Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sunday Best: Top 25 Superhero Movies of All Time #1

Before we reveal the greatest superhero movie of all time, let us look back on our list of the Top 25 Superhero Movies thus far:

25. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
24.  Deadpool
23.  Avengers: Age of Ultron
22. Thor
21. The Incredible Hulk
20. The Crow
19. Dredd
18. Batman Begins
17. Batman
16. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
15. Spider-Man 2
14. The Dark Knight Rises
13. The Wolverine
12. X-Men: Days of Future Past
11. Captain America: Civil War
10. Superman II
9.  The Incredibles
8. Iron Man
7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
6. Guardians of the Galaxy
5. The Avengers
4. Man of Steel
3. The Dark Knight
2. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

I began this series in October of 2016 and a number of great superhero films have come out since then.  After this posting, I will present a revised list for mid-2018.

But now, without further ado, I am proud to announce the greatest superhero movie of all time is...


This is, hands down, the masterpiece of superhero films.  It is THE standard by which all others in the genre are compared.  When Christopher Nolan did Batman Begins and Patty Jenkins did Wonder Woman, they both cited Richard Donner's Superman as their template.

The cynicism of the 1970's was everywhere in cinema.  Yes, Star Wars had broken through the general movie malaise, but Superman was an entirely different story.  He was a bold, heroic character, dressed in skin-tight primary colors speaking about truth, justice, and the American Way.  It was a time when a character like this should have seemed hopelessly out of lock step with the spirit of the age.

Richard Donner's genius was to not try and have Superman fit the age he was in, but to have the world be drawn to the goodness of Superman.

Donner communicates his intentions with that genius opening shot:  It begins with the theatrical curtains being pulled back and the words "June 1938" appearing.  We then see the pages of a comic book as a child's hand flips through the pages and begins reading.  As he does, the camera is pulled in to a panel and the picture comes to life.

There is a great deal to unpack here.  Using the theatrical curtains and the comic book, Donner is signaling that this movie is to be a theatrical experience but one that is firmly rooted in the experience of the comic book.  The child's voice resonates with innocence and nostalgia.  Many of us were first drawn to comics because of the bright colors and exciting pictures.  Not only did we read them, but they seemed to come alive in our imaginations.  Donner's transition from comic panel to movie image is the perfect representation of how those images would come alive in our child-like minds.

And that is what he does with Superman.  Donner takes all of the wonder and imagination of reading a comic book and infuses that into a cinematic masterpiece.

Another incredibly important thing Donner did was that he decided not to make an action movie.  Yes, Superman does have plenty of grand-spectacle set-pieces.  But the pace and the tone do not conform to the modern sense of an action movie.  Instead, Donner takes his time with beautiful, lingering shots.  Compared to most superhero film today, the movie may seem to move at glacial slowness, but Donner chose to let the emotion of the film gradually sink in.  Instead of an action movie, Donner made the story of an American god-hero.

Superman's story is the classic one of the Greek demi-god.  He has the parentage from on-high as we see on Krypton, a world that lacks so much heart that everything appears to be ice.  This makes the shocking use of red during its destruction all the more jarring.  But then Superman is raised by human parents on a simple Kansas farm.  You can feel Clark's frustration as he kicks the ball into the stratosphere and his exhilaration as he outruns the train.  The whole time in Kansas feels like something out a John Ford movie, with its sweeping, grand vistas that beacon you to become completely enveloped into it.  And Jonathan Kent's death to this day breaks my heart.  His simple "Oh no," filled with so much meaning.  You can feel how he isn't ready but is powerless.

Every version of Superman that gets the character right are ones that recognize Clark's humanity is learned from his simple American parents.  I do not use "simple" here as a pejorative.  The story of Superman would be much different if he grew up in the suburbs or the big city.  Growing up on a farm, Clark would have learned, as the singer Rich Mullins would say, "hard work, good love, and real life."  In the short scenes we see at the farm, you get the sense of his upbringing with very little dialogue or exposition.  This creates such a jarring feeling when he gets to Metropolis.

Part of Donner's genius was in how he contrasts all three worlds: Krypton, Kansas, and Metropolis.  Once we get to the big city, the pace picks up, the shots are tighter, more claustrophobic, and everything is noisier.  After all that set-up, Donner plops our hero into the "real world," where no one knows who he is and the audience feels in on the secret (this is especially true when Clark breaks the fourth wall briefly after he catches the bullet).

