With a new superhero movie being released nearly ever month now, it’s strange to think that thirty years ago the superhero movie didn’t even exist. Blame Richard Donner’s 1978 movie Superman for where we are today. Before that, superheroes were confined to the pages of dime store comic books and Saturday morning serials intended primarily for kids. Donner’s movie brought superheroes into theaters and into the adult mainstream, and there’s been no going back.
With the biggest superhero franchise of all time about to return to theaters in the form of Spider-Man 3, I rounded up the entire Cinema Blend movies crew, locked them in a small janitor’s closet on the fourth floor of the CB compound, and refused to let them out until they’d all compiled a list of their five favorite superhero movies. They slid them under the door and I ran back to my office to total up their votes, and this is the result: Cinema Blend’s Top 5 Superhero Movies Of All Time. I guess I should let them out of the closet now, or at least slip some crackers under the door.
It’s no coincidence that most of our top picks are more recent superhero movies. Over the years since, superhero movies have evolved and improved. Simply put, they seem to get better the more of them Hollywood makes. Want proof? Check out our list of the best superhero movies ever made:
1. Spider-Man 2
JOSH TYLER: Maybe with the release of Spider-Man 3 imminent, we’ve all got webslinging on the brain, but I prefer to think this one is here because frankly, it really deserves the spot. When I wrote my original review of Spider-Man 2 I called it the greatest superhero movie ever made, and predicted it would long be remembered as one of the most universally beloved movies of all time. So far that’s held true. It transcends the superhero genre by focusing on a normal guy who, at least in his personal life, isn’t all that super. Spider-Man 2 is a vibrant, living masterpiece full to the brim with longing and heart. Raimi took his storytelling skills to unheard of levels when he made it, and it’s hard to imagine any superhero ever matching it.
BRIAN HOLCOMB: What Spider-Man 1 should’ve been. Smarter, faster, more exciting, with stronger characterizations and emotional depth, Spider-Man 2 trumps it’s predecessor in every way. It’s a studio picture but this time, as much of a true Sam Raimi picture as the Evil Dead films. Like Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker is one of the great archetypal heroes and Tobey McGuire is perfect in the role. Spider-Man 2’s screenplay has time for darkly comic asides, a real romantic longing and the vital theme of duty versus happiness. Can Peter Parker have it all? “Go get’em Tiger!”
ALEXANDRA CALAMARI: One of the most visually stimulating films of all time, Spider-Man 2 combined soaring special effects, non-stop action and a heart-warming storyline to quickly surpass the first installment. Toby Maguire’s Spidey is a loveable loser who just so happens to have super powers, making him more of an “everyman” than his Gotham City and Metropolis counterparts.
EDWARD PERKIS: The first movie was so good, it’s hard to believe that it was exceeded with the second. It’s one of the first times you actually see a superhero’s work interfering with things like holding down a job and going to school. The on-again, off-again, on-again romance with Mary Jane got a bit silly, but the undercurrent of how ability comes with responsibility is very well handled. Plus, Sam Raimi piles on the eye popping special effects, Alfred Molina is a dastardly but not over-the-top villain (like Willem DaFoe’s Green Golblin), and there’s plenty of humor.
2. Batman Begins
BRIAN HOLCOMB: Christopher Nolan rescues the franchise Joel Schumacher killed with the greatest Ninja movie the Cannon Group never made. Honestly reworks the whole idea of “Batman” for a new audience by focusing on the fact that of all the superheros, Batman is the most conceivable in the real world. If some rich guy wanted to train his mind and body to perfection and could afford the research and development money to build incredible vehicles and weapons he could easily become Batman. Nolan’s film succeeds where many Batmen have failed because he avoided the trap of focusing on the colorful villains and making Bruce Wayne nothing more than a special effect arriving on the scene to kick some ass. Bruce Wayne is the whole point of the story, the villains are HIS foils, representations of his internal conflicts. This is the great zen in Nolan and Goyer’s screenplay. Christian Bale brings his dangerous charisma from American Psycho to the role and somehow it all seems new again.
DANIEL SOLOMON: Some may say the original was better, but I'm going to use my Godlike certainty to proclaim that it isn't. This modern update of the character gave me exactly what I wanted: Batman as a brooding jerk who was too intense not to fight crime. Christian Bale (as Bruce Wayne) even got the constipated voice down, something Keaton couldn't pull off. The action was brought back to earth, but still managed to be fun and exciting. The villains got the same treatment, but it was great to see Scarecrow could still make spooky stuff happen. Unfortunately, somebody invited Katie Holmes.
MACK RAWDEN: I’ve always liked Batman far more than his more powerful counterparts. Maybe it was because he had an old curmudgeon as a butler; maybe it was because the Caped Crusader found creative ways to implement “bat” into the names of all his nifty gadgets; maybe it was because I adore Adam West shouting “Bam”, however, it was really because I yearn for homoerotic tension between hero and sidekick. Besides, if you don’t like this encapsulating awkwardness, you can always stare at Katie Holmes’ fun bags. Glorious, glorious fun bags.
