As a nerd, I have to say that since 2000 it's been a great decade for comic book movies. X-men, Spiderman, Superman, and Batman have all showed Hollywood that superheroes are a resource for financial gain that have been mostly ignored for years.
And we still have several more to go including this year's Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Wanted, Hellboy II, The Dark Knight, and Punisher: War Zone.
But there was a time when pickings were pretty slim for a good superhero movie. The list I've compiled covers over two decades of movies where several failed attempts at superhero movies made Hollywood leery of the genre.
Here are some movies (starting with my favorite and working on down) that I think were great representatives for the comic book world before the current boom of superhero movies.
1. Superman: The Movie (1978) - The grandfather of all superhero movies. Richard Donner provided us with a defining vision for how superhero movies should be made. He took source material that was considered hokey and had birthed several silly ideas over the years (super-pets anyone?) and treated it with a serious attitude. His goal was to make it believable which was partially evident with the project slogan, "You will believe a man can fly." First, he found the perfect Supeman in Christopher Reeve.
Much like Donner, Reeve's sincerity for the character showed through in his performance. The movie took its time in setting up everything about Superman before getting to the heroics. Donner stated that it was like filming three different movies. At first, when on Krypton, it was like shooting a big sci-fi movie. Then when they moved on to Smallville, it became a great sweeping movie about Americana; evening describing Superman to be as wholesome as "mom's apple pie". Finally, when they get to Metropolis it becomes a big city movie where we get to see the hustle and bustle as compared to the quiet and serene countryside. By the time all is said and done, we get to the classic hero vs. villain theme when Lex Luthor (excellently portrayed by Gene Hackman) comes into the picture.
All these elements mixed with one of the best movie scores ever composed, courtesy of John Williams, gave the movie a life of its own. Overall, Superman: The Movie became the template of how to introduce a fantastic character like Superman and make him relatable to audiences. The sad thing is, not many other attempts (including later Superman movies) would take notes from this superior lesson which left superhero movies a taboo in Hollywood for years.
2. Superman II (1981) As a kid, the sequel to Superman II was amazing and jaw-dropping to me. I was 3 when it came out in theatres so I probably didn't see it until it starting showing on T.V. Being a kid at the time, I had no idea about the big scandal behind this movie. It wasn't until I was an adult that I finally learned how Richard Donner had been filming Superman I and II simultaneously. His producers, the Salkinds, apparently were unhappy with Donner and after Superman I was completed, they unceremoniously dismissed Donner from the project. Richard Lester was brought in by the Salkinds to finish Superman II and what we got was a mixed bag of a movie. On the one hand, we have the introduction (or reintroduction if you prefer) of one of movie's greatest villains- General Zod!
I know he's over the top and bursting with cliche's but I thought that's what made him so great. Terrence Stamp took a role that was easily ridiculous and turned it into a memorable performance that still generates some of the best quotes to this day. The fight in Metropolis at the end of the movie was great and gave Superman a chance to shine. On the other hand, Lester brought in the idea that his version of Superman needed to be more lighthearted. Thus, we get several goofy scenes that take three menacing villains and turn them into better than buffoons. Example: Just about any scene with Non as he is constantly portrayed as the “the big dumb one”. Then there's the classic “strange powers” Superman possess at the end of the movie like the ability to throw his shield or to create holograms of himself to thwart the villains.
When the Richard Donner Cut was released in 2006, I was one of the first to rush out and get it. I do recommend this version over the Lester version but with a few considerations. The Donner Cut was made with footage Donner was able to shoot before he was canned. The result is a movie that portrays the villains in a more dangerous light
but at the same time suffers from the fact that Donner never could complete it. All in all, the â€œideaâ€ behind Superman II is great and hopefully one day, redemption will come for it in the form of a modern Superman movie which shows Superman and these villains engaged in the kind of story that's worthy of their characters.
3. Batman (1989) You've heard of comfort food? Well, this has definitely got to be a “comfort movie” for me. I can be having the worst day and if I pop this in, it just pumps me back up! Tim Burton took the public's collective consciousness (which still had visions of Adam West doing the ”Batoosie”) and turned it on its head with this awesome tale that put the 'dark' back in The Dark Knight. From the moment Danny Elfman's score begins to build in the opening title sequence you knew this movie was going to be different. Tim Burton has a world all his own where all his movies seem to take place. It's a dark and dreary world but one that enchants most people when he produces a new film. This is more than evident in this version of Batman's world where the city of Gotham seems to be shrouded in perpetual darkness. People laughed at the idea of Michael Keaton as Batman (people did the same to Bruce Willis when he was cast in Die Hard) but Keaton put all fears to rest when he takes out those two thugs on the rooftops and vehemently declares “I'm Batman!”
