40. Dredd (2012)
Liz Baessler: Based on the 2000 AD comic and rebooting the horrible flop of a 1995 film, Dredd is a fantastically violent celebration of overcrowded and lawless future dystopias. Before-they-were-huge stars Domhnall Gleeson, Lena Headey, and Karl Urban’s mouth deliver excellent performances, and a tight script builds a straightforward and satisfying framework. In a high-rise, where is there to go but up?
Is this technically a superhero movie? Yes, but not in the traditional sense. Judge Dredd stands out in that he’s one of many Judges, not a lone hero but a cop who’s in for another day at the office. The whole setup of the film is that he’s testing Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) to become yet another Judge. If anyone’s a superhero it’s Anderson, who has powerful psychic abilities, but even she has to go through training and exams like everyone else. The world of Dredd doesn’t just give anyone a cape, and it’s a refreshingly different take on a genre overcrowded with self-starters. Another breath of fresh air is the total absence, despite the attractive opposite-sex leads, of the traditional superhero love story.
Should I worry that I’m rooting for the authoritarian killer cops? Naw. (Although you may not want to think about it too hard). Anderson is human enough, and Lena Heady’s Ma-Ma nasty enough, to make you feel totally comfortable with the side you’re on. (Though you may, like me, find yourself picking the third and devastatingly pathetic option of Team Domhnall Gleeson. His character needs all the support he can get).
39. The Incredible Hulk (2007)
Neil Miller: It’s easy to forget this Edward Norton-led entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But we can assure that it did exist and it was pretty good.
Does anyone ever wonder what if? At the time, the loss of Edward Norton from the future MCU movies felt huge. How could they possibly replace him as Hulk for the eventual Avengers team-up movies? It felt big because The Incredible Hulk was a very solid film, very on par with Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger. It was so solid that it cured the franchise of Ang Lee’s very silly film from several years earlier.
What’s the other big thing we lost when this Hulk was abandoned? Liv Tyler was a strong choice for Betty Ross and the tease of Tim Blake Nelson’s Samuel Sterns turning into Leader. Both were hopeful notes for future Hulk movies. That said, what we’ve seen since in *Avengers and *Thor: Ragnarok has all been great and Mark Ruffalo is a fine Bruce Banner. It’s hard not to wonder, though.
38. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017)
Rob Hunter: Everyone’s second favorite band of space adventurers and rapscallions (team Firefly!) follows up their action-packed origin film with an exciting, funny, and surprisingly emotional tale about family.
Kurt Russell got me pregnant! Same, and while other elements work just as well here it’s Russell’s performance as Ego that serves to highlight both the awe and pain that comes with the power of creation. There’s a warmth in his face that’s constantly at odds with a glint of mischief, and he gives the most believable, endearing, and terrifying god-like performance since George Burns strolled into John Denver’s life.
What’s so super about family? James Gunn’s follow-up to his fun and exciting original still packs in both laughs and spectacle, but it finds its greatest power in the relationships between family members. The distinction here is a recognition that, old sayings aside, we can in fact choose our families. With that choice comes a life of both love and pain, but it’s often an adventure that few of us would trade for the world.
37. Batman: The Movie (1966)
Chris Coffel: Batman has been a staple in film since the early 1940s and in 1966 Bat fans were treated to one of the most inventive and arguably the most ambitious take on Batman to date with Batman: The Movie. Based on the television show that premiered earlier that same year, Batman: The Movie sees the dynamic duo facing off against four of the most powerful villains in Gotham City – The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler, and Catwoman. Holy rotten rogues gallery, Batman, that’s a lot of disastrously deplorable delinquents!
Taco neck syndrome? Whenever The Joker and the other mischievous miscreants are on screen you’ll notice that everything is tilted. This angled look was a big part of the movie (and show) and was done whenever the villains were the focus because the bad guys are crooked. Genius!
Forever in Batman’s debt: Part of what makes Batman: The Movie so wonderful is the long-lasting influence it has had. Not only do superhero and comic book movies that came later owe a great deal to Batman: The Movie, but so do many comedies. Batman is incredibly layered with innuendo and irreverent, offbeat humor. Shows like The Simpsons, Tim & Eric and Comedy Bang Bang can be directly linked back to Batman.
