Top Ten Superhero Movies
Worth Watching, April 2014
By Steven D. Greydanus
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in theaters April 4, is the latest installment in the current glut of superhero movies that shows no signs of slowing down. A lifelong comic-book geek myself, I don’t mind acknowledging some genre fatigue—but when it’s well done, I’m over the moon.
Why do we love costumed crusaders? Larger-than-life heroes fill a cultural niche occupied in the 1950s by gunslingers, in earlier centuries by Robin Hood and King Arthur, and in antiquity by the likes of Hercules, Perseus, and Odysseus.
Tolkien contended that mythic images enchant reality, or rather, reveal its magic: “By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.” At their best, likewise, Superman and Wonder Woman reveal manhood and womanhood, elevated above mortal frailty.
Think of the traditional qualities of the resurrected body: impassibility, subtlety, agility, clarity. Aren’t these dimly reflected in various types of superpowers? Invulnerable, immortal heroes like Superman or Thor have a kind of “impassibility”; “ghost-type” heroes who walk through walls, like Vision and Shadowcat, suggest “subtlety”; radiant superhumans like Starfire or the Silver Surfer mirror “clarity”; heroes like Nightcrawler (who can teleport), Elastigirl, and Spider-Man in varying ways evoke “agility.”
Yet superheroes are not glorified saints. When our heroes do right, they speak to our ideals; when they fail, they remind us that even the best of us have feet of clay.
The Avengers (2012)
The triumphant culmination of Marvel’s carefully developed big-screen universe, Joss Whedon’s monster hit is a rollicking blend of well-crafted spectacle, sharply sketched characterizations, sparkling banter, and even some moral resonance. It may not be the best superhero movie ever, but it’s unquestionably the most superhero movie ever. Older kids and up.
Batman Begins (2005)
Possibly the most satisfying big-screen superhero origin story ever, Christopher Nolan’s complex tale of a haunted young Bruce Wayne overcoming self-destructive demons to combat lawlessness hits everything that makes this hero who he is, from his reverence for life to his aversion to guns. Teens and up.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Many fans consider the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series the best Batman ever, and this stylishly animated feature spin-off, which flashes back to Bruce Wayne’s early crime-fighting career, captures the tone of the comics better than any live-action movie. Older kids and up.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The sprawling, nightmarish sequel to Batman Begins pushes the newly minted hero to his limits and beyond against the incalculable evil of Heath Ledger’s chilling Joker. Though verging on nihilism, the film keeps a tenuous grip on hope. Teens and up.
The Incredibles (2004)
Among the best family films as well as superhero films, Pixar’s tale of an underground family of supers in an age of mediocrity is a bold, funny, fast, and furious action movie that makes room for remarkably sophisticated social commentary, domestic wisdom, and moral rigor. Fine family viewing.
Iron Man (2008)
Belying the hero’s bulky armor, Iron Man’s inaugural film is light on its feet—a fast, funny, efficient popcorn blockbuster that’s part screwball comedy, part conversion story. Robert Downey Jr. is a revelation as the brainy, egocentric hero with feet of clay, swapping barbed lines with the priceless Gwyneth Paltrow as his down-to-earth assistant, Pepper. Teens and up.
The Mark of Zorro (1940)
Don’t overlook this one! Zorro is the granddaddy of all superheroes, and this Golden-Age origin story, starring Tyrone Powers, is the best Zorro movie of all—witty, romantic, funny, and thrilling. Fine family viewing.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Leave the grit and angst to the Dark Knight: Spider-Man is a wisecracking, freewheeling adventurer, and this superior sequel is the most rollicking, flat-out comic-bookiest superhero movie ever. Alfred Molina invests Dr. Octopus with unexpected humanity, and the set pieces, above all the train sequence, are genre standouts. Teens and up.
The first great comic-book movie, Superman blends portentous 2001-style mythmaking and Adam West “Batman”-style camp, embracing the iconic hero’s implicit Christological echoes while nostalgically honoring the ideals of a more innocent time. John Williams’ heroic score embodies the soul of the character. Teens and up.
Marking a new beginning for superhero movies, Bryan Singer’s franchise-launching film, with Hugh Jackman originating Wolverine, gets less props today than X2 and X-Men: First Class, but it's a solid ensemble piece that takes seriously the social and personal implications of superpowers in a way never before seen on the big screen. Teens and up.
Runners-Up: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011); Hulk (2003); The Mask of Zorro (1998). Superman II (1981); X2: X-Men United (2003). See also The Spectacular Spider-Man animated series and Disney’s 1950s Zorro series; both are family-friendly, and Zorro has a gratifying pro-Catholic vibe.