What makes a great comic book film? Do they have to be instant classics of iconography? Can they disobey the laws and constraints of formula? Are they the darker, grittier versions of our favorite superheroes put in a grounded reality? Are they merely blockbuster entertainment whose sole purpose is fantasy escapism? Can they transcend the barriers of certain genres and tonality? Well, the greatest comic book films can be all of them. Favoritism and preference are all subjective opinions. Certain characters, storylines, or artistic visions speak to us more than others. This leads to the true beauty of this vast, and immersive universe encompassing constellations of flourishing DC and Marvel filmmaking. The war between art and commerce is inevitable as it bleeds and seeps into the seems of our fabricated fantasies.
To me, the most crucial aspect of crafting a great comic book film is having a great comic book director—auteur filmmakers who have a strong sense of identity, style, and visual aesthetic that is instantly signature and recognizable. These are filmmakers with an incredibly strong creative vision, who are unapologetic in their craft making, and can create art that differentiates themselves from their contemporaries. At the end of the day, whether it’s superpowered aliens, vigilante caped crusaders, demigoddess warriors, or masked avengers with spider-like abilities, superhero films are everlasting and irrevocable. Here is my Mount Rushmore of Superhero Films and Filmmakers; my four favorite comic book films of all time, with an honorable mention towards the end.
1. The Dark Knight – Christopher Nolan
“Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So, we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.”
– The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan
It’s always darkest before the dawn and indeed, the dawn of a new era was surely coming. Warner Bros. was experiencing a creative exhaust as countless iterations of Superman and Batman films were starting to reach a pivotal moment of full camp galore that modern day audiences at the time were slowly rejecting. In comes the greatest, most successful auteur filmmaker of the 21st century to reinvigorate the Batman franchise and eventually create the pinnacle gold standard of superhero filmmaking.
Warner Bros. hired Christopher Nolan in January 2003, after the critical success of his film Memento, to direct a brand new Batman film that has never been seen or done before. Nolan expressed his intentions in grounding such an extraordinary heroic figure by delving into the character’s inner duality and psychology, while implementing human drama against gritty, contemporary realism. Batman Begins was the outcome of this effort, while also becoming a critical and financial successful cinematic reboot. Even this was just a tease for what was yet to come.
Nolan released what is quintessentially known as his magnum opus, The Dark Knight, in summer of 2008. The Dark Knight intended to explore existing themes of vigilantism, justice, revenge, war on crime, as well as reintroducing Batman’s arch nemesis, the Joker. The film received universal critical acclaim, becoming the first Batman film to ever reach $1 billion worldwide at the box office.
Completely rich in Batman’s complex psychology, Joker’s chaotic liberation, and meticulous filmmaking, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is an incredibly dark, haunting, & transcendental cinematic masterpiece.
2. Man of Steel – Zack Snyder
“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
– Man of Steel (2013), Zack Snyder
During storyboard discussions on The Dark Knight Rises, the inevitable end to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer pitched possible ideas to Warner Bros. in regards to rebooting and modernizing the Superman character. Visionary filmmaker Zack Snyder was then hired in October 2010 to direct Man of Steel, opting for a more grounded, revamped version of the Superman character for a modernized audience.
Man of Steel utilized a nonlinear narrative as the story unfolds in an unorthodox structure of sequences. From the birth of Kal-El on his dying planet Krypton, to flashbacks of Clark Kent living in constant anxiety of his own existence, and to the ultimate introduction of a newly realized Superman, his inner, most personal conflicts are explored.
The film pushed boundaries for experimentation on such a beloved character, leading to controversial debates amongst film and comic book fans alike. Despite that, Man of Steel was able to gross almost $700M worldwide, becoming the highest grossing Superman film to date, and helped to establish the DC comics shared cinematic universe.
While the film may have received a polarizing critical reception, Man of Steel was an absolute success that redefined Superman for a new generation. Zack Snyder created a cinematic achievement that employed real human drama amongst fantastical characters. Filled with immaculate visual grandeur, pristine action spectacle, the film’s greatest achievement was positioning the more iconic superhero within the concepts of free will and extraterrestrial divinity.
3. Wonder Woman – Patty Jenkins
“I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind; but then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them there will always be both.”
– Wonder Woman (2017), Patty Jenkins
Warner Bros. struggled in introducing a live action Wonder Woman film for years, as their primary focus was on perfecting the formula of successful Batman and Superman film. After Zack Snyder successfully introduced the iconic character in her first ever live action theatrical appearance in Batman v Superman in 2016, filmmaker Patty Jenkins was tapped to direct the first standalone Wonder Woman film for 2017.
