With release of Batman vs Superman this month and the upcoming release of Captain America: Civil War later in the year, not to mention all of the other superhero films planned to be released in the months to come, I thought now would be as good a time as ever to go back and see which superhero movies I would call ‘the best’. This is purely a subjective list, and there’s so many superhero films now I sure everyone’s would be different. Let me know what your favourites are in the comments below!
5. The Rocketeer (1991)
“It wasn’t lies Jenny. It was acting.”
Director Joe Johnston (who later went on to direct the also brilliant and under-appreciated Captain America: The First Avenger) made The Rocketeer in the early 90’s, before the world was really ready for superhero films, never mind quaint, nostalgic, family friendly ones like The Rocketeer. It wasn’t the first blockbuster superhero movie, Batman had done big business two years earlier but that was really about the only one that had been a success. A superhero film based on an obscure comic that harks back to the film serials of the 30’s, with no real big names in it except the then in-limbo James Bond, Timothy Dalton, was never going to be the biggest film ever but I still think The Rocketeer got a bad rap. First things first, the cast – especially Dalton as Nazi spy/Hollywood actor Neville Sinclair – is awesome. It’s a shame Billy Campbell, who plays the Rocketeer Cliff Secord, didn’t have a bigger career because he’s perfect here as the slightly goofy all America hero. Sort of like Brendan Fraser back when he was famous. Jennifer Connelly is perfect as the rising golden-age Hollywood star and Alan Arkin is spot on in the grouchy mentor role. Even the small roles are brilliant; being filled by superbly talented character actors such Terry O’Quinn, William Sanderson, Paul Sorvino, and Character Actress Margo Martindale. The action is fun and inventive and the ILM special effects more often than not deliver some cool moments. The film is just an all-around good time; not getting hung up on darkness, deep themes, shared universes, or anything else found in modern day blockbusters. It hits that sweet spot for those craving a punchy, old fashioned adventure movie and deserves much more recognition.
4. Watchmen (Ultimate Cut, 2009)
“Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon.”
The normal version of Watchmen is still a brilliant and monstrous take on the traditional superhero film, but it’s the Ultimate Cut that makes this list. The film is filled to the brim with stunning performances including Jackie Earl Haley as the psychotic noir-ish Detective Rorschach, Malin Akerman as the deadly Silk Spectre, Billy Crudup as the all-mighty Dr Manhattan (whose god hand type powers make up much of the films plot), Matthew Goode as the calculating Ozymandias, and the always awesome Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian. Morgan deserves particular praise, managing to turn a pregnant woman-killing rapist into a sympathetic character is no easy feat, but the standout performance for me is Patrick Wilson as sad-sack Dan Dreiberg, AKA Night Owl. Anyone who has seen Fargo Season 2 can attest to the likability of Wilson and he brings that here in spades, anchoring the darker moments in the film and bringing the humanity when the film needs it most. The film’s long (the Ultimate cut clocks in at close to 4 hours) and there’s a limit to how much you can watch horrible people doing horrible things to even more horrible people but Wilson’s presence means things never get too dark.
The soundtrack to the film is another highlight, from Bob Dylan’s ‘the times they are a-changing’ playing during the outstanding opening credits, to Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’ during the Comedian’s last fight, to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallejulah’ during the super-camp slo-mo sex scene. That’s not even mentioning another song by Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, KC and The Sunshine Band, and they even squeeze Nena in there. As with most of Zack Synder’s films the action is also frequently fantastic; the opening fight being my favourite. Through the heavy CGI and the use of slo-mo and speed ramps, Snyder’s films tend to straddle the line between stylish looking and just a bit cheap. Luckily in Watchmen it works, and it falls more on the stylish side of things. The Ultimate cut adds in some awesome extra scenes as well, including an especially good one giving Hollis Mason a bad ass send-off. Most of the extra time though comes from the inclusion of an animated feature that runs parallel to the main story. This is based off of a comic book a character in the Watchmen universe is reading and often mirrors the film thematically. Gerard Butler voices the main character in this section too, for extra awesomeness.
3. X-Men 2 (2003)
“People don’t change, Wolverine. You were an animal then and you’re an animal now. I just gave you claws.”
I’ve always been a big X-Men fan, even in the dark days of the disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I was actually stuck between two X-Men films to put here; X-Men 2 or the last entry in the canon, the brilliant revisionist X-Men film X-Men: Days of Future Past. But possibly due solely to the presence of Brian Cox, it’s my childhood favourite X-Men film that takes the number 3 spot. This was the first superhero film I saw (or maybe the second- see entry number 2) where I truly understood the power and imagination the genre could have. X-Men was great but it wasn’t until the second one where I became completely enthralled in films like this. The standout scene in the film, for me at least, is the attack on the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters by a team led by Col. William Stryker, played with outstanding conviction by the always awesome Brian Cox. The aforementioned gifted youngsters, along with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, fight back but are soon captured with only a few escaping. There aren’t too many special effects, it’s just Wolverine running around killing guys, and it’s awesome. It shows that the character can still be done justice within the confines of a PG-13 rating. The opening of the film with Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler infiltrating the White House is also one of the coolest moments of the franchise, one which hopefully the young Nightcrawler in the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse can match.
