BEST OF THE BEST OF THE BEST1 of 12Fans have been hit with three major superhero movie releases in the past three months with Deadpool, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and now Captain America: Civil War, making the superhero genre in movies become a crowded field quick.
But with what's in theaters now (and what's to come), we figured it was to good time to survey the landscape - past and present - for best comic book movies of all time.
Because of the proliferation of superhero movies the last few year, we're sticking strictly to that criteria: superhero movies based on comic books, in effect easing out 300 this time around.
But the question is this: what makes a great superhero movie? For us, it's the deft combination of tone, tension, script, star, and adaptation of the source material. Find out which comic book movies hit that perfect cocktail in this list of the ten best superhero comic book movies of all time.
And btw, be sure to check out this countdown again on May 27 ... we just got out of a certain early screening, and well, stay tuned...
DEADPOOL (2016)2 of 12Studio: 20th Century Fox. Director: Tim Miller. Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Ed Skrein.
What Makes It Great:
Tim Miller's Deadpool is an irreverent shot in the arm for superhero movies and the X-Men movie franchise in particular, mixing gunplay with playful banner in an R-rated flick that left everything on the table. This countdown has historically weighted “firsts” heavily, and we’re still not sure exactly what Deadpool was, but whatever is was it was a first.
Could it be the first superhero movie adaptation that fully realizes the character even more than the original source material?
Take that idea out for a ride.
Could it rank higher than 10? Maybe in time. A relevant factor in our rankings of the best "of all time" is how the movie fares with re-watching, which we'll begin to do when we absorb it on home home video a few more times.
It's hard to forget how good that opening scene was (credit montage included) for setting the stage for what's to come. But it was more than just an appetizer, as it summed up exactly what to expect while also providing that initial - and then prolonged - shock at how R-rated this movie would be.
Read our full review of the movie here.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)3 of 12Studio: Marvel Studios. Director: Joe & Anthony Russo. Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson.
What Makes It Great: One of the reasons Deadpool debuts at 10 is Civil War debuts at 9.
Sure it only opens in the U.S. this week, but having seen it before its wide release and the ensuing days to mull on the film - Civil War works so well because it’s the most successful marriage of a heavily-populated full-fledged superhero throw-down and a mindful thriller with more grounded, socio-political undertones. This is a movie that could have worked without any superpowers or costumes but is it better because it did.
As an overall package, it didn’t sing quite as artfully as its predecessor, whose tighter, smaller scale worked in its favor, but then we’re not ranking it as high as Winter Soldier.
Read our full Civil War review here.
Again giving recognition to significant firsts, the airport scene is perhaps the genre’s first fully realized superhero team action sequence-slash-battle. Sure, we’ve had superhero teams versus aliens before, and superhero teams versus robots, and superhero teams versus … well, whatever Doomsday was …but this was the first real mass superpower vs. superpower vs. superpower vs. superpower (and so on) knock-down, drag-out fight ever.
And while you could see the strings being pulled on this one, it was still refreshing that it didn’t involve massive urban destruction (and loss of life) … just a few Airbuses.
SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)4 of 12Studio: Sony. Director: Sam Raimi. Stars: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina.
What Makes It Great:
Though Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man film might be showing its age (for reasons even beyond the Macy Gray scene) and the third film has been largely reviled since its release for an excess of villains and dance numbers, the second film is not only the strongest of the three, it's one of the most critically acclaimed comic book movies of all time.
And it's not hard to see why: Ably capturing the patented Spider-Man formula of good-natured fun and genuine emotion, Spider-Man 2 presents a both sympathetic and intimidating villain in Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus, and the best outing for Tobey Maguire in the lead role. It also includes the most distinct Raimi-esque touches — in the scene where Doc Ock's tentacles run rampant at a hospital, and the funniest Bruce Campbell cameo in the trilogy.
Spider-Man single-handedly stops a runaway train and saves everyone on board, though at the cost of his mask and, seemingly, his secret identity. But instead of snapping a picture, the passengers — moved to see how young Spider-Man is — agree to keep the secret to themselves.
BATMAN (1989)5 of 12Studio: Warner Bros. Director: Tim Burton. Stars: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger.
