THE BEST SUPERHERO FILMS EVER (and THE WORST)
Fans of this site know that it’s mostly about music, but I have a deep affection for all things super. On this page is the ranking of every superfilm I’ve ever seen. Am I missing a good one? Drop me a comment!
A word about the rankings: Each film is ranked based on its intent. For example, the 1966 Batman was a great film for camp and satire, but it obviously can’t compete with Batman Returns in terms of visual FX or realism, etc. Nevertheless, it’s a great film for its kind. Now, on with the page:
THE TOP 10 SUPERFILMS EVER
1. X2: X-Men United (2003).
For sheer visual thrills, perfect pacing, and faithfulness to the comic book characters, this film cannot be beat. Add to that several Oscar winning actors turning in fabulous performances (nothing campy, nothing over-the-top), and you’ve got the best superhero movie ever made. And the opening sequence, wherein Nightcrawler attacks the President, was eye-popping, frightening, and revolutionary: Who would have conceived of such a thing? The people behind this film were obvious fans, who loved their subject, which made it believable to us all.
2. Spider-Man 2 (2004). Two words: Doc Ock.
3. The Dark Knight (2008}. Sure, Heath Ledger was fantastic. But what makes the second iteration of the Nolan/Bale Batman so great is the intricacy of the plot, the richness of every single character, and the brilliant way it not only stayed true to the comic book, but actually improved upon it. I can even forgive the implausibilities of several events in the film (a caravan of school buses just opens up and lets in a bus that just crashed through a wall?) because overall it is the most intense superhero movie ever.
4. Superman II (1980). A sequel that topped the original, this was the best superfilm of the previous millennium. And the main reason: The villains. Why Superman Returns essentially attempted to remake this movie, but as a darker, more serious film is beyond me. Let’s hope they lighten up for Superman Returns 2 (or whatever they’re going to call it). What makes Superman so great is his likability. It’s what distinguishes him from the flawed Marvel characters and from his super-foil, The Batman. Richard Donner’s films took liberties with the comic book legend, but much of the movie-made mythology ended up in the comic book and/or being adopted by the wonderful T.V. serial, Smallville (probably the best small-screen live-action superhero show ever). The films also proved that superhero movies could be fun (and funny) for all age groups, something sadly forgotten all too often by films on both ends of the spectrum. (Can you imagine taking your 7-year-old to The Dark Knight? Can you imagine yourself sitting through 1990s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?) Plus: Giant Brando head.
5. Spider-Man (2002). Origin stories usually suck. They’re boring. We’ve seen it all before. But when Spidey came to be, it was like seeing the tale for the first time.
6. Hellboy 2 (2008). Far superior to the first film (which was itself a revelation), Hellboy 2 has incredible visual imagery, well-defined characters and supporting characters, an interesting and relevant backstory, and the greatest use of a Barry Manilow song ever.
7. Batman Begins (2005). Yes, the Christopher Nolan version is better than Burton’s, largely because it takes its subject matter so seriously. It also told the origin of Batman using a never-before-seen backstory, which informed his transition from troubled youth to troubled adult. If Michael Keaton was an insular loner, this Bats has PTSD. Bonus points for the M-styled Lucius Fox, complete with James-Bondish weaponry exposition, and for the terrific use of Alfred not as comedy relief but as a vital part of the Dark Knight’s mythology.
8. Unbreakable (2000). This film is one of my favorite movies of all time, but what it did for the supergenre is extraordinary. For the first (and only) time in history, a movie focused on the secret identity, not the hero, and showed the transition from zero to hero.
9. Iron Man (2008). This is a recent edit. I’ve only had about a month to let this movie sink in, but I’m ready to give it the 10th slot on this list. It’s that good.
10. X-Men (2000). Visually extraordinary, the real reason this film is so great is that it took a series with a rich, detailed, and often confusing mythology and managed to stay true to it without trying to include it all on the screen (which would have been impossible). The only flaw in the film was that it precluded the possibility of a true X-Men origin movie, with just the original members.
OTHER TOP TIER SUPERFLICKS
Films that aren’t quite top 10, but are stellar examples of the genre.
