Guillermo Del Toro is one of film’s greatest visual filmmakers working today. Hellboy creator Mike Mignola is one of the best horror comic stylists working in comics today. Combine those two talents and what you get is one of the most visually imaginative franchises in all of superhero moviedom – HELLBOY!
Ron Perlman does an admirable job in transcending his red body paint and bringing the hellspawned superhero to celluloid life. Throw in a great mix of villains with Cyber Nazis, Rasputin the mad monk and the Old Ones and you have all the makings for a classic adventure tale told in the modern magical twenty-first century.9) The Crow
James O’Barr wrote the tragic tale of Eric Draven by calling on painful memories of losing his fiance to a drunk driver one night. The creation of The Crow comic book and eventual graphic novel collection was a catharsis for O’Barr. Years later when the story was translated to film – it gained further resonance from the tragic fate of Brandon Lee. Lee had spent his life trying to escape his father’s shadow and he hoped starring in an emotionally charged superhero tale would help set him on a path away from martial arts action films and unfortunately for him that’s exactly what happened.
After Brandon’s tragic death by accidental misfire on the set of the film – firearm safety regulations were changed on every Hollywood set to insure that this sort of accident never happen again. I find it sad to think of all of the lost tales that Brandon Lee was going to bring to us – the least of which was my own script idea for reviving Bruce Lee’s story of The Silent Flute – with Brandon Lee as the lead. I try not to focus on our loss but instead on the acting legacy of Brandon Lee which culminated with the Greek level tragic tale of Eric Draven.
Lee imbued Draven with pain and suffering and a longing that resonated beyond the screen. For the hour and half run-time of The Crow – Lee becomes the instrument of revenge for everyone that’s ever felt the helplessness that comes with being a victim or losing someone you love. That is the great irony of The Crow – in losing Brandon Lee – we gained one of the most powerful tales of tragic revenge.
8) Blade 2
No one knew that when Guillermo Del Toro took over the reigns of the Blade franchise that Scott Norrington built from Marv Wolfman and Gene Coleman’s creation – that he would go on to create one of the most original, dynamic and exciting superhero meets horror adventures of all time. Del Toro was fresh from the set of his indie horror film The Devil’s Backbone which was a atmospheric Gothic tale so he set out to make Blade 2 it’s diametrically opposed hyper-kinetic opposite.
Del Toro states on the Blade II DVD commentary track that he was trying to create a live action anime along the lines of Wicked City and Ninja Scrolls. Boy did he succeed. He took the vampire genre and injected some perverse life into it by adding the rabid monstrosity of the Reapers. Bodies explode, are cut in twain in every way imaginable, blood is sucked, fathers battle sons and vampiric good battles vampiric evil. Snipes plays off Norman Reedus pre-Walking Dead and just about pre-everything else as well as the future crimson horned hero – Ron Perlman – as the leader of the Blade-hunting “Blood Pact” vampire group.
It’s everything you could want from a superhero vampire tale and one of the few superhero movies that also qualifies as a horror film. The brazen displays of martial butchery combined with the celebration of the grotesque are enough to make anyone’s gross out meter go off the scale. The Grand Guignol theatre would be proud to play Blade II on a double feature with any bill and you should too.
7) The Avengers
If there was one superhero movie that could have been very bad – it’s The Avengers. The Raimi Spiderman and Nolan Batman franchises showed that solo superhero movies could work well respectively. Ensemble cast and supergroup movies had not been as fortunate as with The Fantastic Four and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen so Marvel had it’s work cut out for them when they decided to create The Avengers franchise. They set out to build a franchise and that’s exactly what they did by building it from the ground up starting with the phenomenal Iron Man starring Robert Downey Jr., continuing with The Incredible Hulk starring Ed Norton and adding Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger to the mix along with another installment of Iron Man – all BEFORE releasing The Avengers.
That’s how you launch a franchise. Then you add writer/director Joss Whedon to helm the entire thing and what you get is a rip roaring four color superhero adventure of epic world shattering proportions! By eschewing the dark psychology of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and even the soap opera pathos of Marvel’s comics and embracing the full possibilities of a battle between otherworldly aliens and god-like superheroes Whedon and company created a family friendly adventure yarn that will please guys and gals across the board. The grosses seem to agree as The Avengers has gone on to take in over $615,373,694 (as of this writing) in the US alone! Where Spiderman and Dark Knight seem more tortured – The Avengers has fun with it all. If there was ever a perfect popcorn superhero adventure movie it would be The Avengers.