What Makes It Great:
Almost lost in the wash between the triumph of Christopher Nolan's Batman epics (more on those later) and the stink of the two near franchise-killing Joel Schumacher entries is the fact that Tim Burton's first effort in '89 is a darn good movie and was the box office phenomena of its day.
Though now dated slightly by the back-lot exterior sets, the by-now-way-too-familiar Danny Elfman score, and the heavy-handed inclusion of Prince songs (what the hell was that about?), Michael Keaton's Batman was a surprising but highly credible one, and Jack Nicholson's Joker was a sensation.
And the film had a high bar to clear in its day. True-blue comic book fans were still newly basking in the glow of the original publication of perhaps the two definitive contemporary Batman stories, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke (1988).
Nicholson's presumably improvisational moment of making peculiar random noises to no one in particular before cracking up in the character's famous maniacal cackle.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)6 of 12
Studio: Marvel Studios. Director: James Gunn. Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper
What Makes it Great: After setting August opening weekend record in 2014, it’s clear that Guardians of the Galaxy is another in the long line of Marvel Studios hits. But financial success does not a good movie make - so why does this crack our top ten?
Mostly, because it’s different. The risk of taking five unknown characters (8 if you count the primary villains) and making them the stars of their own flagship franchise is not a small one. Filling that movie with comedy, heart, and more than a little bit of dancing was a risk too, and it paid off in spades.
There’s no denying that there’s something just plain fun about what Guardians has done. It never takes itself too seriously, but always just serious enough - it’s about balance, about friendship, and about the good guys saving the day against the bad guys. It has just enough Marvel Cinematic Universe advancement to sate the fanboys (us included), and a stinger sequence that will finally require way more explanation to your non-comic reading friends than Thanos’s grin in Avengers.
No scene demonstrates the heart of the film more than a touching moment between Rocket and Groot, when Rocket recovers Groot's splinters, and none captures the fun of the film more than a few minutes later when Star-Lord challenges Ronan to a dance off as “O-o-h Child” plays.
SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978)7 of 12Studio: Warner Bros. Director: Richard Donner. Stars: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman.
What Makes It Great:
The "groundbreaking" rule applies here again, which is why this one gets the nod over 1980's Superman II, which may have been a hair more fun.
Superman was arguably the first true modern comic book movie adaptation, and holds a special place in the hearts of an entire generation of moviegoers, not to mention the writers, artists, directors, and executives shaping Superman's adventures in various media today. While the special effects are of course now clunky by contemporary standards, the John Williams score remains an all-time classic, and the story and performances are solid and endearing.
The helicopter rescue of Lois Lane atop the Daily Planet building. In a rare moment of movie harmony, the Metropolis bystanders' reaction to seeing Superman in action for the first time matched perfectly with the response from modern moviegoers — pure awe and joy.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)8 of 12Studio: Marvel Studios. Director: Joe and Anthony Russo. Stars: Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson.
What Makes It Great:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the first film from Marvel Studios to really break the mold of the solo hero film laid out by Iron Man, and it takes tremendous risks, not just with this film, but with the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. The term “nothing will ever be the same” is used a lot in comic books, but this might be the first time it’s pulled off in a comic book movie.
And aside from all that, it just so happens this is a damn good movie. Chris Evans fully finds his commanding presence, Johansson’s Black Widow finds her depth, and Samuel L. Jackson finally gets a chance to truly let loose and be the bad-ass he knows Nick Fury to be. There’s intrigue, action, major twists, and spotlight moments for basically every named character in the movie. This is a good one, and may mark a real sea change for the way average, everyday folks see superhero films.
Nothing quite says “Yup, Captain America is one bad mamajamma” like the elevator scene first shown at Comic-Con International: San Diego in 2013. The start of a larger scene, this is where the movie, and its real focus, takes off.
In the scene, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents of various stripes step onto an elevator with Captain America. First there’s the elite strike team members, then men dressed in business suits trying to pretend their conversation is genuine, and finally some large, strapping thug types. And after offering them all an out, Steve Rogers takes them out one by one, systematically tearing them to pieces. A kick-flip of the Shield at the end puts the exclamation point on the scene, and before anyone can take a breath, the action only gets crazier from there.