The tag line of the movie is "You will believe a man can fly."  In the pre-CGI world, this was a tall order.  But I maintain that the effects in Superman hold up today.  Donner understood that the most important thing when depicting flying is that it isn't so much about what you see but what you feel.  He made Superman's flight feel natural and beautiful.  And in the case of his night flight with Lois, it was also incredibly romantic.  The scenes where Superman first comes on to the scene are thrilling and joyous.  Each one of those moments is timeless.

This all leads to the most powerful moment in the movie: the death of Lois.  I have watched this sequence over and over again.  It is a powerful visual experience, free of dialogue, dependent on the visuals.  Donner puts the camera in just the right places as you feel suffocated with Lois and helpless with Superman.  Those overhead shots has he hovers over her body make the Man of Steel look so incredibly small and powerless.  He goes to kiss her, but watch her fall away helpless gives him no closure.  The injustice and unfairness of that moment is palpable.  After only doing good things and saving so many, is this to be his reward?  The sadness turned to rage is explosive. 

That is why the ending works.  Many have complained about the "turning back time" ending either from the illogical of the science to the narrative loophole it creates.  But the reason why people accept it is because they cannot accept the pain of Superman's loss.  This ending was originally planned for Superman II, but Donner was forced to move it to the end of the first where it works better.  The reason it works better is because Donner created an emotional debt that the audience was willing to pay with their suspension of disbelief.  Superman made us want to believe.

And this belief was earned by Christopher Reeve's performance.  Many good actors have played the part, but he will always be THE Superman.  His performance is genius.  When he speaks about truth, justice, and the American way, he does so with complete conviction and authority.  He does not come off as naive.  He walks in his outfit not like its a costume but a royal garb.  He exudes confidence in everything but not arrogance.  Once again we see that simple virtue come forth that is so hard for modern people to understand.  The best display of Reeve's genius is when he picks Lois up for their date.  He takes off his glasses for a moment and we see the physical transformation Reeve goes through from Clark to Superman.  By simple facial movements and posture changes, he becomes someone else.  It is amazing.

I must also say a few words here about the late Margot Kidder, who died early last week.  Kidder created a Lois Lane that was fierce, funny, and feminine.  I've seen the screen tests of her and other famous actresses and she was by far and away the perfect choice.  She found the golden balance between strength and vulnerability to maximize drama and comedy.  The chemistry she had with Reeve was perfect.  Through her, we all fell in love with Superman a little more.  Gene Hackman's comic turn as Luthor also works incredibly well.  While I prefer a more serious version of the character as seen from the modern comics, Hackman infuses him with both humor and menace so that you never forget to take him seriously.  When he tricks Superman with the kryptonite, watch the evil glee Hackman gives us.  Donner filled his movies with great actors like Marlon Brando, Terrence Stamp, and Glen Ford.  He took this movie seriously in a way that the subsequent sequel directors did not.

Finally, not enough can be said about the score by John Williams.  Outside of Star Wars, it may be his finest work.  The music is so evocative and it creates a concrete sense of the movies.  When I hear the music, the entire experience of Superman floods into my memories in a very powerful way.  He captures the humor and evil of Luthor, the grandeur of Krypton, the sadness of leaving home, the romance of flying at night, and power and virtue of the hero himself.  No super hero team has even come close.

And no super hero movie has come close to surpassing the greatness that is Superman

In the end, Superman is an experience that makes you feel good inside.  It is a film that touches the right chord of harmony between fantastic power and moral virtue.  Superman is the ideal we all strive for: using our strength for goodness.  When we finish the movie a new day dawns as Superman looks right at us and smiles, we feel like everything is going to be okay.  As he flies into the unknown, he does so with hope and encourages us to hold on to that same hope: hope that we can be better and that the world can be better.

And that is why Superman is the greatest super hero film of all time.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Film Flash: Deadpool 2

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Not as good as the first.  Raunchy, gross, violent, but it made me laugh.  

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Mother's Day 2018

You were there on the first day of my life,
I danced with you when I married my wife.
You chauffered this child all over town
and held me so close when I would feel down.
You tripped on the stairs when I left a mess.
You wiped off each tear, each sneeze you would bless.

