Sizing Up Superheroes: One Dork’s Top 10

Into the Dark - Sizing Up Superheroes: One Dork's Top 10

Aside from Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie, the comic book phenomenon really didn’t hit Hollywood until 1989. That was the summer the zeitgeist was completely sideswiped and slapped silly by Tim Burton’s Batman. After that, there were a few attempts to cash in on the craze — Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer come to mind — but nothing caught fire the way Batman did.  So superhero movies went into a bit of a slumber in the late ’90s, but the embers were fanned again by Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spiderman, and the flames haven’t died down since.  This summer alone we will see new installments in the Batman, Avengers, and Spiderman franchises, with Superman and the X-Men planning returns in 2013.  Since it’s clearly the sub-genre of the moment (prolonged as it may be), I thought I’d reflect and share my own personal top 10 favorite films based on comic books or graphic novels.

10.  300 (2007)

Into the Dark - Sizing Up Superheroes: One Dork's Top 10

Abs on parade in Zach Snyder's adaptation of "300"

When it comes to graphic novels brought faithfully to cinematic life, 300 is one to beat.  It’s the simple story of how three hundred proud Greek soldiers stood valiantly against overwhelming Persian forces in the Battle of Thermopylae.  More than anything, 300 is an exercise in style, and with its equal doses of bloodshed and ripped male torsos, it’s probably one of the most overt manifestations of sex and violence ever put to celluloid.

Fortunately, 300 appeals to more than our baser instincts — not a whole lot, but enough.  The story is a tragedy, and before it comes to a close, you actually start to feel for these guys and the families they’ll never see again.  The drama and much of the acting is over the top, but given the hyper-stylized nature of the piece, it works.  My only complaint with 300 is Tyler Bates’ music, which heavily plagiarizes Elliot Goldenthal’s fine score to Titus.  (After a lawsuit, home video packaging for 300 now comes with a disclaimer about the soundtrack.)

9.  X-Men: First Class (2011)

Into the Dark - Sizing Up Superheroes: One Dork's Top 10

Michael Fassbender (left) shines in "X-Men: First Class"

It’s easy to grow tired of superhero movies these days, but when I relapse, it tends to be with the X-Men. Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) reinvigorates things after a couple of less-than-stellar entries in franchise. The plot moves at a ridiculous pace and the connections between points A, B, and C can be a little convenient, but Vaughn succeeds in giving the movie a James Bond/Thomas Crown Affair-like tone that makes it all go down better.  Michael Fassbender sinks his teeth into the meaty role of Magneto while Kevin Bacon relishes the role of the film’s big baddie. Younger cast members Jennifer Lawrence (Oscar nominee for Winter’s Bone) and Matthew Hoult (About a Boy) bring resonance to the roles of Mystique and Beast. The third act is the best, a terrific combination of character and spectacle — precisely what an X-Men movie should be.

8.  Kick-Ass (2010)

Into the Dark - Sizing Up Superheroes: One Dork's Top 10

Aaron Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz kick ass.

A dorky teenager (Aaron Johnson) decides to dress up like a superhero and help people in need. He encounters a few other kids with similar ambitions, and before you know it, you have a hyper-violent, low-rent, joyous abomination of the superhero flick. Director and co-screenwriter Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, X-Men: First Class) takes some unpredictable turns, railing against our expectations to create some terrific edge-of-your-seat moments. Nothing is sacred here. When bad things happen to the movie’s child protagonists, you never know for sure if the kids will live or die. How many movies are able to genuinely keep you guessing like that? It’s no small feat.

Johnson gives a solid performance, but it’s thirteen-year-old Chloe Moretz who steals the show as Hit Girl, a foul-mouthed, ruthless assassin who splatters more blood and guts than any girl (or woman) outside of a Tarantino film. Nicolas Cage is back to his corny best in the role of Hit Girl’s dad. The father/daughter relationship is all at once horrifying and endearing, the dichotomy perfectly captured in their first scene together, one where ‘Big Daddy’ shoots ‘Baby Girl’ in the chest so she can learn what it feels like when bullets hit kevlar. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is also put to good use as Red Mist, a kid whose torn allegiance helps bring a little poignancy to the proceedings.

Kick-Ass is a daring, hard-R action flick, but it’s also more sophisticated and emotionally rewarding than you might imagine. In the current wasteland of remakes and formulaic panderings, it’s a breath of fresh air.

