It seems a fitting time, at the end of this summer chock full of more superhero movies than any I can remember, and as all of geekdom waits with breathless anticipation for next summer's Avengers film, to look back at the history of comic book and superhero movies and outline a personal top ten. Will The Avengers blow them all away? Tough to say, but I'm not counting on it; while the pantheon of movies establishing the Marvel Universe on film have been competent and highly enjoyable, few have that extra spark to elevate them to the realm of the truly extraordinary. Here are the ones that, in my mind, stand out heads and shoulders above.
10. Iron Man
The first Marvel movie designed specifically to build the Avengers film franchise faced the challenge of selling a B-list superhero to mainstream audiences. The movie succeeds almost entirely on the strength of Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark, but director Jon Favreau shouldn't be forgotten as the man who took a tough sell and made it work. It should also be noted that, like the best comic book films, it sticks very close to the source material. The journey of the reluctant hero, specifically a scoundrel turned virtuous, is exemplified in Tony's capture, enlightenment, escape and resolve to use his gifts for the betterment of humankind. That's something all audiences can cheer for. It's biggest weakness is a forgettable villain, but then again, I don't know that Iron Man has any memorable ones.
9. V for Vendetta
Combining the frightfulness of 1984-esque cautionary politics with the suspense of a conspiracy thriller and merciless revenge narrative, V for Vendetta is far from a superhero flick. The audience gets behind the protagonist V with trepidation as his tactics blur the line between terrorist and freedom fighter. He plans to liberate a fascist future Great Britain by blowing up Parliament, a plot that was timely and controversial in a post-9/11 world despite being written over two decades prior. James McTiege, who cut his teeth as an Assistant Director in the Matrix films, helms V with action that is stylistic but not overwhelming, keeping the plot rooted in intrigue rather than flash.
8. Spider-Man 2
In some cases a comic book movie sequel surpasses its predecessor because it gets to skip the prerequisite origin story necessary in most fledgling franchises. Spider-Man 2 is such a film; it not only features a more interesting villain (Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus as opposed to the Green Goblin in the first movie), but it hits Peter Parker's greatest struggle on a pitch-perfect note. I was actually unimpressed with the first Spider-Man and saw its sequel only out of obligation. To my surprise, it turned out to be one of the best comic book movies to date. Director Sam Raimi leaves more of a footprint on this second film of the Spider-Man trilogy, another of the film's many strengths.
7. X2: X-Men United
Here's another movie that gets to skip the origins and get right to the meat of a rousing superhero adventure. What makes X2 so great is how successfully it offers up the payoff from seeds sown in the first movie, summarized in Xavier's memorable line, "I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who comes to that school, looking for trouble." And come they did-- General Stryker's crusade against mutant-kind starts the war that unites hero and villain alike against a common enemy. Combined with the revelations of Wolverine's past and the compelling new character Nightcrawler, X2 ranks as the best X-Men movie to date. It's a shame that director Bryan Singer left the franchise to make a lackluster Superman movie instead of dishing out more mutant madness.
6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
TMNT isn't usually perceived as a comic book movie; the 8 - 10-year-olds who saw it in theaters were most familiar with the cartoon and toy line. But the Turtles phenomenon originated in a 1984 adult-targeted comic by independent publisher Mirage Studios, and the film version jettisons most of the kiddie fare that accumulated in the interim. It stays more faithful to the tone of the original comics, slightly reworking elements of the first dozen issues or so to form a fresh take on the Turtles, free of the robot ninjas, Turtle vehicles and visitors from Dimension X that populated the cartoon. These Turtles cuss and clobber with the best of them, and possess a degree of internal drama and relationship dynamics that a kids' cartoon just couldn't touch.
Since Nolan debuted his Batman trilogy, the 1989 Tim Burton Batman has taken a lot of flak for being such a radical departure from its comic book roots. No one thought that way back when these films were rare, and it's easy to forget what a monumental blockbuster Batman was. While it's true that Nolan gives the best interpretation of Bruce Wayne himself, Burton and Jack Nicholson have to be given credit for nailing the Joker perfectly. Heath Ledger's Joker deserves praise, but comic book die-hards must admit that it is a radical departure from the character's pulpy roots. By contrast, Nicholson's Joker is one of those unforgettable, born-to-play-the-role casting choices that overshadow any of the film's flaws. And, to paraphrase the man himself, this Batman definitely has the most "wonderful toys."
4. The Rocketeer
The Rocketeer is another movie not often recognized for its comic roots, but being a kid-friendly Disney film doesn't stop it from delivering high adventure and campy retro excitement. It's no surprise that Marvel recently tapped Rocketeer director Joe Johnston to replicate his success in this film with the new Captain America, also set in the era of World War II. The visuals borrowed from the original Dave Stevens stories, including a bulldog-shaped cafe, the chisel-jawed pilot Cliff Secord and the iconic helmet and jet-pack are all replicated faithfully (chiseled jaw courtesy of a well-cast Bill Campbell). Cliff protects the very rocket technology that's strapped to his back from Nazis and gangsters in a yarn that combines the thrills of Indiana Jones with the soaring flight visuals of Superman.
3. The Dark Knight
When it premiered, many critics posited that The Dark Knight should be viewed less as a superhero movie and more as a crime drama, and they were right. The complexity of TDK's plot and the horror of the Joker's machinations as both crime boss and madman are what elevate it to the status of "best comic book movie ever" for many fans. Volumes have been written about Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, and, though it was Oscar-worthy, I stick to my guns that Nicholson was the "truer" Joker. TDK also suffers from the same problem as the Burton and Schumacher films in that the screen presence of two villains pushes Batman himself into the background. Still, it gets the third-place slot on my list because it is not only everything you could want from a Batman movie-- it's just a damn great movie, period.
The first big-budget comic book movie is also one of the greatest. Who but Superman could be the precursor to all the great superheroes that would follow? Superman is a huge and ambitious movie, starting on a doomed Krypton and taking its time building Superman's origin. By the time we flash forward to modern Metropolis, it feels like we're starting a second movie. It's at that point that Christopher Reeve makes his debut as the Man of Steel and nails the role in a way that no actor has done before or since (sorry, Dean Cain). He gets the duality of the nerdy Clark Kent and the fearless Superman, and has perfect chemistry with Margot Kidder's Lois Lane in both roles. Gene Hackman has a unique and lighter take on Lex Luthor, but it fits the tone of the film well and keeps the hero as the star.
1. Batman Begins
I'm not the only one who, when the dust settled after the mega-blockbuster Dark Knight, decided that its predecessor was the superior film. The reason is simple: this is the only Batman movie that is truly about Bruce Wayne, and Bruce Wayne only. Earlier I wrote that origin stories can sometimes bog down a comic book movie; in Batman Begins, the opposite is true. It is all origin story. Even the primary villain, Ra's al Ghul, relates to the plot from Wayne's own experiences training to become Batman. The movie took a gamble in using two lesser known villains, Ra's and the Scarecrow, and the decision works well in keeping the focus on Batman's roots, philosophy and quest. It wasn't easy for Christopher Nolan to wash the taste of the previous two Batman films away, but he did it, and that alone may be the biggest achievement in the history of comic book films.