I have an ambivalent attitude toward superhero movies. On the one hand, I love seeing the icons of my childhood made real and put on screen. On the other hand, I am usually disappointed by the mediocrity of execution that makes up the majority of the genre, but then I feel that way about most things that play squarely to an established audience. Superhero movies, in my opinion, ought to be fun and inspiring.
To me, superheroes are like Greek myths in that they are the personification of ideals. They wear distinctive costumes and behave in bold gestures. Subtlety is not part of their presentation because their roots are in children’s entertainment, and the subject matter is usually some variation on childish power-fantasies (being super-strong or invulnerable to pain, for example). Bearing that in mind, I think it’s fair to say that the potential for superheroes being fascist bullies is almost unavoidable, which is why I tend to prefer the characters whose motivations are either to help the disadvantaged or to take a stand against oppression. I’m not a big fan of defenders of the status quo.
Of the films put out since 1978’s Superman: The Movie, only a handful, I think, are really exceptional enough to be considered the best. Here, then, is my list of what I think are the best superhero movies, ones that stood out from the pack for bringing something new to the table or doing it with more panache. I’ll place them in chronological order because I can’t really put them in an order of preference.
Superman: The Movie (1978) set the standard for these kinds of films to be taken as seriously as any other, as opposed to the silly camp that defined the genre until then. An all-star cast with some very seriously esteemed actors, a big-scale, big-budget production and a preposterous resolution which almost derails the movie but only passes because of the good will built up by the chemistry between the film’s two leads, who could not be more perfectly cast. Richard Donner capably handles an insanely complicated production for its time, giving the movie a light touch that places it just outside of reality. It also has the best score, with John Williams creating what might be the most stirring theme music ever. It’s not a perfect superhero film, but it is the first and still a lot of fun to watch.
Batman (1989), directed by Tim Burton, no doubt made a huge mark on the genre. Before this, Superman was the only really successful superhero film franchise, so it must have been very risky to take such a dark turn with comic book material. It perfectly suits the character, however, giving him a grandiose environment and exhilarating theme music, while also proving there is more than one way to treat the subject matter. However, for all the things it gets right, I feel the script and the cast are too uneven and somewhat drag it down. I also think Burton’s follow up, Batman Returns (1992), is actually superior in terms of casting and execution, but suffered from a ludicrous and illogical third act which compromised the rest of the film.
X2: X-Men United(2003) is a rare sequel that outshines its predecessor. A bigger budget and a richer, more complex story go a long way to achieving that. I’ve always admired the X-Men for the central premise of heroes sworn to protect a world that rejects them. That is fertile ground for storytelling and this movie goes for the human rights angle in a way that finally brings relevance and social commentary to the genre, grounding the otherwise outlandish adventures in a world of authentic injustice. I was equally impressed by the later sequel Days of Future Past (2014) and the recent stand-alone Logan (2017) for their similarly unexpected depth, but this one gets the edge for being first. The three of them together, I consider my personal X-Men trilogy.
Spider-Man 2 (2004) was everything I ever hoped a Spider-Man movie could be. As a lifelong fan, I’ve wanted to see Spidey on screen forever but felt the first Sam Raimi film lacked substance outside of the origin story. This film is brilliant in my opinion because it really spans an impressive range from comic book high fantasy to kitchen-sink drama. It also features my favourite villain, Doctor Octopus, whose portrayal by Alfred Molina is so beautifully tragic it overcomes the inherent silliness of a man with four mechanical arms strapped to his back. This movie gets so much right, it’s a shame none of the other Spider-Man films have come close to reaching the same heights since.
The Dark Knight (2008) is probably the best superhero movie ever made, in my opinion, because it has the strongest themes and defies predictions, delivering real surprises and a potent moral dilemma for a climax instead of the by-now usual vfx-heavy throw-down. Every single player in the cast is excellent and the story deals very strongly with the balance between order and chaos and questioning how far one is willing to go in order to live up to one’s ideals. Unusually mature stuff for a superhero movie and delivered with such style you don’t notice the film’s flaws until long after it has made a lasting impression.
Wonder Woman (2017) gets on my list because I feel it echoes Superman: The Movie in the strength of its cast and their chemistry to overcome the film’s flaws, most especially the disappointing finale. Everything up until then is great, with Patty Jenkins ably invoking the playful feel of Donner’s original Superman, and Gal Gadot seems born to play the role. I think the movie is culturally important and, even though it is far from perfect, it presents something so new and exciting (a female-directed superhero movie featuring a strong, capable heroine) that it deserves recognition for its achievements. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun, until the overblown end-battle, anyway.
That is my list of the superhero movies that I consider the best of the bunch. I think they achieve more than the rest of the genre even tries to go for. These are movies that are better than they needed to be, and I love it when art transcends its limitations. As Marvel Studios has proved, there’s nothing wrong with the tranquility of the predictable, but I prefer movies that test the boundaries of what you can do with the material. That’s what separates art from craft.