This week’s Mind Meld is the first in what will no doubt turn into a series of posts inspired by John and myself’s trip to ApolloCon. Since we’ve run some ‘heavier’ questions recently, we decided to lighten things up this time and we took the opportunity of the ApolloCon panel ‘What Is Your Superpower?’ to ask the following question:
Best superhero film — Spiderman II.
I’m really stumped on the television front. Overall I think Heroes swung between being very weak to downright awful. There are so many shows that skirt the edges of superheroes — New Amsterdam, Journeyman, Dead Like Me, Life on Mars, Pushing Daisies. I guess I’d have to say that, so far, we haven’t seen a great superhero franchise on television.
With many great adaptations of comic book characters such as Batman Begins, Spider-Man 2 and now Iron Man, there are some obvious and very worthy recipients of best ‘super hero film.’ So excuse me if I take the high road and choose Unbreakable.
The thriller by M. Knight Shyamalan of The Sixth Sense fame is practically a love letter to the comic book medium and the super hero mystique. While X-Men, Spider-Man and other super hero films adapted ideas already established in print with a fan base ready to sit in a darkened theater summer after summer, Unbreakable attempted to present the concept of the super hero to an audience that had no such knowledge. Filmed in a brooding almost contemplative pace, Unbreakable develops the story of a super hero discovering his abilities, weaknesses and even arch enemy all in one film. If there is any flaw in the movie, it has to be the final on-screen text explaining the post-movie consequences. As if the ‘twist’ Shyamalan flicks are known for wasn’t corny enough, the test audiences apparently needed another gimmick, the ‘Dragnet’-style police report.
Thank you, test audiences. We have you to thank for this and the Robotech movie never hitting US cinemas.
On the small screen there have been many fantastic adaptations of comic book heroes, but one of them remains the most successful simply because most people ‘on the street’ could not tell you if they ever watched it. The 1978 Spider-Man television series is goofy, sure, has little to do with the comic book, and has the funkiest soundtrack ever to hit the airwaves… yet it makes an indelible impression.
It may be the nutty shots of the stunt man hurling himself from building to building or the wordless moments of Spider-Man running along rooftops that screamed ‘this is real’ that impacted viewers. Surely it wasn’t enough to keep people watching as the program lost the viewing public’s interest, but years later when the big budget Sam Raimi project arrived there was an almost race memory-like shadow in the minds of movie goers. This all seemed like something from a dream… who was Spider-Man and why did he look so familiar? The mid 70’s was a minefield for marketing options with Spider-Man, Hulk and many other properties implanted in the little heads of young boys across the nation. The pay off would be franchise upon franchise of blockbuster films using talented directors and actors with impressively long credentials. But the hard work started with programs like the 1978 Spider-Man… and that killer bass.
I think “superhero” is becoming a broad term right now, and while movies such as Batman (I was a teenager during the Keaton era, and loved it) and Spider-Man – and more recently, Iron Man – made a huge impact on me, I find that the stories that make me think are the ones where people make use of their powers without getting into the flashy costumes. So when thinking about my favorite movies and TV shows, I go back to the more subtle displays of superpowers.
TV-wise, Heroes is definitely some superior writing, with characters and situations you can really get into. When it came to heroic actions, most of the characters in Heroes (Claire comes to mind) did what they had to do under the cloak of anonymity. And even without the costumes and, in most cases, mundane backgrounds the characters had, many of them wrestle with psyches that are multi-faceted. I nearly cried at the tough decisions that innocent Hiro had to make in Season Two.
Similarly, Unbreakable is a fascinating movie that shows a more likely story about what would happen if a man, David Dunn, discovered he had superhuman abilities. Dunn’s hesitancy and disbelief felt very real – honestly, if you developed superpowers (or discovered you had them the whole time), how *would* you react? The only problem with that movie was it screamed for a sequel, and I don’t think we’re getting one…
Don’t get me wrong, I love the costumed stories, both animated and live-action, but the more subtle stories resonate with me on a deeper level, and I’d have to say those are my favorite.
