So Wonder Woman comes out this week. If the reviews and my faith in the Snyders as executive producers holds this will be one of the best superhero movies ever. But before we put it up there when we review it this weekend, let’s take a look at the best superhero films ever.
Now just as review this is how we judge greatness here at EP.
- Has to create catharsis, either through drama or comedy. And good comedy sometimes is more important than deep thoughts, so the good comedy films are going to make it on this list. And soulless crap like that the first Captain America or Batman Returns which makes you wonder if you’ve come down with a sudden case of Anhedonia will not.
- Has to actually understand how human beings think and act, and how the world actually operates (yes we’re talking about superheroes, but when you suspend your disbelief on that one thing the rest of it still has to make sense). So that bullshit where Tony and Steven have radically different moral and principles every goddamn movie because the writers are too lazy/inept/talentless for the thinnest level of consistency puts most of the later MCU out.
- There has to be some actual skill involved in making the movie. Good writing, good directing, good acting. So no Catwoman.
- Finally there has to be strong philosophical premise and core to the movie. This is where most of the Marvel stuff fails. Either it embraces banality for the convenience of plot (even though plot is the least important thing in books or movies–theme is what matters), or it actually embraces ideas that are downright evil (see Hydra Cap’s downright vile pacifist speech about how war is always wrong, even when it’s fighting evil, in the middle of Ultron).
Now some can argue in favor of if they liked it, but you can like terrible movies and dislike very good ones so liking it isn’t really important. Others may point to box office, but box office performance is a historically terrible way of predicting which movies pass the test of time http://www.filmsite.org/boxoffice2.html .
So without further ado, let’s count down the best superhero films prior to Wonder Woman.
And I grant that Marvel fans in particular will hate this list as they care more about fun and plot, than depth and theme. But this is a blog about how ideas in pop culture shape politics. Depth and theme matter.
25: The Incredible Hulk
Edward Norton’s performance puts this above what should be an otherwise forgettable film. Granted this somewhat with the idea of Banner dealing with his inner issues and learning to control his rage (which is essential to understanding much of the later Avenger films).
24: X-Men Apocalypse
How many times can we make Magneto go from good to bad to good? We can only pray this doesn’t happen the next time we have an X-men film. Probably a little less well done in some places than X2, still the Quicksilver scene makes up for most of it’s flaws, and seeing Raven actually have a full character arc completed was quite fulfilling. This film again isn’t too deep, but it does lay waste to such extreme views as the kind of racial purity arguments that are so popular with alt-right idiots nowadays.
Tim Burton showed that superhero movies could be serious. They didn’t have to be entirely campy and they could include great actors. And two decades later Hollywood actually followed up on that with some good superhero films.
Magneto:Are you a God-fearing man, Senator? That is such a strange phrase. I’ve always thought of God as a teacher; a bringer of light, wisdom, and understanding.
Like Batman, Bryan Singer tried showing Hollywood that superhero movies don’t have to be stupid. And they can actually include some serious ethical questions about societal policy. The problem is that while questions of inclusion were still timely when this came out, and we really hate the fact that deep down there is a certain logic to Magneto’s fears, not his action, but certainly his fears. However, if X-Men doesn’t find a new theme fast they’re going to make Social Justice Warriors look centered.
21: Suicide Squad
Harley: “What, you were just… Thinking you can have a happy family and coach little leagues, and make car payments? Normal’s a setting on the dryer. People like us, we don’t get normal”
A philosophical takedown of Michele Foucault. An analysis of the mind of a several sociopaths, and the path toward redemption for several character (some make it, some I think will not). Say what you will, and I’m sure we would have all prefered to see Ayer’s work untouched by the studio (but the broken studio system is not limited to Warner Brothers) but it tried to do a lot and while it didn’t hit the mark on everything it was good.
20: The Shadow
Lamont Cranston, The Shadow: Do you have *any* *idea* who you just kidnapped?
Tulku: Cranston; Lamont Cranston.
Lamont: You know my real name?