Patty Jenkins had the unmitigated responsibility of not only providing the character’s first standalone film, but also the added pressure of making sure Wonder Woman becomes a success after the unfairly negative critical reception of past DC comics films. Being the first woman to directing a massive superhero tentpole, skeptical, doubtful eyes were all on Jenkins to see if she could pull off the impossible, and the impossible Jenkins did.
Wonder Woman ultimately became a period piece taking place within the 20th century during the first World War, pitting the Amazon Princess of Themyscira to end horrific warfare and eventually achieve a peaceful utopia amongst humanity. The outcome was an absolutely beautiful, emotionally poignant, empowering adventure that will surely become a classic in the making.
The film became an instant global phenomenon capturing the very essence of the idealistic titular character as well as inspiring and empowering an entirely new generation of young women and men. The miraculous wonder of our lifetime grossed over $800M worldwide against a $150M production budget, and was deemed a critical and financial success. The success helped pave the way in securing the notion that women can successfully direct superhero blockbuster films in Hollywood. The cultural impact became cemented and the rest is history.
4. Spider-Man 2 – Sam Raimi
“I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”
– Spider-Man 2 (2004), Sam Raimi
For the final film of my personal Mount Rushmore of Superhero Films, I decided to go with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Sam Raimi was widely known for his comedy horror Evil Dead franchise but despite the peculiar circumstance, Raimi proactively advocated his immense passion for the Spider-Man character to Columbia Pictures and was then hired to direct an intended trilogy in January 2000.
After the monumental success of the first Spider-Man film, development on the film’s sequel Spider-Man 2 began initial production. Raimi had confirmed that his primary focus in directing the sequel was to not only to implement a visually striking supervillain with Doctor Octopus, but to explore deeper, richer, more complex existential themes with Peter Parker and his ultimate destiny and responsibility as a superhero. Raimi mastered a variety of stylistic tones and genres with many influences of Hitchcockian horror, dark comedy, effervescent romance, pure action spectacle, as well as emotional drama, as the iconic avenger deals with balancing his own tragic guilt over the death of his father figure Uncle Ben, choosing between his loved ones, as well as his own personal dreams and aspirations in life.
Spider-Man 2 was an extremely profound, exuberant superhero blockbuster that encapsulated the true essence of the iconic Marvel character. Not only did the film completely surpass its predecessor on every single technical and emotional aspect, it was credited for redefining the superhero genre of the early 2000’s, as many people then predicted the genre would soon die out, as well as revitalizing the summertime blockbuster event. The film grossed over $800M worldwide, becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time, was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and helped usher in the modern day superhero renaissance, years before the existence of shared cinematic universes.
5. Logan – James Mangold
“This is what life looks like, people who love each other, a home. You should take a moment, feel it. You still have time.”
– Logan (2017), James Mangold
An honorable mention must be brought to the surface and that goes to James Mangold’s ultraviolent neo-western masterpiece Logan based on the aggressively powerful mutant Wolverine. Hugh Jackman had been playing the iconic Marvel character for almost 20 years in various team up X-Men films, and both he and Mangold decided it was time for a new direction for the mutant character and mythology.
Mangold approached the development of Logan from a completely rejuvenated perspective as he felt the constant hero saves the day storyline had become redundant. Mangold wanted Logan to push the boundaries of superhero filmmaking by taking the character to a grittier, bleaker direction than ever before. Jackman had also been heavily involved in crafting an emotional and powerful story with Mangold, as this film was intended to be his sentimental swan song.
Logan took inspiration from the Old Man Logan alternate comics storyline which had influences of a dystopian wasteland where supervillains came to power over superheroes. The aged, world-weary Wolverine is on the brink of mental and physical deterioration as his entire legacy is challenged when his life comes to paths with a young yet powerful mutant named Laura.
It was released to universal critical acclaim with many film critics calling the film an absolute masterpiece and one of the greatest comic book films since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It was also the first comic book film to ever receive an Academy Award nomination in a screenplay category.
The film was extremely violent and bleak yet visceral and sentimental proving that superhero films aren’t bound by the confines of genre restriction and gimmicks. Mangold crafted an excitingly brutal, classically western piece of filmmaking that positions our animalistic hero the Wolverine not only as a survivor, but a father.
So, there goes the Mount Rushmore of Superhero Films/Filmmakers: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and James Mangold’s Logan. These are the films that truly transcend the comic book genre, creative distinct visual and narrative identities tied to their respective director. These films will stand the test of time as the pinnacle of superhero filmmaking and have established themselves on my Mount Rushmore.