Jun 7, 2013

Comic Book Movies Week: The Comics Cube

So it's comic book movies week, where we list our favorite — not a technical and critical assessment of what's "best" — comic book movies, here at the Cube and I'm closing it off.

So...

A Really Long, Rambling Rant About 11 Comic Book Movies
Because I Was an Idiot Who Intended to Write About 10 Movies
But Instead Wrote About My 11th One First
by Duy

Like everyone else, I'm going to be naming my favorite comic movies and saying why, and I'll also be laying out a rule as I write this, namely that I won't bring up or name the comic book movies I really hated (there are three of them).

There's in general been a dearth of comic book movies that I can really say I love, partly because of my general disappointment with them until 2011 and partly because of the fact that I really, really simply don't watch a lot of movies. Despite that, there are 11 comic book movies on this list, because I wrote about 10 movies and then I remembered one that should have been on the list, but I didn't want to waste what I wrote about Superman. So... there. That's why there are 11 movies. Don't get mad at me for arbitrarily breaking the arbitrary rules I arbitrarily set for myself.

Also, I go on longer than everyone else, because brevity isn't my strong suit. So here's a page break.  You've been warned. Let's get started.



11. SUPERMAN 2

So, quick confession, I don't really like Superman the Movie. (That's not breaking my rule. It doesn't fall into "hate" territory.) A big part of this, I'm sure, is because I didn't see the movie as a kid, or if I did, I was too young to remember it, so it doesn't have the nostalgia factor working for it to cover up its 70s special effects, and by the time I'd seen it, Superman: The Animated Series was already on the air and Clancy Brown's Lex Luthor and Dana Delaney's Lois Lane were just plain better than Gene Hackman's and Margot Kidder's.

There is one performance in which the movie just outdoes every other rendition though, and that's (to the surprise of absolutely no one) Christopher Reeve's Superman. Christopher Reeve just exuded "Superman-ness." (I made that up. Sue me.)  He looked like Superman should look, he sounded like Superman should sound, and he just had a kind of charisma that commanded the room, even when he was walking around in a skintight outfit with red trunks outside of his blue tights. People (and I'm one of them) criticize the rubbery, "realistic" (I hate that word, but that seems to be the buzzword for this) material used in Superman Returns and the upcoming Man of Steel, and cite that Christopher Reeve was able to pull it off, but maybe we're overlooking one factor: maybe he was able to pull it off simply because he was Christopher Reeve.

(As a side note, Christopher Reeve is the prime example I like to use when I say that I think superheroes without masks should be played by relatively unknown actors. You can see Christian Bale as Batman, because he's wearing a mask, but it's harder when people know the actor and see them wearing a costume, without a mask. If Tom Hiddleston had been famous pre-Loki, I don't think you'd be able to see him as Loki. He'd be Tom Hiddleston in a green trenchcoat and a horned helmet. And yes, this is me saying that I'm glad I never saw Mad Men before I see Man of Steel.)

Even Clark Kent was convincing when Reeve was playing him, and you can point to Reeve's performance every time someone asks how Superman's disguise works. By changing his entire demeanor, posture, and vocal pitch, Reeve is able to convince us that not only would people not think Clark and Superman are the same guy, they wouldn't even consider the possibility. And I think Reeve's performance is only highlighted by Superman Returns, when Brandon Routh tried doing the exact same thing, and somehow couldn't pull it off.

But other than that, I have to labor through Superman the Movie, where Superman has to thwart the plans of Lex Luthor and his real estate schemes, and averting one disaster after another, ultimately spinning the rotation of the Earth backward to reverse time because Lois Lane drove into a disaster area and died, which was confusing to me because why would he do that then and not when California was getting destroyed?

Thank Rao for Superman 2, which features the Phantom Zone villains, led by Terrence Stamp's General Zod, with a performance just as transcendent (Ben and I love that word. We're basketball fans.) as Reeve's. Zod had a regal presence and a booming voice, and with them taking over the world just as Superman gave up his powers to be with Lois Lane as Clark Kent forever, the movie built suspense masterfully, with enough humor to pick you up if things got a bit heavy or slow, but anchored by Zod's stone-faced imperiousness, the match of Superman's earnestness, so that you never don't take him seriously. The film culminates in one moment in the Daily Planet building, with Zod threatening Lois Lane. All of a sudden, there's a red and blue blur in the sky, and a Superman with newly regained powers (although it's never explained how he got them again) floats outside the window, and says, "General. Would you care to step outside?" And as he flies away, Zod points to the ground and yells, "Come to me, son of Jor-El! Kneel before Zod!" And then the stage is set for Superman going up against three Phantom Zone criminals. The fight of the century.

And then the rest of the movie happens.

