Friday, April 27, 2012
Written by Kirk Baird
The Avengers kicks off this summer's film season and is one of three hotly anticipated superhero films releasing in the next three months along with The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man. But it’s not all skin-tight suits and masks to be a good superhero film—for every Dark Knight there’s a Batman and Robin. Here are some of the best from the genre:
Superman (1979): At the time of its 1978 release this was the biggest superhero movie of all time. The film with the slogan “You will believe a man can fly” was also the first superhero movie that got it right. Richard Donner’s film strikes the perfect balance between reverence for the Man of Steel and lighthearted fun, and newcomer Christopher Reeve embodied the look and spirit of Superman as none before or since. But Superman isn’t just Reeve’s movie; a marvelously hammy turn—some might say a bit too campy—by Gene Hackman as Superman’s arch nemesis Lex Luther, and scene stealer Ned Beatty as Luthor’s dimwitted assistant Otis are just a few of the “other” highlight performances. Superman 2, while it doesn’t soar quite as high as the original, remains a worthy sequel as well.
The Dark Knight (2008): Batman has at three separate moments redefined the superhero film. In the 1960s on TV and with a feature film, Adam West introduced Batman as celeb-happy campy fun for kids and adults. That cartoony image and “bat-tastic” lingo stuck around for years—until Frank Miller’s groundbreaking graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 redefined the hero as a grim force of violence and vengeance.
Batman as a sociopathic hero inspired the look and feel of Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989. Burton amped up the dark and brooding and pondered what would compel a billionaire playboy to hide behind a black mask and cape and fight crime. Then Christopher Nolan made the darkest superhero film yet, The Dark Knight, including an iconic, Oscar-winning performance by Heath Ledger as the immoral and catalyst-for-chaos Joker. Can Nolan possibly top his 2008 classic? We have only until late July to find out.
X-Men (2000) and X-2 (2003): Filmmaker Bryan Singer’s two X-Men movies, like the comics about the mutant heroes that spawned them, are all allegory. But the films combine said allegory with impressive effects, clever stories, and fine acting by most of the cast—James Marsden as Cyclops never really fits the role—that make the first two X-Men movies so entertaining.
Just as superhero movies were devolving into campy treatments again, Singer resurrected the idea of real-world superheroes by treating their comic-book world seriously on film. If Superman made you believe a man could fly, the first two X-Men movies made you believe that mutants with incredible powers walked among us. Unfortunately for the series, Singer left before completing his trilogy and director Brett Ratner took over in 2006 with his mutant version of the movies, X-Men: The Last Stand. The 2011 X-Men prequel, X-Men: First Class, however, got the series on track again, with Singer back on board as producer.
The Incredibles (2004): Brad Bird didn’t have much box-office luck with his debut animation film in 1999, the painfully overlooked The Iron Giant. So he joined the Pixar brain trust and with his first feature at the animation studio made a film about a nuclear family of four superheroes burdened with some of life’s most mundane problems: having a job you hate, being invisible to others, the stresses of raising a family. In place of too many wink-nod moments to the audience, there was considerable heart and fun, along with some splendid animation and battle sequences. The Incredibles is the Fantastic Four movie everyone wishes had been made—including Marvel.
Unbreakable (2000): At the time of Unbreakable’s release, its director M. Night Shyamalan was at the peak of his career with the unexpected 1999 blockbuster The Sixth Sense. Unbreakable showcased a more mature filmmaker who delivered a tense thriller full of surprises, including his signature twist ending. The film explores the origins of an ordinary man played by Bruce Willis who discovers he has unique powers. Samuel L. Jackson has a blast as the would-be hero’s mysterious purple-clad adviser. It’s a shame there was no sequel, though given Shyamalan’s track record lately with The Lady in the Water, The Happening, and TheLast Airbender, maybe that’s for the best.
Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004): Technology and Sam Raimi made the Spider-Man movies something special. Special effects created a convincing Web crawler-slinger, and the filmmaker delivered movies that were more than summer-event releases as he deftly weaved drama and character arcs throughout the action-packed spectacle. Unlike many superhero films, the antagonists never get in the way of the protagonist, but only add to his story of triumph over adversity in super villain form. A sturdy cast that buys into the make-believe world also helped audiences buy into the movie. Unfortunately, everyone stuck around for one film too many with 2007’s Spider-Man 3, an excessive, more-is-worse anticlimax to the first two films that’s in a rush to get to the ending.
Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010): Has there ever been an actor born to play a superhero more than Robert Downey, Jr., as Tony Stark/Iron Man? The smart, witty actor brings those same traits to the role, delivering an acerbic, bright, and petulant billionaire playboy found of booze, women, and wearing a one-of-a-kind armor suit tricked out with rockets, lasers, and enough gadgets to make Batman jealous. The films’ Achilles’ heel is its villains: neither Jeff Bridges in the original nor Mickey Rourke in the sequel were particularly memorable opponents for the man of iron. But Downey is having such a blast in the role—and is such a blast to watch—none of it really matters. Look for Downey as Iron Man in the upcoming The Avengers.
What do you think? What's the best superhero flick?