Batman Returns (1992)
Blade II (2002)
The Crow (1994)
Fantastic Four (2005)
The Incredible Hulk (2008}
The Incredibles (2004) (animated)
Justice League: The New Frontier (2008} (direct-to-video) (animated)
Men in Black (1997)
Sin City (2007)
Spider-Man 3 (May 2007)
Superman The Movie (1978}
Ultimate Avengers (2006) (direct-to-video) (animated)
V for Vendetta (2006)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Solid superfilms that just weren’t good enough to be great.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000) (direct-to-video) (animated)
Batman Forever (1995)
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) (direct-to-video)
Blade: Trinity (2004)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997)
The Crow – City of Angels (1996)
Flash Gordon (1980)
Hellboy: Blood and Iron (2007) (animated) (direct to video)
Howard the Duck (1986) (Other than Howard-as-a-rock-star, a pretty good take on the
comic. Caveat emptor: I seem to be the only person in the world who liked this movie.)
Hulk (2003) (Not nearly as bad as everyone says, but not nearly as good as it should have been.)
The Invincible Iron Man (2007) (direct-to-video) (animated)
Men in Black II (2002)
Spawn (1997) (Lame story, great visuals.)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) (Gets middle-tier status more for what it tried to do by using live action than for what it actually accomplished.)
Punisher (2004) (An underrated film that tried to add a sense of humor to possibly the most humorless hero in comicdom.)
Superman and the Mole Men (1951) (Makes middle tier for nostalgic reasons.)
Superman: Brainiac Attacks (2006) (direct-to-video) (animated)
Superman: Doomsday(2007) (direct-to-video) (animated)
Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo (2007) (direct-to-video) (animated) (This should have been top tier, because TT was one of the greatest animated series ever.)
TMNT (2007) (animated)
Ultimate Avengers 2 (2006) (direct-to-video) (animated)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Not quite the worst ever, but within spitting distance.
Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003) (direct-to-video) (animated)
Batman: SubZero (1998} (direct-to-video) (animated)
The Crow – Salvation (2000)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (1998}
Superman III (1983)
Swamp Thing (1982)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
THE 10 WORST OF ALL TIME
1. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987). A.k.a.: The Franchise Killer.
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993). Another franchise killer, although there wasn’t much life there to begin with.
3. Daredevil (2003), a.k.a.: Unforgivable. One of the most interesting lesser-known supercharacters is given a terrible script, terrible actors, just terrible all around. I’ve storyboarded Daredevil in my head every since I was 11 years old. And they gave us this.
4. Superman Returns (2006). It may be unfair to put this here, because the movie is nowhere near as awful as some of the others on this list, but the fact that
it had some of the greatest talent in Hollywood behind it—and went through infinite rewrites—makes it a tremendous flop. Combine that with the fact that it was supposed to take place after Superman II (although Superman was clearly younger in this film), but it simply took the same story and watered it down, makes it the biggest letdown in the history of super cinema.
5. Captain America (1979) (TV movie). His shield was the windshield from his motorcycle!
6. Mystery Men (1999). Shoulda been funny. Wasn’t.
7. The Punisher (1989) (direct-to-video). Basically, a garden-variety Dolph film that for some reason was called The Punisher.
8. Batman and Robin (1997) . To be fair, this movie is underrated as a film for younger kids or retards.
9. Ghost Rider (2007). The Ghost Rider comic was never that good. It basically had a really cool protagonist who rode a motorcycle made of flames, and that concept drove the book for several years. In the movie, we don’t see the flaming skull for the entire
first act. Instead we’re treated to the wooden skull of Nic Cage, who appears to have gone to the Harrison Ford school of acting.
10. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). I am the rare viewer who enjoyed the first one as a great film to take younger kids to. This one: Tremendous letdown. The entire film is about how Galactus is going to eat the Earth, but we never see him at the end! Were we waiting for Galactus, or waiting for Godot?
Zombies. They can represent our own consumerist behavior, or our leaders thirst for war and death. They can be horrifying, sad, insightful . . . Zombies are the greatest literary device of our time. These are their stories.
Note: This list will not include vampire movies or mummy movies, or any undeads except zombies. It also won’t include many Frankenstein flicks, but a few are worth mentioning because they do inform the zombie genre.
THE TEN BEST ZOMBIE FILMS OF ALL TIME
10. FIDO (2008). I found this Canadian film on Fear.net, and was wonderfully surprised. It takes place in the sterile, “everything looks good” world of the 1950s, in a small town where zombies have become the servants of the living, thanks to behavioral control collars around their necks. The scenes with the zombie sex slave are unnerving, and the scenes with the boy playing catch with his zombie are funny and sad. Horror comedy is never easy, but this film is a smashing success.
