A top 10 list of superhero movies is fraught with danger, ranging from credibility issues to blind, tribal allegiance. I grew up with Marvel and used to hunt for the imports in all points of my local town, cycling far and wide to discover fresh territory: Swamp Thing, Howard the Duck, The Avengers, Green Lantern (DC, I know), Iron Man and the rest. I am inclined to these sorts of movies and don’t load them with critical expectation; I like them to be escapist entertainment, with some thrilling aspect (hopefully flying!), not too much beating up of either the helpless or predictably invulnerable, spiced with a touch of human condition and a recognizable weakness added in somewhere (Kryptonite doesn’t count!).
There used to be a problem of tone in superhero movies. Up to the ground-breaking X-Men of 1999 superheroes were dominated by the likes of Joel Schumacher’s hammy Batman series, where the transition from the excitement of the 2D comic into a 3D thriller didn’t come through unscathed. X-Men was a proper movie, darker, enigmatic, and a bridge into the current era of fully realized adventures in the form of juggernaut super-movies such as Dark Knight Rises and Avengers Assemble which feature superpowers with a soul, and weaknesses that emerge as an opponent from the inside. In the modern era of multiple superhero movies a character that can outwit, rather than just outblast their opponents is, ultimately, more appealing.
Some, after some agonizing, here’s the top 10, followed by some special mentions, and a few turkeys!
Director: Kenneth Branagh. Featuring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopins, Idris Elba.
This just scraped in and might have been replaced by the second movie (Thor: Dark World) but for the cheesy assault on Greenwich in London and the weak villain. This first movie has some decent otherworldly SFX, plays magnificently with Thor’s mighty hammer (a character in its own right) and brings the arrogant Gods of Norse mythology to bright, brilliant life. The movie explores Gods vs Gods, Gods vs frost giants, Gods vs humans and the perils of invulnerability, and introduces the fabulous Tom Hiddleston as Loki.
From the bug-eyed movie poster with its apocalyptic reflected views we know this is going to be special. The movie doesn’t quite meet the assumptions of the poster but the exceptional character work of Will Smith (whose 2013 After Earth was a major disappointment), and the unusual twist of an unpopular, layabout, hobo of a superhero keeps us on our toes for most of the film.
It’s bonkers, so far from any Marvel or DC Universe that it breathes good fresh air over the concept of superheroes, or in Hellboy’s case, a sort of anti-superhero. I don’t like the Nazi vibe, but love the darkness, the underground shots and the brutish humanity of Hellboy himself. And the tone and the cinematography reminds me of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, which is no bad thing.
Another movie that trades in anti-superheroes, Watchmen offers the intriguing notion of superheroes becoming so unpopular that they have to retire. The mood is dark and dirty, the characters are brutal and lack sentiment, but of all the films this one stays with me the most. It’s a very close adaptation of the DC comic masterminded by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and remains one DC’s most intriguing comic book series.
Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer, 2007.
Director Tim Story. Featuring Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis. Laurence Fishburne as the voice and Doug Jones as the motion capture for the Silver Surfer.
This won’t be a popular choice. The first FF movie did reasonably well at the box office but it’s become the child in the corner that nobody talks about. However, Jessica Alba’s pouting aside any film with The Silver Surfer will make my top 10. Amongst the many terrific and intriguing scenes in this movie the best for me is where the newly determined Silver Surfer defies his cosmic master, Galactus and drives back the planet consuming force. Even that doesn’t quite justify a top 5 slot.
This had been my number 1 superhero movie for a while, and might be again, but the competition is fierce. The best thing about the film is its very existence. Somehow Joss Whedon and co managed to harness the choreographed lead-in movies of The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, combine the egos of the immense lead characters, retain their quirks and create a successful movie that hit 1.5 billion US dollars at the global box office. Even the Hulk works well, after two disastrous movies, but I think the success is the mix of thrilling action and a healthy dose of humour; Marvel’s characters revel in exploring the flip side of a super power, teasing at the weaknesses as much as the strengths (Superman please note) and this has translated well onto the silver screen. Of course there are some great performances, particularly Tom Hiddleston who grew into his role as Loki after a solid start in Thor, his star really rises here.
It’s hard to get past the fact that Wolverine is one of my and my son’s favourite characters. From different generations we find a common bond in this particular hero. He’s not a goody-two-shoes super, he thinks for himself and he has a titanium skelton that forces its way out in moments of range and stress. What’s not to like? Perhaps it’s also something to do with the supressed rage, the ferocity vs the underlying humanity. The film’s pretty good at focusing on the isolation of such a character, and the struggle for companionship versus the danger of the same, a common theme in all the X-Men movies.
I think its the Heath Ledger performance that makes the difference. Jack Nicholson’s admirable previous performances seem cartoonish by comparison and we’re blown away by the looping madness, the creepy intelligence of Ledger’s Joker. The brooding menace even of Batman himself is also effective, turning the rubber-suited, smart-alec of the old films into a character of real depth, intriguing and self-destructive, as likely to damage as to save. The detail in the performances reward several repeat viewings and that’s rare for a superhero movie.
