Recently, I unleashed my list of the ten worst superhero films of all-time and a colleague challenged me to come up with the opposite. I had already bashed some films, so how about a change and arguing for the greatness that can be found in this genre of filmmaking; the best that superhero films have to offer?
First, what criteria would I use? What makes a superhero movie great? It can’t just be box office totals. Under that rationale Hulk (2003) and Batman & Robin (1997) would be considered great movies for having gross returns that were almost double their production budgets, with Daredevil (2003) more than doubling its budget in box office receipts! I don’t have to tell you, none of those three will make this list. So, how will I choose? Well, first, this is a list of superhero movies, not just comic or graphic novel movies, so Sin City (2005), Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010) and 300 (2006) are ineligible. That also disqualifies Road to Perdition (2002) and American Splendor (2003), both great graphic novel-inspired movies, but not superhero films. I don’t know about you, but I rate films on story, acting, tone, and how it is all adapted from the source material. Now, some fanboys will be up in arms over any deviation from the source material, whether it’s storylines, costuming, or what have you. Not me, I look at how it was adapted from the source material, not if it was faithfully adapted; if it works for the film, I’ll go along with the director’s creative license. Also, just what is a superhero? I am defining a superhero as anyone, or anything, who is possibly heroic in nature, possessing superpowers, supernatural abilities, or is otherwise extraordinarily talented in some way, and is dedicated to justice and/or the protection of others.
So now that I’ve identified my criteria, let’s get into the genre of superhero movies. While it is true that this action sub-genre broke wide open with possibilities after Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), I would trace it’s emergence to Richard Donner’s 1978 film, Superman. The simple tagline, “You’ll believe a man could fly,” was incredible! It opened my childhood up to the possibilities of seeing my favorite superheroes jump off the pages of my comics (or “funny books”, as my grandmother used to refer to them) and onto the big screen. With the success of Superman, Hollywood never looked back. Since then, well over seventy superhero films have been released and arguably, as a genre, have only gotten better.
These films are not for everyone. Recently we’ve seen established actors, famous directors, and filmgoers speak out against the saturation of cinema by superhero films. Some people just don’t like them, but bottom line, these movies are profitable and I don’t see them going away any time soon. Four of the top ten highest grossing movies of all time are superhero films: #9 Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($1.12 billion), #8 Iron Man 3 ($1.21 billion), #5 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.36 billion) and #3 The Avengers ($1.51 billion). If that’s not affirmation for the studio to keep on the path then I don’t know what is. (I know, Transformers as superheroes? It’s iffy, I grant you….)
Now that’s out of the way, let me tell you, coming up with a list of great superhero movies is harder than it looks! My first list contained almost forty films! So then I had to go through them and decide what I really liked about them and how they measured up to each other, utilizing the criteria established above. It was still a long and tedious process, much more difficult than my previous list of bad films. However, I believe I have come to a consensus with myself and have completed my list.
So without further ado, here is my list of the Ten Best Superhero Movies of All-Time:
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, J.K. Simmons, James Franco
Production Budget: $200 million
Worldwide Gross: $783.8 million
Kicking off the list is Sam Raimi’s follow-up to his immensely popular Spider-Man. This film was excellent. I felt Raimi really captured the drama and emotions of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) trying to balance his life as a college student, with a relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), along with his crime-fighting activities. When you’re devoted to all three, something has got to give. That’s what I always loved about the comic; life isn’t always glory and the waving American flag when you’re a young superhero. In the comics, Marvel had no problems showing the fact that Spider-Man still had to try to get home in time to study for mid-terms! Even though he was a superhero, he was still a kid like me (or, like I was, ahem…).
This film saw Maguire hit his stride with the character. In Spider-Man 3, you could really tell Maguire was done with these films, but here, his portrayal is likeable and relatable. The comedy was top notch, and the action scenes would make even the most cynical fanboy sit on the edge of his seat; the train-top fight between Spider-Man and Doctor Ock? Fuhgeddaboudit! It was a comic book page come to life! If you ever get a chance to watch the whole epic 5-minute extended fight scene on the Spider-Man 2.1 Blu-ray, do it! You will not be disappointed.
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Nicholas Hoult
Production Budget: $200 million
Worldwide Gross: $748.1 million
Years ago, I had the distinct pleasure to work security at a comic convention, assigned to the ever-lovin’ Stan Lee. My job entailed not only standing by his side during his autograph signing, but escorting him back to his hotel room at the end of the day. I was dressed in a black suit and tie, acted the part, not being the fanboy that I was, and did my job. As we made our way through the hotel, up the service elevator, and down the hallway to his room, we made small talk; basic chit-chat. Slowly, however, as we neared his hotel room door, I began to pull out a small stack of X-Men comics I had stashed inside my coat. On top of the stack, my mint copy of 1981’s Uncanny X-Men #141 “Days of Future Past.” Stan signed every issue and even handed me his business card. I still cherish both of those items and keep them safely stashed away! That issue was my favorite for years! A classic dystopian story that was changed slightly for the film but the basic premise remains: Someone has to go back in time to prevent the hunting and extinction of mutants by Sentinels.
Bryan Singer’s triumphant return to the franchise was heralded as a chance to fix the mess that the previous two installments made of the X-Men cinematic canon. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) were fan disappointments. This was the studio’s chance to right the ship and Singer delivered. With the whole “change the past to the change the future” storyline, Singer was able to undo the disorder that the other films had made of his beloved franchise. By the end of the film, the future of the X-Men was now open to new possibilities and the studio had a film that far exceeded all previous X-Men films.
This film is so much fun to watch! It successfully brought together two separate popular X-Men teams: Singer’s original cast (Stewart, McKellen, Berry, Ashmore, etc…) and Matthew Vaughn’s First Class cast (McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Hoult). With Vaughn on-hand to help write the story, Singer was able to create a film where the action scenes were bigger than every without sacrificing character development. One of my favorite scenes has to be when Quicksilver, pricelessly portrayed by Evan Peters, helps get Erik (Michael Fassbender) out of his prison cell and subsequently out of the Pentagon; all with a smirk on his face.
The film ended with an epilogue featuring all our favorite original cast members that we didn’t get to see in the main story: Anna Paquin, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, and Kelsey Grammar. It left everyone with a grin from ear to ear and basically demonstrated that the events of X-Men: The Last Stand had been erased. Of course, credit has to be given to Simon Kinberg who had the monumental task of writing the epic screenplay. This is my favorite of the X-Men films to date. With Singer and Kinberg re-teaming for the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse, I might have to make adjustments to this list in the future.
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