Before Iron Man debuted in 2008, launching the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it, superhero movies were box office poison. Bryan Singer had had some moderate success with his X-Men films, but flops like Daredevil and Electra were still clogging the system. Prior to the X-Men franchise, things were even more glum. Shaquille O’Neal was headlining Steel; Matt Salinger (son of J.D.) was in a low budget Captain America; Dolph Lundgren mumbled his way through an unlicensed Australian Punisher film. Marvel was nearing bankruptcy and, just to keep the rights to their signature characters The Fantastic Four, they had to produce a film on the cheap as quick as possible. That particular rushed production was never even meant for public consumption, though it has leaked (and became a memorable recurring joke on Arrested Development‘s fourth season).
The future of comic book films was in severe jeopardy. In 2008, Marvel Studios head Kevin Fiege began an ambitious, multi-film universe, as rich as their source material. Had Iron Man failed to click with audiences, we might well not be living in an era of event superhero films. Alas, it was a success, and the MCU continues to grow, inspiring its competitor, DC, to attempt that same kind of world building in less than half the time (unsuccessfully, so far).
Though certain superhero films since 2000, while highly praised and enjoyed, sometimes get over-hyped. Even after their release, fans are reticent to criticize for fear of nerd retaliation (and on the internet, that can be a genuinely frightening thing. Just look at gamergate). Here are a few that got special treatment on pedigree alone. Bear in mind, nerds, most of these aren’t all that bad, just a little too well-liked.
15. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
While still considered one of the lesser MCU films, The Incredible Hulk is largely considered better than it’s predecessor, Ang Lee‘s Hulk. Lee gets short changed. His vision of a superhero movie is a surprisingly beautiful meditation on anger and Nick Nolte screaming incoherently, while still providing comic-panel action. Incredible is simply a dumbed down follow-up, picking up where Hulk left off but giving it none of the credit. It doesn’t come close to the hauntingly gorgeous shots in Lee’s film of the green giant leaping boundlessly over great, desert plains. Hulk has undergone some critical re-evaluation since its release, but has yet to get the recognition it deserves.
14. Kick-Ass (2010)
Based on the comic by Mark Millar, Kick Ass is at times an interesting attempt to look at the adversity a costumed hero might come to face in the gritty reality of street crime. At least, it begins that way. The film slowly falls into the same silly superhero tropes it attempts to satire.
Another legitimate criticism comes from Roger Ebert, who detested the film. “When kids in the age range of this movie’s home video audience are shooting one another every day in America, that kind of stops being funny,” he wrote. He called the film “morally reprehensible”, in particular the scene toward the end in which a preteen girl is nearly beaten to death.
13. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Joe Johnston had previous experience in period piece superhero-ism. His fantastic, underrated The Rocketeer sparkles its way through 1930s Hollywood. So expectations were understandably high when Johnston took the reins to a World War 2-era superhero film, once again fighting Nazis.
Unfortunately, The First Avenger is less a film or even a prequel than a set up for future Captain America adventures. It plays like an extended flashback. There’s some charming satire, as when Cap is used primarily as propaganda. The joy of the Captain America films are the genre-leaps each one is capable of making. The First Avenger plays like a World War 2 film, the far superior The Winter Soldier is drenched in 70s conspiracy thriller (Robert Redford-included) and Civil War is more of psychological drama.
12. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The flaws of The Dark Knight Rises haven’t gone unsung. They’re often incorrectly referred to as “plot holes” by the collective internet. Take note: a plot hole is something illogical. While it’s hard to believe Bruce Wayne made his way back to Gotham from his underground prison, it’s simply a matter of lapsed time.
But Rises has its staunch defenders. Like Christopher Nolan‘s other two batfilms, however, it’s morality and thematically confused, overwritten and ploddingly overlong. As far as capping off a trilogy goes, this has to be one of the most unsatisfying conclusions in recent history.
11. The Wolverine (2013)
James Mangold’s The Wolverine came close to being the R-rated, hyper-violent X-Men spinoff we all wanted to see. While being developed by Darren Aronofsky, he rewrote the script and included plenty of gory kills. The studio was reportedly uncomfortable, opting for the safe, workman-like director Mangold’s less thrilling vision. It works alright as an industrial espionage thriller, highlighted by an exciting fight atop a moving bullet train, but the mechanics of the plot are the film’s real downfall. By the end, the film’s moving parts are all too predictable.
10. Ant-Man (2015)
When Edgar Wright’s test reel for his passion project Ant-Man screened for audiences and critics, expectations for the finished film were huge. That is, until Wright was replaced with Peyton Reed. Ant-Man is plagued by what most first outings for an onscreen superhero are: origin-itis. The first half, following Paul Rudd‘s Scott Lang as he tries to live a reformed life after getting out of prison, rides on Rudd’s charm alone. It’s fast, funny and seemingly rebellious against common superhero cliches.
Once Rudd receives the suit and Corey Stoll’s villain takes centre stage, it quickly settles in to Marvel’s comfortable routine. There’s still plenty to enjoy, with Rudd still delivering his standard dry wit. The action, however, gets a little redundant, despite the odd, clearly-Wright induced bit of inspiration.
9. V for Vendetta (2005)
There’s being faithful to source material, and then there’s boring your audience to tears. Alan Moore’s graphic novel works far better in its original medium than its uber-faithful, Wachowski-scripted adaptation. While the film updates some of the comic’s references (Thatcherism becomes neo-conservatism, U.S.-style), the approach is with a cinematic blunt instrument. The moral certitude of V, as well as the cartoonish villains, are a dim witted attempt at political commentary. In between all that, we get endless scenes of V semi-romancing Natalie Portman’s idealistic Evey Hammond.
