BEST OF THE BEST OF THE BEST1 of 122017 and now 2018 were banner years for the comic book movie with Logan, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok all exceeding critical expectations - and now Black Panther is winning hearts and breaking records.
And while here at Newsarama we try not to fall victim to recency bias, we have to admit Marvel Studios and Fox seem to be getting better at this all the time. Sorry Warner Bros. Wonder Woman was awesome, but 2 steps forward, 3 steps back…
So big picture, how do these new worthwhile films stack up against the all-time greats?
Judging the best superhero movies of all time is a tall order - everyone has a favorite. But "most loved" doesn't necessarily mean best. With that in mind, we've constructed our list to reflect the superhero movies that have truly changed the game or which standout as the best of the best.
LOGAN (2017)2 of 12
Studio: 20th Century Fox. Director: James Mangold. Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keene, Boyd Holbrook.
What Makes It Great:
While it might not have featured redneck Hulks or the symbiote dinosaur of its comic book counterpart, Logan proved that there is room for intense, adult-oriented storytelling in the world of superhero adaptations.
With a smaller budget, pared down cast and focus on characterization rather than spectacle, Logan reminded audiences why superhero stories go so popular in the first place: the best ones are about the human condition. Logan stands as a stellar superhero film and a perfect send-off for Hugh Jackman.
Oh, and we finally got to see just what a man with 18" knives attached to his hands can do when he goes into a berserker rage in a non-PG-13 version. That was pretty cool, too.
With the villains defeated and the day won, X-23 recites the some of Alan Ladd's dialogue from the end of 1953 western, Shane, while standing over Logan's makeshift grave.
"There's no living with... with a killing. There's no going back from one. Right or wrong, it's a brand. A brand sticks. There's no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her... Tell her everything's all right. And there aren't any more guns in the valley."
The young mutants leave, looking forward to a better future. The only marker for the man known as Wolverine is a pair of twigs sticking out of the ground in the shape of a cross. Laura looks back at the grave. She turns the cross on its side.
X marks the spot.
Read both of Newsarama's full-length reviews of Loganright here.
BATMAN (1989)3 of 12
Studio: 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.
BLACK PANTHER (2018)4 of 12
Studio: Marvel Studios. Director: Ryan Coogler. Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael P. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke
What Makes It Great:
More of a 'coming of age' story than a superhero origin movie, Black Panther is every inch a finely-tuned MCU film (which is saying something) and at the same time a legitimate cultural mile marker, one of the most important criteria of this list.
While the almost all Black and female-empowered cast is stellar and features some breakout performances that will enrich the MCU for years to come, Wakanda is the film's real star. For a shared universe that has already visited the 1940's, Asgard, the Astral Plane, the Quantum Realm and dozens of other planets, the fact that now the MCU's most exotic and arguably most compelling location is steeped on a real continent right here on Earth will have significant reverberations not only the genre but big budget studios films for a long time to come.
Stand Out Scene [SPOILERS]:
The film's opening moments weren't set in Wakanda or another exotic locale, but instead early 1990's Oakland, California. While other MCU films have begun with a flashback, this setting announced that Ryan Coogler's Black Panther was going to 'places' literally and figuratively brand new for Marvel, while still respecting the house style.
WONDER WOMAN (2017)5 of 12
Studio: Warner Bros. Director: Patty Jenkins. Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Lucy Davis, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, David Thewlis
What Makes It Great: Wonder Woman had a lot riding on it ahead of its release. Not only was its release considered yet another “make or break” moment for DC Films, Wonder Woman is the first modern female-led superhero movie, and the highest-profile female superhero movie ever.
But what earned Wonder Woman a place on this list wasn’t that it met those expectations (with flying colors no less), it’s that it presented a hero who is a shining example of the compassionate, selfless, unstoppably bad-ass superhero we all idealize.
Yes, Wonder Woman admittedly suffered from a somewhat underwhelming final battle with villain Ares, but Gal Gadot’s undeniable performance, Patty Jenkins’ dramatic direction, and a cast full of big guns that all lived up to the hype put this film squarely at the front of DC’s modern output – and earned it a place in the pantheon of all time great superhero films.
While the entire Themyscira prologue is practically definitive, the greatest moment of the film is undoubtedly when Diana doffs her disguise to expose her Wonder Woman armor, crossing the 'No Man’s Land' of a tense warzone while shielding her allies from fire. Not only is this moment the true birth of Wonder Woman in the DCEU, Diana’s ability to protect her allies while also taking out the enemy in the most bad-ass way possible is the true essence of a superhero.
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 (eight 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 12
Studio: 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 12
Studio: 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 12
Studio: 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 12
Studio: Marvel Studios. 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 12
Studio: 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 all Batman movies)
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 someone can string together a more impressive body of 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.
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