3. X2: X-Men United
RAFE TELSCH: X2 actually does a better job improving its franchise than the Spider-Man films. Where Spider-Man was already a great film, made better by a sequel, X-Men had some definite issues. X2 takes what the first movie got right, and fixes problems such as Storm’s poor dialogue and hair. X2 ups the stakes with more characters and a stronger story, culminating in a Wrath of Khan style ending. Sadly, X-Men followed that ending up just as poorly as Star Trek did. At least X2 still holds up as a strong, entertaining film – super strong, one might say.
ALEXANDRA CALAMARI: The opening sequence alone is enough to earn X-2 a position on my list, with the vanishing Nightcrawler being one of the most badass characters to grace the super-screen. Besides fantastic special effects, X-2 manages to balance its comic book roots with real character development, and the sexual tension between Wolverine and Jean Gray is wonderfully palpable. Other than the aforementioned Halle Berry annoyance factor, X-2 is perfectly casted; I have no doubt that Hugh Jackman and Wolverine will someday be as synonymous as Christopher Reeve and Superman.
JASON MORGAN: Any time you set a Nightcrawler attack to Mozart's "Requiem," you probably have something special. Not to mention the promise of Phoenix, which got all the comic book geeks' dicks hard. Too bad Singer made it a total cock tease.
4. The Incredibles
EDWARD PERKIS: The best animated movie of all time and the one superhero movie that plays with the clichés without being a spoof. Want to know why a superhero should never wear a cape? It’s covered, but not at the expense of pulse pounding excitement like the 100 mile dash and a battle with the giant robot sphere. Director Brad Bird presents the movie in bold colors like you’re reading the Sunday comics.
JOSH TYLER: This really is the best animated movie of all time. That has to be enough to earn it a place on any list like this, doesn’t it? It’s a perfect combination of mind-blowing action, gut wrenching emotion, entertaining characters, and amazing story. It’s a completely engrossing, moving experience which translates across the board to all ages and backgrounds, but does so without watering itself down or pandering to some broad, lowest common denominator. The Incredibles is an amazing accomplishment, and it can’t possibly be praised enough.
RAFE TELSCH: The Incredibles could almost be considered a bit of a cheat – after all, as an animated film it doesn’t have to make content work in the “real world”. Amazingly, it almost does. Pixar’s animation is so realistic at times it’s hard to remember the film exists entirely on computers. As always, Pixar focuses on the story, not the gimmick, and that’s what truly makes the movie incredible. Watching the Parr family fight baddies isn’t half as important as watching them sort out their familial problems and discover their own identity together. Here’s one super-story in definite need of a sequel.
5. The Shadow
BRIAN HOLCOMB: This is the “wild card” pick, a film no one is supposed to like. A brilliant comic script by David Koepp(Spider-Man)and performances on the knife edge of parody from Alec Baldwin, John Lone, and Penelope Ann Miller drive this Coen Brothers-esque period adventure which is both reverential and ironic. The whole film is so devoted to gleeful nonsense it’s no wonder audiences were left puzzled. Amid the mythic seriousness of the new Superhero genre of the 90s, this kind of spirited romp was seen as absurd. It IS absurd, wonderfully so, and filled with great art deco sets, costumes, cars, and a sleek look that recalls perfectly the pulp covers of the original books. Koepp and director Russell Mulchahy take all of that and with the addition of a great score by Jerry Goldsmith that seems to ooze with the mystical, simply throw it all away to make a pop entertainment that is totally unpretentious. Unmentioned by many reviewers is how much of The Shadow’s origin was reworked into the script of Batman Begins.
DANIEL SOLOMON: This is not a joke. This movie was written and shot so as to imitate the content of an old person's thought bubble. Alec Baldwin uses his gift of cool to play mind-clouding hero LaMont Cranston, who must duel with an equally powerful Asian stereotype. The film plays perfectly into retro-40s sensibilities, including hints of xenophobia and wrongheaded science. The overacting in this film is like a fine wine, which is why I recommend viewing it once a year until death.
JOSH TYLER: Nearly everyone on our staff who voted for this movie prefaced their vote with “there’s no way anyone else will ever vote for this”. Apparently we all think a lot alike. You may think The Shadow doesn’t belong in league with movies like Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2, but that’s probably because you haven’t seen it. The film is an absolute feast of stunning, breathtaking visuals and the score is easily one of the most impressive and hauntingly beautiful superhero scores ever composed. But even if the whole thing were a pile of crap, it’s worth mentioning just for a single scene. Penelope Anne Miller awakens in a slinky gown to see Alec Baldwin standing over her. Miller: “Oh, God I dreamed”. Baldwin: “So did I. What did you dream?” Miller: “I was lying naked on a beach in the South Seas. The tide was coming up to my toes. The sun was beating down. My skin hot and cool at the same time. It was wonderful. What was yours?” Baldwin (in a deep trademark growl): “I dreamed I tore all the skin off my face and was somebody else underneath.”
Nominated but didn’t make the cut: Superman: The Movie, Superman Returns, RoboCop, Batman, Blade, Mystery Men, Sky High, V for Vendtta, Akira, The Specials, Unbreakable
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