This was the decade when the movie superhero finally grew up. Writers and artists like Will Eisner, Alan Moore, and Frank Miller had been creating mature, literary superhero stories in comic books for decades, but it wasn’t until the last ten years that both studios and filmmakers realized that superhero films with brains and depth could not only be made, but could be insanely profitable.
Only two of the five films I’ve selected as the best superhero films of the decade could fairly be called insanely profitable, but massive hauls at the box office aren’t the point here. And besides, those two made enough between them to pay for the other three and then some.
In chronological order from the date of U.S. theatrical release, the top 5 superhero films of the 2000s are:
Hulk (Released June 20, 2003) — Ang Lee’s film about gamma-irradiated scientist Bruce Banner and his huge, hugely pissed-off green alter ego was one of the most misunderstood superhero movies of the decade. It also may have been the best. Lee’s mistake, commercially speaking, was to make a brooding, deeply serious film that was more interested in developing characters and exploring themes than in hitting formulaic plot points and filling the screen with explosions and CGI action. (For the opposite, see Louis Leterrier’s so-so 2008 do-over, The Incredible Hulk.) Those perceived failings are precisely what make Hulk a great, great movie. Not content to merely go through the motions retelling the Hulk’s origin story, Ang Lee fills his frame with amazing images, using a split-screen technique to evoke the panels of a comic book page, and giving a long sequence depicting the Hulk fleeing the military across the desert a lyrical beauty reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There’s plenty of action, too, most significantly another outstanding desert set piece that sees the Hulk swing a tank over his head and fling it away to the horizon. Most importantly, it’s a real movie with real actors: Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross, Nick Nolte as Bruce’s abusive and totally nuts father David, and an outstanding Sam Elliot as General Ross. The cast all do a wonderful job, helped greatly by James Schamus’s script, which shows the Hulk to be the result not only of the failed gamma experiment, but of child abuse. “The more you fight,” Bruce’s father tells him at one point, “the more of you I take.” It’s a powerful moment in a film that deserved a better reception than the one it got from most fans and critics.
Spider-Man 2 (Released June 30, 2004) — This one encountered no such difficulties with audiences and critics. One of the most universally loved superhero films ever made — and deservedly so — Spider-Man 2 straddled the line between art and pop, succeeding as a rousing popular entertainment while still managing to dip its toe every now and then in the deeper waters in which Hulk swam. It’s the sort of movie that reminds us why we love superheroes, and why Spider-Man is such a great one. Without directly adapting any particular Spidey story from the comics, Sam Raimi and his screenwriters (including Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon and Oscar-winner Alvin Sargent) evoke the spirit of the classic Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics of the 1960s, showing us a Peter Parker who struggles to make his rent, washes his superhero costume at the laundromat in the same load as his boxer shorts, and winds up fighting a supervillain who was once his friend. There are numerous great scenes here — Doc Ock’s escape from the hospital, Aunt May’s hero speech, Peter’s talk with Mary Jane while he struggles to keep a massive steel scaffold from collapsing on them — but no scene better encapsulates the film’s flawless balance of action and pathos than the train sequence, which begins with a thrilling fight between Spidey and Doc Ock, and ends with an exhausted (and unmasked) Peter being carried to safety by the train passengers he has just rescued. Waking, Peter is shocked to find his mask gone and his identity exposed. “It’s all right,” a man kneels down to tell him. Two children step forward and hand Spidey his mask. “We won’t tell nobody,” they say, with the rest of the people in the car nodding their agreement. Peter pulls on his mask and stands, his secret safe. You won’t find a better couple of minutes in any superhero movie yet made.
Superman Returns (Released June 28, 2006) — The trend of critically acclaimed filmmakers working in the lowly genre of superhero movies has seen the likes of Ang Lee, Christopher Nolan and Sam Raimi try their hands at tales of capes-and-tights. But it was Bryan Singer, director of The Usual Suspects, that led the way, making X-Men in 2000 and the much better X2: X-Men United in 2003. Singer abandoned plans for a third X-Men film (leaving that project to the inferior talents of Brett Ratner) to make Superman Returns. Part-sequel to Richard Donner’s Superman, part reboot, it follows the Donner model of casting established actors in supporting roles (Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, Frank Langella as Perry White, the ghost of Marlon Brando as Jor-El), and featuring relative unknowns in the leading roles (Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane). Singer also reuses the design of the main titles, and some of the most memorable themes from John Williams’s score for Donner’s film. The result is something that feels welcome and familiar, that evokes the much loved original Donner made with Christopher Reeve, but is still free to explore new territory. Singer’s Superman feels deeper and more personal than Donner’s, showing us its hero’s detachment from the world he protects. As the film opens, Superman has been away from Earth for five years searching for some sign of life in the remains of his birth planet, Krypton. Finding it utterly destroyed, he returns to find that he doesn’t quite fit in here anymore, either. When Lex Luthor refers to him being an alien at one point, we can imagine it cutting a lot closer to the bone than it otherwise might. This is another one that was widely trashed by audiences and critics. I don’t get that at all. Supes’s rescue of the crashing plane is the most outstanding action sequence there has ever been in a Superman film, and the rest of the movie is packed with iconic images that ought to have comic geeks and cinema buffs squealing with delight, including a direct quote from the cover of Action Comics #1. Add to that a confident, subtle turn by Brandon Routh as Supes/Clark, Kevin Spacey’s funny yet menacing turn as Lex, and a few scenes that are genuinely moving, and you’ve got my idea of not just a great superhero movie, but a great movie — period.
The Dark Knight (Released July 18, 2008) — Talk about range: Batman has been the subject of the worst superhero movie ever made, and one of the very best. Who could have imagined, sitting in a movie theater in 1997 watching Joel Schumacher’s excruciating Batman & Robin, that a film as thought-provoking and technically accomplished as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was waiting for us a decade down the road? Nolan’s film is everything that every previous Batman adaptation is not: well-written, well-acted, and smart with something important to say. This is a very dark film, but rather than wallowing in it, it uses that darkness as a launching pad for questions about the cost of doing evil in the service of good. Conservatives praised the film as an endorsement of the presidency of George W. Bush, but they missed the point. True, Batman does take the extraordinary (and very Bush-and-Cheney-like) step of spying on most of Gotham City in order to find the Joker, but that doesn’t mean the film approves of Batman’s actions. The message isn’t that Batman, and by extension the Bush administration, did the right thing. Harvey Dent gets to the heart of it in one of the final scenes, when he bitterly tells Batman and Commissioner Gordon, “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time. You were wrong.” Harvey’s right; despite his eventual capture, the Joker accomplishes everything he sets out to do, leaving the heroes scrambling to put things back together in his wake. That unsettling moral ambiguity, and Heath Ledger’s scary-good performance as the Joker, make Dark Knight far and away the best Batman story every told outside of a comic book, and one of the best superhero films you’re ever likely to see.
Watchmen (Released March 6, 2009) — Zack Snyder’s long-awaited adaptation of the limited comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is the most flawed film on the list. But what it gets right is so right that it would be impossible for me to exclude it. Yes, it is a little incoherent, and yes, Snyder’s fetish for orgasmically graphic violence is distracting in an otherwise serious movie, but those failings have to be considered alongside accomplishments like Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan and Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, and the outstanding opening credits montage that brings viewers up to speed on how the 1985 of Watchmen differs from the one we remember through a series of tableaus set to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a’Changing.” Most importantly, the movie retains the central conflict of the comic book: the heroes vs. themselves. That conflict comes both from without, as the former members of the Minutemen find themselves opposing a one-time ally bent on killing millions of people, and from within, as they struggle to overcome their personal demons, and grapple with the possibility that the world might have been better off if they had never existed. Many of the best scenes are taken verbatim from the comic, but my favorite moment is unique to the movie. When Dr. Manhattan reappears after apparently being disintegrated by Ozymandias, he stares coldly at his old teammate and says, “The world’s smartest man poses no more of a threat to me than does its smartest termite.” It’s a moment reminiscent of Odysseus confronting the suitors upon returning to Ithaca. Watchmen works because it is like a classical epic — a story that strives for and eventually attains greatness, despite falling short a few times along the way.