Superhero movies dominate the industry, and with that power comes a risk of going stale. Things need a refreshing take to balance out the formulaic releases. From R rated comedies to the epic ensemble battles keeps the train running for comic book adaptions. These films changed the game for the better.
#10: Spider-Man (2002)
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy does not age well when looking back, even the first two that are beloved to this day. The first one to star Toby Maguire as the wall-crawling hero showed the world that these can be big-budget blockbusters that please fans, critics, and make a ton of money ($821 mil).
#9: X-Men (2000)
Sure, the X-Men movies are not good, especially some of the later ones like Dark Phoenix. The first two that were acclaimed back during their release do not hold up, just like Raimi’s Spider-Man. Coming out two years before Maguire swinging around New York, X-Men took its relatively low budget ($75 mil compared to Spider-Man‘s $139 mil) to get a solid cast for something to build up into its own universe. The MCU has its own 23 movie franchise, but the X-Mansion is home to a roster of characters who built up a 19 year run of adventures before the Avengers arrived, even if it mostly sucks.
#8: The Dark Knight (2008)
You can look at Batman Begins as a step up for the superheroes coming to the big screen, but The Dark Knight is a masterpiece of a film due to its score, cinematography, cast, and epic story, whether people want to turn their noses up at it for its genre. Christopher Nolan got a great Bruce Wayne/Batman out of Christian Bale, the first Harvey Dent/Two-Face that was given justice by casting Aaron Eckhart, and possibly the best Joker from the departed Heath Ledger.
The tone differs from anything before it. Building off of its predecessor, it is a dark, gritty crime drama that takes into account the source material. For people wanting that extra maturity to the comic book adaptions, this was the first to nail that execution for that demographic of fans.
The level of quality in the second entry in this trilogy sets the bar so high that only a few have been able to reach, and that is an argument many will disagree on. Even those films that can match The Dark Knight, none of them have hit that same feeling like it was when watching this for the first time.
#7: Iron Man (2008)
The MCU will get mentioned a lot here, and starting with the movie that kicked it all off before Disney even purchases Marvel came from Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Many actors have had the perfect casting with their heroic roles, but it is hard to beat Robert Downey Jr., who brought the spotlight to a character that not everyone knew.
For today’s standard’s it might seem reasonably formulaic, but it was the first ingredient in that recipe. To get this trend moving, it needed to be standardized. Iron Man laid out the groundwork for more experimental films could come into the genre.
#6: The Avengers (2012)
The first genuinely epic ensemble to go to the screen unlike anything ever created came in 2012. The world thought it would end due to an ancient calendar; instead, it went from an invasion of aliens and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Earth’s Mightiest Heroes had great success at the box office, but this cemented this franchise’s legacy.
Unlike X-Men, we get much better chemistry between characters and higher stakes that are felt. Moving forward, characters get fleshed out and have better dynamics between their partners in saving the world. This was the beginning, and we would not have these incredibly grand adventures with Infinity Stones and cosmic threats if it weren’t set up from The Avengers.
#5: Deadpool (2016)
Eleven years in the making, Ryan Reynolds fought Fox to bring this foul-mouthed hero to the big screen. The executives were not necessarily wrong as superheroes were meant for the whole family as the darkest it ever got was Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies, and those were only PG-13. Bringing adult humor to a costumed crime-fighter seemed insane, and it worked to be one of the highest-grossing R rated films ever made, sealing the fate that adults can put the kids to bed to enjoy seeing someone save the world while cutting people in half and saying “fuck.”
#4: The Incredibles (2004)
An animated family movie that created its own unique heroes for people of all ages. Pixar created an iconic group of superpowered characters that gained a devoted following, despite waiting 14 years for a sequel.
The Incredibles showed you can step down the violence and mild language for a younger audience while still having success. This was a different landscape for the genre, but the sequel proved that things can always be worth the time investment.
#3: Logan (2017)
The most depressing superhero flick ever created. The ultimate sendoff for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Xavier (Patrick Stewart) with this brutal final journey. Full of limbs getting chopped off and cursing, this is not for the kids to see their favorite heroes do.
Logan is my favorite by its emotional narrative. It tells something important about family and trauma. Nothing in the world of crime fighters wearing their spandex and underwear on the outside of their pants has gone this deep. With the reach these movies have, I hope more take a lesson from the storytelling from Jackman’s final run as the clawed member of the X-Men.
#2: Black Panther (2018)
The emphasis on African culture allowed for a level of diversity and appreciation that has not been seen in a mostly white genre. Black Panther opens the door for people of color, women, and the LGBT+ community to have their time to shine and stop future world-ending threats.
#1: Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame (2018/19)
I have to discuss both of these films as the final entry on this list because of their connection and what they brought to this massive genre.
Infinity War and Endgame did something unlike anything I have seen before, the number of main characters is immense. The first movie, in particular, is incredibly complex with its numerous stories and heroes. Narrative complications from the scattered Avengers from IW and the big final battle to defeat Thanos (Josh Brolin) in the ending of the Infinity Saga.
No story has ended or built up in this way before on film. 10 years of world-building, character development, and planting the seeds to unleash one of the greatest and most intimidating villains to be shown on the big screen. Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark/Iron Man, and Thanos were all given the proper exit from the MCU along with plenty of other beginnings and endings to iconic members of the Avengers.
The third Avengers does something that was never done before, the protagonists lost. Watching the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes die, see the villain escape, and billions of people and aliens die around the galaxy is the ultimate loss. Ending IW that way was a punch to the threat unlike anything done by Marvel or any of its competition.
On paper, something of this scope should not work. Having dozens upon dozens of characters who all get a fair share amount of screen time sounds like a nightmare to orchestrate. Somehow, the Russo brothers who directed both films managed to piece everything together into a magnificent finale that fans have followed since 2008.
Future superhero movies, Marvel or not, can learn that anything is possible. A massive idea or a different tone should not intimidate anyone. With a seemingly endless supply of source material and characters to continue adapting comic books for nerds like me to devour.
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Image via Warner Bros. Pictures/DC