I am, by even the most gracious account, a dork. I say dork (and not nerd) simply because I’ve long since embraced my obsessions and wear them proudly on my sleeve (or chest, judging from my collection of t-shirts). Any self-aware media obsessive will tell you exactly what Nick Hornby nailed so eloquently in ‘High Fidelity’: namely that our love is both capricious and ridden with lists. If you can’t categorize and rank your obsessions of choice in a readily-brought-to-bear top 10 or 5 list at a moment’s notice, then obviously you don’t love that genre/style/medium nearly enough, and therefore your opinion becomes moot in the realm of dork/nerd supremacy.
In the spirit of embracing the innate dorkiness that informs my every thought, I’ve decided to ramp up a new weekly feature, which will cover just about any topic that comes to mind. As always, I invite any and all to contribute their own lists, either in the comments or as a guest episode. To start off, we’ll keep firmly in the dork realm with the Top Ten Superhero Movies. In coming weeks, I’ve got Top Ten lists planned for movies about rock n’ roll, tv shows killed before their time, worst sequels, best remakes, etc. etc. But let’s make with the cape and tights already. Strap in, kids. It’s a long one.
10. The Rocketeer: Way to start off with a little-loved one, eh? Coming in on the wave of greenlighted Cape films that followed the phenomenally successful Batman film in ‘89, The Rocketeer has a couple of things going for it. For one, it was based off Dave Stevens little-known company hopping short series, so audiences didn’t have any preconceived notions of what kind of movie to expect, and while both the comics and the film were a lush love-letter to the pulp serials of the 30’s and 40’s the film avoided the tongue-in-cheek approach that later films like The Phantom and The Shadow couldn’t get away from.
Bonus points are awarded for having such a kick ass character design which faithfully adheres to Stevens’ original. Cliff Secord just looked effin’ cool in the Rocketeer setup, and the FX were just peaches for the time. Of course, having Jennifer Connelly as Jenny Blake (who in the comics is nothing more than a lovely homage to pin-up queen Betty Page) helps out the eye candy factor.
Still with me? Let’s move on.
9. Hellboy: I know, I know. I had a hard time placing this so far down on the list, but as much as the character design and the face-rockingly awesomeness of Ron Perlman win me over, it’s a weak film with some very awkward spots. I’ve got high hopes for the currently-in-production sequel (Hellboy & the Golden Army), but I’m man enough to admit the faults in something I love. Thankfully, most of the plot suckiness is indeed offset by Perlman’s perfect take on Hellboy, and Guillermo del Toro shows some serious love for the source material.
8. RoboCop: Another tough one to shove so far down the list, but Verhoven’s over the top satire rings a little stale nowadays, even in the midst of so much corporate malfeasance. Otherwise, Peter Weller as Detroit’s most ass-kicking appliance wins on a lot of fronts. Once again, RoboCop just looks COOL, and that machine pistol was the tits. Of course, Kurwood Smith dropping such memorable lines as ‘Bitches….leave’, while Miguel Ferrer crawls across the floor with a face full of whore-flavored booger suger certainly ups the awesome angles. It’s a brutal and gore-filled film, and it totally tweaks out every guy’s innate love of revenge flicks.
7. X2: X-Men United: Now, you’d think a guy who was nearly raised on X-Men comics would put this up near the tippy-top, but so far they haven’t made an actual X-Men movie. What we’ve gotten are ’Wolverine, Magneto, and some people that hang around with them‘ movies, and that’s just not good enough for me.
However, X2 wins a lot of points for appropriating the God Loves, Man Kills storyline, and being a much better character study than the first film (bonus points for Halle Berry dropping her ridiculous pseudo-accent), and you finally get to see Wolverine kick some serious ass.
Throw in some Phoenix love (which would so be mangled in X3), and you’ve got some fanboy excitement that even a purist like me will enjoy. Patrick Stewart and Ian McClellan obviously enjoyed the hell out of their roles in this one, and it shows in every scene. I still take issue with the complete and utter mis-use of Cyclops as a character, but you do get to see him tear some shit up, so that evens things out.
6. Superman/Superman II: I can not, no matter how I try, separate these movies in my head. Even taking in the fact that Richard Donner and Richard Lester had vastly different ideas for their films doesn’t allow me to see these two films as separate entries. In my mind, they’ll always be a solid origin/big fight combo that deserves to be seen back-to-back without exception. Christopher Reeves, while lacking the presence my comic nerd demands of the god-like Big Blue Schoolboy, just perfectly inhabits those famous blue and red tights.
Superman is almost more a character study than an action film, while Superman II just says ‘fuck it’, and lays down the city-destroying smackdowns that comic fans have still yet to have topped in live-action cinema. Even Margot Kidder does a great job imbibing Lois Lane with the sass and pluck that Kate Bosworth seemingly left in her other pants in Superman Returns, while Gene Hackman’s very late 70’s take on Lex Luthor fits perfectly with the times. And c’mon: Terrance Stamp OWNED General Zod. ‘Kneel before Zod, Son of Jor-El’ still escapes my lips in polite conversation. I certainly believed a man could fly, and I most definitely believed that General Zod was one bad mama-jama.
