I have been a fan of comic book movies my entire life. I have seen some great ones. And I have seen some bad ones. But my favorites have always been the origin movie. And in my opinion, it’s one of the hardest things for a director to tackle. Not only do you have to bring a character to life (possibly for the first time), you have to put your own unique perspective on the character while also remaining faithful to the source material.
That’s much easier said than done. And as we know, comic book fans can be extremely hard to please. I know I am. But that is why I wanna celebrate the ones that did it right. So here is my ranking of the BEST (my favorite) comic book origins.
ANT-MAN (2015) Directed by Peyton Reed
Coming out just after the somewhat lackluster Avengers sequel, ‘Avengers Age of Ultron‘, Ant-Man was the perfect pallet cleanser for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) at the time. Having just finished phase 1 with the Avengers just 3 years earlier, the MCU was set to get bigger and better. For some films, this was a winning formula, such as ‘Captain America The Winter Soldier‘, but for others, it showed that bigger isn’t always better, and for this, we got ‘Thor The Dark World‘ and ‘Iron Man 3‘.
The massive appeal of Ant-Man was that it wasn’t a sequel trying to top the previous film, but it was an origin film going back to the basics. With a charismatic lead in Paul Rudd and a great supporting cast in Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, and Michael Pena, Ant-Man brought a lot of charm to the MCU. And although Peyton Reed wasn’t my first choice to direct (I would’ve preferred Edgar Wright), Reed was able to introduce one of the most beloved characters to the MCU that we’ve come to know today.
Although the sequel was a drop in quality, the first Ant-Man showed that comic book films don’t need to have world-ending events to be entertaining. But a charismatic cast with comedic sensibilities can go a long way. And although the film may be funny, the heart and soul of the film lies in the father-daughter relationships with Hank and Hope and Scott and Cassie (peanut). And that’s one of many reasons why I continue to revisit this film.
SUPERMAN The Movie (1978) Directed by Richard Donner
What isn’t there to say about this movie? It kickstarted the comic book movie genre, it catapulted superheroes into the mainstream, and it put Superman on the big screen for the first time in a serious way. Although it may seem fantastical, Donner’s approach to Superman is actually pretty realistic. Of course, there are quirky moments such as Superman reversing time by flying around the earth in reverse. But in general, it’s an earnest approach. Besides being a physical presence, thanks to Darth Vader himself, David Prowse. Christopher Reeves conveys a myriad of emotions for Clark Kent. From the timid reporter to ‘Man of Tomorrow‘, there was no doubt, Reeves was Superman.
Like much of comic book mediums, they’re a product of their time. Releasing 3 years after the end of the Vietnam war, this iteration was a reflection of the best of humanity. And Superman has always been that, but with each generation, the way to convey that shifts over time. And with the mission statement “You will believe a man can fly“, I did. I may not have been alive during that time, but this film transports you back to 1978 as if you were watching it in the theatre for the first time.
Most importantly, the biggest success of this movie wasn’t the groundbreaking VFX, but its characters. Without the extremely earnest performances by Christopher Reeves and Margot Kidder, this film wouldn’t have stood the test of time. This film wasn’t made to challenge audiences, but to inspire, so whenever you wanna be uplifted, pop in this film and watch in awe as the heroic horns of John Williams‘ score transport you to a time above. A time where there were perfect things…
IRON MAN (2008) Directed by Jon Favreau
It’s hard to think of the MCU being a gamble given its huge success today. But back in 2008, it was. During its release Disney had yet to acquire Marvel Studios, so a lot was banking the success of this film. And obviously, by now you’re aware of the gamble the studio took on Robert Downey Jr. being the lead of the film given his contentious history prior to the film. But in the end, all the naysayers were proven wrong, because not only did it gross almost $600 million dollars, it opened up to wide critical and fan praise. And for good reason. Because it was damn good!
Coming out the same year as The Dark Knight, the fad of a realistic take on superheroes had begun to take the genre by storm. And from the opening of the film, the was apparent. Iron Man being a character not many were aware of, we were introduced to one of the most compelling superheroes of Marvel comics. An egotistical, arrogant, playboy, billionaire philanthropist, with just enough charm to win over any person he comes across, including the audience.