My favorite superhero film remains the 1988 version of Batman starring Michael Keaton. Which isn’t to disparage Spiderman or Batman Begins, which are also excellent. But this Batman was the first superhero movie that felt complete — that had the right look — that moved. Even the first Christopher Reeve’s Superman was too slow. It was more movie than comic book.
“Slow” is how I’d describe most television superhero series prior to Heroes. The Incredible Hulk was well-conceived, but hampered by poor special effects. The Flash was promising. But even though it has gone off its creative rails, Heroes is still smartly done.
The best superhero movie? That would have to be Pixar’s The Incredibles.
The Incredibles is a great movie. Not just a great superhero movie or a great animated movie. It’s a great movie. Period. End of story. But since it does happen to fall into the superhero genre as well that just happens to mean that it rules that genre as well. The Incredibles isn’t just an homage to superheroes. Nor does it shy away from its superhero roots. It embraces what it is without apologizing for it. That alone makes it a true rarity among most modern superhero movies.
The Incredibles avoids a lot of baggage that comes from the modern “sophisticated” interpretations of supers. It understands that heroes can be flawed without being screwed up. It doesn’t equate “average Joe” with “loser”. And it doesn’t shy away from saying what any sensible person should know. Being a superhero is fun.
Somewhere along the way, this idea became unacceptable. Superheroes, the emobidment of larger-than-life adventure, were crushed by our resentment of their superness . . . for lack of a better word. How dare Superman be noble and brave and so very powerful. Why should Green Lantern get to fly around in space and have cool adventures when I’m stuck on earth. Oh, sure, some fans say these characters were one-dimensional and I can’t entirely disagree. But at the same time, I don’t think thes flawed heroes developed because we yearn for realism. These are men and women who run around in odd costumes while fighting aliens and giant robots (and the occasional psychotic clown and gangster with a death ray). Realism was never the intent.
The Incredibles is realistic. The struggles of its characters, even its villains, are all very relatable, grounded in reality. But it also has mega-robots and volcanoes and giant flying frisbees of buzzsaw death. It deftly explores subtle character relationships and doesn’t skimp on the personal growth. And it does it without making our heroes villains or depriving us of a healthy dose of action adventure. Plus, did I mention the flying buzzsaws of death?
The best superhero show has to be Justice League: The Animated Series, bar none. Whether in its Limited or Unlimited version, this is amazing television. Particularly the first season of JLU is the finest season of television ever. A cast of dozens, an overarching season long storyline broken into amazing single episodes, great adventure, great characters, and plenty of slam-bang. This is the show Heroes wishes it could be if it would just dare to dream. And isn’t that what being a superhero is all about?
That, and the ability to shoot laser beams out of your eyes.
Right now, my three favorite superhero movies are The Incredibles, Mystery Men, and Hellboy.Part of my fondness for The Incredibles is that it casts such a knowing eye to the conventions of superheroes, noodles around with them, and then rolls it all up in a huge ball of charm.
The Incredibles is a really nice pastiche of The Fantastic Four — that is, if the FF were more responsible parents. And it also deals with all those unanswered superhero questions: Who’s going to pay to fix this mess? Do they ever get sued? How does a relationship survive being a superhero? Where do they get those outfits? What’s the deal with those capes? (The “capes” sequence in The Incredibles is possibly the funniest moment in superhero movies.)
It really does have it all. The aging superhero who’s not sure he still “has it” anymore. The long-overlooked issue of post-baby superherodom: “Can I be a Mommy and Elasticgirl at the same time?” They have the superhero who loves his abilities (Dash) and the one who is ambivalent about them (Violet). And then there’s Jack-Jack — the stupidly-overpowered character.
And as the movie progresses, not only do the characters come together as a team, but as a family.
