Tuesday, May 25, 2010

LOST AND 24: THE MOURNING AFTER

WARNING: There be spoilers here!!!!!!! If you have not yet seen the series finales for these two shows and you care about what happened in them, read this only AFTER you’ve watched them!

Within the space of 23 hours, two of my favorite television shows of all time began their big finale episodes, and I feel like I’ve said final goodbyes to some very close friends—ones with whom I’ve had up-and-down relationships over the years, but there have been more than enough “ups” that it hurts a lot to say farewell.

In the case of Lost, it’s been an adventure that was at times exhilarating, frustrating, beautiful, and challenging on both an emotional and an intellectual level. While 24 shared some of these traits, there was more of an emphasis on action, morality, shades of grey, and the heavy price that sometimes must be paid to keep a nation safe. Two different shows, with different tones and different styles, yet both were fixtures in my home since their respective debuts. Were their send-offs as satisfying as their kick-offs? Read on…

LOST

Last castaways standing.

Throughout its six seasons, Lost never really let me down. Overall, I feel that the series maintained its standards and its level of quality throughout its entire run. Even its weakest season (the second one, in my opinion) represented a chunk of great television.

And I have to mention that the acting has been consistently exceptional, pretty much across the board. As Dr. Jack Shephard, the Emmy-worthy Matthew Fox served more than capably as the foundation of the entire series, grabbing on to us and pulling us in immediately at the start of the pilot episode, and leaving us behind in the very last moment of the finale. Terry O’Quinn did stellar work as both John Locke and his sinister doppelganger. Michael Emerson was absolutely brilliant as Benjamin Linus, taking what was supposed to be a three-episode arc in Season Two and turning it into an ongoing character that stuck around to the very end. As Kate Austen, Evangeline Lilly emerged, particularly in Season Five, as an actress with great talent, handling deeply emotional material with expertise. Josh Holloway brought plenty of arrogance, swagger, cunning, and wit over the six seasons as the Han Solo-like Sawyer. Jorge Garcia, as Hurley, was often hilarious but also the unimpeachable moral center of the series. Daniel Dae Kim’s Jin, so thoroughly unlikable at the beginning, was revealed over time to be quite noble, heroic, and a loving husband. I liked Henry Ian Cusick’s Desmond Hume, Nestor Carbonell’s Richard Alpert, and Elizabeth Mitchell’s Juliet Burke right from their first appearances, and was very pleased when they each became series regulars. Hell, everyone was great. (Well, maybe not so much Michelle Rodriguez as Ana Lucia and Shelia Kelly as Zoe—which made watching them being taken out that much more enjoyable. But I bore no real grudge against Nikki and Paolo.)

Take a bow, Mr. Fox, for a job well done.

So… The finale. On an emotional level, it packed a wallop, and did the job it set out to do. And here I thought Sun and Jin’s death scene from a few weeks ago was as powerful as the show could get! There were plenty of moments in “The End” that delighted me, that hit me hard, and that affected me deeply: the surprise appearance by Rose and Bernard, and the revelation that it was they who rescued Desmond; the return of Frank Lapidus; Richard discovering a gray hair; the encounter between Sawyer and Juliet; the final words spoken between Jack and Kate and their last kiss; Hurley’s last moments with Jack; Hurley and Ben forging a new relationship; Jack’s return to where it all began for him on the island; the big reunion in the cathedral of all of the main cast members over the years; and the last shot of Jack, who has always been my favorite character on the show. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that tears were rolling down my cheeks as the screen went dark, but I will admit it nonetheless.

Ending where it all began.

And yet, on an intellectual level, and from a story standpoint, I have mixed feelings. Don’t get me wrong—the episode was never anything less than absolutely gripping and compelling, as the series usually was. And I would say that, overall, it felt like an organic part of the series, an episode that honored and was faithful to almost everything that came before it. But it certainly wasn’t perfect. (What is?)