36. Justice League (2017)
Neil Miller: Zack Sndyer and Joss Whedon ended up tag-teaming the first live-action coming together of the great DC supers, which makes for a slightly messy, but ultimately fun ride that is, at the very least, a sign of hope for the future.
How did the most recently release superhero movie of all-time make this list?There’s a lot of baggage that comes along with anything tied to Zack Snyder’s current run of DC Comics movies. The critical duds, the toxic fandom, the part where Superman is only lukewarm on truth and justice, and Batman is a violent fascist. Justice League doesn’t erase all of that, but it serves to turn the corner and, like The Avengers, gives the audience something they’ve wanted to see for a very long time. In the end, it’s out of the shadows and into the light for the DCEU.
What’s the best moment, without spoiling anything? Since the film is new at the time of this writing, it’s hard to describe the best sequence without ruining it. But here’s the non-spoiler version: it involves The Flash and a character who didn’t make the posters. Finally, a perfect moment born of Zack Snyder’s slow-motion obsession.
35. The Rocketeer (1991)
Brad Gullickson: Very few comic book movies contain as much joy as The Rocketeer. Maybe it’s the too-easy-to-hate villainy of the Nazis or the radical steampunk simplicity of the suit, but Joe Johnston’s cinematic adaption of Dave Stevens’ comic book is pure, blissful adventure. One of several pulp throwbacks attempted in the early 1990s (The Shadow, Dick Tracy, The Phantom), The Rocketeer succeeds where others don’t because it doesn’t get caught up in the minutia. Billy Campbell, good. Timothy Dalton, bad.
The Good War: When stunt pilot Cliff stumbles upon a marvelous rocket pack tucked away in one of his airplanes, he enters a world of espionage. G-Men, Nazi spies, and mafia goons hunt him through hangers and cornfields. Fueled by patriotism and his gee-whiz good-natured handsomeness, Cliff becomes the hero America needs to fight the good fight. It’s also a delightful tour through WWII iconography as flammable zeppelins descend upon the homefront battlefield.
Do we still need the damsel in distress? Winning the war is really just a bonus for getting the girl. Cliff doesn’t deserve Jenny (Jennifer Connolly), but he seems to be the only viable schmuck in town. If remade today, The Rocketeer would certainly need to give Jenny more to do than fall victim to Timothy Dalton’s nefarious scowls. She gets a few licks in, but Jenny’s salute to Bettie Page should feature beyond nostalgic window dressing.
34. Blade II (2002)
Brad Gullickson: The Daywalker returns to stalk the underworld nightclubs, but this time his self-loathing hunt to slay monstrosities that mirror his darker half is spearheaded by the geek god, Guillermo del Toro. Blade partners with a vampiric dirty dozen in an effort to vanquish an even deadlier strain of the undead. Adapting one of Marvel’s lesser-known properties allows del Toro free reign to cram in his own idiosyncrasies while still showcasing his massive hard-on for superhero theatrics.
What about Escalation? Blade is given a plethora of villains to vanquish this time around. In his quest to a showdown with Luke Goss’ head reaper, Nomak, Blade has to cut his way through Ron Perlman’s racist Reinhardt, Thomas Kretschmann’s Count Damaskinos, an army of split-jaw mutants, and an endless stream of vampire familiars. This escalation of villainy pays off in a grotesque display of action/horror violence giving Blade II one of the more satisfying comic book climaxes.
Guillermo Del Toro lets his fanboy freak flag fly. It may have been an odd vehicle to overstuff with fanboy easter eggs, but Guillermo Del Toro finds his true pleasure in Blade II by cramming as many references to comic books, anime, and film as possible. Shots are lifted straight from Watchmen and Akira. Little Hellboy trinkets rattle around Scud’s van as a promise of franchises yet to come. Nomak stands victorious on top of a pile of corpses with the same barbarian pride found in Frank Frazetta’s paintings. You can spend the entire runtime of Blade II compiling a list of pop culture to consume that will keep you busy for a decade or so.
33. Superman II (1980)
Christopher Campbell: Christopher Reeve returns as the Man of Steel in this sequel that’s almost as perfect as the original. And the actor’s portrayal of the dichotomy of Superman and alter ego Clark Kent might actually be at its peak in this one, especially given that the distinction becomes a plot point.
