Guess what, kids? It’s almost superhero season at the movies! Yes, we’re just days away from Avengers: Age of Ultron, the highly anticipated (to put it lightly) sequel to Marvel’s blatant rip-off of the Super Friends TV show. So since Marvel movies are responsible for most of the annual box-office intake, I figure it would be appropriate to pick out the best big-screen adaptations of Stan Lee’s squad. Just for the record, I’m including Marvel movies before and after Disney grabbed onto superheroes’ coattails. With that, BEST OF LIST, ASSEMBLE!!!!
- X-Men (2000)
Two superheroes ruled cinemas from 1978 to 1997: Superman (primarily in the 1980s) and Batman (primarily in the 1990s). Marvel’s biggest cinematic output during that time was the tale of a duck from another dimension. Then came an interesting idea from director Bryan Singer; take two acclaimed British thespian actors, an Australian theatre actor, John Stamos’ model wife and the second-youngest Oscar winner in history, give them superpowers and have them collide on screen. The result was Marvel’s first right step at the movies.
X-Men had more focus on interesting characters than costumes and special effects. More so, it was one of the first comic book movies to show its super powered heroes as more feared than adored. Sure, there was the mystique (no pun intended) of Tim Burton’s Batman movies, but the heroes in X-Men were called “freaks” and seemed dangerous to the public. At its core, X-Men is about a group of strange outcasts finding common ground with each other (Singer knew plenty about that as director of The Usual Suspects). So many years later, the movie holds up surprisingly well.
In proof of that point, the characters of X-Men are still intriguing. Hugh Jackman (in his American film debut, no less) brings grit in both subtle silence and full-on muscled rage. Rebecca Romijn and Halle Berry embodied two of the most interesting and sexy movie super heroines flawlessly. Then there’s Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and Ian McKellen’s Magneto, playing the most interesting game of chess (literally and figuratively) in superhero movie history. No matter the stakes, there’s always a sense of respect between the former allies that’s always a highlight in the films. It’s no wonder McKellen and Stewart are BFFs in real life.
- Spider-Man (2002)
Lest we forget, there was a time in the early 2000’s where the biggest, most badass superheroes on the big-screen were an Australian pretty-boy and that nerd from Pleasantville. The funny thing about X-Men and Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie is that Spider-Man is basically the idea of X-Men stripped to just one outcast, Peter Parker. The awkward, soft-spoken nerd pining for the popular girl is a story old as time itself, this time provided with the best and worst twist of all: great power and great responsibility.
Spider-Man is like a rough draft of what superhero movies could be in the new millennium. All of the high-tech action scene in Iron Man, Captain America and others probably would not be given the funding to look as cool as it does if Spidey’s web-slinging wasn’t awe-inspiring. Also, like X-Men, Spider-Man is more about character development and how to become (and later be) a superhero with real world problems. Here, the world of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire in some excellent casting) goes from 0 to 100 real quick as he elevates from house painting to float jumping and blade dodging, and Parker is terrified of it. Spider-Man introduced the idea of mixing saving the day with powers with surviving the day with no powers. Bruce Wayne never had to look for a job after high school and Clark Kent didn’t feel responsible for the death of his adopted father. Peter Parker was one of the most realistic and relatable secret identities for on-screen superheroes (at least until he was recast as an American Eagle model), which was what made Spider-Man so refreshing and why people won’t let him rest.
Even with all of these important serious aspects that make the movie so great, Spider-Man is also pretty funny. Maguire occasionally matched Spidey’s clever (if not goofy) quips heard in TV and comic books, and his first physical display of his powers still holds up as solid physical comedy. There’s also J.K. Simmons’ immortal portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson and the almighty Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin. No matter how much I enjoy a dark, disturbing antagonist in superhero movies, I’ll never frown on Dafoe’s slimy smile and cackle in the green flight suit. Also, he’s the recipient of the funniest/best villain death EVER…seriously.
