Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Andrew's Top Ten Superhero Movies

I've been geeking it out bigtime lately, with the December releases of Superman Returns and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut inspiring quite a lot of comic movie viewing. I thought "Why not create a pompous and self-satisfying list of Superhero Movies?" So here it is. This is my Top Ten, and it does not purport to be anything deeper than that. So read, enjoy, and discuss.

Here were my rules: the movies in question needed to be either based on comic books, have comic books based on them, or be unquestionably comic-inspired. Note that I haven't yet seen V for Vendetta, though it's sitting on my DVD shelf (thanks, Ichabod).

10. Darkman. Sam Raimi kicks off the list with this masterful, over-the-top Liam Neeson vehicle. Yes, long before Kinsey and Schindler's List, Neeson played Doctor Peyton Westlake, whose face and feelings were stolen by evil gangsters. Unable to feel pain, fueled by adrenaline, and prone to serious furniture-chewing, Darkman followed the original Batman film, faring much better than Judge Dredd in trying to establish a new superhero franchise (two made-for-cable movies starring The Mummy's Arnold Vosloo followed). Awesome visuals, a great new superhero character, Larry Drake and Frances McDormand, and one of the great chase scenes of all time (a helicopter chased by a guy swinging from a rope behind it). But it's Neeson's unashamed super-overacting that makes this film work; a masterpiece of melodramatic voice-acting necessitated by a series of face-obscuring masks. Take that, Shatner! If you're a fan of Spider-Man, see this one as soon as you can; it presages director Raimi's best mainstream work.

9. The Incredibles. Pixar's animated classic was a massive Fantastic Four ripoff, there's no doubt about it, but it's such a great film that I can't find it in my heart to take offense. How this film can be so family-friendly while simultaneously sophisticated is a marvel, though I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; it's directed by Brad Bird, who directed The Iron Giant, one of animation's best films ever. Believe it or not, The Incredibles covers more than a few of the same issues as adult works like Watchmen, Kingdom Come, and Squadron Supreme, and serves as a fairly good primer to the world of reading modern comics. All four principals are excellently developed, as is the villain, and Edna Mode (voiced by Bird) is one of my favorite film characters ever. The voice acting is topnotch, and Bird's combination of retro design and storytelling is part of what makes him one of the best directors in the history of animated film.

8. Daredevil: the Director's Cut. I think Karen and I were the only two people who even liked this film. Not liked, loved. I'm no big Ben Affleck fan, but I found this film to be superb, full of drama and pathos, and loaded with great acting performances. I love the visual style of the film, I love the score to pieces, and the representation of Daredevil's sonar-sense is one of my favorite movie effects of all time. Affleck's performance is more than credible, and Colin Farrell personifies Bullseye's brilliant mania. Jennifer Garner is strong as Elektra (at least this time). The soundtrack rocks (introducing us all to Evanescence) and is perfectly in line with the tone of the movie. The director's cut DVD is superior to the theatrical release, returning a cut subplot, fleshing out some characters, and making Elektra a bit less of a ho. It's possible that my love for this film is due to my having very limited knowledge of Daredevil; I've read very little.

7. Hellboy. Guillermo Del Toro is quite the Hollywood hero right now with Pan's Labyrinth, but I could have told you he's a visual storytelling genius years ago. There are visuals in this movie that will haunt me for the rest of my life; Kroenen in particular is one of the most viscerally disturbing things I've ever seen. Del Toro gets Hellboy's lunchpail approach to paranormal investigation just right; casting Ron Perlman as H.B. is nothing short of genius (Bruce Campbell would have been pretty funny, though). The movie deviates substantially from Mignola's comic, and answers questions Mignola still hasn't addressed in print form, but it was all done with his input, so it's all good. Del Toro has a great grasp on the look and feel of Hellboy, and it all comes out as a hell of a fun movie, the perfect mix of goofy and gory, frightening and fantastic. Also, anything with Jeffrey Tambor in it rules.

