THE THROWDOWN : Stallone vs. Schwarzenegger

Wednesday is Throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects, pit them against each other, and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres, scenes, and more. I’ll make a case for each and then see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new Throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

*Last week Christian Bale (74%) manhandled Michael Keaton (26%) in a Batman battle to the death.*

This week it’s an action movie face-off between the two biggest names of the 80’s. The 80’s and early 90’s were the glory days of the action genre and no one was bigger than Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Forget the critical acclaim, the stuffy Academy Awards, and the overrated importance of good acting. These guys were all about biceps, blood, and bullets. Before they teamed up in the recent “The Expendables” movies, these two had a huge box office rivalry that lasted several years. Now it’s time to settle the big question. Which of these action movie icons is truly the best? Their guns are loaded, their knives are sharpened, and their muscles are flexed. But it’s your votes that will decide the outcome.

STALLONE vs. SCHWARZENEGGER

At 66-years old, Sly Stallone is still kicking bad guy’s butts on the big screen. But then again, he’s been doing it for almost 40 years. His career really took off in 1976 with “Rocky”. But it was “First Blood” and “Rambo: First Blood Part 2” that laid the foundation for what would become an amazing action movie career. He would go on to clean up a psycho cult in “Cobra”, team up with Kurt Russell in “Tango & Cash”, hang from mountain cliffs in “Cliffhanger”, battle baddies in the future with “Demolition Man” and “Judge Dredd”, and rescue survivors trapped in a collapsed tunnel in “Daylight”. He’s also made several more “Rocky” pictures and two more “Rambo” films. He has several new projects ahead but he’ll always be remembered for his incredible run that helped make the action genre so popular.

Arnold Schwarzenegger may have more memorable scenes and memorable one-liners than anyone in cinema history. He also has an action movie resume that’s as impressive as any you will see. This one-time Austrian bodybuilder made a name for himself in the early 80’s with his “Conan” films. But his career really took off when he traded his sword for a gun in the sci-fi classic “The Terminator”. He then cemented his one-man-army status in “Commando” and “Raw Deal”. He would battle an alien threat in the spectacular military sci-fi film “Predator”. He also ventured into the future with “The Running Man” and “Total Recall” before making what is one of the best sequels of all time, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”. He mad several more action films including “True Lies” and another successful “Terminator” flick. This 65-year old has no plans on slowing down and you’ll see him plenty in 2013.

So there’s a case for both. Now you decide who’s the winner. The action movie genre wouldn’t be what it is without the contributions of these two icons. So vote now. Who’s the heavier hitter, Arnie or Sly? You decide!

THE THROWDOWN : Christian Bale vs. Michael Keaton

Wednesday is Throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects and pit them against each other and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres, scenes, and so much more and see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new Throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

This week’s Throwdown is a Bat-Battle to the death between Michael Keaton and Christian Bale. Both of these men wore the cape and the cowl and were undeniably the best that did so. This isn’t measuring which had the better movies. This is all about who was the better Batman and whose performance you liked the best. Forget Kilmer and please, please, please forget Clooney. These two guys WERE Batman. Now you vote and decide who was the best.

BALE vs. KEATON

Christian Bale was a fantastic choice to help revive the Batman franchise after Joel Schumacher’s disastrous “Batman and Robin”. Director Christopher Nolan took Bale and built a more grounded and believable Bruce Wayne and took him through some pretty dark places during his immensely popular trilogy. But it’s Bale’s performance that’s key. He unquestionably gets better and better with each movie and by the end of the trilogy he made the character his own. He also has the physical abilities to sell it all. Bale was a wonderful Batman and there’s an easy argument to make that he’s the best caped crusader to hit the big screen.