I didn’t have the same problems with this episode that a lot of other people seemed to have. It didn’t bother me at all that we never learned the name of the Man In Black. I understood that the scenes on the island were set in the real world, and I understood the revelation about the Sideways World. Most, if not all, of my main questions were answered. But I did have problems. Among them:

  • The death of the Man In Black/Smoke Monster just didn’t seem… momentous enough to me, given his importance to the show since last season. And I felt his physical clashes with Jack in the finale were a bit repetitive, essentially having the same beat: Jack gets the upper hand and grabs MIB by the throat, then MIB grabs something (first a rock, later his knife) and uses it against Jack.
  • Why, once Jack restored the Light to the island, did the island not heal Jack of his stab wound? In the past, the island healed John Locke twice—first of his paralysis and then of a gunshot wound—and it cured Rose of her cancer. Why not Jack, after everything he went through to protect it? Why did Jack have to die?
  • Why is Sayid reunited with Shannon at the end? Why not Nadia, who had always been presented as his one true love?
  • The revelation that the Sideways World isn’t really a parallel universe but a place where all of the castaways can reunite after they die and then move on together… well, quite frankly, it broke my heart. I invested a lot of emotion in, and became attached to, the Sideways World. I believed in it and looked forward to seeing its developments and I was hoping that it would play some part in the downfall of the Man in Black and perhaps even offer some form of salvation or hope for at least some of the characters. But no, my understanding of the narrative is that all of the Flash-Sideways sequences were really just there to show how and when each of the characters realizes the truth and decides that he/she is ready to “let go” and “move on.” It was not a real environment created within a scientific context. When I realized what the Sideways World really was, I muttered, “Oh no,” and was tempted to yell “Cop-out!” I felt that the rug was pulled out from under me. Which, I suppose, is exactly what the writers wanted—but I don’t think they really played fair. They started off this year’s season premiere by showing the island at the bottom of the sea—how else was that supposed to be taken, other than literally? And I’m not even sure all the details established in the Sideways World work with the revelation of what it truly is. What exactly was Eloise Widmore protecting or preventing when she tried to stop Desmond’s activities in the Sideways World?
  • On a related note, I’m guessing that Desmond was the one to bring all of the characters together in the Sideways World because, as a result of his near-death experience on Hydra Island (when Charles Widmore blasted him with EM energy), he could now cross between this world and the afterlife. BUT—why didn’t Desmond or Jack suffer a fate “worse than death,” like the Man In Black did, when they went into the Light cave? Isn’t that what Jacob and MIB’s adoptive mother said would happen to anyone who went in? I guess I can buy the premise that Desmond was spared because of his immunity to the energy, but what about Jack?

And yet… the episode still lingers heavily in my mind and my emotions. The gentle, loving embrace between Jack and his father in that moment of revelation, when they could finally and openly acknowledge their love for each other and reach a degree of understanding that had always eluded them before. And to have a special place to go to beyond this life, a place of peace and comfort and love, where you can be reunited with the people who meant the most to you, who were there with you during the most important part of your life… that’s such a wonderful, beautiful thought, and a very moving way to bring Lost to an end. I don’t know how much I truly believe that such a place actually lies ahead… but I’d like to.

Together again for the last time.

Letting go... and moving on.

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24

A (last) day in the life.

As a series, 24 has been much more inconsistent than Lost. A pattern emerged, in which every great season (1, 5, 7) was almost always followed by a disappointing one—with this current season, the eighth and last, qualifying as the worst of all.

And the blame can be placed squarely on the writers. This year, they stretched out the Dana Walsh subplot past the point of human toleraence, all the while saying that the audience had to “give it time” and insisting that we would be rewarded handsomely for our patience. What we got was yet another “CTU mole” storyline, but one that was far more convoluted, implausible, and downright silly than any of its predecessors. What a waste of actress Katee Sackhoff, who was exceptional as Starbuck in the remake of Battlestar Galactica. She managed to shine as Dana in her last couple of 24 episodes, but it was a case of too little, too late. The damage was already done.

