The Ultimate Evolving Superhero Movie List – Part 1
It’s funny to think that there ever was a time when superhero movies weren’t really the cash grabs that they seem to be these days. Even after the 1978 release of the first theatrical Superman film brought along with it higher production values and a certain level of seriousness to the material, superhero films continued to largely be considered high-risk material and no one was really able to capture that same level of respect and anticipation as 1989’s Batman. Despite going through another slump in the 90s, these days, it’s hard to imagine a year going by without a few studios trying to cash in on the superhero craze.
With 2012 seeing the successful release of two especially remarkable achievements in the realm of superhero films, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, and with original properties like Chronicle and The Incredibles already proving that superhero films don’t have to be adaptations of pre-existing comic book properties to be successful, it’s very clear that this trend isn’t going to die down any time soon. Heck, regardless of quality, even films like My Super Ex-Girlfriend illustrate that the “superhero genre” isn’t really a “genre” at all, but rather an easily malleable plot device.
All that being said, it can be hard to discern which films are worth your time. Now, I’m no expert on comic books, having primarily grown up getting to know most of these characters from films, TV shows, and video games, but I do have a love for superheroes just the same, and I do consider these mediums to be a part of the ever expanding reach of these characters beyond their comic book origins. As I write this, I also admit I’m running on a superhero high these days, as I just came off a string of reviews for The Dark Knight Trilogy. Also of note is that The Viewer’s Commentary is not only now on its 100th post, but is also coming upon its first anniversary, and I figured that I would do something grand to celebrate.
Initially, I was thinking, “Why not do an updated Top 10 Superhero Films list?” but that just came off as being not grand enough, and doubling that number still didn’t feel ambitious enough. So I set myself on a much grander mission: To make an ever-evolving list of not just the best or worst superhero films, but of ALL the superhero films I had ever seen, leading to the creation of this list you see before you.
Currently, I am limiting this list to just theatrically-released films, as that still provides me with a lot of ground to cover, though it will definitely begin to include exceptions for non-theatrical features such as Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Furthermore, I am abstaining from listing films that I have yet to see or have not seen in quite some time and, thus, do not feel comfortable passing judgment on. As such, there will be omissions, some of them obvious, some of them not so much, but that’s the beauty of the idea behind this project: It’s an evolving list.
So, as I see newer movies, re-watch forgotten ones, and also discover the ones that have somehow gone unseen by me, I will continue to add them to this list, which is also being given its own all-encompassing page here on The Viewers Commentary. Films will be neatly separated into the five easy categories – The Awful, The Bad, The Average, The Good, and The Excellent – and each film within each category ranked from least to greatest in quality (all my opinion of course). Do not consider this list or the commentary to be definitive reviews, but if I do have a review for the movie, rest assured that it will be linked to.
And so, I present to you the first part of this list for your reading pleasure, coming from the bottom of the barrel, the current inductees to The Awful and The Bad lists!
Though many may claim that Batman & Robin is one of the worst major Hollywood productions of all time, period, I would beg to differ. At least Batman & Robin is an interesting mess. I would then point out that this is likely because many of these people just plain forgot about Elektra. But I remember. I remember a very bored and pouty Jennifer Garner playing “damaged,” counting her steps and scrubbing floors as if suffering OCD alone gave her character some forced idea of depth. I remember the dull reverse Stockholm syndrome love story between Elektra and the man she was supposed to assassinate. I remember the film’s most notable buzz at the time of its release was the lesbian kiss between Elektra and Typhoid Mary. And I remember the eye-rolling twist toward the end regarding one of the most annoying characters in the film coming into their own. Basically, I remember this being quite possibly the worst, most boring superhero film I’d ever seen.