What’s better than Terence Stamp as General Zod? How about Terence Stamp as General Zod, Sarah Douglas as Ursa, and Jack Halloran as Non? As portrayed by Stamp, Zod is one of the greatest villains in superhero movies. He’s brilliantly and frighteningly stoic and ruthless, and he’s rational in his own sort of way. Just a totally iconic character in appearance and mannerisms and dialogue. But we can’t just kneel before this magnificent villain without also honoring his two partners in crime. Ursa is less serious but just as tough — she’d be a fine movie villain on her own. And there’s the dumb brute Non, who makes it a trio. Having Lex Luthor back is a bit much, but when fans complain about there being too many villains in a superhero movie they need to remember that if they’re all as great and complementary of one another as this movie’s are, multiple villains is not a bad thing at all.
Lester or Donner Cut? Of the two Richards who directed parts of Superman II, Lester is the one responsible for most of the goofy charm that has made the sequel such a cult favorite among many fans (myself included), and Donner gave us all the stuff obviously more aligned with the tone of Superman: The Movie, which he also helmed. The recently compiled “Donner Cut” is more consistent and serious, of course, and it mostly works well that way. But then you lose the guy with too many scoops of ice cream and the roller skating guy, basically all the random nonsense comic relief of the Times Square fight, as well as other lovable bits. Comic books can be light or dark fare, and so can this single comic book movie in its different forms. I favor the Lester, personally, but I especially love that we have the two versions.
32. The Punisher (1989)
Chris Coffel: Way back in 1989, long before Marvel became a cinematic powerhouse, it was the smaller production companies that took chances on the Marvel material. New World Pictures decided to give it a shot when they produced The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren in the titular role and Mark Goldblatt behind the camera. This version of the Punisher’s story picks up five years after the death of his family. During this time the crime-fighting vigilante murders 125 criminals and becomes the number one target for both the police and the mafia.
Is it a faithful adaptation? I don’t know and I don’t care. I’m not familiar with the comics and that’s perfectly fine because I’m watching a movie. So his trademark skull is missing from his shirt? Meh. He kicks ass and saves a busload of children from human trafficking all while evading the grasp of Louis Gossett, Jr. What more do you need?
Evoking the work of Yasuharu Hasebe? The brilliance of Goldblatt’s take on The Punisher is that it’s less comic book movie and more yakuza film. Don’t believe me? Watch this movie back-to-back with Yasuharu Hasebe’s Retaliation and you’ll see that they go together wonderfully – also tell your local indie theater to book that double bill. I can’t say for sure whether or not Goldblatt or anyone involved in the production of The Punisher was directly influenced by the work of Hasebe but the movie certainly borrows heavily from Japanese cinema. Not too shabby for a late 80s bargain bin action vehicle.
31. Darkman (1990)
Kieran Fisher: Following the success of his Evil Dead movies, Sam Raimi set out to make a lifelong dream come true and make a superhero movie. At first, he tried to acquire the rights to Batman and The Shadow, but the powers that be weren’t ready to give the unproven director the reigns to an established superhero property just yet. So instead he decided to create his own and Darkman was born.
Why is Darkman on a list of the best superhero movies? Well, Darkman isn’t like other superhero films. Sure, in many ways it’s like the majority of them, but it’s very much the product of Raimi at his nuttiest and most gung-ho. The setup is that of a traditional superhero origins story, but the madcap black comedy and mean-spirited violence that defined Raimi’s early work is at the forefront once again. Essentially, it’s a concoction of some of the director’s main influences as it draws inspiration from old Universal horror and Grand Guignol as much as it does comic book capers. As a result, Darkman is a wacky, eccentric, gleefully psychotic alternative to most superhero movies – and that’s why it should be celebrated, worshipped, and loved.
What is the legacy of Darkman? If it wasn’t for Darkman, Raimi’s career might have taken a completely different path. Maybe Spider-Man wouldn’t have been a stop on that path. Without Spider-Man changing the game and showing Hollywood how to get the superhero blockbuster right, who’s to say where they’d be today? I’m not saying that the MCU and others wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Darkman per se – that logic is ridiculous – but the film certainly played its part in propelling the career of a director who helped pave the way for those good superhero movies to come along and soar. So, the next time you’re watching a Marvel movie and feeling grateful for how far superhero movies have come, spare a moment to appreciate Sam Raimi and Darkman.
Related Topics: Superhero