Tulku: Yes. I also know that for as long as you can remember, you struggled against your own black heart and always lost. You watched your spirit, your very face change as the beast claws its way out from within you. You are in great pain, aren’t you? You know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, for you have seen that evil in your own heart. Every man pays a price for redemption; this is yours.
Lamont: I’m not lookin’ for redemption!
Tulku: You have no choice: you will be redeemed, because I will teach you to use your black shadow to fight evil.
Lamont: Am I in Hell?
Tulku: Not yet.
Be honest, you forgot this one even existed. Back in the early 90’s Alec Baldwin could actually act as more than a running gag in anything he did, he could actually carry a whole movie. It’s a shame this didn’t take off because the Shadow is one of those storylines that holds the potential for some real depth with its spiritual side and questions of redemption. And this gem has some of the wittiest banter this side of a Howard Hawks film.
Gabriel: You’re handed this precious gift, right? Each one of you granted redemption from the Creator – murderers, rapists, and molesters – all of you, you just have to repent, and God takes you into His bosom. In all the worlds in all the universe, no other creature can make such a boast, save man. It’s not fair. If sweet, sweet God loves you so, then I will make you worthy of His love. I’ve been watching for a long time. It’s only in the face of horror that you truly find your nobler selves. And you can be so noble. So, I’ll bring you pain, I’ll bring you horror, so that you may rise above it. So that those of you who survive this reign of hell on earth will be worthy of God’s love.
For some reason this movie is not fondly remembered despite the fact that it was actually very good. Solid acting from Reeves and Weisz, even Shia wasn’t too annoying. The plot was solid and it asked some all important questions about redemption and virtue. My deepest hope with the rumored Justice League Dark movie is that call Keanu back and their only direction is – we want you to play the same character, but more John Wick.
18: Spider Man 2
Aunt May: I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.
To honest the entire Spider Man franchise, like all spiders, should be killed. It it the most egregious cash grab that cares more for profit than quality in all of Hollywood (The Fantastic Four being the only thing worse). Almost everyone one of these films is just terrible drek. But the second Sam Raimi version is the lone exception here. This film has some great character development, excellent fight scenes and dealt with the problem of having to be a hero versus choosing to be a hero that Schumacher fumbled so badly in Batman Forever. Real shame they had to follow this up with what is possibly the worst superhero movie in history–yes I will actually say that Spiderman 3 is worse than Electra, Superman IV, or Rise of the Silver Surfer. Because none of those included a godawful emo Saturday Night Fever strut.
17: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Ego: Listen to me! You are a god. If you kill me, you’ll be just like everybody else!
Peter Quill: What’s so wrong with that?
Vastly inferior to it’s predecessor, it’s still one of the funniest movie around. It makes it on this not so much for depth as it does for comedy, and, let’s be honest, Baby Groot. More movies need Baby Groot, but given that we’ve already seen teenage Groot, that just won’t happen. But in terms of depth that should have been a larger part of the movie, Gamora and Nebula’s relationship, that was actually quite moving, so much so I almost forgot that whoever compiled this soundtrack must have been tone deaf. This movie suffers from a problem most Marvel films do in that the villain plans just make not a damn bit of sense.
16: Iron Man 3
“You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys, but one thing you can’t take away – I am Iron Man. “
Okay I understand if you’re a bit confused why this movie is so far up the list. The Shane Black writing while usually great is a little lackluster here, and the Mandarin thing was a bit of a let down. But it makes it here because it deals with something very central to all superheroes and their story. Their heroes because of their choices not because of their powers. This movie picked up on the all important question made in The Avengers: “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away and what are you?” And while Tony had a quip in The Avengers he had a real answer in this film, take all that away, and he’s still Iron Man. Sadly that moment was the last bit of consistency the character ever saw. And let’s also give credit where credit is due, this movie made us like Pepper for like 30 seconds–that’s quite an accomplishment.
X-Men: Days of Future Past & X-Men: First Class
Days of Future Past
Professor X: Just because someone stumbles and loses their path, doesn’t mean they’re lost forever. Sometimes, we all need a little help.
Oh, none of that shit ever happened? Thanks. Although it’s unclear if this leading to Old Man Logan is any better…oh wait, no, no it’s not. But I’m sure Cable and Deadpool will fix that problem.
And this movie gave us Quiksilver. But not the one with the terrible fake Russian accent. No, one we actually like.
And remember how I talked about Raven’s character arc with Apocalypse, well this the film that established her not as the sidekick for the villain but as the central character. And let us not forget that this movie centers on the importance of individual choice, something that should always be a much more important theme than it is in modern Hollywood.
Someone actually decided to give so many of our favorite characters actual background and depth. Rather than letting Magneto just become a more cartoonish figure this film actually gives us some pretty solid basis for why he is the way he is. This breathed life back into the franchise and brought all the social issues that made the X-men movies deeper to begin with. And the social commentary of X-Men has always been one about bigotry. In the 60’s when the X-Men were created it was an allegory for racism. Now that racism (except for Anti-Semitism) has been driven to the fringe of society, it is now an allegory for how society treats homosexuals. And therein is the reason X-Men is weaker—in a generation, maybe a generation and a half, society will likely have grown up and this allegory will not exactly be relevant. Further, this is more a message that is preaching to the choir—no one stupid enough to see homosexuality as a sin is going to change their minds because they saw a movie about mutants.
13: Iron Man
Tony Stark: You got a family?
Yinsen: Yes, and I will see them when I leave here. And you, Stark?
Tony Stark: No.
Yinsen: So you’re a man who has everything… and nothing.
Yes the movie wasn’t scripted so much as ad libbed, but the film deals with some heavier ideas of dealing with the results of your actions, or inaction in this case, and recovering from a near death experience. It shows that life is something worth living, and doing the right thing is not something that can be put off. Now there are a lot of flaws with this film that some of the lower ranked movies on this list don’t have, but it’s first movie where Marvel actually tried to make a serious film, so some of those flaws can be forgiven. Iron Man will stand the test of time long after many of the MCU entries that followed have been forgotten.
12: Batman Begins
“And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
This is the weakest of the Dark Knight trilogy. And even then it’s one of the best movies ever made.
This is the first serious superhero movie and the one that set up the idea that superheroes are supposed to be symbol to encourage action rather than the ones who do everything themselves. It is the movie that made us start caring more about the person behind the mask more than costume itself. And for that we are truly grateful.
The darkest superhero movie worth watching, this film asks what if superheroes were the actual kind of screwed up type of person who would be attracted to such a life. Normal people would never want to do this, and those who would be attracted to would be deeply broken, even moreso after living that kind of life. Now this makes it this high on the list, despite suggesting such a dark vision of humanity, because it offers the needed counter to so many other superhero tales. Being superpowered would make you distance yourself from humanity like Dr. Manhattan, fighting that much crime by yourself would turn you into the unhinged Rorschach, so forth and so on. Without understanding that this would be a normal effect of such situations it is impossible to appreciate the heroism of characters like Batman and Superman. They’re not heroes just because they’re heroes, but because they choose to rise above the easy pitfalls that such a life would bring.
Clearly it was fun and moving (don’t tell me your heart didn’t drop when he couldn’t Excalibur the hammer out of the stone, and that your heart didn’t jump when it finally came flying to him). The characters actually act far more human than most of the non-superhero movies this year. The theme of sibling rivalry, the need for the approval of a parent, the difficulty of growing up and living in a parent’s shadow (all very Shakespearian…especially challenging King Lear and Henry V, with a touch of Much Ado in the humorous scenes) show that director Kenneth Branagh has not strayed far from his usual cup of tea with this film. Now a friend of mine complained that while the plot and characters were good in this film, there were simply no great lines of dialogue…which is incorrect…there are no great speeches, there are lots of great witty and pithy lines. “Yes, but I supported you.” “I am the monster parents tell their children about at night?” “Do you want me to take him down or would you rather send in more guys for him to beat up?” “Live, and tell those stories yourself!” Every line from Darcy. But it also has some of the most complex characters the MCU has to offer (Loki especially steals every scene in every movie he’s in).
