Monday, June 02, 2008

The Top 10 (actually 12) Superhero films

Something for me to write and you to ponder while waiting for "The Dark Knight" to release. The films below are superhero films. Note the use of the word - I am not talking about films based on comic books. I put in 12, based on the ones I've seen. Do let me know as to YOUR favorites in superhero fiction.

Special Mention: Mr. India (1987):

This movie has a whole bunch of elements that thoroughly screw up superhero genres (More on that later). But then some of Shekhar Kapur's almost-won-an-Oscar skill comes through in his plotting, which shows some coherence with a superhero plot: The hero develops a new persona based on the Invisibility phaarmoola, starts with bashing up low-level flunkies (with fantastic names as Daga and Teja!!!), and upon losing someone significant to a bomb blast (I never looked at clown dolls the same way again after that incident), fires on all cylinders taking out the bad guy.

Interesting features:
  • The superhero 'persona' is basically the same guy, invisible and with a "reverb" voice that no one realizes is that of a scruffy violin player.
  • Anil Kapoor's everyman character. It makes his superheroisms somewhat more interesting. Somehow I doubt AB Baby or any of the big names of the time could have pulled this off.
  • Amrish Puri's maniacal Mogambo. There are villains and there is Mogambo. With his deep bass voice, penchant for shows of cruelty, dictatorial costume and island adda (so charmingly lifted off n-number of Bond movies), Mogambo simultaneously terrified and amused the pants off kids who watched this on DD in the late 80's and Zee in the mid-90's.

10. Superman (1978):

The plot was a standard Superman story. We get his arrival to Earth when Krypton is destroyed, the development of his Arctic fortress, the usual initial response ("Up in the sky!! Is it a bird? A plane? etc."). Things heat up when Superman and Clark Kent meet Lois, and subsequently when Lex comes into the feature. As always, Lex figures out Superman's weakness and hits him with it, knocking him out while he carries out some diabolical plan. Superman gets freed, and to reverse all the damage Lex does (He fires a nuke on a fault line, causing world-wide earthquakes), flies around the world and reverses its spin. In doing so, he (I kid you not) turns back time!! So everything is reset and Lois (who died in an earthquake) is safe again.

If you get the feeling, I didn't really care for this film, you're right. I did, however, get why so many people worship it (here, here and here). This film at the time, marked the ascension of something new and amazing - namely, special effects. And they weren't used for something grand or epic like, say Star Wars or 2001. In addition, Reeves, while playing a suitably square-jawed Superman, was equally funny and impressive as a goofy, loveable, raakhi-brother type Clark Kent. Superman served as an opener, something that blazed the trail for the genre of superhero fiction and comic book-inspired movies, being the first, and based on the most popular of all heroes. One could therefore forgive the somewhat campy take of the film; notably Lex Luthor's clownish portrayal, and his absurd desire for land all the time (somewhat like Boman Irani from "Khosla ka Ghosla").

9. The Incredibles (2004):

What is so incredible about the Incredibles is that it starts as a parody of the superhero genre, showing various unconventional issues they'd probably face regularly. In showing their response to these situations however, at a personal and costumed-character level, it becomes a superhero film proper. With its leads - Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, and their children - loosely based on the Fantastic Four and Iceman, and Tooheyian villain, The Incredibles emerged from a parody to a surprisingly cerebral superhero film.

The Unconventional:
  • The Incredibles, a family of heroes, have to go into hiding and not show their superhuman abilities, because superheroes have been "banned" by the government. Why? People started suing them for wreckage and personal injury, and the government had to foot the legal bills!! Mr. Incredible (the lead superhero) rescues a person from an attempted suicide. When the person ends up with an injury, he sues the hero for "ruining his death"!!!
  • The evil Syndrome turns out to be none other than the disgruntled head of the "Mr. Incredible" fan club. Anguished at not being allowed to be a sidekick, he decides to become a super-villain.
  • Syndrome's master plan: To create a situation calling for a superhero, save the day and become a (fake) hero himself. "And when I'm done", he says fiendishly, "I'll sell all my hero equipment. Everybody will then be super. And when everybody's super.... no one will be". To fans accustomed to the usual world domination or a zabagillion dollars ransom, that plan comes in at a whole new level of evil.
  • A fashion designer who designs superhero suits, and best of all, her take on capes.