5. Spider-Man: My gheyness for Spider-Man knows no bounds, and Sam Raimi tweaked my comic nerd nipples pretty damn hard with Spider-Man. Sure, I’m still pissed they didn’t go with Gwen Stacey dying on the bridge, and I’m still not sold on Spidey’s webs being part of him, but Maguire and Raimi perfectly captured the ‘powers as teenage chaos’ tip of Peter Parker’s early days. Seeing Spider-Man swing through the city that first time still catches me in the throat, so much that I don’t even mind the Green Goblin as Power Ranger getup that an otherwise excellent Willem Dafoe gets saddled with. It’s a hell of a romp, and I don’t even hate Kirsten Dunst that much in it.
4. Unbreakable: Nearly every superhero films fails in that it has to cover so much ground before the end credits. Unbreakable dodges that crunch by focusing on nothing beyond the origin story. While the story can’t tear itself away from the trappings of M. Night Shyamalan’s almost maniacal adherence to his patented formula, in this case his subdued pacing works to the film’s advantage by letting Bruce Willis’ David Dunn come to grips with his fantastic abilities. Samuel L. Jackson obviously loved his role as the villainous Elijah Prince, and both stars seem to so easily share a chemistry they’ve maintained across three very different films.
The ‘what-if’ aspect of discovering you have super powers is nearly always handled in a cursory manner, so watching Dunn go through the process of figuring out what he’s really capable of is a true joy, even if Shyamalan completely screws it up by insisting on one of his ‘twist’ endings. It’s that insistence on exploring the ramifications of power and responsibility over action and spectacle that makes Unbreakable one of my favorite superhero films.
3. Batman Begins: Were it not for the last 25 minutes, Batman Begins might have easily been my favorite superhero film of all time. Christopher Nolan breaks with a long-standing tradition by letting Bruce Wayne be as interesting a character as Bats himself, and it’s a shame that Christian Bale is never given a chance to be as imposing a Batman as he is a Bruce Wayne. Nolan also rocked my world by eschewing any and all irony, and keeping his all-star cast focused on treating the work as seriously as they would Shakespeare. Even Tim Burton couldn’t help himself from winking to the audience over the inherent silliness of a man who dresses like a bat to fight crime, but Nolan and company understand the power of the Batman mythos, and treat it with long-overdue respect.
The set design, gadgets, and oh-my-stars-and-garters that Batmobile just kicked ass, and letting the audience whet their Batmania on (an admittedly diminished) Ra’s Al Ghul and Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow is a wise choice. Sadly, the film devolves into a fairly ridiculous ‘city in peril’ plot for the finale, with the up-to-that-point great Jim Gordan being reduced to a played-for-laughs sidekick. We’ll see if Nolan can knock it out of the park with the double barrel villain explosions of The Joker and Two-Face next time around.
2. Spider-Man 2: Holy crap, but this movie is awesome. With the origin story out of the way, Sam Raimi was free to just explore the trials and tribulations of a Peter Parker who can’t juggle his responsibilities (or his guilt), but throws a hearty dose of mashed potatoes on that luscious pot roast by letting Alfred Molina give Otto Octavious’s transformation into Doctor Octopus some real emotional weight. Better CGI this time around also let Raimi up the action volume with some seriously sweet fight sequences that finally give you a clue as to just how powerful Spider-Man really is.
I still can’t stand Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson, but at least the relationship between M.J. and Petey has the right balance of tease and payoff. Everything about this film just works for me, and it was this web-slinging love fest that finally made me renounce my self-imposed sabbatical from comics and return to four color arms of my longstanding man-crush, Peter Parker. So why isn’t it #1? Because at the end of the day, it’s just not
1. The Incredibles: You’re damn right. Brad Bird’s first directorial outing for Pixar is indeed the best superhero movie ever made, and I could probably spend a good thousand words or so on why that is, but for brevity’s sake I’ll just recap the best and brightest. First off, Bird obviously has a deep and abiding love for comics. Everything about this film is steeped in comic lore, and it shows up on every frame. Three damn X-Men films, and it’s The Incredibles that finally delivers an ice slide. In your face, Bryan Singer. I mean, hell. Why would anyone think of making a live action Fantastic Four film when the Incredibles already knocked that story and dynamic out of the park? The fact that some idiot greenlit the FF movie after The Incredibles was like Hollywood serving you a melted Mountain Dew/Crabjuice Slurpee to wash down your Prime Rib.
Elasti-Girl, Mr. Incredible, Dash & Violet all get opportunities to show off the breadth of their abilities, and the sheer imagination put towards how those powers would be used is pure superhero joy. Bonus points awarded for not having a SINGLE slo-mo shot in the entire film. I don’t want to see super action slowed down. I want it at the dizzing speed it’s supposed to be, you know…cause that’s what makes it so fucking awesome and SUPER.
But even leaving aside the perfect action sequences, The Incredibles is just a great movie. There’s real depth to the characters, and even the action sequences have emotional resonance. It works as a family film, a comedy, an action film, or whatever you want to focus on. Hell, I’d even call it the best animated film produced by the United States in the last 50 years. It’s just a perfectly incredible (da-dum!) film, and one that I return to often when I want something that simply will not let me down. And really, when I can say that about a movie with Craig T. Nelson, it’s an accomplishment.
So there you have it, my dork-a-riffic rundown of the Top Ten Superhero Movies. I should probably lay down my runner-ups which were (in no particular order): Hulk, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original), The Crow, and Superman Returns. Discuss/fight/flame on.