I don’t like war films and I don’t like firefights with boring shoot-em-ups so I feared for this film. However, it balanced action and adventure with some gutsy, passionate scenes and delved deep into the spirit of the moment, the era and the individual characters. And there are some neat tie-ups, for instance Tony Stark’s father as the technical genius behind the experimental process that turns a 97 pound weakling into a super soldier. Chris Evans is terrific as the Cap, having lost the arrogance he adopted for the Human Torch and becomes a man we admire. Even Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, which quickly became an appalling cliche in the comics, is fabulous. Oh, and the shield; really, it’s all about the shield!
Well, any of the top 5 could be number 1. This first Iron Man was a game changer. It heralded the series of movies that successfully created the Marvel Universe on film and became the slingshot that brought 1.5 billion USD for the Avengers Assemble. I think it’s the incredible range of iron suits that make it for me, from the early one built in a cave to the scintillating technology of red and yellow metal skins of the later models. Robert Downey Jr. is smooth and arrogant, flippant and profound, and as good in full flight as he is in exploiting his own impatience when trying on the new suits for the first time. Even Pepper Potts is a success, (thank you Ms Paltrow), and overall I didn’t blink once, even at the big bash and crash at the end.
Some of these are genuine contenders for the top ten, especially Spiderman (a warm, affecting film), Wanted (fabulously fast and mysterious) and Chronicle (a quirky, distressing movie). The others range from the inventive (Unbreakable) to the witty (The incredibles and Sky High). If the top 10 list had been longer I’d have covered these movies in more detail (I’d like to defend the excellent Jennifer Gardner in Elektra, for instance), but it’s hard enough shuffling the top ten amongst each other! So here are a number of other good, or singularly amazing movies. The list and basic credits follows the movie poster gallery.
- Spiderman, 2002. Director: Sam Raimi. Featuring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe.
- Sky High, 2005. Director: Mike Mitchell. Featuring Kurt Russell.
- Chronicle, 2012. Director: Josh Trank. Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan
- Unbreakable, 2000. Director: M. Night Shyamalan. Featuring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson.
- The Incredibles, 2004. Director: Brad Bird. Featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson.
- Elektra, 2005. Director: Rob Bowman (X-Files). Featuring Jennifer Garner, Goran Visnjic, Will Yun Lee.
- Wanted, 2008. Director Timur Bekmambetov. Featuring Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman
- Man of Steel, 2013. Director: Zack Znyder. Featuring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon.
- Iron Man 3, 2013. Director: Shane Black. Featuring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce
- Dark Knight Rises, 2012. Director: Christopher Nolan. Featuring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway.
- Blade, 1998. Director: Stephen Norrington. Featuring Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson.
- Batman Begins, 2005, Director: Christopher Nolan. Featuring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe.
- Darkman 1990. Director: Sam Raimi (Evil Dead and Spiderman). Featuring Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Colin Friels.
- League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 2003. Director: Stephen Norrington. Featuring Sean Connery, Stuart Townsend, Peta Wilson.
- Spiderman 3, 2007. Director: Sam Raimi. Featuring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco
- Kick Ass, 2010. Director: Mattew Vaughn, featuring Chloë Grace Moretz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Nicolas Cage making a rare fist of actually acting on screen.
- Green Hornet, 2011. Director: Michel Gondry. Featuring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz.
I’m one with Sheldon on this, Green Lantern is the biggest turkey of all, although perhaps he had the good sense not even to try Barb Wire (a perfectly respectable Dark Horse comic). And back to that tone thing of the intro to this post, it’s the Joel Schumacher era Batman that gives the game way: superhero movies are most successful when there’s something for us all to identify with.
- Green Lantern, 2011. Director: Martin Campbell. Featuring Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard
- Batman and Robin, 1997. Director: Joel Schumacher. Featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Thurman.
- Batman Forever, 1995. Director: Joel Schumacher. Featuring Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Chris O’Donnell, Nicole Kidman
- Catwoman, 2004. Director: Pitof (The City of Lost Children). Featuring Halle Berry, Sharon Stone.
- Tank Girl, 1995. Director Rachel Talalay. Featuring Lori Petty, Ice-T, Naomi Watts.
- Ghost Rider, 2007. Director: Mark Steven Johnson. Featuing Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Sam Elliott.
- Barb Wire, 1996. Director: David Hogan. Featuring Pamela Anderson.
- The Hulk, 2003. Director: Ang Lee. Featuring Eric Bana.
- The Shadow, 1994. Director: Russell Mulcahy. Featuring Alec Bladwin (whose best role remains the typecasting odious neighbour in Cat in the Hat). Just too hammy and old fashioned to be taken seriously any more
- The Spirit, 2008. Director: Frank Millar, featuring Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johanssen, Sam Jackson.
I hope you enjoyed this swift run through of the Top 10 Superhero Movies. if you have any suggestions, please let me know below.
Coming soon, Top 10 Fantasy Movies, Top 10 Horror Movies and more!