The sin that Catwoman commits is thinking that it’s fulfilling both female and male fantasies at the same time. I’m not really sure how female empowerment equated taking on an evil cosmetics corporation and their aging, diamond-skinned supermodel villainess while dressed like some furry fetishist hooker in the minds of the filmmakers, however. Maybe they intended it as an allegory for being comfortable in your own skin and not worrying about what the world says, but it’s hard to take that message seriously when the film wants you to believe that just because Halle Berry’s wearing poofy shirts and curly, long hair, everyone considers her “plain” looking. To pull that off, it would take either lots of ugly makeup or the dedication and acting chops of Charlize Theron in Monster. Unfortunately for fans of the Catwoman character, though, Halle Berry has neither.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
While the first film was littered with very boring performances, the second, in an attempt to become edgy, sees Cage going unhinged, with his transformations into the hellspawn hero accompanied by manic twitches and fits of explosive laughter. It’s like if someone stuck a squirrel in his pants, and that squirrel’s claws were laced with … I dunno… acid or something. I don’t do drugs. Throw in a young mother and her troubled kid, who has a sort of John Connor-like relationship to Cage’s Terminator-like role, and a demonic cult made up of lawyers and politicians (“the devil’s solders”), and you have yourself one hell of a crappy movie. Speaking of which, you also get to see Ghost Rider piss flames, which, I guess, sums the movie up quite nicely.
As much as I’d like to see a good supernatural horror/superhero/Western mashup movie, Jonah Hex barely even has a meaningful story to tell and takes great liberties with the source material, too, sticking Hex’s origins into a blender and adding a dash of supernatural by giving him the heretofore unseen ability to converse with the dead. The story involves John Malkovich as an ex-Confederate soldier-turned-terrorist coming into possession of a doomsday device in an attempt to get revenge on the North. Hex is hired by the President to stop him in time for the Centennial celebration, and somehow this also involves a prostitute. Even Malkovich seems to be tired from the start, as he’s not even putting on that usual weird Malkovich charm, and Josh Brolin, despite being a skilled and likely perfectly suitable actor for the role, is forced to simply mutter, grumble, and shoot guns. An ugly-looking film with a distracting heavy metal soundtrack that struggles to make anything on screen look awesome, Jonah Hex is about as inspired as the filmmakers’ decision to cast the personality-free Megan Fox as a hooker.
The best thing I can say about this film is that the number of Green Lanterns there are means that the franchise can easily be rebooted without too much reason to call foul. Though it doesn’t surpass the 2 hour mark, depending on which version you watch (there’s an honest to goodness extended cut), Green Lantern feels like it drags on an extra hour longer thanks to an incomprehensibly packed story that never fully develops any of the plot threads and actors who would probably be better off doing anything else but this movie. Ryan Reynolds lacks conviction as Hal Jordan, Blake Lively is anything but as love interest Carol Ferris, and Peter Sarsgaard’s Hector Hammond is a neurotic, increasingly grotesque-looking mad scientist whose most intimidating power is whining a lot. The special effects budget is wasted on aliens that mostly just stand in the background and a CGI costume that makes Reynolds look like a glowing, spray-painted display at Bodies: The Exhibition. Perhaps more tragic, however, is how DC and Warner Bros. obviously hoped this would be their Iron Man, as there are attempts to seed a greater DC Cinematic Universe here, but let’s just hope that, whenever Justice League comes out, we can all just forget about this movie and start over again.
Only mildly better than its sequel, if only because it features a more restrained performance by Nicolas Cage and a more coherent plot, Ghost Rider is still a terrible film, with Cage and Eva Mendes having absolutely zero chemistry and the villains very little charm or bite. This film attempts to be, of all things, a sort of romantic comedy, too, as Mendes spends a great deal of the movie swinging back and forth in her opinion and pining for Johnny Blaze, at one point even getting nervously drunk while waiting for him to show up for a date and asking the waiter, “Do you think I’m pretty?” The concept of the Ghost Rider is an interesting one, with Johnny Blaze having sold his soul to the devil and unwittingly becoming his hitman, and the relationship between the two villains, that of father and son, could have so easily tied in thematically with Johnny Blaze’s guilt over his father’s death, but Ghost Rider never thinks that deeply about these things and is content to just give you a story about the devil’s Goth offspring trying to usher in the apocalypse with a side helping of romance. Meh.