It may be easy for some people to dismiss Michael Keaton’s two movie tenure as Gotham’s Caped Crusader. But for those of us who remember standing in line in 1989 to see Tim Burton’s “Batman”, we most certainly appreciate how well the actor embodied Bruce Wayne. I’ve always been a fan of Keaton’s but I wasn’t sure about him taking on this role. He was a pleasant surprise and he’s a key reason that the first film worked so well. He’s a much different Batman that Bale but that’s in large part due to the material. Even in the second picture “Batman Returns”, a movie I’m not crazy about, Keaton shines. He left the role just before the franchise was destroyed but his stint still holds up today.

So who is it? You’ve got two very different actors giving two very different depictions of Batman. Forget their movies. This is about the men behind the masks. Bale or Keaton…your votes decide.

“THE FLOWERS OF WAR” – 4 STARS

“The Flowers of War” is a Chinese war drama based on the Nanjing Massacre during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The stylish and sometimes brutal depiction of the scarring conflict and atrocities was made with a budget of almost $100 million making it the most expensive Chinese film ever made. Director Zhang Yimou’s respectful but straightforward approach to the story gives it quite a powerful punch even though it employs a few conventions that we’ve seen in several other films.

Christian Bale plays John Miller, a boozing American mortician who is hired to bury a priest at a convent in war-ravaged Nanjing. He arrives as the Japanese army is storming the streets catching and executing civilians and the small pockets of the Chinese forces struggling to survive. He narrowly makes it to the convent and performs his duties but we quickly find out that he’s a pretty despicable man. After being told they can’t pay him, he begins rummaging through the church in search of money and later gets drunk after finding the communion wine. But the horrors of the war outside the walls of the church find their way in which sets the table for John’s own personal salvation.  He’s faced with the choice of a self-seeking escape, leaving everyone else behind or staying and doing everything in his power to protect and save the young girls of the convent. 

John isn’t as shallow of a character as the material occasionally makes him look. Sure, he’s a drunken self-centered loser whose redemption is inevitable, but we later find out that there is more to him and his past. We understand his connection to the girls and why he feels the need to stay and protect them. He sees it as his chance to do something right for a change but it also touches on some deep inner feelings that are connected to his past. I really enjoyed watching Bale transform his character on-screen. Bale’s performance is strong, both as the obnoxious jerk and as the new man he becomes. I also bought into his relationship with the girls despite a few inexperienced performances from the young actresses.

Things grow more complicated at the convent when a group of colorful prostitutes bust into the church seeking shelter from the rape and murder going on throughout the city at the hands of the Japanese soldiers. John gives them refuge in the cellar. But the young girls from the convent don’t like them and the prostitutes are almost as self-seeking as John is at first. But we also see the relationship between the two groups go in several different directions which gives us some of the film’s more moving moments. Much like John, the prostitutes aren’t as shallow as they seem and in many ways they seek the same personal redemption that he does. Ni Ni gives a very good performance as Yu Mo, the leader of the prostitutes for lack of a better word. She’s a tough and confident woman who instantly catches John’s eye. One of the remarkable things about Ni Ni is that this is her first film role. Director Yimou wanted someone from Nanjing and Ni Ni won the part.

Yimou’s direction is so good and his visual style permeates every scene. Not only has he directed 20 films but he’s also been involved in cinematography and that certainly contributes to his cleverness with the camera and impressive staging of shots. He also creates a believable gritty and bloody war-torn environment. The shells of the city’s buildings,the debris and rubble, and the gruesome images of corpses lined along the streets all contribute to convey the magnitude of the carnage and destruction to the audience. Yimou also doesn’t shy away from showing the savagery of the Japanese soldiers. There is a brutal rape scene that is truly hard to watch and an attempted mass rape scene that is equally difficult. Yimou kept everything in bounds but it still left me unnerved and shaken. There are also several scenes of war violence that are very well served by his stylistic flare. Now I did feel there were a couple of scenes where the bloodshed was unquestionably gratuitous, but overall it felt perfectly in place.

