Ten Essential Superhero Films

by RISHI AGRAWAL

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In anticipation of Spider-Man 3, I thought it would be interesting to look at superhero films. I think the most fascinating thing about superhero films is that, although they have been around a very long time, it is a genre that has recently come to prominence, since technology has only recently been able to reproduce the special effects required to bring these characters to life. The best superhero films have been made in this decade, and compiling a list of films is almost a futile effort, since, if current trends continue, half the films on this list will be replaced within five years.

HISTORY OF SUPERHERO FILMS

First, some brief history to orient ourselves. Superhero films have been around a long time, almost as long as comic books themselves. In the 1940s and 1950s, superheroes were popularized through serials, including Captain Marvel, Superman, Batman and Captain America. The first real superhero film, however, was 1966’s Batman, based on the campy television show. Though I love this movie as a comedy, I wouldn’t put it on a list of essential superhero films, because it is not true to the spirit of the genre.

DC Comics had two successful franchises before the recent explosion of superhero films: one for Superman in the 1970s and 1980s and one for Batman in the 1980s and 1990s. These franchises were milked for all they were worth and then driven into the ground, a decision that made studio executives skittish about releasing more superhero movies. When Marvel started making films for their characters, they wisely diversified and made films for lots of heroes.

CRITERIA FOR LIST

For this list of films, I wanted to make a canon of sorts for superhero films. This is not a Top Ten list or the best superhero films, but merely a cross-section of the movies that are out there, which is why I present the list chronologically rather than ranked. I have provided a Top Ten list at the end of this article, but it is not the focus here. The purpose of this list is twofold: to spark some lively debate amongst fans of the genre and, for the uninitiated, present a list of films to see if you want to consider yourself “superhero literate.” I chose not to limit myself to superhero films based on comic books, for the simple reason that there are very few worthy superhero films that were not originally based on comics. It did not require too much extra effort to add those films into the mix.

There are some films which I have excluded from this list. I did not include the superhero serials because, technically speaking, they aren’t films. Besides, though I have heard great things about some of them, especially the Captain Marvel serials of 1941, I doubt they could compete with the films on this list. I also limited myself to one film per series. Technically speaking, Batman Begins is in a different series than the other Batman films. However, Superman Returns is in the same series at the other Superman films. Other heroes, like the Fantastic Four, have had more than one series, but many of those are insignificant. I will finally note, in passing, there are plenty of great movies based on comic books that have nothing to do with superheroes. Those were also excluded.

I do not want to get into a big discussion of what movies are superhero movies and which movies are not. Generally, if something is popularly regarded as a superhero movie, then it fits the category. Sure, you could make arguments that Donnie Darko or The Matrix are superhero films, but the people who think that are, generally speaking, in the minority.

Finally, I want to note the cardinal rule if you want to add a film to this list. For every film you propose to add to the list, you have to say which film you would want to take off. Sure, you could say, “You forgot Mystery Men.” However, I think you would be hard-pressed to pick a film to remove to make room for mediocre fare. Also, remember that you have to operate under the same rules that I have: it has to be generally regarded as a superhero film, and you are limited to one film per series.

THE LIST

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Superman (1978 – Richard Donner): This was really the first superhero movie to truly capture the spirit and feel of the comic books. This film is really the inspiration for every superhero movie that came after it. With its clean visual style and its nicely done special effects, this film cemented Superman as an American icon. Sure, the ending was fairly bad. Even as a kid, I remember being flummoxed watching Superman turn back time, but the image still stuck with me for decades.

Batman (1989 – Tim Burton): A dark and strange adaptation of Batman, which was much closer to the comic books than the hokey 1960s version. This film showed that people did not necessarily need their superheroes to be antiseptic. Many people argued with the choice of Michael Keaton as Batman, but he played up being moody and distracted so well that he erased the previous incarnations. Besides, Keaton’s job was to play second fiddle to Jack Nicholson, a job which he performed admirably. It is a shame that this franchise was so awful at the end, when it started off so strongly.

