We live in a wonderful age for superhero fans. When I was in college, none of the films in my top 10 existed, and only one of my top 20. I would only have been able to come up with two superhero films that were actually good. Now it is a snap to come up with twenty capes and cowls movies that are excellent and a good number of others that are at least worth your time. Much of this is due to the MCU which so far includes twenty films, all of them good. But it isn’t alone. The X-Men and DC claim a few spots. The golden age of Superhero films is now, and while I expect most of my sub-genre “Best of” lists to be static, this one will probably change a good deal in the next few years.
Starting at 18:
#18: Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman has too many dramatic speeches, too much slow motion/pauses, a few FX issues that take you out of the picture, and numerous other problems, and it doesn’t matter. I didn’t love the move. But I loved Wonder Woman.
And that’s what matters. I don’t know if Gal Gadot is a good actress, but she is a charismatic one, and she was born for this part. DC Comics-based films haven’t had her like since Christopher Reeve in Superman. She is perfect, and the role is written exactly right. Diana is friendly and good in the purest sense of the word. But she’s also cool—we’re talking Tony Stark level of cool. She’s innocent, but smart. She’s strong while also being very feminine. She’s sensitive but knows when a smirk is the proper response. She isn’t broken. She doesn’t have weird issues. She is a hero and one you’d want to meet. With a franchise film, what matters most is character, and they nailed it.
#17: Captain America: The First Avenger
True blue but puny Steve Rogers undergoes an experimental procedure to transform him into a super soldier. His mission: Defeat the Nazi’s science wing, and it’s leader, The Red Skull.
This wasn’t the first attempt to bring Captain America to the big screen. And he’s been a fixture of animation for years. Problem is, he’s always been dull. So very dull. Until now. As before, they played him straight, with no apologies for his red, white, and blue, wholesome white bread nature, and succeeded where there’d been so much failure. Chris Evan’s put real heart into what could have been a stereotype, and the script released him into an old fashioned war picture (well, an old fashioned war picture that had laser weapons and a guy with a skull for a head). I cared about Steve Rogers. I cared about Peggy Carter and Bucky Barnes, and even Howard Stark. Can’t ask for more than that.
#16: Iron Man
When I first heard of the casting of Robert Downey Jr. for Tony Stark, I thought they were nuts. I couldn’t imagine it. Now I can’t imagine anyone else. I read the comics and see Downey Jr. He was given a great script with a truly well written and complicated character, and he was surrounded by exciting action, state of the art effects, and skilled co-stars, but this is RDJ’s film. Without him, the MCU would have been another franchise. With him, it became THE franchise.
The first film of the MCU has lost nothing and works nearly as well on repeat viewing as it did that first time in 2008. It shattered the whining, self-serious mold that had become the norm in superhero films, without falling into camp. It created a new mold that will eventually wear out its welcome, but not until we get ten or twenty more films like it.
#15: X2: X-Men United
Brian Singer revived superhero films with 2000’s X-Men and he did everything a little better in the sequel. The metaphor is still strong, and again, it is about character. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and Ian McKellen as Magneto are again the heart of the picture but everybody is comfortable in their roles. The theme (the X-Men are always about theme first) has just the right amount of twisting, with good and evil mixed up. And the FX set pieces are a step above anything done before. The Nightcrawler attack is one of the best action moments ever filmed.
After only two truly successful superhero films before 2000, the first X-Men film repaired the genre, laying down what could be done. X2 solidified the superhero’s place in modern cinema.
Sure, Superman has its flaws: The plot is a mess; the Krypton scenes are silly and the Smallville segment is plodding; Lex Luther’s scheme is ludicrous; it is both overly saccharine and overly camp. And none of that matters.
Superman was the first A-picture superhero film. It was (and is) beautiful. The SFX are excellent, yet never dominate. But those don’t matter either. It has three elements that trump everything.
- First, there is a quirky Lois Lane personified by Margot Kidder.
- Second, the heroic, uplifting score by John Williams that sells the epic nature of the film.
- Third, and most importantly, there is Christopher Reeve. He is Superman. Blending strength with sensitivity, he charmed a generation.
The elements alone are not enough, or I’d be speaking of the great quality of Superman III. It is how you use them, and Richard Donner knew how. Superman pulls you in—at least it pulled me in—to its wondrous world. There may be problems, but those are for later. While watching, there’s nothing but a man who can fly.
#13: Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians is old fashioned space opera. It wouldn’t even count as a superhero film if it wasn’t in the same universe at the other movies. Like The Incredible Hulk, it isn’t too deep, and the plot is bare bones, but the characters are a kick and the action’s top notch. The villain, unfortunately is not, sharing the bottom slot of MCU bad guys with Malekith. Ronan is one dimensional as much as he has any personality at all. He’s angry and wants to kill stuff. That’s about it.