The writers threw the audience a bone by bringing back actress Annie Wersching as Renee Walker, who was one of the main highlights of last season and ranks as one of the most popular characters in the show’s history. But then they raped her, both literally and figuratively, presenting her as a mere shadow of the character we knew last year. Having grafted on a dark, tormented backstory that was never before even hinted at and rendering her a self-loathing, suicidal, and rage-filled victim, Renee was almost a complete stranger this year, and was simply not the character that the audience hoped to see again. Killing her off was nothing more than a plot device, a shock moment, and it rendered her a victim all over again. (She could have easily been left in critical condition with just a slim chance of survival, and the rest of the season could have played out exactly the same.)

Talk about the kiss of death!

Instead of trying to avoid clich├ęs, the writers and producers of 24 seemed determined to use as many as possible, as often as possible—clich├ęs both in terms of storytelling in general and of the show itself. (Yet another mole? Yet another romance for Jack Bauer ends in tragedy? Yet again, Jack is the only competent person in a crisis situation? After Jack has proven himself over and over again, the people in authority still refuse to listen to anything he says or take his experience into account?) And then, when the audience calls them on it, they simply shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s the show.” Shouldn’t the goal be to explore new ideas and directions, to improve upon what was done already? Why, in this day and age, when television is more creative and innovative than ever before, would any self-respecting writer or producer of a drama series simply embrace the formulaic?

At least things improved toward the end. Which brings us to the finale, which was fronted by a very classy farewell message from star Kiefer Sutherland, who thanked the audience for sticking with the show for the past eight years.

As an episode of 24, the finale worked well enough. There was plenty of action and conflict and tense moments, and, at the end, a nice sense of closure to the relationship between Jack Bauer and his longtime colleague Chloe O’Brian, played so effectively over the years by Mary Lynn Rajskub.

Chloe O'Brian: The only constant in Jack Bauer's life.

And I have to give the producers credit for having the balls to take the hero of their show and turn him into a vicious, ruthless, bloodthirsty, vengeance-crazed killing machine, even for just a little while. As the now out-of-control, off-the-rails, damn-the-consequences Jack Bauer, Sutherland delivered the goods—just as he always has. Hell, if Keifer is willing to dye his hair black, I say cast him as the Punisher and really turn him loose!

Gregory Itzin, who made an indelible mark on the series during Season Five as the insidious U.S. President Charles Logan (made Nixon look like a choir boy!), returned this year and was responsible for some of this season’s best, most talked-about moments. I didn’t find his rather abrupt murder/suicide solution to be 100% convincing—it was a little too contrived and felt like run-of-the-mill TV plotting to me—but it was certainly a dramatic exit for a memorable character.


He's not a crook, but he is a murderer!

But when it comes to current U.S. President Alison Taylor, introduced last season and played by Cherry Jones, well… I don’t know what the writers were thinking. Last year, Taylor was portrayed as so clear-headedly moral and righteous that she sent her own daughter to prison after learning of the girl’s crimes. This year, she was so focused on getting a peace treaty signed with a Middle Eastern country, no matter the cost, that she helped cover up the assassination of the leader of that Middle Eastern country, used her position to intimidate the press and confiscate incriminating evidence, and started taking advice from her infamous and disgraced predecessor, the aforementioned Charles Logan. This season, Taylor was portrayed as a weak-willed, wishy-washy, simpering fool who doesn’t trust herself or her conscience, and always seems to be on the verge of tears. It isn’t until the last few minutes of the finale, when she realizes that maybe it was wrong for her to authorize the cold-blooded murder of a man who has saved the U.S. at least seven times—and who tried desperately to warn her that she was heading down the wrong path—that Taylor rediscovers her morality and tries to do the right thing. In terms of salvaging her as a character and making the audience feel at least some kind of sympathy for her, I once again use the phrase, “too little, too late.” Which is also a perfect way to describe this entire season.

