Have you ever tried to make a Top Ten list? A real one, not one of those awesome jokey Dave Letterman ones. It’s hard. It’s really freaking hard. I bring this up in advance because, hey, I tried to do it here, and there are some films that I love that I just didn’t have room for on the list. I don’t regret leaving them off, because if I did regret it, they would have been on it. But ten’s the limit, and sacrifices had to be made. So instead of decrying what’s NOT on the list, I suggest we do the following: let us raise a glass and toast our collective fanbase. How lucky we are to live in a day and age where there are so many film adaptations of the characters we love! This list is not meant to be divisive; rather, it is a celebration of our united victory! A joyous dance of –
Ah, screw it. I don’t mean any of that. As I’m just begging to get flamed here, I might tell it like it is: this list is, as of September 27th 2012, the positive, without a doubt, top-ten-best-superhero-films-of-all-time-no-matter-WHAT-you-say list! Disagree? Let me hear it below, in the comments! I mean, you’re wrong, but let me hear it anyway!
10.) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
This movie really should have been terrible, as proved by most (all) of its sequels. And I’m going to allow it: Corey Haim (or was it Feldman?) as the voice of Donatello is an acquired taste. What’s amazing, though, is that even though the Turtles were the 80’s/90’s mega-franchise they were because of the cartoon show and toy line, this, their first big-screen extravaganza, had a lot more in common with the Mirage Studios comic than it did with the far more popular Saturday morning (and weekday afternoon) TV spin-off. The plot was lifted fairly directly from the first volume of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s black-and-white book, with a few of the more recognizable elements of the cartoon series (colored masks, reporter April, bloodless combat) mixed in for brand appeal. But the fighting is boss, as are the costumes (although as the Turtles are creations of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop this should surprise nobody), and the only word to describe it, really, is… cowabunga. (Heh heh heh. I made a funny.)
Of the five X-films, three are unqualified successes, and of those three, X-Men: First Class earns the highest grade. (See what I did there?) It’s an unlikely success: the franchise was coming off of the back-to-back disappointments of X3 and Origins, the film was named after a comic book to which it bore no resemblance, the cast was devoid of stars, and the hero and villain roster was devoid of big-name characters. This freedom, though, looks to have proven liberating for director Matthew Vaughn and company; First Class weaves a compelling story of the early friendship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, a friendship ultimately cleaved in two by the differing ideologies that drive them to take on the mantles of Professor X and Magneto, respectively. James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto elevate the material above the usual tired metaphors that drive the X-mythos, with healthy assists from Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw and future Hunger Games icon Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. Vaughn manages the rare achievement amongst comic book films: he claims a definitive moment in the mythology of a wildly popular franchise as his own. No comic to date has outdone this retelling of the Xavier/Magneto friendship, and at this point no comic should bother trying.
All right, hold on. Let’s not sweep Adam West and Burt Ward’s Batman under the Bat-carpet just yet. You know how comic book fans always want movies that are JUST LIKE their beloved comics? Well, lest we forget: the 60’s Batman TV show and film were an almost perfect tonal match to the Batman comic books of the day. You could argue, in fact, that team West was actually putting out a Bat-product better and smarter than any Batman comic on the newsstands in the mid-60’s. For all the shots Batman: The Movie takes from today’s legion of comic book snobs, this is a film that combines scenery-devouring performances by some of the day’s leading character actors with surprisingly biting satire of 1960’s social and political culture, in what was the first ever full-length motion picture based on published comic book characters. Hopefully we’ve all gotten over ourselves enough that we can all Batusi together and give Batman: The Movie its due.
Crotch-chop, haters! ASM was the biz-omb!
This one’s for you, J-Mart: Watchmen, while arguably an inferior product to its comic book source material (arguably), is one hell of a movie. Pitch-perfect casting? Check. Compelling direction by a remarkable visual stylist? Check. Loyal adherence in adaptation to one of the top 100 novels, graphic or otherwise, of all time? Check. A superior ending to its comic book counterpart? Hell, check. (Take that, squid lovers.) The Watchmen movie is a gritty deconstruction of superhero films in the aughts just as the Watchmen comic was a gritty deconstruction of superhero comics of the 1980’s; the use in the film’s initial promotional push of the Smashing Pumpkin’s juxtapositional B-side to “The End is the Beginning is the End” (their Grammy-winning anthem from 1997’s Batman and Robin) illustrated that as well as anything, showing comics fans that Warner Bros., or at least director Zack Snyder, “got it”. The final product bore this out: Watchmen is just as violent, divisive, poignant, and dystopian in cinematic form as it was in printed pulp, and though development hell threatened to swallow the spirit of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbon’s masterpiece, Watchmen arrived on-screen with its soul fully intact. Glowing blue space dongs and all.
The greatest thing, I think, about initially seeing Unbreakable in the movie theatre was that it was M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to his wildly successful (and really, really good) The Sixth Sense, and therefore going into the film one expected a straight-up supernatural thriller, and not what ultimately unspooled in theatres across America: one of the best damn superhero origin stories ever written. Bruce Willis’ Unbreakable and Sam Jackson’s Mr. Glass go at it like a pulp-classic hero/villain pairing, without the audience or even Willis’ character realizing that’s exactly who they are and what they’re doing. Additionally, It’s the only superhero movie that pulls off the whole “Hey aren’t comic books AWESOME!” thing without making me want to punch myself in the nose. This is one superhero flick for which I think we’re all better off without a sequel, because the mystery of Unbreakable’s origin is far more interesting, I think, than would be the light-of-day square off between he and Mr. Glass. Also, every film Shyamalan’s done since belongs in a steaming pile of dog mess, so wishing that another had existed seems a fool’s errand.
