First published on 9 Jul 2012. Updated on 9 Jul 2012.
It's the top ten, folks, and we're ignoring those boring everyday superheroes in favour of a curmudgeonly cancer victim, a leather-clad playboy, a gun-toting coffee salesman, two brain-fried alien zookeepers and a whole gang of mixed-up DIY rebels...
10. American Splendor (2003)
No one runs the gamut from bitter disgruntlement to teeth-grinding rage against the Universe like Paul Giamatti, at least not since the passing of Harvey Pekar, whose long-running comic book American Splendor mined a mighty black vein of mundane alienation. As played by Giamatti, Pekar is equal parts rotten bastard, self-pitying child and misunderstood genius. It's an uncompromising portrayal, as Berman & Pulcini's adaptation fearlessly cuts an already ponderous narrative with interviews with Pekar and his friends and work colleagues, weaving the contents and creation of Pekar's semi-fiction into a blend of real life and real art. In interview, Pekar himself has exactly the air of his fictional home in the film; he's musty, dishevelled, prone, you suspect, to inconvenient leaks and mildew. He is in constant need of repair, a closet egotist's need that Giamatti portrays with subtlety and a quiet disdain for sentimentality. The early Pekar is a hard watch as he goes about his screwed-down business, quietly recording the sparks of life still animating his coworkers and the million tiny injustices visited each day upon his own head. The reward for the audience, as it was for those who knew Pekar, is in the life-affirming insight that comes from sticking with the increasingly articulate malcontent right to the not-so-bitter end. PF
9. Men in Black (1997)
Sci-fi and comedy often make for uncomfortable bunkmates. For every Galaxy Quest there's a Space Truckers, for every Mars Attacks! there's a whole load of Spaceballs. The rule of thumb seems to be that any successful galactic laugh-a-rama should hold up as a serviceable sci-fi saga even if you were to strip it bare of gags. MiB, for its part, is crammed with more slick ideas, giddy wonderment, groovy hardware and thrilling set pieces than all but a handful of recent straight-up science fiction movies, and that's before you factor in the film's razor sharp comic sensibility. All this plus some natty '60s-inspired production design, A-grade special effects, two pitch-perfect leads and an elegant plot made it one of the most purely enjoyable films of the ‘90s. ALD
8. Mystery Men (1999)
In all the fuss about Kick-Ass, it was largely forgotten that the whole ‘superheroes can be ordinary people too' idea had been done before, and done a lot better. Mystery Men doesn't just have one of the best ensemble casts in living memory (deep breath: Ben Stiller, William H Macy, Hank Azaria, Eddie Izzard, Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Greg Kinnear, Lena Olin and a simply amazing turn from Tom Waits, even managing to drag notable performances from serial offenders like Paul Reubens, Kel Mitchell and, um, Michael Bay) it also benefits from a wildly inventive script, inspired by Bob Burden's original comic book but, if anything, even madder: this is a movie which dares to have the supposed hero killed off (by the actual hero, no less) in a bizarre accident, which sports as many endlessly quotable lines as any film on this list ("We strike down evil with the mighty sword of teamwork and the hammer of not bickering!") and a unique, oddball visual sense to rival the Burtons and the Del Toros of this world. The film flopped, the sequel never came, and director Kinka Usher has never directed since. The world is mad, I tell you. Mad. TH
7. Batman Returns (1992)
Despite Tim Burton's incremental decline into creative rot over recent years there's an argument to be made that it was his superlative Batman movies that allowed him entry into the Hollywood firmament in the first place. The twilight travails of DC's brooding, masked crusader seemed to chime perfectly with Burton's gothic, vaguely off-kilter visual sensibility, and with a near-perfect pair of films he managed to mesh together the ripping yarn of a tortured playboy with a slyly adult take on stock comic book crime fighting adventures.
