Superhero films, much like any other genre, have been around for decades — dating back to around the Second World War and even further according to some accounts. However it has only really been since the turn of the 21st century that superhero films have found their place in the cinema, where they are now some of the most successful films ever made, both critically and commercially.
The following are five of my favourite superhero films, all of which, unsurprisingly, were produced in the last decade.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Released in 2011 as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one of the prequels to The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger stars Chris Evans as Steve Rodgers, a small man who is transformed into a super-soldier known as Captain America in order to aid the war effort (the film is set during the Second World War — which now has two mentions already in this post!). With the assistance of Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones, Captain America must prevent Hitler’s Head of Arms — played by Hugo Weaving — from acquiring unlimited energy to fuel masses of highly volatile weaponry.
Although not the most entertaining Avenger — we’ll see him later — Captain America, at least in my eyes, is the most interesting. Unlike the other films under the Marvel umbrella, Captain America: The First Avenger is set in the past which clearly gives it a distinction the other films do not have. Director Joe Johnston administers a much-needed injection of colour and vibrancy to the Captain America franchise, utilising the war setting magnificently, attaching emotion to the film and endowing depth to each individual character. As opposed to other superhero films, for example Thor, the plot is not cut-and-dry and the nostalgic setting combined with very worthy performances from the cast amounts to an entertaining film.
Captain America: The First Avenger is underrated in my opinion — there is enough action, depth and freshness for it to be placed up there among the best superhero films of recent years.
The Avengers (2012)
What is a best-of list without the biggest superhero film of all time? Having been brooding around and popping up throughout each of its predecessors, The Avengers finally hit screens in the summer of 2012 and blew every other superhero film out of the water financially. Directed by sci-fi mastermind Joss Whedon and stuffed full of all the usual Marvel superheroes (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk and so on), The Avengers follows, well… the Avengers on their quest to stop the evil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his army of monsters from forcing the Earth under his control.
When I went to see this film, I experienced it in 3D and with moving chairs and all sorts. While the 3D was disappointing, the whole moving chairs phenomenon really added to what is a film full of massive set-pieces (New York, for one) and action sequences. Whereas Captain America beforehand was a little tentative in regards to action and more focused on the story of one man, The Avengers is all about running, jumping, flying, exploding, crashing, banging and comedy. Whedon prevails through the daunting task of getting all of the characters enough screen time to warrant their appearance in the film, as everyone from Iron Man to Phil Coulson to Black Widow plays an essential role. Collectively, the performances from the cast are humorous and serious when need-be (mainly humorous though), but the stand out actor in this film is Mark Ruffalo, who is outstanding and by far the best Hulk yet.
Overall, The Avengers amounts to just about everything you expect when you go to see a superhero film at the cinema. It is extremely fun.
After the publication of the comic and years of development issues, Watchmen finally graced cinema screens in 2009 under the guidance of Zack Snyder. Starring an ensemble cast consisting of the likes of Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley and Malin Akerman, the plot is set in an alternative Cold War timeline in 1985, where a group of retired vigilantes are the targets of a conspiracy in the United States, forcing them to band together one more time to uncover and expose the shifty goings-on.
Not long removed from his bloody, visual epic 300, Zack Snyder carries some familiar elements with him in the creation of Watchmen: it is one of the most violent films the superhero genre has seen (in that sense, it stays truer to the comic) and is also one of the most visually intriguing, feeling like you are genuinely watching a graphic novel play out on-screen. When it was released the film divided opinion among audiences, with some critics proclaiming that it is too close to the source material and thus the plot is too contrived and thus unable to breathe. Others appreciated the true nature of the film and that it did not shy away from the violence depicted in the graphic novel, which many superhero films tend to do in order to reach a wider audience (in terms of cinema, an 18 certificate alienates a large percentage of the potential audience a film may acquire had that film received a 15 rating). For me, having never read the Watchmen graphic novel, the film is a success and the characters — although blotchy in places — are encapsulating, particularly Rorschach who is portrayed sublimely by Jackie Earle Haley.
Visceral and ambitious, Watchmen successfully offers a different perspective on the superhero genre in the 21st century.