- X2: X-Men United (2003)
(I swear I’m not doing this list chronologically)
Like all great sequels, X2 takes all the good of the first installment and expands on it. In the case of X2, it the fact that some humans are ready to eradicate the mutants all together. That aggression comes in the form of new human villain, William Stryker (the invaluable Brian Cox), a military man with a vital connection to the past of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Along with Wolverine, X2 continued to dive deep into the lives of the mutant heroes. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) has a mental duel with a former student, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) shows signs of more extreme power and Rogue (Anna Paquin) deals with the curse of her touch. There’s also a fresh batch of new creatures, like the shy but sly Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), confused punk Pyro (Aaron Stanford) and Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) with the meanest fingernail job this side of Freddy Krueger.
Returning director Bryan Singer enjoys his well-deserved bigger budget, but never bloats the sequel. Action and special effects still don’t cloud the character development, just accent it here and there. It’s still a rally cry for outcasts that works as summer action movie. Stylish, slick and subversive, X2 is one of the rare instances where a superhero sequel steps up its game. Too bad Singer didn’t pass on his tricks to Brett Ratner.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Despite it being the warm-up round to The Avengers, I still liked Captain America: The First Avenger. It was charming in its throwback style of World War II movies and was more action-adventure than standard superhero fare, something that John Wayne would enjoy. Regardless, Marvel’s red, white and blue recruit is not the most exciting type of superhero. He doesn’t shoot lasers, he doesn’t summon lighting, and he can’t reduce a city to rubble. He’s the clean-cut boy scout in the club full of rebellious punks, which makes him the weakest superhero by comparison. That’s when directors Joe and Anthony Russo came to a conclusion: Cap travels around the world, does incredible stunts and saves America from foreign threats. He’s Marvel’s version of Ethan Hunt or Jack Ryan, he’s a secret agent. Airgo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
This time around, Cap (Chris Evans) deals with being the odd man out in the 21st century (funny list of things to learn include Star Wars and Steve Jobs) as the scours the globe looking for bad guys. When S.H.I.E.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is nearly killed thanks to a mysterious hitman and a leak inside of S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) must evade heavy militants and said Winter Soldier in order to (what else) save the world.
The Russo brothers keep the action tight and the movie moving from frame one. It actually helps that Steve doesn’t have rockets or hammers, so the stakes are higher for him in fist fights and shootouts. There’s nothing overcompensating for the story or action, because it never loses interest. Winter Soldier is more conspiracy thriller (why else would Robert Redford be in the picture?) than standard Marvel movie, which is a refreshing change of pace from the kid-friendly “here’s the hero, here’s the bad guy, here’s the hero fighting the bad guy” plot line. It’s smart popcorn entertainment, reassuring audiences that Marvel studios wants to do more than just print tickets. With more puckered poses, slightly frosted tips, chin-up confidence and steadfast appearance, Chris Evans morphs into a full fledged action star. Evans seems more confident and fit for Cap than he ever did for Johnny Storm. There’s also Anthony Mackie, stellar in good (The Hurt Locker) and bad (Pain and Gain) projects, who soars (no pun intended) as Cap’s newest partner, The Falcon. More of him…and Cap….and everything about The Winter Soldier please!
- X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Challenge: In the midst of Disney/Marvel Studios kicking ass from here to heaven and back, how does 20th Century Fox make the X-Men franchise relevant? Three steps:
- Double up on the casting
- Bet big with enormous stakes
- Time travel, bitch
With original director Bryan Singer returning to the helm after Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (which we’ll get to in a minute), Days of Future Past is a friendly reminder why the X-Men franchise remains so entertaining by mixing futuristic and classic fashion with the imperfect rebels the world knows and loves 14 years later.
