The Great Superhero-Fantasy Movie Ranking (aka “Rank-narok”) Part. 4 – The TOP!

Dramatic music, long drawn out sweeping camera moves, all that stuff that we have come to believe makes a great movie… we have some of them here. Not a ton, but some! Yet despite those obvious flaws, I’ve got my top 24 ready to go. I’m sure more people will find things to argue about, and that’s the point, right? Well, part of the point. I’m sure a big part of the point is arguing with myself, convincing myself that my opinions are not only valid but “smart” and “insightful.”

Anyway, here we go:

#25: “The Force Awakens.” I’m surprised by this, as are many others. Time has not been kind to the Disney trilogy. In fact, time wasn’t super kind to this movie in its first couple months. As the shine wore off, I found myself getting a little weary in just my second viewing! All the reasons to criticize it are valid, but so are the reasons to praise it. The cast is superb – and may be superior to any of the prior trilogies when you line them up head-to-head. The production value is the kind of fan service I can get behind; yes there are Easter Eggs, but they are Easter Eggs filmed ON LOCATION. With FILM! And while it might come off as virtue signaling by way of corporate mandate (we must include more underserved markets into this cash cow!), well, a new Star Wars was going to happen, so why not put some women and POC in there, too? Like any true Star Wars fan, I have my rewrite suggestions (most notably ending it prior to Rey’s departure to find Luke), but they don’t really matter. The movie mostly works, and if there’s a movie that mostly works featuring Han Solo in more than a cameo – and played by Ford?—then it hits a lot of buttons for me.

#24: “Batman” (1989). A friend of mine recently ran through his problems with the movie, and they’re mostly very legit. It is kind of goofy that Nicholson gets his shades, and that Prince did some songs, that Batman didn’t use a grappling hook instead of taking the stairs, all that stuff. To those points I counter with the positives: Nicholson’s manic performance was funny and a little scary. The Batmobile was the coolest thing we’d seen in a long time. The Axis Chemicals scene was the perfect amount of moody smoke and tangibility. The score – the music! – is league’s above most of these movies. And while it seems much of the effort was put into the style of the movie, hasn’t Batman always relied on style? Sure, style with a great story would’ve been greater, but when the style is this good, it’s easier to see why the movie worked for most people. It still does for me. And the Joker dies. People gripe about this but think about it – it ended! That’s almost radical in 2022 to think of such a popular character dying (I guess see also “Force Awakens”). 

#23: “Captain America: the First Avenger.” I was late to this movie, but I legit love it. I love that we get the WWII setting, and the fun satire against and for Cap himself. But mostly I love how earnest it is and he is. I have friends who have watched some of the MCU films, having skipped this one, and they are annoyed by Captain America. I get it, because without this – the bedrock, the homework – he can be kind of bland. But if you can see Little Steve jump on a grenade, figure out how to best his opponents, and generally be a good dude, I think you’re locked into the guy. It also allows you to enjoy the ending of “Endgame” more.

#22: “Shazam!” I enjoy it. I’m putting it higher than, say “Batman” because the story is markedly better, and higher than “First Avenger” mostly because it’s more recently viewed. But it’s a lot of fun. Levy is funny and well cast (I mean, if I can’t have Patrick Warburton, then I’ll take this dude). He’s so good in the role that we all forgot the guy had already been in a Marvel movie as one of the recast Thor Buddies in “Dark World.” I think he was the Mustache Duke or some other forgettable nonsense nobody cared about. Here, he makes us care, about Billy, about Captain Marvel ™, about the whole thing. And it’s funny. Good for them.

#21: “The Lego Batman Movie.” This movie is so funny and so critical of Batman in all the right ways, that I sometimes wish it wasn’t a Lego movie. But then I wonder if they would have been able to do all that they had to do if not for the Lego setting. The only part where the Lego-ness goes too far is in the finale. Otherwise, it’s just a solid, funny, sometimes-touching and very smart legitimate Batman movie.

#20: “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” I believe this is our last time seeing Michael Keaton on the list, so let’s pause to acknowledge how cool the guy is in this part. True, the writing helps him – Vulture had never been one of my favorite characters. But he does the most with what he’s given to give the rare “great villain” of a MCU movie (yeah, that’s right; in fact, that’s something a lot of the MCU’s in this category have that the others don’t; not all of them… anyway). Keaton rules, and the movie around him uses its lighter tone to only make his menace all the more, well, menacing. I’d never felt so scared for Spider-Man until this movie.