The cast in this series is also great, in particular Ian McKellen’s Magneto, Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier, and face of the franchise; Wolverine, played, of course, by Hugh Jackman. Some fans complain that Wolverine shouldn’t be the face of the X-Men but I don’t mind, simply because Jackman is just so good in the role. I know an inevitable recast is due at some point but no one will top Jackman’s performance here, in X-Men 2. He has all of Wolverines anger and furiosity but he’s more human here than he ever really appeared in the comics, and the film’s all the better for it. His twisted father dynamic with Cox’s Stryker is wonderful and Jackman really sells the sadness and pain in Wolverines past when a lesser actor might have focused purely on the rage. The whole film has this sort of considered touch to it, making it a lot less heavy handed than other superhero films. It handles the whole gay rights allegory a lot better than Man of Steel handled it’s 9/11 one, that’s for sure. Because of themes like this the film will always be relevant and I think, out of all the X-Men films, it’ll be X-Men 2 that’ll be remembered as the best in years to come.
2 – Spider-Man (2002)
“This is my gift, my curse. Who am I? I’m Spider-man.”
Most people will probably not have put a Spider-Man film here, and if they did it almost certainly would have been Spider-Man 2. But for my money it’s the first one that’s up there as one of the best superhero movies ever made. Tobey ‘Tugboat’ Maguire makes the perfect Peter Parker; he’s awkward, nerdy, and a little pathetic, and when he plays Peter Parker this increases tenfold. His Spider-Man is also my favourite iteration of the character, although I know there are people out there who wished he quipped a little more (or wished that when he did quip it was a bit wittier than; “it’s you who’s out Gobbie! Out of your mind!”). His witticisms mostly land though and I’m glad the film isn’t overstuffed with them. And there are some brilliant comedic moments, especially those of the visual variety, one of director Sam Raimi’s trademarks. J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson is famously hilarious, and whether intentionally or not, so is James Franco’s Harry Osbourne, although it’s his father that steals the show. Norman Osbourne, played by Willem Dafoe, pushes the role to the limits of camp while still remaining pretty scary. That scene where he crashes through the wall of the Parker residence and screams at Aunt May to finish her nightly prayer is one of the most hilarious yet genuinely terrifying moments. But this is classic Raimi and from the Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi cameos, to the POV shots, to the appearance of Ash’s yellow Oldsmobile Delta from the Evil Dead, it’s clear he didn’t compromise his style just because this is a big budget blockbuster.
And because this is Raimi the action is brilliant. It’s wonderfully imaginative and unsurprisingly quite dark. The fight between Spider-Man and The Green Goblin at the climax of the film is fantastic, and when watched today it’s more brutal than most superhero films dare to be. But the film never gets too dark and despite the dramatic scenes such as the death of at least two father figures and numerous destroyed relationships the film still has a sense of wacky fun and is full to the brim with personality. The sequel is also awesome, and is perhaps even Raimi-er than this one, but it’s the first, and best Spider-Man film, that takes number 2.
1- Captain America – The Winter Soldier (2014)
“Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?”
Back in 2014, in my review of the film, I actually said I thought Iron Man 3 was the strongest Marvel film to date. And while I still do think Iron Man 3 is brilliant, with a bit time of it’s clear now that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the true masterpiece of the MCU, and is the pinnacle of all that Marvel Studios have ever done. The thing that makes it vastly superior to other superhero films like Age of Ultron is that it doesn’t just do it’s job and is a functional superhero film, it’s also just a brilliant film in it’s own right. Homaging classic political thrillers like All The President’s Men through its themes, and action films like the outstanding The Raid: Redemption through it’s insanely good and well choreographed fight scenes, The Winter Soldier is quite a bit cleverer than most other superhero films. It themes of government interference and zero tolerance terrorism policies will resonate with a modern audience and it’s impressive that the film is being used to say something meaningful about out world.
The action in the film is the best in the entire MCU too, making the weak, Whedon-directed Age of Ultron look a little limp in comparison. The action is fast and frenetic, but it’s superbly directed by the Russo brothers meaning you never lose track of whats going on. The street fight between the Winter Soldier and Cap is a particular highlight, as is the awesome fight scene in the S.H.I.E.L.D HQ lift with Cap and an a bunch of S.H.I.E.L.D goons. The soundtrack adds to the intensity; the Winter Soldier’s theme being the best of the bunch with his kick ass electronic eagle scream-thing signalling something awesome is about to go down. The performances are also pitch perfect across the board. This isn’t the first appearance of Chris Evan’s Steve Rogers/Captain America, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, or Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, and they play these characters excellently. The newcomers, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and (sort of) Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier are are also brilliant, instantly becoming fan favourites. Robert Redford is also great, being surprising game for the big budget hijinks a little out of his comfort zone. But like Michael Douglas in Ant Man and William Hurt in The Incredible Hulk, when an actor of this calibre plays along it can add a lot of class and believability to proceedings.
The fact that the film has massive ramifications for the MCU is also pretty sweet, especially after the inconsequential events of Thor 2 and Iron Man 3. All of these things together make The Winter Soldier into not only a great superhero film but also a damn great film full stop. Hopefully the sequel can live up to the very high bar it set, or at the very least be better than Age of Ultron.