We are living in the Marvel Age of Cinema. Every year we’re treated to a couple of superhero films and most of them aren’t half bad. We asked movie & comic geek and author Michael Minneboo to perform the Herculean task of choosing his five favorite superhero movies. To make this an as objective as possible exercise, he committed himself to five self-imposed criteria.
1. The adaptation must be a movie, not a tv film or series.
2. It must be a ‘serious’ adaptation, no parodies or comedies in this Top 5.
3. I’ve limited myself to movies about characters that are generally known as superheroes. Meaning; Superman, Spider-Man and Batman could be part of the selection. But the characters from ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ are not, for not being considered classic superheroes. (I am not sure if we could consider them superheroes at all, to be honest).
4. The movies must be live-action, not animation. But I promise to look at the best animated superhero movies at a later time.
All right, let’s get started!
1. Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)
The first Spider-Man movie was a great introduction to the loveable superhero that has been around ever since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created him in 1962. Director Sam Raimi, the screenwriters, and the superb cast hit all the right notes in the second installment of the trilogy. Spider-Man/Peter Parker (a wonderful Tobey Maguire) is a relatable superhero trying to balance his responsibility as a savior of the innocent with his responsibilities of every day life: his duties as a student, as a best friend to Harry Osborn and potential love-interest Mary Jane Watson, and as a part time freelance photographer and pizza delivery guy. His nemesis is not some baddy who wants to conquer the world, but Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a nuclear scientist that dreams of perfecting sustained fusion power to provide the world with an unlimited energy source. He’s also the sort of scientist Peter Parker aspires to be. After Octavius’ experiment goes wrong and he turns into Doctor Octopus, Spider-Man will have to fight his surrogate father figure to prevent him from blowing up the city.
‘Spider-Man 2’ provides great and well-executed action sequences – the confrontation between Ock and Spidey on top of a train is an instant classic – but also interesting character development. The mixture of action, humor and romance is just right. Just like the Spider-Man comics, the focus is on Peter Parker and the supporting cast and how their lives are affected by Spider-Man’s duties. To me, that makes it the greatest superhero film adaptation to date.
2. The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)
Like I said in the intro: this is the Marvel Age of Cinema. Kicking off with surprise hit ‘Iron Man’ (Jon Favreau, 2008) and solo movies of Thor and Captain America, all movies lead to ‘The Avengers’. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow reluctantly team up under the guidance of Nick Fury to fight the Asgardian Loki and an extraterrestrial race known as the Chitauri. Just like in the comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the alternative family dynamic comes across perfectly: in the beginning the ego’s and personalities of the heroes clash a lot, which makes for great scenes with funny dialogues and character dynamics.
To me, ‘The Avengers’ still is the ultimate superhero team movie. Joss Whedon’s strengths as a director and a writer (Buffy, Firefly) is being able to work with groups of characters and give each character his own little moment to shine. Also, he’s able to balance action and humor in quick paced storytelling, never forgetting that under the armor, the green skin and the superhero outfits we are dealing with real, rounded characters. Robert Downey Jr.’s cocky yet charming Tony Stark is one example of great casting. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is sexy, smart and dangerous, and Mark Ruffalo is the best cinematic Bruce Banner/Hulk to date.
3. X-Men 2 (Bryan Singer, 2003)
One could argue that the current trend of superhero movies started with ‘X-Men’ (2000) by Bryan Singer: finally a Hollywood director who really gets what the comic book material is all about, who made a serious, believable adaptation that didn’t make comic book fans feel ashamed. Remember, we were still licking our wounds after the 1997 ‘Batman & Robin’ debacle – a movie responsible for catapulting comic book fandom back to the realm of camp and gay jokes.
‘X-Men’ had a perfect cast with Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, the telepathic mutant mentor of the X-men, Ian McKellen as nemesis Magneto who thinks mutants are superior to humans, and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Then, Singer made an even better X-Men-film in 2003. The X-movies deal with super-powered mutants that are considered a threat to society. The great thing about Singer’s X-Men movies is the fact that, although we’re dealing with a large cast of characters, most of the characters are allowed to develop.
The storyline centers on Wolverine who is trying to find out what happened in his past and how he got his adamantium skeleton and claws. Meanwhile, the other X-Men have to deal with Colonel William Stryker, a military scientist who plans a worldwide genocide of mutants. Interestingly, Stryker is connected to Wolverine’s past, bringing both plotlines neatly together in an eye-catching and spectacular climax that features Wolverine versus his female counterpart Lady Deathstrike.
‘X-Men 2′ is a great translation of the comic book page to the silver screen, keeping the comics’ grand themes of alienation and fear of the other intact in a very entertaining and well executed blockbuster.
4. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
I will always have a soft spot for Tim Burton’s Batman movies because they look wonderful and are a lot of fun. The wonderful Michael Keaton plays the titular character in Burton’s movies, but Christopher Nolan directed the best Batman film to date when he made ‘The Dark Knight.’
It is the second installment of his trilogy about the protector of Gotham City – a character that has been around ever since Bill Finger and Bob Kane created him for the funny pages in 1939. Heath Ledger is phenomenal as the Joker. To me, it’s the first time the Joker is really scary in live-action. He is a destructive force of chaos, with apparently no origin.
The tone of the Nolan films is very serious and his take on Batman is the darkest and grittiest by far. Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) looks as horrific as an extra from ‘The Walking Dead.’ At the same time the movies strive for a high level of cinematic realism. I love Gary Oldman as James Gordon. Christian Bale plays a great Bruce Wayne and is imposing as Batman. Too bad Batman talks like he is trying out to be a ‘grunter’ for a Black Metal band. Other than that, and even though the next Batman flick wasn’t up to Nolan’s high standard, ‘The Dark Knight’ is a must see for all Batman and comic book fans out there.
5. Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978)
‘Superman: The Movie’ is a very well executed retelling of Superman’s origins, his first heroic deeds on earth and his confrontation with arch enemy Lex Luthor. By today’s standards, the special effects in Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ look very dated, but back then they were top notch and really made people believe a (Super)man could fly.
Superman is a classic character: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the first superhero starting a new genre in 1938. This movie adaptation from the late seventies basically started the genre of superhero movies. Although there had been adaptations before, most notably the 1966 Batman TV series and spin-off film with Adam West, it was Donner’s film that convinced Hollywood that comic books could be a great source for highly successful films. Christopher Reeve plays a charming and disarming Superman and Clark Kent – or any actor that came after him – hasn’t topped his performance yet.
Due to the family-friendly and light tone, ‘Superman’ works on two levels: excitement for the kids, as well as a good-natured tongue-and-cheek approach to a colorful hero in tights. Gene Hackman brings us a handsome yet menacing Lex Luthor and Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent have great chemistry together. ‘Superman’ has a lot of heart and that’s the pivotal ingredient that Zack Snyder’s gritty, dark and boring ‘Man of Steel’ sadly lacked.
Michael Minneboo is a comics expert, journalist and blogger. He has been a Spider-Man-fan for over 30 years. In 2017, his book 'Mijn vriend Spider-Man: Superhelden, geeks en fancultuur' (My Buddy Spider-Man: Superheroes, geeks and fan culture) was released. He blogs about comics and popular culture on http://www.michaelminneboo.nl. On Twitter he is @MichaelMinneboo.