The Reel-lief Reviews Top 30
By Ian Wilson
18 June 2009 With a longer fallow period of movie reviewing than first thought, the table has grown into a Top 30. With the continuing documentation of how I would rank comic book movies based upon their Comic Reel-lief review scores, the new update adds the first three full-length Batman films, both Hellboy and Hulk films, Wanted, Watchmen and Wolverine to the 20 previously reviewed films.
As it has been a while since the last chart update, the general structure is that new films get a longer write-up to justify its placement whilst the older entries get a couple of sentences to paraphrase the original reviews. Again, some very well-known CBMs have yet to be included in the chart for the simple fact that they haven't been reviewed on Comic Reel-lief or the current series of "Dark Knight Discussions" on Earth-2.net: The Show. Steps are being taken to address this, but in the meantime, here is the up-to-date list of all CBMs that I have reviewed.
01. X2: X-Men United 9.5 / 10 (non-mover)
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Thanks to the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this film's good qualities shine that much brighter in that it covered in one subplot what an entire film failed to adequately deliver. The X-Men and Brotherhood combining to take on the genuinely formidable opponent of Brian Cox's General Stryker remains a visual treat with an emotional punch. And unless you're a gigantic Cyclops / James Marsden fan, you won't be disappointed.
02. Iron Man 9.5 / 10 (non-mover)
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Whilst origins films are usually well-received, most filmmakers often feel constrained by the fact that the first film has to rigidly stick to establishing the roots of the character before they can make their mark in the sequel. Not so with Iron Man, as Jon Favreau turns the potential weakness of the character's mainstream unfamiliarity into a strength, allowing Robert Downey, Jr. to blow audiences away with his take on Tony Stark. Despite the slight bum note of the final battle, this is an incredibly impressive CBM and a great way to start the Marvel Studios universe project.
03. Hellboy II: The Golden Army 9 / 10 (new entry)
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Continuing the bizarre CBM tradition where the sequel surpasses the original film, Hellboy II switches its inspiration from the Mignola-esque grounding of 2004's Hellboy to Guillermo del Toro's adaptation of the BPRD universe. After quickly establishing the status quo following the original film, Hellboy II throws the title character and his associates against an antagonist from the kingdom of magical creatures, bent on the downfall of human civilization. Ron Perlman again proves his mettle, effortlessly making a somewhat immature demon immensely likeable and badass in equal measure. Where the film really succeeds, though, is in how it fully fleshes out the supporting cast, giving Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman and new addition Johann Krauss a considerable amount to do, whilst finding time to include John Hurt and Jeffrey Tambor as Professor Bruttenholm and Tom Manning respectively. The film is more visually stunning than before with more creatures to oppose, whilst still grounding Hellboy in the fact that his appearance repels the outside world that he wants to impress. It isn't flawless, but it was much better than I expected; and whilst I'd love to see a sequel, I'm also perfectly happy if the franchise rested on this film as the ending doesn't demand a future installment which is somewhat refreshing in the current climate of trilogies and spinoffs.
04. Men in Black 8.5 / 10 (down 1)
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Will Smith's arrival into the big leagues of movie roles came here as Agent J, the rookie recruit into the secret government agency that handles extraterrestrial activity on Earth. The script is hilarious, the effects remain appealing and Tommy Lee Jones is in fine form as J's weary partner K. Despite being somewhat short, this film remains one of the best and most successful CBMs to date.
05. V for Vendetta 8.5 / 10 (down 1)
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An effects-laden adaptation of Alan Moore's exploration of a fascistic British state of the future, put at risk by a terrorist adopting the guise of Guy Fawkes. It's stylish, well-acted and takes a number of risks, which mostly pay off despite the somewhat weighty subject matter. And speaking of Moore....
