DVD Patrol: Our favorite superhero movies

tories always come from somewhere. Whether it’s on the printed page of a good book, a newspaper telling you the events of the day (something my colleagues know something about), or reading what the latest superhero is doing in the latest comic book. Now superheroes have another advantage. Studios have discovered that these larger than life characters can tell a good story in a live action setting. Your leader, the Toddster, has brought the Patrol crew in to let us in on their favorite movies and what their heroes do to fight for truth and justice. Up, up, and away we go!!


“Superman II” - 1980

It’s rare that a sequel is even better than its predecessor (there’s a hint at one of our future Toddster teamups), but I dare say a shining example of that is “Superman II,” released in 1980 as a sequel to the blockbuster “Superman” of 1978, a movie that single-handedly made the superhero genre popular with mainstream movie audiences. 

While the first big screen installment of The Man of Steel had a great villain in Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, “Superman II” steps it up in triplicate – as our boy from Krypton (Christopher Reeve) faces off against not one, not two, but three villains from his extraterrestrial past – otherworldly criminals General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sara Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran). 

Rushing to save the citizens of Paris threatened by terrorists threatening to blow up the Eiffel Tower, Superman foils their plot and hurls the hydrogen bomb into space, where, unbeknownst to him, it shatters the “Phantom Zone” – the extradimensional prison created for the Kryptonian threesome by his own father, Jor-El. 

While the fearsome threesome relish in their new-found freedom and new superpowers thanks to Earth’s atmosphere, our hero decides to forsake his own preternatural abilities for – what else – true love. Looks like bumbling Clark Kent (Supes’ alter ego) may finally seal the deal with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, every bit as brash and sassy as she was in the first film). But it’s not long before the Kryptonian criminals hook up with ne’er-do-well Lex Luthor and return to their life of crime, wreaking havoc on this new planet with abilities on par with Superman’s.

Of course Kal-El returns to the action to defend the Earth from his father’s sworn enemies, and in the process leaps into one of the best action-adventure films of all time – culminating in a memorable Times Square showdown with the Phantom Zone escapees. Terence Stamp bleeds evil as any good movie villain should, but my favorite was always the slinkily sexy Ursa, played to perfection by Ms. Douglas, who went on to a similar role on TV’s “Falcon Crest,” only without the superpowers and S&M wardrobe.

As sequels go, “Superman II” has it all – action, romance, adventure, character development, new twists and turns – all while improving upon, but not forgetting, the original.


“X-Men” -  2000

The Marvel Comics title, X-Men originated about 40 years ago – one of the many fabulous superhero comics created by Stan Lee. It was around the eighth grade that I immersed myself in the comic book world. A good friend of mine, Jim Dennis, was an avid collector of comic books, and he would often bring in a few titles for his friends to read during our school-mandated silent reading period. I soon was enamored of all things Marvel, especially the assemblage of mutants that made up the X-Men.

As any X-Men fan knows, these characters do not fall into the stereotypical hero roles. These are tortured souls with their own personal issues. They are cast-outs from society, and much of society view mutants – good, bad or indifferent – as the enemy. In the process of gaining acceptance and learning how to live in the real world, Professor Xavier’s School for Mutants will occasionally take a break from classes to save the world.

This amalgamation of characters was introduced on the big screen in 2000, and we mostly see the development and origins of the main cast. Along the way, conflicts ensue between Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and his deranged father Sabertooth. We see them makings of a romantic love triangle, again with Wolverine in the middle of Cyclops and Jean Grey, and X-Men leader Xavier (Patrick Stewart) embodies all that is good, while Magneto (Ian McKellan) heads a less-than-peaceful mutant group called the Brotherhood of Mutants.

Too many times, Hollywood will sacrifice the integrity of an adapted screenplay to move the plot along quicker. In this case, few sacrifices were made, and the first of the series of X-Men pictures stays true to the comic book. Seeing one of my favorite comic books come to life on the big screen brought back fond memories of my youth, and I have looked forward to each subsequent sequel.


