Monday, September 20, 2010

My Top 10 Live-Action Superhero Adaptations

I watched Superman Returns last night, and had a short conversation about the wretched Superman IV: The Quest for Peace today, both of which prompted me to think: what are my top 10 favorite superhero flicks? For my purposes, what I mean by that is a live-action adaptation of a superhero(s) from comic books. I don't have hard and fast rules for what constitutes a superhero, but my instincts tend towards the conservative (one could theoretically categorize Scott Pilgrim as a superhero, for example, but I stick with the more traditional Batman/Superman type). Of course, I haven't seen every single superhero movie ever made, but I've seen a surprising number of them (even for superheroes I don't particularly like much). The following list is numbered, but the flicks are in no particular order. Anyways, here's my top 10:

1. Batman: The Movie (1966)

If you're some cynical cynic from Cynicstown, maybe you don't realize how great this movie is. But this flick is brilliant. It perfectly captures one particular side of comics and superheroes and mines that side with abandon. And it has staying power. Look at it this way: I was born in '85 and this movie was a staple of my childhood, and the childhoods of lots of my friends. Adam West kills it as the Bats. At least until 1989, this was the definitive version of Batman in the public consciousness, and it's still sort of the quintessential example of what most people think of when they think "comic books" (for good and ill). Love it.

2. Batman Begins (2005)

A, um, slightly different take on Batman than the previous entry. While Batman: The Movie tapped into the campy good-nature of Batman (and so much of the Silver Age), this one is really all about The Dark Knight. All seriousness and brooding, but snappier than the 1989 Tim Burton effort (which hasn't aged well, sadly). Christian Bale heads a pretty star-studded cast and everyone puts in performances which really inhabit the characters. This isn't the only way to do Batman, but it's a compelling one and a tone which is informed by some of the great work on Batman done in the 80s (in comics) and the 90s (on television).

3. The Dark Knight (2008)

The sequel to Batman Begins, continues this totally engrossing take on Bats with the addition of an anarchic (and highly praised and praiseworthy) Joker. Drawing heavily from beloved comic sources like The Killing Joke and The Long Halloween, this film was (deservedly) a massive hit. It'll be interesting to see where the franchise goes from here.

4. Superman: The Movie (1978)

Like the classic Batman flick from '66, this Supes movie was a cornerstone of my childhood (and many others my age). Christopher Reeve is Superman for so many people from across several generations. This film actually holds up really well, presenting a mix of taking-the-content-seriously and charming good-naturedness which is often missing from superhero flicks these days. This one had a star-studded cast too, with Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Marlon Brando as Jor-El. Unlike Batman, which has had a few successful live action iterations, Superman has never really again been presented outside of the template set forth by this film.

5. Superman II (1980)

I have a hard time considering the 1978 film without just sort of appending this sequel to it in my mind. A surprisingly strong sequel considering the sordid details of how we ended up with the finished product, this entry is a bit goofier than the '78 flick, but essentially the same vibe. These days, you can get the theatrical cut as well as the original, more serious "Richard Donner Cut" of the film. Neither is definitive over the other in my opinion, and both are highly enjoyable.

6. Superman Returns (2006)

This is a fascinating film in that it's a continuation of the original 1978 film franchise as opposed to a reboot (although it, thankfully, ignores Superman III and Superman IV and doesn't pay much mind to anything from Superman II which would get in the way of telling the story it wants to tell). Brandon Routh does a good job inhabiting the same character as Christopher Reeve's Superman without simply falling into parody and the rest of the cast is good - especially Kevin Spacey who is phenomenal as Lex Luthor. The story itself is suitably "mad plot for world domination" the love triangle Supes, Lois and the new beau is enjoyable. Despite the commercial and critical success, indications are that whatever the next Superman film is going to be, it will be a reboot. I understand doing that - it was a little bit of an odd making a sequel to a franchise that had been dormant for 19 years - but it was still a joy to revisit this version of Superman one last time.

7. Hellboy (2004)

Guillermo Del Toro's adaptation of Hellboy doesn't quite capture the brilliance of the source material (yet) but it's still one of the best superhero movies out there. Basically, Ron Perlman rules and while there's a bit of a by-the-numbers sensibility here, it still beats out most of the costumed big-screen competition.

8. Hellboy II: The Golden Army

While the first film was a well-built film, the sequel takes it to the next level. Here, del Toro really taps into the tone and feel of the comic source and presents a dark fantasy world unrivaled in superhero flicks. It's a beautiful movie to watch and the plot is tense and engaging. And Ron Perlman still rules.

9. Iron Man (2008)

2008 was a great year for superhero films, it seems. Robert Downey, Jr. is Tony Stark in this one, inhabiting the character perfectly. An essentially pitch-perfect film adaptation, this captures the playboy fun and adventure that can make the character so great. Plenty of nerd-bait, like the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D., and an excellent cameo at the end of the credits makes this a memorable entry.

10. Watchmen (2009)

A near-perfect adaptation of one of the greatest graphic novels of all-time. The great deconstruction of the superhero makes it to the big screen with much success.

Runner-Up: Spider-Man 2 (2004)

While the first Spider-Man film in the franchise was pretty good, it felt a bit flat. Here, the pace is brisker and the story better. I'm not a hardcore Spidey fan so I miss a lot of the fan gripes with this franchise, but I thought this was a highly enjoyable film and easily the best of the the three films made. I just don't dip into this franchise quite regularly enough for it to make my top 10.

The Guilty Pleasure: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

I was 5 when this came out, loved the cartoon, and so this was right in my wheelhouse. It actually does a reasonably admirable job striking a balance between the darker source comics and the, well, cartoonish kids cartoon. It's definitely trashy, but it's oddly satisfying and certainly hits my nostalgia buttons in the right spots.

Final Thoughts: Okay, if it wasn't obvious while reading the list, I'll admit that I'm clearly primarily a DC comics fan. The lone Marvel title in the top 10 probably gave it away. Other titles that some folks might include in their lists (The Hulk [Hell, I preferred the Ang Lee version to the newest one], Daredevil, X-Men) just don't resonate with me as much. I'm not making any claims about this list other than it's my Top 10 personal favorites. I wouldn't hesitate in recommending any of these movies, but I wouldn't make any claims about them becoming your favorites or nuthin.

This is also a list I created off the top of my head, so I may be forgetting something really good.

The other thing is: this list is clearly dominated by recent titles. If I had to expand this list out to 15 or 20 titles, nearly all the rest of the films would be pretty recent ones too. Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple reasons for this: 1) there's been a definite adaptation renaissance in the last decade or so - more comic book titles (superhero and otherwise) are getting adapted to film than ever before, 2) I think the nature of superheroes and comics lend themselves to being "of their time" in a way that makes them particularly susceptible to aging poorly. Will all these flicks in my list last the test of time? Unlikely. I think Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film provides a good case study. Heaped with praise on release (I loved it as a kid), it helped redefine what a "comic book movie" could be to the general public and finally supplanted the Adam West Batman as the definitive one in the public imagination. But, well, I rewatched it recently and it comes off as pretty hacky and dull, without a lot of the charm of that 1966 version. Ten years on, and it felt like the "superhero genre" had left it in the dust.

All this said, I guess it's time to go watch my extended edition of Ghost Rider. *cough*