But when you left dad, I felt so alone.
I wish you had stayed until I was all grown.
Each night you would miss me drown in my tears
I grew old, but not up, adding my years.
I needed you mom, so my heart would not crack.
Time that we lost we will never get back.

Despite all of this, if I had to choose
I'd pick you as my mom, knowing I'd lose
so much when you left.  You were my one:
Imperfect mom of an imperfect son.
In the time we had left, I'm glad we forgave
each other and took our love to your grave.

Gone once again, let's forget all mistakes
I'm glad even now that my heart still breaks.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Film Flash: Life of the Party

Life of the Party.png

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Back to School, but with McCarthy for Dangerfield and emotional validation instead of jokes.

image by Yasir72.multan

Monday, May 7, 2018

Harry Anderson: Good Night, Magic Man

photo by Alan Light
I'm not sure how we choose our idols.  Actually, I'm not sure if we choose them at all.  Like falling in love, we encounter the right person at the right time and something clicks inside of us.  And maybe no one else sees it, but that's okay.  You can see your heroes as heroes and that's enough.

Of course I had plenty of people I idolized as a child: Bruce Lee, Luke Skywalker...

And Harry Anderson.

Again, I don't quite know how it happened, but Harry Anderson became very important to me.  I probably first saw him casually watching an episode of Night Court.  But casual turned in to devotional and I never missed an episode.  I even bought his book Games You Can't Lose: A Guide for Suckers.  As far as I know, I was the only person in 8th grade who had it.

I sometimes look back and it seems so odd.  Why him?

Harry Anderson was a street magician who wanted nothing more than to make a living making magic.  And it wasn't like he was limited.  Valedictorian of his high school class, Anderson had wide vistas.  But he went with his passion and as luck would have it, he made a good living at it.

He is best known for playing Judge Harry T. Stone on Night Court.  And while co-star John Laroquette received most of the accolades and awards, for me the show was all about Harry.

It's especially easy when you're young to blur the lines between fictional character the real life actor behind them.  And yet I always had the sense that Harry Stone and Harry Anderson weren't all that different.

His look was of a classic era of sharp suits and fedoras.  Way before it was cool to be this retro, Anderson embraced this style, giving him an sense of class that elevated him.  Since my teens I have donned the fedora as a tribute to him.  I even tried to be a magician like him.  I spent so many hours trying to learn the most basic tricks.  All I was ever able to make disappear was my dignity as I humiliated myself in front of my friends and family.  I'm sure Anderson may have felt this way when he told the people in his life that he wanted to pursue magic.  But he didn't care.

At the same time, he was wonderfully juvenile.  He popped with a child-like innocence that was so endearing to me as a kid.  He would go from a pun to a card trick to a pratfall with expert timing.  It always felt like the jokes he told were just for me.  You have to remember that back in the 80's, adults did not embrace the pop culture of their youth.  When you became a man, you put aside childish things.  But Anderson refused.

I suppose I could try and analyze what factors caused me to be this way.  My parents divorced when I was in grade school.  Perhaps I experienced some kind of arrested development that caused me to cling to the familiar toys and comics of youth well in to adulthood.  Maybe I found adult concepts like divorce too dark and dreary for me and I wanted to rebel against those two horribly bleak words: "growing up."

In Harry Anderson I saw a man who loved the silly joy of youth while still taking on the burden of being a man.  He was informal, but not callous.  He was goofy, but not flakey.  He was a practical joker who made you feel like you were also in on the joke.  That was the magic of his Harry T. Stone: he could bring the light of wonder and innocence to a cynical world.

Years later when I would read Chesterton, his words felt wrapping myself in a warm and comfortable blanket.  It felt so familiar to me because Anderson projected in his characters an idealized Chestertonian life of wisdom and innocence.  If growing up meant losing your innocence, then I wanted no part of it.  But I saw in Anderson someone who could live in the world, contend with the world, but not be overcome by the world.  I wasn't foolish enough to imagine him saintly.  But there was still so much there for that lonely, lost boy to admire in him.  He could make smile from ear to ear with his pranks, pratfalls, jokes, and jibes.