Batman Forever heralded the end of the brief Batman renaissance, returning to the camp stylings but none of the humor from the 1960s TV incarnation and introducing the infamous bat-nipples. Val Kilmer flops as the dullest of all the actors to ever play Batman, while the biggest crimes committed on screen are the butcherings of Two-Face and Riddler, played by Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey, who were apparently trying to make up for a lack of Jack Nicholson. Introducing Robin was a fruitful idea at this point in the film franchise, and Chris O’Donnell likely could have held up in the role, too, if he had been given better material (“Holey rusted metal, Batman!… The rocks. They’re metal and full of holes.”). He, Michael Gough, and Nicole Kidman are really the only ones involved with this garish waste of film looking like they attempted to do something dignified with their roles, but even halfway decent actors in half the cast can’t balance out the sheer awfulness of this penultimate entry in the first Batman film franchise.
It may be technically worse than Forever, with all of the same faults metastasizing by this point, but as a so-bad-it’s-good movie, it succeeds at being so horrifically inept so as to become more entertaining than Forever, and that’s gotta count for something, right? As such, I rank it just slightly above that film. There’s really not much else I can say about this, however, without repeating everything that has been said before. Schwarzenegger’s ice-based one-liners, Uma Therman’s drag-queen-without-the-irony Poison Ivy, and whatever the hell was going on with Alicia Silverstone have all been widely lambasted by this point, but if you’re still not into the whole ironic viewing thing, take solace in the fact that it’s one of the few times that a critical bomb impacted a studio so strongly that they actually decided to take time off from attempting to cash in again and instead focused on actually making something that was worth your time.
The laws of diminishing returns hits the Blade film series pretty hard in the third installment which sees Marvel’s day-walking dhampir hero teaming up with Jessica Biel and Ryan Him-Again Reynolds to take on Parker Posey and her cadre of vampire sidekicks, who have recently resurrected the vampire king (or something) himself, Dracula. Foregoing the typical cape and widow’s peak and even the grotesque design of Nosferatu, Blade: Trinity envisions a Dracula who wears tight leather pants and apparently spent an eternity lifting weights and keeping up with the trendy vampire mass marketing of the modern world (insert Twilight joke here). Biel is in uber-chick Mary Sue mode, while Reynolds mouths off so much, it eventually starts to feel like some of his jokes are beginning to stick until you realize you’ve just become desensitized to it all. Wesley Snipes only seems to liven up when it’s time for an action sequence, but otherwise it feels like he’s playing second fiddle to the considerably less interesting supporting cast. At least the vampire Pomeranian is a more credible threat than the nuclear poodle of Hulk.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
While I’m sure that Christopher Reeve’s motivations behind story idea for the fourth film were pure, the attempt at a political allegory being wrapped up in a superhero film just comes off as cloying. Created during the final but nonetheless tense years of the Cold War, Superman IV sees the Man of Steel attempting to rid the world of all nuclear armaments, only for Lex Luthor to return and create a superbeing known as Nuclear Man, created from a follicle of Superman’s hair and the nuclear reaction of dozens of bombs being cast into the sun. The film is annoyingly altruistic, featuring a laughable scene where Superman marches into the United Nations with a flock of true believers, gaining the support of all the world’s leaders, and making a speech so ham-fisted, the only tears you’re likely to shed are from how much of a suckerpunch to the gut this movie is. Oh, and Superman now apparently has the ability to reform the Great Wall of China just by looking at it now.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
For a time, I couldn’t decide whether The Last Stand or this movie was worse, but in watching them back to back for this list, I think I have a winner, and it’s definitely Wolverine’s solo film, which features a ludicrous number bad action sequences and gobs of fake-looking special effects. More offensive is that, however, is that while the third film wasted several supporting characters and a potentially fruitful story, Wolverine wastes film appearances by fan favorites Emma Frost, Gambit, and a tragically silenced Deadpool in what are basically extended cameos. Hugh Jackman is still a great Wolverine, and they at least put an actual actor in the role of Sabertooth this time, but this spin-off sheds very little insight on Wolverine’s past that we didn’t already know from the first and second films and, to be quite honest, didn’t even really need to know in the context of the films in the first place. Some criticized First Class for disrupting the continuity set up between the first films and this one, but I’m going to stand up for the better film and say that it’s Wolverine that should be retconned out of existence, not the other way around. And good riddance, too.