7.  The Crow (1994)

Into the Dark - Sizing Up Superheroes: One Dork's Top 10

Brandon Lee

The Crow is a dark visual delight featuring a charismatic performance from the late Brandon Lee as the title character.  (Lee died in an on-set accident before the film was completed.)  Stories of revenge always risk a boring second act where we’re forced to watch our hero slay a series of bad guys, but The Crow does a pretty good job overcoming this obstacle with some interesting characters and decent performances.

Michael Wincott is super-cool as the main villain — I’m still not sure why this guy hasn’t had a bigger film career.  Ernie Hudson is good as a sympathetic cop, and young Rochelle Davis gives a passable child performance in the critical role of Sarah, the young girl through whom we experience most of the story.

The film’s gritty violence is counterbalanced by its gothic romance, which under the direction of Alex Proyas (Dark City) achieves operatic proportions.  The movie’s soundtrack is a winning combination of Graeme Revell’s ethereal score, and a collection of tunes from the likes of The Cure, Stone Temple Pilots, and Nine Inch Nails.

6.  Batman Returns (1992)

Into the Dark - Sizing Up Superheroes: One Dork's Top 10

Michelle Pfeiffer steals the show as Catwoman in "Batman Returns."

Anything but ‘more of the same’, Tim Burton’s sequel dives into the troubled psyches of its freaky trio.  Keaton’s Batman still plays second fiddle to the villains, but what fascinating villains they are.  Burton is careful to make Catwoman and Penguin sympathetic.  He shows us how they became their alter egos and he gives them bittersweet endings.  Danny DeVito’s performance as the Penguin is often grating, and in the department of one-liners he can’t compare to Jack Nicholson’s Joker.  I’d like to have seen a bit less of the Penguin and more of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman.  Once she pours herself into that latex suit, she’s hypnotic.  The relationship between Catwoman and Batman is pleasantly kinky, especially when they recognize each other’s secret identities and can’t decide whether to keep dancing or start fighting.  Overall, Batman Returns is darker and less thrilling than the original, but it’s also more sophisticated and just a little provocative.

5.  The Rocketeer (1991)

Into the Dark - Sizing Up Superheroes: One Dork's Top 10

Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly, gorgeous in "The Rocketeer."

An underrated comic book adaptation with slick, period production design and top-notch action choreography from director Joe Johnston (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, October Sky).  There’s a gee-whiz ebullience about The Rocketeer that I find utterly charming.  Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly are attractive leads, even if their archetypal characters are somewhat shallow.  Timothy Dalton’s villainous performance recalls every handlebar-mustached baddy that ever strapped a girl to rail road tracks.  Johnston, who’s sort of a protege of Spielberg and Lucas, is a master of storyboarding action sequences.  The air show rescue and the climactic zeppelin scene are good examples of this talent.  James Horner provides a rousing score, and Marilyn Vance provides a beautiful cornucopia of period costumes.

4.  Batman (1989)

Into the Dark - Sizing Up Superheroes: One Dork's Top 10

Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton in the trailblazing "Batman."

Tim Burton’s Batman is dark, operatic, and visually spectacular.  Michael Keaton is (surprisingly) great as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, and Jack Nicholson’s Joker is one of the most perfect pairings of actor and character in the history of film.  The script is solid, shrewd in its character development, with action set pieces in all the right places and a terrific conclusion atop the Gotham cathedral.  It’s only weak point is before the climax, when the writers try too hard to resolve the romantic relationship.  I think it would have been better if Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) never learned Batman’s identity, but that’s a small quibble in a movie smorgasbord of delights like this.  Just as vital as the script and performances are Anton Furst’s set design and Danny Elfman’s rousing score, each examples of superlative movie craftsmanship.

3.  Superman: The Movie (1978)

Into the Dark - Sizing Up Superheroes: One Dork's Top 10

Christopher Reeve will always be my Superman.

I doubt there will ever be a better film adaptation for the Man of Steel.  Under Richard Donner’s (The Omen, Lethal Weapon) direction and good taste, Superman is an exciting display of action, drama, comedy, and craftsmanship.  The first forty minutes are emotionally powerful, more than any other comic book adaptation I’ve ever seen.  I get choked up every time I watch this movie, whether it’s seeing Marlon Brando (as Jor-El) say goodbye to his son before sending him away from their doomed home world, watching the Kent family deal with the death of Jonathan Kent, or the gorgeous wheat field scene where Clark tells Ma Kent it’s time for him to go.

