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By Gary Johnson · June 13, 2016
Since the year 2000, the popularity of the comic book characters has spilled onto the big screen, taking over the battle for the summer box office in a big way. This year is no different, from the massive standoffs seen in Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman, to the merc with a mouth, Deadpool, as well as X-Men Apocalypse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. For now at least, the writing is on the wall – the comic book movie is here to stay. Whether that will always be true is an open question, but who has time to worry with films like Doctor Strange and Suicide Squad right around the corner? For now at least, the competition is intense, and we as moviegoers get to sit back and reap the benefits.
10. X-Men (2000)
The debut of Bryan Singer’s X-Men opened to the door to the mainstream for comic book movies. Prior to the release of the film, the world was still working hard to forget the train wreck that was Batman and Robin (1997). There were a few scattered movies of lesser-known characters floating around out there, but X-Men brought the world of super-powered heroes, in this case mutants, to life in a way that’s both highly imaginative and very relatable. Hugh Jackman’s performance as Wolverine was the icing on the cake to what was really a top notch cast for this now classic feature.
Humans fear what they don’t understand, and the special abilities and, sometimes, extreme appearances of Mutant-kind result in violence and discontent in this not-too-distant future. This motivates politicians to promote a Mutant Registration Act, so that the government knows all there is to know about mutants, who they are, and what they can do. In retaliation, Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants construct a machine capable of changing normal humans into mutants. Our beloved X-Men have to find a way to stop him before he turns all of the world leaders gathered for a summit meeting on Ellis Island in New York City into mutants themselves.
It’s a story about the struggle for acceptance in a harsh and unforgiving world and keeping yourself and your loved ones safe from persecution. The best kind of conflict offers valid points from both sides of the fence, and in this case, Magneto’s drive to protect his fellow mutants at all costs and Charles Xavier’s continued search for hope within the spirit of the world that they share makes for a philosophically engaging battle.
9. Thor (2011)
Based upon Norse Mythology, the tale of Thor sees this hero as the God of Thunder. Thor acts arrogantly in an early encounter with the Frost Giants and his father, Odin strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth to exist amongst mortal men. In the process Thor meets Astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster, played by Natalie Portman, and her crew of fellow scientists. Thor’s brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, discovers that Odin is not his true father, he seeks out his revenge through his infamous trickery causing havoc in Asgard.
Eventually that havoc finds its way to Earth as Loki unleashes the Destroyer to seek out and kill Thor, who is left basically defenseless without his hammer. Thor sacrifices himself to the Destroyer and in this act becomes deemed worthy once again for wielding his mighty hammer. Thor triumphs and the Destroyer is defeated. Thor leaves Jane and returns to Asgard to confront Loki. Odin then arrives at the scene and shuns Loki, who then lets himself fall into the abyss.
Thor is just a fun action packed superhero film, complete with subtle humor and excellent visual effects that gives us an epic sense of fantasy and adventure. Marvel continues with their proven formula and it works to establish the Thor characters and sets up the events that unfold later in the Avengers film.
8. Man of Steel (2013)
With Man of Steel, we’re introduced to the Superman of a new age. Henry Cavill plays the role in a more serious toned interpretation of the character. The essence of this film is about the gravity of baring responsibility for the people of Earth that Clark Kent comes to accept. This is a similar theme throughout Superman lore. The key difference here though is a firm focus on how the people of Earth perceive the Man of Steel himself.
He is an alien in their world and not always accepted. He is met with hostility and fear, which gives a more realistic version of the character in a modern day world. The Christopher Reeve Superman, although probably better accepted and recognized by audiences, doesn’t really work in today’s society. Today’s Superman has to fit today’s world, which would be more likely to meet him with tanks (even though it would do no good) than with open arms. As an outsider, he struggles to gain their acceptance even as he tries to protect them from the threat of another Kryptonian, General Zod.
Of course, any good Superman story would be incomplete without Lois Lane as an anchor for him. Amy Adams as Lois is the thing that keeps him grounded on this planet, and serves to remind him what he is fighting for. Her curiosity in him is genuinely good-natured, even though she is strong willed and will do whatever it takes to get her story. That resonates with Superman and helps him persist, as does the memory of his Earth father Jonathan Kent and his Kryptonian father Jor-El.
7. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Chris Evans establishes himself definitively as the Super Soldier Steve Rodgers, better known to most as Captain America. Cap is a fan favorite, and this film shows the rigors that he goes through in his early days to become the beloved hero. He is a scrawny young man with asthma from Brooklyn in 1942 who does his best to stand up for what he believes is right, especially against perceived bullies. Rogers tries to enlist in the army only to be shot down for his physical stature time and time again.
Eventually he is allowed in so that he can have an opportunity to serve his country against the threat of the Nazi invasion, or so he thinks. He finds himself as part of the Super Soldier program, as some thing of a guinea pig to test the serum, which transforms him into the Cap that that we know and love today. Captain America finds himself pitted against the evil leader of the Nazi division Hydra known as Johann Schmidt, otherwise known as Red Skull.
The first Captain America film is another step in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that goes on to set up events for later films. As with Thor, this film lays the groundwork in establishing key plot points that transpire later in the Avengers movie. We get Cap’s backstory and find out how much of a central figure he is to the MCU. We are also introduced to Bucky Barnes, who later comes back as the Winter Soldier in the Captain America sequel. Bucky also plays a key role in the events that tie things together in Captain America: Civil War.
