With the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, moviegoers find themselves in the midst of a superhero film glut.
Batman v Superman is the second installment in a series of 12 films DC Comics intends to release in its Extended Universe. Civil War represents the initiation of Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will crank out another dozen movies over the next three years or so.
You’d think this is a dream come true for comic fans. Problem is, after a while, a lot of superhero films begin feeling like the same movie with different capes and cowls.
One problem may be scale. Time and again, the fate of an entire city—if not the world—hangs in the balance. Rather than raising the stakes, this often ends up distancing the audience from any personal investment in the action. At a distance, in the midst of a frenetic battle, New York looks a lot like Gotham looks a lot like Metropolis. . . . One suspension bridge groaning and collapsing looks and sounds a lot like another. 2015’s Ant-Man satirizes this trope by having the camera pull back on its climactic battle to remind viewers that it’s all taking place on a Thomas the Tank Engine playset.
Another problem may be the very CGI effects that have revolutionized the industry. These sequences are often farmed out to the same visual effects companies, resulting in action that, while convincing, loses any idiosyncratic style that the director may be able to generate with flesh-and-blood actors or practical effects. On screen, there is little difference between the Superman rocketing across the screen and Iron Man maneuvering his flying suit.
Ultimately, as with the comic books that have spawned and influenced them, superhero movies pack the biggest punch when they are about people, not just awesome powers and cool images.
Below is a list of superhero films from the past three decades that distinguished themselves in some way from the rest of the pack. In fact, for some of them, there was no pack. Most are origin stories; not entirely surprising since the origin story often cuts closest to the person behind the mask, revealing the traumatic experiences that transformed the often-average human into a larger-than-life figure.
In each case, these films focus on people, not powers.
10. Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978)
The grand-daddy of them all. While not the very first live-action superhero movie (it was preceded by the theatrical debut of the 1950s "Superman" TV show and the movie spin-off of the Adam West "Batman" series), Richard Donner's Superman would become the model of the superhero movie for decades to come. The film balances the spectacle of the destruction of Krypton and then-cutting-edge flying effects with the screwball comedy-styled relationship between Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and throws in an iconic John Williams score to boot. The key to its success and enduring influence, however, is the impeccable casting of Christopher Reeve. Beyond the square jaw and good looks, Reeve truly inhabits the dual roles, tempering the campy elements with a self-effacing wit and palpable sense of virtue.
9. Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990)
A decade before helming his Spider-Man trilogy, director Sam Raimi revealed a deep understanding of and affection for the superhero film with this wholly original crimefighter. Disfigured after an explosion set by corporate thugs, research scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) exploits his unfinished invention--a synthetic skin for burn victims that, still in development, degrades after extended exposure to light--to seek revenge on those who have destroyed his life. Presumed dead yet able to adopt any appearance in service of elaborate subterfuges, Westlake’s sense of identity and grasp on reality become increasingly tenuous as his thirst for vengeance grows. As much as any subsequent film, Darkman captures the look and feel of a pulp comic book. In an early scene, Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand) stares up at her fiance’s smoldering lab. As the camera freezes her pose, her clothing morphs from office wear to black dress and veil while the background fades from sidewalk to cemetery, leaving her standing over Westlake’s gravesite. Corny? Maybe. Comic book? Absolutely.
8. Blade (1998 Stephen Norrington)
While Bryan Singer’s X-Men, released at the dawn of the 21st century, tends to get credit for proving that superheroes besides Batman and Superman could generate big box office, Blade was there first. Based on a fairly obscure vampire hunter character that had appeared infrequently in various Marvel titles since the seventies, writer David Goyer (who would go on to script the Dark Knight trilogy) and director Steven Norrington forged the second-stringer into an action movie badass who just happened to be kicking butt and taking names in a horror flick.
Sporting a black duster and omnipresent shades, Wesley Snipes portrays the half-vampire possessing vampire strength and heightened senses, but immune to garlic, silver, and sunlight. As the lone “Daywalker,” Blade has vowed to eradicate the world of the creatures that killed his mother and infected him.
Norrington offers a number of spectacular (though bloody( set pieces, and Snipes embodies the character’s Zen-centered cool, even while wielding swords or engaging in martial arts combat. Kudos, too, for casting Kris Kristofferson as Whistler, Blade’s gruff but lovable partner and weapons man.
By the end of 1998, the film had made $127.9 million, spawned its own series, and validated a new era of superhero films. This is the real first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When will Blade get to join the Joss Whedon team?
7. Kick-Ass (2010, Matthew Vaughn)
Kick-Ass, written by Jane Goldman and directed by Matthew Vaughn, presented Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr's graphic novel as black comedy, addressing --in an often brutal and outrageous manner--issues of vigilantism, identity, violent entertainment, and the effects of living surrounded by social media. The film follows the exploits of scrawny teen Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who decides to follow the example of his comic book heroes by hitting the streets in a self-made outfit as masked crime-fighter Kick-Ass.
What elevates the film above standard superhero fare is its no-holds-barred attitude toward the subject of real folks dishing out vigilante justice, most strikingly embodied in Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), the vicious, potty-mouthed, 11-year-old daughter and crime-fighting sidekick of Batman-styled masked vigilante Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), with whom Kick-Ass joins forces. Vaughn forces viewers to come to terms with genuinely unsettling images of a young girl cutting criminals to ribbons with a smile and a profanity on her pre-adolescent lips.
Such scenes left viewers unsure whether to applaud or be appalled, and that ambivalence is the movie's super power.