And yet… I’m going to miss 24. When it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s one of the best shows on television. That’s undoubtedly why I’m so critical of it when it fails to live up to its own standards. But unlike Jack Shepard, we may well see Jack Bauer again in the near future—plans are afoot for 24 to make the leap to the big screen. I just hope it doesn’t bring any of this season’s writers along with it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

SUPER HERO CINEMA, PART TWO: LESS THAN THE BEST

Last week, I presented my picks for the best and most underrated super hero films ever made. (To check out those picks, just go here.) This week, I spotlight the worst and the most overrated films in the ever-burgeoning super hero genre.
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THE WORST:
1)
X-Men 3: The Last Stand (2006):
This is what X-Men 3 SHOULD have been about.

Never before (or since) has so much potential for a great sequel film been pissed away. And never before (or since) have I walked out of a film so angry at a movie because of What Could Have Been. The end of X-Men 2: X-Men United set it up perfectly: 20th Century Fox now had the Dark Phoenix Saga right in their hands. THE FRIGGIN’ DARK PHOENIX SAGA, for crying out loud. Probably the most acclaimed, beloved, powerful, and talked-about X-Men story of all time—and this steaming pile of turd is what we got. The elimination of Scott (Cyclops) Summers during the opening ten minutes was the first (and most important) sign that something was very, very wrong, and that the key people behind the making of this film had no comprehension of what they were working on. The only saving graces were Kelsey Grammer as Dr. Hank McCoy (the Beast) and Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde.

2) Spider-Man 3 (2007):
He must have just read the script.

This comes within range of X-Men 3, but it’s not quite as awful. Sam Raimi, what happened to you? You had proven yourself with the first two Spider-Man movies, and while they were both flawed, they were fun and exciting and at least captured the spirit of the original comic books by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita Sr. But between the second and third movies, it seems like you forgot everything you knew about Spider-Man—and about making Spider-Man movies. The third entry was an overcrowded, loud, dumb, ill-conceived mess that, for me, at least, tainted the entire series. Too many villains (one of which was completely unnecessary), too many coincidences in the story, characters acting way out of character inexplicably, the butler from out of nowhere, a sudden and appalling lack of understanding of one of Spider-Man’s most important powers (which had been portrayed more or less correctly in the previous two films), unfunny attempts at humor, and the disembowelment of Spider-Man’s origin. All in all, an unfortunate way to close out the “Tobey Maguire era.”

3) Batman and Robin (1997):
The death of a franchise.

The only Batman movie I never went to see in the theater, based on early word of mouth. I still have yet to see it in its entirety, as I bailed out during an airing on HBO the moment Batman pulled out his “bat credit card.” What audience did director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman think was demanding a return to the dopey campiness of the Adam West TV show? What made Schumacher think that putting nipples on the Batman and Robin costumes was a good idea? What made him think that what the majority of fans of the previous films really wanted to see was numerous close-ups of Batman and Robin’s butts and crotches? Thank goodness both Schumacher and Goldsman have been kept far away from the Batman movie series since this debacle, which is often cited as one of the worst movies ever made. I saw Schumacher walking down the street in SoHo a few years ago, and I nearly stuck my foot out to trip him because of what he did to this movie series and to this character.

4) Captain America (1990):
The shield turned in the best performance.

A total crapfest, which is no surprise since it’s directed by the notorious Albert Pyun, whose other “masterworks” include 1988’s Alien From L.A. (which starred then-supermodel Kathy Ireland and went on to become the subject of one of the funniest installments of Mystery Science Theater 3000) and 1993’s Brainsmasher... A Love Story (starring an already washed-up Andrew Dice Clay and Teri Hatcher, just about to hit it big as Lois Lane on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman). Like most of Pyun’s movies, Captain America never even got a theatrical release; it went straight to video. This one’s got it all: a shoestring budget, bad acting, incompetent direction, hackneyed attempts at patriotism, changes to the characters just for the sake of change (unless there’s another reason why the Red Skull—always portrayed in the comics as German, a fervent Nazi, and Adolph Hitler’s right hand during World War II—was now an Italian Fascist), and a Captain America uniform that was so poorly constructed that instead of simply having lead actor Matt Salinger’s ears sticking out of openings on the sides of the mask (as with the comic-book version), the mask had flesh-colored rubber ears protruding from the sides.

