One of the most asked and debated questions in the cinephile community is “What movies should I own in my DVD collection?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself, so I did as any writer does and decided to make my own list of essential movies one should have in their DVD collection. Notice the words ‘dvd collection’; I’m talking hard copies here. And it’s worth mentioning that these are not the only five movies one should have in your collection; nor is it in any way saying you have to own all five.
My aim with this series is to hopefully introduce you to some essential films you may never have heard of or, even better, cause you to reevaluate the ones you have seen. Lists are useful for helping broaden one’s base of knowledge, organizing one’s thoughts, and starting a discussion, after all.
Each entry in this article series will revolve around a specific genre or topic. Because (thankfully) movies are constantly being made, I had to set a cut-off date. What I consider The Essentials will be made up of films released before 2015.
These are the top five comic book movies that I believe to be essential to your collection. You will notice few if any of the modern Marvel or DC movies on this list. That is because while they are fun and slickly produced I find few if any of them really any good artistically or interesting beyond the spectacle. Some of my gripes about the current state of comic book movies have been assuaged by current entries such as Wonder Woman or Spider-Man: Homecoming. But again the cut-off date is 2015, so they are ineligible.
Again, these are not all the essential movies, just some of them.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army – (2008) Dir. Guillermo del Toro
Stylistically and tone Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a much more playful comic book movie than we’re used to. It is much more interested in Hellboy (Ron Pearlman), Liz (Selma Blair), and Abe (Doug Jones) and how they relate to each other than the impending doom of human civilization. The bulk of Hellboy II: The Golden Army concerns itself with Abe discovering love with Princess Nuala (Anna Walton) while Hellboy and Liz are reconciling impending parenthood both within themselves and with each other.
Del Toro’s visual style is some of the most hauntingly beautiful in modern cinema. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is lush, dark, and real. The beauty is in the monsters and demon of the world Hellboy, and his companions inhabit. There’s an inventiveness contrasted with a blue-collar sensibility that sets the Hellboy series apart from other comic book movies. The creatures in del Toro’s universe are lovingly crafted but also feel organic and natural.
Not since Christopher Reeve donned blue tights and a cape has a marriage of an actor and a character been so perfect as Ron Perlman’s Hellboy. Pearlman has one of the great faces of cinema, and del Toro allows the makeup to enhance it not hide it. Hellboy II: The Golden Army isn’t perfect but it’s sincere, fun, beautiful, and it loves its characters. It loves them so much it allows them to get drunk off cheap beer and croon along to Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You.” It has nothing to do with the Golden Army and everything to do with its characters. Its beauty lies in its simplicity.
Batman – (1989) Dir. Tim Burton
One of the few comic book movies to owe almost nothing to Richard Donner’s Superman is Tim Burton’s Batman. Its also one of the few entries in the genre marked by ‘the studio is the auteur’ as a unique and almost wholly original vision of the artist. Burton’s version of the caped crusader is a stylistic whirligig of epic proportions. It’s important to note that Burton’s Batman is less an adaptation of Batman of DC comics and more of an adaptation of the Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s 1960’s Batman television show with Adam West.
Michael Keaton’s Batman is the most fully human iteration to date despite all the wackiness around him. Keaton imbues his Bruce Wayne with the full gamut of human emotions. He’s also capable of forming relationships or at the very least seems comfortable with one night stands. Keaton’s Batman is a fully functional adult who just so happens to dress up like a Bat to fight crime. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a master class of nuanced overacting. He steals almost every scene he’s in. The exception is the scenes with Keaton. The two play off each other beautifully and have a crackling chemistry as they verbally spar back and forth.
If there’s a flaw to Batman, it’s the same tragic flaw of almost every comic book movie in the flat dead eye woman of male interest. Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale is given precious little to do but to vamp and preen across the screen. She’s more vacuous male gaze than human. This is not Basinger’s fault but the fault of Burton and his screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren.