Of course, Jack Nicholson was perfectly cast as the Joker in the original, Prince-soundtracked 1990 version of the film, but it was the sequel that really got people to sit up and take notice. Michael Keaton re-assumed his role as Bruce Wayne, but this time he didn't just have one charismatic foe to defeat, but three. First and foremost was Michelle Pfeiffer's sexpot take on Catwoman, her revealing, spray-on-latex costume surely bringing an untapped ‘specialist' audience into the cinema; then there was Danny DeVito as the Penguin, the foul, pint-sized underground (literally) crime lord who wants to bring his empire to the streets of Gotham; and finally there's Christopher Walken as the pencil-pushing tycoon Max Shreck, whose coin allows these two animals to wreak their eccentric havoc on the city. It was perhaps the long, triumphant shadow of this mighty achievement which made Joel Schumacher's subsequent franchise entries seem even more dire than the meandering rivers of neon slurry they actually were. DJ
6. A History of Violence (2005)
It's somewhat ironic that the film within David Cronenberg's unique oeuvre that feels least like it was adapted from a graphic novel is in fact the one that was. Movies like Shivers, The Fly and Existenz all feel like they could've ripped straight from the pages of a speculative science fiction page-turner, rather than this smouldering drama about the regular small town Joe who turns out to be... well, anything but a regular small-town Joe. Not falling into the trap of attempting to merely replicate 2000AD linchpin John Wagner's graphic novel on the screen, Cronenberg brings his queasy, corporeal concerns regarding our inability to read or truly understand people from their physical exteriors to a tightly wound drama of family dysfunction and the resurfacing of personal demons. Viggo Mortensen gifted the film with an astonishingly nuanced performance in the lead, and has since become a Cronenberg muse with follow-up, Eastern Promises and psychoanalysis piece A Dangerous Method. DJ
5. Akira (1988)
For most of us in the West, Akira was our first mind-expanding peek into the world of anime, and it took our breath away. We'd all been exposed to Battle of the Planets and Mysterious Cities of Gold as kids, so we were familiar with the style, the detailed but motionless backdrops and jerky, overexpressive foreground action. But substance-wise, this was something completely unexpected: Akira opens with a nuclear explosion and only gets wilder. There was a lot else here we were familiar with – the look was a bit Blade Runner, a bit 2000AD, and those of us who had already graduated to William Gibson and cyberpunk had some kind of handle on where we thought writer-director Otomo was going. But Akira still managed to wrongfoot viewers at every turn, throwing in gang warfare and organ harvesting, mysticism and military malfeasance, cryogenics and berserk, grotesque Cronenbergian body horror. It may not have made complete narrative sense – and it definitely paved the way for the low-rent, exploitative likes of Urotsukidoji and Fist of the North Star – but Akira was and remains a key moment in the development and acceptance of world animation, and a singularly strange, compelling experience. TH
4. Spider-Man 2
Having avidly followed a career making 1,000 mph lo-fi genre epics in which no camera angle was too obtuse and no special effect too outlandish (Evil Dead, Darkman, et al), it’s no wonder a vast, grease-coated army of basement-dwelling Games Workshop clubcard holders were eager to see what Sam Raimi would make of the juicy rites-of-passage material afforded to him by Stan Lee’s Spider-Man comics.
Yet few would’ve thought that he would pull it off with such élan, starting up one of the most unabashedly enjoyably and exhilarating comic book franchises ever to grace our multiplex screens. His first sage move was the casting of Tobey Maguire, who had already forged a neat typecast for himself as a perpetually befuddled bundle of teenage nerves in films like Wonder Boys and The Ice Storm, and as such made for a snug fit in Peter Parker’s Spandex leggings. Then there was Kirsten Dunst as feisty wannabe thesp Mary Jane Watson, whose affections were (initially) just out of the reach of Parker, belonging then to nemesis in the making, Harry Osborn (James Franco).
The first film was a little rough around the edges, but pasted over the cracks with its abundance of heart. The second hit the ball out of the park, over the freeway, across the state lines and deep, deep into the ocean. But while the casting and direction really suited the material, it was the happy-go-lucky tone that Raimi managed to whip up between each F1-paced effects set-piece that really made this a comic movie to treasure. And just outside the perimeter of the central love-triangle lurked lurked one hell of a bad guy, namely Alfred Molina’s scenery-chewing Doctor Octopus. So, memo to the people whose job it is to boot up a new sequence of Spidey pictures: bonne chance! DJ
3. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Building upon the solid, stylish, supremely strange world he conjured up for the first Hellboy, del Toro really let rip with a sequel that ramped up the scope and bombast of the original without allowing the intimacy and pathos of Big Red's thorny metaphysical predicament to fall by the wayside – and found room for some choice Barry Manilow ditties to boot!
Ron Perlman's winsome, lovelorn demonic beastie is the same old lovable lummox, but this time out he gets a much more acutely realised crew of wingmen, with Abe Sapien moving up through the ranks to fully-fleshed (or should that be ‘fully-fished'?) sidekick, Selma Blair's pyromaniac emo hottie required to do more than pout and moan, and the sniveling Rushmore-lite exposition vortex that was rookie FBI agent John Myers replaced with the disarming Teutonic charm of disembodied know-it-all Johann Krauss (delicately voiced by shy, retiring wallflower Seth MacFarlane).