5) TIE: Superman III (1983) and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987):
How could things turn so bad so quickly?

They’re both terrible, but for very different reasons. III was a poke in the eye to anyone who enjoyed the first two films—it treated Superman and his universe with utter indifference bordering on contempt (which is apparently exactly what director Richard Lester felt toward the franchise). The movie was basically a vehicle for Richard Pryor, who was neutered into a family-friendly shnook who was uninteresting and, most appallingly, unfunny. Superman himself was relegated to the sidelines, essentially a supporting character in his own movie. The only real highlight was Annette O’Toole as Lana Lang.
From bad to very bad, despite the return of Hackman as Luthor.

As for IV… inept filmmaking plus a criminally ill-conceived script, plus a budget that was slashed in half right before filming began, plus a scrawny-looking Christopher Reeve who didn’t even bother to bulk up again for the role, plus a Lois Lane who looked less like Superman’s girlfriend and more like Clark Kent’s well-built aunt from Cleveland, plus bad comedy, plus Jon Cryer at his most annoying, plus cheap-looking sets, plus horrendous editing that led to gaping plot holes, plus near-zero story logic, plus some of the worst special effects ever produced for a major motion picture equals… well, I’m sure you can figure this equation out for yourself. At least Gene Hackman looks like he’s having a good time—and why not? Most of the budget probably went to his salary!
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MOST OVERRATED (Not bad, just not as good as many would have you believe):
1) Superman II (1981):
Rednecks, beware!

Face it—it’s not as great as you remember. Upon first viewing, especially if you were 11 years old (as I was), it may have seemed like the ultimate super hero film. But upon closer scrutiny, you can really see the seams. Superman II is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a movie. Roughly 80 percent of it was shot by director Richard Donner while he was making Superman: The Movie. But to due major creative, professional, and personal differences with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, Donner was removed from the project before he could finish filming it. The Salkinds brought in director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers) to complete the movie. To ensure that Lester, not Donner, would receive sole directorial credit, significant portions of what Donner had already filmed were reshot by Lester or removed entirely. As a result of these shenanigans, Marlon Brando’s performance as Jor-El was cut from the film, thus creating a major plot hole in the narrative. (How the hell did Superman get his powers back?) Also, Gene Hackman, who refused to return for reshoots, is at times replaced by a body double and a voice impersonator. And Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane shifts back and forth—sometimes within the same scene—between looking young, healthy, sassy, and adorable (as she was in the first film) to looking like a frail, haggard, worn-out substance abuser wearing a bad wig. Much of the humor is stupid and unfunny—added by Lester as a show of his lack of respect for the film and the source material in general. The new super-powers given to Superman and the three Phantom Zone criminals are just ridiculous. Even the music suffers—John Williams declined to return, so his iconic musical score for the first film is adapted by conductor Ken Thorne and sounds like it’s performed by an under-rehearsed, out-of-tune high-school band. And yet… it’s an enjoyable movie! The good definitely outweighs the bad. And now, due to popular demand, a Richard Donner-approved version of Superman II now exists on DVD, with his lost footage restored—including the Brando material, so that gaping plot hole has finally been resolved.
Father knows best.

However, while the “Donner Cut” fixes many problems in the Lester version and is an improvement in a lot of ways, it has some pretty big problems of its own, some of which, oddly enough, could have been avoided easily. Best to look at the two versions together and try to imagine how it could have turned out had there not been so much chaos behind the scenes.

2) Batman (1989):
Michael Keaton, in a costume once intended for Bill Murray. (No lie!)

