Superhero movies have become something of a cinema staple over the last few years, with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy standing as the event series of the decade and Marvel’s clever multi-movie run up to The Avengers dominating cinema screens for the past few summers. And now with the upcoming Man of Steel set to revitalise the tired Superman franchise and become the next big thing, it seemed fitting to look back over the genre and highlight some of the more interesting movies in the superhero canon.
5. X2 (2003)
The first X-Men movie came out back in 20o0, before the studios caught on and the superhero craze really began. It was a small movie hampered by its multi-character storyline and need to build a lot of universe within a short space of time. Bryan Singer’s follow-up, X2, served as a far superior sequel and one of the best superhero movies around. With the clumsy world-building out the the way, the film is able to flow easily into the next big adventure – the origin aspects, always the slowest part of the genre, wisely left in the first movie. And so we’re presented with a great ensemble cast – Hugh Jackman’s fiery tempered Wolverine a great action anti-hero, along with Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and Ian McKellen’s Magneto, the two-actors bringing a great deal of class to their opposing roles. There are some fantastic set-pieces here – from the opening teleportation-happy attack on the White House, Magento’s escape from plastic prison, and the excellently balanced fight between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike. Stakes are high throughout and the film benefits from a great villain – Brian Cox – with an unconventional plan, as well as some interesting metaphors between homosexuality and being a mutant – the ‘coming out’ scene a great example of this. It’s a shame Singer left the franchise for the ill-fated Superman Returns, as X2 ends on a geek-hysteria inducing cliffhanger which isn’t followed up in any kind of satisfying way with the poor second sequel. An interesting ensemble movie highlighting how strong the genre could be.
4. Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton’s first Batman movie was a huge cinematic event at the time, with Burton reinventing Batman in the public consciousness and burying all memories of the campy Adam West years. It was the first big superhero movie, the first which let studios know how much money was at stake, and interesting because it was dark, fairly brutal, and aimed at adults. It altered perceptions. Burton however wasn’t interested in a second movie, believing he’d said all he could about a man in a batsuit, until Warner Brothers offered him complete creative control of the film. The result was certainly interesting and certainly not what the studio expected – Burton made the anti-superhero movie, a dark, carnival freakshow featuring three completely insane characters (The Penguin, Catwoman, and yes, Batman) in a German-Expressionist hell, accompanied by Danny Elfman’s haunting, silent-movie inspired score, the composer’s best work to date. It wasn’t a family friendly movie in the slightest, featuring a child-murdering monster as the villain, Michelle Pfeiffer in an unhinged and wonderful role having a complete mental breakdown, and an apathetic Batman who struggled with duality; Keaton’s Batman wasn’t human in the same way Bale’s was, Keaton’s was a man disconnected from the world. And whilst the film does fall into camp, it’s so aesthetically well put together – with sweeping sets and expressionist lighting, working as a semi-operatic look into the darker elements of the genre. In some ways, Returns, made by Burton back when he made good movies, is the great antithesis of the genre. It’s ultimately more Burton than superhero movie and comic-book fans hate it, but it’s certainly more cinematically stylish than Nolan’s movies.
3. The Incredibles (2004)
What’s interesting about The Incredibles is that the film isn’t based on any existing material – there’s no comic book history to draw from here, this is an entirely original creation. But despite being new, the movie retains a great many of the superhero tropes – with each of the main characters neatly falling into a specific and well-established power archetype. This was a movie made by people who grew up reading comic books and it feels like a loving homage, with the slight nods towards parody clearly coming from a positive place, and some very creative ideas on show: superhero’s saved citizens suing for damages is a fantastic and imaginative concept, and the family-drama beneath the action adds a great deal of heart to the movie. The action scenes are incredible, with Brad Bird proving himself the perfect man for the director’s chair, and the animation allowing for situations almost impossible to pull off on film. The whole movie is put together with such frenzied energy that audiences are swept along enthralled from beginning to end. The Incredibles stands as one of the better Pixar movies (that’s saying something) and really, is the only one in the house’s canon begging for a sequel. We get a second Cars movie and Monster Inc. but no Incredibles 2? Someone go sort that now.
2. The Avengers (2012)
The Avengers was something of a surprising gamble on the part of Marvel Studios. In the run up to the movie’s release, Marvel built the foundations for it with a series of interlocking superhero movies – Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and possibly The Incredible Hulk. Whilst none of these movies were bad as such – all are very competent and well-made for what they are – they lacked identity, and there wasn’t enough about them to stand up beyond being a summer movie you see, like, and forget all about. The Avengers didn’t have a strong foundation in this regard and fans feared a dull, bloated ensemble which was sure to be a let down. But somehow, the opposite occurred. Joss Whedon, best known in cult circles for the excellent Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was the perfect man for the job – managing to create a summer-friendly but incredibly well constructed action movie. The Avengers is endlessly watchable, filled with a great deal of energy and containing Whedon’s trademark self-deprecating meta-humour, which serves to make the movie very funny, and provide a much needed sense of identity. The ensemble works fantastically and everyone gets not just a look in, but numerous moments to shine. Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark serves as the charisma of the movie, Chris Evans grows into his Captain America role as the heart of the team, Mark Ruffalo finally gives the world a great screen Hulk, Thor is a funny and loveable force in the centre and Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson are strong too, Johansson’s Black Widow, in true Whedon fashion, a fantastic female character. Tom Hiddleston is a smooth and smarmy villain. The cast have great chemistry, the script and dialogue are top-notch, and the action scenes stunning. The stakes as a whole are fairly low, but this isn’t that kind of movie – this a summer blockbuster done right, and Whedon succeeds in bringing the fun back to the genre without expense of dignity. Probably one of the most fun movies to see in cinemas in recent memory.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
After Burton’s dark and utterly unmarketable Batman Returns, the studio panicked and decided to lighten things up, highering Joel Schumacher to drag the series screaming back to its 60s campness. Forever was awful, but made money, and the follow-up, Batman and Robin, quickly became something of a running joke as the worst movie of recent times and the studio naturally buried the franchise. Years later, Christopher Nolan, a man known for tense thrillers, turned to franchise and pulled it not just back to its roots, but back to its seeds. Batman Begins was a smart, measured little movie which reintroduced audiences to the mature Batman, a reboot – back when audiences didn’t know the meaning of the word – which proved Batman still had it. Begins was a good movie without being stunning, but it laid the groundwork for the incredible The Dark Knight, which became the big event movie of 2008. It wasn’t just dark like Burton’s Batman, it was gritty, grounded in reality, with Nolan refusing to indulge the comic book genre, instead focusing on creating a tense, plotted movie with actual characters, essentially taking B-material and treating it seriously, an idea which has influenced every superhero movie since. The movie works as a look into chaos, chance and reason, as well as a comment on terrorism in a post-9/11 world and the means of combating it, with Christian Bale’s worn-down Batman versus Heath Ledger’s frenzied madman, an unsettling and deeply disturbing version of the Joker and probably one of cinema’s greatest villains. This is a bleak movie, with more in common with Heat than Batman, and goes to prove how strong the genre can be when treated with respect. The follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises, was an excellent movie too.
So there’s the run down of the best the genre has to offer – five very different movies which illustrate the versatility of the superhero. Here’s hoping Man of Steel finds a place on the list.