From ‘Superman’ (1978) to ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008): Comic Books Come to Life and (finally) Come of Age – over 30 years: Part II

The continuation of my Top 10 comic book movie adaptations (once again, the likes of Road To Perdition, American Splendor and A History Of Violence simply exist on such a different plane that I’d rather not consider them in these rankings, as excellent as they are).

5. Spider-Man 2 (**** ½; A-)
This film really surprised me. I saw the first one in theaters and found it a tedious, boring, unimaginative and poorly executed endeavor, and naturally expected more of the same from the second. But it soared majestically on a well-realized love story that became the crux of the film, never mind the rather ridiculous A-story with Doc Ock’s incredibly lame plot. It has gained staying power with its lovely insight into Parker’s real world problems. On top of that it managed the excellent monorail battle, which is one solid action sequence more than either the prequel or the sequel could muster (and the less said about the travesty that is Spider-Man 3, the better).

4. Batman Begins (**** ½; A)
Now this is where the gloves come off. Batman Begins marked the first true live action incarnation of the Caped Crusader on the silver screen – all prior were just flashy impostors dressing the part. Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan gave us a fully realized Bruce Wayne, brimming with palpable and gripping angst that carried over fantastically into the psyche of the Dark Knight himself, finally giving audiences an inkling of what it was for him to do what he does. There have been endless complaints about the cutting and shooting of the action sequences, but I’m having none of it: that’s the way I’ve imagined Batman handing out his beatings (it just sucks when you see it in IMAX). On top of that, it’s perhaps the best plotted film on this list, and the pyramid scheme of multiple villains (knock off one to find another bigger and badder underneath) is very richly orchestrated. Definitely took its cues from the best origin story of all (see #2).

3. Superman II (*****; A)
This is the near-perfect blueprint of what a sequel should be: more of the same, but bigger. It fleshes out the Lois-and-Clark love story, introduces us to a troika of villains as powerful as our esteemed hero, and raises the stakes from saving California to saving the Earth. This is the Godfather Pt II of superhero movies – on par with the original on so many levels, but just missing that very negligible X-Factor that will always make it a second generation. But what really stops this film from being the A+ that it should have been, is knowing what this film could have become. Director Richard Donner had shot the bulk of this but was fired to be replaced by Richard Lester (a shared first name was about as close as these two came to matching talents), he who wrought upon us Superman III. Do yourself a favor and pick up Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut; there are one or two inferior elements there, but everything else is on a grander, more incredible scale. And even in its rough cut, the climactic interaction between Jor-El and Superman (sans his superpowers) is absolutely heartbreaking.

2. Superman (*****; A+)
The film that started it all, and that for 30 years held the top spot uncontested; I naturally expected that would never change. It took its subject matter seriously, creating a fully-fleshed out universe where you could honestly believe a man can fly. It’s almost three movies in one: the opening on Krypton, the second phase in Kansas (I remember being so fascinated and so moved by this part, especially around Father Kent’s death), and the bulk of the story in Metropolis. And these boast three different tones, with three different looks, that blend into a delicious, mind-boggling whole. Whether it’s simple but spectacular set pieces (the helicopter rescue, the pursuit of the nukes, spinning the world on its axis) or the well-plotted narrative that focused on character above all else (Clark in Kansas, or Superman’s midnight flight with Lois), it worked on level few blockbusters could. And the music – who could forget the music? Easily John Williams’s greatest ever score, from the Krypton theme to the main title to the incredibly moving Love Theme (‘Can You Read My Mind’?); all this showed that this was the kind of superhero movie that would (and perhaps could) never be undertaken again. And there’s no justice without mentioning Christopher Reeve’s bravura performance as Kent/Superman – you’ve got to watch carefully to realize the slight of hand and amazing ability he brings into the role. Watching his physical transformation (that encompasses emotional and psychological) when he contemplates spilling the beans to Lois? Priceless. It’s the best bit of casting since they got Brando as the Godfather, and the best acting ever in a movie like this (until the next, equally tragic case, 30 years on).

You'll believe a man really can fly, which is all we ask of the great movies

You'll believe a man really can fly, which is all we ask of the great movies

1. The Dark Knight (*****; A+)
There’s not possibly enough I can say about this movie. It’s epic; it’s personal; it’s brooding; it’s thrilling; it’s violent; it’s hopeful. What it is not, however, is just another blockbuster. From its phenomenal score (of course no threat of comparison to Maestro Williams’s Superman symphony) to its phenomenal cast’s phenomenal performances to its ridiculously epic (in a great way) set pieces to its well-oiled plotting, deep-seeded themes and impactful emotional resonance, there’s little this cinematic achievement is lacking. Nolan has done the unthinkable among beloved indie directors: top even his most cherished low-budg masterclasses with a gigantic spectacle of a summer blockbuster. It represents genuine hope for the future – that big-budget blockbusters can be crafted with indie flick thoughtfulness and sensibilities: caring for characters, justifying their every controversial move, fleshing out the world they inhabit and drawing strong parallels to ours. It is the most intense blockbuster I’ve ever seen in theaters; probably one of the most intense and relentless ever. Once it gets its screws into you, it doesn’t let up or let go, and returns haunting you, with resonance and sometimes heartbreaking clarity, long after the lights have flickered off the screen. Here’s to 30 years (at least) at the top of the food chain; Superman has (barely) lost to a very worthy adversary, and it might take just as long if not longer for such a realistic and sustained challenge to rear its head. Yes, I said it: these two films represent quality that’s almost once-in-a-lifetime, so enjoy them as you’re privileged to. Chris Reeve and Heath Ledger (among a worldful of others) never got to.

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