I went to see this opening night. I had to see this opening night. Batman was the first super hero I knew. His comics were the first I’d ever read, starting at the age of 5 or 6. After all the build-up for this movie, all the hype, and that wonderfully enticing trailer, this was going to be THE pop culture event of the summer of 1989. I went to see it with 12 of my closest friends, including my girlfriend at the time. And when the movie was over, I walked out of the theater, turned to my dear friend Nick, who was as psyched to see it as I had been, and I asked, “Is it me, or was that kind of disappointing?” Nick’s response: “It’s not you.” On the plus side, director Tim Burton succeeded in getting people to accept a dark and serious version of Batman, one that was far distanced from the campy Adam West TV show. But Batman really should have been called The Joker, Guest-Starring Batman, because that’s how the movie played out. Nicholson was fine as the Joker, very effective. But he dominated the film to the point where Bruce Wayne and Batman were little more than props—and apparently, this was exactly how Burton wanted it. We never really learn much about Bruce or Batman, and we never get to see him put his mind and his skills to full use. Kim Basinger was okay as Vicki Vale, and Michael Gough was a very good Alfred. However, Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon seemed ineffectual, bordering on incompetent. And I still have no idea what purpose Robert Wuhl was supposed to serve in this film: his character, reporter Alexander Knox, was completely superfluous and the story would not have suffered one bit had he been cut out entirely. As for the title character… Michael Keaton wasn’t bad as Bruce Wayne/Batman, but he certainly was not an ideal choice. (I said it back in 1988 and I still say it now: It should have been Alec Baldwin!) As with most of Tim Burton’s films, the visuals in Batman are strong, often captivating, but proper storytelling is not a priority for him, nor are internal story logic or strong character development. And I hate the surprise plot “twist” that the Joker was the one who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. It added nothing to the story and smacked of being arbitrary and tacked-on—which, apparently, is exactly what it was. I went in to this thinking it would be the Batman movie I’d always dreamed of seeing. It wasn’t. That wouldn’t come for another 16 years.

3) Spider-Man 2 (2004):
Spider-Man is rocked by Doc Ock.

Yes, it’s very enjoyable, and many believe it’s better than its predecessor. In some ways, it is. But Spider-Man 2 is more flawed than the first movie. For one thing, Spider-Man plays no major role in resolving the main threat at the climax of the film. The real heavy lifting is accomplished by Dr. Octopus, of all people. (At least Spider-Man 3, the worst film of the series, showed Spider-Man being proactive in the final battle and using his wits and his cleverness to defeat Venom.) Oh—and Peter Parker sees someone being mugged and doesn’t lift a finger to help? Powers or no powers, that shows a real lack of understanding of who Peter is, and of the lesson he learned as a result of the death of Uncle Ben. However, audiences didn’t seem to mind.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

SUPER HERO CINEMA, PART ONE: THE GOOD STUFF

With Iron Man 2 now out in theaters, and raking in plenty of dough despite surprisingly mixed reviews, I thought this would be an appropriate time to present what I feel are the best and worst examples of the burgeoning super hero genre of film. And as a bonus, I’m also including the films that I feel are the most underrated and overrated in the genre. As many of you know, I have a certain degree of expertise on the source material for most of these movies, so even if you don’t agree with my opinions, you have to admit that they're at least informed opinions! This first part spotlights the best and the most underrated. Come back next week for Part Two, which will spotlight the worst and the most overrated.

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THE BEST:
1) Superman: The Movie (1978)

A Superman for all seasons.