#19: “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Whose movie is it? Why did they have to make Wolverine such a central character only to marginalize him in the back half? How does the time travel work?

Or a better question: Why don’t I care? 

I think the answer is that I’ll almost always give a pass to X-Men movies and a time travel stories, and since this is both, it works for me. Once again, we get a great Magneto story and performance(s!), we have the fun of seeing the old cast and the new ones in the same movie, and we just have cool mutant scenes as they continue what should have been a can’t miss premise of setting one X-men movie per past decade. So close, guys.

#18: “Marvel’s The Avengers.” I went up and down on this movie, but I want to give it a lot of credit for what it accomplishes. First, it’s the first time I cared about Black Widow. Second, it was the first time I enjoyed the Hulk. Third, it’s the first time we really see the glimmers of Comedic Thor, a blessing we would all enjoy in the years to come. But third, for better or worse, it set the template for what qualified as a “good” team-up movie. You had to do the difficult path, where you had to set up characters in their own movies first and then bring them together (ahem, “Age of Ultron” and “Snyder’s Justice League”). In a way, this could have and should have been the end for the MCU. Its goal was to bring the heroes together and it did it. After this there were wobbles and questions as to whether they could o it again. Understandable; this one was a high bar to hit.

#17: “LOTR: The Two Towers.” I’m not going to do the search, but I think I’ve complained about some movies being “inconsequential” approximately 30 times in this list already. And in many ways, this one should fit the bill perfectly. It starts with Frodo and Sam (our “main” characters) walking to Mordor, and it ends with them… still walking to Mordor. The filmmakers had to pad out some parts with more women and more action because, frankly, those things just aren’t in the book. So why did it work here? 

I’m not sure. I think it’s a combination of how great the cast is, how cool it is to see giant battles (for the first time at least), and how awesome and terrifying Gollum is. And sad. And, and, and. (Footnote: I prefer the longer cuts of the 1st and 3rd movies, but the theatrical cut of this one; it’s complicated).

#16: “Guardians of the Galaxy.” On one hand, it shouldn’t work at all. On another, it’s a can’t miss. They wanted to make pseudo-Star Wars where all the characters were versions of Han Solo. The movie is almost stylish (stylish for an MCU film post Phase 1, so y’know… I’m being a jerk). But it’s biggest contribution is doing something we all thought at one time was impossible and now expect it to happen every time: tell a story about a group of colorful and (essentially to most people) new characters in an entertaining way. 

#15: “Thor: Ragnarok.” Still the funniest of the MCU movies. While I may have entertained the notion of “GofG” era Chris Pratt playing Indiana Jones, here we see that the real choice should be Chris Hemsworth. Effortless charm falls off of every scene as Marvel manages to solve the issues with past Thor problems by utilizing time-tested methods. Had a couple dud villains? What if you had… a GOOD villain? That kind of thing. My only gripe – and if you didn’t want gripes, why click on such a list in the first place – is that the movie PROPER ends with an interesting set-up for a future installment, with Thor as the new one-eyed king of a floating people, only to have it completely wiped out by the next movie… by the post-credits tag even!

#14: “X-Men: First Class.” OK, hear me out. I will concede that this film is probably the “least good” among this group. Most people would rank it much lower, and they probably feel offended how close this thing got to the top ten.

HOWEVER, I love it. I love the 1960’s setting and the just-to-the-side alternate history storyline. I love how we center Magneto and Charles, left in the capable hands of two charming actors. And, no, I don’t care if this movie – or if any of the second trilogy – don’t really line up with the original 3 films. It probably bugs people who loved those films more. I enjoyed them, but I’m willing to roll with the changes just to get more. I’m greedy.

#13: “Spider-Man 2.” I haven’t watched this one in years, so I might be buying into the nostalgic hype train, but I don’t think so. It was my favorite of those original three Spider-man movies, containing my favorite version of JJJ, some heartfelt moments, some great fights, and some parts that made me cry. MAKE me cry. And it has one of the best non-ending endings I’ve ever seen – not just among these comic book movies but in general; it gives us what we want (a happy-type ending between Peter and MJ followed by Spider-man off to do spider man things, followed by Mary Jane watching through the window with a look of “What have I gotten myself into but I’m in love but what have I gotten myself INTO?”). Movies!

