Duy's Favorite Comic Book Movies, the 2014 Edition
Let's get to it.
17. BATMAN FOREVER
It's been almost 20 years since Batman Forever came out, and I still don't understand the hate for it. Was Two-Face unnecessary? Sure. Do the Batnipples detract? Probably, but not any more than having a suit that doesn't actually let you move. Batman Forever used the same rubber material that every other Batman movie since Adam West used, but it still had Batman doing actual superhero stuff, like coming through the ceilings and doing dropkicks, things that other directors would have been too embarrassed to have Batman doing. Was Jim Carrey playing himself? Yeah, but in a way it was also as if he was playing an updated version of Frank Gorshin's Riddler, who surely has to be in the Live-Action Super Villain Pantheon.
Beyond that, Nicole Kidman was a convincing co-lead. And man, the same people condemning Batman Forever for having Batman even consider quitting so he can settle down with a beautiful woman would go on to defend Nolan's trilogy for doing the exact same thing.
And then there's this:
On the whole, it seems to me that Batman Forever was hated because of the same reasons the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies are hated — simply because it's got different actors and directors than the films that preceded it. There's no getting around that. You either have Batman movies frequently or you only have a few at a time and then wait years for the next. If I were a Batman fan, I'd welcome multiple renditions of a character as frequently as possible, and try to judge each by its own merits.
16. 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 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 saw 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.
15. IRON MAN 3
I feel like an Iron Man movie should be on this list just out of sheer principle, and 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 the list. 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 — 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 here 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.
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.
14. SPIDER-MAN 2
13. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
Wow, what a drop. When I did this last year, these two movies were at 6 and 7, ahead of The Spirit, and now are out of the top 10, behind The Spirit? So what happened? ... Well, you'll find out when you get to #8.
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. For my part, 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. 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.
12. 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.
11. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
There was a time when X2 would have been on this list, and that time was 2004, when there was barely anything to choose. The superhero movie has gotten significantly better since then, and I've never seen X2 a second time, but it did psyche me up a lot for X3, which... sucked. I've never been a big X-fan — I've generally always thought the whole allegory was heavyhanded — so it was pretty easy to turn me off after that. I never saw First Class; I thought Wolverine: Origins, while not as bad as it was made out to be, was also not great; and The Wolverine was... okay, that one had Mariko, so it gets a pass.
So imagine my surprise when Days of Future Past was really, really fun. It raised a crapload of questions, but that's part and parcel of anything where time travel is involved. What I think is fascinating is that these are the X-Men, and they have the best position to go up against the Avengers. (They don't have the most firepower to go up against Avengers all the way, but the studio with the most firepower is run by morons.)
So congratulations, Fox Studios, for X-Men: Days of Future Past, for revitalizing a franchise, for cementing yourself as the biggest competitor of the Mighty Marvel Movie Machine, and for proving superspeed can work in a movie using Quicksilver, before the Flash ever got a movie. BEFORE THE FLASH EVER GOT A MOVIE.
10. 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, 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.
But Dark World was an awesome movie, full of big spectacle and a lot of really solid writing. There's a lot of subtlety in it too — did you notice, for example, that pretty much every sign, whether it be on a billboard or a train stop, had something to do with the story? The delivery trucks were labeled "Runico," Charing Cross was named after a dead queen. That kind of thing. Did you notice that Loki was inadvertently responsible for Frigga's death?
It was, admittedly, a little disappointing for me though, and a big part of that is because the first Thor was such a game-changer. It was the first superhero movie where I actually thought Marvel had cracked the secret code of superhero moviemaking.
Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston were still great, transcendent even, and the Chris Evans cameo was excellent. But at the end of the day, I just didn't really buy into Malekith so much. And maybe that makes sense, since I didn't really love Malekith in the comics either.
I'm still in awe of how they're actually able to pull off Thor and his world on the big screen, but at the end of the day, something felt missing, and considering how I felt about Thor after the first movie and after Avengers, I just can't help but feel disappointed.
8. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2
On a technical-specific level, it's not as good as Dark World was, but it gets the nod over Dark World for one reason: it has the single best Spider-Man I've ever seen live action. Spider-Man is my favorite character, so, you know, that's a huge thing. Despite whatever flaws the movie had, Andrew Garfield is Spider-Man. And this Spider-Man, with his agility, his motormouth, his sense of fun, that's my Spider-Man. Whatever weaknesses the rest of the movie had, I never got the combination of my preferred Peter Parker, my preferred Spider-Man, and my preferred leading lady before this movie (and never will again, seeing as how the preferred leading lady was written off). Plus, the higher I placed it on the list, the better, because I wanted to spite people.
Unfortunately for the other two Spidey movies on this list, this movie pretty much made sure I'm never plugging them in again and playing them, not because this movie is so much better in terms of narrative and tightness — I absolutely could have done without any scene in Ravencroft, for instance, and I get the complaints about the soundtrack and the whole "Itsy Bitsy Spider" thing, even though I actually appreciated those — but because the leads, fight scenes, and climactic scene in the movie all just far eclipse everything else in those other movies. A few random thoughts about the thus-far best live-action rendition of Spider-Man yet:
- Hey look, a superhero actually being inspiring and giving the citizens hope and showing it instead of Jesus Christ poses and random pastors and using the word "inspire" a lot. Amazing Spider-Man 2 did what Man of Steel tried to do better than Man of Steel did, because Man of Steel was all empty talk and letting his dad die.
- Watching Amazing Spider-Man 2 made me miss New York City, my favorite city in the world, and emphasized something I'd thought for a while: that Spider-Man is tied to New York City in a way that no other superheroes operating in New York really is. Captain America was in Washington DC, Thor fought in London, and that's okay. Spider-Man is a New Yorker. I can't really imagine him anywhere else, unless the point is to show he doesn't belong there.
- I'm pretty sure no future Spider-Man movies are topping this movie on this list, because of one reason: Emma Stone. Emma was transcendent, MCU-level casting, and she's going to be missed.
- Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the single weirdest movie-watching experience I've ever had, and it's because comic book movies tend to be more flexible when it comes to adaptations. Bucky doesn't have to work for the Russians. Thor doesn't have to turn into Donald Blake. Batman doesn't have to actually be a detec-- okay, wait. Bad example. Superman can let his dad die-- okay, another bad example. Forget it. You get my point.
So I went into ASM2 thinking, okay, maybe Gwen's not gonna die. At the very least, maybe she's not gonna die in this movie, because Emma Stone is pretty much the cornerstone of the franchise. So the Green Goblin picked her up, threw her, and Spidey caught her, and I thought she was in the clear. Then she fell again, and they milk the moment for all it's worth, and Spidey's web catches her by the torso, and because it didn't catch her ankle, I thought she was safe. For a split second.
Then her head hit the ground.
And that's it. My jaw dropped. I knew the moment was coming before the movie started, but I spent the entire movie going back and forth on whether or not they were going to do it, all the way until they actually did.
- Here's the thing: I'm honestly not convinced they should have done it. In fact, I'm pretty convinced they shouldn't have done it. On the one hand, yes, it's a classic story and in comics, Gwen is the One Who Dies. But like I said, comics tend to be more flexible when it comes to adaptations and they could have chosen not to do it, and I don't know if I buy that they had to kill her... why? Because Gerry Conway killed her off 43 years ago? I'm not buying it. I feel that it would have been more gutsy and more of a statement if Gwen had walked away, alive, ready for the next movie, especially since Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy is one of the more notable love interests in any comic book movie in history. Seriously, if we're ranking love interests, Emma's Gwen is high on the list. She and Andrew have so much chemistry, which is incredibly rare. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow don't really have it. Michael Keaton and Christian Bale didn't have it with anyone. I think Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman have it, but I know some people disagree. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone? They have it. And they should have kept it. But hey, Gerry Conway killed her off 43 years ago in a story she was unconscious for most of, so, you know, we should absolutely get rid of one of the greatest love interests in comic book movies ever.
But it's a great scene. And Emma and Andrew are great. And that's why this movie is this high.
People bitch about Amazing Spider-Man 2 in favor of the Raimi movies as if the Raimi movies were freaking Shakespeare, instead of having terrible wooden leads, outdated special effects, horrible dialogue ("Nice suit, did your boyfriend make that for you?" Hardeeharhar) and utterly cheesy scenes ("Don't worry, Spider-Man. All of us on this train are completely altruistic and not one of us, not a single one, at all, is interested in spilling your secret.") I'll take the movie with the better leads — and the better Spidey — any day.
7. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Everything listed before this fell under the "Movies I would watch if they were on TV or if a friend wanted to watch it" category. Everything listed after this will fall under the "I genuinely love these and will actually go out of my way to watch these if the mood strikes me." See, I'm not a big movie guy. Going out of my way to watch a movie, any movie, is huge for me.
I'm using Guardians of the Galaxy as a demarcation point because I'm fairly certain it already belongs in that category, and more, it's possible it's going to climb up the list as time goes on. I just need to give it some time to rest and see how I feel about it in a couple of months or so.
Guardians was one of the most fun moviegoing experiences I've ever had. The dialogue was sharp,the fight scenes were well choreographed, and just when you thought it was getting too funny, you had moments of true emotion. A particular speech in the middle of the movie took me by surprise, and the utter absurdity of it only highlighted the feeling of empathy I felt for the character speaking it.