And now like that man that I saw on my TV, I am surrounded by the toys and trappings of youth, try to be quick with a joke, and do my best to look at life with child-like wonder.

Whether or Anderson really lived this or if this was just a persona, I do not think I shall ever know.  He was never able to capture the success he had with Night Court.  He starred in another sitcom, Dave's World, and had a memorable turn in the TV movie It.  And when the starring roles no longer presented themselves,  he stepped into the shadows without complaint.  He was content to make his living making his magic until he passed away on April 16th, 2018.

Mr. Anderson, I pray that you are now resting with the Lord.  And though we never met on this earth, please know that you were a bright spot of joy for me and that you helped in some way form me into the man I am today.

And to me, that is truly magic.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Trailer Time: Ant-Man and the Wasp Trailer #2

After the emotional wringer that was Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel is treating us to slightly lighter fare with Ant-Man and the Wasp.  

And I am perfectly okay with that.

As I've stated before, the original film never really lived up to its size-changing potential by taking you into a new and fascinating look at our world from a new perspective.  But this movie might swing for the fences and try.  It looks to be more enjoyable than the original. 

The villain seems generic and inconsequential, but I think they the conflict is just an excuse for fun set pieces like we see at the beginning of the trailer.


Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sunday Best: Top 25 Marvel Movie Moments

With Avengers: Infinity War, it is time to reflect on the best moments from this unprecedented film franchise.

My wife and I sat down over the last few weeks and watched every MCU film leading up to Infinity War.  What hit me was how many moments I kept waiting for because I remembered them so well and I looked forward to seeing them again.

And with dozens of hours of footage, there were so many moments to go through and rank.  So feel free to discuss and dispute my order.

So here are the best 25 MCU moments.  (These do not include any scenes from Infinity War)


Click links to see scenes at

25.  First Flight - Iron Man

There are so many things that this movie had to get right.  But one of the best moments was the feeling of fun and exhilaration at Tony flying in his suit for the first time.  When he reboots the system while falling and shouts with delight, it is a joyously fun moment.

24.  Hulkbuster - Avengers: Age of Ultron

After the Hulk was established as an awesome wrecking machine, watching Tony match him in size and strength was one of the best parts of this movie.  It was great to see the sheer ferocity of the Hulk nearly derail all of Tony's technological advantages so that the result was uncertain.

23.  First Shrink - Ant-Man

The rest of the movie did not live up to the full potential that this scene gave us.  In this moment our every day world looked new, alien, and terrifying.  If the rest of the movie had been like this, it would have been a classic.

22. Hammer and Shield - Avengers

Captain America and Thor are known for their iconic weapons.  And to see them clash like that was like watching the irresistible force meet the immovable object and it brought the entire fight to a powerful conclusion.

21.  Emergence from Tube - Captain America: The First Avenger

Comic book superheroes in general have idealized physical features.  But to watch that transformation from skinny scrapper to super soldier is thrilling.  And knowing that the physique is real makes you believe Cap's epic strength.

20.  "I'm Always Angry" - Avengers

This line gave an insight into Banner that I never considered but gave illumination to Mark Ruffalo's entire performance.

19.  "We Are Groot."  - Guardians of the Galaxy

By using the line "I am Groot" as a joke the entire movie, James Gunn was able to take those three words, "We are Groot" and fill them with emotion and meaning.

18.  First Astral Projection - Doctor Strange

This scene is what set this movie apart from all the other MCU movies and gave Doctor Strange its unique flavor.

17.  Meet the Parents - Spider-Man: Homecoming

I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed, but it takes a lot to surprise me in a superhero film.  Because I'm so familiar with the genre, I can usually see the twists a mile away.  But I did a double-take when Peter went to pick up his homecoming date.  It was a clever twist on a classic Spider-Man story with Doc Ock and Aunt May.  The scene is tense and filled with subtext as we can see the wheels turning in the Vulture's mind.

16.  "I've Come to Bargain." - Doctor Strange

He wins by losing.  How brilliant and Christological.  And it was so incredibly clever with its use of time travel.

15.  Airport Fight - Captain America: Civil War

I tried to explain to a friend of mine that when I was growing up, the most fun part of playing with my action figures wasn't having the heroes fight the villains but having them fight each other.  And watching this scene transported me and I felt like I was watching my table-top toy battles on the big screen.

