Sunday, June 3, 2018

Sunday Best: Top 25 Superhero Movies of All Time - Revised 2018

I know that I just finished up my list of Top 25 Superhero Movies of All Time, but the list was originally made two years ago.  It was composed as such:

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
1. Superman

But there have been a number of good superhero films to come out since this list was originaly made.    Rather than try to update the list as it went, I decided to publish the series as it was written and then update when finished.  Here is the current 2018 update:

25. The Crow
24.  Dredd
23.  Spider-Man: Homecoming

(from my review)

I am hesitant to call this the best Spider-Man movie yet.  

But I will say that this is the most fun Spider-Man ever.


I laughed more during this movie than during some all-out comedies.  The jokes really do fly fast and furious here and most of them land nicely.  And while the other Spider-Man franchises started in high school, the setting was really incidental to the story.  In Homecoming, the setting is essential to understanding the character.  In fact the title emphasizes that this is a high school movie.  Peter is a hero, but he is also a high school kid.  He is immature in all the ways that teenager can be without being too unlikeable.  He has a good heart and a sharp mind, but he lacks wisdom and insight.  This film taps in to that universal experience of surviving high school drama that John Hughes did so well.

Hughes influence on this movie cannot be overstated and sometimes is made explicit in the film.  This is a movie is a high school soap opera and that is not a bad thing.  This is where the film derives so much of its heart and humor.  There is a particularly Ferris Buellerian sequence where Spider-Man has to chase someone but he is in the suburbs with no tall buildings from which to swing.  What follows is hysterical.  And even though the movie is funny it never winks at the camera too much so that you don't take the action seriously.  This is not an easy balancing act, and yet Watts pulls it off amazingly.


One of the things that the movie reminded me of was St. Terese of Liseiux.  Peter, like most young people, wants to go out and save the whole world.  But throughout the movie he is constantly reminded that someone has to look out for the little guy.  It reminded me of The Little Flower when she said that we need to do little things with great love.  It isn't that Peter's actions aren't great.  It's that he comes to understand that someone has to look for the least ones.  The beginning of the film is a reminder that even the big heroes like Iron Man sometimes cause inadvertent pain to the ordinary men and women they are trying to help.

On another side note, I was impressed by the relative modesty of the characters.  Yes, Holland does walk around in his underwear, but the girl he admires, Liz, dresses very femininely without being too revealing.  Even when she went swimming I think she wore a one-piece.  And the same can be said of most of the cast as I recall.  There were a few genital and pornography jokes however, but nothing too terribly vulgar.

Special note should be given to Holland's performance.  He is fantastic as Peter.  Compare him to the vacant pseudo-coolness of Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver and you can see what real charisma looks like.  He embodies that teenage mixture of contradictions like awkward and confident, smart and stupid, brave and scared.  You can understand him being intimidated by a girl and yet why she would be attracted to him.  And all the while, he shows you the depths of his angst in his looks.  His physical acting while in the suit is also fun and expressive.  He hits just the right town with body language and voice.  One of my favorite moments occurs after Peter has screwed up badly and his first question after all is said and done is, "Is everyone safe?"  He delivers it with such selflessness and shame that my heart broke a little.

22. Batman Begins
21. Batman
20. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
19.  Spider-Man 2
18. The Dark Knight Rises
17. The Wolverine
16. X-Men: Days of Future Past
15.  Captain America: Civil War
14.  Wonder Woman

(From my review)

Director Patty Jenkins has been given a lot of credit for telling a compelling origin story and she deserves it.  She said she took as her inspiration the original Richard Donner Superman, which shows in how she builds up the ancient and alien mythology before plunging Diana into the world of men.  There is even a nice homage to the "stopping the bullet" scene from Superman in Wonder Woman.  This is also evident in the way she allows Diana's quest to burn slowly.  It isn't until late in the movie that we see her in her full super hero costume.  But rather than feel like we were waiting to long, the moment feels like everything built to that moment.

The movie does something that all good movies should: it gets better as you watch it.  It is said that most people decide if they like a movie within the first ten minutes.  With this in mind, I would imagine many filmmakers frontload the beginnings of their films and struggle with the middles and the ends.  But Wonder Woman becomes more enjoyable as it goes.