6. RoboCop (1987, Paul Verhoeven)
In the guise of a sci-fi flick, Paul Verhoeven's first (and best) Hollywood movie, RoboCop, inverts several of the tropes of the typical superhero origin. Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) experiences the ultimate transformational experience, death (at the hands of some very Dick-Tracy-ish criminals), and wakes to find himself in a new, armored cybernetic body, the past wiped clean and replaced with his new identity and programming as RoboCop, the latest urban security product from mega-corporation Omni Consumer Products. Like most superheroes, his true identity remains secret, in this case, even to himself. As RoboCop fights crime and wins fans on the mean streets of a dystopian Detroit, the film follows his journey to discover his identity and the life he has forfeited, all the while delivering a pitch-black satire of an increasingly consumer-driven, hyper-violent American culture.
5. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993, Eric Radomski & Bruce W. Timm)
As the live-action Batman series paused to shift gears from the dark fetishistic cartoons of Tim Burton (Batman, Batman Returns) to the neon kitsch of Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin), the creators of the Emmy-winning Batman: The Animated Series spun off a stand-alone feature film that remains among the best translations of the Dark Knight to the big screen. Twin story lines follow the appearance of a new vigilante who is murdering Gotham criminals and the return of Bruce Wayne’s old flame Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delaney) whose disappearance years earlier sealed his decision to devote his life to the Batman. Beyond the series’ striking “Deco Noir” design and the iconic voice work of Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne / The Batman, Efrem Zimbalist Jr as a drolly humorous Alfred, and Mark Hamill as a perfectly demented Joker, the film's parallel story lines and effectively nostalgic flashbacks allow the filmmakers to explore how, especially for Bruce Wayne, William Faulkner‘s observation rings true: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
4. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
Birdman, written and directed by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu, doesn't tell the story of the superhero, but of the actor who plays him and the toll that takes on his life and psyche.
A perfectly cast Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an aging actor who found fame playing the iconic superhero Birdman. Decades later, as Thomson attempts to resuscitate his career and reputation by directing and starring in a Broadway play, his life and mind are spiraling out of control. Presented as one continuous take, the camera sweeps up and down stairways, in and around the labyrinthine St. James Theater, as Thomson rehearses and tries to keep it together long enough to make it to opening night.
Staring out from a Birdman 3 poster on the wall of Thomson's top floor dressing room, his alter ego stirs to action when the pressure becomes too much. In these moments, Riggan flies, levitates, moves objects through telekinesis, and shoots fireballs.
Along the way, Iñárritu reflects on America's celebrity culture and digital obsession, as well as the conflict between art and commerce and the never-ending human struggle with the ego,
3. The Iron Giant (1999, Brad Bird)
Based on English poet Ted Hughes' 1968 children's book The Iron Man, Bird's film shifts the action a decade back and an ocean away to 1957 Maine, in the wake of the Sputnik launch when America is in the midst of the Red Scare. A young boy named Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal) finds and befriends a giant metal robot (Vin Diesel) that has fallen to Earth from space. While embracing its ET overtones, the screenplay by Tim McCanlies emphasizes the robot's discovery of its awesome powers and heart-rending decision of how to use them. Key to this decision is Hogarth's education of the amnesiac robot through his comic book collection and his beatnik friend Dean's adage, "You are who you choose to be." The film--hand-animated, except for the Giant, itself--perfectly captures a child's sense of wonder while casting a jaundiced eye on the American military-industrial complex.
2. Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)
With Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan established, for better and worse, the model for the modern superhero reboot. Nearly a decade after Joel Schumacher's shallow, flashy spectacles killed the previous Batman franchise, director Nolan chose to take the character in the opposite direction, a direction comic books had been following for decades.
Drawing from such high-profile comic sources as the "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Batman: Year One" series, Nolan told the Caped Crusader's origin story while striving to make it "serious."
On screen, Christian Bale humanized the role of Bruce Wayne as he attempts to make sense of his childhood tragedy and struggles against an obsessive desire for vengeance. Nolan grounds the outlandish elements--the utility belt, suit and cape, Batmobile, even villains such as Scarecrow and Ra's al Ghul--in a world that feels familiar. Also grounding the action are compelling performances by Michael Caine as butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucious Fox, a former Wayne Enterprises executive demoted to an isolated R&D division, and Gary Oldman as Sgt. James Gordon. While the finale slips away into inflated spectacle, the film firmly set the tone ("gritty realism") for the next decade of superhero films.
1. The Incredibles (2004, Brad Bird)
Five years later, working from his own original screenplay, Bird looked at superheroes at the other end of their careers and created what may be the ultimate superhero movie. Packed with visual and auditory allusions to 50 years of classic comics and spy films, the film tells the story of former superheroes Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) and wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), who have been forced into a kind of superhero relocation program after the public and the government began to view their powers with fear and resentment. Living in the 'burbs now as non-descript Bob and Helen Parr with their super-powered children Violet, Dash, and baby Jack-Jack, they are called back into action when a crisis arises.
The film is beautifully crafted, offering stunning action sequences, and on that level alone, is a worthy superhero flick. What Bird adds are wit and layers of themes: a critique of suburban life and mid-life crises, the lure of conformity and fear of the different, and the importance of family. This is the film to pull out when someone turns their nose up at the mention of "cartoons."
Iron Man (2007, Jon Favreau)
The role Robert Downey Jr. was meant to play.
Spiderman 2 (2004, Sam Raimi)
Never underestimate the importance of a great villain: Alfred Molina as Dr. Otto Octavius / Doctor Octopus is both charismatic and terrifying.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2016, James Gunn)
Reminds you what you read comics for in the first place: wonder, heart, and fun.
The Avengers (2013, Joss Whedon)
And they said it couldn’t be done. The Avengers get with the assembling, and Whedon makes it look easy.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, Russo Brothers)
Marvel in the age of drones, preemptive strikes, and terrorism.