8. Batman (1989):

One of the fears surrounding the Batman movie series (started a decade after Superman) was that it would get campy and silly, like the show which used to come at 6.30 on Star Plus before it turned Hindi (That show by the way, was from the 70's. I can't believe how starved for media we were at the time). It did eventually, but not when Tim Burton was in charge of the film. He made the first film with the idea that Batman was a dark and gloomy character, his villains were meant to be gruesome, dangerous individuals, and Batman movies were not to be "children's films". The result - a very effective Batman movie that is rightfully the best selling film based on DC comics.

The film had a fantastic setting: a Gothic, Depression-era city, with trench coat-wearing gangsters who used mainly revolvers and tommy guns. The era however is modern, as seen from Gotham Television and Batman's equipment. It had Michael Keaton as an effective Batman, though he was not really the focus of the film either as Batman or Bruce Wayne. And in Jack Nicholson, it had a fantastically smart, witty and gruesome Joker. Jack Napier, the original identity of the Joker, is played here as a savage criminal, the "No.1 Guy" of crime boss Carl Grissom. The film is good, when it shows us his fall into the chemicals and transformation into the Joker. But where it excels is in showing us the kind of psycho he was before his transformation - he'll never be the Boss of Bosses, he's told to his fury, because Bosses are never psychos. When the transformation unleashes his savagery... well, the film tells you what happens.

The Unique:
  • Joker's transformation

  • Joker's campaign of terror against Gotham residents

2 out of the three above involve the Joker, which is kind of why this film got pushed to 8. A first Batman needs an origin story, and this movie didn't have a good one. In establishing the creepy, malicious film-noir feel of Batman however, Burton excelled with this film.

7. Spiderman 2 (2004):

This film had all the critics raving, and is among the highest box-office grossers of all time. Weirdly, I didn't like it all that much. I don't know exactly why - maybe because I saw it on CAMrip for the first time. But it stuck me as essentially more of the first film. Peter as always is torn between Spidey-life and Mary Jane (not the marijuanna lady) and struggles with hajjaar other problems, the last of which happens to be Dr. Octopus - a dude building some sort of perpetual nuclear generator, to suffer an accident that grafts robotic limbs to his spine. The film definitely scores higher on the CGI used with the guy's robotic limbs. But come on, we've already seen a villain born of an industrial accident. And what is this one's grand goal (for which he robs banks, tries to kill people and ultimately threatens Spidey)? Simply to rebuild an unsafe nuclear engine. How silly is that? What was his goal when he finished it if it didn't explode, present NYC with a monster bill? How would it not explode, considering he probably had no wiring in the ramshackle adda he built it in to draw power away? How does a guy assemble nuclear machinery in an abandoned warehouse adda? How come noone notices what's going on, specially when the equipment is stolen and might take NY with it? And his change of heart at the end was the silliest imaginable, as was his solution to fix the super-nuclear magnetic black hole that he created - "Throw it into the river". Now there's a villainous master plan - create a radioactive mess for the New York Municipality to clean up. Final verdict: Scores with CGI and the everyday problems of Peter Parker (which is characteristic of the comic anyway), but fails with a villain and plot (not to deride Molina's acting, which was great)

6. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm:

This was a relatively low-budget animated film that released in 1993, based on the award-winning animated Batman series which was regarded by many as coming closest to the Dark Knight of the comics. It ranks a mention though few of you would have seen or heard of it, due to the creativity of the team involved by way of plot.

The plot: A masked figure (named the Phantasm on the cover, but unnamed in the movie) is killing Gotham's top Mafia bosses. Owing to the cape and hood worn by the figure, it is assumed Batman is responsible. He therefore has to apprehend the killer and clear his name. A connection emerges among the victims, one that involves the family of a lost love - a woman for whom Wayne gave up his goal of vigilantism, to resume it when she broke their engagement. Lastly, the Joker comes in, hired by the last gangster as the one person capable of taking down Batman. A violent three-way collision comes in, as secrets and motives are finally revealed.

The Unique:
  • The fate of Gotham does not hang in the balance for once. This case is pretty much a day in the life of Batman, and the people he's trying to save are gangsters.
  • This isn't about gadgets or explosions. You see Batman being a detective. A real cop-like one.
  • The insight into Wayne's early days, attempting to find ways to intimidate criminals
  • Wayne wondering whether he can have a happy, normal life after all. And the follow up, when he decides to become Batman. It's just amazing (the first scene is from start up to 1:39, and the next from 6:15 to 7:41 (Vid-link here)
  • The revelation as to who the Phantasm is, and the mirroring of the character to Batman
  • A revelation as to the Joker's origin (Here. Watch the first 10 seconds and then go to 4:25)
  • What he does to a victim (Here at 6:44 onwards)
An amazing film. Unfortunately, it bombed at the box office.