Mystery Men holds a place in my heart because it’s mocking and earnest at the same time. The three main characters (Mr. Furious, The Shoveler, and The Blue Raja) are third-string heroes. Their powers are goofy (The Blue Raja can throw silverware with amazing accuracy – except knives – and speaks in an effete British accent even though he’s American.) or apparently non-existent (Mr. Furious, you don’t want to make him mad.).
They are continually being upstaged by Captain Amazing – the “real” hero of Champion City. Through a series of mishaps, Mr. Furious, The Blue Raja, and The Shoveler team up with a ragtag assortment of other heroes to become the Mystery Men. One thing I like about the film is how much each of the characters wants to be a hero. They are driven by it even while knowing they don’t fit the hero mold.
Like The Incredibles, the Mystery Men come together as a team to overcome the challenge put before them. They don’t do it in graceful manner. They do it the way clumsy ‘real’ people would — through grit, and determination, and overcoming their fears.
Years ago, a friend of mine told me I should read Hellboy because it was an amazing comic. I think I have issues floating around here somewhere that I never got around to reading. It’s a pity because I really like the Hellboy movie.
I’m a sucker for origin stories. I think a lot of viewers are — and I think that’s why oftentimes sequels aren’t as good as the initial films. Origin movies are fun. They have the built-in drama of unfolding power and the character’s role in the world. And Hellboy has a dandy one. Mix in Nazis, Rasputin, and an improbable romance, and you pretty much hit me where I live.
Not only does Hellboy have a terrific overall plot, but it also looks amazing. The characters are fantastic and odd, but they’re handled in such a way that you believe in them. It may be CGI heavy, but doesn’t look as if it’s CGI heavy.
I like that it’s our world, but slammed sideways into a place where someone like Hellboy could exist.
(I did like Ironman and both of the first two X-Men movies, but they don’t sing to me like these other films do.)
I’m pretty sure I’ll get flack for my favorite superhero TV show, but it’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I would argue that Buffy is, in fact, a superhero. She has an origin story that’s fixed. She has powers. She has sidekicks. She has a mission. She’s driven. She’s ambivalent at times about her power. Her powers have changed over time — making her more powerful than when she started. She’s archetypal. At their best, her stories are profoundly metaphorical. And, like the films I mentioned above, at the end of the day, Buffy is about relationships.
I think the very best Buffy episode is “The Body.” Nothing paranormal happens in this episode until the very end. Then, while in the morgue, Buffy has to stake a couple of vampires. What’s amazing about this episode is that that act is the least horrific thing that happens to her in the course of the show. It makes profoundly clear that it isn’t being a slayer that makes Buffy so powerful. It’s her connection to her friends and family that makes her powerful.
When I was a kid, I was a huge sucker for the Batman television series. But in all fairness, I was eight and my superhero sophistication wasn’t exactly at its apex. The Fleischer Superman cartoons were amazing. And the Powerpuff Girls are pretty great as well. (Though a steady diet of Powerpuff Girls could be difficult for an adult to take.)
Not too many years ago, I would have picked Superman 2 as the best superhero movie ever. The one thing it had going for it, above all the competition, was that it actually pitted a superhero against actual, honest-to-badness super-villains-and villains who had real super powers! You have to remember that before that time, movie and TV super-folks generally fought normal humans who carried guns. Boring!
More recently, I would have made the argument for Unbreakable as the best superhero movie ever. A suspenseful, dramatic Hollywood movie featuring a big-name actor in Bruce Willis, it turned out at the end to have been a superhero film from the start, and it dared to take the genre seriously.
Nowadays, of course, comics films have bigger budgets and better actors and writers and directors, so the choosing gets much harder. A case certainly can be made for each of the first two Spider-Man movies, the second X-Men movie, and Batman Begins (not to mention Hellboy, if you stretch the genre a tad). Each takes its subject matter seriously and conveys quality in nearly every way, from acting to effects to how the characters look in their costumes (a critically important aspect in this particular genre, if casual viewers are to take the proceedings seriously!).