06. Watchmen 8.5 / 10 (new entry)
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It takes an ambitious director to adapt something like Watchmen, a comic series described as "unfilmable" by Terry Gilliam. So Zach Snyder should be applauded for actually managing to get the mythos up onto cinema screens. But in that the source material is so acclaimed, a straight adaptation is not enough to make this a perfect CBM, and Snyder has to put his own abilities as a director under heavy scrutiny to determine how good an adaptation this really is. It's admirable, but in making Watchmen, my worries with the director were confirmed as his emphasis on violence, the physical empowerment of the Watchmen collective and certain aspects of the arctic showdown stop the film from entering into 9-10 bracket for me. The cast of relative unknowns really help sell the unfamiliar world the film is set in, and the acting throughout is solid although the effects and music arrangements are more consistent and help lift the film expertly. In a tossup between the theatrical cut of this and V for Vendetta, I'd probably throw in the latter more readily, although the length and scope of Watchmen is to be admired rather than treated as a turn-off. And when it hits the DVD shelves, I'll be eager to see the full release. But as The Incredible Hulk found out, I have to go with what hits the cinemas to make the Comic Reel-lief playing field an even one.
07. Stardust 8.5 / 10 (down 2)
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A pleasant fantasy romp with a very British tone, despite the unusual presence of Robert De Niro playing the transvestite captain of a flying pirate ship. Not the deepest film you'll ever experience and bits of it can be a tad syrupy, but enjoyable all the same.
08. 300 8 / 10 (down 2)
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This is exactly the type of film that allows Zach Snyder to channel his gory visual impulses. Here he applies them to Frank Miller's somewhat exaggerated take on the Battle of Thermopylae. Despite the abrupt fate of Gerard Butler and pals, this film has done a lot for the mythology of Ancient Sparta in modern day culture.
09. 30 Days of Night 8 / 10 (down 2)
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Sensibly taking the "horror film first, CBM second" approach, 30 Days of Night aptly conveys the terrifying scenario of feral vampires making the most of a natural annual geographic phenomena whilst the intended victims do all they can to survive. There's the odd bum note here and there, but they surprisingly don't come from Josh Hartnett. And the film is much more compelling than standard Hollywood horror fare.
10. Wanted 7.5 / 10 (new entry)
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Sneaking into the Top 10, Wanted is a superhero-less film adaptation of a work that treated supervillains as the subject matter, and yet the film still manages to work to the summer blockbuster fare. Owing more than a little to The Matrix trilogy, our bored office worker protagonist James McAvoy finds himself destined for a world of physics-defying action within a guild of assassins, lead by Morgan Freeman and with Angelina Jolie in the Trinity-esque role of Fox. The action sequences are suitably larger than life, but the best thing going for Wanted is the progression of Wesley; the sharp script and central performance of McAvoy, whose transformation from a pathetic desk monkey to an insanely skilled assassin, is fun to watch as he treads on the people who have used him over the course of his past life. Combined with Freeman getting to swear and Jolie exposing herself, Wanted is pretty much your standard summer blockbuster fare and doesn't exactly feel like a CBM; then again, neither did the higher-ranked Men in Black, 30 Days of Night or Stardust. If you like action movies, you'll like this just don't expect much in terms of depth, because Wesley concluding with "This is me taking back control of my life. What the fuck have you done lately?" does not count as profundity just because it breaks the fourth wall.
11. Hellboy 7.5 / 10 (new entry)
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Another example of an origin film that gets surpassed by its sequel, the original Hellboy is nevertheless a solid film in its own right. Despite the audience figure being a wet fish in the form of Rupert Evans' Agent Myers and John Hurt being more an expositionary presence as Professor Bruttenholm than a major supporting character, the film sets itself apart from the all-singing, all-dancing Marvel / DC CBMs and not just because it grossed under $100 million worldwide. Guillermo del Toro faithfully recreates the essence of the comic book world which revolves around the title character of Hellboy, played to a tee at his first attempt by Ron Perlman. Though he's ably supported, be it through the antagonistic presence of Manning, the growing partnership with Myers or the established working relationship with Abe Sapien, not forgetting his pursuit of Selma Blair's Liz Sherman, this is Perlman's film and he delivers in spades. The BPRD are made interesting enough that they could be a film in themselves without needing the presence of occultist Nazis or Lovecraft-ian monsters, but it's all thrown together into the mix. It's slightly uneven as a film, but it's definitely a worthy entry into the sub-genre.