IRON MAN (2008)9 of 12Studio: Marvel/Paramount. Director Jon Favreau. Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow.
What Makes It Great:
It would be easy to just say "Robert Downey Jr." and leave it at that. But that wouldn't be fair to the film's secret weapon, director Jon Favreau. This movie edges out Winter Soldier due to the original risks he took in changing the way people look at superhero movies.
Having already demonstrated considerable box office savvy with the holiday hit Elf, which appealed to adults and children equally, here Favreau took what was at the time, at best, a B-list comic book character and crafts a story and characters with mass appeal. "Iron Man plays equally well to the hardcore male comic book reader, as it does with women, kids, and just about anyone that might not have ever read a comic book before. And he did it all while staying very faithful to the comic books.
Favreau didn't rethink the core concept in order for it to make more "sense" to non-comics fans. He knew audiences would buy into the fantastical conceit of the armor and sci-fi elements so long as its human counterpart made them want to suspend their disbelief, and in that respect Favreau came up aces with Downey Jr., which was at first an unexpected and somewhat risky choice.
Its very first. Downey Jr.'s hyper-witted riffing with the army soldiers in the armored jeep right before it's attacked not only set the entire movie's pitch-perfect tone, but immediately placed the audience in the palm of its star, where he held them steady through the closing credits (and even for a moment after).
MARVEL's THE AVENGERS (2012)10 of 12Studio: Disney/Marvel. Director: Joss Whedon. Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner.
What Makes It Great:
While our one-time all-time favorite Batman Begins got its position because it "didn't play like a comic book superhero movie", The Avengers once ascended to the top because it plays exactly like a comic book superhero movie.
...scratch that. It plays like a comic book — that happens to be an awesome big budget movie.
This is the sub-genre ultimately (so far) realized: Bigger, bolder and more fantastic than even Hollywood standards. Crisp dialogue. Breakneck pacing. Seamless special effects. (If not costumes... keep working on the Cap uniform, Disney.)
Taking hold and sprinting with the baton that began with Favreau's Iron Man, Joss Whedon's The Avengers doesn't adapt anything for "mainstream" audiences. It doesn't re- or over-think its source material. Which is a more difficult task than Favreau faced because of the extreme disparate elements — a soldier, a monster, a god, and a machine — it has to integrate.
No, it's not exactly the comic book Avengers in specific detail, but it's 100 percent pure in spirit.
Oh, pretty much the entire third act — the "assembled" team battle with the invading alien hordes.
And this is maybe The Avengers greatest of several secret weapons. While many films in the comic book genre labor with their third acts, The Avengers revels and thrives in it, ending on such a high note it should leave most anyone with human DNA wanting for much more.
More Iron Man. More Cap. More Thor. More Hulk.
And definitely more Avengers.
Christopher's Nolan's BATMAN Trilogy (2005-2012)11 of 12Studio: Warner Bros. Director: Christopher Nolan. Stars: Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
What Makes the Trilogy the Best Comic Book Based Movie(s) of All Time:
OK, OK. This is somewhat a cheat, yes, but each film was produced, co-written and directed by the same person, and tells a cohesive story that despite Christopher Nolan's claims he made decisions one film at a time, we suspect were at least mapped out in outline form from the very beginning with the intention of completing the cycle (besides, this countdown would be a lot less interesting if it were Batman movies, and all three qualify).
In other words, all three films effectively make up one big production ... and what a production it is.
Individually, it'd be perfectly understandable if a fan had a favorite comic book film other than one of these three, but considered together, is there any more impressive cinematic achievement in the category?
Perhaps in future years Joss Whedon can string together a more impressive body of Avengers films, but until then, Nolan's modern-day masterpiece is the standard bearer, and we suspect it will remain so for a very long time.
Dark Knight may well live on as the consensus critical best of the bunch, but we still favor Begins, perhaps due to the expectations-vs.-delivery factor.
Begins was the film that rewrote the rules for comic books/superhero movies that its sequels took to another level. Perhaps what they say about first loves simply applies here.
[note: fan-created art by Deviant Art Contributor Andrewss7]
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