10 Best Superhero Films of All Time – Part 5

by Randy Krinsky


Continued from the previous page




#2        Superman II (1980)

Studio: Warner Brothers

Director: Richard Donner, Richard Lester

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas

Production Budget: $54 million

Domestic Gross: $108 million

Christopher Reeve once again portrays the title character and this time finds him in all kinds of trouble.  Some would say that I have this film and the first film flipped in order, with the original being the better film.  However, I would argue that the original is a superior movie; the sequel contains a better story with improved action sequences and character development.  In this film, Superman has to deal with relationship issues as well as having to save the world from an escaped band of Kryptonian psychopaths. This film is an excellent example of what a sequel should be and that is why I have it ranked higher.

Given the fact that the film was helmed by two different directors with two different visons, it is an unbelievable testimony that it turned out so well.  Many know the story, Richard Donner, shooting the first film and the sequel simultaneously, completed approximately 75% of Superman II before being fired.  British director Richard Lester was then brought to finish, reshooting much of the film without the use of Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando; both refusing to participate in reshoots after Donner’s dismissal (in fact, Brando demanded more money and had all his scenes deleted – they were restored when Donner released his version, Superman II – The Richard Donner Cut).  I’ll go so far as saying that Donner’s work on the film helped make it great, as Lester’s vision is campiness bordering on the absurd (see Lester’s next film, Superman III).  I won’t argue here whose cut is the better version of the film; instead, I posit that the finished product, a film that combines the work of both directors, stands as a testament to superhero films and is a shining example of a proper sequel.

I definitely want to give credit to Terence Stamp. His memorable role as the demanding General Zod ranks consistently among the greatest film villains of all-time. The sheer menace and arrogance in his portrayal makes him the definitive version to many; all others must, “kneel before Zod!”

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#1        The Dark Knight (2008)

Studio: Warner Brothers

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine

Production Budget: $185 million

Worldwide Gross: $1 billion

This is the one everyone was waiting for.  I bet many skipped ahead just to see if I listed it as #1.  If I didn’t put The Dark Knight at the top spot, I’m sure I would have had death threats.  It is not my favorite superhero movie by a longshot, but it is a real good film and has rightfully earned its spot as the honest-to-goodness top superhero movie of all-time (as of right now).

This is Batman versus the Joker, pure and simple. Taking inspiration from the 1988 graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke, Nolan wrote a villain of pure evil and chaos that would prove to be the greatest challenge to the psychological stability of Batman and his commitment to stand up for the people of Gotham.  I would offer that this is not a standard superhero film, but a crime drama showcasing a truly demented villain that was superbly depicted by Heath Ledger; his chaotic and insane interpretation the product of intense method preparation.  Nolan has gone on record as saying that he added nothing to Ledger’s performance digitally allowing only the true essence of Heath’s performance to come through on film; a performance that earned him a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (2009). With Ledger’s intense performance, it couldn’t help but bring the acting of all the other actors who shared screen time up a notch.

This film succeeds on all levels: writing, directing, acting, effects, score and cinematography.  The Dark Knight has set a high standard for future incarnations. Although that’s the beauty of Batman films, each cinematic representation has been different – Michael Keaton’s Batman is beloved, but he is way different from Christian Bale’s performance.  Will Ben Affleck’s portrayal be any different?  Is it too soon after Christian Bale for moviegoers to court a new Dark Knight?  Sources say that Warner Brothers offered Bale the sum of $50 million to put the cowl back on for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.  We’ll have to wait until next year to see if the next incarnation of Batman will live up to the potential.

Well, that’s my list.  I hope you liked it.  If not, why?  Let me know your thoughts or give me your best argument for who I left off the list, or for which film should be ranked higher or lower.  Before I go, however, I would like to reiterate that compiling this list took quite a bit of time.  Production budget figures were courtesy of IMDB.com, and gross totals were gleamed off BoxOfficeMojo.com.  There were some films that I kept adding to the list, then removing and replacing.  It ultimately resulted in the ten that appear above but I do have a few that made my Honorable Mentions. So, in no particular order, here’s more:

Honorable Mentions

X2: X-Men United (2003)

An excellent example of a sequel that was better than the first film, if only because we got all the introductions and back story out of the way.  The story was better, I think, and it was improved film all the way around.  It just wasn’t a better sequel to me than Superman II.

Man of Steel (2013)

I know, some viewers didn’t like the film.  Fanboys complained that Superman killed Zod.  But I argue that this was a Superman before his “no killing” policy and in fact was the reason why he made that pledge to himself.  There is a cinematic term, verisimilitude, which means basically cinema realism, or a striving for that realism in cinematic terms; Man of Steel has it.  If an alien in a red and blue jumpsuit and cape showed up tomorrow, would Lois Lane just want to go up and date him?  No.  He’d be feared, misunderstood, wanted for questioning or study by the military.  If for some reason, the solar rays of our sun gave him strength beyond belief; would he be able to control it?  Yes, after spending all his childhood and young adult years learning how to do so, but if another alien with similar abilities just showed up to tussle with him, the devastation would still be catastrophic as the new alien (Zod) would not know how to control his abilities nor should he want too.  This is as it was depicted in the film; realism.  I believe this film was a very good representation of a superhero film with a realistic depiction of how he would be received, which leads up to the events we will see in next year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Spider-Man (2002)