While the war and the atrocities are a big part of this movie, it’s not the main focus. Yimou has said that love, salvation, and sacrifice were some of the key things he wanted audiences to take from the film. The war was the backdrop which simply revealed the evil side of humanity. But there is good and there is love and that’s what we get as the story unfolds.  The story runs us through an emotional wringer and there are some gut punches along the way. While I concede that there are moments that feel a little contrived and the dialogue sometimes seems artificial and strictly intended to evoke emotion from the viewer, I have to say that the movie worked for me. I recognize its flaws, but I was drawn into this rather unfamiliar territory for me and the interesting dynamics and high stakes kept me enthralled throughout. 

Roger Ebert’s biggest complaint about the movie seemed to be that the story revolved around a white American as the priest. He ends his review by asking “Can you think of any reason the character John Miller is needed to tell his story? Was any consideration given to the possibility of a Chinese priest? Would that be asking for too much?”. I found this to be one of the oddest criticisms hurled at a film in a while. First, the Chinese filmmaking team had a good grasp on the story they wanted to tell and their film was based on a novel which set many of the characters up for them. Second, the fact that John was an American gave him a limited immunity from the Japanese aggression. We see this play a big role in the film on several occasions. So Ebert’s criticism is either grounded in something else or he simply overlooked these key facts.

I can see where this film could be too gruesome for some and too depressing for others. I can see arguments against the movie’s occasional gratuitous violence, the few instances of sub-par acting particularly from the children, and some of the movie’s emotional moments that seem generated solely to get a response from the audience. But I have to admit, while these issues kept “The Flowers of War” from being a great, great movie, they didn’t hinder it from being a very good film that touched me on numerous occasions. The stylistic visuals, Bale’s strong lead performance, and the many heart-wrenching moments that I responded to help make this a very satisfying movie. It’s not easy to watch at times but it’s still good storytelling and one I would have no problem seeing again soon.

THE SHOWDOWN : “The Avengers” vs “The Dark Knight Rises”

Without a doubt the two biggest movies of the year in terms of box office results and expectations has been Disney/Marvel’s “The Avengers” and Warner Bros./DC Comics’ “The Dark Knight Rises”. Both films were two of the most highly anticipated and heavily promoted pictures leading up to their releases. Now both have hit the theaters, made millions of dollars, and have been talked about by critics, geeks, and movie fans from around the globe. But which is the better movie? I thought it would be fun to put the two side-by-side and see who comes out on top. They’ll face off in several categories and we will see who’s standing in the end.

SPECIAL EFFECTS

When judging the special effects, it’s hard to come up with a fair and conclusive winner. Both movies approach their action sequences in significantly different ways. “The Avengers” uses a lot more CGI and much of director Joss Whedon’s vision is dependant on it. What’s truly amazing is that the movie really pulls it off. The massive CGI set pieces are sights to behold and this is easily the best looking Hulk yet to hit the big screen. Director Christopher Nolan chose a more traditional approach to special effects and they are perfect for the movie he was making. While he did use CGI, he relied much more on intense stunt sequences and traditional set designs. Explosions, flipping cars, and large-scale battles make up the thrust of the action. So judging the two by the same standard is impossible. Therefore I’ll just go by the impressive scope of the vision that’s brought to life on-screen through the effects. WINNER – “The Avengers”

SCORE

Both films have booming, energetic scores but take two very different approaches. I’m a huge fan of Alan Silvestri and he certainly delivers a solid score in “The Avengers”. It works nicely alongside of the action sequences and it’s never overdone or out-of-place. But perhaps the one negative is that I don’t remember one detail about it. Scores that have really resonated with me have also stuck with me. Hans Zimmer’s powerful score in “The Dark Knight Rises” stuck with me on several occasions. His score is ever-present and some have had problems with that. But I found it gives a cinematic pop to so many of the action sequences and in other instances really builds the intensity. His use of familiar tunes from the earlier films are perfectly used and at times had me wanting to pump my fist. Nolan may overuse the score some, but for me it really made an impression. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