Blade (1998 – Stephen Norrington): This is another film of historical interest. After the Batman franchise failed and other efforts like The Rocketeer and The Phantom did poorly, studios would not touch superhero films with a ten-foot pole. Blade was an unlikely hero to reinvigorate the genre, but, in retrospect, it was the perfect choice. Blade was a minor character in the comic books that only die-hard fans knew anything about, so he did not come with excessive baggage or expectations. Throw in a Buffy-induced public fascination with vampire stories, and you have a hit. The success of Blade led to X-Men, whose success led to Spider-Man, which led to practically every other superhero movie being made now.

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Unbreakable (2000 – M. Night Shyamalan): This film, often maligned for its deliberate pacing and its dissimilarities to The Sixth Sense, puts a new spin on the superhero genre. It tells a story of a superhero in the real world, and how that world would react to him. In some ways, all superhero movies are centered on this concept, but the realities most of them present are occasionally cartoonish. This film shows you don’t need big-budget special effects to make a superhero story.

X2 (2003 – Bryan Singer): I recently read an interview with one of the stars of Fantastic Four, who said that the problem with the first film was that it had to be an origin story, which hampered its production. Fantastic Four had a plethora of problems beyond being an origin story, but, in some respects, it is true. Studios are hoping to turn practically every superhero film into a franchise, and so they always start with the origin. So, it is often the case that the sequels to superhero movies are superior to the original. X2 brought back the original cast, threw some new characters into the mix, and put it with the best story they could write, rather than telling an origin story. Superhero movies may have finally lifted the stigma of sequels.

Hulk (2003 – Ang Lee): This may not have been the action film that fans were looking for, but there are few films that presented the psychological and emotional effects of becoming a superhero better than this film. Ang Lee’s gift for creating dramatic impact as well as his visual style, which occasionally mimicked the use of comic book panels, made this a worthwhile film.

Spider-Man 2 (2004 – Sam Raimi): When the first Spider-Man movie was made, there were rumors that they wanted Dr. Octopus as the villain but special effects technology had not yet made it possible. Just two years later, it was. This was a film that had stunning action sequences and a sense of heart that rivaled many purely dramatic pictures.

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The Incredibles (2004 – Brad Bird): Perhaps the best superhero movie that was not originally based on a comic book, this animated film may have been aimed at children but had plenty in it for adults to admire. The core story of a family trying to live as superheroes is one that is exemplified by The Fantastic Four in the comic books, but somehow The Incredibles got the concept right much better than Fantastic Four. Plus, this film explored the comedic side of superheroes better than any film that I’ve seen.

Batman Begins (2005 – Christopher Nolan): Maybe it wasn’t a shame that the original Batman franchise had to die, if this was the result. If you look at the list at the end of this article, you’ll see that many consider this the best superhero film ever made. This is a film that paid respect to its source material and finally correctly captured the dichotomy of Bruce Wayne as both a playboy millionaire and a tormented avenger.

V for Vendetta (2006 – James McTeigue): Superheroes do not have to live and breathe in the real world. This film, set in a dystopian future, presents Hugo Weaving as V, a vigilante in a Guy Fawkes mask who fights a totalitarian regime. What is interesting about this film is that the hero is allowed to remain mysterious, since his perspective is rarely seen in the movie. He is never unmasked, and he shows us that a hero can sometimes be more powerful as a symbol than a person.

A MORE TRADITIONAL TOP TEN LIST

As promised, I will present a more traditional Top Ten list now. This list was put together democratically. Several people sent me their personal Top Ten lists of superhero films, which I put together to form a consensus list. There were no constraints that only one film was allowed per series, but all other rules applied. If you want to simply know what the best superhero films are, rather than the essential ones, then this list is probably more useful to you. Thanks to those who sent me a list: Angela, Gary, Mike, James, Jeff, and Nathan.

