Superhero movies tend to come in just one of two flavors: Exceptional and terrible. They either work as visually breathtaking, escapist fun… or they don’t. This summer features a slew of upcoming superhero flicks, including The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises. The latest, Joss Whedon’s highly anticipated The Avengers, hits theaters today.
The movie is a true superhero smorgasbord, with historic Marvel Comics characters (some of whom have already headlined their own successful movie franchises) teaming up to defeat Thor’s tyrannical brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), from destroying the world. Will the intrepid Avengers—Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)—save the day? With all that star power, let’s hope so.
To celebrate The Avengers‘ release, join us as we take a look back at some of the best and worst superhero movies of the last 15 years
1997 saw the release of two horrible superhero movies—the lesser-known being this DOA story about a military weapons designer (Shaquille O’Neal) who builds a suit of armor (hence his alter ego name, “Steel”) to fight crime (a swipe from Iron Man, perhaps?). The character of Steel originated in a Superman comic book series; judging by the film adaptation, this is one superhero who should have stayed on the page. As Steel, Shaq redefines the meaning of the word “stiff.” Perhaps tired of being known solely as a star basketball player, Shaq tried his hand at a number of different art forms in the 1990s—acting, rapping—albeit none of them well. (Anyone remember the cinematic treasure Kazaam or the classic rap album “Shaq-Fu: Da Return”? We didn’t think so.) On the other hand, this turkey’s failure probably saved us from seeing Shaq embarrass himself in a string of terrible sequels. Let’s just say Shaq shot an air ball with Steel.
Batman and Robin (1997)
The other horrible superhero flick of 1997 had a significantly higher budget and anticipation factor than Steel, making its failure all the more disappointing. With its campy tone, tacky sets (which seemed more suitable for a gaudy Las Vegas show than a big-budget comic book adaptation) and jokey, unthreatening villains (played by “The Governator” himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Uma Thurman), this film obliterated the gothic mood of Tim Burton’s earlier Batman movies and regressed back to the over-the-top excess of the 1960s TV series. Even George Clooney, the third actor to get behind the wheel of the Batmobile for Hollywood, was unhappy with the results, saying “I think we might have killed the franchise” and calling the film “a waste of money.” Luckily, the franchise wasn’t left for dead, and in 2005, the series was rebooted with Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Batman Begins.
Soon after nabbing an Oscar win for Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry apparently wanted to show her range and go in the opposite direction by appearing in this piece of dreck. Inspired by the classic DC Comics character, Catwoman tells the story of a shy woman who walks a thin line between criminal and hero after being endowed with the speed, reflexes and senses of a cat. With its laughable dialogue and sloppy action sequences, the movie was a bomb with both critics and audiences, winning four Golden Raspberry awards (including Worst Picture and Worst Director for the singularly-named Pitof, who, not surprisingly, hasn’t helmed a movie since). Berry was a surprisingly good sport, accepting her win for Worst Actress in person, with a speech that summed up how many feel about this abysmal re-imagining: “First of all, I want to thank Warner Brothers. Thank you for putting me in a piece of shit, godawful movie… It was just what my career needed.”
Spider-Man 1 & 2 (2002, 2004)
Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s classic comic book creation was faithfully adapted into these fun films, which have lots of potent web-slinging action in addition to a heavy dose of heart. Tobey Maguire proved perfect casting as gawky teenager Peter Parker, who, after being bitten by a genetically-engineered spider, finds himself with super-human powers, including increased strength, speed and the ability to climb walls. Director Sam Raimi’s trademark giddy, hyperkinetic camerawork proved a perfect match for the films. While Spider-Man 3 suffered from a sense of being rushed and overstuffed, the first two films are superhero tales at their best. And the franchise continues to grow. In addition to the controversial, much-delayed musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” a 3-D reboot of the series is planned for this summer, with Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) stepping into Spider-Man’s tights and Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) directing.
Iron Man (2008)
Another classic Stan Lee comic series made a successful big screen transition, thanks in large part to Robert Downey Jr.’s funny, charismatic performance as weapons manufacturer-turned-superhero Tony Stark. With Jon Favreau behind the camera and a dynamite supporting cast (including Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges), Iron Man provides a large amount of fun. Its worldwide success proved that such mass entertainments have the ability to appeal to both adults (who dug the film’s hip, witty sensibility) and kids (who loved the video game-esque action scenes). Two years later a sequel was released, the overbusy Iron Man 2. It sorely lacked the effortless fun of the original, which still holds up as an example of superhero moviemaking at its most entertaining.
Batman Begins & The Dark Knight (2005, 2008)
Director Christopher Nolan successfully re-imagined Batman for a new generation with Batman Begins, starring Christian Bale as the tortured superhero. Its sequel, The Dark Knight (the Citizen Kane of superhero flicks), stands as a towering achievement—proof that superhero movies have the capacity to be not only great entertainment, but great works of art, period. The movie finds Bruce Wayne taking on his most dangerous foe yet—insane criminal mastermind The Joker (the late Heath Ledger, in an Oscar-winning role), who is hell bent on unleashing anarchy throughout the world. With its complex characters and storyline, intense action sequences and dark, foreboding tone, The Dark Knight is a shining example of what superhero movies can—and should—be.
Have a fave (or least fave) superhero movie not covered above? Let us know in the comments!