The rise of the super hero film has been one of the most exciting developments of the last 10 years for comic book fans. Sony and Pixar both were responsible for starting the mainstream ball rolling with Spider-Man, the X-Men, and The Incredibles. There have been other super hero films in the past of course, such as the Batman films of the 80’s, Dick Tracy, and Darkman, but none of those films spurred the start of a whole new genre of film the way these modern franchises have. When Warner Brothers purchased DC Comics and Marvel Comics became Marvel Entertainment that was when there was no denying that the super hero movie is here to stay. Now, Disney has bought Marvel Entertainment so the future is bright, especially since Disney already owns Pixar. Wouldn’t an animated Fantastic Four movie be great? That’s unlikely for a long time because Fox still owns the rights to that franchise, but nerds can still dream, can’t we?
Thomas Jane plays a beaten and battered man looking for revenge against the crime kingpin that had his family murdered. The Punisher was once a good cop but after everyone he loves is killed and he barely survives himself he sets out on the streets to deliver his own brand of justice. This is one of those films that won’t be appreciated for many years. The problem is that it has too many campy moments to be taken seriously and too many serious moments to be appreciated as a farce. It attempts to straddle a line between the two genres which just doesn’t work for most movie fans. There are mistakes too, most notably John Travolta as the crime lord. His brand of scene chewing just doesn’t work in this film. Also, Thomas Jane’s distractingly jet black hair dye job is just weird. If we can have a bonde-ish Bond, we can certainly have a brown haired Punisher. In the end the movie is more of a guilty pleasure than a really great film. If you go into it with those expectations you’re likely to have a good time. The funny scenes are successfully funny and the 80’s style action scenes are extremely entertaining.
Hellboy is an unconventional hero to say the least. He’s a devil with his horns sanded down and one giant stone hand. He likes to chomp cigars and beat down all sorts of monsters. He works for a secret government agency with a gothy girl that makes fire and a giant walking talking amphibian. Hellboy is played by Ron Pearlman, one of the best character actors in the business and a favorite of Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro brings his distinct style to this film combining CGI and practical effects to create easily the most unique looking super hero film made as of this writing. There’s something distinctly independent feeling about this film which jibes well with the independent comic book upon which it’s based.
Christopher Reeves was quite possibly the best casting of any super hero ever. He looked the part and his personality seemed to fit the part. Margot Kidder was also brilliant casting for this film as Lois Lane. She was equal parts spunky and vulnerable. Richard Donner, the man that previously brought us The Omen set out to do as literal an adaptation of the classic DC Comics hero as possible. The film blazed through Superman’s origin story in the first chapter in order to get Clark Kent into the Daily Planet and working alongside Lois Lane. In the film Superman faces his arch nemesis Lex Luthor, played extremely over the top by Gene Hackman. Sure, Luthor is presented a bit too campy here, but the idea that a super being’s biggest threat is a regular man is well represented. The action scenes look extremely dated compared to modern super hero films, but if you sell yourself on the era in which the film was made, there’s still a great deal of fun to be had with this film.
Bryan Singer brought the classic Marvel Comics characters The X-Men to life and returned to ramp up the action and story in a sequel known as X2. The X-Men are a group of young people that all have a mutant gene that give them special abilities. They’ve been taken into Charles Xavier’s school for the gifted to learn better how to control their abilities and to work for the equality of mutantkind. The film stars Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Ian McKellen as Magneto, and Halle Berry as Storm. Halle Berry was a horrible casting decision but at the time this film and its previous one were made, she was the biggest name attached to the film which probably helped with box office and getting a production budget. Even in Marvel’s infancy as a company, and at a time when mostly young people read comics, Marvel still wanted to tell stories from the real world and approach challenging subjects such as alcoholism and racism. The X-Men was Marvel’s way of approaching racism and Singer is able to bring that commentary from the comics into this film as well. The X-Men team with their biggest enemy, an evil mutant known as Magneto to stop a mutant hating scientist determined on destroying all of mutantkind.
Christopher Nolan successfully revived a completely dead franchise with his film Batman Begins. The problem with that film for many is that it just didn’t feature that much Batman. It was more focused on Bruce Wayne. The second film ,The Dark Knight, in its own way, still avoided focus on Batman and became a Joker movie. With that said The Dark Knight was still one of the most exciting theater experiences in 2008 with its exhilarating visuals, in particular the IMAX sequences that were actually shot on IMAX format film. In this film Batman has been protecting Gotham City for some time and he even works with some of the police, the one’s that trust him anyway. While investigating gang activity the Dark Knight meets his arch enemy, a near insane thug with a painted and scared face who calls himself The Joker. Face to face the Joker doesn’t stand a chance against Batman but he’s smart enough to try and never put himself in that position. That’s what he has an endless array of minions for. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker marks a career highlight for the actor and it was unfortunately his last role due to his death shortly after the film was complete. Hardcore Dark Knight fans will complain that this movie is so low on the list, but this is a list of super hero movies not super villain movies.