As the story goes, Richard Donner conceded directing duties to Richard Lester at around this point, and what we got, instead of a superpowered brawl in the skies of Metropolis, was a comedic (not campy — more on that later) slugfest that featured jokes like a guy continuing to talk on the phone while being blown away by Zod's superbreath. It ends in the Fortress of Solitude with Superman tricking the Zoners (I just made that up again) to relinquish their powers, but not before Superman suddenly pulls out a gigantic cellophane S out of his chest and the Kryptonians all demonstrate telekinesis for some reason. Once everything is done, Clark makes Lois forget everything that happened with his newly revealed amnesia-inducing superkiss, which would be fine if this were a Silver Age comic and it's established that Superman could pull random powers out of his cape, but since this was a mostly serious (i.e., logical) movie for the first 75% of it, it doesn't work here. So what Superman 2 feels like is if you were watching a buildup to a boxing match, and it gets you hyped up, and you buy tickets or make sure to order it on pay-per-view, and then the fight doesn't deliver and the post-match interviews make no sense. Or really, the 2012 NBA Finals. Or the 1995 NBA Western Conference Finals. But that buildup, the performances of Reeve and Stamp, and my overall dislike/apathy/underwhelmedness of comic book movies pre-2011 is enough to get this in at number 10, or it was before I remembered the next movie existed and that I loved it.

Richard Donner would eventually release his own cut of the movie, removing the not-really-funny elements and putting in the Earth reversal thing at the end. I've since learned that Superman I and II were supposed to be one long movie, and honestly, I think that would have been better for it (aside from what would have been a really long running time). Certainly, turning back the rotation of the Earth because three supercriminals took it over for six weeks is more satisfying than doing it because the girl you like drove into a danger zone.

If the Superman movies were a video game, I'd love to press the reset button because as legendary as the first two were, I think they could have ended up being better and making even more of an impact, but that's not the way it works, unless someone decided to re-cut the two movies into one big movie and send me a copy, and the most I can hope for now is that by the end of June, Man of Steel will have bumped Superman 2 from this list. But I'm not so sure it can — among other things, including the guys responsible for MoS being responsible for two of the Three Movies I Promised Myself I Won't Mention (Hah! Still not breaking my rule!), it would just be really hard to outdo Christopher Reeve and Terrence Stamp.

(The thing is, no matter how much Man of Steel succeeds, we won't really know how well Henry Cavill does until it's 30 years later and they're still getting guys who look and act like him to portray Superman in TV and movies. Reeve's impact was so great, it may have actually been damaging to the character in the long run, at least in terms of screen portrayals. I know I'd rather have seen them go in a different direction in 2006 rather than go with Brandon Routh, who you know they got because he kinda looked like Reeve.)


10. ARCHIE: TO RIVERDALE AND BACK AGAIN

This is the direct-to-TV movie they did back in 1990, for being a sentimental favorite. Watching it now, the flaws are pretty obvious — that's not Jughead, they still skirt through the Betty and Veronica question, Reggie and Mr. Lodge cross the line into almost-pure-evil territory  — but that scene where The Archies play "Jingle, Jangle" and the one where the entire Riverdale community just stands up for Pop Tate still warm my little heart. Also, in one scene, Lauren Holly, playing Betty, gets into the shower, gets out wearing nothing but a towel, and tries seducing Archie. In another, Karen Kopin as Veronica tries doing the same thing, while wearing lingerie. This all kind of went over my head when I was eight years old and I didn't realize how "adult" it was, but I'm kind of surprised now that they were even allowed to do that. I'm even more surprised, however, by just how ridiculously vicious Mr. Lodge and Reggie are. I know these things need a conflict, but that's a bit extreme.


Also, LLOYD BRAUN!!! plays Betty's boyfriend. He's really good at that smarmy kind of character.

Not at all in any way, shape, or form the best movie on this list, or even close, but it will always hold a special place in my heart. Even if it's just for those two scenes.


9. IRON MAN 3

It's still a bit early for me to really talk about this movie in depth, but given the dearth of Comic Book Movies I Actually Genuinely Really Love and Could Watch Repeatedly (from here on out referred to as the CBMIAGRLCWR), the fact that I feel like an Iron Man movie should be on this list just out of sheer principle, and the fact that I was never really on the Iron Man 1 train (it's a good movie, but I didn't really feel it like everyone else seemed to. I was more entertained by The Incredible Hulk, mostly because of the gigantic Hulk/Abomination fight — although on any objective level, Iron Man was better), and Iron Man 3 makes my list at #9. Granted, I went into it with the lowest of expectations — Avengers being a difficult act to follow, and Iron Man being my least favorite Avenger — but I was still thoroughly entertained.

Now I've read the criticisms. They ruined the Mandarin (a criticism that only works if you really knew or cared about the Mandarin beforehand, which most moviegoers didn't — and neither did I, because they handled it in the most entertaining way possible); the armors were too fragile (maybe, but it was fun); and there were a few plot holes (that I could no-prize, but that's the thing—I will forgive plot holes and flaws if I find the movie entertaining and the holes no-prizeable).