How French visionary director Michel Gondry, better known for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, got involved with this film is beyond me, as there was nothing about his previous works that screamed, “This man should revive this almost forgotten franchise.” But it happened, and this is what we got: a joke-ridden reimagining of the character starring Seth Rogen, Cameron Diaz, and Jay Chou, presented with a glitzy, frenetic visual style that ultimately adds nothing to the movie. Chou is admittedly quite cool in the role of Kato, a role that launched Bruce Lee to stardom back on the 60s TV series, and if he were paired up with someone other than Seth Rogen and given a story that treated him better than he is here, I’m sure that we would all be getting an eagerly anticipated sequel that explores his origins or something. While I like Rogen when he’s in the right roles (and in the right doses), he’s terribly miscast here in the lead role, his gruff, dopey demeanor sapping away any of the character’s mystique and strength – not that the script really cares much about world building or seriousness here. Overall, it actually kind of reminds me of the Rush Hour series… with far, far less charisma and a talented director somehow making a worse movie than a movie directed by Brett Ratner.
The Punisher (2004)
The Punisher desperately wants to be a quality superhero film, but the theatricality with which the story unfolds is so laughably overblown, it’s really quite hard to take any of it seriously. The film’s dark story is further undercut by a desire to also make the movie entertaining through humor. When your story involves a man’s entire family being horrifically gunned down before his eyes and his pursuit to hunt down those responsible, however, it hardly feels appropriate to have the vengeful antihero take part in a battle with a muscle-bound Russian assassin choreographed to “La donna è mobile” as the film cuts to the comic relief characters dancing around, lighthearted, in a kitchen and lip syncing to the music. Thomas Jane obviously wanted to do right by the material, but his attempts to come off as a vindictive badass actually make the Punisher seem aloof and pouty. As with all things, though, actors can only do so much with what little they’re given, and The Punisher hardly lives up to is potential.
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie
Here’s the thing about this movie: It was totally awesome when I was, like, 8 when it first came out, and it’s unlikely that those nostalgia goggles will ever be completely removed from my eyes – I still kinda get that same feeling of excitement at seeing the teenagers with attitude I watched and imitated as a kid leap into an adventure with a bigger budget. Objectively, however, the TV series I loved as a kid was never actually that good, and neither is the movie that it spawned. Starring the same line up of Rangers that featured on the series at the time, yet also somehow falling out of continuity with the series (many of the same plot points were retraced in the TV series with different explanations so as to make use of the Super Sentai footage the series borrowed from), the film adaptation introduces a new threat in the form of Ivan Ooze and his army of giant… birds…. Ivan, of course, seeks to rule the universe and the Rangers are the only ones who can stop him, though they have to go through a journey of self-rediscovery first and unleash new ninja powers and toys to sell upon the world. There’s not really much more to this movie than seeing the Rangers do the same thing they did every week on TV, only with flashier production values. Notice I didn’t say “better,” as the heavy cheese factor and bad acting of the show are joined by CGI so bad it’ll make you wish they had stuck with the low-tech miniatures. It’s still a mildly fun ride if you liked the show as a kid, but for anyone else, it’s probably best to leave this movie back in the 90s.
Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis are great fun as Johnny Storm and the Thing, while Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, and Julian McMahon ruin whatever good is brought to the table by their co-stars. As Mr. Fantastic, Gruffudd mistakes having no discernible personality for being super intelligent, and as Sue Storm, Jessica Alba is given the hard task of trying to look natural as a light-skinned blonde scientist. With a name like Victor Von Doom, it’s easy to see why Julian McMahon and the filmmakers thought his character was supposed to be a campy joke, but the villain who has posed as a serious threat to nearly all of Marvel’s heroes in the comics is treated like nothing more than a romantic rival gone bonkers here. It’s perfectly fine to have a lighter series of superhero films, especially for a family unit like the Fantastic Four, but there’s a fine line between brevity and treating the series and its characters like a joke in and of themselves, and whether or not that was the intent, that’s essentially what this film does.
Losing Gene Hackman and, for the better part of the film, Margot Kidder as well, Superman III tries to make up for its losses by bringing back Clark’s old high school flame Lana Lang and making the film’s new original villain, Ross Webster, more Lex Luthor-like than Hackman’s Lex Luthor. Neither of the replacements has the same charisma as the other actors, however, and the infamous addition of Richard Pryor to the cast makes this third entry in the franchise even worse than it already was. His character largely serves the purpose of delivering bad jokes whenever producer Ilya Salkind couldn’t find space to fit in some slapstick. The goofier, more jokey tone of the film is immediately evident with the opening Rube Goldberg sequence involving a blindman painting traffic lines, a rich old man getting paint dumped on his head, a wind-up penguin toy walking through traffic while on fire, and, yes, a mime tripping over spilled gumballs. It’s all surely an attempt to poke fun at Metropolis’ perpetually endangered residents and their need for Superman to solve all their problems, both big and small, but this sort of thing was more appropriate in the 1960s Batman series than it is in a respectful adaptation of Superman. An early film example of how bad things can get when studio executives think they know better than filmmakers who actually care about the source material. At least Christopher Reeve continued to shine as Clark, Superman, and even an evil counterpart Superman in a thematic fight between good and evil.
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Take what I said about the first film and it pretty much applies here, too, only now Jessica Alba now has blue contact lenses and even more pancake on her face to distract from her terrible miscasting, though I will admit that Gruffudd has somewhat livened up in the role of Reed Richards. With the origins out of the way, the second film is able to dive into the action sequences much earlier and also have much more fun with Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis dynamic. The film’s title is a bit of a misnomer, as the Silver Surfer doesn’t necessarily rise up so much as he shows up, flies around, and then talks about how an ominous “he” is “coming” before getting captured by the American government, but I guess “Silver Surfer, Herald of Doom” was a bit too corny. The Surfer looks cool, but his motivations for doing what he does don’t seem nearly as tragic when you consider how incredibly selfish it is, and the return of Doctor Doom was unnecessary. With Galactus reduced to a mere cloud, the awe-factor of his arrival and the annoyingly quick deus ex machina nature of his defeat feels less like a climax to an epic superhero film and more like an unwelcome giant space-fart coming to earth and being Febreezed away.
Now, I happen to see the potential of Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock, but as someone who is barely familiar with the character, I can understand if more hardcore fans would disagree. As a movie, however, Daredevil is barely serviceable as entertainment, which is a shame, since Daredevil’s powers are genuinely awesome. I had less of an issue with the sonar-like visual representation of Daredevil’s powers than most, but I was less taken by Colin Farrel’s Bullseye, who is a tired mixture of the amusing over-the-top psycho-madman trope and bad costuming. While Garner is more lively here than she was in her later spin-off, her character’s descent into vengeance and her eventual downfall as a result is shallow, and her faulting Daredevil for her father’s death inexplicable. Affleck at least seems to be enjoying his stint in the costume, and, as with most of the bad movies on this list, if he were given a better script to work with, I still say that he could have pulled off a respectable performance.