Forget all that: Guardians makes the best use of music of any film in the last decade. Come and Get Your Love somehow is perfect for kicking small alien critters. Really, it is.
#12: Hellboy II: The Golden Army
The second Hellboy film feels much like the first, but avoids the problem of so many sequels; it is neither a copy nor simply “louder.” The big shift is in mythology. Hellboy was Lovecraftian. Hellboy II is high fantasy immersed in faerie lore. Director Guillermo del Toro demonstrated his knack for the faerie world and its bizarre, beautiful, and dangerous creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth. Here, he takes it far further, introducing us to tooth fairies that will devour your bones, raven-masked guards, the angel of death with eyes upon her wings, and the denizens of the Troll Market. They are the stuff of nightmares, but the coolest nightmares, the ones that call to you.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is funny, action-packed, well-made on every level, complex, and incredibly inventive.
#11: Avengers: Age of Ultron
Joss Whedon does it again, brilliantly crafting an extravaganza that’s really a character piece. No one can work with ensembles like he can, making each line count, slipping levels of meaning into every interaction so that it feels like all of the characters have had complete and compelling arcs, even though most only have a few minutes of screen time.
Sure, this second Avengers outing doesn’t rival the first, but then that’s a high bar. The action is a bit much (quite a bit—I’d have exchanged fifteen minutes of crowd saving and building breaking for a couple more group discussions) and a few of the characters are slipping into their clichés (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, I’m looking at you). No problem. There’s lots of heart, lots of wit, and fabulous new characters to take up the slack. Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision are exactly what the franchise needed, and I’d be content with an entirely new Avengers team as long as several of these new characters are a part of it. And Ultron, with his daddy-issues, is one of the best MCU villains.
It broke every rule of superhero filmmaking, shredded the genre, and it all works. With a fraction of the budget of other action films, Deadpool delivers laughs and violence. Sure, the snark is fun, but what makes it all work is heart. Deadpool is by far the most romantic X-Men film, and probably the most romantic superhero film. He’s not trying to save the world (we’ve seen that enough); he just wants to get back to his girl. Everything matters because that matters.
The lesson to be learned is that superhero films don’t have to be whiny. They can be fun, and still matter. Unfortunately, the lesson Hollywood seems to have taken is that people like gore. Oh well.
#9: X-Men: First Class
The franchise looked dead after Last Stand, but First Class got it back on its feet. This prequel did the unthinkable: found a superior Professor X and Magneto than Stewart and McKellen. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are superb and their characters are compelling. Plus, Keven Bacon is a surprisingly good villain.
The metaphor has never been presented better, but where First Class really sings is in its tone, which perfectly balances action, tragedy, and humor.
Hellboy is the best of Ghostbusters layered on the best of Men in Black added to the best of the X-Men, all swirled about the best of Lovecraft, decked out in a world that’s what a steampunk Tim Burton would design on his best day. It is a celebration of all things pulp and geeky and it is non-stop fun.
Perlman was the perfect choice for the immature red devil with a soft heart. He’s as good with the gentle moments as he is with the quips, and there are a lot of quips. I could praise each actor in turn as everyone is excellent, but besides Perlman, the compliments need to go to director Guillermo del Toro (Blade II, Pan’s Labyrinth). This was his dream project and it shows. Everything is meticulously done, creating the most beautiful comic book movie I’ve seen. Just gazing at the set dressing of the library is entertainment enough. This is a frenetic, funny, awe-inspiring, action extravaganza filled with blue, empathic fish-men, multi-eyed demon dogs, Nazi, zombie assassins, and gods and it’s wonderful.
#7: The Incredibles
If you like your superheros with a more family feel, The Incredibles has you covered. I’ve often heard it described as the best Fantastic 4 movie, and there is a good deal of truth in that. It is both funny and exciting from beginning to end, with multiple phrases that have entered every fan’s language (“No capes!” “Where – is – my – super – suit?” “You got me monologuing!” “And when everyone’s super…no one will be”).
PIXAR is the king of modern animation and The Incredibles is their best work. The trick is that so much animation is aimed at children where this film is aimed at families–there’s something for everyone.
#6: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guardians 2 is the first MCU film that’s a comedy, yet we don’t lose the characters in the humor. Every character gets his time to shine. This is done by not wasting a moment. Every joke also reveals something about the character. Every fight has an emotional core. Every action serves two, three, or more purposes. A violent and exciting fight between Gamora and Nebula is about the nature of sisterhood, while being a call back to Alfred Hitchcock, and also a frame for over-the-top humor, and a way to expand Gamora while completely changing our perspective on Nebula. Now that’s how you jam ten stories into a two hour movie.