12. X-Men 7.5 / 10 (down 4)
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Important origin film to both the X-Men franchise and CBMs in general, good acting and direction help out a film with a slightly limited scope, with Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan nailing their roles on their first franchise outing.
13. I Am Legend 7.5 / 10 (down 4)
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An interesting film due to the sheer amount of work Will Smith has to do as pretty much the only actor in the entire film and keeping it compelling. Ultimately it doesn't last and the film gives in to standard cinema practice for the third act, robbing the film of its underlying appeal. Definitely worth a watch though, especially if you're not sold on Smith's acting capabilities.
14. The Incredible Hulk 7.5 / 10 (new entry)
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There's an unfortunate sense of distance from the 2003 Hulk that exists nowadays, not helped by the fact it only came out a mere five years before Avi Arad decided to give it another go, with The Incredible Hulk acting as both the second installment into the Marvel Studios project and the first recorded film to be labeled a "requel." Despite that ludicrous justification, the film itself isn't half bad with the focus on action pushing it slightly above Ang Lee's previous effort. The story is a fine one: the displaced fugitive Bruce Banner hopes to find a cure for the Hulk via an online correspondence with Samuel Sterns, only for the military to finally trace him. The acting is variable from the scene-stealing Tim Roth as future Abomination Emil Blonsky and general competence from Edward Norton as Banner and William Hurt as General Ross to, well, Liv Tyler. But if the acting isn't quite consistent, the action sequences and visual effects are what you want from a Hulk film and there are several nods to the Marvel fan base throughout, not least the Tony Stark cameo after the closing credits. The definitive Hulk film has yet to be made, but for all the requel nonsense, this is a perfectly decent action flick to continue the expanding on-screen Marvel Universe.
15. Hulk 7 / 10 (new entry)
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Closing out the top half is one of the more divisive CBMs out there: Ang Lee's Hulk. Unusual in tone, Hulk's biggest flaws in the eyes of many are the very things that set it apart from X-Men or even the later Incredible Hulk: the paneling effects, which were used in Spider-Man (albeit to a much lesser extent), and the sparing use of action. Lee is more interested in the tragic element of the Hulk's origin, and made sure that the filming process reflected this, making a number of actors comment on the fact that they didn't enjoy the filming period. The result is that Hulk is part-CBM, part Greek tragedy and that turned a lot of people off at the time. The stupid mutant dogs, and the ridiculous end battle didn't help either. But the subtext of the movie works so admirably that this has no place being low or even middling in a table such as this one. Due to the mutual hatred he has for Bruce's father, as played by Nick Nolte, and his strident belief that the man who would be Hulk is truly his father's son, you understand why Sam Elliott's General Ross feels contempt towards Eric Bana's Bruce Banner. This dynamic works so well due to the performances of all three men, but it is Jennifer Connolly as Betty Ross who really lifts the story as one of the genuinely sympathetic love interests within this sub-genre adding empathy to Bruce's unwanted plight and keeping the film grounded when it could so easily spiral into a Ross v Banner scenario. This certainly isn't a movie with universal appeal and it's easy to see where the negative word of mouth came from, but it's underrated all the same, especially given how eager Marvel have been to distance themselves from the film. Go into this with an open mind and you may very well enjoy this quite a bit, but it isn't a film that pushes all the blockbuster buttons so be warned.
16. TMNT 7 / 10 (down 6)
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Your enjoyment of this film will very much depend on how recognizable the Turtles franchise is to you, and even then, the new approach is so different that the clash in styles may definitely jar. That said, it's a mature take on the Turtles dynamic with impressive CGI. If it had more time to beef up the ending, then this would be highly recommended.
