“X-Men” was a floodgate-opening film – not because it was exceptionally great (although it is pretty good), but because it showed Hollywood that people would shell out big to see superhero movies. Obviously, big comic properties had made it to the big screen prior to July 2000, but “X-Men” was the dawn of a new age of cinematic superheroics.
Since the first film adventure of Professor X & Co., numerous comics properties have seen film adaptation, and other original superhero movies have hit the big screen. Few of them have been truly great, but many of them have been very fun ways to plow through two hours of popcorn munching.
With “The Avengers” closing off Phase One of the Marvel cinematic universe, “The Amazing Spider-Man” rebooting the wallcrawler and “The Dark Knight Rises” capping Christopher Nolan’s Bat-adaptations, 2012 seems like a good time to demarcate a new era of superhero movies. Not a lot might be different, but it seems like the next generation has begun.
As such, let’s look at the 10 best films of the generation that was.
10. Green Lantern
I know, I know. I’m one of the only defenders of this movie, but I still think it’s underrated. Though it has some problems (the murky, nebulous Krona/Parallax villain being chief among them), the movie looks great, Mark Strong embodies Sinestro, and Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively keep things relatively light in one of the more faithful comics adaptations I’ve seen (for the source, check out Geoff Johns’ “Green Lantern: Secret Origin).
9. The Dark Knight Rises
I’m still trying to determine how much of my feelings for this movie were influenced by anticipation vs. what I actually saw, but it’s a tribute to Nolan that he could make a movie with so many obvious flaws that still hangs together so well. Though its middle is often murky, a solid ending and Nolan’s always impressive visuals contribute to a Batman film that still leaves you satisfied – just not as much as the other two.
8. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
This is a stretch, but I’m including it because it is based on a (fantastic) comic and because while Scott essentially is just living in an augmented reality, he does appear to be relatively superhuman in it. Director Edgar Wright applies a deft, quirky hand to the material, and Michael Cera is perfect for the role of emotionally-ineffectual Scott. He’s even taking a slightly different approach to his usual “awkward but cute” shtick.
7. Spider-Man 2
Sure, the relationship between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and Harry Osborn (James Franco) was often uncomfortably wooden, but besides that, the first trilogy of Spider-films was darn good. “Spider-Man 2” stands head and shoulders above the rest, thanks to the series’ best action sequences and a standout performance by Alfred Molina as Doc Ock.
6. Iron Man
Though it flags a bit at the finale with a Transformers-esque sequence, “Iron Man” is made of gold for almost all of the preceding minutes, with a hilariously snarky Robert Downey Jr. holding down the title role and plenty of whiz-bang effects sequences throughout. “Iron Man” is impressive for a variety of reasons, but its biggest success is making Tony Stark even more interesting outside of the suit than he is inside it.
5. The Incredibles
Not as heart-warming as “Up” or as high concept as “Wall-E” or “Monsters Inc.,” “The Incredibles” still stands tall among Pixar’s offerings by presenting a believable family drama wrapped inside a surprisingly good-looking action flick. Remember the hovercraft chasing Dash through the jungle, or the robot attack at the film’s end? It’s not often that a cartoon can pull off the one-two punch of rivaling live action’s emotional impact and effects sequences, but “The Incredibles” pulls it off with seemingly little effort.
4. X2: X-Men United
The best of the wildly uneven X-Men film franchise (five movies and counting!), “X2” makes the most of its team’s interactions and power sets in a funny, exciting romp that ultimately comes down on the side of forgiving those who do you wrong, not seeking revenge. It also is home to arguably the best scene in any superhero movie: Magneto’s escape from his plastic jail cell, thanks to a careless guard’s iron superfluity.
3. Batman Begins
Though its aspirations to “epicness” are far lower than either of its predecessor’s, Nolan’s first Batman film deserves recognition for shaking off a decade of crappy Bat-films and crafting something that actually felt worthy of Bruce Wayne’s darker half: a thrilling, gritty, and sometimes scary examination of Gotham’s protector. As Batman (Christian Bale) wreaked havoc on Falcone’s drug smugglers, viewers were given their first glimpse of a man who could truly inspire nightmares in the underworld, in a way that West, Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney never could.
2. The Avengers
A film created for brand synergy and pieced together out of the threads of five other movies (some of them pretty bad) should not be nearly as good as “The Avengers” actually is. Many thanks are due to director/screenwriter Joss Whedon, who is finally starting to get the widespread recognition his hardcore fans have given him for so long. “The Avengers” is almost constantly funny, exciting, or both, with all of the titular team members turning in compelling performances and a final conflict that feels appropriately epic without being entirely overwhelming.
1. The Dark Knight
What can I say that hasn’t been said? Everything, from Ledger’s Joker to the Zimmer/Howard soundtrack to Bale’s Batman to every striking action segment to the doggedly oppressive atmosphere is just… Well, it’s not perfect, but it’s likely the closest a superhero movie is going to get. I feel sorry for whoever ends up being tasked with following up this franchise; it’s hard to believe Batman can be better on the screen.