Top 50 Superhero Movies Of All Time: 2012 Edition

5 X-Men: First Class (2011)

2011 position: 10 (up 5 places)

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: James McAvoy (Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Erik Lehnsherr), Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven)

A constant criticism of many superhero movies is that they try to do too much. Too many villains; too many storylines; too many characters. First Class has all of those… and yet still manages to emerge a crowdpleaser in the same way X2 did.

Let’s see: there’s the backstory behind Xavier and Lehnsherr’s friendship that turned bad; there’s the origin of Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters; there’s the origins of some of those gifted youngsters; there’s the first volleys in the human/mutant conflict; there’s the formation of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants; there’s probably a superpowered kitchen sink as well if you look closely enough.

And yeah, some stuff feels a little skimpy as a result: the “great friendship” between the proto Professor X and proto Magneto feels more like a two-week uneasy truce; Beast seems to accept his blue furry fate with amazing alacrity; the Hellfire Club is never adequately explored.

But ignore all that and let what’s great about the movie fill your comic book loving heart with joy. Pulsepounding action scenes boast images that sear themsleves into your memory. Witty, snappy dialogue economically draws characters who feels fresh and vital and charismatic. There’s the fun of a young and lecherous Xavier using his powers to pick up the laydeez, while the “villainous” Lensherr actually seems to be far more savvy about the way things are heading for mutantkind. Indeed, the devil has all the best arguments here. Magneto is far more on-the-ball than Xavier. He’s not merely evil-incarnate-in-waiting; he probably considers himself the hero of the piece, fighting for his people. It’s this level of sophistication which propels First Class from being a mere competent superhero flick to a damned fine movie, period.

4 The Dark Knight Rises (2012)


Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Anne Hathaway (Selina Kyle/Catwoman), Tom Hardy (Bane), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Blake)

It’s the end of an era. Christopher Nolan’s astounding Batman trilogy has reached its climatic finale. And just as Bruce Wayne learned that pain shouldn’t hold him back, so should we not allow the pain of loosing such an exciting cinematic treat hold us from truly enjoying this film. Don’t bemoan the fact that it’s the last one – instead celebrate that it went out with such a bang (bad pun intended).

Christian Bale needs no introduction; his portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman is almost legendary. Magnificent as Bale’s Batman is though, he does seem to be outshone, once again, by the villain of the film. Tom Hardy’s Bane oozes threatening menace; his physical presence somehow transcends the screen to oppress not only the citizens of Gotham but also those watching. Heath Ledger was phenomenal as The Joker and Bane truly honours his legacy.

Though not quite as engaging as The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises certainly keeps you guessing. The plot twists and action are enough to leave you watching for the full 165 minutes, without it feeling overly long. In fact a flaw might be found in that the film wouldn’t have suffered from being longer – the end certainly feels a little rushed.

We all knew it’d be hard to top a film like The Dark Knight and though Rises might not rank higher in this list it certainly came close. Rises should feel no shame in coming second in the hearts of Batman fans; it’s a chilling and intense piece of superhero cinema that rounds off the trilogy perfectly.

3 Iron Man (2008)

2011 position: 2 (down 1 place)

Director: John Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jr (Tony Stark/Iron Man), Jeff Bridges (Obadiah Stane), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts)

Jon Favreau’s Iron Man is a brilliant piece of design. It bolts together a sardonic script, some adrenalised effects work, a fanboy-pleasing fidelity to its source material and, crucially, a star turn so blindingly charismatic that you suspect mass hypnosis may be at work. Robert Downey Jr wants our credit card details? Not a problem…

It’s one of the smartest, most on-the-money casting choices in superhero cinema. As cocksure industrialist Tony Stark – “constitutionally incapable of being responsible” – Downey Jr’s natural charm even makes a spot of Burger King product placement seem somehow loveable.

We’re able to appreciate Stark in the way we’re not allowed to enjoy Bond anymore: soundtracked by swinging caper music, he dispenses smirking comebacks while bedding anything with a heartbeat and a Malibu zipcode. You can only shudder at the thought of one-time Stark contender Tom Cruise in the same role.

This was the first film from the newly independent Marvel Studios, and Downey Jr’s presence is just one of several decisions influenced by sound creative sense rather than demographic flipcharts. The movie feels like part of the Marvel universe – sure, Iron Man’s ’Nam-era origin is necessarily reworked for the post-9/11 period, but the film retains the essential, familiar beats. The appearance of the clanking mark one suit is a particularly beautiful valentine to fans of the Silver Age.

There are some faultlines in the armour, though. Stark becomes a considerably less watchable character after choosing the side of the angels and, all techno-fetishistic dazzle aside, the plot’s perilously thin – when an exo-suited Jeff Bridges bellows “I built this company up from nothing!” while kicking seven shades of rust out of Iron Man, you do wonder if corporate takeover is really the province of supervillains.