Days of Future Past cribs its story from the 1981 comic book storyline of the same name, where mutants are enslaved by giant robots called Sentinels in the near future. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) join forces in a plot to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to 1973 and unite the younger versions of themselves to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (an on-point Peter Dinklage), the creator of the Sentinels. Unfortunately for Wolverine, young Xavier (James McAvoy) is addicted to a liquid in a needle that cuts off his powers (nice allegory for heroin), and young Magneto (the IMMORTAL Michael Fassbender) is imprisoned underneath the Pentagon. With the help of “Beast” Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Wolverine’s buddy Quicksilver (scene-stealer Evan Peters), the team races against the clock to save the future from the past.
Singer clearly took notes when watching First Class, as he notes how throwing the X-Men back in time adds style and clever history-puns to spice up the movie. It also allows the events of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine to be erased from the collective memory, so yay! Singer’s presence also doesn’t alter the great chemistry of the First Class cast, with Jennifer Lawrence being more badass here than in any Hunger Games movie to date and James McAvoy getting to show the dark side of Professor Xavier. As far as the original cast, Days of Future Past looks like another Wolverine showcase, but Jackman is actually a supporting character in the Mystique/Xavier/Magneto triangle which is actually refreshing (considering two standalone Wolverine movies have left such a sour taste). Bottom line, Singer manages to stack all of these delicate elements into one leaning tower of awesome. Sure some details get tossed aside (how did Kitty Pryde get her powers of time travel?) and some characters are just filler (GIVE STORM SOME LINES, GODDAMMIT!), but there’s just too much fun and great characters to ignore here. Entertainment that actually establishes a cannon should be something praised, especially when it comes to the complex world of comic book movies.
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
OOGA CHAKA, OOGA CHAKA, OOGA….*ahem* sorry, had to get that out of my system. But then again, isn’t that what makes Guardians of the Galaxy so great? The irreverence and randomness of it all? In the midst of the Hydra, the Mandarin, the Infinity Gauntlet and Shawarma…..there was a talking raccoon and a giant tree in space. #Marvel.
Guardians of the Galaxy is an intergalactic origins story about cocky earthling Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), badass assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), grey brute Drax (Dave Bautista), talking raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and lovable giant tree Groot (Vin Diesel). The team, dysfunctional as all hell, try to evade Ronan (Lee Pace) who plans to use a mysterious orb as a weapon to destroy an entire planet.
OK, Guardians isn’t the most original movie Marvel has come up with plot-wise, but it more than makes it up for it with its atmosphere. Mainly, Guardians is just straight up fun for the sake of fun. Bringing in B-movie/spoof fan James Gunn (Slither, Super) to write and direct was a smart move, considering Guardians plays out like a more cartoony version of Firefly, Prometheus or, dare I say, Star Wars. It’s an intergalactic Western that’s goofy, imaginative and very funny. The cast, mostly full of B-players in the front and two A-listers doing voiceovers, has a devil-may-care attitude and chemistry more in common with The Usual Suspects than The Avengers. If you can’t wait for Harrison Ford’s return to Star Wars in December, sit back and enjoy Chris Pratt’s metamorphosis from funny fat guy to rugged movie star as Peter Quill, the 21st century Han Solo. Former WWE star Dave Bautista wears his “dumb muscle guy” stereotype with hilarious honor. Bradley Cooper reaches back to his Hangover days to play the loveable a-hole Rocket. And good ol’ Vin Diesel makes his most underrated performance in The Iron Giant relevant as the huggable walking wood Groot. Three words of self-identification haven’t been this endearing since Michael Keaton was the Caped Crusader.
- X-Men: First Class (2011)
Not to sound mean, but the X-Men franchise was DEAD by 2011. From 2006’s underwhelming The Last Stand to that Origins movie we never speak of, X-Men was being taken to the cleaners by Marvel Studios (pre-Disney acquisition). Little did we know that Fox had a reset button in their back pocket, and that button’s name was Matthew Vaughn.