8. Batman Begins (2005)
As previously mentioned, the origin story – particularly that of a well-known icon – is almost always a slog to get through. So how, in Christopher Nolan’s first bat-outing, did it end up being the best thing about it? The complexities of Bruce Wayne on display in the early and flashback scenes of Begins work like gangbusters, creating Gotham more fully realized than Tim Burton‘s bleak one, Joel Schumacher‘s overly colourful one, or even the one for which the TV show takes its name.
Where the film falls flat are the scenes set in the present, where the mysterious (for those who don’t know how movies work) Rha’s al Ghul sets his devious plan in motion. The last half of the film falls apart, though it remains Nolan’s only thematically coherent entry in the series.
8. Unbreakable (2000)
During production of Signs, Newsweek released a cover story. The headline: “M. Night Shyamalan: The New Spielberg?” Ah, 2002 was such a simpler time, wasn’t it? Shyamalan soon became the butt of numerous jokes, but has since found his place not in major blockbusters, but small horror films like The Visit and the upcoming Split.
His second major film, Unbreakable, didn’t perform well initially, but has since developed an enormous cult following. One which has no explanation, as the film itself is nothing more than a slow-paced origin story for a rather lame superhero. The film’s post-script, which attempts to ground it further in reality by having Bruce Willis‘ invincible (save for water) superhero having Samuel L. Jackson‘s Mr. Glass incarcerated in an insane asylum, is almost as laughable as his intentionally funny killer plants in The Happening.
7. X-Men (2000)
Bryan Singer’s first X-film, alongside Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man, proved to studios that superhero movies could work. Raimi’s film is far superior, as Singer’s endlessly and obviously harps on the gay subtext at work. The action is also particularly lacklustre. Fans of the comics were also upset to see significant characters like Sabretooth and Mystique be written off as minor henchman.
6. Sky High (2005)
Superhero comedies are a tough line to walk. Hancock leaned to hard on the former end, Superhero Movie on the latter (and was just awful in general). So credit Sky High for being as affable as it is. Tongue firmly held against cheek, Kurt Russell leads a family of superheroes through the general clichés of the genre. And for a while, it’s pleasant. Unfortunately, the film never bothers to transcend any of those cliches, settling just for hitting the appropriate targets and moving on.
5. Kick-Ass 2 (2013)
If Kick-Ass was morally reprehensible, it’s sequel is a downright embarrassment to good taste, replete with fart jokes (the classiest of jokes). Cast mate Jim Carrey famously spoke out against the film after its release, offended by the level of violence for which he willingly accepted a pay check. He wasn’t entirely wrong.
Worse, there’s no eccentric Nicolas Cage performance to soften the blows of cruelty, rape and murder the film revels in. Christopher Mintz-Plasse‘s villain is both uninteresting and unappealing.
4. Chronicle (2012)
The script for Chronicle, written by enfant terrible Max Landis, was on the blacklist of best unproduced scripts before it was picked up by Dune Entertainment and directed by then-newcomer Josh Trank. It certainly deserves credit for breathing some life in the tired found footage subgenre, and Dane Dehaan’s performance as the lead villain is interestingly complex (Dehaan is an actor who deserves far better roles than he’s received).
The film suffers greatly from teen angst, perhaps the same alienation Landis felt growing up the son of a far superior screenwriter and director. Like any teen film, Chronicle is little more than a morality play with flying.
3. The Avengers (2012)
Joss Whedon‘s The Avengers is a serviceable action picture with above average dialogue. Beyond that, it’s a cookie cutter representation of what Marvel expects from its creative team, complete with a Macguffin and what has become standard: a big hole in the sky from where villains spill out. Perhaps The Avengers is so well-liked for the novelty of seeing a gathering of heroes on the big screen unlike anything previously filmed. Perhaps the fruits of what came since the first pairing of the team allows us to overlook the basic, streamlined plot and astounding length (remember when movies clocked in around 2 hours? When it wasn’t a full day outing?).
2. Deadpool (2016)
It’s rare you find an actor be so passionate about a role they fight for years to develop a film around it. But Ryan Reynolds so wanted to be Deadpool, he even agreed to play the character in the dismal X-Origins: Wolverine, only to see the merc with the mouth rendered mute by the end. Reynolds stamped his feet and held his breath long enough and finally got his wish this past February. Deadpool was the R-rated superhero hit he hoped it would be.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Nerds, prepare to rage. Christopher Nolan is a lousy screenwriter. Here’s just a small example of the numerous inconsistencies present in The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne, in a conversation with his butler/father figure Alfred, discusses a project that he is “playing pretty close to the chest.”
Later in the film, as Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is rescued from an attack by the Joker and his crew, Commissioner Gordon reveals he is still alive after an assassination attempt. The discord occurs in the following line, spoken by Dent to Gordon:
“You do play things pretty close to the chest.” This sort of negative call and response is but a small annoyance compared to the awful dialogue spoken by cop Nicky Katt during the preceding chase (such gems include, “Okay, that’s not good.” “Okay that’s NOT good.” “That’s what I’m talking about! Air Cav!”).
The film ends with a reflection of the Bush Administration, as Batman hacks every cell phone in Gotham to track the Joker. But the film is beyond unclear on what it’s trying to say about it; so unclear that it left alt-right front Brietbart.com to praise the film as a pro-Bush work of art. Nolan’s intentions are as muddled and unclear as ever.