In the first two Iron Man movies, Robert Downey Jr.'s performance, though transcendent (there's that word again), kind of grated on me. It was almost sidekick material; you know, how most of these things have a straight man as the main character and all the great lines go to his second banana. And that was kind of reinforced by Avengers, where Downey spent a good amount of screen time next to the serious Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans. That kind of thing is more effective with a contrast. So I was worried going into Iron Man 3 that there would be no such contrast and we'd just go back to me being annoyed at Tony Stark. But they circumvented that by having Downey shift, and effortlessly, between smartass and really troubled. I will always be amazed at actors who do seamless mood shifts. Some people criticize Avengers for spotlighting Iron Man, and I did too at first, because I hate Iron Man, but you can't deny that Robert Downey Jr. is just the best actor on that screen.

The action was fun too, but I won't spoil it  for anyone who hasn't seen it yet. Suffice it to say, if it were a video game, I would love to just play that last stage over and over again. I've seen the criticism that Tony waited till the last possible minute to pull his trump card and that that was pretty stupid, and, well, yeah. Hasn't it been established yet that Downey's Iron Man is cocky and does stupid things because he feels like he can always find another way out of it?

I also enjoyed the fact that this could easily be an ending to the Iron Man story, and if someone were to watch the entire trilogy, there would be a feeling of completion. And yet, it doesn't have to be the actual ending. A viewer could just stop here, but if there are more installments after this, he could keep going. And that's... just like a superhero comic book, really.

In the end, it's number 9 on my list because it was able to entertain me and keep me glued to my seat for its entire running time, and there aren't many comic book movies that can say that, and all but one of them show up later on in this list. (Batman Forever was the other one. Just entertaining from beginning to end, even if there are a billion moments in it where I just want to throw something at the screen for it not being better, considering that it had so many things going for it.) And yes, that means Thor: The Dark World is probably pushing this down come October, and this will be gone from the list by the end of 2014. But for now, it sits here, filling up space.

Also? Best post-credits scene ever. You will never convince me otherwise.

Side note, because I love side notes: It's a no-brainer, now, to see Iron Man as the perfect superhero for the technology age. Before 2008? I wouldn't have even considered it. Then Iron Man 1 came out and it was a gigantic hit,  and people responded, and it genuinely felt like a big "Holy crap, he has finally arrived" moment. Quite monumental, really.


8. THE SPIRIT

Quick! Name the comic book movie that did the most damage to its source material!

No, it's not The Spirit, although I could see why you'd think that, since we're now in the Spirit section (that's a pun right there; look it up) and it's one of the most hated comic book movies of all time.

I have a firm belief that you can't actually damage the source material. No matter how bad a movie is, you can always go back to that source material. And even if Christopher Reeve did influence way too many screen portrayals of Superman, I'd argue that that's not really his fault so much as movie executives and/or directors feeling that that's the best way to go.

But if the back-office dealings for a movie result in the movie license getting bought out by the lead actor, and the movie's not actually that good, leading to no more products being made of that property, then that actually damages the source material, and that's why the answer to that question is Dick Tracy. It's highly probably we won't see another Dick Tracy movie or cartoon again for the next few decades, and that's a shame because I think it would make a great cartoon.

I still didn't hate Tracy, but it was kinda blah, and I think the reason is it was trying to be camp. Not the usual, conversational definition of "camp," which is interchangeable with "hokey" and "corny," but the literary definition, which emphasizes artifice and exaggeration, putting style over substance, while seeming naive about the whole thing. In short, an "It's so bad, it's good" thing done consciously, except looking like it's not. In Dick Tracy, which I saw for the first time a couple of months ago, you could see them actually trying to do it. And that makes the movie fall flat for me.

I saw The Spirit a couple of weeks after I saw Tracy. Like many people, I avoided The Spirit when it came out in 2008, because I didn't like the aesthetic. I thought Sin City was pretty exhausting, and this looked like Frank Miller was rehashing Sin City, only doing it to one of my favorite comics. But then Travis told me to watch it, then my friend Benj told me to watch it, so I did right after I saw Tracy, and...

...it was what I thought Dick Tracy would be. Satirical, campy fun. And what's wrong with that? Eisner's Spirit skirted the line between believable and absurd, between serious and satirical. What made Eisner's comic so special — its experimentation with the comic page — was never going to be replicable in film. But what we got was the next best thing: something that showed clear love for the source material. Sand Saref's origin is straight out of the comics, and is delivered seriously, but everything else surrounding it has the most over-the-top acting possible, and it's great. You could see all the actors having fun. Every single one.

So if the thought of Gabriel Macht and Samuel L. Jackson fighting in mud, all invulnerable, like cartoons; if the thought of Louis Lombardi playing multiple stupid henchmen with names like "Pathos"; if the Dad from the Wonder Years playing Commissioner Dolan; if Scarlett Johannson and Eva Mendes being so over-the-top with their femme fatales; if Paz Vega just showing up saying in the most stereotypically French way, "I am Plaster... Plaster of Paris!" — if those things all sound ridiculous to you and turn you off just by hearing the description, then just know that that's the appeal of it.

