Although they have dominated comic books for over sixty years, there was a time when superheros had problems when it came to the movies. During the Golden Age of comic books (about 1939 to 1949), the only way in which a superhero could be seen on the big screen was in serials. And while some of the serials were quite well done (for instance, The Adventures of Captain Marvel), most were strictly kid's fare and some were downright atrocious (the two Batman serials are examples of these). I am not sure what the first superhero feature film was, but it may well have been Superman and the Mole Man, released in 1951. Superman and the Mole Men was the pilot for the classic Adventures of Superman TV series, released to theatres prior to the series' debut. Although it has the advantage of having George Reeves in the title role, the movie does not play nearly as well as the show did. Shot on the cheap, it is burdened with a script that simply cannot sustain itself for its 58 minutes length. Batman: the Movie, the 1966 feature film spun off from the TV series, was entertaining, but like the TV show it played the Caped Crusader for comedy.
It would not be until Superman (released in 1978), Superman II (released in 1980), and Batman (released in 1989) that superheroes really got their due on the big screen. Since then there have many superhero movies released and many of them are actually good. I thought it might be interesting to do a run down of what I consider to be the five best.
I. Batman Begins: If superhero movies have suffered one fatal flaw over the years, it is that they have tended to focus too much on the heroic alter ego than the secret identity they keep most of the time. This is not the case with Batman Begins. The movie actually explores the inner demons of Bruce Wayne which drive him to dress up like a bat and fight crime. With the exception of the Spider-Man films, no other superhero movie has spent as much time exploring the inner man as Batman Begins did. Fortunately, Batman Begins is not all character study, as it also features some of the best action scenes ever seen in a superhero movie.
II. Spider-Man 2: Like its predecessor (and Batman Begins, for that matter), Spider-Man II explores the inner demons of Peter Parker. Where Spider-Man II goes even further is that it features what may be the greatest portrayl of a supervillain on film. Played by Alfred Molina, Dr. Octopus is a complex, sophisticated character. Indeed, he becomes a supervillain not by choice, but by accident, making him an altogether tragic character. Between the potrayal of Peter Parker and the portrayal of Dr. Octopus, Spider-Man 2 is lifted above the average superhero film.
III. Spider-Man: Moreso than any superhero movie made before it, Spider-Man explored the man behind the mask. In fact, Spider-Man does not even appear for nearly forty minutes into the film! The movie is as much about the impact (both positive and negative) Peter Parker's super powers have on his life as it is about fighting the Green Goblin. In the end, Peter Parker as he is portrayed in Spider-Man is the most complex superhero to appear on screen until the release of Batman Begins. The movie only has two weaknesses, in my humble opinion. First, the Green Goblin is not nearly as well developed as he should be. The character lacks much of the depth that he had in the comic books. Second, why did they choose to use Mary Jane Watson instead of Gwen Stacy>?! To me this would be like doing a Superman movie where the love interest is Lana Lang rather than Lois Lane....
IV. X-2: X-Men United: Like the films in the Spider-Man franchise, this is another case where the sequel was better than the original. Part of what is so impresive about this movie is that it features an ensemble of characters while at the same time insuring all of them are three dimensional. Despite whatever super powers they might have, each one of the X-Men are fully realised characters who could concievably exist. Beyond the fact that the movie does quite well in its portrayls of the characters, it is among the best movies at capturing the look and feel of comic books on film. There is plenty of action to be had, including the best fight scene Woverine has had so far in the series. And I must say that I am impressed with the way they handled Nightcrawler's powers.
V. Superman II: For me, Superman II was the first superhero movie to capture the look and feel of comic books on film. Indeed, the knockdown, dragout fight between Superman and his Kryptonian opponents (General Zod, Ursa, and Non) is one of the best superhero battles ever filmed. It could have been ripped straight from the pages of any comic book. Of course, this is not to say that Superman II is all comic book action. One of the attractions of the film is the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, finally allowed to develop after forty years of flirting. For me Superman II is a movie that is still charming 25 years after its release.
Well, those are what I consider the five greatest superhero films of all time. This summer has seen the release of X-Men III and will see the release of Superman Returns. It will be interesting to see if those films measure up to these.