Best superhero movies

Sal's Picks


10. Batman (1989). Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson square off in Tim Burton’s gothic take on DC Comic’s famed superhero. More than a bit silly at times and often draggy, it benefits from stylish production design, winning performances and Burton’s quirky sensibility.


9. X-Men: The Last Stand. More exciting than its predecessors, this entry, helmed by Brett Ratner, is disturbing (Jean Grey destroying Professor Xavier with her mind remains a chilling sequence), action-packed and loaded with colorful characters and snappy pacing.


8. Hulk (2003). Ang Lee’s version of the Big Green Guy’s story has been much maligned, but his poetic, character-driven film combines ingenious editing and slam-bang battle sequences with top-notch performances by Sam Elliott, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte and Eric Bana.


7. Batman Begins. After suffering through the Joel Schumacher-directed debacles of the 1990s (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin), the Caped Crusader got the film he (and fans) truly deserved in 2005. Christian Bale stars in Christopher Nolan’s moody, very serious take on Batman’s origins and his attempts to thwart Gotham’s underworld. Not a whole lot of “fun” per se, but a fine character study with quality supporting work by Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson and Tom Wilkinson.


6. Superman II. Not as good as its predecessor, this sequel suffers from a few too many corny moments and the fact that Richard Lester had to reshoot a good portion of the film in order to receive director’s credit after Richard Donner was given his walking papers. Lester’s trademark comic touch is a little too evident, but he still manages to craft engagingly silly popcorn entertainment.


5. Spider-Man. I was a devoted reader of the Spidey comics as a kid, and Sam Raimi's big-screen version didn't disappoint. Doe-eyed Tobey MacGuire is perfectly cast as Peter Parker, the awkward teen who is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains super-human strength (and a way-cool costume, too).


4. The Incredibles. Brad Bird’s (Iron Giant, Ratatouille) witty, stylish animated feature is giddy fun from beginning to end and owes more than a little to the James Bond flicks of the 1960s. In fact, trailers for the film used John Barry’s score from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.


3. Spider-Man II. In this, the best of the series, Spider-Man squares off against the formidable Doctor Octopus, and New York’s cityscape is much the worse for their battles.


2. The Dark Knight. Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins is a thought-provoking, white-knuckled affair with thrilling action and, in Heath Ledger’s anarchic Joker, one of the most deeply frightening villains ever to appear on the big screen. Moral ambiguity has rarely been this compelling.


1. Superman. Cinema’s landmark superhero film is still the best and set the standard by which all others should be judged. Yes, critics everywhere are putting The Dark Knight at the top of their all-time lists, but let’s see how everything plays out in a few years. Richard Donner’s take on The Man of Steel is masterfully paced, epic entertainment, with an assured, star-making turn in the lead role by Christopher Reeve and stellar support by the entire cast, most notably Gene Hackman as the sarcastic but deadly Lex Luthor. Humor, Americana, spectacle and Donner's devotion to "verisimilitude" blend to create the grandest superhero film of them all.

With The Dark Knight raking in monster box-office and critical raves, and this week's CL cover story focused on what our superheroes say about who we are as a culture, Joe Bardi and I were inspired to each make our lists of the best superhero flicks of all time. Joe offers 10 films in eight entries, while I give a traditional top 10 list. Enjoy!

Joe's Picks:

1. Batman Begins/The Dark Knight: The new kings of the comic-book castle. Begins sets the table, and then The Dark Knight redefines the genre for the 21st century. I don’t see how anyone — not even director Christopher Nolan and his team — will top Knight for a long, long time.

2. The Matrix: Though not based on original graphic novel source material, there is no denying that The Matrix set the standard for all the modern comic book/superhero franchises. There is no Dark Knight without Keanu and Co’s reality-bending excursion into virtual reality.

3. Die Hard: Sure, Die Hard might seem out of place on a list of flicks about guys dressed as insects and flying rodents. Still, how can a list of superhero movies not include NYC cop/terrorist-killer John McClaine? In the original Die Hard, Bruce Willis tries his best to make McClain an everyman, and winds up creating one of the quintessential superheroes of the 1980s.

4. Superman/Superman 2: Really more of one big movie than two individual films. Superman and Superman II were both the babies of Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Goonies). After Donner had completed Superman and was halfway through shooting Superman II, the studio replaced him with A Hard Day's Night director Richard Lester, causing Superman II to suffer a bit from the lack of consistency at the helm. Still, I find the sequel more fun to watch than the original.

5. Iron Man: 2008’s other excellent comic-book movie, and the first one from Marvel’s new production company. Iron Man manages to combine a terrific performance by Robert Downey Jr. with a plot that carries weight in these over-militarized times. It’s also damn funny.

6. The Incredibles: A Pixar animated feature about a family of superheroes, The Incredibles manages the difficult task of satirizing the superhero flick while delivering an excellent take on the genre that appeals to the whole family. Can’t wait for the sequel.

7. Spider-Man 2: I was never a huge Spider-Man fan, though I do appreciate what director Sam Raimi brought to the web-crawling franchise. Spider-Man 2 is easily the best of the Spidey flicks, primarily because of the villainous Doc Ock and his amazing tentacles.

8. Batman: The Tim Burton/Michael Keaton original holds up today largely on the back of the amazing production design and Jack Nicholson’s inspired performance as The Joker. I’m partial to Batman Returns, actually, as I find it a much more entertaining experience than this brooding original, but I fear villagers with pitchforks might show up at the Loaf office if I rank Returns over Batman. So I won’t — but you’re all wrong!

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