The Spirit's actors and filmmakers clearly had fun doing it, and that fun permeates. It shines through. It's camp. And I think the fact that most people still think it's played straight and is just bad at it, just highlights how good it was at being camp. So if you refused to watch it because you were expecting a superserious movie with Denny Colt and a superserious Sin City–like sequel, like I did, put those expectations aside and give it a shot. It's easily, at least for me, the second-best camp comic book movie ever. The best one came out 42 years before.

7. SPIDER-MAN 2
6. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

I can't have a favorites list without including my favorite superhero, and I had to put these next to each other so I could do a Dr. Jack breakdown.

Spider-Man 1 is one of those movies I loved when it first came out, despite its many flaws (I really, really don't like Tobey Maguire or Kirsten Dunst, as actors in general, but at least Tobey looked the part), and that's partly because at that point, the superhero movie hadn't had a high standard yet. But I recall the exact time I stopped being able to rewatch Spider-Man 1, and that was when I first saw it on DVD. Without surround sound and on a smaller screen, its flaws — including how ridiculous The Green Goblin was (seriously, watch it again. Willem Dafoe is great until he puts that thing on) — became more apparent. I haven't rewatched it since 2003, and that's partly because Spider-Man 2 is so much better anyway. It has some of the flaws of the first movie, but not all, and some strengths that the first movie didn't have.

But I still liked The Amazing Spider-Man, which is a whole different take, more. Let's break it down.

  • Leading Lady: Kirsten Dunst's character wasn't enough of an attention-grabbing party girl to really be Mary Jane Watson or enough of a studious but bubbly bookworm to be Ultimate Mary Jane Watson, while Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy was pretty much how you modernize 60s Gwen Stacy, complete with Gwen's usual wardrobe (a one-piece dress, a headband, and boots) and the filmmakers not forgetting that Gwen was as much into science as Peter was (which is something even most comics writers forgot as time went on, I think). But I can forgive falling short on faithfulness if what they replace it with is entertaining (see: the aforementioned Mandarin). What I can't really let go of though is the fact that Dunst is the main reason I have a hard time watching any of those movies now. She has a small range of expressions and it's not even entirely her fault — the writers didn't really give her much to work with. On the other hand, Emma Stone was just plain charming as Gwen Stacy, incorporating little acting bits (watch that scene where they're in the hallway together, right after Uncle Ben tells her she's on his desktop wallpaper), and there was real chemistry between her and Andrew Garfield (which led to them dating in real life, apparently). I was smiling whenever they were onscreen together. I can't even come close to saying that for Tobey and Kirsten.

    Edge: Amazing Spider-Man
  •  Villain: Rhys Ifans was good as Curt Connors, doing what he could to anchor the really mediocre CGI Lizard with pure emotion. But he doesn't hold a candle to what Alfred Molina did with Dr. Octopus, when he took what could have easily been an easily ridiculous supervillain and made sure to transform him into a sympathetic character who at once was crazy enough that you still had to root against him. Molina doesn't just anchor Dr. Octopus; he anchored the entire movie the same way Heath Ledger did The Dark Knight and Jack Nicholson did the Tim Burton Batman. Ifans was good; Molina was transcendent. He's the main reason the movie is on this list at all. No contest.

    Edge: Spider-Man 2
  • Action Scenes:  You'd think it would be unfair to compare the special effects of a movie from 2004 to one from 2012, and you'd think that the latter movie would win out, but no. Maybe this is because Amazing Spider-Man was one of the lower-budget blockbuster movies of 2012 while Spider-Man 2 was the big movie of 2004 next to whatever Harry Potter movie there was that year, but the older movie beats it out. The Raimi films always made web-swinging, and Spider-Man's entire power set, the most fun thing ever, and that's encapsulated in just how fun the video game was. The Amazing Spider-Man didn't suck when it came to the action scenes, but it didn't quite have the same effect. Or maybe that's because I'm 30 now and jaded. 

    Edge:
    Spider-Man 2
  • Costume: On the other hand, though, I actually really hate the costume used in the Raimi movies, while at the same time liking the less faithful version used in Marc Webb's film. It's primarily because of the webs. The embossed shiny silver webbing is annoying to look at already, but it's even more annoying when you try drawing it. The Amazing version's biggest weakness is the Spider-Nikes, and that's fine, because who looks at this guy's feet anyway?

    Edge: Amazing Spider-Man
  • Shortest Lull: There are certain points in Spider-Man 2 that are just so boring that they instantly get met with the fast forward button, and none of them are more boring than that little period of time when Peter is, uh, having difficulty performing. In contrast, Amazing's biggest lull is the start of the movie, where it's all Peter's dad, Peter's dad, Peter's dad. And that's fine. I don't expect to be excited from the start of a movie. But in the middle of it? You better keep me interested.

    Edge: Amazing Spider-Man
  • The Other Supporting Cast Members: Denis Leary played a convincing, if not my ideal, George Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man. J.K. Simmons was J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man 2. Come on.