Not only was the cast great with Hollywood luminaries such as Gweneth Paltrow, Jon Favreau, and Jeff Bridges, the film tackles interesting subject matter, and contains some adult themes. Having a lead character obtain his fortune off of various inventions, namely dealing with war profiteering, this was a bold direction for the entry of the MCU. But ultimately it proved a worthy gamble because Jon Favreau’s direction and use of practical effects grounded the action. And RDJ’s earnest approach to the role grounded the character and added a much needed empathetic layer to Tony Stark, leaving audiences to fall in love with the character and the idea of a Marvel Cinematic Universe.
5. THOR (2011) Directed by Kenneth Branagh
The Thor films have hardly been at the top of anyone’s list, but I will always have a soft spot for the first one. Amongst all the Thor instalments, the first one is the only one that truly feels mythological. And that’s no coincidence. Being directed by the man behind ‘Hamlet‘ and ‘Henry V‘, the Shakespearean sensibilities are inescapable. From the cinematography to the set pieces, to the performances. This film had such a unique tone that was so appealing and set the character apart. And one thing that contributed to the unique tone was the amazing score by Patrick Doyle. Giving off tones of royalty and epicenes, whenever that theme blasts, I get goosebumps.
Like most Marvel films, the anchor of this movie is the characters. The supporting cast is great, especially the Warriors Three(#JusticeForSif). And it’s worth noting Natalie Portman is at her best here. But the standout of the film was far and away Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Loki used to be seen as the best villain of the MCU, but in most fans eyes, that title has been usurped by Thanos. But in my opinion, Loki is still the GOAT, not because of ‘Avengers‘, but because of Tom’s performance in this film.
The family relationships are both compelling and heartbreaking. The scene where Loki finds out he’s adopted and the scene where Thor gets cast out Asgard and fails to lift the hammer plays just out of a Greek tragedy. It’s heartbreaking, but it only adds to the triumph you feel at the end when he finally becomes worthy again. The only disappointing thing about this film is that the sequels are such a departure from this that they pale in comparison to it. But I guess that’s the tragedy of the Thor saga.
4. BATMAN BEGINS (2005) Directed by Christopher Nolan
I remember when people use to make the coldest takes and say “The Dark Knight is the best Batman film” and no one would really question such an obvious statement. But then every now and then someone would say “Batman Begins is better”. At the time I thought those people were contrarian, but now I kind of almost agree with them…
Batman Begins is a miracle of a film. Warner Bros decided to take a shot at a somewhat unproven filmmaker with only 2 major films under his belt and let him helm one of the biggest IP’s of all time. This was a big gamble, but at the time, given the current status of Batman films, they had nothing to lose. So they tried the experiment and it knocked everyone’s socks off. With stellar performances by Christian Bale and Michael Caine, and a great screenplay by David Goyer, that incorporated the central themes of the character with Nolan’s grounded take on the character, this was the first of its kind. And you can’t forget Hans Zimmer’s iconic score too.
Even though the aesthetic wasn’t what you were probably used to in the comics, you couldn’t help but appreciate the filmmaking prowess on display. Nolan’s use of practical effects behind the scenes bled into the practical nature of the character. And the great character relationships at work with Bruce, Alfred, and Rachel really showcased the humanity of the film. You couldn’t help but buy into Bruce’s journey from orphan to Caped Crusader.
I’ve always respected the Nolan trilogy on a filmmaking level, but I always felt it was afraid to be “comicbooky“, but Batman Begins always felt like it not only embraced a bold new direction for Batman but honored where he came from.
3.CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) Directed by Joe Johnston
This is the most underrated film of the entire MCU. I have been singing it’s praises for quite some time, but to this day, even though it has it’s fans, it ranks way too low on most MCU rankings.
Following the unspoken formula of phase 1 of the MCU, The First Avenger tackles another untapped genre. Thor was the mythological film, Incredible Hulk was the monster film, Ironman was the action-comedy, and The First Avenger is the period war-film.
