And John Williams’ Superman Theme is still the best superhero theme music ever written, by the way.
6. X2: X-Men United (2003)
The Best of the X-Men franchise to date, “X2” was the first film to prove superhero sequels don’t have to suck. “Superman II” gave it a good try, but it wasn’t better than the first, which “X2” definitely is. Director Bryan Singer takes the character-driven approach that worked well with “X-Men” in 2000 and revs up the action, special effects, and what’s at stake while still rotating in some fresh new characters to get excited about. Plus, the script really balances its subplots well, including the juicy Wolverine backstory we all craved. If only “X3” had been better. I hate you Brett Ratner.
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
It’s a bold move slotting “Spider-Man 2” below its predecessor. Most moviegoers and critics gave a warmer reception to Spider-Man’s second tumble in the Big Apple with Doc Ock, but I will maintain otherwise, and as you’ll see by scrolling down, it’s only the slightest of margins. “Spider-Man 2” was a better action film than the original – only fitting given the bigger budget – but its smarter action too. The story development team of big names, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon, really preserve what made a hit of the original while finding a way to further complicate the world and dilemmas of Peter Parker. Even the opening pizza delivery scene has something to say about how hard it is to be a superhero in a big city of insensitive, self-centered Americans. We suck, and that’s why we need awesome sequels with hard-thought stories like this one.
4. Spider-Man (2002)
The reasoning is simple, my friends. “With great power comes great responsibility.” When I heard that as a teenager, my life was changed forever, and by that I mean I fell in love with superhero movies, which has been an influence, to say the very least. To see the high school nerd-turned-hero walk away from the woman of his dreams because he understands the demands of his special gift and the responsibilities that come with it just tugged at my heartstrings more than any film with awesome action in it ever had. That and “Spider-Man” gave this genre its greatest gift: the importance of the origin story. Without it, none of these next two films on my list might have even existed as well as countless other franchise reboots such as this year’s “Star Trek.” The incredible level of quality this genre has seen (let’s forget about the crap for a second) in seven years since owes itself to “Spider-Man” for reminding us character quality and “why” still matter most.
3. Batman Begins (2005)
After its reputation bat-caved in the ‘90s thanks to thoughtless money-mongering sequels, who ever thought Batman would see the silver screen again and not make us want to vomit? But Christopher Nolan and folks were the first to say there’s nothing wrong with reinventing a superhero and that there is everything right with it. That’s what “Batman Begins” did: create a darker version of Batman that could theoretically occur in real life and not need three costumed villains to be good or make money. Good storytelling and an in-depth exploration of the psyche of a vigilante millionaire gave Batman a true identity among the Marvel and DC heroes of his kind. Then there was casting Katie Holmes. Oops. Easily forgiven seeing that kids now arguing whether Superman or Batman would win in a fight have more inspired confidence to pick the latter.
2. Iron Man (2008)
Producers of “Iron Man” couldn’t lean on the reputation of its not-as-popular Marvel character and then risked it all on a funny and scrawny man Hollywood seemed to have forgotten. But the inspired casting of Robert Downey Jr. not only skyrocketed Downey Jr.’s career, but also made “Iron Man” a memorable superhero movie that won our hearts by getting through to our sense of humor first. Director Jon Favreau decided to go with the “no-bullshit” superhero and it works out wonderfully. What “Iron Man” lacks in action it makes up for in character and this ballsy attitude. Although it only scratches the surface of Tony Stark’s story of personal redemption “Iron Man” ended the three-year drought of overkill superhero movies post- “Batman Begins” (namely “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Spider-Man 3”) by bringing us top-level entertainment and a whole lot of fun. Who said all superheroes must be taken seriously?
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
There’s really nothing disputable here. “The Dark Knight” has simply changed the game. There’s no longer an excuse for action blockbusters to lack humanity and brains. The bar is really high now. In fact, you can argue that the themes and messages of “The Dark Knight” are smarter and clearer than most dramas based on true stories. Simply put, every element, every second of this film serves a vital purpose, whether it entertainment or moving the story. Heath Ledger’s Joker showed us all what true evil is, how dangerous a person who cares nothing for wealth or revenge can be and the sacrifices that must be made in order to bring about peace and true social change. Maybe the most underrated part of the movie is its decision to stay clear of computer-generated images yet still be an action spectacle. But best of all, thanks to “The Dark Knight,” we can guarantee a constant flow of superhero movies all aiming to be as awesome for decades to come.