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.
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)
Based loosely on one of the greatest X-Men comic-book stories of all time—the 1982 graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills—X-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.
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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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)