5. X-Men 2 (2003)/Batman Returns:

These films are both first sequels, and hence in a "We've introduced everyone, so let's do some serious shit!!" mode. Both work in that mode pretty well. They're about equally good, finally.


We were all in it to see the awesome superpowers, and X2 did not disappoint. You got to see lethal telepathy, ice-powers, fire-powers, psychic hurricanes and blizzards, telekinesis, eye-blasting, tele-magnetism and shape-shifting. The plot, seeing as it was Bryan "The Usual Suspects" Singer directing, fit the explosions nicely. A hate-filled General kidnaps the telepathic head and rigs him to a telepathic machine through which he can mentally kill (I kid you not) every mutant in the world. Even more awesome, three quarters into the climax, the machine is rewired, this time to kill all humans. How all this happens is best explained by seeing the film. A fantastic follow up to the original.


Tim Burton followed up on the original to make an even colder, darker sequel. As before, the film was more about atmosphere than plot. As before, the villains were amazingly characterized, and as before, there was a malicious sense of humour prevalent that made everything else bearable.

Don't believe me? See the intro, which shows how the Penguin (Danny De Vito) came to be:

When a Batman film opens with a child being thrown into the sewers, you can be sure it'll be super fucking awesome (not family friendly, though). The best part is similarly with the Penguin's characterization - he's a deformed psycho, whose grand plan is to eventually avenge himself by drowning every firstborn in Gotham. With it's morbid atmosphere, evil (really evil) villains, and a fantastic followup score by Danny Elfman, this film is solidly at 5.

4. Iron Man (2008):

There's no "true to the comics" stuff about this - I know zilch about the series. Nevertheless, this film pulled off a fantastic characterization of a character best described as an anti-Bruce Wayne - a playboy who cares zilch about the effects the WMD's he designs have on people. When he finds out first hand who using his company's weapons, he designs himself the ultimate weapon (the suit) which he then uses to attack arms dealers and terrorists. Robert Downey Jr. does an amazing job as both Iron Man and Tony Stark. Watch it if you haven't already.

The Unique:
  • Iron Man is named as such only 5 minutes before the credits roll. What you're really seeing is the character of Stark
  • The villain goes by a real name, as opposed to some fantastic title. He speaks Urdu at some point (I kid you not. Amazingly, he sounds like Bob Cristo from Mr. India)
  • The long process through which the suit is designed, and the accidents with the Beta versions
3. Batman Begins (2005):

With the crime against reason and cinema that was "Batman and Robin" (1997), the franchise was shut down for 8 years. Chris Nolan then decided to restart it. And rather than bring in some fantastic villains to blow shit up with Christian Bale, he decided to actually sit down and write out a Batman story, set in a near-real world. The result - Batman Begins, a look into Bruce Wayne's tortured mentality, into what drives him to wear a suit and go fight crime (try wearing a rubber suit in summer. I dare you). And more, interestingly, how he is able to evoke fear in people, as opposed to derision for some obvious loony (the film presents him at times as borderline loony btw). Liam Neeson was correspondingly awesome as the villainous Ras Al Ghul. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine's roles were similarly amazing.

The Unique:
  • Batman is named only midway into the film.
  • Correspondingly, no fucking bat-prefixes. Bruce gets an armored vehicle, a high-end body armor and smart fiber-powered cloth to design a suit for himself. He then puts all this in a cave below his mansion basement.
  • As opposed to the fantasy-noir atmosphere of Burton, Gotham is now a modern day city with a huge ghetto population and corrupt administration, which accounts for the crime.
  • The finding out that Batman has lines drawn in his quest for revenge. What he almost did once, and swore not to do again.

2. Spiderman (2002):

This was undoubtedly the best in the Sam Raimi film series, freshness notwithstanding. It showed how Peter Parker got his abilities (the bite from an engineered spider), how he initially focused more on getting laid (wouldn't you and I?) and how his first shot at vigilantism teaches him about what actually comes with great power, rather than a shot at entering Mary-Jane's
(Kirsten Dunst) pants.

