Heroes by the Hundredfold: 100 Best Costumed-Crusader Films: 1 – 10

Just to recapitulate the criteria for inclusion in this “list of the best costumed-crusader movies…”

 

Since Martin Scorsese asserted that he viewed MCU movies as nothing but thrill rides— and since this has been a common canard about all superhero stories almost from the beginnings of the genre– I started looking for superhero films that had more than simply kinetic thrills to offer, though all the films on this list do offer those as well. By “more than,” I mean they usually fall into three categories: “the dramatic,” which covers elements involving characterization. “The didactic,” which are elements involving any sort of philosophical discourse. And “the mythopoeic,” which has elements with some poetic richness. Some, if not all, of these elements appear within the diegesis of each chosen film, though I also will mention elements that pertain to a film’s significance in history, like “first film to depict a female costumed crusader.” Such extra-diegetic elements fall into my mythopoeic category, for whatever that’s worth.

 

And now, on with the list starting with number 1.

 

1# ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL (1941)

This serial’s existence makes it impossible for me to start the list with the Big Kryptonian Daddy of All Superheroes, but at least I can begin with Superman’s best imitator. Republic Studios wanted to adapt Superman in the early forties, but negotiations with DC Comics stalled, so Republic reached out to Fawcett Comics to adapt Captain Marvel instead. (One line of thought suggests that this cinematic competition motivated DC’s infringement suit against Fawcett far more than Fawcett’s competition with DC on the comics-stands.) Republic assigned its top serial-directors, William Witney and John English, to the task of adaptation, and cast former weightlifter Tom Tyler as the guy who popped up every time Billy Batson said “Shazam!” The hero’s debut is tied to an archaeological expedition to Siam, searching for a legendary objet d’art: a statue of a scorpion which, when combined with special lens, can project formidable energies. But one of the archaeologists wants to use the statue for world conquest, and he assumes the double ID of The Scorpion, complete with a scorpion-motif on his robes. To combat this evil, the wizard Shazam appears to Billy Batson– one of the few crewmembers to register a complaint about profaning an ancient temple– and gives him the secret word with which to become a superhero.

 

 

This Captain Marvel is perhaps less invulnerable than the comics-version, since he can be threatened by things like hot lava– but he still displays all the expected super-powers of flying and letting bullets bounce off him. Since the Captain is so powerful, once or twice the writers have fun with his near-omnipotence, as when he picks up a Scorpion-henchman and simply throws the schmuck off a roof. After the Scorpion’s defeat, Billy loses his super-power, but maybe it’s just as well that Republic didn’t return to the well for another installment. Tyler sells all the action with his earnest portrayal of Captain Marvel, but as it happens the support-cast has a wealth of other performers who essayed superheroes: Reed Hadley (ZORRO’S FIGHTING LEGION), Kenne Duncan (THE GREEN ARCHER), and Gerald Mohr (who, long after voicing the Scorpion, went on to do the same to two sixties cartoon-heroes, Green Lantern and Mister Fantastic).

 

 

 

2# ALL-STAR SUPERMAN (2011)

OK, so Superman does get to be second on the list. Writer Dwayne McDuffie skillfully pruned down the sprawling 2005-08 Grant Morrison limited series of the same name, so that this video of less than ninety minutes can capture some of the essential myths of the Superman cosmos. The overriding threat is that Lex Luthor has somehow poisoned Earth’s sun, the source of most of Superman’s powers, so that Superman is doomed to perish from the radiation. Knowing that he may die soon, the hero reveals his identity to Lois Lane, as well as seeking to figure out Luthor’s game plan. But the most important dramatic element that McDuffie adapts from Morrison is the motivation behind the hero’s unquenchable reserves of good-hearted sentiment, which make it almost inevitable that even if he dies, he will in some way reborn, a secular “Christ with Muscles.” Superhero-affiliated performers include Michael Gough (Alfred in the nineties Bat-flicks), Finola Hughes (The White Queen in the GENERATION X TV-film), and Fred Tatasciore (The Hulk in assorted animation vids).

 

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012)

The Sony reboot of the Spider-franchise was arguably less emotionally intense than the previous three films by Sam Raimi, but the later film added some intelligent reworkings of the mythos nonetheless. The Andrew Garfield version of Peter Parker is not nearly as bullied as the Tobey Maguire interpretation, and thus Parker’s passion for science seems less compensatory. The high-schooler’s advanced scientific knowledge makes more probable when he’s brought into the confidence of an adult researcher like Curt Connors (Ryan Ifans), in whose Oscorp laboratory Parker gets that fateful radioactive arachnid-bite. Oscorp is also the site where Parker bonds with his main love-interest Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and she’s made more interesting by being a science-nerd herself. (I like the comics-version of Gwen, but she never had a raison d’etre beyond being the hero’s girlfriend.)