“Watchmen” - 2009

There are graphic themes to comic books and their mythologies that rarely grace the theater screen. Being an enthusiast of the sub culture super hero world, I’ve watched one disappointing film after another sell off the founding comic’s controversial ideology for fast action and plots more marketable to the mainstream. X-Men has long been a dramatic story of Magneto (Malcolm X) and Xavier (Martin Luther King) founded on a backdrop of growing government control and public fear over mutants. Spiderman is lonely tale of a man cursed by his need to make a difference at his own personal expense. Power and responsibility is his failing tragedy. In the comic the Green Goblin kills Spidey’s love interest, though the movie felt this wasn’t a happy enough ending. A shout out to Dark Knight for getting the Joker right – in the comics he’s a blood-soaked sadistic psychopath who always seems to make a Zen kind of insane sense.

So when I first saw a trailer for the “Watchmen” flick, I thought “Wow, they’re willing to make a movie about any B-reel super hero to make a buck.” A lot of them looked like rip-offs of more popular comics, to boot. Imagine my surprise when I watched for the first time a movie that completely embodied the very humanistic struggles and controversies I remember captivating me in my childhood comics. It’s easy to be a good guy against obvious evil, but great comics put good heroes at odds with some tough moral choices and create a degree of sympathy for a not-so- evil villain. That was exactly what “Watchman” aimed to do.

Mixing the historical exaggerations of the post Vietnam era with an over politicized group of superheroes in a time of great public controversy eliminated all definitive black and white lines and created a backdrop of gray motivations. It’s something we can all relate to far more than pure righteousness ... and a good connection with a hero is where most geek fascinations begin. Another great sign of a great comic is the ending. Some would expect a triumphant final scene, but rarely are comics so pure. More often they close on positive notes of contemplation and a degree of sadness. Again applause to “Watchmen” for doing exactly that. 

Each character in the movie shares their own conflicting values system and has a great degree of varying powers. In the end, the good guys get fed up with both society and government and follow their own path to achieve a clear conscience, which is what it would probably take for any hero to hit the streets. 


“Batman Begins” - 2005

As an avid comic book collector, and reader, I had a difficult time nailing down my choice for a superhero movie to review, but in the end I had to go with the Christopher Nolan directed “Batman Begins,” which chronicles the early years of Bruce Wayne’s training, eventually leading the billionaire playboy to create the Batman persona.

There are two reasons that I’ve always been drawn to this character, and this flick addresses both of them. First, unlike most superheroes, Bruce Wayne (played brilliantly by Christian Bale) doesn’t dress up as the Batman, the Batman dresses up as Bruce Wayne. Second, the Batman doesn’t have any superhuman abilities, a distinction I’ve always found refreshing.

When a young Bruce Wayne loses his parents to violence, he is forever changed by the experience. At first he seeks vengeance against his family’s murderer, yet when robbed of his chance, he proceeds to delve into the psyche of the criminal element, which in turn leads him to train as a ninja with a secret organization led by the infamous Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson). But when Bruce learns that his involvement with the group will lead to the destruction of his native Gotham City, he revolts and escapes back home.

The transformation that follows is riveting and portrayed wonderfully by an excellent cast and talented directing. Gary Oldman cast as Police Sergeant Jim Gordon (who later becomes commissioner) was a wise choice, as fans of the cinema have become accustomed to Oldman cast as a villain. Morgan Freeman plays a respectable Lucius Fox, and Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth (the gentleman’s gentleman) was a no-brainer. Cillian Murphy, while not amazing, does a credible job as Dr. Jonathan Crane, AKA The Scarecrow.

What follows is a tense, action-filled treat for the senses, and one that stays away from the campy Batman films of the 80’s and 90’s (although the first, Tim Burton directed Batman was great in its time). Not only did this reboot impress me with it’s dark, emotional portrayal of the Batman, it sets up perfectly for the 2008 sequel “The Dark Knight,” which is also a must-see for all superhero fans.