    Edge: Spider-Man 2
  • Peter Parker: Spider-Man has been around for so long and interpreted in so many different ways, while adhering to some basic tenets, that I don't really feel comfortable talking about which one is the "truer" Spider-Man. I will say this, though: Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man is closer to the Spider-Man I prefer, which is the Steve Ditko version of Spider-Man.

    Spidey has grown into such a hard-luck, yet happy-go-lucky, character that it's easy to forget just how angry he originally was, under Steve Ditko. And while I don't think Spider-Man should be ripping people's heads off, I do want to see him have a bit of an edge, something that shows he won't stand for being bullied. More modern versions of Spider-Man have kind of romanticized his nerdiness, leaving him as poor helpless Peter Parker, but Ditko's version stood up to Flash Thompson and was more aggressive, more forceful than flashbacks indicate.

    (It's a bit annoying for me when I say that I prefer Peter Parker to have a bit of an edge, because a lot of people instantly take it to mean that I want him to be dark. But that's not the case at all; I want more gravitas, not more grit. It's like when I say that I prefer The Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon to Ultimate Spider-Man, because it has more weight. It's not like Spec is dark and heavy; it just hits you harder.)

    I will take the Peter Parker who makes mistakes because he genuinely made mistakes; not because he's trying to do what's best for the person. I will take the Peter Parker who has to live with the mistakes he made, and the Peter Parker who makes a promise he can't keep. I will take the Peter Parker whose actions have consequences.

    Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker is a nerd who's interested in photography, but Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker is an outsider who also happens to be really really smart. And I like that. I like that they showed how smart he was, and I like that he was an outcast because of it. It's the best of Ditko and the best of the early parts of the Ultimate series.

    As Spider-Man, I prefer the wisecracking, sarcastic version, and again, that's Andrew Garfield. Tobey's version had a few cracks — and none of them were funny.

    But it's all preference. As I said before:

    Maybe it also says something about you as a person. If you thought Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker was a bully, that speaks a lot to your morals. If you thought that his reactions were just relatable and human, that means you empathized. If you thought Garfield wasn't enough of a nerd and was simply of a different but not necessarily outcast clique than the popular kids, maybe you were one of those kids in school but you were comfortable with it. If you were one of those kids in school but were always bugged by how you were treated by the Flash Thompson types regardless, maybe you loved his portrayal. Or if you're anything like some girls I know, maybe you just liked Tobey better because he's more built.

    Plus, there's just that part where Andrew Garfield is a much better actor. Tobey just always looked like he was trying. With Andrew, the part just kind of flowed.

    Plus, he's just apparently a really cool guy.

    I will take his Peter Parker, any day.

    Edge: Amazing Spider-Man
  • Defining Moment: For Amazing, it's the scene with the cranes, where Spider-Man, wounded, has a hard time getting to the Oscorp building, until the dad of a kid he saved earlier in the movie calls in a favor to a crane company and aligns the cranes on the remaining buildings to give him a clear path to swing on. Critics of the movie, especially those who loved the Raimi movies, call this moment overly cheesy, but I don't really see how it's any worse (and in fact, how it's not better) than the defining moment of Spider-Man 2, which doubles as the defining moment of that entire trilogy, where Spider-Man has to stop a speeding train, takes off his mask so he can see more clearly, and shoots webs in both directions to act as a stopper. This knocks him out, and then the train's passengers carry him in, like he's Jesus, and then wait for him to wake up, all promising that they'll never tell anyone his secret, have two kids hand him back his mask, and then all stand up to Dr. Octopus so he doesn't get to Spider-Man. I'm not saying it's not a great scene, because I loved it when it happened, but you can't tell me they didn't overdo the schmaltz.

    Both scenes are actually pretty problematic if you look at it in the larger Spider-Man view. Where does this "Damn it, all of New York stands behind Spidey!" thing come from? Isn't Spidey generally hated by New Yorkers? That's fine in the context of these movies, because they never actually pursue the "Threat or Menace" angle in enough depth for the "New York loves Spidey" thing to be out of place, but you know what makes the difference for me, aside from the fact that I genuinely think Spider-Man 2 overdid it?

    Peter misses the crane. Limping, hobbling, he webs up his knee, tries to run to the edge of the roof, jumps, shoots out a web, and misses. He lucks out by landing on the crane, and he keeps going. And that is Spider-Man to me, in a nutshell. He runs on heart, and the crane scene shows that better than the train scene.

    Edge: Amazing Spider-Man
  • Final Verdict: In the end, it didn't really matter which one I ranked above the other; neither movie was going to beat the next one or lose to the previous ones listed. And as I've said before, different versions are good. They make sure the character reaches a wider audience, and it gives people more of that character to latch onto. Plus, I'm old. There should be a Spider-Man movie every three years. Both movies have their strengths and weaknesses, but in the end, I watch a Spider-Man movie for Peter Parker and Spider-Man, and not Dr. Octopus (full disclaimer: I love Superior Spider-Man and was aware of the irony of typing that sentence as I typed it). And that's why, despite the fact that I can look at both movies objectively and say that they have just about as many flaws and strengths as each other, I will take Amazing Spider-Man. Its strength is the one that matters most. To me, anyway.

