Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Top 5 Superhero Movies
With the release of Zack Snyder's Watchmen only days away, you may be wondering why I'm choosing today to rank my picks for the 5 best superhero films of all time. Surely, I should Watchmen a chance to make this list, right? Here's my thinking: either the movie will be incredible, prompting a lot of big talk about how great it is, comparing it to all the reigning greats in its genre and getting blown way out of proportion the way The Dark Knight was, or it'll be mediocre, in which case this list would remain accurate. My point is that if I did this list on Friday, it'd be impossibly skewed. I would rather make my Top 5 now, and then, after a few months and a half-a-dozen viewings, decide whether or not Watchmen belongs on it.
In the past decade, the superhero genre has boomed from a specialized market to a staple of American cinema, earning billions of dollars and real critical respect along the way. There were literally dozens of films to consider in constructing this list, and a lot of thought. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of arguments about it, and if I did the list again in a week I'm sure it'd look different, but as for now, I'm making my bed.
5. Unbreakable - This'll cause a stir, for sure. M. Night Shyamalan's dark thriller about an aging security guard who survives a trainwreck was a sleeper in theaters but has assembled a loyal cult following. Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, is a realistic, self-conscious take on superhero mythology unlike anything ever attempted. Unbreakable poses the question: in a world like ours where no one believes in superheroes, how do you convince even yourself that you are one?
To be fair, the #5 slot was extremely competitive, and Unbreakable may not have made the list if I hadn't had so much trouble choosing between Spider-Man and Iron Man.
4. The Incredibles - Brad Bird's CGI masterpiece could be called "Watchmen-lite" for its thematic similarities to the graphic novel. A love-letter to superhero comics, The Incredibles was able to walk the line between being a tribute to a genre without lampooning it or falling into its clichés. There's no movie like The Incredibles - it's a family film, more kid-friendly than even Spider-Man, but also more mature. It caricatures our current culture of mediocrity, truly convinces that the world needs heroes, and then delivers them. Packed with non-intrusive homages to comics and animation history, The Incredibles may not be based on any established franchise, but given time, I believe it will come to be known as a classic in its own right.
3. The Dark Knight - No, it's not number one, and I'll tell you why. Like everyone else, I was spellbound by Chris Nolan's latest Batman epic for months after its release. I submitted automatically to the notion that The Dark Knight was the greatest superhero film, and maybe the greatest comic book movie, of all time. And it's up there. But upon closer inspection, i.e. watching it six or seven times, there are a bunch of things that just bother me about it. For one thing, the pacing of The Dark Knight is a little off. I've heard fans and detractors alike comment that it should have been two movies, and I can't help but agree. While the acting is fantastic for the most part, Maggie Gyllenhaal disappoints, and at some points, even Christan Bale falls short. Finally, it seems to me that The Dark Knight suffers from the same ailment that plagued the Burton/Shumacker franchise - it's more about the villain than Batman. But, hey, given the mindbogglingly-great performances of Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart, that's not so much a complaint so much as an observation. Nobody's debating that The Dark Knight is a great movie. My point is, it's not perfect, and there are better superhero films to remember.
2. X2: X-Men United - Often overlooked on Best Of lists, Bryan Singer's X2 demonstrates the full potential of the X-Men franchise. Each character in this film has depth, his or her own arc. Marvel likes to push Wolverine to the forefront in X-Men comics and films, which can sometimes feel stale or annoying. Not so in X2. Here, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) truly shines, opposite Brian Cox as Walter Stryker, a villain as complex and lovably hateable as Magneto, who gets to play anti-hero in this story. X2 is action-packed, but also loaded with character, best exemplified by the repentant Nightcrawler, who to me has always been the soul of the X-Men. Seriously, if you doubt this movie's place on this list, go watch it again and count the amazing moments, not just the moments of action, but great moments of story. But while we're talking about action, how about that first Nightcrawler sequence? Coolest thing ever.
1. Batman Begins - I've read and watched hundreds of Batman stories, from comics to film to animation, and if you were to ask me which was my favorite, I would be able to name, with confidence, Batman Begins. That's no easy decision, given the huge archive of great legends of the Dark Knight, but I stand by that answer, and here's why. To date, there is no Batman origin story that 100% convinces me that Batman really can exist. From beginning to end, there are no moments in Begins that seem unbelievable. Even the most jaded moviegoer (my father for example) can see this movie and entirely understand why Bruce Wayne is Batman, and why Batman matters. For frak's sake, my grandparents liked this movie, and they hate anything with special effects. The screenplay by comics veteran David S. Goyer and then-indie rising star Christopher Nolan incorporates all the best elements from all the greatest Batman writers and artists, from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale to Denny O'Neil and Neil Adams, fusing them together to really find the heart of the character. If there exists an Ultimate Batman, this is it.
There's gotta be debate on this one. Let me hear you!