This 2004 film represents the meeting of two near iconic forces in family films, Brad Bird and Pixar. Bird is responsible for a modern day E.T. The Extraterrestrial type of story that has become a classic in its own right: The Iron Giant. Pixar, prior to The Incredibles was responsible for many CGI family films such as Monsters Inc. and Toy Story 1 and 2 to name a few. The Incredibles tells the story of a family of super heroes living ordinary lives in the suburbs since the one time super husband and wife retired from the heroic lifestyle. One day Bob gets a mysterious message that inevitably leads to not only he and his wife Helen returning to their super hero ways but the entire family also getting into the act. This film is action packed and hilarious from beginning to end. It features great voice talent such as Holy Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, and Craig T Nelson to bring these characters to life.
Kick Ass is a movie that could give mixed signals to families that don’t pay close attention. Moms and Dads may think: “Oh look it’s a movie with kids in costumes! We should take the kids to see this one!” If they paid just a bit more attention, they’d realize that this film was rated R in theaters. The film features kids but it’s not necessarily a film for young kids. In the film, a geeky teen asks the question “Why hasn’t anyone become a super hero?” It seems perfectly logical to him that someone would want to put together a costume and go out into the world with no powers or real gadgets and fight the good fight against villains. So,what you would expect to happen does. Kick Ass gets his ass kicked quite a bit. Things get more interesting when more kids put on costumes and attempt to do everything from fly to fight. Hit Girl and her father (Nicolas Cage) actually have the goods with major fighting skills and tons of weapons and gadgets. These two characters steal the movie and Hit Girl steals every scene she’s in. the film is directed by Mathew Vaughn who first gained notoriety from his U.K. gangster film Layer Cake. The film is based on a comic book series written by famed writer Mark Millar. Millar actually sold the story as a film before the comic book series was even finished.
Unbreakable is film that came out before its time by just a few years. In 2010, the super hero genre of films has matured to the level that viewers can appreciate super hero stories that are outside the traditional super hero “tights and fights” formula. Director M. Night Shyamalan is an unabashed comic book fan and he displays that fandom throughout this film starting with the title card featuring stats about comics, to the comic book style dialogue, to all of the super hero nods in the film. Shyamalan took the idea of the traditional super hero and made it more realistic and grounded with Bruce Willis playing the hero. Some people complained about Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr.’ Glass character. But ten years after the film came out, Mr. Glass feels right at home. Unbreakable remains one of the most dramatic and clever super hero films ever made. The film does feature the classic Shyamalan twist at the end but the film’s characters make the film more important than the twist unlike other films he has made.
Iron Man was long considered a B List character in the Marvel Universe. The major players were always Spider-man, the Hulk, Captain America, and the X-Men. Even being a B Lister old Shellhead has always been an important character in the Marvel U even if the mainstream didn’t really know who he was. With the Iron Man film Marvel Entertainment successfully made a B List comic book character culturally relevant and launched the film division of their company. Tony stark is a brilliant scientist who had spent his life developing new technologies for his company, a company passed down to him by his father. Stark is a charismatic heavy drinking playboy living life to the fullest until he is captured by terrorists and forced to develop a device that helps him survive shrapnel digging through his body toward his heart. The device ends up being the power source to a super suit made of metal that he designs to escape the terrorists and later refines to protect the world. The style of the film is appropriately slick but not so slick it takes away from the characters, some of the most complex in the Marvel Universe. Robert Downey Jr. owns this role, he is Tony Stark. He’s a smart ass, he’s shallow, he’s brilliant and quick witted, and he’s plagued with emotional issues. Gwyneth Paltrow perfectly plays Pepper Potts his assistant and sometimes love interest. Terrence Howard plays Rhodey an old friend of Stark’s who in the comic book universe, and in the second film, dons a new suit of silver armor known as War Machine.
The first Spider-man was a good film even with all of the hardcore fans complaining about the representation of Mary Jane in the film. The second takes the characters and story to a whole new level in action and drama. The chemistry between Parker and Mary Jane is really great in this film. The action is solid summer popcorn with a dash of Sam Raimi’s patented wit and even a small element of his classic horror styling. Few fans remembered when Sam Raimi took on the Spider-man franchise that he had already done one super hero film with his distinctly indie take on the Darkman character. This film finds Peter as Spider-man being forced to fight a lunatic scientist he once respected. One fantastic scene in particular involves Spider-man being saved by citizens. Some fans took issue with his face being revealed but the reveal was worth it in exchange for the dramatic story arc. Fans tend to hate on Tobey Maguire after the third Spidey film, but those fair-weather fans forget that he was great in the first two films. Kirsten Dunst, a source of hate for hardcore fans, is really great at playing the sweet yet tortured character (see also The Virgin Suicides) and Alfred Molina is the consummate character actor and was a brilliant pick for Doc Ock. No film has been better at portraying the tortured super hero than this one and that’s why it’s the best super hero film of all time (for now).