Taking place during WWII, The First Avenger has many early 1940s callbacks that drop you right in that time period. The war effort being the main thing. And though ‘The Winter Soldier‘ is the fan favorite, there was no better way to introduce Captain America to modern audiences than during WWII. As funny as it sounds, war isn’t as popular, so the idea of selling us on a character as patriotic as Steve Rogers is challenging. But screenwriters Marcus and McFeely pulled it off brilliantly.
From our first glimpse of Rogers as a scrawny kid signing up for the army to seeing him stand up to bullies and jumping on grenades. We instantly fell in love with him. Not because he was a good soldier, but because he was a good man. There’s so much I love about this movie, the triumphant score by Alan Silvestri, the chemistry between Haley Atwell and Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving as the moustache-twirling villain. But most importantly, the strength of the movie is that it makes you want to be better. This movie represents the American dream at its core. If you’re out there and you want to do something and people keep telling you to move, you plant yourself like a tree and you say “No, you move!”
2. MAN OF STEEL (2013) Directed by Zack Snyder
I love this movie.
There has never been a superhero movie more misunderstood than this (Except possibly it’s sequel). I’m not gonna try to convince you how good this film is. That’s a journey you’ll have to take on your own. I know I did. I used to hate this film. It’s a long story, but ever since I watched it with my own eyes, and understood Zack Snyders vision for Superman, I fell in love with it. And I haven’t stopped loving it since.
Man of Steel is ballsy. It takes a shot on one of the most popular characters in all of pop culture and flips the entire perception of what the character can be on its head. To audiences, it seems like a radical rethinking of the character, but the truth is Zack Snyder just did his homework and decided to showcase a new side of the character that audiences haven’t seen before.
The perfect casting with Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, and Kevin Costner, might not be enough to win everyone over. The breathtaking score by Hans Zimmer might not be nostalgic enough for some. And the stunning visuals might not be enough to sway you. But if you could see Superman the way Snyder sees Superman, it makes all the difference.
David Goyer and Zack Snyder crafted a great film, but for it to work, they require something of the audience. And that is for you to take a leap of faith. To look at Superman as more than the larger than life hero, but the relatable man behind the suit. And if you take that leap of faith, and embrace a new interpretation, you’ll probably love the film. Not just for the reasons I listed, but for your own.
1. SPIDER-MAN (2002) Directed by Sam Raimi
This is the greatest comic book origin film of all time… Kind of obvious since it’s at number one, but I didn’t want any confusion. If I were to talk about this film without any context, you might assume I’m talking about a loved one. And that probably reveals my bias, but I watch this film about 3 times a year, and I assure you, it’s not nostalgia, it’s just superhero cinema at its finest.
The reason this movie works is because of Sam Raimi. The way Sam Raimi see’s Spider-Man is the way fans see Spider-Man. I’d like to think that somehow he knew what I loved about the character. But the truth is, Raimi just had a deep love for Peter Parker and understood him as much as his creators, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. I feel like the tagline for the movie should’ve been “You will believe a man can swing.” Because much like Superman 78′, Raimi had to introduce Spider-Man to the world for the first time. Now it’s seen as pretty quaint, but at the time it was the biggest superhero film of all time, being the first superhero film to cross $100 million opening weekend.
That’s not just due to the Oscar-nominated VFX, or the iconic score by Danny Elfman, but due to the fact that Raimi made a film that put the characters first and understood that what made Spider-Man special isn’t his quips, but his relatability. From the perfect casting to the central themes of the character, the film was truly a comic book on screen.
“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” wasn’t just the theme of the movie, but it was a promise to accurately portray one of the greatest characters to ever grace a comic book panel.
There it is! Those are the top 5 comic book movie origins.
Although I got to list all the comic book origins that I love, there are a few that I would’ve liked to have added that just narrowly didn’t make the cut. Batman 89′, Wonder Woman (2017), and Blade (1998) being a few. Also, you might have noticed I omitted team-up films like X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers, and that’s because I wanted to focus on solo films. And who knows, maybe after Zack Snyder’s Justice League comes out, we’ll have to make another list.
Thanks for reading, I tried to stay light on the criticisms because the point was to celebrate the films not tear them down. I’ll reserve my criticisms for more in-depth reviews if the time comes. My ranking was a mixture of objective quality and personal love for each film. If you agree with my ranking, let me know. If you don’t, I’d still love to hear your top 5.
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