#12: “Batman Begins.” ANOTHER great ending, but this one’s great mostly for being a Batman movie, so that’s even better! This was a course correction for the character, and the filmmakers’ focus on story, script, production design and point of view all shows. This also marked one of the first times where our (re: my) long-standing beliefs of what “My Batman” should be were challenged, and for the better. Sure, “MY” Batman doesn’t see his parents’ killer and know his name. But this isn’t “MY” Batman. I don’t own him. This is a movie. They’re making choices. Choices based on character. Impressive.

#11: “Avengers: Endgame.” I think I’ve made many remarks already about the MCU’s propensity for jokes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But this is the movie where I feel the jokes do not simply function as jokes. After spending 20-ish movies with these people, and then understanding the terrible circumstances and losses they’ve felt, the jokes feel more like defense mechanisms, betraying their underlying depression and anguish.

Two years into the pandemic and I can relate to this. 

It also has time travel. Fan service by way of time travel, to create a “victory lap” of the MCU’s greatest hits. I know some people complained about this, but I enjoyed it very much. And this was also the first time since “The Avengers” when seeing the team united/re-united actually got me excited. That’s what it was supposed to do, right?

#10: “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.” The top ten – we made it, and so did this odd-ball of a choice. Released straight to video, this was from one of my favorite Batman shows, where Bruce Wayne is now 90 and retired, so he has passed the duties to a younger man, Terry McGinnis. Yeah, yeah, you might know all this stuff, but the point here is that this movie achieves in 90 minutes what most Batman movies cannot do in twice the time. It has a central mystery, a lot of excitement, a dynamic design and look, and under it all we have this strange sense of sci-fi dread. The Joker is supposed to be dead, and yet he has returned. We get to criticize Bruce’s Batman through Terry’s failings and successes. And in the end, he cements himself (as he had in the show) as one of the best Batmans. Maybe THE best. At least the one we might actually want to hang out with.

#9: “Logan.” The second film in a row to feature a grizzled, past-his-prime hero making peace with the young upstart replacement. I have a type, OK, and it’s this. I think this movie is a little mistitled, too, because while a movie focused solely on Logan/Wolverine might have been great, the fact that Charles Xavier is his only connection to the past – his surrogate father – AND that his mind is failing… AND his failing mind has become a dangerous liability puts everything into a bleak point of view. Starting this movie, I didn’t know how they’d all make it out. And guess what: many don’t! It felt like a great way to end the X-Men movies, if not just Jackman’s run in them: a semi-connected finale, commenting and referencing the past while honoring it and pointing forward. 

#8: “Black Panther.” Yes, my highest ranked MCU film. It took me a while to put it this high as I, like many of you I bet, would have put something like “Ragnarok” or “Winter Soldier” up here. Some others (re: white people, re-re: white men people) would have had this strange feeling that because the film could be accused of having positive representation for marginalized people, that it should be scrutinized because of that; almost like that was an easier thing than a historically terrible challenge. 

So for the sake of argument, let’s try to take that part out of the picture completely and be as objective as possible (not that this is a great idea, but just humor me). What are we left with? We have a single story which manages to introduce several memorable characters, a unique and expansive world beyond anything we’d seen in the MCU prior, we have cool set-pieces and lots of superhero daring do, we have a villain who is charming, scary and sorta understandable? (that was probably the key for me putting this so high; some Marvel villains come and go, but Killmonger made an impression in multiple areas for me).

And it has an ending. It has a finale that addresses the themes and resolves the central conflict and… this is all basic stuff, but it’s stuff that so few movies – let alone superhero and fantasy movies – manage to achieve.

#7: “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” There was a time not so long ago when this would have been higher on the list. Much higher. Like #1. It fell to #7 mostly because some recent movies supplanted it, and therefore pointed out some unmistakable holes in Indy’s armor. He isn’t that much of a character; more like a legend played by peak-of-his-charms Harrison Ford. But that’s kinda all I can say against it, and anything positive I would say has been said before by smarter people than myself. Instead of all that, I’ll point out that this movie has passages of dialog which are filmed in a more dynamic and exciting manner than most movie’s “exciting” action scenes. The first classroom scene, the chat with the two government agents, the “bad dates” part. The discussion with Beloq about the Ark. If anyone wants to know why this movie has lasted so long, the answer might lie in how well it handles the “boring” scenes.

