As the arrival of “X-Men: Apocalypse”(read our review) this week reminds us, superheroes are still the dominant story in the blockbuster world. Sure, “Jurassic World” and “Furious 7” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” might have outgrossed any superhero film last year, but if anyone thought that meant that the genre was on the way out, they’ve been proven wrong in 2016: ‘Apocalypse’ is the fourth superhero pic in as many months, and the three previous ones have taken over $2.5 billion between them.
Steven Spielberg, among others, believes that before too long, the superhero film will go the way of the Biblical epic, the roadshow musical or the western, massively popular in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s respectively, but burning out relatively quickly. Others believe that the vast history of comic books leaves plenty of material to be untapped, and these films can just keep going and going.
Of course, not every entry in the genre has been great. Big misses (either creatively, financially, or both) have included “Spider-Man 3,” “Catwoman,” “Green Lantern” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice,” but the very best of the genre can be subversive twists on the century-old archetypes, or can be big blockbusting fun of the kind few other tentpoles can compete with.
To mark the release of the latest X-Men movie (at sixteen years, the longest-running of the superhero franchises at this point), we’ve decided to sift through all the people-in-spandex movies, and pick out our favorites of all time. Take a look at the list below, and let us know what you’d put as your own faves in the comments.
25. “Chronicle” (2012)
There isn’t a cape or a pair of tights in sight, but “Chronicle” is undoubtedly a superhero movie, and one that proved to be a breath of fresh air in the genre just as it was starting to reach saturation. The people responsible — Josh Trank and Max Landis — have had mixed fortunes since, Trank landing in director’s jail after “Fantastic Four,” Landis making big-money sales but attracting a ;pt pf critical heat, often deservedly — but their respective feature debut suggested real talents in the making, even with a premise that seemed as cynical as dropping the found-footage conceit onto the superhero pic. Tracing three high schoolers (Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan and Dane DeHaan) who discover a strange object that gives them amazing powers, it is going over some familiar territory to some extent — the corrupting nature of power, the thrill of getting godlike powers. And it’s hard to shake — from Russell’s utterly bland lead squaring off against DeHaan’s loner outsider — that it’s not a film that sides resolutely with the happy popular white dudes (female characters are given short shrift too). But the performances by DeHaan and Jordan are so good, its visceral thrill of superheroics so palpable, and Trank makes the finished product so deeply watchable, that it still feels like something different for the genre.
24. “Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm” (1993)
Some Batman fans will sweat that Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s “Batman: The Animated Series,” which aired 85 episodes on Fox between 1992 and 1995, is the definitive adaptation of the character, a gorgeously-designed, inventive, grown-up but not gritty take on the character. Even those raised on Nolan’s ‘realistic’ movies could potentially be swayed after checking out “Mask Of The Phantasm,” the feature-length spin-off of the show that got a brief theatrical release from Warner Bros in 1993 (hence its inclusion here). The film sees Batman (Kevin Conroy) blamed for a series of murders of criminals actually committed by a masked vigilante known as the Phantasm, who appears to be targeting the Joker (Mark Hamill), while Bruce Wayne’s ex-fiancé Andrea (Dana Delany) returns to town. That the two things are related isn’t exactly the biggest surprise in film history, but this is otherwise deeply satisfying even at 76 minutes and with production values not massively upgraded for the big-screen: the animation remains stylish, the voice acting excellent and the story clearly given more thought in the Tim Burton films (and certainly the later Joel Schumacher ones). The movie bombed at the box office, but spawned literally dozens of DC DTV spin-offs which are mostly improvements on their live-action cousins.
23. “The Rocketeer” (1991)
You can see why pulp-style comic book heroes proved so attractive to studio heads in the early part of the 1990s: in the aftermath of the success of Tim Burton’s “Batman,” a character like a “Dick Tracy,” “The Shadow” or “The Phantom” seemed more achievable to pull off than a Thor or a Green Lantern, given that they played in film noir or “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”-type territory that had been successful on screen many times. Most of those films were dire, but there was one great superhero/pulp crossover movie, in the shape of Joe Johnston’s “The Rocketeer.” Based on Dave Stevens’ comics character (created in the 1980s but set, and with its roots in, the 1930s), the film sees stunt pilot Cliff (Billy Campbell) discover a jet pack stolen by mobsters from Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn), and don a art deco mask to become a flying hero, eventually battling an Errol Flynn-ish movie star (Timothy Dalton) who’s secretly a Nazi spy, and who has his sights set on Cliff’s girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly). The film’s script has some whopping great holes in it, and Campbell is a bit forgettable as a lead, but Johnston strikes exactly the right tone (one that would stand him in good stead in years with another superhero pic years later…), the film being a bright, beautifully designed adventure steeped in Hollywood lore and retro fun that feels like such an antidote to the CGI overload of so many of today’s superhero pics.
22. “The Crow” (1994)
Destined to be forever overshadowed by the awful, sad death of star Brandon Lee in an on-set accident, and spawn of multiple sequels, exactly none of which are any good, “The Crow” is a film whose reputation precedes it. And yet despite all of that, and despite it being an over-violent, inarguably dated relic of the early 1990s, it continues to endure as an unexpectedly engaging, deeply watchable film. Based on James O’Barr’s comic (itself informed by the death of the writer’s fiancée), it sees Eric Draven (Lee) resurrected a year after both he and his fiancée Shelly (Sofia Shinas) were murdered by a gang. Emboldened by some superpowers, and guided by the mystical bird of the title, Eric sets out to take vengeance on the criminals responsible. The film sometimes feels like hanging out with a caricatured goth (up to and including Eric playing guitar on the roof of the city), and its bleakness and despair could easily become oppressive. But although the violence can be too sadistic, director Alex Proyas finds the right tonal tightrope to walk, never quite over-silly nor over-serious (the cast of A+ character actor villains, including Michael Wincott, Tony Todd, David Patrick Kelly and Bai Ling, help). And though it’s at least partly accidental, the film has a haunting tone that few films in the genre can match, Lee’s promising breakthrough role heartbreakingly left as his last as well.
21. “Superman II” (1980)
The first of many troubled superhero sequels, “Superman II” was initially meant to be shot back to back with its predecessor, but fights between producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and director Richard Donner, saw the filmmaker fired after completing three-quarters of the shoot, with Richard Lester brought on for extensive reshoots. It was a mess, and yet the finished product is more often than not hugely enjoyable, even if some might find it heretical to say so (Donner was able to release a 2006 cut of an approximation of his version, and it’s rather lesser than the released cut). Picking up soon after the original, the film sees a trio of Kryptonian criminals, led by General Zod (Terence Stamp) arrive on Earth and attempt to conquer it, while Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Superman/Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) fall further in love after he reveals his identity to her, with the latter losing his powers in an attempt to prove his devotion. It’s overstuffed, manically plotted and more than a little scrappy, but rather lighter on its feet than its predecessor, with Gene Hackman seemingly having more fun as Lex Luthor, and Terence Stamp’s Zod becoming one of the great super-villains. It’s campy in places, but in a rather charming, winning way, and unfortunately remains, thirty-six years on, the last really good “Superman” movie” (though ‘Returns’ has its charms too).