The movie shifts gears, narratively and stylistically, when we enter Metropolis and The Daily Planet.  Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are amazing.  They capture the essence of screwball comedy in their interactions, making their budding romance more palatable, at least for me.  The scene on Lois Lane’s patio, where Lois interviews Superman for the first time, is extraordinarily well-written and performed — my favorite scene in the movie, thanks to Reeve and Kidder.

Adding remarkable luster to the fantasy are cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and composer John Williams.  If I have gripes with the movie, they all come in the movie’s last forty minutes, when Lex Luthor attempts to sink California into the ocean.  I love Gene Hackman as Luthor, but things get a bit silly toward the end.  I’m not a fan of the whole ‘spinning back time’ sequence.  The movie is so good for so long, I feel like it deserves a better ending than this.  Fortunately, it’s not enough to tarnish the movie’s brilliance too badly.  Superman’s not perfect, but it’s close.  It’s hard to find a big Hollywood movie with this much heart and soul.

2.  The Dark Knight (2008)

Into the Dark - Sizing Up Superheroes: One Dork's Top 10

Christian Bale and Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight."

Without the burden of exposition, Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception) molds his Batman sequel into a compelling crime drama that probes deep into the frightening psyches of Bob Kane’s characters.  No Batman movie, or comic book movie for that matter, has ever been so character-driven or intricately plotted.  It’s complex, emotional, disturbing, and almost a masterpiece.

I still have reservations about Christian Bale as Batman, but the rest of the cast is terrific.  Everything you’ve heard about Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker is absolutely true.  He’s manic, frightening, funny, and just plain mesmerizing.  Aaron Eckhart is also great as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, whose fall from grace becomes the bittersweet heart of the movie.  I also have to single out the brilliant sound design, which dares scaling down to complete silence or music only (without sound effects).  Composer Hans Zimmer gives the Joker a simple but chilling sound, probably the best pairing of music and character since John Williams and Darth Vader.

Three-quarters into The Dark Knight, you can taste blockbuster perfection.  But it doesn’t quite get there.  I was a little turned off by the ferry boat sequence, where the film awkwardly climbs onto a moral soap box.  I was also hoping the finale would live up to a certain piece of foreshadowing.  Alfred tells Bruce Wayne about a Burmese jewel thief, comparing the criminal to Gotham’s Joker.  When Bruce asks how the thief was apprehended, Alfred says they burned the forest down to find him.  The movie was delivering on so many promises at that point, I fully expected to see Gotham City in flames before the Joker was brought to justice.  Aside from a destroyed hospital, that doesn’t quite happen.  But even if it falls a hair shy of that promise, it’s refreshing to see a summer movie aim so high and deliver as well as it does.

1.  X2: X-Men United (2003)

Into the Dark - Sizing Up Superheroes: One Dork's Top 10

Send in the super freaks: Bryan Singer's cast of "X2: X-Men United."

After a rushed and compromised freshman outing, the X-Men finally get the royal treatment in Bryan Singer’s sequel. Guided by Singer’s good taste, X2 upholds the first film’s emphasis on drama and character, but adds the sizzle a bigger budget can provide.  This is, quite simply, a summer movie that delivers the goods.  I love the raid on Xavier’s school, Magneto’s escape from his plastic prison, Nightcrawler’s attack at the White House, Pyro’s assault on the police, and the entire third act at the dam.

The whole thing has extra meaning for me because it’s allegory for homophobia and gay rights.  That could make a movie pretentious, but I think it makes X2 more relatable, more relevant.  The movie also gains resonance from one character’s sacrifice.  It reminded me how sacrifice helped make Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan so memorable.  And then the snowy backdrop and dark dramatic turns reminded me of The Empire Strikes Back, and the involvement of the president and the White House made me think of Superman II…  Did Singer try to echo successful sequels of the past?  Probably not, but this flick can keep company with them.

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About Scott_S

Scott studied film and sociology at Indiana University and is currently the video producer for a large publishing company. He is the director of several independent films, including "House of Hope," "Off the Beaten Path," "The Day Joe Left," and "Found." For more about Scott, visit www.scottschirmer.com. Scott is also one of the principal organizers of the Dark Carnival Film Festival. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)

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