 

 

In addition, once Parker adjusts to having spider-powers and conceives his costumed identity, his science-skills make it more logical that he can create his own web-spinners, in contrast to Raimi’s decision to make the signature webbing biological in nature. Norman Osborn and J. Jonah Jameson aren’t around to provide Parker with “bad fathers,” and Connors’ fatal temptation to become the Lizard is brought about by his efforts to avoid having innocents used as test-subjects. In fact, the only “bad” thing about any of Parker’s father-figures is that they have a habit of disappearing. The slaying of Uncle Ben is of course the father-loss that causes Parker to step up, but the reboot made intriguing use of one of the least-used aspects of the Spider-mythos: that the hero was left in the care of his aunt and uncle because his mother and father had perished under dubious circumstances.

Both the 2012 film and its sequel began a subplot that would have revealed some dark truth about Parker’s parents. Unfortunately, the writers were too cagey with this subplot, so it went down the drain once the Garfield-series was terminated by Sony’s deal with Marvel Studios. Also too quick to disappear is Gwen’s police dad George Stacy, whose death in this film mostly provides Parker with yet another hairshirt to wear. Still, the first film in this abortive series provides some good drama amidst all the action, in contrast to the sequel, which was sabotaged by the old principle, “Too many crooks spoil the broth.” The cast of the first AMAZING doesn’t have a ton of performers involved in other super-flicks, though C. Thomas Howell later went on to voice both Professor Zoom and Doc Magnus in various animated DC efforts.

 

ANT-MAN (2015)

Sensibly, the MCU did not attempt to adapt any of the heavily involved stories of Henry Pym, Marvel’s first Ant Man, but instead opted to use Scott Lang, former-thief-turned-superhero, who had debuted as a potential replacement for Pym in 1979. Now, in 2015, the MCU had not yet become completely politicized, so Lang’s cinematic debut, where he’s played as a lovable dork by Paul Rudd, is allowed to get considerable comic mileage out of his “Land of the Giants” schtick. As in the comics, Lang does take over the role of the miniature crusader with a degree of approval from Henry Pym (as played by Michael Douglas), but no approval at all from Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who wanted to be the next person to be a tiny titan. Nevertheless, Hope is set up to the New Wasp in a future installment, inheriting the legacy of her absent-for-another-plotline mother, and of course she ends up falling for the reluctant hero after punching him out. Of course, if Pym had had his way, his real daughter might have married villain Darren Cross, whom Pym considered a symbolic son (Ick factor acknowledged). But Cross is revealed to be a dirty munitions guy, and so the new Ant Man meets him at dawn with pistols– or was it toy trains?

 

 

I still don’t know why the movie had to start with Lang getting beat up in prison by a Big Black Guy who “likes him,” a scene which is nowhere in the comics original. An early version of DEI? And though I understand why Ant Man had to be the funny one in the team, did they have to make the nascent Wasp such a bitch? David Dastmalchian, “The Polka Dot Man,” has a small role, and there’s a cameo of Garrett Morris, who wore the Ant Man costume for a Marvel Comics spoof on Saturday Night Live.

 

AQUAMAN (2018)

Okay, so even with immense name-recognition, how does one make a good film about the hero spoofed as “the guy who talks to fish?” Well, one gambit is to make Aquaman into The Sub-Mariner, so that he can pitch around huge chunks of stone and shrug off ray-blasts with no more than an “ow.” And then, it doesn’t hurt to have boulder-shouldered Jason Momoa playing the role, and that Momoa’s willing to take a pratfall or two to keep the hero likable. It’s a pretty simple conflict in which the major players are defined by their filial relations. Aquaman/Arthur Curry has no plans to be a regular superhero, but he’s dragooned into fighting his half-brother Ocean Master, ruler of his lost mother’s home Atlantis, because Atlanteans attack Arthur’s father.