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1. Batman Begins (2005 – Christopher Nolan)
2. Spider-Man (2002 – Sam Raimi)
3. X2 (2003 – Bryan Singer)
4. Spider-Man 2 (2004 – Sam Raimi)
5. Batman (1989 – Tim Burton)
6. V for Vendetta (2006 – James McTeigue)
7. Hulk (2003 – Ang Lee)
8. Superman Returns (2006 – Bryan Singer)
9. Hellboy (2004 – Guillermo del Toro)
10. Blade (1998 – Stephen Norrington)

7 responses to “Ten Essential Superhero Films

  1. I still say hulk sucked. While I like the comic panel look and feel of the Hulk, my main problems are:
    1) Eric Banna made a terrible Banner. Too GQ prettyboy, not enough 98lb weakling. Someone like Steve Buscemi is what I think of when I think of Banner.
    2) Enough of the Father/Son Angst all ready. This movie could have played much better if you cut 20 minutes of the “I had a bad childhood with my mean old father”. I get it. Quit beating me over the head with it!
    3) Too much “talkie, talkie” not enough “smashie, smashie”. Honestly, does anybody REALLY care about Bruce Banner? No they don’t. The comic is called the Incredible HULK, not nerdy science guy. Some movies are high art, and some are popcorn fun. Ang Lee tried to mix the 2 and the result was a mess. Frankly I was bored to death till the hulk showed up. When the was beating the crap out of the tanks in the desert, I was as giddy as a 10 year old. I wanted 2 hrs of THAT hulk. The Transformers falls under this same category as far as I’m concerned. I just want a giant robot smackdown for 2 hrs. Don’t even need people. Hulk is the same for me.
    I would replace with Superman 2. This is THE movie against which all other superhero movies are STILL being judged.

  2. Well, actually, you can’t replace it with Superman 2 because that violates the “One film per series” rule. Given that constraint, since I have your Top Ten list, I suspect you’d get rid of Superman in favor of Superman 2 and replace Hulk with Hellboy.

  3. the Hulk did suck and not a fan of V for Vendetta, what about a blind Ben Afflex in daredevil

  4. Your essentials list is a very fair survey of the genre. However, in the true superhero spirit of fighting the good fight even in the face of overwhelming odds, I will accept your challenge! V for Vendetta should definitely give way to Mystery Men. No, Mystery Men isn’t a great movie, but then V for Vendetta is decidedly mediocre. Both made me laugh, but Mystery Men was the only one of the two that was supposed to be funny. More significantly for “essentials” consideration, Mystery Men shows how deeply superheroes are embedded in American pop culture. Becoming the subject of mainstream parody is an important benchmark of universal cultural recognition.

  5. I would still replace The Hulk with Superman 2 (which is superior to Superman), Drop Superman, and replace with something else. Maybe “the Mask”.
    Although Superman 1 & 2 deserve a place

  6. As much as I loved “V for Vendetta,” I’m hesitant to leave it on a list of ten essential superhero films. Alan Moore’s original tale was, in all likelihood, riffing on superhero tropes like several other stories of his do. But I think its thematic presence is small compared to the larger social commentary of the piece, particularly in the film version. “V for Vendetta” encompasses so many different ideas that it seems almost limiting to say its a superhero film. And bare in mind, this is coming from a man who owns approximately seven long boxes full of comics.

    I’d remove “V for Vendetta” and replace it with “Darkman.” “Darkman” is in many ways the precursor to the current spate of movies in this genre. Sam Raimi did a quintessential superhero story years before they became vogue. Look at all you’re given in “Darkman” that are staples to the superhero stories of the medium: dynamic camera angles, heightened drama, secret identities, headquarters creation, elaborate origin based around obscure science, etc.

    I’m also mulling on replacing “Blade” with “The Crow” since they’re both moody supernatural pieces w/ thrilling action except that “The Crow” came out four years earlier.

  7. The Crow is a wonderful movie and far superior to Blade (not a big Blade fan). However, I agree with Blade’s inclusion on the essentials list for the reasons Rishi gives in his post. I wish that The Crow had been the movie to revitalize and influence the genre the way Blade did, but sadly it wasn’t. Best of list is a different matter.

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