But it's the baddies that make this second installment so satisfying, nudging the film from great to something close to comic book alchemy. Luke Goss is perfect as the vengeful Elvish prince who not only attempts to awaken the fearsome Golden Army and wrest the world from the ravages of man, but also begs some searching questions as to Hellboy's chosen place in the world. It's a beautiful judged performance, and when he and his psychically linked twin sis eventually meet their ends with the line "We die, and the world is worse for it..", you'll be choking on your Adam's apple (or weeping into the folds of your lovely dress). ALD
2. Ghost World (2001)
A masterful brew of teen guttersniping and slowly percolating anxiety that managed to be at once melancholy, socially relevant and painfully funny, director Terry Zwigoff's first foray into fiction filmmaking (following his sublime documentary profile of Robert Crumb) resulted in this cult comic book classic based around the acerbic doodles of hip Chicagoan malcontent, Daniel Clowes.
Leagues above modern, faux-alterno haughty fair like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and Juno, the film sees a perfectly cast Thora Birch rocking an iconic bob-n-spex look as alt culture magnet Enid, whose summer holiday spent attending art classes forms the backdrop for a story about a crucial, character-building period of her life that also allows her to reassess her relationship with level-headed best pal Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Enid's militant non-conformity allows the film to function as a sardonic hymn to the outsider, and its observations on the general dumbing down of art and culture (the scene in the club where a band of young white upstarts called ‘Blueshammer' play a track called ‘Pickin' Cotton Blues' really sums up everything that's wrong with modern music) allow the film to work as a clarion call to preserve and remember the people and places that our culture originally grew from. A brilliant movie, still. DJ
1. Superman II (1980)
The production history of the first two Superman films is an epic in itself, with its own heroes, villains and struggles for dominance. Even the list of rejects and almost-rans is astounding: Robert Redford, Sly Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Burt Reynolds and Neil bloody Diamond as Superman; Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Walken, James Caan and Paul Newman as Lex Luthor; Spielberg, Coppola, Friedkin and Lucas in the director's chair. But it's hardly surprising they said no: when Richard Donner signed on in 1976, fresh from ‘The Omen', the script was 400 pages long, the movie was intended to be shot in Italy and was so camp that it contained a cameo appearance from Telly Savalas in character as Kojak.
Donner changed all that: Superman was the first movie to even attempt to capture the true spirit of a comic book superhero, tipping the audience a sly (sometimes literal) wink, but treating the subject with seriousness, soul and absolute sincerity. The first movie may go off the rails in its last act, as Gene Hackman's OTT performance pushes matters back into high camp territory, but the film's opening sections are simple and beautiful, elevating the unironic, effortlessly iconic all-American purity of the central character into mythic, pseudo-religious but still emotionally rewarding territory.
But even though Superman was a huge success, Donner's troubles were far from over. With about 75 per cent of Superman II shot alongside the first film, production troubles and arguments over tone led to Donner being ‘released' from the project, and Richard Lester (already on-hand as a co-producer) brought in to finish it off. Lester junked much of Donner's material, added the Eiffel Tower opening and reworked the movie (notably the love scenes between Clark and Lois) to give it a lighter, breezier feel. But with Gene Hackman refusing to work with Lester, Marlon Brando demanding extra money for extra work (fair enough) and Margot Kidder having lost quite a lot of weight in the intervening year, the film as released was a tonally inconsistent patchwork guided by two very different visions.
And yet it remains a fantastic piece of work, vastly superior to the original in its action sequences and characterisation, particularly of the villains: Terence Stamp's General Zod remains the gold standard of supervillainy, while his city-flattening sidekicks Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and monosyllabic giant Non (Jack O'Halloran), though hardly what you'd call richly developed, are highly memorable. And while Lester certainly took Clark and Lois's relationship into '40s screwball territory, their courtship is still a beautifully realised and genuinely affecting romance.
But where the film scores highest is in its set-pieces: the aforementioned Paris death match kicks things off with a bang, but it only gets better: the arrival of Zod and the gang on the moon is both visually stunning (a Donner scene, and it shows) and genuinely unsettling, while Zod's attack on the White House isn't just a great subversive action sequence, but delivers by far the film's best line (see the clip below). The final Metropolis showdown between Supes and the bad guys may have dated, effects-wise, but it's a suitably apocalyptic finale.
It's impossible to imagine the modern superhero movie without Superman and its sequel - the costumes, the characterisation, that sly, perfectly judged balance of the knowingly ironic and the grittily realistic, the iconic and the emotional: it all starts right here. And while effects technology may have moved on, tastes may have broadened and the iconography may have been irrevocably altered, there's simply no substitute for Christopher Reeve in a cape, leaping tall buildings with a single bound. Look, up there in the sky... TH
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