 

 

Mera (Amber Heard), affianced to Ocean Master by her father, wants to avoid a bad marriage and so calls upon Aquaman, a possible candidate for the throne, so as to expose the current ruler as unworthy (rather than just openly defying her dad). Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson) is largely recapitulating the history of his father, and Black Manta wants to kill Aquaman because the hero didn’t rescue Manta’s pirate-daddy from drowning. Of course, Aquaman was kinda busy helping the victims of the pirate-raid committed by Manta Senior and Son. Still, I was very pleased that Manta Junior wasn’t portrayed as a sympathetic villain due to his skin-color, as the MCU had done with their versions of both Killmonger and Valkyrie. And though Momoa and Heard don’t have great romantic chemistry, I appreciated that director James Wan and his team allowed Mera to look pretty damn foxy in her skin-tight wetsuit. (This in contrast to the many hyper-feminist superhero works in which the raconteurs seek to keep from pleasuring “the male gaze” by any means necessary.)

Willem “Green Goblin” Dafoe and Patrick “Nite Owl” Wilson register as the biggest contributors to earlier super-works.

 

ASTRO BOY (2009)

Director/co-writer David Bowers is thus far the only person to adapt Osamu Tezuka’s classic robot superhero to a feature film, and the main thing wrong with it is that Tezuka was a genius and David Bowers is just an average filmmaker. Tezuka’s character designs are faithfully rendered– we even get Astro Boy sprouting machine-guns from his butt– but everything Tezuka didn’t design just looks like any standard Dreamworks effort. Of course, the Hong Kong-based studio Imagi Animation shares the blame, and arguably they paid for any aesthetic failures by falling into bankruptcy after ASTRO BOY bombed. But the script hits most of the main beats of the Tezuka original. A bereaved scientist who tried to create a robot version of his deceased son, then rejects the artificial boy and ends up creating a superhero.

 

 

I liked the slow build of the little robot from a confused child (in that he’s not initially told he’s a construct) to a hero capable of opposing evil, and Freddie Highmore, who was about seventeen when he voiced Astro, sells the kid-anguish quite well. The city in which Astro Boy is built looks to have been swiped slightly from the nineties manga BATTLE ANGEL ALITA, but Bowers’ use of a “Cloud Minder” city with a junkyard-Earth below accords with Tezuka’s recurring theme of “robot liberation.” The villain’s weak, but I liked the script’s introduction of two powerful minerals which are used to power robots, and which come to symbolize the villain’s evil aggression and the hero’s soulful empathy.  Other voice-actors include Nicholas “Ghost Rider” Cage, Charlize “Ultraviolet” Theron, and David Alan “Other Guy” Grier.

 

 

ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN (1950)

Like the first SUPERMAN serial this one’s directed by Spencer G. Bennett (who also directed a half-dozen other costumed-character serials) and it also once more stars Kirk Alyn as Superman. Yet ATOM gave the serial-lovers of its day much more bang for their quarters. Though ATOM was derived from a radio-serial in which the hero confronted new villain Atom Man, the film serial threw in a new wrinkle: Atom Man’s secret identity is Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot), who in the course of the story claims that he has renounced his evil ways and that he’s actually being persecuted by Atom Man. There had one or two earlier uses of comics-villains in film serials, but Talbot, who spent most of his career playing heavies, makes Luthor a charismatic mad scientist.

 

 

Notorious cheapskate producer Sam Katzman may have sprung for more gimmicks than in the preceding installment, because this time Luthor traps the hero in a twilight dimension, “the empty doom,” which may have been an influence on The Phantom Zone. For a closing act the evildoer plans to destroy the Earth while escaping in a spaceship, more or less reversing the course of Baby Superman’s advent from Krypton. There’s also a killer scene in which Luthor sends a missile at Metropolis, and Superman “bulldogs” the projectile to save the city. Noel Neill portrays Lois Lane as she did in the earlier super-serial, and as she would in ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, while Alyn would also essay the character of Blackhawk before said character was bought and published by DC Comics.

 

AVENGERS, THE (2012)

“Yesterday/ I thought the MCU was here to stay / But it seems those dreams have gone away / I can’t believe in yesterday.”

Not all of the MCU solo films had been great– CAPTAIN AMERICA in particular suffered from a strong first act followed by weak later acts. Yet Joss Whedon and Zak Penn wrangled most of the disparate plotlines of the Captain, Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow into a cohesive whole. Part of the success depended on following the broad outlines of the AVENGERS comics-origin, but then finessing all of the frenetic action with humor (remember when MCU movies were genuinely funny?)

 

 

If there was a weak character moment here, I couldn’t find it, and a lot of the patented Marvel “quarreling heroes” schtick was made palatable by the interference of Tom Hiddleston’s evil narcissist Loki. I guess one could complain that the Chitauri were lousy secondary villains, but after all they were just shock troops for Loki and mysterious Future Big Bad Thanos. But maybe the balancing act was just too demanding over time, because none of the AVENGERS films reached this height again, least of all AGE OF ULTRON. Most of the performers essaying super-parts would become inextricably associated with these roles, though Chris Evans had already played the Human Torch in the previous live-action FANTASTIC FOUR movies, and Scarlett Johansson had essayed one of the many femme fatales in the 2008’s THE SPIRIT.