As fine as those films are, though, I have to go with my heart as well as my brain, and at heart I have always been a fan of Iron Man above all other heroes. I love ol’ Shellhead, and I expected a lot from his movie. Frankly, I expected to be disappointed-how could a mere two-hour movie ever capture the things I liked so much about the character, taken from over thirty years of following his adventures in the comics?
To my utter shock, not only was I not disappointed, I was in fact overjoyed with the film. Certainly it has flaws-in some cases glaring ones. But it also has Robert Downey, Jr. Replace him with a lesser actor in the lead role and the film still competes for the title of “best.” His amazing performance as Tony Stark, in which he captures everything that is likeable about the character and successfully conveys it to a general audience of non-comics fans, puts Iron Man over the top. It is, in my view, the best superhero movie ever.
I have a lot less to say about superheroes on television. Simply put, I have never been terribly impressed with any portrayal of superheroes on TV. I would argue that the incredibly sub-standard fare we’ve been fed by the TV studios over the decades has done tremendous damage to the public’s perception of comic books as a medium and superheroes as legitimate dramatic or adventure characters. What do many people think of when you say “Superheroes on TV?” That awful Batman show
with the visible sound effects. Here’s a sound effect for you: UGH!
I think you have to go with the first season of Heroes here. It had moments of real shock, real suspense, and real surprise. It left me anxious for the next episode-something I can safely say no other show of its type had done before. Simply by virtue of the fact that it was somewhat intelligently written, decently acted, and for the most part respected the superhero genre, I will give it the nod: Despite leaving much to be desired, Heroes is the best superhero TV show ever.
Now give us more shows of this type, of an equal or greater quality, and let’s see if we can’t find a new winner in a couple of years!
Because of the shared visual nature of the comic book and movies/TV it’s strange that it’s only in recent years that Hollywood has fallen for the superhero. There’s a great story – almost certainly apocryphal – that prior to a threatened writers’ strike some years back, a Time Warner exec turned up to a board meeting, dropped a stack of DC Comics on the table and proclaimed that they didn’t need the writers because they had over 60 years worth of scripts and storyboards lying around in offices in NYC. I don’t for one minute think that story is true (though it would explain how Constantine was green lit…) but at some point in the recent past, the powers that be learned to love the superhero and our pop culture landscape looks all the better for it.
Whereas comic books have struggled to impose superpowered beings into the real world – the Marvel New Universe springs immediately to mind – television and cinema seem to excel, but only when they obey the conventions of our world and not those of a Marvel/DC fantasyland. Although a man wearing spandex and a cape might look like the most natural thing in the world when rendered by a Jack Kirby or Carmine Infantino, it’s always going to look ridiculous when you put a real person in the same costume – I think George Clooney’s plastic nipples from Batman Forever will be eternally scorched onto an entire generation’s collective retina. Of course, there have been superhero movies and TV that have succeeded in bringing costumed crusaders to life without resorting to out-and-out comedy, but they tend to be the exception rather than the norm.
Of the recent batch of superhero movies, Iron Man stands out as a shining example of not only how to translate a character from panel to screen but also how to put a man in a costume without it feeling like he has mental health issues. The quality of the CGI helps, but the authenticity that Robert Downey Jr. brings to the lead role makes his donning the armor seem like the act of a reasonable human being. Ironically, although Tony Stark wears a costume, Iron Man is not technically a superhero and, to me at least, is more of a straight science fiction than comic book movie. The basic plot is pure SF and one that authors have been recycling since at least the 50s: man invents robot armor – robot armor technology is stolen, used for evil – man must use good technology to defeat evil technology. Even his costume isn’t traditional superhero fare. Rather than wearing it for symbolic purposes or to hide his identity, the costume is his power and also his life support machine. By not sticking to the standard comic book superhero formula, Marvel Studios manage to pull off the best superhero movie to date. And with a B-list character too.