14.  Hulk Hits Thor - Avengers

It is such a small moment but it adds such a humorous punctuation to an epic fight moment.

13.  Return from Raid - Captain America: The First Avenger

Marvel doesn't have many iconic scores.  But the score from this movie jumps out at you when Cap first emerges and here.  But when you first see Cap emerge, you are filled with a sense of potential.  Here, you see that promise fulfilled.  Cap leads the men like Moses from Egypt.  And I love that his first words are to seek medical attention for the soldiers.  His second words are to surrender himself for defying orders.  It reveals not only his heroism but his clear moral compass.  Fantastic moment.

12.  Rooftop Chase - The Incredible Hulk

When I think of this movie, the first thing I think about are not scenes with the Hulk but Banner running from danger.  That is what impressed me the most about this film is that it was able to make the Banner moments so exciting.

11.  Cave Escape - Iron Man

This is a scene that perfectly captures the original Stan Lee comic book vision of this rich man who is now a prisoner and has to fight back with this mind.  And it was so satisfying to watch him take out his captors.  And for me, the moment he said "Thank you for saving me," to Yinsen is the turning point of Tony's life.

10.  "Only One God."  - Avengers

As a writer, I will always respect atheist Joss Whedon for this line.  It showed that he understood this character and his world view and let him show it.  This is one of the great strengths of the movie where each character has an equally strong voice.

9.  Coulson Dies - Avengers

Nearly everyone gasped in the theater when this happened.  That was the moment that we realized how much we had come to love Phil Coulson.  It was such a shocking moment that galvanizes not only the narrative, but the entire audience.

8.  Into the Ice - Captain America: The First Avenger

This scene always gets me and it embodies the heroism of Captain America.  He is so sad but he doesn't hesitate to do what is write and take himself out of the equation.  And even as he is going in, there is the unfailing optimism as he talks about his first dance that he will never get.

7.  Mission Report - Captain America: Civil War

Again, I did not see this coming.  This movie did such a good job of misdirection so that the full emotional impact of this moment hits you like a ton of bricks and you realize the absolute peril our heroes are in and the moral trap that has been sprung upon them.  Watching Tony lose all of his cool and become the emotionally scarred orphan again was heartbreaking.

6.  Hammer Contest - Avengers: Age of Ultron

This is a small, fun moment that was my favorite from this movie.  But best of all is the moment when Cap moves the hammer and Thor looks terrified. 

5.  Dance Off - Guardians of the Galaxy

This moment is completely absurd and yet fits completely into the logic of the film.  It is entirely delightful and funny no matter how many times I've seen it.  Pratt sells the intensity of it with full commitment so that you almost believe that he really thinks he's going to defeat the big bad guy in a dance off.

4.  Nick Fury Appears - Iron Man

This was the moment that opened up the entire MCU.  Some people might not know that in the Ultimate version of the Marvel characters from the comic books from a few years earlier they redesigned all of the classic characters.  And in this version they decided to base Nick Fury off of Samuel L. Jackson.  So when the real Samuel L. Jackson walked out of the shadows at the end of Iron Man, it was like watching the comic book come to life in a way that I've never seen before.

3.  Opening Credits - Guardians of the Galaxy

This was one of my favorite movie-going moments because of what it did for me internally.  I've mentioned before on this blog that I was convinced that this movie was going to be Marvel's first big bomb.  Everything about it looked terrible.  I went in prepared to hate this movie.  And then the moment the credits began with that wonderfully absurd shot I completely understood the tone and vision of James Gunn and I found myself falling in love with the movie despite myself.  That's why these movie moments matter.

2.  Elevator Fight - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I will watch this scene over and over.  The build-up is wonderfully tense and gets you into Steve's head so that we can see how observant and confident he is.  Outnumbered he gives his enemies a chance to run away.  And the fight is amazingly filmed and choreographed in that small space, punctuated by the shield retreval that emphasize how amazing Cap is.

1.  Avengers Assembled - Avengers

This is the THE Marvel movie moment.  This is the moment when we feel the merging of different franchises into one where the whole truly feels greater than the sum of its parts.  It is the moments we really see the full crew of the Avengers together for the first time and for me it is the moment that the Marvel MCU was truly born.