Next week, two of the world’s biggest superheroes will face off against each other on the big screen in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Later in the year, two whole battalions of heroes will go into battle in Captain America: Civil War. And then there’s X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad and Doctor Strange, in this year alone. The 21st century has seen a tidal wave of superhero films, and with the Marvel Cinematic Universe still going strong and their rivals DC fighting to catch up, we’re going to get many more in the future. These films can give audiences thrilling stories, exciting action, characters with fantastical abilities to marvel at, and often thoughtful studies of what it would mean for a person to be in such a position.
In light of Batman v Superman‘s upcoming release, I decided to do a list of my top 10 personal favourite superhero films. And yes, I recognise that Batman occupies half the list; all I can say to that is, I love Batman!
10. Iron Man (2008)
Today, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has many films and TV shows to its name, but this is the one that started it all. Two main factors make this film work. First is the fact that it’s relatively grounded compared to other such films that existed by then – there may be some scientific stretches, but it leaves the more fantastical elements of the universe for later films: this is fitting given that the hero is getting his abilities from technology, not radiation or anything like that. Second, there’s the absolutely flawless performance of Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, giving the audience a really fun character who becomes a better man without ever losing the qualities that make him engaging.
09. Batman Begins (2005)
After the disaster of Batman & Robin, this film brought Batman back to the cinema in a worthy manner. Examining Bruce Wayne’s progression to becoming the Dark Knight, and the impact as Batman first appears in Gotham City, Batman Begins features brilliant acting, writing and cinematography. Like Iron Man, it’s quite grounded, almost minimalist: Batman is still putting together his crimefighting tools, and one of the first villains he encounters uses a simple mask instead of a full costume. This film looked like the beginning of a fantastic franchise, and it’s a shame that only two films followed under the direction of Christopher Nolan.
08. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
The excellent Batman: The Animated Series was my first real exposure to the character, and this feature film based on the series hangs onto much of what made it great. It has a great detective story as Batman pursues a homicidal vigilante, while also delving into the character’s soul as Bruce Wayne confronts his past and how he came close to moving on from the pain that motivates him. The action is really good, as is the voice acting: Kevin Conroy is still my favourite Batman, and Mark Hamill my favourite Joker. Plus in this one, we actually get to see the momentous moment where Bruce Wayne dons the cowl of Batman for the first time.
07. Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
Another animated film, featuring a different animation style and different voice actors, but still brilliant. The conflict features a number of villains – Red Hood, Joker, Black Mask, Ra’s al Ghul, and a couple of lower ones – but without being convoluted. It’s another emotional and thoughtful story, which looks into whether Batman’s approach to justice is really the most effective one – most notably, his refusal to kill even the Joker. At the climax, we actually see Batman admitting that he wants to kill the Joker – “but if I do that, if I allow myself to go down into that place, I’ll never come back.”
06. The Incredibles (2004)
From Disney and Pixar comes a superhero film not based on any comic property, though there are quite a few jokes from various places about it being “the only good Fantastic Four film”. It’s certainly family-friendly as superhero films go, and indeed much of its appeal comes from the interesting family drama between the main characters, even as they’re battling robots and dodging the villain’s evil henchmen. From superheroes being outlawed due to fear of their abilities and not always providing the right kind of help, to Mr Incredible suffering a mid-life crisis through not being able to live up to his potential, to the trouble that heroes with capes can get into, this is a well-written, funny and very enjoyable film.
05. V for Vendetta (2006)
Long before various courageous, no-nonsense teenage girls were fighting to bring down evil fascist governments, there was a man in a Guy Fawkes costume known only as V. While not quite as complex in its political examinations as the graphic novel by Alan Moore on which it’s based, it still takes an interesting look at how its world became the way it is. It features a series of great characters who the audience can root for, and who go on difficult journeys from one 5th November to the next. My favourite Alan Moore graphic novel is actually Watchmen, but as far as film adaptations go, I feel V for Vendetta improves a little on its source material.
04. The Avengers (2012)
This was the culmination of Marvel Studios’s ambitious aim to introduce a number of different heroes in their own films before throwing them all together to form a single team, as they do in the comics. The end result was a wonderful crossover which gave everything that the audience would want: not only a good story and exciting action, but the enjoyment of seeing these various characters play off each other.
03. Batman (1989)
Michael Keaton is my favourite live-action Dark Knight, portraying an unassuming Bruce Wayne and an imposing, capable Batman. Jack Nicholson is a natural choice to play the Joker, bringing lethal mania and genuine dark humour to the role. Between these two, plus the atmospheric, timeless portrayal of Gotham City and the Danny Elfman soundtrack, this is a film I’ve loved for a long time.
02. The Dark Knight (2008)
But not quite as much as this more recent Batman adaptation! Even more than Batman Begins, this places Batman in a relatively realistic setting, serving both the compelling story and the special effects of the action scenes. This is definitely a very complex film, with a range of different character arcs, difficult decisions to be made, and victory not being anywhere near as simple as beating up the bad guy and throwing him in jail. There’s not much more that can be said about the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker: it’s just brilliant – scary and absorbing. Just about everything in this film works.
01. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
However, this one tops the list, because it really ticks all the boxes of what a superhero film should be. It’s very entertaining: the abilities of Doctor Octopus make for very visually compelling battles with Spider-Man, and there’s a lot of humourous moments which stop short of being too silly. It mostly takes itself seriously, but not completely, and is able to have some fun with that – see Spider-Man commenting on how his costume rides up in the crotch. And it has a lot of heart and emotional depth: we see Peter Parker suffering real negative consequences for being a superhero, and having to look inward and think about his motivations. With all of this thrown together, there’s no question: Spider-Man 2 is my favourite superhero film of all time.