Sometimes a movie wins points just for sneaking up behind you and repulsor-beaming you in the tuchus. Such is the case with Iron Man, the best of Marvel Studio’s pre-Avengers prequels. Yes, it had beautiful armor design for both the Mark I and Mark II. Yes, it introduced the everyman agent we all know and love, Phil Coulson. Yes, all the Iron Man necessities are present and accounted for: war imprisonment, weapons manufacturing, a hard-partying billionaire turned superhero, Happy Hogan, Pepper Potts, Jarvis (or J.A.R.V.I.S., as it were)… but the thing tying it all together is the most inspired of Marvel Studio’s Avengers casting choices: the charismatic Robert Downy, Jr. as Tony Stark, Iron Man’s alter-ego, delivering a performance upon which all versions of the character since have been based, whether in animated or comic book form. If there has ever been a more obvious case of an actor grabbing hold of a comic book icon, huddling in the corner with it, and screaming “MINE! MINE!” at anyone who dared draw near (like those seagulls in Finding Nemo? They were awesome) I can’t think of it. In fact, I am willing to put American cash money on the following statement: without Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, the entire Avengers film franchise never gets off the ground. Okay, well, yes, maybe it would have. But it would have been far less sassy.
The Incredibles is the best Fantastic Four movie ever made. That’s not just a joke; no less than Stan Lee recognized the similarities between his iconic comic and this tale of a family of four superheroes made up of the stretchy one, the big strong one, the invisible girl (wow, they didn’t even TRY to hide that) and the hotheaded…. speedster. (Okay, three and a half out of four is still a lot of near-infringement. Oh, c’mon. Nobody ever counts Jack-Jack.) Which shows you what a good freaking movie The Incredibles must be to not ever get dismissed as just some FF knock-off. As with most Pixar films, The Incredibles is about so much more than what’s happening across its super-glossy surface: coping with the memory of glory days gone by, the strains of a marriage surrendered to reluctant complacency, the frustration of being gifted, the fear of being different, and the importance of family. Most animated films would have been happy tackling just that last one, but not an animated film helmed by Brad Bird, the man who gave us The Iron Giant. On top of all of that, The Incredibles is slick, exciting, funny, and flat-out fun, and there ain’t nothing wrong with any of that.
Think of how many Batman stories there have been. Think of how many times he’s gone up against the Joker. Now think of this: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight must be in the conversation for the greatest Joker story every told. It must be in the conversation for the greatest Batman story ever told. That is how good this film is. One’s initial viewing of The Dark Knight is breathtaking, heart-thumping, edge-of-your-seat theatre from the moment the Joker drops a faux-Batman into the plate glass window of Gotham’s mayor. From then on we’re treated to a genuine auteur’s handling of Batman’s arch-nemesis, and Nolan’s take on the Clown Prince rests on this principle: the Joker is not a man. The Joker is a storm, a force of nature, chaos unleashed. There is no logic to his actions, nothing predictable to what he’ll do next, and so there is nothing predictable in the unfolding plot of the film’s plot. Nolan’s reality-bound Batman seems helpless at times against the near-supernatural force of the Joker, and as all great storytellers know, that’s when we most love our heroes: when they seem most likely to lose. The Dark Knight, ultimately, is the tale of good men who are thrown into relentless darkness, lose their way, lose their souls, and emerge with only a hollow victory to show for their troubles. And it is brilliant. And it is epic. And Batman has never seemed darker, or more of a knight.
Since my initial review of Marvel’s The Avengers, I’ve seen the movie two more times. Guess what: it was just as good each of those two times as it was the first go-around. The Avengers is the epitome of what we’ve been waiting for in our comic book films; as I said in my earlier review, it does absolutely nothing (NOTHING) wrong, and is the most like watching a really, really good Marvel superhero comic unfold onscreen as anything we could have possibly hoped for. You just want the actors, all wonderfully cast, to be frozen in time like their pen-and-ink counterparts and trotted out every three years or so over the next fifty years to share in adventure after adventure this good and this grand. Will the subsequent Avengers sequels (as well as the sequels for team’s individual members) be able to top this culminating installment? That’s a tall order. It’s rare that so many things go so well in a project that just should not work, but Joss Whedon and crew pulled it off, bringing us big-screen superheroics the likes of which we had never seen before, and may never see again. Assemble, indeed.
Check out “From the Casefiles of Race and Cookie McCloud”, a blog of super-short stories chronicling the adventures of Race McCloud, Private Eye, and his 15-year old former-secret-agent-in-training niece Cookie: http://raceandcookie.blogspot.com
0.) Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
No cinematic release means ROTJ didn’t make the list proper (though I’m not sure I would have ranked it higher than eleven, anyway) but it deserve props for a couple of reasons: 1.) Mark Hamill 2.) Kevin Conroy 3.) It made Batman Beyond more awesome than it had any right to be. 4.) Most importantly, it puts a dark but wonderful cap on the mythology of the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series mythos. I’ll soon have an article up on how B:TAS defined Batman for an entire generation of Bat-fans, but until that time this is a fitting hat tip to the successful melding (and closing) of two franchises in one, a colorful, lively story that brings together the best of modern-day Gotham City, and beyond.