6. Watchmen (2009)
The 1986 graphic novel Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, is a must own for any fan of comics and superheroes. There are very few collections of comics that are so brilliantly devised as this epic story of cold war tensions and striving to make a dark world a better place. Zack Snyder brings the film to life as beautifully as one reasonably could imagine under the restrictions of cinema. The old saying that the book is always better than the movie still holds true here, the reason being, of course, that you can fit a lot more into a book than a film. Still, for all its flaws, the story remains in tact. Even with the vast array of intertwined plots, the film does the source material excellent justice. The characters and direction are all spot on to the comic, especially Rorschach played by Jackie Earl Haley. The film is dark and gritty but through it there shines hope for a brighter future if humans can just figure out a way to band together for the greater good of all mankind without destroying ourselves with nuclear war. With this work, we are given the story of what is essentially the modern human conflict.
5. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Upon its release, Civil War seems to have gotten nearly unanimous praise from fans and critics alike. To be honest it is well deserved, Civil War was a fantastic film. The only real downside to the plot was just the simple notion about the premise.
Here’s my point – when the government tries to impose a registration act on mutants in the X-Men universe, it’s regarded as tyranny. What’s to make us believe that it’s anything different in regards to other superheroes, and who would follow it? In a way it goes against the premise of vigilantism in that the government and the law isn’t effective in distributing justice and so the people have to go beyond the law to get it done. These heroes are typically enemies of the state to begin with, but as long as they’re doing good for the community, the law tends to look the other way. Otherwise they’d be regarded as villains and another hero would have to stop them somehow. Ironically enough, I think the only hero that would reasonably have Tony Stark’s back on this issue would be Superman.
With that being said, what’s more fun than seeing your favorite heroes go up in arms against one another? It’s like a professional wrestling match; you root for your favorite. That’s pretty much what it comes down to and it’s all in good fun. At the end of the day, you know everyone will settle their difference and they’ll be friends again. Cap is always going rogue in the comics, and Tony Stark has an attitude that would likely escalate any confrontation and lead to fisticuffs under realistic circumstances so that part is really pretty believable. They’ve been setting that up in the MCU for a long time with the characters taking jabs at each other consistently throughout previous films.
4. Iron Man (2008)
In a previous life, I was unconvinced about the legitimacy of Iron Man as a superhero. Robert Downey Jr. swayed that opinion big time when he first appeared on the big screen as Tony Stark. Long story short, he’s perfect as the character, even when Tony Stark rubs you wrong way and does foolish things, which he is apt to do from time to time. He has the perfect blend of off the cuff humor and charm for the pompous, arrogant, and self-centered Tony Stark. It’s nearly impossible to make that kind of character appealing to an audience but Robert Downey Jr. makes him loveable with seemingly little effort. In addition to that, the Iron Man suit is basically a wearable fighter jet, powered by an Arc Reactor that was originally designed and built by hand in a cave. Needless to say that’s pretty impressive work, bravo Mr. Stark.
The first Iron Man film set a precedent that allowed the full effect of the MCU to take its current form. If Iron Man had been a flop like the recent Fantastic Four this would be a very different list. We might not have had the Avengers, or at least the way we see them today, and what a grim place the world would be if it were the case.
3. Avengers (2012)
The first Avengers film, directed by Joss Whedon, gives us the ultimate collage of classic Marvel superheroes. This is the film that fans of comic books have been fantasizing over since we first started flipping through the pages in awe. With all of the pieces firmly in place following the releases of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor, the world was finally ready for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Scarlett Johansson adds to the team as Natasha Romanoff, the former Soviet turned S.H.I.E.L.D. agent known as Black Widow. We’re also introduced to Hawkeye, the archer played by Jeremy Renner. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury commands as director of S.H.I.E.L.D. as the Avengers assemble and take battle against Thor’s brother Loki, with the power of the Tesseract (that we were introduced to in Captain America: The First Avenger) compels an army of extraterrestrial beings with the intention of conquering Earth. This film successfully introduced audiences to the fact that these characters can come together successfully, sharing the screen in a massive way. The result has amounted to a major paradigm shift for the genre, resulting in other studios pursuing their own versions of multi-character universes with intertwined conflicts.
2. Spider-Man (2002)
Say what you will about Sam Raimi, genius or madman, he was the first to bring Spider-Man to the big screen and for that he deserves a round of applause. The film, as well as its first sequel, remain among the best superhero movies of all time, with Willem Dafoe’s performance as Norman Osborn, aka the Green Goblin, perhaps giving the original a slight edge. The rest of the cast is also outstanding. Tobey Maguire makes for a fantastic Peter Parker/ Spider-Man. Kirsten Dunst is great as Mary Jane Watson, and J.K. Simmons is the perfect J. Jonah Jameson.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
It goes without saying that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy stands as one of the most prolific film series in American cinema, and of the three installments, The Dark Knight stands as the pinnacle. Heath Ledger delivered the performance of a lifetime in what became his last completed role. While his untimely passing may add in some degree to the mysticism that seems to surround the film, it doesn’t take away from the face that the the performance itself is top notch. On top of that, the film is expertly plotted, interweaving several storylines in a near flawless design all in service of a brilliant, thought-provoking conclusion.