In terms of superhero TV shows, Heroes is top of the pile for me. Not only is it accessible in a mainstream way but there are enough doffs of the cap to the genre’s back catalog to keep the comic book geek in me hooked. The writers’ freedom to cherry pick the best storylines and situations from the four-color world – a dash of Ex Machina, a smidgen of Watchmen, a caboodle of Days of Future Past – and transplant them into ‘Earth Prime’ creates something that is both recognisable and fantastic at the same time. Nary a spandex leotard or ill-advised codename in sight (only to be expected I suppose, Tim Kring isn’t a comic book geek), the show deftly avoids superhero clichés where possible, instead drawing more on the conspiracy angle that Marvel in particular have been plying in recent years. Sadly, the second season was flawed, as much a victim of the writers’ strike as anything else, but hopefully the show hasn’t been so badly damaged that a great third season will help it pick up viewers again.
Honorable mentions: Mystery Men and The Tick (Animated Series)
Look, I’m not going to lie to you. I love superhero stories, and I love superhero comics in particular. A wasted childhood spent reading far too many superhero comics eventually spilled over into a wasted adulthood doing the same, and there are entire rooms of my house filled with box upon box upon box of the four-color exploits of the superheroic characters I’ve followed for the last three decades and change.
Superheroes and comics are inextricably linked. Comics existed before superheroes came along, but didn’t come into their full flower until the appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1. Superheroes, likewise, have gone on to appear in just about every other medium imaginable, and yet still seem best suited for the pulpy pages of the comics.
Is that why superheroes from the comics always seem to fare a bit badly when translated into other media? Look at prose novels, for example. For decades, there have been attempts to do novel-length prose stories about the characters from superhero comics-hell, I wrote one of them, come to think of it-and yet I’d argue that even the best of them don’t approach the best comic book superhero stories.
I’m not suggesting, though, that superheroes only work in the pages of a comic. There have, in fact, been truly great superhero stories in other media, in television and film in particular (to spin around finally to the question at hand). But I would argue that the truly great superhero stories in television and film are not those which feature characters originally from the comics, but instead are centered around original characters.
Like everyone, I thought the recent Iron Man was terrific, I loved Batman Begins, and I revere Superman: the Movie. But none of them can hold a candle to the best superhero movie of all time, The Incredibles. It’s an indisputable fact (though I’m sure someone will try to dispute it…). Those other superhero flicks are fun films, well-crafted and so on, but in the end I think they’re ultimately just superhero stories. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it bears pointing out. But perhaps more damning is that not a one of them is better than the best comic book stories featuring those same characters.
The Incredibles, on the other hand, is sublime. It is a no-apologies-offered-or-required straight-up action film, with some of the best visualizations of superpowers ever to appear on screen, terrific insight into the most essential underpinnings of the genre, and-perhaps most importantly-it is about something. Brad Bird’s story works on so many levels that we don’t just get a terrific superhero story, but also this great little story about an extraordinary man in ordinary circumstances, about maturing, about the balance between an individual’s drives and the responsibilities of a parent and family member, et cetera, et al. Plus: fights with giant robots…
In television, you have to go a long way to beat the various contributions of Bruce Timm, and his animated versions of the DC characters-Batman, Superman, Justice League-are probably my favorite interpretations of those characters. And the success of those shows led to a whole host of quality animated versions of DC properties-Teen Titans, Legion of Super-Heroes, even Krypto the Superdog. And while I think that those last seasons of Justice League Unlimited may rank among the best season-long story arcs of any genre on television, the top spot in my estimation is held by another. If you have to go a long way to beat Bruce Timm, I’d argue that with Danny Phantom, Butch Hartman did just that.
