I’m normally not a huge fan of lists like this. It’s always so subjective (naturally) and they can change rather frequently (at least for me). So I don’t often write them. We can be mercurial in our fandom love, you know? But this term I’m teaching a new course on the intersection of comic books and social justice. In the course, we read several comics and watch several comic book films and then we deconstruct them, exploring their messages and symbolism, with an eye towards justice issues. As we discussed what would be in the course, several students asked me what my favorite comic book movies were. I couldn’t just brush aside the question – my students are seeking to better understand the preferences and passions that have shaped me and this course! I also can’t answer a question like this without way overthinking XD. So here are the results of the deep introspection and soul-searching brought on by my students’ inquiries.
I’ve put together my top five favorite comic book movies of all time, arranged them in order, and done my best to explain why they fall where they fall in the list. So, without further ado, here are my five all-time favorite comic book movies!
5) Spider-Man (2002) – Written by David Koepp / Directed by Sam Raimi
I wrote a post about this trilogy awhile back and I talked about how it doesn’t get the praise it deserves. Before the MCU became a thing, it was Raimi’s Spider-Man movies that showed us how fun and exciting a comic book movie that actually takes seriously it’s comic book roots could be…and how successful they could be at the box office too. While the X-Men were still trapesing around in their “realistic” black leather jumpsuits in Bryan Singer’s films, we saw Spidey in his bold, bright colors swinging through the streets of New York in scenes that felt as though they were ripped from the comic pages.
And, box office earnings and groundwork laying aside, that is why this film is on the list. Seeing Spider-Man was the first time in my life I walked into a movie and felt like I was watching a comic book come to life. A lifetime of reading and loving comic books, a lifetime of loving Spider-Man more than any other character, and I finally got to see it all play out in live action before me. It was such a gift! I will never forget it and I will forever be thankful for it. Watching it was like a dream come true, a dream I never thought I’d see realized. It’s weird to think of that now, a time when comic book movies were few and far between at the theatre. But as a kid, all I had were Batman movies being released (and he was wearing a weird rubber suit; he and his villains looked nothing like they did in the comics) and Superman movies to rent. But this changed the game. It blew my mind and helped usher in a new age.
While I always said Spider-Man 2 was my favorite of the trilogy, when I rewatched them all again recently I realized it’s really the original Spider-Man that has remained stamped the most fully on my heart. And it’s because, I believe, this was the one that changed everything. This was the one that first truly brought my hero to life.
4) Guardians of the Galaxy/Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2014/2017) – Written by James Gunn and Nicole Pearlman / Directed by James Gunn
Okay, you know what? You know what?? It’s MY list and I say they count as one movie. If you don’t like it, you can go write your own list. But Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 flow directly from one into the other, like turning chapters in a book. I can’t think about them separately in my mind nor do I ever really watch them one at a time. They work better together because it’s all one big story. So THAT’S WHY they are both on this list and THAT’S WHY I counted them as one entry. BOOM.
I say this often too but Guardians of the Galaxy was special. This was the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe where I went in with no real knowledge of the characters. So I got to meet them as the “average” movie fan did, in the theatre in the summer of 2014. I met Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot and I immediately fell in love. How could you not? Everything about this movie is perfect! And it gets better each time I watch it. Plus, six years into the MCU, it made everything feel “new” again. The MCU certainly has a pattern/formula they follow. It works and I love it. But the films that feel like they fit while also bringing something new to the table have a special place in my heart. From the characters to the locals to the music – God save me, the music! – Guardians of the Galaxy did that. It was a film I loved so much it brought me to the comics too.
The message of the films is what really cements it on this list though. It’s not just a fun movie (although it is). It’s what they say. And that’s a big part of why Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has to be included here as well. The first film takes a bunch of outcast, loser, loners of questionable moral character and shows the bonds of love that will turn them into friends. The second film naturally builds upon this idea and shows those bonds of love have created something more than friends; they’ve created family. This family and the love that binds it can easily grow to include people once seen as enemies (Nebula), those who cared more than was ever known (Yondu), those who seemed at one point nothing more than a casual acquaintance (Kraglin), and those who were complete strangers (Mantis).
Everyone can be welcome. Everyone can belong. Ultimately, in love and the family it creates, we can all find a place to call home. In that movement to love we find very real hope, meaning, and salvation in life. These films manage to say all of this while still making us laugh and dance all the way through. How incredible is that?
3) The Dark Knight (2008) – Written by Johnathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, and David S. Goyer / Directed by Christopher Nolan
It was a rough call, whether to place this above or below Guardians of the Galaxy. But ultimately it takes the third spot because there’s just SO MUCH here. I think 2008 will always be a landmark year in the comic book movie genre. In May, Iron Man came out and in Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. But then in July this masterpiece would come along and it would redefine the genre and everything a comic book movie can do and be.
You can talk all you want about Jack Nicholson before or Joaquin Phoenix after, as far as I’m concerned Heath Ledger will always be the definitive take on the Joker. No one else come close to the vision of manic menace he personifies. In his Joker we get the Joker I prefer best – an incarnation of absolute evil. He’s called “crazy” because we don’t know what to do with true evil when we see it and he’s hellbent on showing the world that he’s the ultimate truth of human nature. Nolan and Goyer take this anarchic force of chaos and carnage and put him up against Christian Bale’s Batman as a force of compassionate justice. Despite all his violence and leg breaking and face punching, Batman has a line he won’t cross. He won’t kill. And when faced with the Joker, he has to wrestle with whether or not he can stop him without breaking his own code…or, if he can’t, if he can become the person he has to be to end the menace of the Joker. This film takes the conflict between the Joker and the Batman and uses it as the allegorical playground to examine the question at the heart of every discussion about building a better, more perfect world. What do we do with the people who refuse to play by the rules?