ACTING

One thing both movies were blessed with were remarkable casts. The fantastic collection of actors and actresses give both movies huge dramatic lifts and when combined provide one impressive list of talent. “The Avengers” is led by Robert Downey, Jr.’s razor-sharp, wise-cracking performance that only he could deliver. The movie also introduces Mark Ruffalo who undeniably gives us the best Bruce Banner yet and Jeremy Renner who is wonderful but underused. And then throw in Tom Hiddleston and his Oscar worthy performance as Loki. But while “The Avengers” has a great cast, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a much heavier and more dramatic picture which gives it’s equally phenomenal cast a broader range of material to work with. Christian Bale gives his best performance of the entire series. Gary Oldman is simply perfect as Gordon. Anne Hathaway makes her series debut and really surprises. Tom Hardy is wonderfully brutal. And of course there’s Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They’re given much more to do and they each shine. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

VILLAIN

Both movies have fantastic villains but also very different villains. “The Avengers” finds the heroes up against the mischievious meddler Loki. While he’s not that intimidating in stature, Loki manages all sorts of chaos through manipulation and trickery. But what really makes Loki so impressive is Tom Hiddleston. Without a doubt he is having a blast with the character and he carries over his great work in “Thor”. He makes Loki a viable threat and an incredibly fun villain to watch.

In “The Dark Knight Rises”, Bane is an entirely different creation. Tom Hardy stars as the intelligent but psychotic brute who intimidates more through violence and force than mischief. Bane is a vicious presence and he’s stands out in every scene he’s in. Hardy’s physicality helps give the fight scenes a gritty realism and his swagger shows his fearlessness. From the first scene he’s in, you know that Bane is a villain not to be messed with. So both movies feature villains that are very different yet equally menacing and ultimately engaging. WINNER – DRAW

STORY/WRITING

Both movies feature some outstanding writing. “The Avengers” is faced with the task of taking a handful of earlier films and bringing them and their characters together in a good, cohesive way. It’s a daunting task and Joss Whedon makes it work. He makes “The Avengers” a climax movie that all of the individual superhero pictures were building up to. He also manages his large cast wonderfully. Another strong point with Whedon is the fantastic injection of humor throughout the picture. There are some truly laugh-out-loud moments and Whedon is respectful of the material but never takes it too seriously. It’s really well done.

On the other hand, Christopher Nolan is an incredible storyteller with his own unique visual presentation. His movies are generally more complex and layered and often times he challenges his audience. “The Dark Knight Rises” is no different. The story twists and turns and Nolan injects it with just the right amount of action and intensity. He also does a fine job of connecting it with the previous film as well as wrapping up his trilogy with a near perfect ending. Nolan doesn’t dumb things down and gives us a glorious and rousing ending to what is arguably one of the greatest trilogies in film history. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

AMBITION

With “The Dark Knight Rises”, Christopher Nolan finishes his spectacular vision of Batman and his universe. It’s most certainly an ambitious film. Nolan introduces new characters, connects us to the previous film, gives us an evil and brutal new villain, tells another deep and satisfying story, and wraps the entire series up, all in one film. It’s quite a vision. For Joss Whedon the task was quite possibly tougher and more ambitious. As mentioned above, Marvel had created several individual superhero franchises and each pointed to the Avengers project. “The Avengers” movie was a culmination of all of those movies and characters and Whedon had to bring it all together – a tricky job. A movie that ambitious had so many things that could have gone wrong but instead we were given one of the best times at the theaters this year. WINNER – “The Avengers”

DIRECTION

Both Joss Whedon and Christopher Nolan had the advantage of directing material that they were instrumental in creating. As writers, they had strong and distinct visions for their movies which carried over into their direction. Whedon wonderfully visualizes his wild superhero world, creates some astonishing action sequences, and nicely utilizes his great cast. Whedon draws everything together with an almost seamless result. Nolan is also a visual storyteller and his style is evident from the opening scene. Again, he is directing much weightier and more layered material and his ability to translate it on-screen so vividly is a testament to his rock solid direction. While “The Avengers” is sharply directed and a huge accomplishment, “The Dark Knight Rises” does go down more challenging roads, features a more hands-on approach to its action, and requires a more complex use of its characters. Nolan’s direction is spot-on. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