I don’t know how much of my love for Timm’s Superman and Justice League and so on is due to the work itself-which is undeniably brilliant-and how much is due to the fact that I grew up on those characters, and so many of those stories plug into my affection for stories I read when I was eight years old. Danny Phantom, on the other hand, is a story aimed at today’s eight year olds, and even as a dude in the latter half of his fourth decade, I can recognize that it’s something special. Deceptively “cartoony” in style, Danny Phantom is quite simply the purest example of the superhero genre ever to originate outside the pages of a comic book. All of the classic tropes are there-the superpowers, the arch-nemesis, the problems of concealing a secret identity, even a kind of love triangle (love quadrangle?) where Danny loves one girl who adores his superhero alter ego and despises his civilian self, and is drawn to another girl who likes his civilian identity just fine but has pledged vengeance against his superheroic self. There are visits to alternate realities, clashes with future versions of himself-who have, naturally, turned evil-even a superpowered female “cousin” who crops up from time to time. Plus: fights with giant robots…
So is it because of, or in spite of, the fact that these characters originated outside comics that they work so well in these other media? Is it because The Incredibles is a movie first and foremost, owing nothing to interpretations in four-color print, that it can transcend the bounds of genre and work on so many levels? Is it because Danny Phantom isn’t burdened by decades of continuity from another medium that it can be so pure, so vital? I think so, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.
But perhaps, most importantly, there is one thing all of these examples–in film, TV, and print-share in common, and it may be the thing that keeps me coming back, from 8 years old to 38: fights with giant robots.
I thought quite a bit about this question, and as I did I marveled over the remarkable changes in the superhero movie (and TV show) genre over the past 20 years. I also realized exactly which movie I had to pick – the first Tim Burton Batman movie back in 1989.
Yes, there have been many worthy entries in the past 20 years, some technically better on a number of fronts. And it is true the movie has some serious flaws that are occasionally twitch inducing (soundtrack by Prince so did not belong there for one.) But there are things that stand out that make the film especially worthy even now in my view.
There’s always been a problem casting both the heroes and the villains in these movies, some movies succeed better than others. But I don’t think that any ever equaled the perfection of Jack Nicholson as the Joker. He was exactly as creepy and dangerous as a super-villain should be. It’s not just a matter of his being a great actor but also that he was exactly the right actor for the role.
Another was the transitional feel the movie invoked. It marked the first real full shift to super-hero movies being darker, more serious and more adult in a way. Yes you had the Superman movies before it, but they still had that overly campy feel to them. I think many movies since have refined and built upon that but haven’t made that same mark on the genre. Plus it helped lay the groundwork for my choice for best superhero TV show.
I was sorely tempted to just say Bruce Timm’s and Paul Dini’s Batman the Animated Series from the early 1990s which sprung out of the success and vision of Burton’s Batman, but instead I see that as leading up to my actual pick which is their later Justice League Unlimited.
Oh, there is a lot to love in their takes on Batman, Superman and the Justice League in their respective series, but for me it all came together in Justice League Unlimited. In that series we saw the payoff of real universe building as they tapped into the full DC universe. They also developed a more complete style of light and dark storytelling, after avoiding such things in the early part of Batman and the Justice League. I suspect the years of campy super-hero cartoons made them cautious about too light a touch early on.
I also loved the bigger more complex story arcs resting upon foundations built upon the whole season and previous seasons of the show. In the course of the previous series the dreaded reset button had been removed which so haunted superhero shows especially animated ones, but here actions and events earlier had actual significant consequences later on which is a huge shift. Especially compared to where the portrayal of superheroes was on TV, and particularly in cartoons just a short while before, so this was dramatic (no pun intended.)
Heck, though, it’s all a lot of words to say what is really important. I squealed like the geeky little fan boy that I am when Batman first came out 19 years ago and I did it all the way through Justice League Unlimited. And that’s what it is all about beneath the pretense of trying to sell it to folks.
And now its over to you, our readers. What movies/TV shows deserve to be called ‘the best’?