Superheroes. They’re everywhere these days. It’s like nerd nirvana, the likes of which seemed laughably impossible just two decades ago. Aside from a few dalliances with superheroes every now and then, Hollywood kept away from them for a few reasons. Budgetary issues, as the money needed to spend to get these stories on to the screen would be astronomical back then.
Technical issues was another, as these heroes are capable of beyond human comprehension feats and the tech wasn’t really there back then, with Superman’s rickety wire rig in the 70’s being the high point for tech. But maybe the biggest issue was a business wide distaste for the entire concept of superheroes. Studios run by old men who grew up in a time where comics were looked down upon as dreck for the unwashed masses, it was essentially impossible to convince these men of the possibilities inherent in these properties.
Superman in 1978 was a damn near miracle, as it was even made but that it was given the budget and its A list status. The output didn’t gain much traction after that iconic movie, nor did it do so after Batman in 1989. But it was towards the end of the 90’s when things started to change. Blade showed that there was a different way to do these things, to move outside of the tone and structure that Superman had set forth all those years ago. They could be more.
And then when X-Men came out in 2000, the first real push (as slight as it was in hindsight) towards a more outwardly sci fi story within comic book cinema. One that had a weight to it. More and more, the pace of these movies coming out was ratcheting up. There may have been a bit of a lull towards the mid/end of the 2000’s, with a stagnancy cropping up in them.
But 2008 was an explosion that has changed cinema forever, comic book cinema becoming the de facto high money potential property for whatever studios were in possession. Now we can’t go a season without seeing at least two superhero movies in theaters, summer season being the season with the highest traffic. Now that we are so deep into this whole thing, shared universes are taking over to fully cement how ok regular audiences are with comic book storytelling.
With two more superhero movies to come by the end of the year (Thor:Ragnarok and Justice League) that represent a kind of movie that would have been unfathomable during the 80’s or 90’s, it seems like a good time to take a look back at cream of the crop of this subgenre of blockbuster cinema. The movies that we can point to and say have forever impacted how these movies are told and have shaped where we are today.
10. Superman: The Movie
The granddaddy of it all. It’s amazing that this movie even worked at all, let alone as well as it did. If you look back to the intro here, it’s laid out why a movie like this was a miracle in the 70s. While most of the technical achievements that were groundbreaking then look chintzy now, it still works somehow. It’s a charming element that helps the entire tone of the movie, one of which is a golden hue look back at a more nostalgic time. Like a comic book version of a Norman Rockwell painting.
The first half of this movie is pure perfection, the absolute perfect execution of a Superman movie. Seeing the destruction of Krypton and the youth of Clark Kent in Kansas is spectacular. So perfect that it has influenced all Superman stories since. While the movie may take a big dip in quality in the back half, it’s still got stuff that works. It’s that idyllic tone, but mainly it’s the still high water mark performance by Christopher Reeve. He was an absolutely perfect choice for them, still who people use as a barometer for casting in these comic book movies.
And there is no going against the truly iconic work that John Williams did on this score, still one of the best ever. The movie hit like a bomb when it came out, is still a massive influencer on these things and has changed movies and comic books forever. While it may have some flaws, it is too important and has too many perfect elements within to not be in the top 10.
9. Blade II
The first Blade movie is a much more important movie to comic book cinema that it is given credit for, as it was a hard R kung fu vampire movie that didn’t make as much bank as the soon to be released X-Men or Spider-Man would. But it’s a great movie that would help to push comic book cinema forward.
A second movie coming out wasn’t all that big of a surprise, but the real surprise is that it jumps ahead of the first Blade by leaps in bounds to become a masterful action movie that leaves the original in its dust. That is likely due to the fact that master director Guillermo Del Toro would take the reins to make a movie that expands the world and adds a good heaping of moral complexity to the narrative.