This is really where it all began, and it still holds up. Sure, the Lex Luthor/Otis/Miss Teschmacher stuff is too goofy and derails the epic, majestic tone that the film maintains up to the point where they’re introduced. But the casting is damn near perfect from top to bottom (to this day, as far as I’m concerned, Christopher Reeve IS Superman, and anyone who thinks that Margot Kidder wasn’t a great Lois Lane just doesn’t get it). Gene Hackman, who admitted that he was just doing it for the paycheck, nonetheless turns in a thoroughly enjoyable, fun, and memorable performance as Luthor. Marlon Brando brings gravitas, dignity, and power to the role of Jor-El, despite his limited screen time. And Glenn Ford is so effective as Jonathan Kent that each time I watch this movie, I can’t help but start shedding tears when I see him grab his left arm and say, “Oh, no.” Add to all this the state-of-the-art (for its time) special effects, sharp and respectful direction by Richard Donner, strong, crisp, and witty dialogue courtesy of Tom Mankiewicz, and a musical score by John Williams that became iconic immediately and stands today as one of his very best. I don’t know if this movie ever made me believe that a man could fly, but it did make me (and STILL makes me) wish that Superman really existed.

2) Batman Begins (2005)

Christian Bale takes over the Batcave.

Had this been the Batman movie that came out in 1989, I think it would have had the same kind of impact on me that The Empire Strikes Back or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (two of my all-time favorite films) had. This was the live-action Batman movie that I long dreamed of seeing but eventually came to believe would never get made. Finally, there was a Batman movie that took the whole thing seriously and treated it as realistically as possible. No nods to the dopey Adam West TV show. An emphasis on Bruce Wayne and Batman, instead of on the villains. Brilliant casting choices by director Christopher Nolan, for the most part (*ahem*Katie Holmes*ahem*). Christian Bale is PERFECT as the title character. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are wonderful. I remember seeing this opening day with my friend Weird Pete, then going back a few days later to see it with my wife, and turning to her halfway through and whispering, “I love this f%$&ing movie!” Don’t get me wrong—I think The Dark Knight is truly great and groundbreaking and deserves all of its acclaim and success. But without this film, The Dark Knight never would have happened.

3) The Dark Knight (2008)

Sadly, we won't see a rematch between these two.

No surprise here, really. I would go so far as to say that this may well be the best written, best acted, best directed movie of the super hero genre. Actually, it's not really a super hero movie—it's more of a crime drama with a dash of James Bond, and the lead characters just happen to be a guy who wears a Bat-uniform and a homicidal psychopath with a penchant for wearing clown makeup. But director Christopher Nolan takes the subject matter very seriously and realistically, treats it with the utmost respect, and provides a surprising amount of substance and subtext. Plus, Nolan is not afraid to take chances, and that includes giving the film an ending that one could hardly call upbeat. The Dark Knight transcends the genre and is a real groundbreaker. And Heath Ledger’s Joker will go down in movie history as one of the all-time great movie villains, easily overshadowing Jack Nicholson’s.

4) Spider-Man (2002)

"Raaaaaaaiiiiiinnn, I don't mind..."

The first of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films captured a great deal of the energy and spirit that had been missing from the Spider-Man comic books for far too many years. In fact, watching this movie made it all the more clear just how far the Spider-Man of the comics had strayed from his roots. Purists have railed against the fact that Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson was basically just a red-headed version of Peter Parker’s first college girlfriend Gwen Stacy, and they’re not wrong—but that didn’t really bother me all that much. I do agree with them, however, that it was a mistake to give Peter organic web-shooters rather than the mechanical ones that he’s always used in the comic books. Peter inventing his own chemical “web-fluid,” and then designing and building mechanical wrist-devices to shoot it, is an effective way to show off his scientific prowess. In the movies, we’re constantly told that Peter is a science wiz, but we never really get to see it for ourselves. And I was not exactly blown away by the Green Goblin’s costume, though I thought Willem Dafoe did a great job in the role. Overall, Raimi and co. got so much right in this first movie, and I enjoyed it so much (I saw it in the theaters three times), that I was inclined to forgive its various flaws.

5) X-Men 2: X-Men United (2003)

Hugh Jackman goes into berserker mode as Wolverine.