Baby Groot is as cute as they come, the new characters all work, and there are dozens of repeatable lines. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a joyful film.
(Full review here)
Batman is a gothic wonderland. It is a triumph of art design; on that basis alone, it is one of the best superhero films ever made. Other attempts at Gotham have either been tacky (Schumacher) or dull (Nolan). This is beautiful and twisted.
Beyond the look and feel of the film, so much is done right. There’s Danny Elfman’s stirring score. There’s the rapid pace and action, but with the focus always on character. There’s the humor. There’s a fabulously loony Joker.
And then there Michael Keaton, who nails the two sides of the character, Bruce Wayne and Batman. His Batman is dangerous and frightening in a fundamental way. There’s something unhinged about him. Bruce Wayne is even better. This is the only Wayne I can believe would choose to become Batman. I could believe him choosing to wear a mask made of human skin and carry a chainsaw too. As an actor, Keaton has a talent of being an every man, but at the same time, he can embody insanity and ruthless dedication. That is Batman.
#4: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Where Captain America: The First Avenger felt like a 1950s war movie, The Winter Solder feels like a 1970s spy thriller, just with a lot more exploding flying ships. While some MCU films have aimed low and avoided heavier thematic elements, the second solo outing for Captain America goes for broke, and wins. The story is complex, but makes sense and is easy to follow. Steve Rogers goes through substantial changes, and lets us examine the meanings of freedom, safety, and tyranny, though him, and how these three things overlap in uncomfortable ways. The movie does all that while delivering an almost excessive amount of action and slipping into buddy movie mode from time to time. It also introduces a new hero in Falcon, as well as two of the better villains.
I didn’t think Marvel could pull off one good Captain America movie. Two was a shock. It seems, with good writing, clear directing, and the right star, an old fashioned hero can work in his own time, and in our times, commenting on both.
#3: Thor: Ragnarok
Thor: Ragnarok is the brightest, fastest paced entry in the MCU. It’s one of the best, and for pure joy, it is the best. It squeezes as much emotion—and as much action and humor and meaning and plot and sheer fun—as possible into two hours.
After “comedy” the word I’d use to describe this film is “METAL.” And I don’t mean hair METAL or even Metallica METAL. I’m talking Dethklok METAL. This is the most METAL movie ever made. Ground zero is Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song—the phrase “Hammer of the Gods” is used literally. Ragnarok then adds the imagery from a metal-head’s dreams. This is gods and monsters and trolls and devils. Shot after shot could be pulled for an ‘80s album cover. This is head-banging, devil-horn signaling METAL. That means that this is epic in a beautifully over-the-top fashion and isn’t embarrassed about it. The battles aren’t introspective narratives; they are heroic poems of mystic legends. The genius of Ragnarok is its ability to weave the self-deprecating comedy with a larger than life, legendary saga. (Full Review)
#2: The Mark of Zorro
Yes, Zorro is a superhero, and no, that doesn’t let in every adventure hero. He has skills beyond human capabilities, he wears a costume complete with a mask, he has a secret identity, and he fights for goodness. If Batman is a superhero, then so is Zorro.
The Mark of Zorro is just pure fun. Humor is responsible for much of that, but at least as import is pacing. It is hard to think of any film with better pacing. There is not a slow moment. Humor flows into chases which flow into romance which flows back to humor then on to sword-fights. No time to get up for popcorn.
The cast is universally excellent, with Basil Rathbone creating another of his fine villains, and Tyrone Power in the best role of his career. (Full Critique)
#1: The Avengers
Was there any doubt what film would end up on top? The Avengers is a near perfect action film. Whedon directs his over-sized ensemble cast as if he’s directing a symphony: a complicated flow yet with everything in its place. It seems like it is all about the action, and there is a lot, but it isn’t. It’s all about the characters. Everyone has their moment to shine.
The re-casting of Bruce Banner with Mark Ruffalo was spot on, giving us a thoughtful but troubled scientist. Better still was the crafting of The Hulk. I’d never cared much for the character, and my wife was even more disdainful—and we were won over. Though no one stood out as much as Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. After The Avengers, he is arguably the most popular character in the MSU, vying with Tony Stark for the title. He’s dangerous, but also funny and sympathetic.
With such care given to the dialog, to character development, and to emotional depth, it is surprising how Whedon is happy to go full-on fanboy and give us some of the greatest “wow, cool!” moments ever. Several of these involve The Hulk, who seems unable to avoid punching Asgardians. I’ve never heard so much cheering in a theater.