CONCLUSION

Both movies are exceptional examples of why the superhero genre is a legitimate form of cinematic entertainment. These are movies that aren’t just seeking box office numbers and millions of dollars. These are two strong movies with great storytelling, amazing special effects, phenomenal casts, and writers/directors that not only care for their projects, but put a great deal into making them the best movies they can be. But out of the two, “The Dark Knight Rises”…well…rises to the top. The deeper more layered story, the extremely high stakes, the more realistic grounding, and the wonderful way it wraps up Christopher Nolan’s Batman vision give it the edge over Joss Whedon’s fine film. Both films met some really high expectations, but for me “The Dark Knight Rises” was a better film that I will still be talking about for a long time.

THE OVERALL WINNER

REVIEW: “The Dark Knight Rises”

The superhero genre has been going strong for several years now and I’ve been wondering when was it going to run out of steam. At what point was the quality of the films going to suffer leading audiences to say enough is enough? In 2005 Christopher Nolan made a great contribution to the genre with “Batman Begins”. He followed it up with 2008′ s phenomenal “The Dark Knight”, a film that was not only one of the best sequels ever made but a demonstrative statement showing that superhero films can be legitimate and powerful forms of cinematic entertainment.

That brings us to “The Dark Knight Rises” the final film of Christopher Nolan’s Batman run and the end of what could easily go down as one of the best movie trilogies in motion picture history. “The Dark Knight Rises” is smart, layered, gritty, moving, and action-packed. Nolan not only wraps up his series in a competent and satisfying way, he gives us one of the most potent and energetic movie experiences you’ll find – a near perfect mix of comic book action, socially reflective drama, and expert storytelling. If these are the kinds of films we could get regularly from the superhero genre, I see no limit to their lifespans.

This film takes place 8 years after Batman rode off into the shadows at the end of “The Dark Knight”. Batman is a fugitive, unjustly but willingly, wanted for the murder of Harvey Dent. There have been no Batman sightings during this time and crime in Gotham City has declined due to an inspired city leadership and law enforcement armed with the Dent Act. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a hobbled recluse, spending all of his time in a closed off wing of Wayne Manor where long-time family friend and faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) is his only contact with the outside world. Gotham has become lethargic in its approach to crime and peace time has made the city leaders careless. Everyone except commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a devoted young patrolman. With their guard down, the city is hit head-on by a brutal but calculated terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy). Bane’s destructive assault on Gotham cripples the city and as all-out anarchy takes hold, the need for Batman is greater than ever.

Morgan Freeman also returns as Lucius Fox, Bruce Wayne’s close friend and acting president of Wayne Enterprises. Fox is struggling to keep the company afloat following the poor position Bruce left him in. In addition to Hardy and Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway joins the series as Selina Kyle, a cat burglar who steals out of Robin Hood-like motivations but also with a single more direct purpose in mind. Also new to the cast is Marion Cotillard. She plays Miranda Tate, a Wayne Enterprises board member and philanthropist with a great interest in green energy technology and Wayne’s investments into it. Matthew Modine plays Deputy Peter Foley, a spineless officer who is more interested in making a name for himself by catching Batman than stopping the coming storm at the hands of Bane. We also get Ben Mendelsohn as a slimy self-serving Wayne board member with his hands in deeper in than they should be.

Nolan takes this amazing collection of acting talent and throws them all into his smorgasbord of plot lines and dramatic twists. But he never loses control of the film and everything comes together in an extremely satisfying way. Nolan incorporates several relevent and current issues into the story, none more prevalent than the entire class warfare theme. Selina has a very anti-rich people mindset seeing the wealthy as a key cause to society’s ills. Bane himself seeks to take the power out of the hands of the wealthy, the local government, and law enforcement and give it to the poor and downtrodden. But Nolan doesn’t sugarcoat or promote anything. In fact he shows where an extreme and unbridled class warfare position can lead. Some may say that his presentation is heavy-handed but I felt it worked perfectly in the greater context of the story.

Nolan and his brother Jonathan wrote the screenplay and even with the heavy exposition in the first 30 minutes – clearly intended to fill the audience in on what has transpired during the missing 8 years – the movie moves at a crisp and fluid pace. As with all of Nolan’s pictures, there are layers of story that unfold to reveal deeper meanings and cool dramatic twists that should please both comic book fanboys and lovers of good storytelling. He doesn’t dumb things down nor does he ever patronize the audience. The film sets the table for us then causes us to attentively hang on for dear life – a most pleasing challenge. Much like “The Dark Knight” there are no shortcuts here. The film isn’t just a loud summer studio comic book adaptation. It’s brilliant cinematic storytelling that takes a superhero concept, laces it with a true sense of reality, and presents it to us in a beautifully crafted package. Another example of why Christopher Nolan is one of our best directors and visual storytellers.

I’ve mentioned the cast but they deserve more than just a few words. Bale IS Batman and this is his strongest work of the entire series. We see him as a broken and vulnerable man as well as the growling caped crusader. Bale has no problems relaying either to the audience. Anne Hathaway is also very good as Catwoman (even though she’s never called Catwoman) and while I wasn’t certain she completely belonged in Nolan’s more realistic Batman universe, he never overdoes the character and Hathaway sells her well. Tom Hardy will undoubtedly face comparisons to Heath Ledger’s Joker from the last film but that’s terrible unfair. The two villains couldn’t be more different and Hardy’s Bane easily stands on his own. Hardy spends the entire film behind a mask but his body language and brute swagger makes him a most menacing villain. Gary Oldman is fantastic as always as was the lovely Marion Cotillard. Michael Caine is wonderful and has some of the best exchanges with Bale. Unfortunately he disappears in the second half of the film. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to prove he is a solid young actor. Perhaps the only weak spot was with Matthew Modine who I never really bought into. His character only adds one small thing to the story and Modine never makes him all that compelling or interesting.

Technically “The Dark Knight Rises” is the jaw-dropper I expected it to be. Nolan’s stylistic flare and incredible camera work do a great job of capturing the panic and dread of a city under siege. The special effects are stunning and the action sequences are big and boisterous. Nolan gives us some new Batman toys as well as some old favorites and they’re used in several cool crowd-pleasing ways. I also loved the fight choreography. You know by the trailer that there is going to be a Bane and Batman showdown and Nolan builds it up with undeniable intensity. Then when the payoff comes, we aren’t hampered by herky-jerky camera movements. Instead Nolan lets the fights take place without any fancy gimmicks. It was incredibly satisfying. I also loved Hans Zimmer’s score. Some have voiced dislike for his ever-present pounding music but it worked for me. I felt it contributed to the intensity that the film is going for just as Zimmer’s scores have done for the previous two Batman movies.

“The Dark Knight Rises” once again plunges the people of Gotham and us into the depths of fear and dread while examining evil and the darker side of society. Yet the film always allows us hope. This is certainly another dark story but the stakes are high and the ending is exceptional and rewarding and the perfect goodbye to a phenomenal trilogy. I wanted to stand and applaud. The film stretches the boundaries of the comic book genre. It’s large in scale, full of story, and absolutely engrossing throughout it’s almost 3 hour running time. “The Dark Knight Rises” is far more than simply great. It’s a modern classic featuring mesmerizing performances, fist-pumping action, and genuine intelligence. It’s a visual spectacle. It’s emotionally and intellectually stimulating. It’s a text book lesson on the melding of big budget flamboyance with smart and challenging storytelling. It’s hard to accept that this is Nolan’s final Batman film but he has given us a gift – a groundbreaking series of films capped by a truly glorious finale. What a ride it’s been and what a way to end it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