Both witty and unsettling, this is one I’m sure you’ve never seen. But should.
9. THRILLER (1993). Yeah, the horror video directed by John Landis. It’s fantastic, it’s funny, and it proves that zombies can bring da noise, bring da funk.
8. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985). A film that’s a little dated, but great horror/comedy nonetheless. My favorite part is the half-dog dissection coming alive in the school science lab. Although this movie also gets the award for best tits on a zombie. I was in love with Trash for about two months after this movie.
7. RE-ANIMATOR (1985). The most disgusting, bloody, gory, wet, dripping, nasty film I’ve ever seen. Terrifying and hysterically funny, it’s old-style bladders-and-latex FX still hold up today.
6. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004). Yeah, it’s a comedy, but it’s so damn good. Even folks I know who don’t like horror or splatter laugh out loud at this film. It’s not for the squeamish–there’s plenty of bloody violence here–but there’s also humor and real pathos. It’s not until everyone else dies that the hero of the film is finally able to prove to his woman that he’s not a shiftless loser. Gives new meaning to the phrase, “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on Earth!” Although it owes quite a bit to Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in its approach to the genre and in its reliance on a crew of quirky characters, current (underappreciated) TV series “The Reaper” in turn owes much to Shaun.
5. 28 DAYS LATER (2002). Imagine waking up in a hospital bed, from a coma, to be the last person on Earth. The first, silent, twenty minutes of this film were far more chilling than Will Smith’s turn in I Am Legend. One of my favorite movies of all time, and easily one of the scariest movies ever made.
4. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). I remember being in a Poughkeepsie mall once, and the muzak on the P.A. system was the tune from this movie. Hilarious! And who can forget the best line of any horror films, after one of the survivors fantasizes about flying a helicopter to an island where there are no zombies. “What island?” another asks. Reply: “Any island.” This also might have been the first action/horror film. It’s the first one I can think of, anyway.
3. DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004). The one that started the debate: Are fast zombies scarier than shambling ones? And extraordinary remake that builds on the intensity and quality of its predecessor. And make sure you don’t leave before the final credits roll, because they tell more of the story.
2. 28 WEEKS LATER (2007). An allegory for the current Iraq war. Brilliant. I’m sure some of you will disagree with my placement of this film above 28 Days Later, but as a movie–as a story with characters we can admire and root for–it is unbeatable in this genre. The idea of one’s own family destroying itself is horrifying in and of itself, but the opening scene is the kind of would-I-have-done-it-different story that speaks long after the credits roll.
1. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). The one that is responsible for just about every zombie tale since then. I saw this at a revival when I was seven, and had to sleep on my parents’ bedroom floor for a week. Romero understood the brilliance of finding horror in the common: These zombies aren’t decomposing, they’re just like normal folks. Only a little sleepier. Easily the most frightening movie of all time.
OTHER TOP TIER ZOMBIE FLICKS
BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). This is the only sequel to Frankenstein that I will mention on this page, because he became in the movie world more of a generic zombie than something that was once human. But I’m mentioning Bride because I actually think it is a better film than the original.
CEMETERY MAN (1994). An underrated, underseen movie about a graveyard caretaker charged with killing the undead, starring Rupert Everett.
DEAD ALIVE (1992). I’m not a fan of his mainstream work, like King Kong and The Lord of The Rings Trilogy, but Peter Jackson’s earlier horror films (including The Frighteners, with Michael J. Fox) are fabulous. Dead Alive is about as wild as a zombie film can be, easily as gorey as Reanimator. I’ve read that this film has more blood than any other movie ever, and I believe it.
THE EVIL DEAD 2 (1987). This flim as some of the greatest low-budget horror special FX ever. It’s still used as a textbook example of what a film student can do with a little imagination and an incredible overabundance of talent. Sam Raimi went on to do some other small films, like Spider Man 1, 2, and 3, but this remains his greatest work. Starring the always-brilliant Bruce Campbell, who is virtually the only actor in the movie.
Note: This is more of a ghost story/possession film, but the living dead are in it. In particular: A living dead hand. If there were more zombies, this would have made my top 10, but since they’re not the stars, this one can’t get that high on my list.
FRANKENHOOKER (1990). An R-rated porn version of Frankenstein: A guy makes the perfect woman: Out of the living dead! If you can look past the schlock, you’ll find a very funny film with tons of classic lines and even a great poem about exploding a person. More nudity per minute than any other zombie film in history.
