It’s bound to be a big summer for superhero movies. The Avengers has already proved a runaway hit and a mainstream coup for Joss Whedon, while Christopher Nolan will almost certainly rake in cash by the truckful for The Dark Knight Rises. But it seems that even when comic book movies are good, they regurgitate such a set formula that I get little from them other than a passing thrill. Small wonder, then, that with a few exceptions, my favorite entries in the subgenre are not the gargantuan, CGI-filled blockbusters but the more idiosyncratic, occasionally auteurist pieces. So to commemorate the impending reboot of one franchise and the culmination of another, here are five less-loved superhero pictures that I love long after the hype (or backlash) fades.
5. Punisher: War Zone (Lexi Alexander, 2008)
Absurdly mishandled by its studio and positioned as the annual anti-Christmas holiday release, Punisher: War Zone was doomed to failure because it takes its subject to such an extreme that it feels like an open war on the crop of self-serious blockbusters. This is a response to The Dark Knight, not Four Christmases. Vividly color-filtered, unrealistically ultraviolent and deliberately ridiculous, Alexander’s movie at once breaks ground for handing off an R-rated superhero movie to a woman and goes one further by having that woman sabotage the macho elements of her subject matter. Then again, she’s also remarkably faithful to the tone of some Punisher comics, in many cases merely translating the OTT action of the page to the screen without alteration. It also boasts a fantastically game cast, with Rome’s Ray Stevenson speaking even less than Schwarzenegger in The Terminator as the anti-hero and Dominic West sporting an unexpectedly poignant brotherly love with Doug Hutchison. That the former is disfigured into a Frankenstein-like monster and the latter is a psychopathic cannibal is beside the point. A wonderfully sardonic check to the post-Nolan world of needlessly “gritty” and “real” comic book movies.
4. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Neveldine/Taylor, 2012)
I’ll never forget the usher’s disappointed face when he tore my ticket for Ghost Rider 2, nor how much fun I and the smattering of others willing to brave this collision of Nic Cage and Neveldine/Taylor had whooping it up in a near-empty theater. Even so, the film felt heavily compromised compared to the freewheeling displays of the Crank movies and Gamer, and I walked away wondering what might have been had the filmmaking pair truly been given carte blanche. A few rewatches later, though, and I’ve swiftly recanted: it still doesn’t match up to Crank 2 or Gamer, but there’s an inventiveness here with next to no resources and a peevish spirit that breaks radically with convention. Stylistic flourishes like fights set against inky voids or a repeated pillow shot of the hero literally pissing fire continue to link the directors to the corrosive mainstream sabotage of Seijun Suzuki, who worked with similarly popular genres and produced challenging, surreal masterpieces. Most importantly, this is a rare film made by people who “get” Nicolas Cage, and his performance gets more fun with each viewing.
3. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Guillermo De Toro, 2008)
Linking Ghost Rider 2 and De Toro’s sequel to his own 2004 Hellboy is a preference for physicality and tangibility over hyperinflated CGI. But Del Toro is working on a much larger scale, and his ability to use real objects except where CGI is the only choice is downright thrilling. I was not entirely infatuated with this back in 2008, loving its humor and visuals but finding the story derivative. Since then, superhero movies have worked overtime to teach me the meaning of that word, so the Tolkienesque narrative here no longer grates, while the immaculate, imaginative design proves a far cry from the tedious likes of Iron Man or even the supposedly eye-popping Thor. Also contains maybe the best line in superhero film: “I’m not a baby, I’m a tumor.”
2. Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)
Certainly the most high profile film on my list, but also one I find unjustly maligned. Simply put, before Sleepy Hollow, this was Tim Burton’s ultimate virtuosic display. Like Scorsese’s occasional stylistic palate cleansers (After Hours, Casino, Shutter Island), Batman Returns packs every trick, trope and theme its maker can think of into one mass of insanity. That Burton would do this with the follow-up for his wildly popular first entry in the Batman film franchise is the sort of hubris that directors only got the briefest chance to exploit in the early ‘90s. A literal take on both the Penguin and Catwoman, gnarled Expressionist designs, and a giant rubber duck combine into what seems more a live staging of Halloweentown and Christmas town from A Nightmare Before Christmas than a Batman movie. It’s gaudy, nonsensical, and more than a little insulting to fans of the comic. It’s also brilliant.
1. Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003)
The antipathy toward Ang Lee’s take on the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde of comics was made even sillier by the far more welcome reception afforded to Louis Leterrier’s 2008 embarrassment of a quasi-reboot. That film gave audiences only the simple, smashing behemoth, with only perfunctory flecks of any of Bruce Banner’s tragedy. Lee’s film, by contrast, cares most for the psychological issues manifested by Banner’s green counterpart. Using an editing scheme that visualizes comic book panel flow, Lee ably jazzes up otherwise static shots and adds an arty touch to action sequences. If the CGI doesn’t look great, it fares no worse than the 2008 version, which is more detailed but no less ridiculous. It’s not for nothing that when Joss Whedon tackled the Hulk as part of his Avengers, he chiefly used Lee’s David-era-derived work as the emotional basis for Mark Ruffalo’s Banner and the 2008 smash-em-up as fodder for parody.