Tim Burton showed us that camp need not be detrimental to drama or action. That a certain level of archness can be beneficial to making a comic book movie. Christopher Nolan came along and demanded everyone took these absurd characters seriously and plunged them into a grimdark purgatory. Burton smirked and showed us that you could be serious, dark, fun, and whimsical, without sacrificing one for the other.
Superman – (1978) Dir. Richard Donner
Richard Donner’s Superman is not a perfect movie, but it is one of the most lasting and influential comic book movies ever made. We are almost forty years later, and Donner’s shadow still lingers over any iteration of the last son of Krypton. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man may have ushered in the modern era of superhero/comic book movies, but it was Donner’s Superman who provided the light to show us the way.
More than almost any other actor Christopher Reeve as Superman was the perfect marriage of character and actor. There’s a moral confidence in his Clark Kent that’s lacking in other iterations. A north star of certainty and belief that we can be better. For crying out loud, he waves goodbye to Lois Lane as he flies away. Margot Kidder’s Lois is more human and vulnerable than her counterparts. She has a stunning Metropolis apartment but has bills and is constantly ditching Clark so she can chase a story. She doesn’t wait around for anyone or anything.
Donner chose a sort of magical realism for the tone of Superman. We see the 9-5 reality of working-class people, but we also see Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) in an underground lair surrounded by his loyal henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) and loyal, to a point, trophy girlfriend, Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Superman is a movie with scenes that stand out as opposed to shots because Donner chose to make the camera invisible. While there are plenty of special effects and action sequences in Superman, they make up precious little of the overall story. That’s how Richard Donner convinced us a man could fly. It’s also why other Superman movies have convinced us they can’t.
Unbreakable – (2000) Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Of all the comic book movies few have understood the atmospheric musical quality of color quite like M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. Few of them have also dealt with the psychological consequences of denying who you are.
Part of the enigma of Unbreakable when it came out was no one knew it was a comic book movie told as a grounded melodrama. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a security guard at a local college. He seems lost and adrift; so much so his wife Audrey (Robin Wright) sleeps in a separate room. Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) is a man held prisoner by his own body. Both men yearn for meaning, and then a train crash provides an answer.
Shyamalan sets a meticulous tone and pace to Unbreakable. It’s a quiet emotionally strained observational look at an ordinary man realizing he might be more than he thought. Meanwhile, another man stumbles down a path from which there is no going back. Unbreakable is easily one of the best comic book movies ever made. It’s about people and the struggle of their day to day lives. It takes the grand scale of people in tights and shrinks them down to a manageable size and shows us their flaws and dreams.
The Avengers – (2012) Dir. Joss Whedon
The modern-day superhero genre is a juggernaut the size and scale we have not seen in quite a while. They are also becoming rote and predictable with a few outliers starting to emerge more recently. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers set the tone and scale for how to bring all the momentum of previous movies to a head. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was the blueprint for the modern era, using the schematic he borrowed from Donner, but each successive movie was building up to something that had never been done before. The popular fashion right now is to turn our nose up at what seems like a quaint silver age relic but The Avengers set the stage and shined a light on how to do a massive team-up movie a la Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
The Avengers is a flawed movie. The only real resemblance to Seven Samurai is the way Whedon lays out a plot that requires not just one but several superheroes. Visually The Avengers, while colorful, is flat and strictly serviceable. Where it shines is the characters interactions. Quippy one-liners belie character motivation and exposition. What’s so astounding about The Avengers is how effortless it all seems. Whedon’s dialogue and eye for story allow for a brisk well-paced character-driven story that happens to end with a giant battle with aliens from another world destroying midtown Manhattan.
It also helps that Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Doctor Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are allowed to play. Whedon’s script has moments of interaction that have nothing to do with moving the plot forward but everything to do with character revelations. But the movie never feels stalled during these moments. On the contrary, it’s in these moments that the characters seem to come alive and are often the most cited and quoted by fans. Whedon showed it was possible for a big tent mega budget team up of characters from different stories to come together as one. It’s not the most creative or most original but it is the most successful in what it’s trying to do. That’s something in of itself.