But you forgive such quibbles for all the right moves that this movie makes. From Iron Man’s spellbinding aerial tussle with F22 Raptors to that sneaky Sam Jackson cameo, this comes close to being the perfect machine of superhero cinema.

2 The Dark Knight (2008)

2011 position: 1 (down 1 place)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Heath Ledger (The Joker), Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent), Michael Caine (Alfred)

There’s no room for Bat-ego in that famous utility belt. Michael Keaton saw 1989’s Batman stolen by Jack Nicholson’s chalk-faced Joker, a turn that didn’t so much chew the scenery as transform Gotham into a garnished steak sandwich, dripping extra cheese. And then Christian Bale – whose debut, Batman Begins, wisely fielded less showstealing villains in Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul – found this big, brutalising sequel looted wholesale by the ghost of Heath Ledger.

Ledger’s premature demise casts a long, sometimes ghoulish shadow over this movie. There’s an undeniable shiver you experience that comes from knowing that’s a dead man up there, entertaining us. But entertain he does – and unsettle, chill, and amuse to boot. Ledger’s take on the Joker is a bravura performance; a diseased insurrectionist in thrift-store togs, his tongue flicking like a horny gecko. He’s an unnervingly contemporary villain, a mind gaming terrorist with no agenda but terror. He tortures innocents and then broadcasts the horror, YouTube star-style.

Bale – never the warmest of actors – stands like an ice sculpture at the heart of the film. The soul of the movie is found instead in Aaron Eckhart, whose inevitable fall from shining DA Harvey Dent to iconic Bat-bad Two-Face is heartwrenching. It’s a terrific character study in a film heavy on human drama – Batman’s fight against crime is revealed as having opened a can of consequences, begetting some startling sacrifices. Nolan pours dread and malice into Gotham, but the chinks of faith and hope seem more powerful for the darkness. And it’s not the numbing, all-out bleakfest many were predicting; there’s some amusing schtick with Bruce Wayne and a bevy of Russian ballerinas that carries the distinct whiff of Adam West.

This sequel expands and recolours Batman’s universe. It’s a daylight movie, all glittering glass and steel, very different to the nocturnal operatics of Begins. Nolan’s in thrall to classic urban ’70s crime capers, and also riffs on the comics of that age, when the Caped Crusader abandoned the Batcave to punish crime from a midtown penthouse. Batman even briefly relocates to Hong Kong for the movie’s most dizzyingly vertiginous set piece – you can certainly tell which sequences were crafted with one eye on the IMAX experience – enhancing standard superheroics with hi-tech, Mission: Impossible-styled thrills.

But this is an intense, intelligent masterpiece of superhero cinema, one that’s ultimately owned by the late Heath Ledger. There’s an electric sense of loss when he teases Batman with the line, “You and I, I think we’ll be doing this forever…” And when he sticks his head out of a speeding cop car to taste the night air, savouring the city’s madness, he’s rarely seemed so ironically, cruelly alive.

1 Avengers Assemble (2012)


Directed by: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki)

Three massive superhero franchises did box office battle this year and in a true display of super strength one of them easily disposed of its rivals both at the box office and in this poll. The victor, of course, was Marvel Avengers Assemble (delete as applicable). The culmination of five previous films, and seven years hard work it’s no surprise that it has come out on top of your list of top superhero movies.

The film’s outstanding achievement may be the way it defies expectation. With so many stories to tell alongside the main plot, it would’ve been easy for it to end up with a Frankenstien’s monster-esque figure of a movie, all mismatched and bizarre. Instead Joss Whedon, writer-director extraordinaire, brought balance to the movie, letting back-story, characterisation and action each have their own time to shine.

There’s no I in this team either. Unless you count Iron Man, who definitely thinks there is. But even Robert Downey Jr’s charismatic genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist couldn’t steal the show from how well the cast worked together. It would have been too easy for one of the six superheroes to get left in the shadows, but instead they play off each other fantastically. It’s easy to imagine that this is what a superhero team would really be like; an overpowered, dysfunctional but loving family. In fact it was heart warming to see the team come together, to stop fighting and really kick some ass. Not that the fighting and banter wasn’t hilarious too: it was.

The laughs weren’t confined to the infighting between the Avengers though. The whole film resonated with an upbeat tone, which may be one of the main reasons it is so successful. Yes we love the dark and gritty Batman-verse Christopher Nolan has created, but superheroes are meant to be fun. Whilst there are some tears (a moment of silence, please, for Agent Coulson) there’s none of the doom and gloom so prevalent in the media right now. In the ’30s comic book superheroes were a distraction from the grim realities of a restless world and that is exactly what Marvel Avengers Assemble is: a lovingly crafted homage to the colourful and slightly ridiculous printed origins of the superhero.


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