In their unending brilliance, Nolan and Goyer leave the question unanswered in the film. Instead it’s left to us, as the viewers, to decide for ourselves. Can we truly defeat evil while maintaining our own moral code? Or must we become the darkness to triumph over it? I have taught this film for years in all manner of classes. I’ve shown it as part of youth group movie discussions. And I have endlessly analyzed it with family and friends. The Dark Knight is now over ten years old and it still impacts new viewers as heavily as it did me the first time I saw it…and it still leaves me pondering deep questions and ready to lose myself in deep discussion over the issues it explores after my zillionth repeated viewing.
This is a masterpiece and even though I’ve never been a huge fan of DC characters and I’ve always thought Batman was waaaaaaay overrated, this isn’t just one of the best comic book films of all time, it’s one of the best films of all time. Period.
2) The Avengers (2012) – Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
I remember watching the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe unfold. Each movie – from Iron Man to Iron Man 2 to Thor to Captain America: The First Avenger seemed to get better and better (and…uh, I mean, there was The Incredible Hulk in there too, I guess). And they were all leading to this. In a cinematic first, all these heroes from their own individual movies were going to come together in an ensemble piece. These separate, independent films were going to weave all their narrative threads together to tell one connected story. It’s easy to forget now, ten years into MCU gloriousness and with the emotional brilliance of Avengers: Endgame still fresh in our minds, but there was a time when this interconnected movie universe thing was a risky move. While we all hoped we were wrong, no one really expected it to work – and certainly not to work as well as it did.
I remember eagerly awaiting The Avengers in the spring of 2012. Theresa and I spent many afternoons at work pondering whether or not they could pull this off. Would it feel rushed? How would they manage the tone of all these different characters? How do they make sure everyone has a detailed arc? Can a comic book movie really work on this large of a scale? How can they do so much in the plot without it feeling crowded?
Then The Avengers came out and it was even better than any of us could have hoped for. Remember what I said about Spider-Man a few paragraphs ago? Yep, it was the same thing here. THIS WAS A COMIC BOOK COME TO LIFE. As someone who grew up reading comic books I never really imagined – even though I hoped – I’d see any heroes outside of Batman on the movie screen. And I never, ever imagined I’d see a movie that so clearly and closely reflected what I felt reading comics as a kid. Through the entirety of The Avengers – especially the Battle of New York where they fought Loki’s invading Chitauri army – I felt like I was a kid again. I had the same sort of breathless excitement I’d find each week when I’d sit on my bed and read the new comics I brought home from my local comic shop. I will never forget what it was like seeing The Avengers for the first time. To this day, it still holds the record for the film I’ve seen the most in theatres.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has given me so many brilliant films and so many wonderful memories, but for me The Avengers stands at the heart of it all.
1) Wonder Woman (2016) – Written by Allan Heinberg / Directed by Patty Jenkins
I mean, what am I even supposed to say here? THIS FILM IS PERFECT. Absolutely everything about it is PERFECT. My students were surprised (many people often are), given my deep and lifelong love of Marvel Comics and their characters, when I told them this was my all time favorite comic book movie. But there’s no contest. Nothing else even comes close. Like The Dark Knight before it, this film completely changed our understanding of what a comic book movie can do and be.
I went in with only a casual pop culture understanding of her character and I fell in love with this film. I fell in love with the character of Diana of Themyscria! My love of this film took me to the Wonder Woman comics and my love of those comics took me to Justice League: Dark and Aquaman and a li’l Swamp Thing too. So this movie literally opened up a whole new realm of reading for me. I can’t get enough Wonder Woman either, devouring back issues and trades as I wait for each new monthly comic. So any film that can totally reorient my reading and the comic passion in my heart deserves recognition here.
So that earns Wonder Woman it’s place on this list. But it’s the message of the film that earns it the number one spot. In the film, Patty Jenkins and Allan Heinberg give us a poignant and powerful depiction of the Divine Feminine in Diana, brought to life perfectly by Gal Gadot. As the narrative unfolds we see very much that Diana is an incarnation of love. We learn in the film, the gods created the Amazons to influence men’s hearts with love and restore peace to the Earth. It is through LOVE and the changing of the heart love brings that peace will be restored! Diana seeks to do this, entering “Man’s World” as WWI rages. She encounters violence and death, terror and destruction, hatred and condescension, fear, bigotry, sexism…the list goes on and on. Diana comes face to face with all the horrors of our modern age.
Despite it all, Diana recommits herself to her truth and her cause. In Diana, the film offers such a beautiful homily – “I believe in love” and “I know that only love can truly save the world.” This film was courageous enough to embrace and boldly proclaim this truth, no matter how simple and maybe even childlike and naive it may seem in our cynical, jaded, postmodern world. Yet they didn’t make it darker or more complex. They had the courage to let the TRUTH stand as the TRUTH. Only love can save the world. We all have both light and darkness in our hearts. And we all must make the choice ourselves – no one can do it for us. We must chose love and in so doing we will save the world. So Diana stays, not to fight this fight for us, not to save the world for us, but rather to show us what a life lived courageously in love looks like. She is here to show us how to choose love and what the world can be if we do.
The film is fun, exciting, and inspiring. I still cry at least three times watching it too :). It’s that good! And we are all the better for a film that reminds us of and challenges us with such a profound truth – the most important and world-changing truth there is.
So there you have it folks – my top five favorite comic book movies of all time! Did the featured image throw you? Were you surprised The Avengers was #2? Well I couldn’t give away the big reveal at the top of the post now could I?? Anyway, after all this ruminating on superhero movies I’m off to finalize my pick for the movie I’ll show in class tomorrow. I’ve narrowed it down to four from three…yeah, I know. Wish me luck.