The British writer/director (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) is man who knows how to balance style and substance, something that the X-Men franchise once excelled in but lost its way. First Class excels as both an origin story and a throwback thriller, like if Tom Clancy crossed Indiana Jones with The Sum of All Fears. This time around is the meeting of mutant minds as Oxford graduate Charles Xavier (charmer James McAvoy) and quick-witted companion Raven (adorable Jennifer Lawrence) are tapped by the U.S. government to investigate mutant involvement in American-Russian relations in 1962. They also run into the magnetic Erik Lensherr (stone cold Michael Fassbender), a mutant on a quest to find Sebastian Shaw (super slimy Kevin Bacon), the man who tortured him in Nazi prison camps during World War II. Lensherr and Xavier realize that mutants need to have a coming out party, whether the world is ready or not.
First Class is the introduction of the problems faced in the first X-Men movie, which would be simple enough. Vaughn took it one step further by placing it in the middle of the freakin Cuban Missile Crisis. Vaughn also shows Xavier and Lensherr as mentors much more than previous entries. He also adds impeccable action direction with 360 shots and multiple events during the closing fight scene on the beaches of the US blockade. Not only are there new technical and story additions, but the characters and acting are spot-on. Fassbender, in his first American blockbuster as a lead, has sneer and swagger with a dash of the intensity he brings to his indie work. Former pretty-boy Kevin Bacon should do much more villain work, especially if January Jones is at his side. James McAvoy brings more gravity to Xavier, showing the physical weight of his role in the mutant war before he loses his legs. The younger X-Men, like Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as Hank “Beast” McCoy and Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee (comic relief that would be amped up in the sequel by Evan Peters’ Quicksilver) are additional light touches that make the movie more entertaining, like “Friends” if they had superpowers. But it primarily centers around the continuously fascinating relationship between Xavier and Lensherr, and Vaughn shows the love and respect the soon-to-be foes have for each other. Vaughn has made better straight-up action movies (Kick-Ass and, more recently, Kingsman) but First Class has the most heart out of all his films. Come to think of it, First Class is also the most heartfelt X-Men movie to date. HURRAY FRIENDSHIP!
- Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Being a superhero rocks! Being a normal person sucks. Being a superhero AND a normal person at the same time can be a real bitch, at least according to Peter Parker. After the solid origin story of everyone’s favorite wall-crawler, Sam Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent decided to look at the eternal struggle of not just being Spider-Man, but being Peter Parker BEING Spider-Man. Too much “being?” Right then, moving on.
Spider-Man 2 treats Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) like a punching bag. Not only is Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) getting married, not only does Peter have to deal with former mentor turned menace Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), not only is Peter’s BFF Harry (James Franco) still mad about the whole “killed my father” thing, but the weight of Peter’s burden starts limiting his powers.
What makes Spider-Man 2 so important, to Marvel and superhero movies in general, is that it was the first time audiences saw the burden of being an alter-ego in the real world. No one ever saw Bruce Wayne struggling to keep his job, or Clark Kent trying to make rent. Superhero movies used to only focus on the hero, with the everyday alter-egos being mere interludes between fight scenes and villain monologues. Spider-Man 2 felt like Peter Parker (performed by an on-point Tobey Maguire, despite his endless derp faces) was the main character and Spider-Man was the support. It was the first major superhero blockbuster to properly ask what the costs were of living the costumed life.
That doesn’t mean the movie’s budget went to waste, as Sam Raimi and Co. staged epic fight scenes between Spidey and Doc Ock (Alfred Molina with a proper mix of ham and heart). Their classic showdown on the overhead train was action at its highest potential at the time: fast-paced, dazzling and full of possibilities. It wouldn’t be out of place to say the high-tech action in Iron Man or Thor probably wouldn’t have the budget they had if Spidey’s web-swinging didn’t look as real and gorgeous as it did. Effects aside, Spider-Man 2 was the first successful superhero movie with more heart than hits. It’s so good that not even emo-Peter’s pelvic thrust in Spider-Man 3 could crash the series…..not entirely anyway.