The character of Diana feels unique in the pantheon of superheroes.  She comes off as innocent to the point of naivet√©.  She is not motivated by revenge or guilt or glory.  She honestly comes off as someone who has a certain moral compass and cannot understand why others do not.  Her conviction that the world's problems can be solved by killing Ares works to highlight her biggest flaw and virtue: her belief in the inherent goodness of man.   It is her biggest flaw because she blinds herself to the complexities of the modern world.  But it is her strength because this belief is ultimately the only thing that can save us from war.  I found in this, as a Catholic, a similar struggle.  We are made in God's image, but we debase ourselves with sin.  We can make ourselves into monsters, but we can also make ourselves (with God's grace) into saints.  Setting the movie in WWI was a smart choice, because the audience knows that her quest to free men from war will fail.  This should take the wind out of the narrative sails, but instead it draws us in to find out how Diana will react when confronted with what is best and worst in man.

Gadot is great is Wonder Woman.  She is in every way feminine without feeling at all less powerful.  I am not someone who usually makes a big deal about the gender of a director, but I do think Jenkins brings a respectful version of womanhood here.  Diana is filmed as outrageously beautiful, but I never felt that the camera was objectifying her, unlike Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad.  As one person on Twitter put it, "I'm sure Gal Gadot has a great [butt], but I'm just glad I didn't see it once in the movie."

Her portrayal as Wonder Woman is charismatic and at times funny.  Her innocence never makes her feel weak.  Her resolution always feels like it comes from a place of goodness.  Every scene she is in, she commands the attention of everyone.  When she does come into her own completely as a superhero, I felt like I was witnessing an iconic moment of an epic.  I love the thematic undertones as Wonder Woman crosses No Man's Land and gives her allies the courage to follow her towards righteous victory.

The chemistry she shares with Pine's Steve Trevor is the heart of the movie.  I was glad that they didn't reduce him to a caricature of machismo.  He is a man of his time, but I never felt like they used his masculinity as a negative foil to Diana.  Pine's performance was both funny and action-hero exciting.  The other bright standout was Lucy Davis as Etta Candy.  She hasn't lost any of her comedic timing from her days starring in The Office.


I found the movie incredibly enjoyable and I am probably going to see it again in theaters.  While this is a movie that is part of a large shared universe, Wonder Woman stands on its own.  And I cannot wait to see the next chapter in her story.

13.  Justice League

(From my review)

One of the best things about movies like this is that it showcases the essential truths about heroism: courage and self-sacrifice.  The heroes have to face their fears and make choices that put the needs of others before themselves.  These very Christological ideals are continually explored as well the ideas of friendship and trust.

But the best part about the movie is that the entire thing is fun.

I enjoyed the entire film from start to finish.  There are several plot points that I will not discuss here for fear of spoilers (though by this point most of them are probably known).  The movie had lots of comic book moments that should satisfy most avid fans.  It also has one of my favorite comic book movie moments off all time.  I will not spoil the whole thing, but it involves the Flash as he is running with determination.  And then he sees something that terrifyies him beyond words.  In the theater I laughed so hard and the entire audince roared.  Whenever I think of this movie, this is the first scene I imagine.

This movie doesn't reach the emotional or thematic heights as Snyder's last two films.  Justice League seeks to simply be a fun action/adventure.  And on that level it soars up, up, and away.

12. Avengers: Infinity War

(from my film review) 
Watching this movie on the big screen, I marveled at its sheer audacity of scope.

For a comic book geek like me, stories of universal power and peril are common.  For the cost of a few dozen printed pages of art and words, you can be transported to the furthest reaches of the cosmos and populate your story with dozens and dozens of the biggest heroes in your shared universe.  But the idea of translating that to the big screen seemed impossible, not only in terms of budget, but of balance between characters, plot, theme, pacing, and spectacle.

But Avengers: Infinity War pulls off the impossible.
Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have created a script reminds me of two other classic movies: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Empire Strikes Back.  Let me be clear, those two are better movies than Infinity War (which I will explain momentarily), but the DNA of both is in this film in a few ways.  Like The Return of the KingInfinity War juggles multiple story tracks for our heroes in vastly different times and situations.  In that film you had to juggle the ring to Mount Doom, the Paths of the Dead, the Steward and his son, the defense of Minas Tirith, Eowyn and Merry secretly joining the fight, Arwen's fall, and others.  It is a very fractured plot that has to be balanced properly.  Infinity War has several disparate story groups that occasionally converge and then re-diverge.  And the groupings are often ones that you would not expect.  But you get so caught up in a particular story arch that it is almost a surprise when you return to another story thread.

The movie is thematically about the war between two opposing ideals: Life and Death.  One of the things I saw in Thanos was the embodiment of what Pope John Paul II called the Culture of Death.  He is willing to kill any number of innocents in the name of practical prosperity.  And our heroes, by contrast are willing to lay down their own lives and defend the lives of all the innocent.  The hero's motto in the movie is "We don't trade lives."  I thought this was a beautiful summary of the value of all life.  And this view is challenged in our heroes and they may not pass the test. 