6) Iron Man
From the minute that Robert Downey Jr. was cast in the duel role of Tony Stark and Iron Man – we knew Iron Man would be something special. Director John Favreua keeps things lighthearted yet believable throughout his tale of high tech weapon barons gone amuck in Ironman. The strength of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s origin story gives Iron Man it’s superhero foundation but it’s the smile and charm of Robert Downey Jr. that gives Iron Man it’s heart. Downey gives one of the most entertaining performances of the year as the billionaire playboy dressed in the world’s most powerful weapon.
Director Favreau calls upon three major Iron Man comic book story arcs to create the perfect introductory tale of Tony Stark – combining his war torn origins (updated from the Jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Afghanistan) with the feeling of guilt at his technology being used for weaponry and finally the loss of his company at the hands of arch-rival Obidiah Stane – played deftly here by Jeff Bridges. It all adds up to give Iron Man just enough pathos, techno-fetish excitement and slam bang iron action that it can stand – all with a wink and a smile courtesy of Robert Downey Jr. I always thought of Tony Stark as being rather dry and humorless in the comics but after Downey’s portrayal as the jovial Stark he has been given a heart and warmth that he never had before making the watching of Iron Man more like visiting an old friend than watching a movie.
Here’s another superhero ensemble piece that would have been so easy to mess up and send down Miscasting-Overacting Lane alongside the Fantastic Four yet somehow Bryan Singer brought through one of the first serious, awe-inspiring approaches to superhero movies in years. Singer knew what he was getting into so he followed the template laid out by Richard Donner two decades earlier in Superman the Motion Picture. Singer kept things real and made all of the characters relate-able and sympathetic.
Singer’s casting choices did 90% of his work for him (yet sadly the same cast could not save the floundering Brett Ratner on X-Men III years later) as he used Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in the pivotal roles of Professor X and Magneto. Both men brought instant gravitas to their characters and instantly embodied the two mutant philosophies at play in the X-Universe – one to co-exist and the other to conquer. Hugh Jackman came in to bring Wolverine to snarling life and the rest of the cast was filled out nicely including a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin as Rogue.
While Singer’s direction, talented cast and state of the art special FX (circa 2000) could take the X-Men’s celluloid adventure far – what put it over the top was the Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s intrinsic struggle of the mutant outcasts. The X-Men became a symbol of the disenfranchised regardless of race, creed or religion. Anyone that has ever felt oppressed could identify with the X-Men and the audiences turned out in size-able numbers ensuring that Singer’s mutants would return.
Stan Lee’s original tagline for Spider-man was “the hero who could be you” and following the horrific events of September 11th, 2001, the United States was a country in need of a hero. Sam Raimi made his name on the indie horror scene by creating one of the most beloved horror/comedy franchises off all time – the Evil Dead Trilogy (soon to be joined by the Evil Dead remake) so when he took up the reigns to Sony’s Spider-man series – fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. Raimi had shown a love for action, splatstick, comedy and dynamic storytelling for his entire career so who better to bring Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s awkward, creepy hero with a glib tongue and a heart of gold to the screen?
Raimi played his cast cards right with Toby Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-man joined by veterans Kirsten Dunst and Willem Defoe. Raimi stayed true to the source material and used state of the art FX to bring the webslinger’s world to life. Maguire and Dunst showed a true chemistry and Maquire made the everyman struggles of Peter Parker very accessible. Spider-man is one of those rare superhero movies that never misses a beat and created a true hero for the people at a time when our country needed heroes in the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
On any given day – Raimi’s Spider-man could claim the top spot as the greatest story ever told but it is blocked from that claim by the spandex juggernauts that we have up next.
3) The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight Rises does not make this list simply because as good as it was – The Dark Knight was that much better. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy owes equal parts to Tim Burton’s celluloid take on Batman, to frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and Dark Knight Returns, and to Grant Morrison’s super detective Batman from JLA – and of course equal parts Christopher Nolan. Nolan may have modeled his Dark Knight’s adventures on the high stakes escapades of the James Bond series which has been the standard bearer for decades for high adventure but the trilogy is imbued with his trademark breakneck pacing that is rarely matched in cinema.