    But Spider-Man 2 is still in my Video Game Pantheon.


5. BATMAN (1966)

We are now in CBMIAGRLCWR territory. These are five movies I can watch any time, from beginning to end, and never get bored by them, and I know that because I've watched them a lot. I play them in the background when I'm exercising or doing work, and they still get me every time. It doesn't matter that three of the next five movies are less than three years old; I've watched them enough times that they may as well have been around forever in my head. If I can rewrite this list at one point in the future and have this at number 10, I'll be happy, and my life will be complete.

Batman was the perfect camp TV show and that made this the perfect camp movie, since this may as well have been the best "episode" of Batman that Adam West and Burt Ward ever starred in. Ben and Kimberly already talked about it on their lists, but I'm just going to throw out a few more of my favorite lines of dialogue:
Batman: That exploding shark... was pulling my leg!
Commissioner Gordon: The Joker!
Chief O'Hara: It all adds up to one sinister riddle. Riddle... r?

Robin: Gosh, Batman. The nobility of that almost-human porpoise.
Batman: True, Robin. It was noble of that animal to hurl itself right into the path of that vile old torpedo. He gave his life for ours.

Admiral: Hello, Batman! Ahoy! What can I do for you?
Batman: Hello, Admiral. A routine question: have you recently sold any war-surplus submarines, and if so, to whom?
Admiral: Just a moment. I'll have to look that up. Answer affirmative, Batman. We disposed of a war-surplus submarine last Friday. A pre-atomic model, to some chap named P.N.Guin.
Batman: P.N.Guin?
Robin: Penguin!
Batman: Did this P.N. Guin leave an address?
Admiral: Just a post office box number. Would you like it?
Batman: No, thank you, Admiral. You've been very helpful.
Admiral: Your tone sounds rather grim. We haven't done anything foolish, have we?
Batman: Disposing a pre-atomic submarine to persons who don't even leave their full addresses? Good day, Admiral.

Batman: They may be drinkers, Robin, but they're still human beings!

Absolutely brilliant.

Also, there's a scene where Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle go on a date, which goes beyond "suggestive." You have to see it to believe it.

Adam West is the best live-action Batman ever; he was the closest to the Batman he tried to do. And Frank Gorshin is the Riddler. Accept no substitutes.


4. The Crow

The Crow is light on plot, and heavy on quotable quotes, emotion, and badassery. In short, it's the early 90s comic book movie. If I made a list of 5 movies that encapsulated the early 90s, there'd be Dazed and Confused, Clerks, Reality Bites, Empire Records, and The Crow.

 The Crow holds the honor of being the highest-rated movie on this list that came out before 2011, the movie on this list with the best soundtrack, the movie that most exceeds the quality of the source material, and the movie with the most quotable quotes, even beating out the '66 Batman. Travis talked about how one of his friends want to have the "This is really the real world," line on his tombstone; I know way too many people when Facebook first showed up that had "Can't rain all the time" on their Favorite Quotes.

The Crow is the story of Eric Draven, played by Brandon Lee, brought back from the dead to avenge his and his girlfriend's murders, and there's the impressive thing about this movie — there's really nothing to it other than him going after the people responsible one after the other, and Brandon Lee being a badass. But it's just done so well, with so much emotion and so much adrenaline.

In short, it's just really cool. And it's my favorite movie of the early 90s, which should signify that the next three movies didn't come out in the early 90s.

3. Captain America
2. Thor

What's that? Two Marvel movies that came out within months of each other? Sounds like it's time for another Dr. Jack breakdown!
  • Heart: Both movies have theirs in the right place, but Thor still goes through a stretch where he has to doubt himself and he has to "learn" what it really means to be a hero. Captain America, on the other hand, is made of heart. One of the things I get annoyed at is when I hear that Batman is a better hero than Captain America, because Batman makes himself into the perfect human in order to be a hero, while Captain America needed the Super-Soldier Serum. But to me, that's rewarding genetics — Steve Rogers was 4F, genetically frail, while Bruce Wayne's body was just lucky enough to be able to withstand all that training. And that's one of the best things about the movie, that it establishes that Steve Rogers was a hero before he even had the serum in his body. Maybe there wasn't much he could do, but he tried anyway.  He wasn't driven by a personal tragedy; he didn't have angst driving him; he was just a guy who did the right thing so he could do the right thing. Captain America doesn't win the "heart" argument against Thor; he wins the heart argument over just about any comic book movie there is, except for Avengers, and he's in that one too anyway.

    Edge: Captain America
  • Supporting Cast: Cap had a great supporting cast with Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Sebastian Stan as Bucky, Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Phillips, and Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark. But Thor had Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, Jamie Alexander as Sif, Stellan Skaarsgard as Erik Sellvig, Kat Dennings, Anthony Hopkins as Odin, and the Warriors Three. Cap's supporting cast was there to prop him up, but Thor's was so much fun. If you asked me right now which Marvel movie I'd want to see that would star second-stringers, it'd be Sif and the Warriors Three, no question.