Zoe Saldana as Gamora was a badass, and I for one can't wait for her to eventually fight Captain America and Black Widow in the inevitable Guardians/Avengers crossover. Chris Pratt as Star-Lord adds to the ever-growing number of Chrises kicking ass in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I especially love the use of his musical tastes in the movie (this movie is now #2 on my list of top soundtracks for comic book movies. The top slot still goes to #5 on this list. You know it's true.). Even Dave Bautista, whom I had so many reservations about (if you're a wrestling fan, you know what I'm talking about) fell into a part seemingly made for him, with some of the best and funniest lines being delivered by Drax the Destroyer.
You can't talk about Guardians of the Galaxy without talking about Groot and Rocket, a talking, walking tree and a gun-wielding raccoon. By all rights, there's no way they should have worked in anything resembling a serious movie, but here they were, giving some of the best lines (yes, "I am Groot!" in different deliveries are some of the best lines), being responsible for some of the most fist-pumping moments, and just plain and simply kicking ass.
I can't say I agree with the incredibly overwhelming response to Guardians — specifically the 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the "best Marvel movie yet" tags — but if it gets people who wouldn't have otherwise seen it to do so, then I can't complain. It's a great movie. It deserves to be seen by as many as possible. And like five of the next six movies, it shows just how fun being a superhero — or a team of superheroes — could be.
6. BATMAN (1966)
We have now reached the six 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: 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!
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.
5. 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 movies didn't come out in the early 90s.
4. CAPTAIN AMERICA
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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 this list came out before May 2012.
2. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
I'm going to say something really big here.
Wait for it...
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, to date, the best superhero movie ever made.
A big statement? Maybe. Do I need to back it up? I dunno, will you give me money if I do? No? Okay, fine, let me back it up anyway.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, top to bottom, nonstop action, nonstop momentum. Even Avengers, for all its greatness, has moments where it drags, and that's okay — most movies have moments that drag. But until Winter Soldier, all comic book movies have moments that drag.
Winter Soldier makes really good and elegant use of symbolism, costume iconography, and meaning. When Captain America trades in his SHIELD outfit from the beginning of the movie to his outfit from the original movie, there is a weight to it that is shown and felt, without any Jesus Christ poses or flaming symbols.
Winter Soldier has real emotional connections. Just about the only nitpick I could find with the movie is that the Bucky reveal wasn't universal. One theater I saw it in seemed confused as to who he was when the mask came off, but some friends have told me that when his mask comes off, there were audible gasps in their theaters. And that's enough for me. If they'd kept on mentioning Bucky the entire time before the reveal, it would have been telegraphed. But as it is, every moment with Cap and Bucky after that is emotionally charged. When they have their big fight at the end, Cap beats Bucky not with a punch, a kick, or a shield throw; he beats him with a chokehold, the quickest way to take out someone without inflicting any permanent damage. On that note...
Winter Soldier has the best fight scenes of any mainstream superhero movie. Not only were they well-choreographed, but everything meant something. Falcon rolling on the ground after his car blows up emphasizes his military training. Widow hitting Bucky, choking him, and then running shows that she knows how to fight strategically against a tougher opponent. The entire scene on the boat to kick off the movie is a quick way to show us that Captain America is a badass, to the point where breaking into the military facility to get Falcon's wings didn't need to be shown — he had done enough by then that the audience knows it would have been easy and not worth showing.
Winter Soldier has legitimately well-written dialogue. There are times (the scene with Natasha and Steve in the car is the first one that comes to mind) where I thought, "Huh. This is some really snappy dialogue."
Winter Soldier has Batroc the Leaper, which would have been enough, except it also has Arnim Zola, camera head and everything. That's the sign of a crew that loves the source material.
Winter Soldier has great performances, but this is the third movie with Chris Evans playing Steve Rogers, a good, purehearted man who stands for light in a dark world. I said before that doing that once would have been commendable enough. He's done it three times.
So why isn't it #1, you ask? Because despite all that, it couldn't surpass what the next movie made me feel. It came close... but it didn't surpass it. (Though, to be honest, it may have done so if a certain god of thunder made a cameo.)
I've spoken at length before about how much I love Avengers, so 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's just a big flashy popcorn movie, it's just pure entertainment. It doesn't say anything important.
My take: I'll let my friend Kat, who works in Hollywood somewhere, chime in on this one:
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.
She goes on:
Also, I know we've talked about this a lot, but people equate "it made me think" with being about deep, dark, obscure philosophical things. And then they start to believe that if it's not about that, then it didn't make you think, therefore it's not intelligent. I would call an intelligent movie one that is well constructed, thoughtfully put together and structured, clever and surprising in the way it unfolds, seemingly effortless, and that doesn't talk down to its audience. Avengers and Back to the Future deliver all those in spades.
Thanks, Kat. I couldn't have said it any better, because that complaint always brings out my snark.
The Avengers, from start to finish, is about a group of people with major differences who find that they have to learn to work together because there is something bigger than them, and that they have to be heroes, because the world needs more good.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.