#6: “Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse.” Would you believe that I almost forgot this one? I was so focused on franchises that this movie – technically a one-off (for now) – blipped away for a moment. I’m a fool. If anyone has to be convinced of its greatness as not only a superhero movie, but as a Spider-Man story, a Spider-Man comment, a comment on heroism and just plane great cinema, then go watch “No Way Home” with clearer eyes. It took many ideas from this movie, and in that old Hollywood fashion, learned the wrong lessons. We don’t love “Spider-verse” just because it brought together multiple Spider-people. We love it because it’s lovely. Miles is an interesting character. His situation is difficult and challenging and scary and gets worse from there! And special bonus points are awarded for one of the parts where I cry the most (there are many): when Sgt. Morales, having watched Miles take a beating by Kingpin, half prays and half whispers, “… Get up, Spider-man.” It’s all there and I’m getting choked up even typing it. It’s Miles’ dad, but he doesn’t know it. He’s a man who has expressed his displeasure with Spider-man (for multiple reasons!). Yet in that moment, he’s all of us. Beautiful.

#5: “The Dark Knight.” Let this be known: I’m putting this film so high because it included Harvey Dent as Two-Face, not in spite of that inclusion. Lots of people thought it should have ended 20 minutes earlier than it did, saving Two-Face for his own money. This thought is sad to me for multiple reasons. For one, it seems like evidence that corporate franchise movie making has permanently brainwashed people (it’s like watching a movie solely for the post-credit scene). And for another, the fact that it went this far – was willing to put all its best chips on the table with these two A-List Batman Villains in the same movie – and stick to its position around theme and impact… that counts for something. Ledger’s performance might be the best in the film (or the series… or of all of these), but the reason the movie cast such an enormous shadow is because it felt enormous. 

#4: “Batman-Superman: World’s Finest.” And yet, we have an even better movie* with those characters. The asterisk is signifying that this is a bit of a cheat: this was actually a 3-parter story, bringing in Batman and Superman (and Joker and Lex Luthor, among others) from their respective animated series. Make no mistake, this is a TV show and not a movie, so, yeah, I cheated. But if you wanna know what my favorite Batman movie is, or what my favorite Superman movie, favorite Joker, all that stuff… it’s this. It’s a story that did everything the Snyder movies (presumably) missed. Instead of forcing characters to interact in a crossover story which got forced into being a “big deal,” these characters and shows had YEARS of prior solo work to build from. So it was more than just Batman fighting Superman (though that happens, mercifully quick and near the beginning). It also had Joker and Luthor teaming up. It has a quick romance between Bruce Wayne and Lois Lane; the woman who loves Superman but not Clark has suddenly found she likes Bruce but hates Batman, eliciting the great line from Superman, “Too bad we can’t mix and match.” On top of that – and I’m a broken record here – but the story is excellent comic book fodder, with Joker asking Luthor for one billion dollars to kill Superman for him. After procuring 50 pounds of Kryptonite, Joker sets up deadly (and kind of fun) traps, giving us great interactions between characters we rarely see together. All this builds to a catharsis to see Batman and Superman working together as their best selves, by which I mean Batman doing Batman-level things, rather than relying on a super suit (again) or something. I love it. It has “my” Batman, sure, but presents it in a way that could be everyone’s. 

At this point, right before the end, I’m gonna switch things up. Instead of going numerically, I’m gonna just tell you my top two. First off, they’re both from the same series, and they’ve been covered here there and everywhere for far too long, and then – honestly – these are pretty standard. They are “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” These two movies trade spots depending on my mood, but who needs to hear more about them? If we’re focusing on superhero movies, I’d rather end with one of those. And that one is…

#3: “The Incredibles.” This is it. The best superhero movie ever made (for me). It’s kind of got everything. Great original characters pulling loosely from known archetypes (creating the best Fantastic 4 movie we’d never get). Excellent commentary about superheroes as people, through their relationships with each other, with themselves, with the world around them. And most of all: fantastic superhero storytelling and scenes. The opening scene, sprawling through a sorta-1950’s world, springing around from one crime bust to another to another. Dash’s first full use of his powers. Elastigirl protecting her children from a missile attack. Mr. Incredible fighting giant robots. The family finally working together. On and on and on, the film never lets down and never disappoints. I got this far without mentioning its world-class villain, its world-class scene stealer Edna Mode, or Frozone! It made it look so easy. Absolutely great.

That’s it, folks! I’ll probably print some stats later, because I love stats and lists and stuff, but this was oddly fun. To check out the others, we have the Bottom, the Bottom Middle, and the Upper Middle.

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