    Another thing: I see criticism of Natalie Portman's performance in Thor, and I'm not a Natalie Portman fan by any means, but the Jane/Thor dynamic was really fun, especially since it went so against the cliche "We're not sure if we should be together" dynamic that you see in most superhero movies.

    Edge: Thor
  • Villain: Hugo Weaving was a great Red Skull, and I'm not going to take that away from him. He was chilling and brought a menace to the Red Skull that would have been nearly impossible to achieve unless you got the perfect actor doing the perfect take. But you can't talk comic book movie villains without talking about Tom Hiddleston's Loki, a true member of the Comic Book Villain Pantheon. Sure, maybe he took it a step further in Avengers, but I'd argue that Thor was as much his origin as Thor's, and once he stepped over the line into true villainy, he was just memorable. That scene where he's got the Mjolnir on his chest, and he's yelling "All that might, and what good does it do you now, huh?!?" is my favorite line of dialogue in the whole movie. It was delivered perfectly.

    And while we're at it, I said that the Red Skull needed the right actor and the right take, but that's even more true for Loki. For years, I thought that Thor would be such a difficult thing to portray in live action, because it would be so easy to screw it up. Hiddleston found the perfect balance — and it had to be the perfect balance, because even one step in either direction would make it too hokey or too serious (in which case, it would still be hokey; come on, he's wearing a horned helmet).

    Edge: Thor
  • Hero: As Loki required the perfect balance, so did Thor, and it was perhaps even more important for him, because, you know, he's the star of the show and most of the screen time is going to him. Like Loki — like the whole movie, actually — he had to strike a balance that was dramatic without going overboard, and he did. So kudos, Chris Hemsworth. You managed to do something that I thought for the longest time was impossible.

    But you know what? Chris Evans' performance wasn't any less impressive. Sure, Hugo Weaving can portray an evil Nazi with the Cosmic Cube (and I will forever call The Tesseract that, because I wanted them to call it that, and have a lot of people Google "Cosmic Cube Comics" and land on this page) and that's fine; we see evil Nazis in a bunch of movies, right? But a main character who's just earnestly, truly goodhearted, who wants to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do? How often has that been done? And more, of the times it has been done, how many have been successful at it — that is, who's done it without you wanting to bash their face in for being too nice? Christopher Reeve did it, and now so has Chris Evans.

    So both performances were impressive, and seeing as how Thor and Captain America rank side by side next to each other as my second and third favorite Marvel heroes, I cannot for the life of me definitively pick one for this section.

    Edge: Dead even. Don't ask me to pick.
  • Aesthetics: What I said back when these movies came out was that Thor was a fantasy movie with a superhero in it, and Captain America was a war movie with a superhero in it. (You can refute that and say that they're superhero movies in different settings, but I won't care.) In terms of aesthetics, they succeed equally in what they were trying to do. Asgard looked magnificent; the wartorn lands and 40s New York looked like you'd expect them to look (one of the times using muted colors in a superhero movie actually produced good results).

    So I'm going to have to go with the costume, and Thor wins this one because I think they kind of went overboard with all of Cap's accoutrements while Thor just... well, looked like Thor. (Thankfully, Cap was running around way too much to ever really notice how clunky his suit looked.)

    Slight Edge: Thor
  • Action Scenes: Thor's action scenes were great and adrenaline-pumping. The first time he hurls Mjolnir felt like a groundbreaking moment in the moviewatching life of Mr. Cube, with lots of "Wow"s and "Yeah"s! coming out of my mouth. But the climactic fights were pretty short, treading the line (but not crossing it) into anticlimax. Captain America had less to work with, and when you see Steve Rogers riding a motorbike, jumping off of it, throwing his shield at Nazis, and beating a few up while waiting for it to come back, you realize that, yes, you can show a non-superpowered hero doing awesome things on the screen and have the audience buy it.

    Not that that's a dig at another set of movies or anything.

    Edge: Captain America
  • "Reach": By "reach," I mean which movie you'd be more willing to recommend to a friend who's not really into superheroes, but you have to recommend one of these two. And Captain America wins that by a mile. I honestly believe that you could take the entire Cap movie, make it so that he's never actually in costume, and chop off the ending in modern-day New York, ending it right at the final picture of skinny Steve and the kids pretending they were him as the music hits a crescendo, and it would still be entertaining and moving. In contrast, Thor needs the superhero spectacle to thrive.

    Edge: Captain America
  • Sense of Wonder: They're both wonderful movies, but Thor has that sense of awe that was just a sight to behold. The entire first time I was watching it, I thought "Wow, I can't believe they're pulling this off," and every time I thought that, they'd do something else. Volstagg yelling "For Asgard!" Sif trying to take down the Destroyer. Thor getting his hammer back and actually taking down the Destroyer. I have to give it to the Thunder God.

