Comic Book Movies

We’re about to go into what is perhaps the busiest super hero movie summer of all time, certainly to a degree that I could never have imagined or hoped for when I was a kid. And that, naturally enough, had me thinking this past week about what I considered to be the best super hero films ever done. For this purely-unscientific survey, I only included films that were based on pre-existing comic book characters–so no INCREDIBLES, etc. And I limited myself to those films that I would typically watch again if I stumbled across them airing on television somewhere, the ones that had staying power. So new entry DEADPOOL hasn’t quite yet had the time to see if it will stand that test of time. So just briefly:

ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL: Not only one of the best Republic Serials ever produced but also the first comic book super hero adaptation on film. It doesn’t have the whimsy that people associate today with Captain Marvel, but given that it was made when the character was only about a year old, it’s a very faithful adaptation. Republic made great use of a full-size dummy of Captain Marvel to simulate flight in a manner that must have been especially convincing to audiences in 1941.

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN: George Reeves; first appearance as teh Man of Steel succeeds as both a 50s sci-fi monster movie and a compelling morality play with a message of brotherhood. Reeves’ Superman is commanding, whether dismantling an angry mob or rebuking the thanks of the bigot whose life he just saved.

BATMAN: Anybody who doesn’t have an appreciation for the Adam West era of Batman is somebody who isn’t worth talking to. The BATMAN film turns it all up to 11, with the introduction of the Bat-Copter and the Bat-Boat, to say nothing of Shark-Repellant Bat-Spray. It’s completely of-its-era and possibly even a little overstuffed, with four featured guest-villains. But ti distills everything that was excellent about the 1966 BATMAN television series into 105 minutes.

SUPERMAN THE MOVIE: Showing its age in terms of the fashions and its familiarity, this first film treated Superman’s life as a legend and conveyed its strong emotional power while also being an exhilarating special effects thrill ride. And Christopher Reeve is a picture-perfect Superman. I also have some fondness for the flawed SUPERMAN II. SUPERMAN III and IV were both awful.

X2: X-MEN UNITED: The first X-MEN movie was pretty good, but the second improves on it in all ways, not the least of which is in the area of budget, allowing an entire army of mutant super heroes to be fielded. A good cast, solid script and a deft handle on the metaphors underlying the series. X-MEN 3 and X-MEN ORIGINS WOLVERINE were both pretty lousy.

SPIDER-MAN 2: For a good period of time, my go-to pick as best super hero movie ever done, it builds perfectly on the emotional stakes set up in the first solid SPIDER-MAN film, takes some interesting chances, and provides an essential distillation of the Lee/Romita era Spidey. My reviews of SPIDER-MAN 3: “God is dead.” And the two Andrew Garfield Spidey films were terrible, despite a very likeable cast.

IRON MAN: It’s lost a little bit of its luster simply because its since been built on so successfully by the MCU pictures that have followed it, but the fist IRON MAN film was a revelation in terms of striking a tone and setting the stage, and getting across the heart of not only Tony Stark but the essence of every Marvel hero; that the story is about the person, not the costumed identity. Robert Downey Jr. is to Iron Man what Chris Reeve was to Superman, as he proved in picture after picture. IRON MAN 2 was maybe the weakest Marvel Studios film, and IRON MAN 3 was a mess, and not much better.

THE AVENGERS: This film makes it all seem so effortless that in its wake every studio in town announced their own super hero integrated universe. It’s a precision piece that breaks down its cast and concepts, slowly taking the time to introduce them one by one and building throughout the film so that each successive situation is larger than the one preceding it, to the point where you think it cannot possibly get any larger, and still does. All of the character effort that went into the preceding films pays off here, in that the audience is already invested in these characters and actors already. An incredible success. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, however, got a bit too tangled up in trying to serve too many characters and stories.

THE DARK KNIGHT: The Batman films of the 90s were all flawed and got progressively weaker. BATMAN BEGINS had a good movie in it somewhere, but couldn’t find it int eh execution. DARK KNIGHT RISES is an overstuffed, illogical car crash. But this one is near-flawless, from its opening moments all the way to the close. Having established Batman and Gotham in the previous picture, this one can spend its time on the Joker and on the questions about the nature of heroism and human nature that he represents.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS: It doesn’t match the comic book continuity at all, to say nothing of that of the previous X-Men films, but the period piece approach works really well, giving events an authenticity and a style that makes this the most successful of the recent X-films. The new cast is thoroughly likeable and excellent. The follow-up, X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST was good, but also fell into the trap of trying to do too much with too many characters, and fell apart.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER: The best Marvel Studios film and probably my favorite super hero film of all, at least up until this point. The first CAP film was good, but this one surpasses it in every way, by having something to say, by making the situations feel realistic and plausible (none moreso that Captain America himself, who is a complete badass throughout this picture), and by allowing its central character to remain true to his convictions in the face of everything. Chris Evans takes a tough role and makes it easy, and is backed up by terrific performances by the rest of his cast.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: A complete 180 from WINTER SOLDIER, this delightful space-opera eschews realism for naturalism and weightiness for fun, taking a batch of Marvel characters that almost nobody knew about or particularly cared about and making them people that you loved and cheered for. A sense of fun and adventure permeates every frame, backed up by a stellar soundtrack of vintage hits.

As for the rest of this year’s releases, I’m hopeful that CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR can recapture and build upon the success of WINTER SOLDIER, I genuinely want to be pleasantly surprised by BATMAN V. SUPERMAN despite my loathing for MAN OF STEEL (to say nothing of WATCHMEN), and I’m pretty indifferent to X-MEN: APOCALYPSE in that everything I’ve seen about it so far makes it feel like just another X-Men movie–nothing has especially grabbed me about it yet.

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