Superhero comics have long been reflections of current events and in Batman, Nolan saw a way to use the Batman’s tactics for a metaphor for Bush/Obama era politics. Nolan’s Batman Trilogy became a perfect storm of cast, talent,special FX, and an intellectual property with over sixty years of proven stories that captured the imagination of not only hard core comic book and Batman fans but of wider mainstream audiences from across the world.
There were many elements that went into making The Dark Knight a success and to attribute it to the brilliant performance of Heath Ledger as Batman’s nemesis The Joker does a disservice to his fellow cast and crew. But Ledger’s Joker does put The Dark Knight over the top. His layered, pained and ultimately disturbed performance as the Joker stops the movie every time he takes the screen. Ledger’s Joker takes the entire audience by surprise and leads them at knife-point into a dark and frightening place. This Joker seems more dangerous than his previous celluloid incarnations as his constant retelling of his ever changing origin tale calls to mind Henry claiming to have killed his mother in Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer and reveals a persona so fragmented that life and death no longer have meaning for him. The Dark Knight is psychologically rich and does it’s best to analyze why a man would dress as a bat and fight crime in his home town without becoming overly analytic.
In the end The Dark Knight is a high stakes battle against terrorism with thousands of lives and two men’s souls at stake that remains gripping until the pulse-pounding end.
The story of Watchmen is the story of superheroes. For years directors tried and failed to get Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece off the ground to no avail – and then along came Zack Snyder. Snyder was able to bring the entire graphic novel to life and his Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut stands as a testament to the truly epic scope of superhero tales. This is beyond Batman. Beyond James Bond. Beyond even Superman.
The initial hook of Watchmen was that it posed the question what would happen if superheroes lived in the real world? The graphic novel and the movie set out to answer that question. History would be changed and ultimately humanity would be revealed to be little more than puppets in the hands of the men that seek to save the world from itself. You want psychology, subtext, symbolism in your superhero tales – well here it is. You get the full range of personalities at play that seek to “save the world” from itself. Why would a man don a mask and fight crime? What happens to those men after twenty years? Is humanity so helplessly lost that it must be saved from itself? How far would a hero go to protect the world? How many lives should be sacrificed to save the rest?
These questions and so many more are played out in a world with superheroes in what is the single greatest superhero spectacle ever committed to celluloid in Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut. By all rights – Watchmen should be the single most important superhero movie of all time – except there is one name that is synonymous with the word superhero. . .
1) Superman the Motion Picture
There’s a reason superheroes are given the prefix of being “super” and that’s because of one man – Superman. Superman was the first costumed superhero and was such a perfect storm of artistic expression that he sprung whole and clothed from the head of creator’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The story of the ownership of Superman is long and sordid and will continue for some time to come but we as creative individuals can learn from the lessons of Joe and Jerry to never completely sell away all of the rights to something that you create. Because that something could be Superman.
Superman had a long amazing history in comics, on the radio, and even on television before Richard Donner cast Christopher Reeve to play the dual role of Clark Kent/Superman. Donner and Reeve had a lot to live up to and they delivered. The tagline was “You will believe a man can fly!” The fans so believed in Reeve’s portrayal of Superman that children in cancer wards would ask to see Superman as their last wish – and actor Chris Reeve would visit them dressed in full costume and playing the part.
For the better part of twenty years Christopher Reeve was Superman and no one was willing to follow him on to the screen. Superman was always the brightest and the best of Superheroes – and Reeve may have put on the finest performance as a superhero – ever committed to film. He is supported by veteran actors Marlon Brando as Jor El, Glenn Ford as Pa Kent, and Gene Hackman as the maniacal mad scientist version of Lex Luther and a world threatening nuclear assault making for an epic superhero adventure that maintains credulity throughout. And that is a tough task considering Superman even rolls back time at one point.
Wow. Superman the Motion Picture. Like it’s namesake it set the tone for all great superhero movies that followed in it’s wake. Go watch it again today.
Honorable Mentions: The Dark Knight Rises, Batman, Spiderman 2, X-Men 2: X-Men United, X-men First Class, Faust: Love of the Damned, V for Vendetta, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Maxx, Spawn the Animated Series, Kick Ass, Constantine, Hellboy 2, Blade, Thor, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk.