I hadn't realised how much this genre has dominated the 21st century until this morning, when I overheard a little boy telling his dad in HMV, "There can't be any more superheroes--they'd have to outnumber normal people."
It's true. Not that any of us kids are complaining. It used to be that there were two kinds of comic book movie--awful or Superman. Throughout the '80's, we had bargain basement supers like Flash Gordon and Captain America, that the makers seemed almost embarrassed to put on film. Even after Tim Burton's superb, baroque Batman soared onto screens in 1989, rival comic franchises stuttered into production, and became misguided failures like The Shadow and Phantom. Okay, Joe Johnston's Rocketeer was damn good, but it wasn't until 2002 that Hollywood got its act together and really started dominating the market. It was a little film about a teenager bitten by a spider...and the world went nuts. It's been bedlam ever since.
These are my favourite superhero movies since then, in no particular order...
Spider-Man 2 & 3 - the great special effects tend to get all the attention, but this series packs a real emotional wallop when needed. Tobey Maguire is a terrific Peter Parker, and Kirsten Dunst is luminous. Best villain so far...Doctor Octopus, played by Alfred Molina. The negative reaction to the third film mystifies me. It was superb.
Batman Begins & The Dark Knight - I admire what Chris Nolan did with the Batman reboot--both these films are gritty, brooding crime epics. There's realism and despair in Bruce Wayne's struggle against villainy in Gotham, and Christian Bale, as usual, nails every beat. But the movies aren't much fun. They're adult, nightmarish chapters in a dark, dark saga. I still prefer the twisted, gothic persona of Burton's two films--they had a unique flavour. Nolan's vision has stripped all trace of fantasy from the story. It's impressive stuff, though, if you're in the mood. Heath Ledger is amazing as the Joker.
Unbreakable - tehnically, this came out before Spider-Man, but again it's a gritty and sombre approach to the genre. I love the slow-burning fuse of this one--Bruce Willis' character, David Dunn, is reluctant to embrace his extraordinary secret of invulnerability. Director M Night Shyamalan made his best film here. It's absolutely captivating to watch.
Superman Returns - It isn't as good as the original Reeve classic, but it's ambitious and entertaining. Brandon Routh is just about perfect as Kent/Superman. I thought Kate Bosworth was okay as Lois Lane, not a patch on Margot Kidder. It's about time a fresh villain was introduced into the franchise--Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor seemed more nostalgic than threatening.
The Incredibles - Probably the best Pixar movie so far outside of Toy Story. A family of superheroes gets to realise its true potential in this witty, spectacular family film. The filmmaking, script and animation are all razor sharp.
X-Men 2 & 3 - I never did buy the "origin" of the mutants' powers in X-Men. "A leap in evolution"? Um, that's it? These freaks can shapeshift, teleport, control metal, heal in seconds, control minds and God-knows-what-else. It has to be the lamest attempt to justify superpowers. I can swallow a radioactive spider bite, an alien superbeing, a horned demon, even a fifteen foot tall green gamma monster, but in X-Men, there are no rules. A person can conceivably be capable of anything if he or she has naturally "mutated". Bonkers. Still, it's fun to watch the awesome cast take it so seriously. Hugh Jackman is the breakout star. Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart are the prodigiously talented Brits trying to make us swallow the whole thing. Best thing about X-Men--the cast. Worst thing--something called Cerebro, a kind of mind control machine that is just too ridiculous for words.
Iron Man - fun mix of Robocop, Rocketeer and Transformers, except this comic character has been around for decades. Robert Downey, Jr tones down his usual manic genius to give us a suave hero driven by a sense of moral obligation. Great action scenes, witty dialogue. Gwyneth Paltrow is sexier than ever as his loyal assistant, Pepper Potts. Ace casting choice, apart from Downey, is Jeff Bridges as the powerful president of Stark Industries.
The Incredible Hulk - more action, less psychology. I still like the 2003 version by Ang Lee, but this one is a lot more fun. Edward Norton is good as the hunted scientist/monster trying to find a cure. Spectacular monster showdown at the climax.
Hellboy - a real oddity, this one. Personally, I think the humour falls flat and the monsters leave a lot to be desired. It's an uneven film, but a hugely entertaining one. Tremendous makeup on the big red guy, and also on his aquatic sidekick, Abe Sapien. John Hurt is word perfect as always in his role as Hellboy's surrogate father. This film gets better with multiple viewings, if you can put up with the bonkers fantasy masterplan hatched by a resurrected Rasputin.
Blade 1 & 2 - the stale vampire legend gets kicked into overdrive by Wesley Snipes, as he hunts all bloodsuckers with a mix of wry humour and electrifying martial arts. Style abounds. Nice attempts to stir vampire mysticism into the mix. And the pace rarely lets up. Of course, the whole thing would fall flat on its face without Snipes' natural charisma and action man athleticism. He's on great form.
Next time...Top Ten Historical Epics.
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