This week saw the release of Man of Steel on DVD and Blu-ray, and with it a renewed discussion of that film's portrayal of violence, collateral damage, tone and the ethics of killing supervillains. I'm not going to get into those discussions here, because as I've said before, the two sides of the debate really do seem to be talking past each other. I'm not sure yet what these stark and seemingly irreconcilable differences among fans mean for superheros and their various medias, but the topic has gotten me thinking about a couple different things that I'd like to discuss at length.
First up: superhero movies and my personal Top 5 of the genre.
I've already mentioned my Top 5, but I felt like it was time to elaborate on why I love these movies so much so that you might understand why I felt Man of Steel was the antithesis of what the genre should be. There are some compromises on this list, and some might not be that good as films, per se. However, each of them is solid and represents the best of what a superhero movie should strive to achieve.
Captain America: The First Avenger. This is a movie one of the only superhero films (especially in the modern era) that really isn't a superhero movie. Rather, Captain America is more of a pulp action movie that happens to have a superhero as the main character. This willingness to take the genre in new directions, combined with a script that embraces the silliness of comics without descending into complete camp leads to one of the most genuinely entertaining entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Iron Man. Easily the best of the three Iron Man movies, this almost made the list on the strength of Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark alone. It's hard to imagine nowadays, but this was a legitimate surprise when it was first released--both in quality and at the box office. It also got the ball rolling with the MCU.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. For a long time, this was simply the best Batman movie ever made. This was everything that made Batman: The Animated Series great on the big screen. Sadly, Warner Bros. did almost nothing to promote it, diverting all their time and effort into Batman Forever.
Superman vs. The Elite. I'm cheating a bit here, as I'm limiting my list to movies that were actually released in theaters. Still, I can't help but feel as if Superman vs. The Elite was DC's way of doing a preemptive anti-Man of Steel. This. This is how Superman should be portrayed. This is how Superman answers the question of killing and putting innocent lives in danger. Just...this.
X-Men: First Class. The X-Men movies were a pretty mixed bag, quality-wise, and became such a mess that a continuity reboot was both welcome and necessary. If you're going to do a reboot, you could do worse than following the example of First Class.
Now, on to the list!
The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies don't get enough credit for helping shape the modern era of superhero films. While X-Men might have come first, it was the first Spider-Man that proved that the success of superheroes wasn't a fluke. The Spider-Man films also have more in common tonally with the likes of Iron Man than any of the early X-films. Lastly, the Spider-films tended to be better overall films than the X-series; even the awful Spider-Man 3 was heads and shoulders above X-Men 3. So a Spider-Man movie definitely deserves to go on my Top 5 list, and the obvious choice was the best of the three.
The Dark Knight
Let it never be said that I don't think a superhero movie can't be dark. The Dark Knight is both the best and, for my money, the darkest of Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy. While I don't normally like "gritty realism" in my superhero fare, Batman is one of the few characters where such a tone feels natural. While I don't think that every superhero movie needs to take notes about realism and tone from The Dark Knight, they absolutely should take notes on Heath Ledger's Joker. Ledger's performance is genius to the point that the film would collapse without him. In fact, he was so good that I'm willing to withhold judgment on Bat-Fleck until I see him in theaters. After all, I thought Ledger would be terrible for the part, and we all saw how that turned out.
By all rights, this movie should have been a train wreck. It was an experiment that had never been tried before: six heroes from multiple franchises all teaming up in the same movie. It should have been a disaster. And yet, it succeeded in ways that seemed impossible. Not only was it a financial success, but it was also a genuinely good movie. The Avengers is popcorn entertainment at its finest, and if DC was smart they would do their best to emulate this movie if/when Justice League ever gets off the ground.
It's hard to know where to start with The Incredibles; there is so much going right here that I could talk about it all day. Besides being fun, exciting, gorgeous and entertaining for all ages, I think the movie's biggest strength is the way it gets us to relate to the heroes. We want them to succeed because we've gotten to know them as people--something that many superhero movies fail to do.
Superman: The Movie
Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I still think that Superman is the best superhero movie ever made--and not just because without it there wouldn't be a superhero movie genre at all. Sure, it's corny, and the effects and story beats haven't held up well. Sure, Lex Luthor is reduced to a real-estate shark. Sure, the "turning back time" bit is ludicrous. But you know what? None of that matters, because whatever else this movie may be, it is still fun and inspiring. There's no cynicism to be found here; only joy and amazement. Christopher Reeve is pitch-perfect as Superman, capturing the hope and idealism of the character better than any actor before or since. I would be remiss if I didn't mention John Williams' score, which is some of his all-time best work. Once you hear that theme, you know that you're in for some old-fashioned heroics. And really, that's all anyone could ask for.