But the thing is, I'm becoming very disappointed in the direction superhero films are taking. I saw the latest Avengers installment today, and it was a huge let-down: too chaotic, too noisy, too full of unconvincing computer-generated mayhem and too-obvious philosophical truths (there is evil in all of us, etc.) at the expense of plot or character development. (In this respect it was only marginally worse than the first, which had all the above problems but a somewhat more coherent script.) Maybe I'm getting too old, and maybe I shouldn't complain if movies about caped deities seem immature. But the best superhero movies have always struck me as intense, inventive, and emotionally complex explorations of what it means to be human. They don't need to be sophomoric video games.
So here, for fun, is a list of my 10 favorite superhero movies. Enjoy, and feel free to suggest others!
- X-Men. By far the best of the bunch, this film about super-powered mutants is a trenchant analysis of prejudice and victimization with a brilliant cast, great special effects, and compelling story. The conflict between Magneto and Professor X is incisively drawn, the relationship between Wolverine and Rogue surprisingly tender. And some of the action sequences--most notably, Magneto's game of Russian Roulette at the train station--are utterly stunning.
- Spider-Man 2. I'm talking about the original series here, with Tobey Maguire in the lead role. I found this one of the most emotionally gripping of all superhero movies, with the hero struggling to reconcile his responsibilities with his desires. And the performance by Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus was amazing. Not surprisingly, novelist Michael Chabon shared story credits on this film.
- Batman. The Michael Keaton/Tim Burton original. Without lavish special effects, this film gets to the heart of the Batman mythos in ways the overblown Dark Knight films can't touch. Keaton was a surprising but perfect choice, Jack Nicholson was great as the Joker, and Burton managed to satisfy the demands of the genre while keeping his own eccentricities on a tight rein (something he failed to do in the bizarre sequel).
- Iron Man. The first and best of the three-part series (all of which are pretty darn good). I had a few problems with the film's politics--which seem to suggest that it's okay to produce weapons of mass destruction as long as they don't fall into the hands of the "bad guys"--but the great performance by Robert Downey Jr. and the gritty realism (for a film in this genre) redeem it.
- Daredevil. One of the things I've always disliked about the Dark Knight films (and comics) is their tedious repetition of the timeworn cliche that heroes and villains are actually the same deep inside. Yeah, yeah, yawn. But in Daredevil, vigilantism is represented with something like its true psychological complexity. Plus, the movie's villain--an over-the-top Bullseye--is hilarious.
- X-Men: First Class. Another classy chapter in the X-Men series (in truth, there's not a bad film in the bunch), this one anchored by the astonishing performance of Michael Fassbender as a young, tortured Magneto. The scene in which he confronts escaped Nazis in Argentina is worth the price of admission in itself.
- The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In general, I don't see the need for all these "re-boots" of existing superhero movies. (I just heard that a new Fantastic 4 is coming out this summer.) And I didn't much care for the first installment of the new Spider-Man franchise, which seemed to add nothing to the old except an unconvincing green monkey-dog supposed to be the Lizard. But the second film in the new series hits all the right notes, with Jamie Foxx expertly cast as the bumbling loner-turned supervillain Electro, and with a surprise death at the end I never expected the filmmakers to have the guts to carry out.
- Guardians of the Galaxy. All right, this one is fairly chaotic, but at least it's chaotic in the name of fun and not in the super-serious, portentous fashion of so many overblown superhero flicks. The moment the hero entered a secret lair on a remote planet to the tune of Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love," I was hooked.
- Spider-Man. The first film in the Tobey Maguire series. The Green Goblin as played by Willem Dafoe was a great villain, and the young actors did a terrific job of capturing teen angst and insecurity. The third film in this series had too many villains and too much stuff going on, but the first two are solid.
- The Incredibles. I'm cheating a bit here, since this Disney/Pixar film isn't based on a comic book. But I loved how deftly the film turned superhero conventions on their head while still paying homage to the spirit and style of the genre. Kind of an Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for the silver screen.