6. Spider-Man. I'm a huge fan of James Cameron, and was crushed when he gave up on this project, but now it's impossible to imagine anyone but Sam Raimi directing this. The Spider-Man franchise has become the unquestioned gold standard for modern superhero movies. Raimi builds the entire film around the inextricable links between the Peter Parker's personal life and hero life, just as Sten Lee did the original comic and Brian Michael Bendis does with Ultimate Spider-Man. Raimi gets it, the central issue that the Spider-Man mythos is much more about the man than the mask. We can all identify with Peter Parker, the awkward lonely outsider who feels unworthy to even ask the girl he desperately loves out on a date. Spider-Man makes the viewers feel like they should be heroes in their own lives, that power of any kind carries responsibility to use it for the betterment of all. The stupid plastic Green Goblin mask is more than compensated for by the upside-down-kiss-in-the-rain scene.

5. Batman Begins. Finally, we have a director who wants to tell a Batman story, not manipulate Batman into looking like something they want (Bat-Scissorhands? Rubber nipples? Come on, guys.). Finally, we have a Batman who has the physical and emotional presence to be plausible as Batman and Bruce Wayne, something neither Keaton, Kilmer, or Clooney could do. And finally, we have a story that understands the central truth of Batman, that (unlike Spidey) Batman is his real identity and Bruce Wayne is the mask. Christopher Nolan weaves a powerful origin story, one that justifies Batman's superhuman skill and drive while leaving very human vulnerabilities. Christian Bale is the perfect Batman, strong and confident, stoic and devilishly determined, but still a badly damaged child at his core. Using character templates from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One is a stroke of genius. Batman is DC's antihero hero, and he should be closer to the Punisher than Captain America. When Batman roars, "Do I look like a cop?" we think he just might let Flass drop, and we're a bit disturbed by how much we wanted him to. Perfect.

4. The Matrix. Here's the choice that you're going to scream about. Make no mistake, The Matrix is the most influential sci-fi movie since Star Wars. Look at nearly every single action movie since its 1999 release (including many of the films on this list) and you will see filmmakers finding ways to justify their heroes having mad martial arts skills. Look at the same movies and you'll see wire work, CGI, and camera moves taken straight from the Wachowski brothers' masterpiece. That would be enough to put The Matrix high on this list, but what makes this film stand out is the essential nature of all the whiz-bang. Like Star Wars, The Matrix is a story that would be impossible to tell effectively without every ounce of technology and choreography it used. It's that rarest of the rare: massive effects technology being used purely in service to story. The fact that it's whiz-bang amazing is almost secondary, or rather the effects are whiz-bang because it's a whiz-bang effects story. The characters and the acting are flat in places, though I want to go on record as saying I really like Keanu Revves' performance in all three films. But the film's cyberspace-superhero imagery is like nothing before, and no one has come close since.

3. X-Men 2. Bryan Singer channels Chris Claremont, then leaves us hanging. Not that I didn't love Superman Returns, but I sure would have liked to see Singer's Phoenix story, especially since the X-Men 3 Phoenix effect had absolutely no visual similarity to the one established in this film. But this story is awesome, epic and complex, full of twists and turns and unlikely alliances, and loaded with great action (something Singer isn't always great at). Singer knows something a lot of other comic book movie-makers don't: how to tell a story with a lot of characters. While Wolverine is unequivocally the star of all three X-Men films, the second has interesting storylines for all of the primary and secondary characters. And he even has the sense to get Cyclops, a chronically static character since the 1960s, out of the way for a while.

2. Superman: the Movie. Richard Donner's messianic ode set the stage for all the other films on this list. Come on, Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder? A complete delight, and a very tough act for Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth to follow. Bosworth, in particular, was just doomed from the start. Some aspects of it look quite dated today--not the effects; I'm completely captivated by the flying, the heat vision, and the Kryptonian technology. But the cinematography and dialogue style are very 1977. All of this film's failures, and there are more than a few, are more than canceled out by John Williams' score, perhaps the most perfect fit in movie history. Only Superman could have that theme. The Salkinds have a long and storied history of creating B-movies, and they pretty much destroyed this franchise immediately after beginning it, but what a beginning.

1. Spider-Man 2. Simply the best of the best, just a magnificent film in every way imaginable. Sam Raimi appears on this list three times, and just seems to get better with every film. But this is the superhero magnum opus to date. No comics character has ever had his dual identities so dramatically tied together, and no superhero movie has ever dealt so touchingly with the personal consequences of having superpowers. As great as the first Spider-Man film is, this one is a huge step forward in every way, from supercool action to the delicate simplicity of a girl-next-door crush. Spider-Man 2 is a perfect movie. Fantastic acting from all of the leads, a great screenplay, and wonderful effects. The scene with the New York subway riders passing the unconscious Spidey back through the car is iconic, a moment of connection between the superhuman and the supremely human. Spider-Man 2 makes us look at the heroes in our lives and the hero in our own hearts.

Honorable mentions, either really good superhero films or great films that just aren't genre-specific enough:

Mystery Men. An unbelievably funny movie, only missing the list because I just couldn't bump anything. Thanks to Chris Anthony of Shakespeare Festival L.A. for reminding me of this gem.

Robocop. Better than a lot of the movies on this list, but more pure sci-fi than superhero film. Boy, Paul Verhoeven would be a great director for The Punisher or Deadpool.

Superman II. Both versions are great. Donner's is more pure, but I kind of miss the Lester comedy. Kneel before Zod!

Batman. Michael Keaton is just terrible casting. So, I still insist, is Jack Nicholson, who's too little Joker and too much "Just Jack."

Batman Returns. A very strong film, probably #11 or 12 on this list. Too many characters, though, and I get tired of every Tim Burton film looking and feeling like every other one. (Except Big Fish and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.)

X-Men. Singer wisely treats the X-Men's story more like sci-fi and less like a comic book. He juggles all the characters far better in the second film.

X-Men 3. Phoenix is terrifying, and the action is among superhero movies' best ever. Could have used about 20 minutes more character development.

Aliens. If Ellen Ripley isn't a superhero, no one is. Game over, man.

Superman Returns. A very good movie, and a welcome return. But Superman having a child out of wedlock betrays a serious lack of character comprehension on Bryan Singer's part.

Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms. The launch of a new series of straight-to-DVD Hellboy movies bodes well for the series.
So that's-a my book. Pretty good, eh Steve?
Let the complaining and arguing begin!

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  • At 2/21/2007 11:22 AM , Blogger PhilBiker said...

    What do I look like? Some kind fo circus freak? Come see the dancing freak! Just five bucks! Pay five bucks! See the dancing freak!

    Just delectable over-the-top fun.

    On repeat viewings, I have found "Batman Begins" to be almost as ridiculous and over-the-top as "Darkman". The last time I saw "Batman Begins" (on an international flight), I was cackling with the same kind of laughter as I enjoy for darkman for most of it.

    Take it! Take the effing elephant!

  • At 2/21/2007 6:34 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    For a lot of us, that was the first time we ever saw Liam Neeson, too.

    The best thing about Darkman is how his lack of lips doesn't affect his enunciation the slightest bit. That's classical actor training from Liam Neeson!

  • At 2/21/2007 9:42 PM , Blogger PhilBiker said...

    That would be..... just fine.

    Not to mention the lower teeth that are almost half as prominent as those of Al Michaels.

    "Batman Begins" really is ludicrous, though. Watch it with an eye for how completely ridiculous it is, it's almost as funny as Darkman.

  • At 2/21/2007 9:47 PM , Blogger PhilBiker said...

    Along with one of the best helicopter chase/stunt scenes ever filmed, remember it has one of the best action/gangster shootouts ever right in the beginning. The guy with the peg leg with a gun in it is a classic!

    And Raimi's fantastic style is beautifully shown in the scene where the camera dollys across the ground and you see all the guns fall to the ground. Fantastic stuff!


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