    Edge: Thor
  • Final Verdict: I love both movies, I love both characters, and I could watch them over and over again. But at the end of the day, Thor marks the first time that I watched a comic book movie and was just in awe. It was when I finally thought that the superhero movie had arrived. And how much of that is because of the fact that it came out before Cap? A lot. But still. It trumps Cap on this list, and would have been number one... if the next movie didn't raise the bar.

1. Avengers

I've spoken at length before about how much I love Avengers, and everyone this week named Avengers in their lists (the only movie that got that honor), so I think I'm gonna go a bit of a different route and address three criticisms that I often see when it comes to Avengers.

Avengers Criticism I Often See #1: It's like Transformers with superheroes, no plot, just dumb fun, and a lot of explosions.
My take: That movie was full of dynamic characters who each had character arcs — Thor being the only one who would even qualify as an exception — and the way each character bounced off each other gave way to even more character development. Tony Stark was actively reaching out to Bruce Banner, because he reminded him of himself (volatile, doesn't play well with others); Steve Rogers was harshly transitioning from a time period when the government was so clearly in the right to a time period where he wasn't; and so on. There's a lot of interpersonal complexity there, a lot of personalities to juggle.

Alexander Yates, author of Moondogs,  which you should all read because it's fun and set in the Philippines, told me:

I think the critics got distracted by all the loud noises. Because Transformers it sure as shit wasn't. And had they thrown a few more jags into the plot, there would have been cries of fanboy convolution. I have complicated feeling about the word plot, anyway. A great short story writer named Steve Almond defines plot as "Anything which brings your character into contact with their fears and desires."
Was the plot thematically "deep"? No, not only was it aimed for a general purpose audience, but it was also about a group of people with disparate personalities learning to work as a team. And on that front, it delivered that story admirably and with craft. Just because no one said the words "Tony and Bruce are really similar to each other and that's why only Tony even believes Bruce will show up at the end there," or "Hey, look, Odin's ravens are there when Thor and Loki are talking," — just because it doesn't call attention to its own clever bits, doesn't mean it's not there.

Avengers Criticism I Often See #2: It's too much like a cartoon! or It's too much like a kids' movie!
My take: To the people who say this, I say, congratulations. You are a master of stating the obvious. I wonder what kind of deep psychological think-piece were you hoping to see when you paid for the ticket with the big green angry giant and the guy wearing the American flag?

Avengers Criticism I Often See #3: It doesn't say anything important.
My take: Mrs. Cube, the day we saw Avengers, told me this:

It was just so good. I don't even mean technically good. It was so good, so noble, and so full of hope.

The day after we saw Avengers, she told me this:
I can imagine watching that as a kid, and having a reason to believe in goodness.

So I disagree with ACIOS #3. Heroism is not "not important." Goodness is not "not important." Is it a deep examination on the dichotomy of good and evil? No, it's not. But that's the point — that in this cynical jaded world of ours, even those of us with the largest differences, like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, can knock each other down, and pick each other back up and work with each other when the need arises.

It's a simple point — maybe not what the super-intelligent people of the world are looking for — but an important one. Or, to paraphrase Agent Coulson, maybe the world could use a little old fashion.

And there you have it. My 11 favorite comic book movies of all time, and I made it without mentioning the Three Movies I Promised I Wouldn't!

I hope you enjoyed this theme week. Next week, we'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming, same Cube time, same Cube channel!

4 comments:

Back Issue Ben said...

How does a movie about the 70s, make your list of movies that encapsulate the 90s?

Duy said...

I put that in intentionally to see if anyone would read this thesis-sized document in its entirety. So... good job, Ben. You win a no prize.

Kat said...

I love these lists and all your long-winded explanations. Totally agree with you, and come to think of it, I would probably also have Avengers and Thor as my personal #1 and #2. And that's not just because I'm in love with Thor and Loki.

Another Avengers criticism I hear a lot that always pisses me off: "It's just a big flashy popcorn movie, it's just pure entertainment," saying it's entertaining as if it's a bad thing.

I think The Avengers cracked some kind of entertainment secret code: managing to be funny, exciting, inspiring, intelligent, jaw-dropping, appealing to all age groups, somehow satisfying both casual fans and hardcore fans... and it lets you walk away feeling just genuinely happy and great. This is an unbelievably difficult thing to accomplish.

If it was easy to make just plain awesome entertainment (and to me, The Avengers is pretty damn close to being universally entertaining - the proof is in the $1.5 billion box office), everyone would do it and there would be tons of great movies out there. Everyone making a movie wishes they could make "pure entertainment" and so very few succeed. Let's not knock the ones that do a great job simply to prop up the ones that try so hard to be serious and deep that they end up sucking all the fun out of a genre that was made to be fun.

Another of my all-time favorite movies is Back to the Future, which is basically pure entertainment - I guess when you think about it, it's not really particularly deep or dark or whatever people use to gauge "importance", but it's funny, exciting, with great characters and heart, and it's so damn well crafted that people still love it 30 years later. I think in 30 years, The Avengers will still be a classic.

Duy said...

To your point, I actually forget I wrote this: http://www.comicscube.com/2012/07/its-not-about-dark-damn-it.html

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