Movies based on comic book characters generate a lot of buzz. Fans of the genre are obsessed. I used to be that way waiting for the next Spider-man comic as a kid.
At 15, I’d moved on to other things.
God bless ‘em. Some kids never grow up.
I can only think of one film in recent memory that I could hardly wait to see. After catching movie two of The Lord of the Rings trilogy it hit me that I’d have to wait a full year to see the conclusion.
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That pissed me off.
Other than that — though I love them dearly and love this job — movies come and movies go. Genre doesn’t matter. Actors don’t matter. Directors don’t matter. The movie comes out, I screen it; I file a review, and then I move on. My life consists of last week’s movies, what I’m doing this week, and trying to fit all of them into my schedule next week.
That’s why I thought it would be hard — maybe even nearly impossible — to pick five favorite super hero movies.
Then, I got started. I quit counting at 15.
With a couple of these you’re going to wonder if I even liked them. Yes, I did. I’m a critic and it just may not seem that way. Here are my five plus honorable mentions.
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004). From the first spin of the web in 1962, Spider-Man has been the king of super hero comics. In the comics, Spidey is quickest of all quippers. Nobody is funnier when fighting felons and the series’ special scoundrels. Writer-director Sam Raimi got it right when the web slinger battled Doc Ock in the second movie. It was fun from the get-go and is the only script given to Tobey Maguire where he had a chance to play Spidey as he deserves to be played.
Instead of Spider-Man 2, the first film should be sitting on this list — and at the top. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 3 suffer from producers who don’t understand the character or his villains. Example: Masking Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin in the first movie. Why in the hell do you stick a mask on one of the most expressive and perfectly villainous faces on the planet?
But they did get it right in Spider-Man 2 and that’s why it sits at No. 5 on my list.
4. Superman (1978). Though Marlon Brando’s Jor-El and ponderous scenes at the Fortress of Solitude nearly sucked the life out of Superman, the granddaddy of the modern superhero movie made us really believe Christopher Reeve’s Superman could fly. Though it was charming at times, and the romance between Reeve and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane clicked and gave the film a sweet side, the action wasn’t that intense or that interesting.
The plot’s only energy came via a campy, over-the-top movie-stealing performance from Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor and funny supporting work from Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty who played his gang. It’s almost like they were acting in a different movie.
What Superman did best was set the tone for the comic book superhero movies to come and for that reason belongs in the top-five.
3. The Incredibles (2004). Every list needs a surprise. I wasn’t able to screen Million Dollar Baby before picking my best of at the end of 2004, so The Incredibles topped my best list.
Talk about funny. This is what Hancock failed to be. A spate of lawsuits force a superhero and his super wife to retire and settle in suburbia. Mr. Incredible is an insurance adjuster, a big guy stuffed behind a little desk, and he’s ordered to not settle claims. Good guys are always good guys — his whispered advice cracked me up.
Dozens of superhero movies have been produced in the last 15 to 20 years, yet animated characters with no comic book tradition are richer, deeper, funnier and — certainly — more fun than real life people. That’s sad. Kudos, too, to Pixar writer/director Brad Bird. He is a genius.
2. Iron Man (2008). Larger than life and funny as hell. That’s how an on-screen comic book superhero should be. It takes someone special to get that kind of performance. Look no farther than Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man in movies No. 1 and No. 3 to prove the point. Spider-Man is a world-class smart-ass and Maguire isn’t.
I always wished that someone had tried to do Spider-man when George Clooney was in his mid-20s to mid-30s. He would have been perfect. That’s talk for another time.
Iron Man's effects are terrific, and Robert Downey Jr. makes you believe Tony Stark is really getting encased in all that futuristic metal. And Downey delivers his lines with a mock seriousness that makes an unbelievable concept totally believable. Few actors have that kind of skill.
Unlike the Batman actors — no one else could do Tony Stark and pull it off. Fun from the rockin’-out opening scene to the battle royal at the end, a better villain and Iron Man might have hit No. 1.
1. Tie: Batman (1989) and The Dark Knight (2008). When I was a kid, Batman was the most boring of the DC stable of superheroes. He and the whiny kid and their toys couldn’t keep up with Superman and the rest. And when Spider-Man and the Marvel gang showed up, Batman was history.
It’s ironic that technically he’s not a superhero and as my least favorite major-league comic book hero, the Caped Crusader has the two best movies on my list. My guess is one or both of these movies end up on Ed’s.
The irony doesn’t stop there. The two best superhero movies have the same villain. One done by Jack Nicholson — arguably the top character actor of all time — and the other by a Heath Ledger, a young man who — in time — had a chance to be the best actor of his generation.
Another interesting Batman point: it’s all about the villains, baby. A lamppost could play Batman and it wouldn’t matter. Want proof? Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale. Adam West gave Batman more energy and personality on that awful TV show than any of these superstars.
Honorable mentions: The Crow (1994); Spawn (1997); Blade (1998); X-Men (2000); Hellboy (2004).