It goes without saying that lists like these are extremely subjective and specious. After all, what may be the greatest film of all time for a sixteen year old girl won't hold any interest for a forty year old man. And, usually, vice versa.
But super hero movies are a new kind of genre. They cut across demographics, age lines, and nostalgia to sort of bounce around in the pop cultural zeitgeist as their own thing. How do you objectively, or even subjectively, talk about them?
For me, it comes down to one thing, and one thing only: is the character being shown in the movie someone I recognize from thirty plus years of reading comics? That's the litmus test for me: Did they get the character right? Can I walk out of the theater and say to someone who's not a career comic book fan, "Yeah, this is why I like comics, right here, in a two-plus hour chunk. Enjoy!"
Listed below are my top 5 super hero movies that get the character(s) right without embarrassing the comic book readers of the world.
5. Hellboy (2004)
Director Guillermo Del Toro was the perfect choice to direct this quirky monster-fest. He knew right away that the only guy you could put in that make-up who could pull it off would be Ron Perlman. And he was right. He also knew the importance of keeping the Nazi bad guys, the tentacles, and that dry, wry, been-there-done-that tone to the movie. As bizarre as it sounds, we needed to hear Hellboy say, "Aw, crap," as proof that he under-estimated the boogum--again.
Granted, some things got changed, but it was mostly the window dressing around Hellboy, and not Hellboy himself, that morphed to accommodate the movie structure. When the monster stuff starts, out come the big guns, the punches, and of course, the ropey Lovecraftian nuttiness that makes the comic so much fun.
4. Batman: The Dark Knight (2008)I don't anyone would argue that this is Heath Ledger's movie, from the second he shows up onscreen until long after the movie is over. That's not a slight against anyone else in the film, but Ledger's Joker is such a radical departure from any other version of the Joker we've seen on film--and yet, is still unmistakably the Joker! It's a much more dangerous sense of humour, granted, and none of the loony stuff that went on even in Tim Burton's Batman movie. Mostly, this film delivers the Batman movie we always thought we wanted, but weren't sure that we deserved.
I've written elsewhere about the themes of barbarism and civilization in the movie, but this film really has that feeling of a deep, dark graphic novel that no other film has been able to duplicate. It's a complete world, from top to bottom, and easily the most immersive and tense Batman movie ever filmed. Also, the best plotted. You can't beat that Two-Face Surprise at the end. We may get other Batman movies, with different tones to them (and we probably should) but this will stand the test of time as the most sincere, most operatic Batman saga ever.
3. X2: X-Men United (2003)From Nightcrawler's bang-up assault on the White House to Wolverine's showdown with Lady Deathstrike, this movie was a major leap forward past the tepid first X-Men movie. What was so different?
First off, Spider-Man had come out, and with it that extra push in technology that was needed to help visualize things like Nightcrawler's teleporting. Second, Bryan Singer made the X-Men be about something. Granted, they have always been an analogy for the "kids that are different," but Singer put some of the LGBT rhetoric in place when Bobby Drake's parents reply to his demonstration of his mutant powers is, "Have you tried not being a mutant?" That line changes the whole tone of the X-Men movies and gives us a modern framework for understanding why this "mutant menace" is such a big deal to some people.
Finally, there's the usual folks: Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine, and others, doing their schtick very well, but the glimpses of others to come, such as Colossus, makes this movie the stand out favorite until Singer finishes Days of Future Past.
2. Iron Man (2008)
At first glance, Robert Downey, Jr. seemed to be nothing more than stunt casting. Sure, he looked the part of Tony Stark, and certainly had enough experience with the playboy lifestyle to draw from in his bag of tricks. But what nobody counted on was taking this second tier support character for the Marvel Universe and turning him into a rock-and-roll icon, the new face of Marvel Media and the Avengers movie. How did they do it?
Two things jumped out immediately: they didn't do anything to the origin except update it. That was smart. Also, they made it cool to BE Iron Man. Because, come on, who wouldn't want a flying, near-sentient suit of armor to zip around in? While not-quite plugging into the late seventies/early eighties Iron Man stories where Tony Stark drank like a fish and got involved in a lot of industrial espionage (making the comics a kind of boozy James Bond riff), director Jon Favreau did the next best thing by tapping into Downey, Jr.'s manic personality. That final ingredient is what made people actually care about Stark and his little heart problem.
The movie was so successful that it bumped Iron Man up to first tier in the Marvel Universe, and forever recast the back catalog of AC/DC and Black Sabbath for the comic book geeks of the world.
1. Spider-Man (2002)
I know, I know, it's old, right? I mean, come on...haven't the super hero movies all gotten better since then? Well, yes and no. They certainly look better, and maybe enough of them have been made now that some of the conventions of the genre are coming to pass, like the costumes and the sheer variety of things that encompass a super hero world, like gods and monsters and dudes with bows and arrows.
But Spider-Man broke them all open, thanks to director Sam Raimi. This is the story of Peter Parker. Not Spider-Man. Peter Parker, the nerdy everyman of comics. Perfectly cast, perfectly executed, and with just the right amount of pathos, this Spider-Man movie captures the absolute essence of the original incarnation of the character. It's note perfect.
I know, I know, organic web shooters. Yeah, yeah, the Green Goblin costume is clunky. You're right, you're 100% correct and I won't debate the point. But at the of the movie, when MJ turns to Peter and says, "It's always been you, Pete." And then we get that voice-over. "No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I always end up hurting the ones I love."...And then he walks away from her. WALKS AWAY!
Ladies and Gentlemen, THAT is the heart of the Spider-Man comics, first iteration. Being the hero is Peter's sacrifice. He can't have it both ways. Not him. It doesn't work like that. In the movie, at the end, during the swinging montage wherein he strikes a Ditko, a Romita, and a MacFarlane pose, in that order, he says, "This is my curse." There is no happy ending for Peter Parker.
Boom. Spider-Man for the movie crowd, right there. No other super hero movie has been able to cleave that closely to the source material and make it actually work. That gut punch at the end reminds us that, as much as we might envy Spidey for his great powers, he's got his troubles, too, in the form of great responsibilities.