Iron Man (2008)
The first instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man, hit cinemas in 2008 to widespread critical acclaim. Directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr as extravagant billionaire Tony Stark, the film follows Stark’s unavoidable creation and eventual utilisation of the Iron Man suit, along with his new-found philosophy to use the suit against evil.
Iron Man is as close to a perfect superhero film as you can get, without actually being perfect: a charismatic lead, a simple-yet-effective plot, a smart and witty script and entertaining action. Unfortunately its only downfall is a significant one — the villain. Jeff Bridges does a fine job as the sleazy, egotistical partner-turned-adversary to Iron Man, but the character itself is not very interesting and is flawed in places. Regardless, the focus of the film is on Robert Downey Jr and his portrayal of the title character. Downey delivers a cocky, effortless and witty performance, yet still provides enough humanity and emotion to make the audience sympathise with an otherwise pretty obnoxious billionaire. Supporting characters like Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Terrence Howard) offer the extra support Stark requires in order to achieve the correct balance between overly brash, and sentimental. The two Iron Man sequels are not quite as good as their predecessor, but it would be a mean feat to achieve such status again.
The first offering from Marvel and by far the best, Iron Man almost has the correct concoction of elements to create the perfect superhero film.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Although I have The Dark Knight stated above as my favourite superhero film of all time, the trilogy as a whole should be at the summit. The only reason they are not is because this post would probably become a bit repetitive and boring. It would be like watching Saw 4 and then realising Saw 5 is on its way. So while much of the focus here will be on The Dark Knight, I am really including Batman Begins and The Dark Knights Rises as my top superhero films of all time too.
Directed by the majestic Christopher Nolan and released in 2008, The Dark Knight stars Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and follows on from the events in Batman Begins. Wayne (as Batman), teaming with police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), take down an unrivalled number of criminals and bring them to justice. This causes The Joker (Heath Ledger) to devise a plot aiming to bring Gotham to its knees and reduce its heroes to nothing more than the level of The Joker himself.
I mentioned just a moment ago that Iron Man comes so close to being the perfect superhero film. For me, The Dark Knight fills that spot. Everything about this film hits the bullseye. From the dark, unnerving atmosphere to the themes embroidered into the plot to the incomparable performance from the late Heath Ledger as The Joker (a performance that earned him an Academy Award in 2009). Ledger’s Joker is unpredictable, viscous and intelligent, and is arguably the greatest villain of all time in a superhero film (you will get no argument from me though). Although Ledger steals the show, Christian Bale more than holds his own as Batman — cool and stylish on the outside, but unsure and under pressure on the inside. The two bounce off of each other with immaculate chemistry. The sheer volume of characters in the film has been questioned by viewers (such as the need for Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent), but for me every character plays an essential part to the story — incidentally, Maggie Gyllenhaal is far more suited to playing Rachel Dawes than Katie Holmes was in Batman Begins. Hans Zimmer once again provides the haunting soundtrack, which adds more substance to the already eerie atmosphere.
A film about values and hope, The Dark Knight is not just a great superhero film, it is an outstanding piece of cinema. The Dark Knight is the superhero film we needed, but probably not the superhero film we deserved. Sorry, I just could not help myself.
Okay, so now for a few honourable mentions. These films are great too:
Batman (1966) — A feature-length film inspired by the Batman television series, Batman: The Movie takes more of a comedy angle than a violent one, with Adam West and Burt Ward reprising their roles as Batman and Robin respectively. Comical, over-the-top fun.
The Incredibles (2004) — The only animated film on the list, The Incredibles achieved universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike after its release. An entertainment-fest about a family of superheroes out to save the world.
Kick-Ass (2010) — Right from the opening scene (poor kid) all the way to the closing dialogue, Kick-Ass is a hilarious superhero comedy for an older audience. Nicholas Cage is actually good in this film. Just about.
Thor (2011) — A few eyebrows may have been raised when the director of Hamlet and Henry V was announced as the man at the helm of the superhero film, Thor, but Kenneth Branagh answered any questions by providing a flashy, amusing and solid re-introduction to the Thor character.
X-Men: First Class (2011) — This was pretty close to getting into my top five. Not only is the film encapsulating, energetic and youthful, it is also extraordinarily performed — particularly James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto.