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10 Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
While most Marvel Comics adaptations succeed thanks to a contemporary setting and a sarcastically self-conscious tone, Captain America is different. Marvel wisely set the movie during WWII and hired director Joe Johnson to recreate the unapologetically old-fashioned Boys Own adventure tone of his underrated 1991 effort, The Rocketeer. The result was a rootin tootin Nazi killing romp and the only contemporary superhero movie to capture the tone of the `40s comic strips that kicked off the genre.
The screenwriters cleverly acknowledge, embrace and mock the propagandist nature of the character and the silly costume, while Chris Evans provides an ideal square-jawed All-American hero (matched by Hugo Weavings wonderfully sinister Red Skull). Hopefully Marvel can find a way to set the inevitable sequel in the past as well, because its hard to imagine the character being this effective without the pitch-perfect period details.
9 Blade II (2002)
Before Spider-Man and X-Men turned the 2000s into the superhero movie era, there was Blade. Wesley Snipes half-vampire, half-vampire-killer was a surprise 1998 hit that paved the way for the super-blockbusters to follow. As with many superhero franchises, the sequel ended up topping the original.
Directed by Mexican horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro, Blade II opens with an insane bloodbath, and then the filmmaker somehow manages to top himself scene after scene. His specially designed wide-mouthed super-vampires are a stunningly sick achievement, while the combination of kung fu, gunfights, horror and deliberately campy comic book cheese makes the movie feel like a Japanese anime brought to life. It might not be based on the most famous comic book character ever created and requires the mental agility of a braindead mouse on sleeping pills to enjoy, but this is one hell of ride. Few film adaptations capture the guilty-pleasure thrill of comics so well.
8 Darkman (1990)
Decades before bringing Spider-Man to the big screen, director Sam Raimi desperately tried to direct Batman and The Shadow adaptations to no avail. Undeterred, he created his own gothic superhero, an honorable scientist whose body was burned to a crisp but who mastered a formula for synthetic human skin that allows him to disguise himself as anyone.
Darkman was a hit and easily the best superhero movie of the post-Batman rush. Comic nerds were so impressed that the character was quickly given his own comic book series, making it a strange reverse adaptation. Boasting a hysterically over-the-top lead performance from the typically restrained Liam Neeson and filled with the giddy dark comedy and the classic monster movie influences that defined Raimis work during his Evil Dead days, Darkman is a unique blockbuster and deserving cult classic. An underrated gem that demands attention from even casual superhero movie fans.
7 Kick-Ass (2010)
Kick-Ass was the perfect antidote to the superhero-movie overload of the aughts: a hilarious satire about a collection of lunatics who were foolishly influenced by comic books to become superheroes in the real world. The titular Kick-Ass is a geeky teen whose semi-superpower is an unnatural resistance to pain, allowing him to absorb beatings and win fights by attrition. In addition, theres the psychotic Big Daddy (a perfectly cast nutball Nic Cage doing an Adam West impression), who trains his preteen daughter to become the pint-sized, foul-mouthed assassin Hit Girl. The hysterical action/comedy was a cult hit the second it was released, and hopefully one that will be followed by sequels very soon. Oh, and theres a scene in which Hit Girl drops the C-bomb before massacring a room of bad guys. Thats pretty kick-ass.
6 Superman (1978)
The first superhero blockbuster holds up surprisingly well thanks to director Richard Donners reverential approach. He presents the Man Of Steels origin as a classical myth, and then once the perfectly cast Christopher Reeve (there will never be a better Superman) takes over in the adult years, Donner slides his tongue gently into his cheek for a campy romp aided immeasurably by Gene Hackman vamping Lex Luthor. Its a formula that filmmakers still try to copy and that no one else has equaled.
The same is true of Superman adaptations in general. We were saddled with increasingly disappointing sequels in the `80s, followed by the snorefest that was Superman Returns in 2006. Its unlikely that well ever get a film about the character this good again, and thats oddly appropriate. Superman was the first-ever comic book superhero, so it makes sense that his big-screen legacy would be the first great superhero film.
5 Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burtons first crack at Batman was a pop-culture phenomenon, but his underrated follow-up always felt like the directors purest take on the story. It takes huge liberties with the source material (particularly by turning the dapper gangster The Penguin into a monstrous sewer-dwelling freak), like all artist-driven adaptations should. It just didnt sell enough Happy Meals for the director to keep his job. Ah, well, at least Burton got one chance to reinvent Batman as a sick comedy about a collection of psychopaths (Christopher Walken is the closest thing to a normal person onscreen) filled with perverse sexual imagery. Speaking of which, did I mention Michelle Pfeiffers finest work as the sexiest and most disturbed Catwoman of all time? That doesnt hurt.
4 The Incredibles (2004)
The Incredibles might not have starred in any comic books before shattering the box office, but this Pixar project from genius writer/director Brad Bird (Ratatouille, The Simpsons) is easily one of the best superhero movies ever made. Its a dysfunctional family comedy at heart. That family just happens to have superpowers. Birds patented combination of cartoon comedy and genuine emotion created a better version of The Fantastic Four than any of the official adaptations. Throw in the finest animated action money can buy along with a gently satirical villain who is jealous of the familys powers, and youve got yourself a damn near perfect superhero romp.
Its a crime that Pixar chose to give Cars a sequel before The Incredibles, and now that Bird left to become a live-action director with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, there might never be one. At least we got one classic out of The Incredibles brand. No need to be greedy.
3 Iron Man (2008)
Its hard to imagine that back in the innocent days of 2008, Iron Man was considered a secondary superhero at best, barely known outside of hardcore comics fans. Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. capitalized on that element of surprise, using their collective comedy background to bring out the venomous sarcastic charisma of Downey in full force. Favreau proved that he could direct action in addition to improv comedy and used the collective unfamiliarity with Iron Mans world to slide the genius arms dealer into the war on terror.
Now Iron Man is one of the most famous superheroes around thanks to this almost unfairly entertaining and witty romp that single-handedly turned Marvel Comics into a movie studio. Its one of the rare origin stories so strong that sequels cant top it, and Marvel has even struggled to match Iron Mans quality in its subsequent output well, until The Avengers anyway.
2 Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Director Sam Raimi may have left the franchise after an abysmal third chapter, but at least he got to make Spider-Man 2. His sequel is a pitch-perfect version of 1960s Spider-Man comics, complete with the vibrant color scheme and naïve innocence. The film is packed with stunningly kinetic action scenes that vividly bring to life the webslingers gravity defying ways, while also boasting a sweet story about responsibility true to Stan Lees moral grounding in the original concept.
Its funny without being campy or self-mocking, and action-packed without sacrificing story, characterization or a responsible core. Raimi and his team of writers and actors juggle so many elements seamlessly that its hard to even notice how effortlessly all the disparate parts slot together. This is the high-water mark for Spider-Man movies, and good luck to anyone who wants to top it.
1 The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight seemed to transcend the superhero genre when it pulled a billion dollars out of moviegoers` wallets in 2008. Writer/director Christopher Nolan found a perfect balance between his interest in Batman and the needs of the fanboys, crafting a Halloween-costumed variation on Heat (a crime epic that blurs the line between hero and villain). True to Batmans darkest graphic novel incarnations, the film is grounded in reality, while still larger than life and featuring the psychotic, anarchistic version of the Joker never before seen outside of comic book panels (unforgettably brought to life by the late Heath Ledger). Sure, besides the ho-hum final 20 minutes, its still hard to think of another superhero movie equally enthralling for comic book nerds and general audiences.