We've got quite a few new entries to the superhero genre headed our way this summer, so I thought it was time to take stock of where I stand and compose my own list of favorites. Picks are arranged by date and unranked. I previously devoted a list to non-superhero comic book movies over here.
Superman (1978) - Richard Donner's "Superman" was famous for making a star of Christopher Reeves, but I always remember Clark Kent as Jeff East, who plays the teenage version of him in all the early scenes. My mother only liked the movie up to the point where Clark fully becomes Superman, and had a habit of turning it off after that. So it wasn't until well into my teenage years that I got to see the whole story unfold as intended. It remains my favorite Superman film by a wide margin.
This was the template for many superhero films that followed. You can see the origins of so many colorful villains in Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor, and so many plucky heroines in Margot Kidder's Lois Lane. Superman himself, of course, was embodied wonderfully by Christopher Reeves as a larger than life ideal, the kind of inspirational classic hero figure that we've mostly moved away from. When I was a kid, even if I didn't know the particulars of his story very well, Superman was the greatest guy who ever put on a cape and tights, and "Superman" was the only superhero movie that mattered. And yes, I believed a man could fly.
Batman Returns (1992) - The superhero genre took a long time to get going, not for want of good material, but because the genre was treated as kids' stuff. Superheroes were synonymous with comic books, cartoons, and action figures. "Batman Returns," one of the first superhero films to really stretch that PG-13 rating and tackle some mature themes, raised a lot of eyebrows when it was first released. Sure, it had all the Tim Burton funhouse visuals, but the Penguin played by Danny DeVito was more gruesome than funny, and the violence was much more intense than anything in the first "Batman."
And then there was Michelle Pfeiffer in that latex cat suit. Prurient scolds focused on her sexuality, but I adored Catwoman for her angry feminist vibes and really twisted voyage of self-discovery. "Batman Returns" was the first take on the Batman character to point out exactly how screwed up its characters were, though obliquely enough that it could still pass as summer blockbuster fare. It had a lot of fun with Freudian symbolism, double entendres, and one of the most fascinating romances to ever appear in a superhero movie. When people scoff at Tim Burton's talents, I always remind myself he was responsible for this one.
The Crow (1994) - My fondness for "The Crow" probably stems from seeing the film so often during my angsty teenage years. It's a lot cheesier than you remember, but the gloomy visuals are still gorgeous, thanks to work of director Alex Proyas. The film is best known for the accident on set that cost us emerging star Brandon Lee, and there were significant debates at the time about whether it was appropriate to even release the film. I'm glad that audiences got to see it, not just because of Proyas and Lee's excellent work, but because it felt like a truly fitting goodbye.
The plot is a fairly typical revenge story, about a man who is brought back from the dead in order to find his killers. There is a lot of violence, but there are just as many quiet, elegiac moments about love and loss. Okay, the pop-psychology and the rocker clichés are laid on pretty thick, but it dos a great job of capturing a certain mood and outlook on life that few have matched. Understandably, "The Crow" is often seen as a Goth film or as part of the alternative rock culture, because of its influential soundtrack, but I think its appeal is far wider than that.
Unbreakable (2000) - Oh yes, this one definitely counts. "The Sixth Sense" may have been the most successful M. Night Shyamalan film, but I think this is the movie that cemented for many people that he was a director to keep an eye on. Superheroes by definition are people with special powers or abilities who decide to use these gifts to fight evil and do good - though not always for entirely altruistic reasons. There have been many origin stories that have dramatized the big decision, but none quite like "Unbreakable."
I love the way the plot unfolds, as a character study of an ordinary man in the present day, played by Bruce Willis, who survives a terrible train crash and simply wants to put it behind him and get on with his life. However, he gradually comes to understand that he survived for a reason, because he is someone extraordinary. It's a father son bonding story and a slow burning thriller and yet it's still a superhero movie. It even has its own supervillain, the memorable Mr. Glass, played by Nick Fury himself, Samuel L. Jackson. "Unbreakable" is in many ways even more surprising than "The Sixth Sense," and probably Shyamalan's best film.
Hellboy (2004) - Guillermo Del Toro is known for being a fan of creature features, and his "Hellboy" movies have some of the best monsters. Our good guy looks like a giant red devil, but talks like the average joe down the street. He hangs out with a man with gills who needs a reverse-scuba suit to walk around on land, and is head over heels for a troubled young woman who can summon fire with her mind, but can't always control it. And then they fight evil Nazis who are trying to unleash an ultimate evil that looks like it came out of an H.P. Lovecraft story.
The prosthetics and make-up used to transform Ron Perlman and Doug Jones into Hellboy and Abe Sapien got all the press, and of course they did. They look fantastic, and go a long way towards selling the outlandish premise. However, what I appreciate the movie for is its sense of humor and its total commitment to this fantastic universe. The whole movie has this air of richness and history about it, and the characters are old-fashioned romantic types under their colorful exteriors. My favorite part of the movie is actually Hellboy's complicated relationship with Liz Sherman, and how that plays out. And also, the bit with the Russian corpse.
Hmmm, this turned into a much longer post than I anticipated. I'll be back with the other half of the list tomorrow.