9: Doctor Strange
I know, I know, it’s pretty much the Iron Man plot with magic instead of science. But here’s the thing, it’s actually a better story, and the character goes through a lot more character growth in the course of the film. And just a Cumberbatch is a better Sherlock, he’s a better superhero as well. Further, while it doesn’t go into the depth that I’d like, it deals with some serious spiritual issues in a way that most Hollywood just ignores.
“There are no men like me.”
“There are always men like you.”
Okay yeah, it’s a good film. It’s just so sad that everything that followed was at best banal and at worst supporting anarchy, progressivism and tyranny all at the same time. Here you had well thought out characters, character arcs,
The film also takes an excellent task of dealing with themes of the nature of tyranny, liberty, and the balance of individual and societal needs for those who wish to make the world a better place…and it would have been really nice if those themes had been continued or hadn’t take a hard left into some weird mixture of progressivism and populism as with the later Hydra Cap and Avenger films.
7: Guardians of the Galaxy
“What are you doing?”
Okay, maybe not so big on theme, but it is hilarious, and that kind of catharsis is rare and needs to be appreciated.
Yeah it seems odd that I would stick something this silly this far up the list, but hear me out. First, again, great humor is something that needs to be respected for its ability to let us release so much stress. But more than that this movie is a little more than just a comedy. Especially if you count the deleted scenes. You very much see a character who is more than just the Merc with a Mouth, but a man who, when he discovers someone worth living for, is horrified by the idea of not being there with them and needs to be the person worthy of them. Granted Wade’s immediate concerns are pretty basic: being alive, not being hideous, but they set out from the first flashback scenes that Wade Wilson is a little more than heartless thug with a smartass mouth. It will be interesting to see if they can follow this up with some actual character development (believe it or not Reynolds can act if you give him a decent script).
“The worst thing in the world is not knowing your place in the world.[…]I’m not a mistake!”
Arguably this is the movie that started the ball rolling on superhero movies being serious with its discussion of comic books being a tie to the older uses of mythology and folklore in society (academia had been making the same argument for years, but this is the first time I can remember it being brought into the realm of popular culture). As with most of M. Night’s early work, it is a thoughtful discussion of a person’s place in the world and how we all feel a need to fulfill the purpose we were put here to fulfill. This movie will likely be outdone in the coming years with the promised third part to the series, Glass, where the heroes and villains of both Unbreakable and Split square off.
4: The Dark Knight Rises
The film fulfills on the promise that it is the importance of providing symbols for people to believe in. It shows both the evil of socialism and fascism at the same time, and it is a story of learning that life is something that is meant to be lived to the fullest. Few movies will ever surpass it.
3: Man of Steel
“They will race behind you, they stumble, they will fall. But in time they will join you in the sun. In time you will help them accomplish wonders.”
The philosophical refutation of Plato’s Republic and showing
the evil of all centrally planned societies. The start of an argument forAristotelean virtue ethics, and the first movie that turned Superman from the cardboard cutout of the big blue boy-scout to real character with depth, humanity, and actual ethical issues that are not only appropriately fantastic for a superhero film, but which are also relatable in wanting to measure up to the dreams of our parents, of choosing what to do with our lives, with finding out who we really are, and of course issues of having faith in those around us.
2: The Dark Knight
“This city just showed you that it’s full of people ready to believe in good.”
Othello meets the Bat of Gotham. A discussion of the double edged sword that is the war on terror. The need to fight evil despite the collateral damage it causes because the alternative is vastly worse. This movie is one of the finest films on record.
1: Dawn of Justice
“Men are still good.”
We can and have said a lot about this movie, and over the next few years and further additions to the DCEU we’re probably going to keep coming back to it. But this is the movie that shows that the origin of the name Superman, that is Nietzsche’s terrible ideas, has nothing to do with the character. It shows that empathy is more important than all the superpowers around, and that the petty democracy of vox populi vox dei is just as dangerous as Zod’s tyrannical nature. If it wasn’t so trendy to hate the DCEU it would be recognized that this was the superior film, and in time that is what will happen.
*Just a note this is a list of superhero films not comic book ones. If it was comic books I would have to include Oblivion, V for Vendetta, Kingsman, and MIB.