Then, just as the audience is buying into Keaton's performance, Jack Nicolson comes in and drops a cinematic bombshell. His portrayal of The Joker is considered nothing short of legendary for most people.
Suddenly, the hero and the villain were more than a match for each other and the rest of the movie continues full steam ahead with Danny Elfman's driving score. Nitpickers point out that in comic continuity The Joker didn't kill Batman's parents and towards the end Batman uses weapons to kill some of the Joker's henchmen. If it weren't for these minor details I think it would have been difficult to determine if this was a better Batman movie or Batman Begins. As it stands, Batman Begins seems to be the popular choice to be the seminal Batman movie but this effort by Burton and company should never be dismissed.
4. The Crow (1994) I was a teenager when this came out so I'm pretty sure I saw it in the theaters. This was at the dawn of my comic book collecting days so I didn't know anything about the comic book this movie was based on. But when I saw it, it blew me away. The movie is such a classic Greek tragedy. My wife calls it “a guy's love story” because she says only a guy would view this as such. For me, the action and the love story interwove in such a way that it was never sappy and the action never seemed forced. Eric Draven had a clearly defined goal and we are carried along with him to that goal. We feel his pain, his frustration, and even his joy when justice is done. A running theme for me, if you haven't caught it yet, is that a good movie has to have an equally good soundtrack. The orchestral soundtrack is great in this movie supplying just enough longing and sullenness to keep the overall tragedy fresh in our minds. But that is complimented with some great hard core music by Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, and Stone Temple Pilots during the action scenes.
Jason Lee's death during production was one of the saddest events in Hollywood history. But at the same time, it inadvertently created this mysticism behind this movie; watching a young actor in a potentially break-out role be taken before his time.
5. The Mask (1994) Another movie that came out during my early comic collecting years, The Mask helped continue Jim Carrey's rise as a big-box-office-ticket actor at the beginning of the 90's. It must have been synchronicity though, because I don't know any other actor that could have pulled it off.
I didn't know anything about The Mask character going into this movie so I was a clean slate. I was able to watch this movie objectively and it was a very enjoyable experience. As Stanley Ipkiss, Jim Carrey accurately portrayed the â€˜down-on-his-luck' guy who is so easy to route for in a story. This was also Cameron Diaz's first starring role and she sizzled as the movie's leading lady.
CGI was still in its infancy so overall it looks almost low budget and cartoony. But for the purposes of this movie, it worked since The Mask is essentially a character who seems to have been ripped out of a Looney Toons cartoon. Jim Carrey's comic performances were always described as 'rubbery' because of his physical comedy where he seemed to be able to do wild and crazy things with his body. This talent also lent itself to the character and further made us believe that Carrey had truly turned into this creature of magical mischief. An overall fun movie that stayed true to the spirit of the original material.
6. Blade (1998) Wesley Snipes was just cool all around in the 90's. He had done several well-received movies but had never shown interest towards the comic book community. So when I heard that he was not only going to do a comic book movie, but also one of Marvel Comic's B-list characters, I was pretty shocked. The theatrical preview looked good but after a string of bad Batman movies, I think a lot of people were hesitant about comic book movies. All my fears were put to rest when Blade walks into that rave at the beginning of the movie and the Blood Bath begins-literally. Not only was New Line Cinema taking a chance on a comic book movie, but it was also a Rated R comic book movie; double taboo. But a strong story, a great performance by Snipes, and some awesome action quickly alleviated all fears.
Snipes had the perfect attitude for the character and as he stated in the movie, “You better wake up. The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping! There is another world beneath it - the real world. And if you want to survive it, you better learn to pull the trigger!” This was definitely a wake up call for Hollywood and X-men helped solidify that call two years later.
7. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm Tim Burton helped bring Batman back to his dark roots but Batman: The Animated Series helped keep him there. This groundbreaking cartoon helped change people's attitude towards animated shows. The tone was serious and the material was handled in a way that did justice to the character of Batman without making him cartoony. The success of the animated series led to the production of this full-length animated feature. The box office take wasn't very good but the overall quality of the film cannot be denied. Unlike the Burton film, the animated series stayed true to Batman's origins. So immediately there was a sincerity to this world where the animated series existed. Bruce Wayne's struggle of happiness (with new love interest Andrea Beaumont) or his promise to his parents struck a cord with me that has always drawn me to the character; his choice to selflessly dedicate his life to helping others while avenging his parent's death.