Where this scored over Batman Begins was in its villain. Ras al Ghul's plan to cleanse Gotham sounds more Afghan mujahideen than comic-book villain - that train scene in the climax seemed to me a weird reference to 9/11, what with it headed to Wayne Towers (!!), and if it reaches, "everything blows". In Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, you had a great villain. A split personality who again stolen R&D stuff to terrorize events, so as to benefit his alter-ego - that makes sense. His conflict with Spidey is also inevitable, as he figures the tussles the two will have. What's genius - his attempts to terrorize Peter Parker's loved ones, when he realizes who Spidey really is.

The unique:
  • The film's transitions from tearful moments to light-hearted ones. Parker is an emo wimp, but Spiderman a wisecracker with a good sense of humor.
  • The scene where Dafoe's two selves talk to each other in the mirror.
  • J. Jonah Jameson. I swear, the film series would not have been the same without J. K. Simmons in that amazing role.
  • The exploration of the powers. Superman's always had his, so nothing going on there, and Batman has none. When you can suddenly shoot out sticky grey stuff (from your wrists, as opposed to where everyone else's comes out of) that can form webs and stuff, it's a hell of a joyride.

Thus does Spiderman remain the No.2 superhero film of all time. What, you wonder, could top it? Well, the answer is.........................

1. Unbreakable (2000):

I can hear all the wtf's in the background as I write this. I dunno how many of my readers would have seen this M. Shyamalan film. The man had an idea for a superhero beginning, and as opposed to the usual plots for world domination and over the top costumes, made a superhero film for adults, set in the real grey world, with all its usual problems. The film, while a superhero film, is not about any superhero - comic or otherwise. It is this idea that makes it unique as a superhero film.

The plot: David Dunn (Bruce Willis) survives a trainwreck that kills everyone else on board, but leaves him absolutely uninjured. He is approached by a comic book fan, Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson) who tells him that he could be an actual superhero. Dunn is intrigued, specially when he finds out, for instance, that he has never been sick in his life (!!!). What can he do as a hero? What should he do, considering his troubles with his wife and son? Does he have an enemy? Unbreakable answers these questions in a surprisingly cerebral manner, tackling, like the Incredibles, the day-to-day problems "heroes" must also face. In presenting the realistic elements of a superhero story, without ANY of the usual features (no costumes, no titles, no explosions, the train wreck is simply a flash), it stands as the best superhero film ever made (Ironic, since it is about no known superhero)

Additional unique features:
  • The explanation for comic book heroes and their powers. Jackson describes the first heroes, whose powers were always quite limited and realistic. It was when comic books became an industry that they had to come up with outlandish abilities and powers.
  • Dunn's abilities and their limits. While he can survive trainwrecks, he is weirdly susceptible (at a psychological level) to water. His strength is unlimited, but he has to exert himself to apply it (as opposed to yanking steel doors with a flourish). He is also seen to have a funny sixth sense, which is more vague than useful.
  • His first heroic act. When he asks Elijah what he is supposed to do, he is told "Go to where people are". He finds cause for his act in a train station.
  • Elijah's mirroring Dunn. He has a bone disease that makes his bones so brittle a fall from a chair could shatter them. His drive to find someone like Dunn comes from this
  • Just when you think Elijah is a mentor character, Shyamalan brings in one of his signature twists, which while not a Keyser Soze level OMG moment, makes you marvel at the plot.

Awesome film. Rightfully deserving, in my view, the rank of the best superhero film ever made.


Ghurram said...

Waiting for Incredible Hulk and Hancock to release :-) might make you sound a little different then !!!

Iron Man was awesome stuff though. Robert Downey ... I take a bow !!!

Akasuna no Sasori said...


Have you seen Unbreakable? I think it definitely trumps any other superhero flick, past or future, for the simple reason that it's so simplistic and cerebral. M. Night Shyamalan's best

Akasuna no Sasori said...

But yeah, Iron Man was amazing

Anonymous said...

hey .. nice post ... even I thought of doing this some time :)

Akasuna no Sasori said...

Thanks. Glad to know I put it down to paper first

imperfect said...

Superman Returns?
Superman I wins all , anyday :D

Akasuna no Sasori said...

@ imperfect,
No disrespect, but Superman Returns ranks up there with Krrish, Spiderman 3 and Batman and Robin, all prime contenders for worst films ever, super-hero or otherwise.

Superman I, like I said was a great film of its time, and Reeves brought a fantastic magnetism to his role. The trouble, like I said, was with the plot. In comparison to recent flicks where plots are more realistic, I'd say it moves down to 7.

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