As the superhero franchise machine rumbles on, it seems like an appropriate time to look back at the history of the genre. I’ve explored its past, present and future and now I’m here to put my neck on the line and decide on the top ten superhero films of all time.
Super deserves its place if only for making you think about every other film in the Top Ten in a new way. Kick-Ass gained all the attention in 2010, but Super was more true to its word as an exploration of what would happen if an ordinary guy tried to be a superhero. Director James Gunn pulls no punches in showing the seedy, unglamorous reality of a “real-life superhero”, eagerly interrogating the fetishisation of the costume, the empowerment and corruption of the trampled underdog and the true motives behind donning the mask. There are some narrative missteps and missed opportunities along the way, but Super is well worth a watch for Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page’s beautifully deranged performances and what is officially the best title sequence in the genre.
9. The Incredibles
The best Fantastic Four film not featuring the Fantastic Four. Brad Bird delivers a delightful take on the superhero’s mid-life crisis that feels like a family-friendly Watchmen twenty years on. The script is sometimes lacking ambition, and the characters can feel a bit caricatured, but these are easy faults to forgive when everything else is just so much fun. The humour is sharp as well, and the visuals fizz with energy, raising the question of just why there aren’t more animated superheroes on our screens?
Really, we have Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve to thank that the superhero film as we know it exists at all. Back in 1978 they brought the Man of Steel to life in a winning partnership that beautifully realised every aspect of Superman’s origin story. Donner’s direction is particularly effective in the early scenes on the Kent farm, with a warmth and charm that only grows as Superman tries to woo Lois Lane. Christopher Reeve masters the two sides to the superhero’s identity, bringing both bumbling humour and gravitas to the role, the latter epitomised by the moment where he literally turns back time to save Lois’ life.
7. X-Men: Days of Future Past
If you were confused by Future Past’s time travel plot or annoyed at its carefree revisions of franchise continuity then you need to take a step back and remember that you’re watching a superhero film. Continuity is irrelevant in a genre where you’re never more than five years away from a reboot, and besides that, who wouldn’t want to retcon the entirety of The Last Stand? Singer’s direction is full of dynamism and energy, particularly in the fight scenes, and he and his design team deserve huge credit for balancing the tones of both timelines. Some of the clashes between Xavier (McAvoy), Magneto (Fassbender) and Mystique (Lawrence) are extremely powerful, but above all it’s the sense of cheeky energy that elevates this film, most of all in Quicksilver (Evan Peters)’s brief but dazzling cameo.
6. Batman Returns
Batman Returns is home to the most memorable version of Gotham ever seen on screen. The nightmarish snowscape is dominated by brutal sculptures and looming gothic skyscrapers that provide a perfect home for Keaton’s restrained Batman. If anything, he is overshadowed by the triple bill of memorable adversaries: Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). DeVito is genuinely sympathetic as a deformed orphan shunned by society while Pfeiffer is dangerously captivating as the feminist feline antihero. Burton’s Batman couldn’t be more different from Nolan’s – where else would you find mind-controlled penguin suicide-bombers? – but it’s just as thrilling and powerful to watch.
5. Superman II
With the origin story out of the way, Superman II moved on to bigger and bolder things despite the fraught production which saw original director Richard Donner fired and replaced by Richard Lester. General Zod (Terence Stamp) is a terrifyingly emotionless enemy as he wreaks havoc on the earth, culminating in the legendary “Kneel before Zod” encounter with the President, a scene which has been echoed as recently as The Avengers. Clark and Lois’ relationship is also more complex and powerful in the sequel, so much so that Clark even gives up his powers to be with her, sinking to rock bottom before triumphantly returning to save the world.
Chronicle takes the natural bombast of the superhero film and channels it into a found footage experiment that defies all odds. You’d expect the conceit to kill any chance of high-octane thrills, but instead it rediscovers the highs and lows of the superhero origin story for an audience bored by the same old-same old. Josh Trank’s direction brings warmth and energy to the camaraderie between withdrawn loner Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and the high school hero Steve (Michael B. Jordan) before their powers throw their lives into chaos. From the euphoria of playing American football in the clouds to the chill of seeing Andrew dismember a spider with his mind, this is a film full of powerful and inventive moments. No other film captures so vividly the reality of suddenly developing superpowers and the horror of the potential consequences.
3. The Dark Knight
No offence to the entire cast and crew of The Dark Knight, but there’s only one reason this film ranks at number three in my list, and that’s Heath Ledger. In his penultimate, cataclysmic performance, Ledger lights up the screen with every word and leaves Nicholson’s much-lauded Joker skulking in the shadows. Nolan’s direction and Pfister’s cinematography turn Gotham into a fierce, nocturnal inferno, though the result can sometimes leave the viewer feeling a little po-faced. Without Ledger, The Dark Knight would’ve been great; with him, it’s almost genius.
2. Spider-Man 2
We’ve had The Dark Knight, and now here’s the dark horse of this top ten. Spider-Man 2 succeeds, above all, thanks to its excellent script which brings real insight and development to the struggles of young Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). Uniquely, it’s the realisation that he’s losing his friendship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), not the presence of an unstoppable villain, that prompts him to temporarily give up the mask. This decision brings a very human emotional side to the film which peaks in a stunning moment on the New York train tracks. Spidey has just passed out after stopping the train from crashing and as he is about to fall to the ground, the passengers hold him and carry him to safety. It’s almost messianic and offers an emphatic response to every flicker of doubt that has ever crossed a superhero’s mind.
1. The Avengers
The Avengers blew audiences away when they assembled in 2012, throwing together the fledgling franchises of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor into a volatile cocktail that many feared would struggle to cope with audience expectations and its A-list cast. They need not have worried. Whedon’s script balances wit and drama with a cavalcade of vibrant action scenes and makes ridiculous the notion that anyone could be against uniting Downey Jr., Hemsworth, Hiddleston, Evans, Ruffalo, Johansson, and Renner on screen. Whedon’s direction is astoundingly assured considering his biggest directing gig before this was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and he draws superb performances from every single actor and actress. The pace never flags despite the running-time and Tony Stark’s storyline of learning to play well with others makes this far more than just an infinitely quotable crowd-pleasing blockbuster.
Honourable mentions: Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013), Kick-Ass (Vaughn, 2010), X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011), Batman (Burton, 1989).
What do you think of our choices? Have we made any errors? Are there glaring omissions? Let us know who you’d add and lose below…