In case you didn’t know (and how could you not?), superhero epic “Marvel’s The Avengers” sees its long-awaited theatrical release in American theatres this coming Friday, even though its UK release was last Thursday, when I went and saw it (if you will allow me to gloat and grin and dance merrily down the street for a moment or two). To celebrate, I thought I’d take a look at the ten finest examples to come out of the cinematic superhero genre, which I have listed below along with justifications for each entry. Some of the films are based on comics, some of them are original; some of them are straight-faced, some of them are comedies; some of them are bloody, one of them was made by Pixar. And hey, one of them might even have a certain Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Hulk in them (nudge, nudge).
10. “Kick-Ass” (2010)
Box-Office Gross: $96,188,903
Plot: Teenage comic book nerd Dave Lizewski decides to become a wetsuit-clad, baton-wielding vigilante named Kick-Ass, garnering the attention of a ruthless father-daughter superhero duo and merciless crime boss Frank D’Amico.
Why It’s Here: Earning much controversy for its nutso violence involving (and often inflicted by) a potty-mouthed 12-year-old girl, “Kick-Ass” was a much-needed and thoroughly satisfying breath of fresh air for the genre it lovingly sends up. Co-written and directed by British filmmaker Matthew Vaughn and based on the blood-soaked comic book series by Mark Millar, “Kick-Ass” is a deliriously entertaining, wickedly uproarious superhero comedy featuring break-neck action set-pieces, an eye-popping climactic showdown and a scene-stealing performance from a prepubescent Chloë Grace Moretz; she majorly kicks ass.
Most Awesome Moment: In D’Amico’s headquarters, as one of D’Amico’s thugs proudly prepares to blow young Hit Girl away with (of all things) a bazooka, Kick-Ass suddenly floats up outside the hundred-story window, strapped to a jetpack with mini-guns attached, and blasts the bewildered gang to bits.
9. “Spider-Man” (2002)
Box-Office Gross: $821,708,551
Plot: During a field trip to a genetics laboratory, geeky high-school senior Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically engineered spider, granting him arachnid-themed superhuman abilities, which sure come in handy when the malevolently mischievous Green Goblin glides into town.
Why It’s Here: Along with Bryan Singer’s comic book blockbuster “X-Men,” the hotly anticipated big-screen debut of Marvel’s poster boy, Spider-Man, helped to kick-start the ongoing superhero trend in mouth-watering style. Armed with a massive budget and state-of-the-art special effects, director Sam Raimi created an unstoppable box-office behemoth that more than lived up to much-hyped anticipation, providing exhilarating thrills, ravishing visuals, a deliciously menacing Willem Dafoe and even a bit of upside-down spider-smooching (see picture above).
Most Awesome Moment: It’s gotta be the film’s closing moments, which see, in one insanely elaborate tracking shot, our friendly neighbourhood web-head web-slinging his way through the skyscrapers of New York, doing a loop-the-loop around a tower crane and finally landing on a metal pole brandishing the star-spangled banner. Go America!
8. “X-Men 2” (2003)
Box-Office Gross: $407,711,549
Plot: Charles Xavier’s team of super-powered mutant freaks return, this time faced by the threat of genocidal Colonel William Stryker, a man from Wolverine’s long-forgotten past who has plans to destroy every mutant on Earth.
Why It’s Here: Bryan Singer’s follow-up to his big-budget adaptation of Marvel’s “X-Men” series was surprisingly even bigger and better than its truly X-cellent 2000 predecessor. Boasting terrific SFX, a fine cast and a rousing social commentary, “X-Men 2” (or “X2: X-Men United,” as it’s called in the States) is a fast-paced, action-packed, intelligently written and exuberantly entertaining comic book sequel unfortunately followed up by “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine;” still, “First Class” more than made up for those horrendous hiccups.
Most Awesome Moment: Wolverine’s back-breaking, neck-snapping run-in with the unfeasibly flexible Lady Deathstrike, who pierces her foe’s poor back full of tiny little holes with her lengthy metal nails (that’s some nasty backstabbing right there) before being pumped full of smoking hot liquid adamantium – that’s what you get if you mess with Wolverine.
7. “Iron Man” (2008)
Box-Office Gross: $585,174,222
Plot: Billionaire industrialist Tony Stark is kidnapped by terrorists in Afghanistan and forced to build his company’s “Jericho” missile for them. Instead, he sneakily constructs an armored suit and uses it to escape his prison before vowing to protect the Earth with his high-tech invention.
Why It’s Here: “Iron Man” was Marvel Studio’s first self-financed outing, their previous theatrical releases having been paid for by Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox and New Line Cinema – what a first independent outing it turned out to be. Thanks to the truly inspired casting of Robert Downey, Jr. (who in turn received a massive career comeback and boatloads of new fans) and the boisterously energetic direction of Jon Favreau, the phenomenally successful “Iron Man” was a comic book movie fitted with a proper sense of fun and an understanding of what it is to be cool, unlike the significantly less joyful “Iron Man 2.”
Most Awesome Moment: Tony tries out the much slimmer second incarnation of his technologically advanced exoskeleton for the first time, taking it for a spin round the skies of California, only to have it frost up when he flies too high, resulting in him crashing through two floors of his luxurious abode and crushing one of the many supercars sitting in his garage.
6. “Superman” (1978)
Box-Office Gross: $300,218,018
Plot: An alien infant is sent from his crumbling home planet of Krypton to planet Earth, where he grows up to become a super-powered crime-fighter named Superman. Meanwhile, criminal genius Lex Luthor plans to make a fortune in a real estate scam by sending a nuclear missile to the San Andreas Fault.
Why It’s Here: If you blissfully ignore the ever-so-silly 1966 “Batman” starring Adam West and Burt Ward, Richard Donner’s “Superman” was the world’s first superhero movie, and, as it turns out, one of the finest of the bunch. Starring a charismatic and confident Christopher Reeve in the role that defined his career, the film is a ground-breaking feast for the eyes and ears that wowed audiences young and old with its spectacular special effects, triumphant musical score, goofy sense of humour and thrilling set-pieces. “You’ll believe a man can fly,” the poster claimed. You’ll also believe “Superman III” and “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” don’t exist.
Most Awesome Moment: Intrepid reporter Lois Lane has gotten herself in a bit of a pickle. While she leaves the headquarters of the Daily Planet in a helicopter, an unfortunate accident occurs and Lois is left dangling from the top of the building. Luckily, Superman happens to be around at the time and flies up to catch Lois when she falls. “Easy, miss,” says Superman. “I’ve got you.” “You’ve got me?!” a bewildered Lois replies. “Who’s got you?!”
5. “Marvel’s The Avengers” (2012)
Box-Office Gross: Unknown
Plot: When Loki, the Asgardian god of mischief, threatens to take over our world with the help of an alien army, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury calls upon superhero team The Avengers to save us all from slavery and destruction.
Why It’s Here: In ambitiously assembling the team of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Incredible Hulk, “Marvel’s The Avengers” deliberately renders itself a comic book nerd’s wet dream, and one that should also appeal to all the non-nerdy norms out there. Wittily written and daringly directed by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon, this epic superhero blockbuster is the biggest of them all, which just makes how faultlessly assembled it is all the more impressive. It’s action-packed, frequently rib-tickling, utterly enjoyable from start to finish and has the entertainment value of 1,000 superhero movies – not including “Ghost Rider” or “Elektra.”
Most Awesome Moment: I’d love to divulge the details of this awe-inspiring moment, but alas, my conscience objects. What I will say, though, is that it is a moment shared between The Hulk and Loki, and that it had the auditorium in which I saw the film erupting with hordes of hearty laughter.
4. “The Incredibles” (2004)
Box-Office Gross: $631,442,092
Plot: A defunct superhero family now living peacefully in quiet suburbia is called back into action when a new supervillain named Syndrome starts up some trouble – world-dominating trouble.
Why It’s Here: “The Incredibles” is Pixar Animation Studios’ sixth full-length feature film, coming between “Finding Nemo” and “Cars,” and is their one and only foray into the superhero genre; it’s also one of their finest, funniest and liveliest works. With gorgeously rendered computer-animation, talented voice-work from the likes of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter and Jason Lee, a ceaselessly creative mind in the form of writer-director Brad Bird, and a whole boatload of balls-to-the-walls, kid-friendly action, “The Incredibles” (which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2004) is fantastic (nay incredible) fun for all the family, super-powered or not super-powered.
Most Awesome Moment: While desperately trying to outrun a gaggle of pursuing henchman in the middle of the woods, young Dash encounters a dead end in the form of a large body of water… and discovers he can use his super-speed to run on water. It’s like a young, blonde-haired Jesus on speed.
3. “Batman Begins” (2005)
Box-Office Gross: $372,710,015
Plot: Billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne returns from an investigative trip around the criminal world of Asia to his home city of Gotham, which is corrupt almost beyond repair. Nevertheless, Bruce decides to become the Batman, a caped crusader determined to rid Gotham of its overwhelming crime rates.