Based loosely on one of the greatest X-Men comic-book stories of all time—the 1982 graphic novel God Loves, Man KillsX-Men 2 is a vast improvement over its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the first X-Men movie a whole lot, but this one is better in almost every way. The scene where Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine takes on the enemy troops who storm Xavier’s mansion is like a John Byrne X-Men comic book come to life—just beautifully done, as is the brief cameo by Colossus. Alan Cumming is very effective as Nightcrawler, and Ian McKellen’s Magneto is a real hoot this time around. I wish James Marsden had gotten more to do as Cyclops, but the ending left me with the impression that he would be front and center in the next film (silly me!). And yes, the ending is lifted almost entirely from Star Trek II, but it works—and if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best! I have to wonder if director Bryan Singer now regrets his decision to jump ship from the X-Men franchise after this movie in order to direct Superman Returns. I know I do.

HONORABLE MENTION:
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Cartoons ain't just for kids, pally!

Produced by the same mega-talented folks behind the now classic Batman: The Animated Series from the early-to-mid 1990s, this feature film more than deserved the theatrical release it received. It has a strong, gripping story, based loosely on the comic-book stories Batman: Year One (written by Frank Miller) and Batman: Year Two (written by Mike W. Barr), effective and appropriately moody animation, and fantastic vocal performances, led by the amazing Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne/Batman, the ever-delightful Dana Delany as Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Andrea Beaumont, and the always welcome Mark Hamill, whose performance as the Joker ranks right up there with Heath Ledger’s. Trust me—the fact that it’s an animated film doesn’t mean that it’s kiddie fare. Had this been a live-action Batman movie, it might well be considered the best one ever made.

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MOST UNDERRATED:
1) The Rocketeer (1991)

The Rocketeer, rejected.

I still don’t understand why audiences ignored this highly enjoyable and faithful adaptation of Dave Stevens’s beautifully illustrated comic-book series. Its spirit of fast paced fun and high adventure in the 1930s was reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark and its beautifully executed flying effects made me yearn for another Superman movie. Plus, it featured a strong cast, including the gorgeous Jennifer Connelly (before she got all serious and mopey), Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, and Bill Campbell, who was pretty much perfect in the role of the title character.

2) The Phantom (1996)

The Phantom phailed to scare up an audience.

I have to admit, I don’t know much about the original comic character, but I do know that this was a highly enjoyable movie. As the Phantom, Billy Zane leads a cast that includes Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Like The Rocketeer, it’s set in the 1930s. Like The Rocketeer, it’s a fun, fast-paced adventure in the tradition of Indiana Jones. And like The Rocketeer, it bombed for some inexplicable reason. Maybe the ridiculous “Slam Evil!” tagline on the movie poster simply turned people off.

3) Watchmen (2009)

Lots of folks didn't watch the Watchmen.

Despite the fact that the writer of the original comic-book series, Alan Moore, deemed his acclaimed masterwork “unfilmable,” this turned out to be a surprisingly faithful and effective adaptation. There are some significant deviations from the comic series, particularly the ending, but I found them acceptable and I liked the film on its own terms. I certainly expected it to be much more successful than it was. The comic book series was a real game-changer in the comic book industry—a complex, sophisticated, highly influential work that explored the moral, philosophical, and physical implications of there being super heroes in the world. The series
still casts a very long shadow today. Nothing like it had really been done before in the comic book medium. But Watchmen the movie came out in the wake of The Dark Knight, which was the game-changer for super hero movies, and as a result, perhaps Watchmen came off to moviegoers as a knock-off simply following in Christopher Nolan's footsteps. Still, it’s very well-cast. Particular stand-outs are Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Morgan Blake/The Comedian, and Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs/Rorschach. I would go so far as to say that Haley as Rorschach just may be the most perfect casting of a comic-book character since Richard Donner hired Christopher Reeve to play Superman. And despite a long running time (especially if you’re watching one of the several “expanded” versions that have been released on DVD), there's never a dull moment. It's a visual feast with iconic images, many of which were taken directly from the comic series.