“Iron Man” - 2008

Comic books are a gold mine for the motion picture industry. All of those complex characters and intriguing plot lines laid out in story board form, just waiting there for some intrepid movie exec to snap them up. With today’s special effects and the A-list celebs eager to tie their name to such projects, they are practically guaranteed to be blockbusters. Especially since legions of fans start queuing up at the box office and making room in their memorabilia cases for all that licensed merchandise at the merest hint that their favorite comic is on its way to the silver screen.

I myself am a huge fan of this genre of film, even though I’m hardly a comic book aficionado. They just have it all! Heaps of action and drama, and the perfect amount of humor and romance to entertain. And good and evil are always clearly defined. (Which in a gray on gray world like ours, is really refreshing.)

On my list of favorites in this category - and believe me, it’s a long one - is Iron Man. I was blown away by the 2008 summer blockbuster, despite the fact that I could have cared less about the comic book version of Tony Stark, that billionaire playboy and industrialist who starts using his engineering genius and hefty bank account to save the world. Just for funsies.

I thought Robert Downey Jr. was phenomenal as Stark, a man who “has everything, but nothing” until he finds himself on the brink of death in the war-torn Middle East. A war he helped to perpetuate with weapons created by his very own Stark Industries. Held captive in a remote cave by a group of zealots, Stark has an existential crisis – as well as a scientific breakthrough – of epic proportions. He engineers his escape with the help of the wise and willing Yinsen (Shaun Toub) and returns to his former life determined to right the wrongs of his company.

Clad in the less-than-subtle gold and crimson suit he designs, and with his faithful assistant by his side (the feisty Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow), Iron Man finds himself up against an unexpected enemy: his former mentor, Obadiah Stane.

With the help of a secret government organization, S.H.I.E.L.D, Iron Man defeats his nemesis. And leaves it wide open for a sequel, “Iron Man 2.” Which, incidentally, I was mentally preparing to queue up for almost before the credits had finished rolling on the first installment.


“Iron Man 2” - 2010

Being the Toddster that I am, I can’t nail down any one superhero movie that I liked. I like all of them. Taking a page out of the Jeffmeister’s playbook, I’m going to kill two birds with one stone. I decided to include a new superhero movie and it’s “Iron Man 2.” When I was a kid, I would always take comics to school and my teachers didn’t feel it was adequate reading material. My mother would go to a parent/teacher conference and they would express their concern. It was no surprise that I read and spelled better than anyone in the class.

One of my favorite characters was Iron Man and I loved reading the books. Imagine my surprise when it came time to finally make a movie. Until a few years ago, Hollywood had a knack for getting the stories wrong and not doing the story justice. All of that has changed. The first “Iron Man” movie was fantastic and the time would come when a sequel was just around the corner. “Iron Man 2” has arrived. 

Going in I was a bit worried, but they did an incredible job. They didn’t spend so much time on the backstory. This one just continues on and opens up the world of Iron Man even more with Robert Downey Jr. bringing more to the table and his performance. He’s in for a fight this time as a new enemy Whiplash (Mickey Rourke ) tries to come in to kill him. Also, the U.S Government wants to step in and take Tony’s armor for an all new weapon. He gets some help from some new and old allies including War Machine (Don Cheadle), The Black Widow (Scarlet Johannsen), and his girl Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). It’s also quite possible that his armor may be killing him. How will Tony deal with this? 

This movie just adds to the list of really good superhero movies and opens the field of more characters to take their turn on the big screen including Thor and Captain America in 2011. In 2012, the Avengers is scheduled to hit the theater teaming Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Cap, and Thor. Hollywood has really discovered that heroes can tell a good story and it’s something people really want to see. “Iron Man 2”  is definitely on my list.

Within the next two years, more characters including Batman, a new Superman movie, and one of my favorites for next year will be Green Lantern coming into theaters. Before we go, our special review column will be here next time with more on everyone’s favorite Golden Avenger and a few that the Toddster may have liked or disliked. What will it be? Join us and see! The Toddster shall return.

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