Why It’s Here: Arriving a full decade after the disappointing “Batman Forever” and eight years after the truly abysmal “Batman & Robin,” “Batman Begins” was a revelation. Co-written and directed by “Inception” helmer Christopher Nolan, “Batman Begins” was much darker than its last two campy forefathers, rebooting the “Batman” franchise with a grittier, more realistic edge, while still acknowledging the fact that the film is essentially about a dude in a bat costume going about and punching people. The film is intelligent, enthralling and insightful, providing real insight into the ideas it explores and the characters it presents. Ultimately, it led to the genre’s realisation that in order to keep its heart beating away, it had to up its game in the dramatic department as well as the entertainment department, both of which “Batman Begins” tackles with so little to fault.
Most Awesome Moment: With drugged-up love interest Rachel Dawes on the verge of death in the passenger seat, Batman determinedly races through the streets – and rooftops – of Gotham city in the fire-breathing Tumbler, aka the Batmobile, with the authorities in hot pursuit, to save Rachel’s fading life.
2. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)
Box-Office Gross: $783,766,341
Plot: Following the Green Goblin’s hair-raising reign of terror, a new menace threatens the lives of everyday New Yorkers: Doctor Otto Octavius (“Doc Ock,” for short), a mad scientist wielding four mechanical tentacles, whose latest invention may very well destroy the city. It’s up to our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man to stop him; only trouble is, Spidey’s powers seem to be fading.
Why It’s Here: Following in the footsteps of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men 2,” Sam Raimi’s follow-up to his 2002 mega-smash-hit “Spider-Man” was another comic book sequel that shockingly bettered its predecessor in almost every conceivable way. Released in the summer of 2004, “Spider-Man 2” broke box-office records and dazzled audiences worldwide, presenting Raimi’s typically inventive eye for stunning visuals and an unexpectedly complex villain (played by a spiffingly sinister Alfred Molina), as well as a compelling human story to go alongside the relentlessly heart-racing, special-effects-laden action set-pieces. It was everything a bombastic summer blockbuster should be: thrilling, funny, heartfelt, engaging and absolutely sensational, i.e. everything “Spider-Man 3” was not.
Most Awesome Moment: Spidey’s lengthy, madcap battle with Doc Ock on top of, on the side of, inside and even underneath a speeding elevated train. This culminates in Doc Ock destroying the control panel while the train is at maximum speed, leaving Spider-Man in the position of having to slow it down: he does so by shooting and desperately holding onto webs that stick to the buildings on either side of the train. It works, but causes the web-head to collapse from exhaustion, leading to a rather touching moment inside the train between he and the thankful passengers.
1. “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Box-Office Gross: $1,001,921,825
Plot: As pearly-toothed district attorney Harvey Dent helps Batman clean up the crime-ridden streets of Gotham, a homicidal, clown-faced anarchist known only as The Joker rolls into town, dead-set on sparking mindless, uncontrollable chaos.
Why It’s Here: It is in “The Dark Knight” that writer-director Christopher Nolan shows the epitome of what can be achieved within what many see as the “limitations” of the superhero movie mould. The first sequel to “Batman Begins,” it expands upon ideas and themes explored in its predecessor, as well as exploring some of its own (ethics and good vs evil, for example), to earth-shattering effect. Leading characters such as Bruce, Harvey and Commissioner Gordon are richly layered and fully fleshed out, though notably this is not the case for The Joker, and for good reason: a tantalising air of mystery surrounds the villainous maniac, rendering his actions unpredictable and thus making him impossible to take one’s eyes off of (the late Heath Ledger was very deservedly awarded a posthumous Oscar for his extraordinary, scene-stealing performance).
Plus, the film is exceptionally gripping right from the opening bank heist (which rivals that of Michael Mann’s “Heat”) all the way up to the spine-tingling climax, even when full-blown, explosive action is kept deliberately sparse (and deliciously rewarding when gloriously unveiled). Thematically complex, darkly intense and ceaselessly mesmerising, “The Dark Knight” is a magnificent and uncompromising triumph for the superhero genre considered by many (myself included) to be something of a modern masterpiece – we’ll just have to wait and see how “The Dark Knight Rises” fares by comparison.
Most Awesome Moment: Batman chasing after The Joker’s truck in his Batpod (a rather awesome-looking motorcycle) through the roads, alleyways and shopping malls of Gotham City, which ends in Batman doing a neat little trick using wires that causes the truck to launch into the air ass-first and land on its back.
Honourable Mentions: “Superman II” (1980), “Batman” (1989), “Batman Returns” (1992), “X-Men” (2000), “Unbreakable” (2000), “X-Men: First Class” (2011)
By Stephen Watson