We're living in a grand era of the superhero where highly talented artists are expending their energy to make remarkable movies. While there's a certain charm to the cheesy '60s Batman and B-grade schlock like The Punisher in the '80s, it can't match what's happened in recent years. The deluge of big-budget releases has gone overboard and included some clunkers, but it's worth it to enjoy the superior films. These are crowd-pleasing movies that are likely to stick around for a long time. What makes the choices for this list stand out are the ways that they test the formula and set the standard for others to follow. It's true that the second entries of many series improve on the originals, but they wouldn't have that chance without the foundation set by the opener. I've given two examples where the sequels are generally considered better, yet I still have more warmth for the first part. Given the high quality of all the choices here (plus the extras that just missed the cut), it's easy to make a case for any of these picks. Even so, there can be only five official choices!
Honorable Mentions: The Avengers (2012), The Dark Knight (2008)
When Marvel announced their intentions to build the story of The Avengers across multiple films, I was skeptical they could pull it off. The result was a highly entertaining summer movie that gave all the main characters a chance to shine. It was wise to select Joss Whedon as the director because he brings a personal stamp to the commercial material. The box-office take was huge, but it never feels like a money grab. The same is true of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, which are gigantic successes yet develop a serious emotional connection. The Dark Knight starts with a thrilling heist and never lets up for more than two hours. Heath Ledger's performance is the show-stopper, but this is a great ensemble piece. I'm don't believe it tops Batman Begins due to third-act issues, but it's still a remarkable movie. It shows a new breed of modern villain who isn't trying to destroy the world or gain power. As the saying goes, he just wants to watch the world burn.
5. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Guillermo del Toro, 2008)
Guillermo del Toro received tremendous acclaim for his imaginative work on Pan's Labyrinth, and he brings that same approach to the excellent sequel to Hellboy. While this movie doesn't have the acclaim of the other picks, it stands right with them for pure entertainment value. The original is also very good, but the magical elements of this follow-up generate more weight. Ron Perlman also feels more comfortable in the lead role and has so much fun as the big guy. The cinematography from Guillermo Navarro shines, especially during the beautiful shots of the elves' lost home. Del Toro pulls out all the stops for the troll market sequence, which includes all manner of strange creatures yet never feels like a CGI exercise. It's a movie that's great fun without sacrificing the depth of its characters in the process.
4. Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)
After watching The Amazing Spider-Man this week, I'm curious to go back and compare it to this thrilling sequel from Sam Raimi's trilogy. Alfred Molina brings heart to Dr. Otto Octavius, a character who could be silly in lesser hands. Tobey Maguire also dials back the wide-eyed cheesy behavior from the opener. He's ready to give up the costume for good and is struggling to push back his feelings for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). When the action really gets rolling in the second act, it barely lets up and feels like more than just a live-action cartoon. A brilliant sequence involves Spider-Man's efforts to stop an out-of-control subway train before it's too late. The conflict between Peter and Harry Osborn (James Franco) also works a lot better here than in the disappointing third movie. The combination of excitement and character makes this a surprise, even after the solid first entry.
3. Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978)
Many film bloggers are younger than me and just now getting back to some of the movies that I enjoyed as a kid in the '80s. A prime example is a movie like Superman, which was one of the first VHS tapes that we watched regularly. When writers are going to tell an origin story for a superhero, they can still look back to this early example of that craft. We meet the hero as a baby on his home world of Krypton and grow up with Clark Kent on Earth. Richard Donner takes his time and doesn't reveal the costume for a long time. It's easy to pick Superman II because of General Zod and the better villains, but Gene Hackman is great as Lex Luthor. We also have Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder at their best as the famous characters meet and fall in love. The effects may look dated, and the deux ex machina finale is problematic, but those issues barely detract from this classic adventure.
2. X2 (Bryan Singer, 2003)
In similar fashion to Spider-Man 2, Bryan Singer expanded on what worked in X-Men and took it to another level with X2. This ambitious story pits both Professor X's (Patrick Stewart) team of heroes and Magneto's (Ian McKellan) Brotherhood against an enemy who wants them all dead. Brian Cox brings his usual menace to the nasty role of William Stryker. There are a lot of solid new characters, including Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler. His assassination attempt at the White House brings so much energy to the opening, and the pace barely relents until the big finale. The actors seem more confident across the board, especially Famke Janssen in the pivotal role of Jean Grey. Singer's direction is also more refined and delivers plenty of excitement without requiring us to leave our brain at the door.
1. Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005)
Was anyone thrilled for a Batman reboot after Joel Schumacher massacred the franchise? Christopher Nolan had showed promise after Memento and Insomnia, but no one could have anticipated such an amazing trilogy. The first entry creates the framework for this world and Christian Bale's take on the tortured hero. Cillian Murphy and Liam Neeson are believable as the villains, particularly when compared to someone like Mr. Freeze. Nolan's vision is clear and never misses a beat as Bruce Wayne becomes the famous caped crusader. Although there's a lot of plot, I find Batman Begins endlessly rewatchable and the best of the series. This takes nothing away from the two sequels, which both provide great entertainment. This movie stays the most consistent and sets the stage perfectly, and that's no easy task. Nolan had to re-introduce audiences to the character without making it feel too familiar. It's such a departure and sets the gold standard for superhero movies that few will ever match.
These five choices are great films that could easily make this list:
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Incredibles (2004)
Iron Man (2008)
Superman II (1980)
I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. Did I commit sacrilege by keeping The Dark Knight and Iron Man off these prestigious rankings? What are your top five superhero movies? You should also check out past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.