Even as we experience a momentary hiatus from the onslaught of superhero films, it is hard not to feel that the whole genre has been unnecessarily debased. There is nothing especially wrong with the vast majority of Marvel films, but they are the cinematic equivalent of a visit to Byron or Nando’s; enjoyable while it lasts, good enough not to feel guilty afterwards but formulaic and unadventurous in the extreme. The aversion to risk-taking might make financial sense, to the tune of billions, but artistically it is often disappointing. No wonder Martin Scorsese dismissed them as ‘theme park rides, not cinema’.
Which is why, on the occasions that a filmmaker does move outside the confines of the genre, the results are often hugely stimulating. While some of the Marvel films have been extremely enjoyable on their own terms (and Black Panther was even nominated for Best Film at the Oscars), one would struggle to describe them as high art. Yet all of these examples of the form really do transcend their origins and become something special in the process. If you want to be challenged, surprised and exhilarated, here are some of the very best superhero stories that can be found anywhere on screen.
The Dark Knight
Tim Burton’s Batman films changed the idea of what the superhero film could be with their emphasis on the more complex side of their masked protagonist, but forgot to add compelling storylines to their narratives. It was left to Christopher Nolan, previously best known for psychological dramas such as Memento and Insomnia, to reinvent the entire genre, which he did triumphantly with Batman Begins and then unforgettably in The Dark Knight, which set a series of grim moral dilemmas against a gritty urban backdrop. Heath Ledger’s terrifying, iconic performance as the villainous Joker deservedly won an Oscar, but Aaron Eckhart’s superbly nuanced decline from principled, wily lawyer to crazed vengeance-seeker is just as compelling, even if Batman himself is somewhat short-changed.
For years, Michael Keaton struggled to escape the shackles of his casting as Batman, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning film is at least in part a meditation on the after-effects of such fame, as much as it is a witty satire on Hollywood. Keaton plays a dual role as past-it actor Riggan Thomson and his alter ego, his masked superhero character Birdman, who pops up throughout the film to torment him and to attempt to persuade him to return to mainstream blockbusters. For all of the film’s denigration of the superficial and special effects-driven – not least in a brilliantly throwaway spoof action scene – it does eventually suggest that there can be something extraordinary in normal places, and the look on Emma Stone’s face in the final shot remains one of cinema’s great endings.
Zach Snyder’s 2008 adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic book was brisk, reasonably faithful and panned by admirers of the original, who claimed that Snyder had turned a complex deconstruction of the genre into a straightforward action film. (Great opening credits, though.) Damon Lindelof’s TV series was therefore highly anticipated, especially as it moved beyond the original graphic novel’s narrative in favour of exploring issues of racial discrimination, vigilantism and fascism. After Lindelof attracted a vast amount of criticism for ending a previous show that he wrote, Lost, in an unbelievable and disappointing fashion, he took the criticism to heart and produced a gripping and ink-black drama that showed how complex this kind of storytelling can be.
If it seems surprising that Bruce Willis, an icon of all-American heroism for decades, has never played a leading role in any Marvel or DC film, then all it takes is for him to point to M Night Shyamalan’s gripping and elegant deconstruction of superheroics as an example of how he had already done it, and better. Willis plays David Dunn, an unexceptional security guard who discovers that he has extraordinary abilities when he survives a train crash, only to find himself up against a suitably complex nemesis in the form of Samuel L Jackson’s Mr Glass. Eschewing big action scenes and special effects in favour of quiet and enthralling character study, this intelligent, sombre film should have been far more influential than it was. The much-belated sequel Glass was, alas, a massive disappointment.
The Hugh Jackman X-Men and Wolverine films started well, but soon turned into repetitive examples of self-parody, which is why it is so surprising that the final entry in the series is by far the best. The grown-up tone is initially set by the explicit violence and bad language, but the melancholy of Jackman’s fine performance as the miserably immortal mutant Logan is unusually affecting, and is equalled by some fine acting from the likes of Richard E Grant, Stephen Merchant and Patrick Stewart, reprising his role as Professor X.
Literary buffs might be amused to learn that the relationship between the latter two characters was inspired by the characters Clov and Hamm from Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, which had absolutely no influence whatsoever on the Avengers film of that title.
Less a superhero and more a supervillain film, Todd Phillips’ origin story of how failed stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck became a much-feared serial killer attracted almost giddy praise on its release last year, winning the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival and a Best Actor Oscar for Joaquin Phoenix as Fleck. These are not accolades that Captain Marvel received. It’s not quite as brilliant as the initial hype suggested, being a bit too pleased with its own cleverness and subversiveness, but as a homage to the gritty Seventies films of Martin Scorsese, it’s superbly accomplished, pacy and violent, and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s droning, cello-heavy soundtrack is the perfect aural accompaniment to its depiction of urban insanity.