Saturday, July 28, 2012


With the high praise, and box office, that THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN are garnering, the debate begins anew regarding what is the best of show in the superhero movie genre. As a huge fan of both superheroes in print and in film, I’ll throw my two cents into the mix. And I’ll invite you too, fan boy and casual fan alike, to share your thoughts and keep the debate going here at The Establishing Shot.

Best Villain
Some think that Tom Hardy might net an Oscar nomination for his role as Bane in the newest Batman movie but I’m not in that camp. Personally, I think Anne Hathaway is more deserving of awards for her portrayal of Selina Kyle. Her dynamic performance is all the more incredible considering that I was so skeptical about the prospects of another Catwoman a few months back. (My thoughts on that subject here: To me, Hardy’s performance suffers some from indecipherable line readings and the fact that he seems to be channeling Sean Connery’s voice. (Or was it Darrell Hammond’s imitation of Sir Sean that he was doing?)

No, my pick for the best villain of all time in a superhero movie did get an Oscar. And rightfully so. Heath Ledger was truly riveting as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Not only did he make the Joker something far creepier than most takes on the ‘clown prince of crime’, but Ledger also made him so utterly unpredictable. And that made him all the more frightening. No two-line readings were the same, or any reaction shots for that matter. Ledger made his Joker feel like improvisation. Here was a thug, a psychopath terrorizing Gotham, and the S.O.B. was winging it, making it all up as he went along. Even his story of how he got his scars was never the same twice. And all that made for one singular villain.

Best Action Scene
For me, a great action sequence is not about special effects or a grandiose setting. It’s about character. What’s at stake for whoever’s in the big set piece? And a fight scene like the one in SPIDER-MAN 2 atop the runaway subway train tops them all. Spidey is a powerful superhero yes, but is he strong enough to keep the train from plummeting off the tracks? And since he’s lost his mask fighting Doc Ock, Parker’s true identity is exposed for all to see, making him all the more vulnerable as he tries to save the day. It’s a thrilling, nail-biting ride with so much at stake for our hero.

Best Dramatic Score
John Williams has scored dozens of brilliant film soundtracks, but none soared more than his work for SUPERMAN (1978). And he did something there that is unheard of in any movie today, superhero or not - he composed five, count ‘em five, different themes for the various parts of that iconic film: the main theme, the love theme (“Can You Read My Mind?”), the villain’s theme, and themes for Krypton and Smallville. It was a superb achievement.
Best Screenplay
David Hayter, Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer did something in the first X-MEN movie that still seems like a miracle. They set up a franchise, blending a dozen different main characters, origin story after origin story, incorporating pieces of the Holocaust, the civil rights movement, and pointed political commentary on prejudice and war, and still managed to make the mixture into an utterly crackling entertainment. And they did so with two lead actors in their sixties. It was revolutionary and evolutionary for the comic book superhero genre.
Best Direction
As much as I appreciate Christopher Nolan’s serious take on the Batman franchise after Joel Schumacher’s frivolous films, I think the best direction in a superhero movie was that by Edgar Wright for SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. He infuses every frame of his eccentric movie that satirizes the genre, with an appropriately cheeky wit. There isn’t a wasted frame, or a camera set-up, or edit, that isn’t filled with his witty, kinetic POV. 
Best Batman
Christian Bale, right? Sorry, but I could never embrace his growling hiss as the Caped Crusader. And if you’re expecting me to pick Keaton, Kilmer or Clooney, well forget it. And while I appreciate Adam West’s campy take, it’s not a serious Batman consideration for me. No, the best Batman to me by far, and that covers the portrayal of both Batman and Bruce Wayne, is in the animated movie BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993). It’s by veteran voice actor Kevin Conroy, and as he did in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES in the early 90’s, he brought authority and gravitas to both sides of the equation without resorting to any tricks or whispers. Granted, he’s not on camera. But that makes it all the more significant of an achievement. 
Best Female Performance
The list here is considerably shorter than the amount of testosterone-driven performances to choose from. And most of the women’s roles in superhero movies are supporting ones. (At least until Hollywood finally brings WONDER WOMAN to the big screen.) There are some amazing supporting turns however. I laud Anna Paquin’s quaking vulnerability as Rogue in both of the first two X-MEN movies; Kirsten Dunst’s emotional rollercoaster as Mary Jane in the second Spidey film; and Gwyneth Paltrow’s sly sexiness as Pepper Potts in IRON MAN. But Margot Kidder as Lois Lane in the first SUPERMAN movie takes the honor of best in my opinion. She’s feisty, funny, and sexy as the brazen career woman who falls for the most impressive bachelor on the planet. Her Lois is definitely someone worth turning back time for.
Best Male Performance
For decades, my pick for the greatest superhero performance of all time was Christopher Reeve as SUPERMAN. His performance was extraordinarily nuanced and complex, especially compared to how bland Brandon Routh was in SUPERMAN RETURNS in 2006. And even though I loved Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and recently, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, my pick for best is Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in IRON MAN.

Downey Jr. made his superhero delightfully unheroic in so many ways. He was vain, smarmy, sexist and acerbic. And boy, what a breath of fresh air that was! Here was a superhero that battled evil because he knew how close we could all come to being bad. And if Downey Jr.’s personal life added subtext to it, so be it. His Tony Stark may have been the first superhero on screen that I liked seeing more out of his costume than in it. And in a superhero movie, that’s doing some heavy, heavy lifting.
Best Superhero Movie
There are so many good ones to choose from the X-Men, Spidey and Bats films. Those early Superman movies are something incredible too. But for me, the best superhero movie is somewhat of a surprising choice, and not the least of all because it’s animated. It’s Pixar’s THE INCREDIBLES and it’s about a family of superheroes struggling with being stupendous, as well as striving for the normal dreams every human has. Love, acceptance and family, these are concerns of theirs, as well as saving the world. It’s also a brilliant commentary on what it takes to be special in the world. And how not every one can be exceptional.

Well, those are my thoughts. What are yours? Tell me what blew your cape up and we’ll keep this discussion going. Oh, and look for my next post coming soon which will assess the worst of the superhero genre. I promise you, that discussion won’t be so super.


  1. Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker ranks among the best villain performances in film of all time. In any genre. Right up there with Norman Bates, Nurse Ratched, Hans Gruber, Alex Forrest, Dr. Szell, Faye Dunaway's Joan Crawford, Bette Davis' Baby Jane Hudson and Malcolm McDowell's Alex (CLOCKWORK ORANGE). Utterly unforgettable.

  2. Well said, Fan. Ledger's Joker will live in the ranks of film's best villains for a long, long time.