All of Batman's popular rogues had been introduced in the series by this point so a new foe was created: The Phantasm.
The tone of the movie was also more mature. Considering that in the series guns were a mainstay, the movie allowed them to be used to their full potential. A harrowing scene where Batman is almost gunned down by the Gotham P.D. is beautifully filmed and leads us to think Batman is truly in some real danger; perhaps for the first time. A great score by Shirley Walker echoes themes from the show as well as Danny Elfman's score from Burton's Batman. Of course, you couldn't have a Batman movie without The Joker in it. What Jack Nicolson did for The Joker in the Burton movie, Mark Hamill (everyone's favorite galactic farm boy) found life after Star Wars in providing the voice of The Joker here and in the animated series. Further capitalizing on the PG rating, Batman delivers a beat-down on the Joker that is cheer-worthy and brutal. Before Batman Begins came along, many considered this to be the seminal Batman movie.
8. Dick Tracy (1990) Ok, so I'm straying from the comic book mold here but it's almost necessitated by my original point that comic book movies (good ones anyway) were scarce before 2000. Warren Beatty took a mainstay of Sunday morning comics and brought it to life in this movie adaptation. The costumes, the sets, the villains were all highly authentic.
Starting off the movie by showing the villains (most of whom would be considered deformed by real world standards) established that this was not our world and these were the things that were commonplace in it.
Beatty was also able to take cues from old gangster movies and used them to spice the movie up. Madonna as Breathless Mahoney probably also got a laugh from most critics. I think she showed them up by not only delivering a sexy performance, but also providing some great music that echoed a time long past.
Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice also gave Beatty's Tracy a worthy and classic villain to go up against.
And even though it was based on a comic strip, the action was not watered down. We get lots of Tommy-gun goodness as both Tracy and the villains don the classic guns during some great shoot-outs. If anything, this movie showed that you could take an idea and stay true to the style which allowed them to create a unique and fun movie experience.
9. The Shadow (1994) I just realized (after listing 3 movies from this year ) that '94 was a good year for movies based on comics. The Shadow was mainly known for its radio broadcasts (some of which were voiced by Orson Welles providing The Shadow's voice) but the character eventually did make it to comic books as well as pulp magazines. Where Beatty's Dick Tracy was colorful and fun, The Shadow had similarities but overall was a darker movie. Jerry Goldsmith provided a haunting score throughout the movie to add to the mysticism. Alec Baldwin does a great job of portraying Lamont Cranston, both when he's at his best and at his worst. The transformation he goes through to become The Shadow is full of mystery and wonder.
Shiwan Khan, last living descendant of Genghis Khan, was a good adversary
but Baldwin mostly carried this movie with his performance. The special effects are still quite impressive, mostly because The Shadow's ability to “cloud men's minds” didn't require big budget special effects to begin with.
It's an enjoyable movie that offers a great little adventure while keeping true to the character's origins.
10. Mystery Men (1999) Somebody paid attention after Blade came out and decided to put out something that would spoof superhero movies but still existed as its own unique world. Mystery Men is like your favorite comic actors doing stand-up about superheroes for two hours. I've read that a lot of the lines in the movie were ad-libbed by the actors and that probably added strength to this movie. The movie was loosely based on the independent comic book series Flaming Carrot Comics by Bob Burden. A lot of the same characters appeared from his comics but most were altered in some way for the movie. It is a great tongue-in-cheek ride where we follow the B-team superheroes of Champion City as they struggle to get the recognition they so desperately want. Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, William H. Macy, Paul Reubens, and Janeane Garofalo all deliver hilarious performances as their respective characters.
Meanwhile, we have Greg Kinnear playing Captian Amazing- a superhero who's sold his soul to the marketing gods because he claims there's no more good villains to fight in the city.
Then Geoffrey Rush (pre-Barbosa) comes along and provides a great villain for Captain Amazing as Casanova Frankenstein.
The comic book and pop culture references abound for the duration of the movie ensuring many great laughs.
So, consider yourselves fortunate to live during a time when superhero movies are thriving and thankfully we have a higher rate of hits than misses.
That's all folks!