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With Great Power…

I love comic books. And that means that I grew up with a great love of super-hero stories. These days its true that many of my favorite comic books have little to do with super-heroes (looking through my “to-read” pile I see titles like David Lapham’s Young Liars, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower adaptation, Jeff Smith’s new boot RASL, Mike Mignola’s BPRD and Abe Sapien, Ed Brubaker’s Criminal, Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets, to name just a few.) But there is still something about a great super-hero yarn that really excites me. (For instance, I’ve been reading and throughly enjoying Ed Brubaker’s run on Daredevil, Brian Michael Bendis’ work on Avengers and Secret Invasion, and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men.)

That love of a good super-hero tale extends to movies. While working on these new Iron Man cartoons, and thinking about the movies still ahead this summer (Hellboy II, The Dark Knight, and The Incredible Hulk), I’ve been thinking about what makes a great super-hero movie.

Here are my five favorite super-hero movies of all time:

5. Unbreakable — Back when I loved M. Night Shyamalan, he made this fantastic little tale about a man (Bruce Willis) who discovers that he cannot be injured. There are no costumes, no witticisms, none of the silly trappings that have come to be associated with super-heroes and super-hero movies. Just a compelling story with some terrific under-played acting from a great cast (Bruce Willis has never been better than he is here as the sad, empty man who discovers that he is different), and some really interesting scene composition, shot set-ups, and editing choices from director Shyamalan.

4. Hellboy — Adapted from a series of mini-series written and gorgeously illustrated by Mike Mignola, Hellboy follows the adventures of a paranormal investigator who is actually a demon from Hell himself. Who loves pancakes. The comic is a wonderfully bizarre, textured mix of fairy tales, folklore and some good old-fashioned monster-fighting action. The film, directed by Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, and the man tapped to direct the upcoming two films based on The Hobbit) is a remarkable realization of Mignola’s comic. The splendid, consistently under-rated Ron Perlman is brilliant as Hellboy, bringing enormous depth and warmth to the character despite all the red rubber makeup.

3. Spider-Man 2 — Like Hellboy, Spider-Man 2 is another film whose greatest strength is the way it is able to distill the essence of a beloved (albeit much more widely-known) comic book character into a compelling film all its own. Tobey Maguire was born to play the stiff, dorky Peter Parker who one day discovers that with great power comes great responsibility. I generally like my super-hero movies to be dark and morose, but what sets Spider-Man apart to me is actually the fun, giddy energy of the proceedings — from the beautiful visual effects of Spider-Man web-swinging through the NYC skyscrapers to the breathless scenery-chewing J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, this movie is a lot of fun. And it has a note-perfect ending.

2. X-Men 2 — Speaking of note-perfect endings, the last shot of this film had me ready, no DESPERATE, to watch X3 right then and there. (Too bad X3 wound up being such a disappointment, but that’s a subject for another time.) The whole rest of this movie leading UP to that phenomenal last shot is pretty dang good as well. Bryan Singer took everything that worked in the 1st X-Men film and stepped everything up several notches in this one. The action is terrific — the sequence in which Stryker’s soldiers lay siege to the X-Mansion with only Wolverine there to defend the students is a powerhouse of a sequence and everything I want to see in a super-hero movie. But it is the story behind the action that sets this film apart from other whizz-bang special effects films. There is Jean Grey’s struggle with her growing powers that threaten to overwhelm her, and her growing fear that she’ll be unable to do so. There is Wolverine’s attempt to discover his past and, more importantly, to figure out what bearing his past has to the person he wants to be. But most compelling is the way the young characters (Rogue, Iceman, Pyro) are pulled between the peaceful message of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the more violent leanings of Magneto (Ian McKellan). Aaron Stanford plays Pyro, and the way his character is slowly tempted towards the “dark side” is a far more gripping tale than George Lucas’ three-movie similar story about a young Anakin Skywalker. (BTW, I will always refer to this movie as X-Men 2 or X2, but never by the stupid title of X-Men United that the Fox Marketing department for some reason affixed to this film in the weeks before its release. I’m just saying.)

1. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm — In 1992 DC comics launched a half-hour cartoon show called Batman: The Animated Series. It was brilliant. Gorgeous animation and character design married to rich, deep stories that took Batman VERY seriously created a show that grabbed viewers’ attentions and, to me at least, remains the definitive version of Batman. In 1993, a theatrical film based on the show was released to theatres: Mask of the Phantasm. Interwoven stories and flashbacks tell the tale of Batman’s confrontation with a more violent vigilante, The Phantasm, as well as the story of how, years earlier, a young Bruce Wayne abandoned his chances for love and happiness to honor the vow he made to his murdered parents to rid Gotham City of crime. Batman Begins covers similar ground (both films were imspired by the comic mini-series Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli), and while I absolutely adore Batman Begins, to me Mask of the Phantasm is the superior telling of this story. It is astonishingly grim and psychologically probing (the scene in which a young Bruce Wayne, who has begun to realize that his becoming the Batman will dominate and destroy his life, begs his dead parents to release him from his vow, is a chilling moment and one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever). The narrative is sophisticatedly told — the film features intertwining flashbacks within flashbacks long before such storytelling devices were popularized by Lost or films like The Prestige. The animation is gorgeous. The ending is perfectly down-beat yet satisfying. (You can see my focus on the importance of a good film’s ending well.) Mark Hamill is astonishing as the voice of the Joker (who enters the story during the second half of the film). Hammil’s Joker is by far the best film version of this charcter so far — lunatic and dangerous (although I do have high hopes for Heath Ledger in the upcoming The Dark Knight). And speaking of definitive versions of a character, Kevin Conroy IS Batman. I cannot conceive that his performance can ever be topped. He IS Batman. End of story. If you haven not seen this film, go rent it. It rocks.

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