This was the first superhero film to really be successful on all fronts in what could be construed as the “modern era” of superhero films.  I mean less face it; most fanboys weren’t alive when Batman was released. Willem Dafoe’s dreadful Green Goblin mask aside, this was a great movie.  Sam Raimi kept it light and fun, having Tobey Maguire’s webslinger taking on high school, first loves, and the aforementioned creepy green-masked villain.  If X-Men (2000) opened the door for modern superhero movies, this movie defined what they should be like: new and modern, but as true to the comic book as you can get without being campy.  Spider-Man set the standard, at that time, for how to bring a brightly costumed comic superhero into the real world (if only cinematically); honestly, the early Batman and Superman movies did not do this, not that they meant to. The recent integration of Spidey into the MCU with the collaboration between Marvel and Sony, I’m hoping, can only breed great things.  Many are looking forward to Jon Watts’ first installment of a new trilogy being released in July 2017.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

One of the few superhero movies to gross worldwide over a billion dollars!  The story makes this one great.  Christopher Nolan crafted a fitting end for his trilogy starring Christian Bale.  It’s basically a story of rediscovery for Bruce Wayne.  After having given up the Caped Crusader’s cowl years before, he is forced to re-emerge to take on a new type of villain in Bain; whose superior skill and resolve breaks Batman, both physically and psychologically.  Wayne must again find what drove him to don the mask in the first place and save himself and Gotham City. Additionally, I adored Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle and the end-tease of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Blake being the erstwhile “Robin.” It really makes you wonder what kind of Batman would’ve encountered Henry Cavill’s Superman in next year’s Batman V Superman, had Bale accepted the ginormous deal they offered him to reprise his role.

Thor (2011)

This is a film that could’ve easily crashed and burned, taking with it any hopes of a successful MCU.  In the months before the release, I remember having to explain to friends just who Thor was in the comics.  To the uninitiated, it sounded pretty crazy; the Norse God of Thunder who comes down to Earth to fight bad guys alongside costumed superheroes.  But wait, isn’t he a god?  What’s that all about?  So, yeah, there was a lot of explaining going on.

When I heard Kenneth Branagh was directing, I thought, “Okay, he could pull this off!”  Sir Kenneth Branagh is not your normal superhero film director, he’s seriously an Academy Award-nominated actor and director; he won’t play.  His Shakespearean background coupled with action experience would make a perfect marriage of drama and fun (did you see him in that Harry Potter film; he’s not some stuff-shirt who’s afraid of acting foolish in front of the camera).  He perfectly infused the pageantry of mythological Asgard and its champions with the comic book-based reality of Thor finding himself stranded on Earth. The comedy elicited by this fish-out-of-water story with Thor trying to reclaim his hammer, Mjolnir, and his right to wield its power, is something I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen if myself.  The supporting cast was incredible, all being both humorous and dramatic as the scenes necessitated.  Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, and Chris Hemsworth all had their comedic moments.  Perhaps the true greatness in this film is not the “funny,” but the dramatic:  Anthony Hopkins being imposing and regal as Odin, or the absolutely devious Tom Hiddleston as Loki (he actually auditioned for the role of Thor).  You expect excellence from Hopkins, but Hemsworth and Hiddleston both showed their talent and charm, ensuring that the film-going public would want more!  Bonus points for the shadowy cameo by Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton, Hawkeye!

With Thor: Ragnarok (2017) returning the action to Asgard, I was excited to hear that Marvel was courting Branagh to return to the helm; alas, this did not happen.  I’m still excited to see what wonders await us as Thor confronts the Norse apocalypse.

The Crow (1994)

Okay, so he’s not technically a superhero but he does meet the criteria I established beforehand.  Alex Proya directed this graphic novel adaptation which has largely only been known in infamy for the tragic on-set death of Brandon Lee.  A brutally murdered man returns to life so he can avenge his own murder and that of his fiancée, Shelly (Sofia Shinas). The story is gloomy and violent, with some dark humor and a lot of heart, courtesy of the star, Brandon Lee.  You truly feel for his character, the makeup wearing former rocker, Eric Draven.  While he enacts brutal justice on his murderers, his love shows through as he cares for a young neighborhood girl, Sarah (Rochelle Davis), and uses his new “otherworldly” abilities to cleanse her drug addict mother, making her a suitable parent once more.  The ending (spoilers) where, after having lost his immortality, the mortally wounded Draven makes his wake back to the cemetery collapsing at his fiancée’s grave.  Dying, the spirit of Shelly comes to him and they are reunited once more.  I mean, it is hard to watch without getting watery eyes.  The villains might have been one-dimensional but Brandon Lee’s final role was his finest.

However, this film is more than a great story; it has a great soundtrack, perfect for the mid-1990s and fitting for the tone of the film; still fitting if you watch it today.  The actor playing the main villain, Michael Wincott as Top Dollar, is excellent.  Seriously, give this man a sword and he’s always good for a first-rate fight sequence!  This film was a sleeper hit and worth a mention here as I feel it has gone largely unappreciated.

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