- Iron Man (2008)
In context, it’s still crazy to think that the first seed in Marvel’s master plan of movie domination was the boyfriend from Ally McBeal with a coke problem. But, as they would show many times in the future, Marvel’s risks almost always pay off. How much did Iron Man pay off? Put it this way: it had been a long time since Batman had a worthy opponent on the big screen that wasn’t Superman, but The Dark Knight wasn’t the only superhero movie people geeked out about in 2008.
Iron Man was the first establishment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s a very basic movie plot-wise. An origins story about a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist who sees that war is bad (partially because of him) and wants to do something about it. Simple enough, so how do you make people care about a Marvel that doesn’t shoot webs or has metal claws?
Three words, one man: Robert Downey Jr.
In one of the most enjoyable and spectacular comebacks in Hollywood history, RDJ plays Tony Stark so effortlessly and yet with so much focus you’d think “Iron Man” was a documentary shot in real-time. Plus, following the trend “Spider-Man 2” introduced, the alter-ego is just an enduring as the masked man. There’s equal amounts of excitement when Tony Stark is on-screen, whether he’s in the robot suit or not. On top of that, Tony Stark is an alter-ego that is just plain fun. Audiences sympathize with the alienated Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, or they relate to the struggling every man of Peter Parker. Tony Stark is the head of the cool kids table, the life of the party that’ll buy you a drink as you stand next to sports cars and hot chicks listening to AC/DC because who the hell wouldn’t? In fact, Downey’s portrayal of Stark is actually a perfect summation of Marvel’s attitude towards its heroes. Sure we gotta save the world, but can’t we have fun while we’re doing it?
1. The Avengers (2012)
I know, shocking choice, but it still needs to be pointed out how The Avengers is such a monumental accomplishment. This was the culmination of a major movie studio doubling-up and betting everything on the combination of carefully established projects into one blockbuster. The Avengers had to be entertaining, fit with the Marvel canon, give screentime to each respected character and do it all within an acceptable runtime. The Avengers was probably the biggest risk Hollywood took since the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. But even after shooting past $1 billion at the box-office, The Avengers is still a fantastic action movie.
Under the wing of nerd-king Joss Whedon (Serenity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), The Avengers tests the egos of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes as they realize that the humans of Earth are bigger than their own britches. Time to suck it up and take down slithering ol’ Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Marvel’s best villain to date). What makes The Avengers so enduring is that all of main characters work well together. Iron Man is a great foil for Captain America, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) sheds light on the humanity of The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), even Loki brings out the sensitivity of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and it’s all fantastic character based entertainment. Whedon saw past the dollar signs and understood the potential of these iconic characters with chinks in their armor. It’s an incredible sign of progress when one of the biggest movies of all time is an engaging character study disguised as a flashy action movie.
The Avengers is a goddamn MIRACLE in today’s world of Hollywood. When studios are so difficult as to how much to spend on a project or to even get someone to put in effort. The fact that The Avengers was a colossal success also set the bar for the next great comic-book/sci-fi movies in the future. Typically, comic-book movies have been written or directed by studio hired guns that have no idea what the hell they’re doing (see Daredevil, Steel, The Punisher: War Zone). But with the success of Joss Whedon’s guidance in The Avengers, Hollywood started to catch on to the idea of geeks directed geek projects. Think of Matt Reeves directing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, James Gunn directing Guardians of the Galaxy, or the Russo brothers directing Captain America: The Winter Soldier. These aren’t just random guys looking to get a bigger paycheck, these are filmmakers who are passionate about the subject matter and care about establishing these heroes as real, fleshed out characters. And say what you will about Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (and yes, there’s a lot to say about it), but it could’ve been much worse in someone else’s hands (like Jonathan Liebesman, who would direct Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles….yup). The Avengers was the signifier that NERDS RULE the box-office, so everyone else can get in line.