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo take a cue from Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, and give the movie a hand-held gritty feel which makes the CGI spectacle feel a bit more grounded.  And they use this style to effectively make you feel the chaotic world that our heroes find themselves in.  You almost feel at times like you are watching disaster footage and it has that same emotional effect.  All the while, they dazzle you with fantastic visuals.  They are also able to get great performances out of everyone.

Downey Jr. never ceases to amaze me as Stark.  You can feel his practiced coolness crack when his worst fears, the fears that drove him to make Ultron, come to life.  Hemsworth more drama to Thor than I have seen in a good while.  Cumberbatch was actually even more enjoyable in this film than he was in his own solo film.  And you completley become heart-breakingly invested in the romances between Vision/Scarlett Witch and Star Lord (Chris Pratt)/Gamora, in no small part due to their performances.  Pratt particularly makes Star Lord both infuriating and endearing at the same time.  And I was surprised at how much of the emotional weight of the film had to rest on Saldana's performance.  Her conflicted feelings for her evil adoptive father are contradictory and honest.  And the same is reflected in Brolin's surprisingly sympathetic performance.

11. Superman II
10. The Incredibles
9.  Iron Man 
8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
7.  Logan

(from my review)

There isn't another super hero movie like Logan.

This movie is sober, contemplative, visceral, and heartbreaking in a way I haven't seen in this genre before.


The most important thing to understand about this movie going into it is that it is actually less of a superhero film and more of a classic Western.  Logan is the hard-travelling hero who has lived too long and seen too much killing.  Director James Mangold films the movie with all of grand, deserted landscapes that you would see in a Western: wide-open vistas empty with potential.   There is significant motif regarding the movie Shane and the parallels are clear without feeling too preachy.

Mangold also gives us a story that is filled with tension and dread.  From the moment the main quest begins, a deep and pervasive sense of unease fills the movie.  Unlike most superhero movies, there tends to be excitement with little surprise.  But you get the strong sense from Logan that disaster and tragedy are lurking around every corner and our heroes may not come out on top.

The performances are also superb.  Jackman, Stewart, and Keene deserve Oscar nominations, and that is not hyperbole because I love the genre.  Their performances are stunning.  Jackman makes us feel every ache and pain in his body.  It is literally exhausting to watch him work as we see his body and spirit breaking.  Jackman is still able to bring the big, insane rage inherent in the character.  But he also is able to able to show the silent, stoic sadness of a man whose world is slipping apart.  Stewart's Xavier is gut-wrenching in its decrepitness.  Is Xavier wise or senile?  Or both?  And what does that mean for anyone around him.  Stewart plays him as a man who is angry because he feels guilty and does not know why.  And so he lashes out at those around him.  And Keene is amazing as Laura.  Most child actors get a bit of a pass from me because they are young and should not be held to the same standards as fully trained adults.  But Keene is mesmerizing in her role.  Every look, every action, every pose conveys so much emotion and character that she seems to be someone three times her age.

The violence in this movie is more graphic and emotional than any other X-Men film.  As someone who grew up with the comics, this is was how I always imagined Logan cutting loose.  And while it at first as the same vicarious thrill as watching Deadpool or John Wick, after a while the graphicness of the violence gets to you, which I think is part of Mangold's point.  We've reveled in Wolverine's ability to cut his enemies to shreds over the last 17 years.  Now we get to feel what that does to a person's soul.  And yet the action sequences are still enough keep you on the edge of your seat.

One of things I loved most about the film was its depiction of simple, ordinary love.  There is a moment in the movie where our three main characters spend the night with a farmer family.  Mangold fills the scenes around the dinner table with such humor and warmth that part of you wants to leave all of the violence and just settle in.  This family is depicted as faith-filled, hard-working, and trying to get by in life with larger forces arrayed against them.

But the real treasure of the film is in the relationship between Logan and Xavier as well as Logan and Laura.  The thing that struck me the most about the Logan/Xavier relationship is how much Logan endured to take care of Xavier.  At first it felt like was doing it out a sense of duty or obligation forced on him.  But as the movie progresses you cannot come to any other conclusion than this: Logan loves Xavier.  It was so touching to see this strange father/son dynamic play out between two grown men who care so deeply for one another.  And despite all of his complaining,  you can see in Logan's actions how much Xavier means to him.  I cannot speak too much about the Logan/Laura relationship since that develops along the main plot of the movie.  But that is also incredibly touching to watch.

6. Guardians of the Galaxy
5. The Avengers
4. Man of Steel
3. The Dark Knight
2. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
1.  Superman