Superhero movies -- With "The Avengers" having broken box office records, and the recently released "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" serving as another sequel in yet another reboot of an already successful franchise, comic book movies have never been more popular.
So, at the risk of causing a furor with Comic-Con attendees everywhere, I've decided to make a list of the top 10 superhero movies ever made.
* "X2: X Men United" (2003) took the first "X-Men" movie's success and refined it, using the franchise's suggestion that each of its "mutants" has its own distinct powers to stress the power of individuality and possessing an open-minded attitude. Happily, these pleas for tolerance were also dressed up in an adrenaline-fueled story line with some spectacular visual effects, while reinforcing the series' anti-conformist philosophy.
* While the first "Batman" (1989) movies was blessed with director Tim Burton's dark imagination and uniquely gothic visual style, the movie came up a bit short in the plot department. However, the film's success gave Burton the opportunity to up the ante in the sequel, "Batman Returns" (1992), allowing the eccentric filmmaker to let all his idiosyncrasies hang out with an even more memorable collection of charmingly dysfunctional characters.
* Another dark visionary filmmaker, Alex Proyos, delivered a cult classic with 1994's "The Crow." Brandon Lee's excellent portrayal of the back-from-the-dead avenger was unfortunately given an added mystique following the actor's death on the set. However, Proyos' extraordinary visual style proved a fitting tribute, giving this atmospheric film a power all its own.
* A movie like "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" (2008) manages to work as sheer enjoyment of witnessing a big-budget extravaganza in the hands of a truly inspired filmmaker like Guillermo Del Toro. Every scene in the movie features a new work of extraordinary style, possessing yet another collection of fantastical creatures and seemingly insurmountable odds for our hero and his band of cohorts to battle against. And Ron Perlman gives our angst-ridden hero a larger-than-life personality with plenty of sarcastic quips to boot.
* Appropriately for a comic book movie, plot developments are delivered at a suprisingly rapid pace in "Spider-Man 2" (2004), while also providing an unexpected amount of psychological depth to the film's characters. Tobey MacGuire's down-to-earth charm brings hi character's complexity richly to life, compassionately portraying Peter Parker's personal conflicts between his confidence in his own extraordinary abilities and his doubts about his responsibility to them.
* Taking the superhero movie in the direction of satire can require an outsider's perspective, and Dutch filmmaker Paul Vorhoeven certainly fits the bill. Bringing his uniquely subversive perspective to one of the rare superhero movies not based on a comic book character, "RoboCop" (1987) simultaneously works as an entertaining blockbuster extravaganza as well as a hilariously sharp satire on the role of the police force and the abuse of power in modern-day society.
* Thanks to a character-driven approach, "Iron Man" (2008) possesses a genuine emotional depth that no degree of special effects can deliver. The film's deliberate pacing and smart screenplay balances Tony Stark's superhero elements with enough antihero character flaws to make for a wholly interesting central character. And who else but Robert Downey Jr. could use his irreverent wit to lend a superhero movie such unexpected entertainment value.
* It's hard to deny the sheer spectacular nature of the first "Superman" (1978) movie that set the standard back before superhero movies were a genre unto themselves. However the sequel, "Superman II" (1980), proved even better and can be seen in two versions: director Richard Donner's original reconstructed version, and director Richard Lester's theatrically released version. The comparisons between the two are never less than fascinating, and the fact that both films hold up on their own terms is nothing short of remarkable.
* Superheroes are supposed to be infallible, indestructible protectors of the general population, right? Not so in director Brad Bird's "The Incredibles" (2004), where our superpower-possessing family is comprised of fully realized three-dimensional characters full of unique personalities and all the accompanying flaws. The fact that the family members find themselves ostracized and forced to live an anonymous suburban life as if they were participants in a witness protection program proves to be a truly inspired idea and serves as a smart and moving social commentary on society in general. Forget the fact that this is an animated movie, it is also one of the best superhero movies ever made.
* And while any of the recent "Batman" movies could have been included in this list, the edge has to go to the second installment in filmmaker Christopher Nolan's extraordinary series. Featuring an existential hero for our modern age, "The Dark Knight" (2008) portrays the battle between Batman and The Joker as not merely a comic book rivalry but an epic struggle that takes on philosophical dimensions. Defying the notion of superhero movies that display style over substance, the film features an intricate screenplay that practically demands your attention, while delivering enough visceral thrills and visual panache to make other blockbusters scramble for cover. And Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is pure genius.
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.