Punisher: War Zone
Where the first theatrically released adaptation attempted to be a thoughtful, more emotionally involved film and failed spectacularly, this one just tries to outgun it, and, you know, for what it’s worth, it’s all the better for it. With the whole set up of the Punisher’s origins largely being nothing more than a vague memory, the story is a lot more streamlined and, somehow, becomes all the more interesting, as the Punisher comes to grips with the guilt he feels for accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent while pursuing the pulpy disfigured villain Jigsaw, who is later joined by his maniacal brother “Loony Bin Jim,” who is apparently a cannibal. Ray Stevenson seems far more at home in the role than Thomas Jane did, and the supporting characters are more in sync with the tone of the rest of the film, as well. It’s still not all that good a movie, as it still feels like there’s a more promising Punisher film to be made, but as an action-packed, ultra-gory B-movie, it’s serviceable.
I can appreciate that Ang Lee saw the dangers in the temptation to make a straight up action film starring Marvel’s most destructive hero, but in attempting to tap into the emotional and psychological part of the character, he overshot his goal and created a dreary, mind-numbing film about Bruce Banner coming to terms with his father’s abuse. Despite the stylish use of comic book panel-style transitions and split screen, the film’s pacing is dragged down by having way too much exposition, the filmmakers obviously trying to tell audiences, “See, we’re really taking this seriously! We respect you!” But Eric Bana is an uninteresting Bruce Banner, and Jennifer Connelly is passable at best as the empathetic Betty Ross. Nick Nolte’s villainous father role is yet another one of those crazy, self-important pontificators, with an added dash of mad scientist and crazy homeless man for variety. The special effects aren’t horrific, but the Hulk never feels like he actually exists in the film’s reality, and the action is relegated to the middle battle with the mutant dogs and when the raging Hulk clashes with some tanks in the desert, the latter of which is admittedly a highlight of the film, a taste of what this film could have been.
All good things must come to an end, and perhaps no other good franchise had a disappointing third entry as devastating as the first Spider-Man films. Where the first two films had heart and genuine characterization for both heroes and villains, Spider-Man 3 became a funnel for Sam Raimi’s temper tantrum after he was forced to squeeze Venom in to appease studio executives and ignorant fans who thought that darkening up this franchise was just what it needed after the spectacular second film. The fact of the matter is that Raimi could have and possibly was going to make a pretty solid movie featuring the perfectly cast Thomas Hayden Church in the role of the tragic Sandman, with a bit of Green Goblin II thrown in for good measure, but with the symbiote and Venom being shoved into the script, too, Raimi seemingly stopped caring and ended up treating the movie like a science experiment for mixing bad ideas, a strutting, Jazz-dancing emo Peter Parker being one of the more notable ingredients. The film devolves from unstable experiment to a disastrous explosion by the end of the film, and no character makes it out unscathed. It’s not the worst superhero film in the world and is at times amusing in its own little ways (said strutting is awful, but somehow entertainingly so), but as a capper to Raimi’s trilogy, it’s a huge letdown. I was at least pretty amazed to find out that Kirsten Dunst actually has a pretty great singing voice, making Peter’s rude interruption at the jazz bar all the more annoying. Somebody put that girl in a musical already!
X-Men: The Last Stand
Too much. That can largely sum up all of Marvel’s film franchises that make it to number three so far. Mediocre film auteur Brett Ratner was brought in to replace Bryan Singer, and, as such, the whole tone of the film takes on this weird vibe where every character is snapping back at each other with one-liners like “Don’t get your panties in a bunch!”, “I don’t answer to my slave name,” and the classic “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” This was maybe to emphasize the dissolution of several relationships in this film, either through death or ideological differences, but it really only has the effect of making most of the characters rather annoying. Not that you really get to know anyone since the movie packs in so many new characters and plot threads, it’s hard to care about anything and anyone involved. Cyclops, Rogue, Mystique, and even Professor X are tossed aside, but several other new characters are barely even given names. In the only bit of genius the film has, Kelsey Grammer being cast as Beast was inspired, but when we have to keep track of the Iceman/Rogue/Shadowcat love triangle, the rendered-pointless Dark Phoenix development, the whole mutant cure thing, and Magneto’s war on humanity, there’s just too much in too little time to care.