5 PHENOMENAL SUPERHERO MOVIES

You may have heard that a little movie called “The Avengers” hits theaters this Friday. In honor of this highly anticipated, sure to be blockbuster I thought it would be fun to spend some time this week looking at the hugely popular superhero genre. I’m doing two Phenomenal 5 lists this week starting with 5 Phenomenal Superhero Movies. Now with the title “superhero” my intentions are to stay within the comic book arena. Since the genre has grown there are many movies to choose from. But these are five that made the cut for me. As always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no doubt that these 5 superhero movies are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “X-MEN” (2000)

Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” should be thanked for its role in relaunching superhero movies into the popular money-makers they are today. Here Singer does a great job of introducing the team and effectively laying the groundwork for what the team was all about. Another great thing is the fun casting. Patrick Stewart is absolutely perfect as Charles Xavier and Hugh Jackman stole the show with his portrayal of Wolverine. Ian McKellen, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, and Halle Berry are also well cast. While some of the dialogue is a little clunky, the story is well written and even though dealing with some heavier underlying themes it doesn’t take itself to seriously. “X-Men” spawned two sequels, neither as good as the first film. But “X-Men” is a movie I can watch anytime.

#4 – “SPIDER-MAN” 2 (2004)

I really enjoyed the first Spider-Man film but this was a case where the sequel was better than it’s predecessor. With the constraints of an origin story behind him, director Sam Raimi puts together a sharp, action-packed story pitting Peter Parker (Tobey Mcguire) against Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina). The character development and story progression is very well done, the production design is at a higher level, and the movie as a whole is much more polished. Molina is fantastic and the special effects are a blast. The train scene alone is worth the price of admission. Unfortunately the third movie flew completely off the rails instead of building on the success of this film. But “Spider-Man” 2 remains a great example of how to make a really good sequel.

#3 –BATMAN BEGINS” (2005)

When I heard Christopher Nolan had signed on to do “Batman Begins” I was immediately intrigued. Batman is my favorite comic book hero and I was still bitter at how Joel Schumacher had left the previous Batman franchise in shambles. How happy I was to see Nolan not only successfully reboot the franchise but develop an enthralling film that captured the fun elements of a comic book movie as well as a darker and more fitting tone for the Batman character. Christian Bale is great as Bruce Wayne and Gary Oldman is the perfect Jim Gordon. Throw in Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman and you have a brilliant cast that perfectly fits Nolan’s vision. “Batman Begins” is not only a really good movie, but it sets the foundation for what has been an incredible franchise so far.

#2 – “IRON MAN” (2008)

I remember when I first heard that an Iron Man movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. was coming soon. I didn’t see how on earth Downy, Jr. could play the role of Tony Stark and I pretty much doomed the movie to failure. Not only was I wrong about the movie but I have no problem saying that Robert Downey, Jr. IS Tony Stark! “Iron Man” is a well crafted and incredibly well written movie that rides Downey, Jr.’s performance. It takes a second tier Marvel superhero and catapults him into the lead role of the upcoming Avengers film. There’s some fun supporting work from Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Terrence Howard and some jaw-dropping special effects. “Iron Man” is a brilliant franchise-launching origin story and a super fun action popcorn picture. It’s incredibly well done and Robert Downey, Jr. is a blast to watch.

#1 – “THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008)

“The Dark Knight” is the second movie in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and I have no problem calling it the best superhero / comic book movie of all time. But it can’t be confined to just the superhero genre. It’s an incredible film that can stand its ground against any movie from any genre. Nolan’s vision takes Bruce Wayne and Gotham City down a much darker and more violent path with the introduction of The Joker played by Heath Ledger. Ledger gives a stunning and unforgettable performance that won him the posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Nolan’s direction is near perfect and his slick style is evident throughout the film. The special effects are very well done and Hans Zimmer’s score is a perfect fit. Bale, Oldman, Freeman, and Caine all return and Aaron Eckhart makes a great Harvey Dent. “The Dark Knight” is a comic book movie but one that never strays to far from reality. It’s dark and intense but it’s also an exercise in precision filmmaking. It’s a movie that legitimizes the superhero genre and one of my favorite movies of all time.

There you have it. What do you think of my list? See a glaring omission? What are you favorite superhero movies?