 

AVENGERS INFINITY WAR/AVENGERS ENDGAME (2018/2019)

I just can’t see these two flicks as being separate entities; they seem more like two sections of an immense serial. I suppose I have the usual laundry list of complaints. That Thanos’ quest to winnow the universe’s population makes less sense than it did in the original Jim Starlin comics. That there was no necessity to kill off Natasha, or to kill Gamora and bring her back as a nasty bitch. That all of ENDGAME’s drivel about time-travel, particularly dumping on other time-travel flicks, was just an excuse so that the writers could have their temporal jollies just as they pleased– which included changing the past with regard to characters like Loki and Captain America. On the plus side, most of the characters in this multi-crossover between the Avengers, Doctor Strange, New Captain Marvel, the Guardians of the Galaxy and the newly minted, co-owned Spider-Man keep their essential characters. (Well, Carol Marvel didn’t really have a character, which would be an increasing problem in later MCU phases.)

 

Avengers Endgame raked $1.2 Billion dollars at the Box Office in its first five days.

 

The biggest characterization flubs were “Smart Hulk” (who’s admittedly not in the film that much) and “Fat Thor” (whose ghost continued to haunt the next two THOR films). Arguably the ponderous majesty of Josh Brolin as Thanos provides an axis around which all of the various heroes can revolve, and even after he dies, time-travel is used as a monkey’s paw to bring him back. In 2019 no one could have foreseen how Kevin Feige would pervert “the Snap” into an excuse for political ideology, or that he’d become a fanatic on the topic of feminine representation, so this two-part film is innocent of those aesthetic crimes. A cool multi-character battle at the end provides a fitting send-off for the MCU’s Phase Three. Of previous super-movies, nine years previous Brolin portrayed Jonah Hex, which was a little like moving from the ridiculous to the sublime.

 

BATMAN: THE MOVIE (1966)

Most fans know that soon after the blockbuster success of the first season (or rather, half-season) of the BATMAN tele-series, the TV-guys rushed this feature film into production for summer release. It’s a thin script, depending mostly on the villains setting traps for the heroes (even though it takes Adam West’s Batman and Burt Ward’s Robin the whole film to figure out their antagonists’ scheme for world conquest). But one certainly can’t claim that the filmmakers didn’t anticipate what the audience wanted to see, giving that audience (mostly kids when I saw it in the theater) a teamup of the four most popular fiends from the TV show: Joker, Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman.

 

 

Three performers from the TV show reprised their roles– Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin– but Julie Newmar was otherwise engaged, so the producers went with Lee Meriwether instead. Romero’s Joker doesn’t get to do very much, but it’s still something of an epic villain-crossover, keeping in mind that such teams weren’t seen very often in the Bat-comics either. Other support-cast members also get the short end of the stick, but the Dynamic Duo of West and Ward was of course the main selling point. The sprightly irony of the TV-show, which worked so well in the two-episode format, was harder for the writer to maintain in a feature close to two hours, but of course to this day, no fan worth his salt doesn’t get a chuckle from “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”

On the other hand, I may be the only person impressed by the sentiment of Batman’s “heartbreak hotel” moment, when the conniving Catwoman (Lee Meriwether) assumes another identity and makes Bruce Wayne fall in love with her. (I am rather glad Julie Newmar did not play this scene; nuanced acting was not her forte.) The big plot for world conquest didn’t make any sense to my eleven-year-old self, but the producers knew no one cared, and some good jokes arise from the “disintegrate the diplomats” ploy. The big end-battle on the submarine-deck is the only major fight-scene, but it’s certainly more expansive than anything in the TV show. The voice of Lyndon Johnson was played by Van Williams, who in a few months would debut as TV’s Green Hornet.

 

NEXT POST: same Bat-channel, more Bat-films…

 

 

 

*****

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Gene Phillips

Gene Phillips has been writing about comics (off and on) for roughly forty years, particularly in the pages of print-zines like AMAZING HEROES, COMIC INFORMER and COMICS JOURNAL. His JOURNAL review of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was selected for Gale Publishing's CONTEMPORARY LITERARY CRITICISM. Currently he's engaged in attempting to review, not just every superhero movie, but every "superhero-adjacent" movie he can find on the blog THE GRAND SUPERHERO OPERA. Likes to honk off political critics by comparing popular culture to mythology.

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