And we're back.
The Incredibles (2004) - Up until PIXAR put out "The Incredibles," there was a sense that they were still gingerly testing the CGI animation waters with each new film. With "Monsters Inc" they could do furry creatures. With "Finding Nemo" they could do fish. And then finally, in "The Incredibles," they were doing people, and not just any people, but superheroes. And they were superheroes in a spy adventure spoof, where the main character was a family man having a mid-life crisis. And suddenly, PIXAR could tell any kind of story it wanted.
"The Incredibles" does a great job of playing with a lot of different superhero tropes deconstructing some and commenting on others, while embodying the genre's best qualities at the same time. Rewatching it again lately, I was struck by how mature and how dark it gets at times, implying a gut-wrenching number of deaths and putting the kids in real peril. Brad Bird and the PIXAR crew created this world a lot of thought and care that really comes through. It has a certain integrity about it that is extremely appealing, and I know I'm not alone in hoping they revisit "The Incredibles" universe someday.
Iron Man (2008) - This is one of my favorite films of 2008, nay, the entire first decade of this century. It was a perfect casting decision to put Robert Downey Jr., with his history and his persona, into the Iron Man suit and let Jon Favreau just run with the idea. The result was a superhero with an unstoppable personality, a new movie icon defined not by his design (though it's a hell of a design), but by his brains and his attitude. With Tony Stark and Iron Man became a superhero for the new millennium: wealthy industrialist, brilliant inventor, master of the witty comeback, with an ego to dwarf all the rest.
I can't stress enough how much fun it is to watch Tony Stark snark like a villain, but fight like a hero. He breaks a lot of the biggest rules of superhero-dom, right up to his last line of dialogue, but not the most important ones. He saves the day, gets the girl, and defeats his foes on his own terms. However, Tony Stark's biggest foes aren't the bad guys, but his own vices, and there's always a sense that he's completely responsible for a lot of the troubles that befall him, thanks to his own hubris and carelessness. But in some ways, that makes watching him battle his way back to the top all the more satisfying.
The Dark Knight (2008) – I'm not going to beat around the bush. The reason why this is my favorite Batman movie is because it nails the Joker, and it nails the relationship of Joker and the Batman. Joker was never one of my favorite villains, but the way that Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger chose to reinvent him for "The Dark Knight" universe was just perfect. Gone are the jokes and the puns and the themed gadgets. Instead, there's just a man in grimy clown makeup who unleashes anarchy wherever he goes. He may have plots and schemes, but there's only one real goal: to watch the world burn.
A hero is only as good as his villain, and here Christian Bale's Batman was never better. Heck, everyone the Joker interacts with, from Maggie Gyllenhaal's Rachel Dawes (a great improvement over Katie Holmes) to Harvey Dent, to Commissioner Gordon are all made more interesting and compelling because they're going up against someone who is completely unpredictable. I don’t think that "The Dark Knight" is perfect – it runs a little long, the action's too often incomprehensible, and if you look close, there are logic gaps all over the place. However, it's the film that I think best embodies what Nolan was so good at bringing to the Batman mythos: a grander scale and new way of looking at familiar characters.
X-men: First Class (2011) – I was not expecting anything from this movie. It's a prequel to a franchise that had gone terribly off the rails with "The Last Stand" and "Wolverine." There were reports of the director being saddled with a reduced budget and schedule. The marketing was memorably horrible. However, somehow Matthew Vaughn managed to make the best film of the whole series. He cast the right people in key roles, he presented the core ideas of the "X-men" concept better than any of his predecessors, and he somehow pulled off a really sweet homage to 1960s action films too.
Parts of the film are a mess, and there and things that don't work at all, but mostly the technical business that probably would have been corrected with a little more time and money. However, all the vital bits, all the important relationships and themes are rock solid. And I don’t think I'm exaggerating when I say that "First Class" has performances on an entirely different level than any other "X-men" film. We get James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence, all working at the top of their game. I'm now looking forward to the next "X-men" sequel more than any other superhero film that's been announced.
Chronicle (2012) – And finally, a little reminder that you don't need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the most cutting-edge effects technology in order to make a spectacular superhero film. You just need a couple of good actors, a killer script, and a director who knows how to stretch a dollar. The found footage trend collided with the superhero trend last year, producing one of the most surprising and effect movies to have come out of either genre. "Chronicle" took the simple idea of giving a trio of teenage boys super powers, and turned it into something timely and resonant and really, really cool.
I've grown to enjoy the immediacy of the found footage style, and the way it can make less-than-stellar effects look convincing. The flying sequences in this film are among the best I've ever seen, and the big climax sequences have more visceral impact than anything that I've seen Hollywood put out lately. More importantly, this is the only film on this list where I had no idea how the events were going to play out, that really did something original and challenging with the concept of super powers. The sequel currently appears to be in limbo and much of the talent has scattered to other projects, including director Josh Trank getting the new "Fantastic Four" reboot. However, this is one of those films that I don't think needs a sequel. In fact, I'll quite happy if it doesn't become a franchise, because not every superhero property should be.