Right out of the gate, the movie is a much more luscious visual affair, as it has a much richer budget and a better director to really take advantage of it. Then there’s the action, which jumps up considerably as well, almost immediately too. Although to be fair, nothing in the movie manages to top the Blood Rave from the first movie. But this ones action beats the originals other action scenes.
The narrative is also much better, as it isn’t a post production chop job by a skittish production company. Pitting Blade and regular vampires against a new breed of super vampires, it adds to story by making everything off balance.
Which way is up? Enemies become allies until everything is revealed to be just as simple as Blade always knew it to be. Mixing the energy and style of Guillermo with the fantastic world of Blade, we get one of the most high octane action movies of the last 20 years and one of the most original comic book movies to hit the screens.
8. The Avengers
The culmination of Marvel’s initial experiment with world sharing, Joss Whedon came in and delivered one of the best and most crowd pleasing blockbusters of all time. Featuring some of the best moments in comic book movie history that just slays a crowd, it is perfectly calibrated pop filmmaking.
Taking all the heroes we had come to know up till that point, Whedon manages to overcome any potential issues of overcrowding to give everyone a chance to shine and to tell what is a essentially a very simple story. Like Superman before it, it has some issues that can hold it back from true perfection. The first half is a little less perfectly calibrated as the second half.
The visual style is a little too close to TV, Whedon’s background not graduating to the big leagues just yet. Loki being turned into a joke that gets clowned on by everyone, with no real stakes to it. The chitauri just being a mindless horde that doesn’t really measure up to much. But it all gets pushed to the side because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The whole ride is just fun, taking you by the hand and just propelling you into non stop joy.
The cast is perfect, the action is great and gives everyone a moment to really shine, and it stands on its own. It delivers without hindering itself by hinting at the future. It’s the best thing to come out of Marvel’s Phase 1 and one that allows future Marvel movies to take bigger risks and be original.
7. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2
This movie is so dense with jokes and action and themes that it can be overwhelming. A first viewing may make you think that it is good but nowhere near as good as the first one. But rewatches have treated this movie really well, as it is a perfectly calibrated movie that is so much richer than it has any right to be. A movie about the damage of the past, about broken fathers, about family coming together. This is no simple empty romp. For all the low brow jokes, this movie isn’t stupid. It’s a heartbreaker in the midst of all the hilarity.
James Gunn doubled down on everything he did in the first one to make a richer and more interesting movie. Every single returning character is better this time out (except for Pratt, really up against the limits of his talents). The new characters are fantastic, with Kurt Russell’s Ego being maybe the best villain Marvel has in their movies. The visuals are eye popping, these bright colors that would never be seen in the dreary Earthbound movies featuring Captain America. The action is amazing, another high point for Marvel who tends to struggle with legitimately thrilling action sequences.
Everything in this movie is perfect. The fact that the movie can end on a CGI raccoon crying is really special. Fun and funny and thrilling and emotional and heartbreaking. This movie is everything and should be looked at on how to handle a group movie.
6. The Lego Batman Movie
Somehow, someway, the team behind this movie managed to make a movie that could be legitimately argued to be the best Batman movie ever. At the very least it’s the best Batman movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, the true successor to the 60s tv show that is filled to the brim with Batman history to be the perfect little package for all ages.
The only movie to really take advantage of the Bat family and really dive into the why’s of the Bat family. Can Batman be happy and still be Batman? That’s the question at the heart here and it’s one that is tackled really well. Will Arnett is perfect as the Bat, a doofus bro version of batman. One that is still really haunted by the death of his parents, but not in an emo way. He’s just a loner and really full of himself, unable to connect out of fear. But when a family is essentially thrust upon him, he opens himself up to it and grows. Aside from the smarts, the movie is just so god damn funny.
It’s a joke a minute and every joke lands. The references are abound and they make real hay out of the outlandish history of the bat and DC comics. And they also manage to get really thrilling in the climax. It’s a perfect movie that can work for all ages. More filmmakers need to look at this movie for its obvious love of its characters and for how it melds theme with storytelling/heart.