FRANKENSTEIN (1931). Not a classic zombie movie, but truly great nonetheless. And Frank became the prototype for the shambling zombies of the next fifty years.
LAND OF THE DEAD (2007). George returns! And does a pretty good job.
NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984). More teenage SF flick than horror movie, this is about what a bunch of cute valley girls would do if they were the last folks on the planet. The biggest criticism of the film is that it came out in the 1980s, filmdom’s Age Of Boobs-in-horror-and-comedy, but there’s no nudity here at all.
RESIDENT EVIL (2002). Far better than it should have been, and a solid action/horror flick. Still, I predict that if any film here inspires people to give me shit about how much I suck, it’ll be this one.
MIDDLE TIER MOVIES
BRIDE OF REANIMATOR (1990). Sequel to Reanimator, with a different writer/director.
CREEPSHOW (1982). Two out of four short films in this movie deal with the returning-from-the-dead, and one has Ted Danson!
DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). George Romero’s third “Living Dead” film, shot like most of his movies on a shoestring budget. Tom Savini is still here, bringing some of the greatest horror makeup of the 1980s, but the film overall is pretty dated. It goes down on my list as the worst Romero zombie film ever . . . In other words, it’s not too bad.
DEADLY FRIEND (1986). Wes Craven’s try at the genre, about a dead girl who gets reanimated by a robotic chip. Sounds stupid, but it’s not so bad. Plus, Kristy Swanson has to be the hottest dead chick of all time.
EVIL DEAD 3: ARMY OF DARKNESS (1993). Again, zombies are not the primary focus of this film, but there are quite a few of them.
GRINDHOUSE (2007). The first of the two mini-films, Planet Terror, is a zombie movie. It sucks because it’s mostly but bloody cliches, but touches like Rose’s gunleg make it better than the average Z movie.
I AM LEGEND (2008). This could have been a great movie, but they didn’t think through the monsters well enough. How did they get turbo power? If there are no bodies on the streets–anywhere–then how are they sustaining themselves? The first half of the film, showing Will Smith going slightly mad with loneliness, are far better than the second half, which just becomes an action shoot-em-up. Note: It’s not entirely clear whether the creatures in this movie are zombies or not. They have some kind of blood disease that may be treatable, which suggests that they are not, but the film certainly makes them look like zombies.
NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (1986). A fairly good B-Movie.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990). The Tom Savini remake that Romero approved simply because he was ripped off in his deal on the original film. Kinda like the word-for-word remake of Psycho.
OMEGA MAN (1971). Charlton Heston in the film remade as I Am Legend. Again, not really a zombie film, but close enough.
PET SEMATARY (1989). The best parts of this movie are the bit part by Fred “I’m not Herman Munster!” Gwynne, and The Ramones title track. Otherwise, this is a pretty lame film.
ZOMBIE (1979). Makes middle tier because of the shark vs. zombie fight scene.
STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM THESE, EVEN IF YOU ARE A ZOMBIE YOURSELF
CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980)
DAY OF THE DEAD (2007). Shot for theatrical release, but ending up direct to video, this is Ving Rhames’ worst movie. And that’s saying something. It’s a remake of the Romero flick, but it’s just stupid. In one scene, a zombie climbs across a ceiling, like Spiderman. WTF?
THE DEADENING (2008). A short film about a guy who wakes up a zombie.
DEATH VALLEY: THE REVENGE OF BLOODY BILL (2008). Sample quote: “So you’re saying all the major religions are invalid?”
DOOM (2005). Again, more of a shooting-and-killing action film than a zombie movie.
HOUSE OF THE DEAD (2003). P.S.: It’s really an island, not a house.
PET CEMETERY 2 (1992).
PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE (1959). Ed Wood’s foray into the genre, combining sci fi and horror. Two humans are brought back from the dead (one is Vampira) by aliens. One of the worst movies of all time.
PRISON OF THE DEAD (2000). Combining my two favorite genres: Zombies and prisons. Proving that sometimes two great things don’t go together. Like smoked salmon and mint chip ice cream.
RESIDENT EVIL 2 (2004)
RESIDENT EVIL 3 (2004)
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 2 (1988).
SLITHER (2006). Wormy creatures invade the body, kill it, then reanimate it. Not really zombies, but close.