17. Blade 7 / 10 (down 6)
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The film that died for the sins of Joel Schumacher, Blade is a must-see movie in many respects. On the surface, it does look like standard TBS Superstation fare, but for a film that had no business being as competent as it was, its legacy is grounded in a very capable central performance from Wesley Snipes and a number of impressive action sequences not to mention Stephen Dorff's detestable villain.
18. Spider-Man 3 7 / 10 (down 6)
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Still the only Spider-Man movie that's had the Comic Reel-lief treatment, Peter Parker's third screen outing can best be described as higgledy-piggledy. Not nearly as bad as the Internet would make out, Spidey 3 is nonetheless an uneven meshing of about five different storylines that don't combine well, and is a disappointment when the previous franchise installment did so well with just one villain to focus upon.
19. Batman (1989) 6.5 / 10 (new entry)
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Yikes, this one didn't quite make the Top 10, did it? As I alluded to in the joint review, I know it doesn't exactly look great that this film, which is viewed by many as a classic, is beneath Spider-Man 3, but I think there's justification enough. Even without the fanboy niggle of giving The Joker a definitive backstory, the fanboy niggle of him being the Joe Chill substitute and the fanboy niggle of Batman being a remorseless killer, look at the film as a whole. The central film element is Batman trying to stop Joker, which would be fine on its own, whilst his butler tries to get him to settle down with a nosy photojournalist who almost gets herself in as much trouble as Mary Jane Watson. Now in absolute fairness, the tone of the entire film was spot on and its influence is far-reaching the forthcoming Arkham Asylum computer game can trace its influences back to Burton's take, via the DCAU. But ignoring the extra point it gains for impact, the film really is pretty borderline, pushed up from dead average by the central efforts of Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Still, no amount of geek culture whining is going to change the fact that this is an Oscar-winning film and the most successful movie of 1989, not to mention the highest-grossing CBM until Spider-Man rolled around over 10 years later. So it remains an important film to this day.
20. Batman Returns 6.5 / 10 (new entry)
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The sequel is an interesting paradox; graded higher, due to not having an extra point for influence, yet ranked lower than its predecessor. I'd justify this by saying that this film flowed more easily, there were less peripherary characters doing nothing and Batman and Alfred are more true to their comic book counterparts. The problem here, as Mike, James and I established, is that what passes for a plot could be described as "fragmented" at best. Had the Penguin's true motivations been said in a simple aside after he'd first met Max Shreck, the underlying nastiness of his intent would have still been their whilst he went through with the mayoral subplot. That aside, Danny DeVito's freakish portrayal was impressive despite the material he had to work with, and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman had an interesting screen presence even if she was far from the definitive screen version of the character. It really is a film that is simultaneously better and worse than its predecessor, which pretty much puts both Burton films on the same level in my eyes.
21. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 6.5 / 10 (down 8)
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Sadly dated, the Turtles are pretty much as well represented as you could hope for, based upon their late 1980s / early 1990s appeal. Not entirely faithful to either the comics or the cartoon, it's a standard kids' kung-fu movie from that era, pushed above the average mark by the Turtles themselves in both design and how surprisingly watchable the action sequences are.
22. X-Men: The Last Stand 6.5 / 10 (down 8)
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Having rewatched this recently, I'm glad I didn't see fit to lower the final chapter of the trilogy any further. Even though a disappointing number of mutants are killed off or de-powered in an underwhelming "final encounter," the film still manages to hold together an interesting plot, continues to benefit from the acting strengths of the cast and is far from unwatchable. A disappointing film, nevertheless.
23. Ghost Rider 6.5 / 10 (down 8)
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A film that might slip down a point or two if I see it again, Ghost Rider still has certain things going for it such as a coherent story, Nicolas Cage really acquainted himself to the title role and some thankfully decent special effects. Then again, Eva Mendes is not a compelling love interest, and if you like good villains, look elsewhere because apart from Peter Fonda's Mephistopheles, these ones are terrible.
24. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer 6 / 10 (down 8)
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Despite dropping nearly everything that counted in the original film's favor, the Fantastic Four's second outing in the official franchise is helped out from the inclusion of the Silver Surfer and a definite sense of the team being taken forward. That having been said, the combined antagonism of Dr. Doom and Galactus, which I imagine would be huge in a comic, amounts to little.
25. Fantastic Four 5.5 / 10 (down 8)
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There's some suspect casting with regards to Susan Storm and Victor von Doom, but otherwise it's a pretty inoffensive origin story, made slightly above average by what Ioan Gruffudd, Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis bring to Reed, Johnny and Ben respectively. Just don't go into this expecting much in the way of action unless you enjoy watching a whole lot of one-man extreme sports.
26. Batman (1966) 5 / 10 (new entry)
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The original feature-length Batman film really boils down to a two-hour version of the original television show, which is why this film is right on the halfway point of the scale. How much you actually like it will depend upon your opinion of the show in question, as there's little difference between the two medium interpretations. There are exceptions, such as the debuts of the infamous Batcopter and the Batboat, and the four most famous rogues in Adam West's gallery come together to take on the Dynamic Duo repeatedly. The innate silliness can't disguise the plot holes that drag the film back to a 5 rating, but don't think this is a bad film by any means. For one thing, the definitive screen version of The Riddler remains property of the late Frank Gorshin, and the film has as many memorable scenes as any recent CBM: Batman's bomb-disposal scene, and the unforgettable exploding shark scene leading the pack. It may be a world away from the current iteration of Batman in the comics and practically unrecognizable when compared to The Dark Knight, but it is a true product of its time. And whilst the TV show remains off of a DVD release, this is the most accessible (and legal) way of enjoying 60s Batman and his colorful exploits.
27. X-Men Origins: Wolverine 4 / 10 (new entry)
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There is one thing worse than a bad, mind-numbing movie: a pointless movie. The producers of this film tried to placate the fans by extending the flashback scenes in X2 and by promising Gambit and Deadpool. These aspects, along with the securing of a director of Oscar-nominated films and the genuine love Hugh Jackman has for playing the title character, should have been enough to provide a fully fleshed out history that explained all the foibles of Wolverine before he was doomed to forget them at the hands of William Stryker. What came in place of that, however, was an absolute mess of action scenes, character development and the most random direction I've seen this side of Punisher: War Zone. Jackman gives it his all, alongside a few other actors, but this film disappoints on most every level imaginable; the Logan / Creed dynamic is left with remaining questions to answer, the revenge motivation was muddied by an unnecessary plot twist in the final act and let's not even get into Deadpool. This film's major sin is that it's ultimately inconsequential; now if Sabretooth had got the origin story, and Wolverine meeting Gambit and Deadpool was a trilogy spinoff, Fox would have two Wolverine-involving films for the X-Men franchise and would have accomplished far more. Instead, the first franchise spinoff is an underwhelming mess thanks to a confusing story and uncertain direction, which is a real shame.
28. Superman Returns 4 / 10 (down 10)
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Superman may have returned, Jim, but not as we know him. Or Lois, for that matter, as Bryan Singer finds himself unable to bring his X-Men magic touch to the Man of Steel. Brandon Routh does well in the role of Christopher Reeve, but when he views his major antagonist as Lois' nice fiancι, has fathered a son for no creatively viable reason and is surprisingly adept at carrying a large island made out of the stuff that kills him, there's something majorly wrong in Superman's life. As such, I've docked this film another point and remain surprised that I originally gave it a 7. I should probably return that award.
29. The Fantastic Four 3 / 10 (down 10)
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A charming and pretty damn faithful adaptation of the Marvel team, this film's only real drawbacks are the acting, direction, screenplay and special effects. It's a B-movie, so this is mostly to be expected. And though there are a number of genuinely baffling plot decisions, it's far from unwatchable. And given the budgetary limitations, it punches above its weight admirably.
30. The Return of Swamp Thing 1.5 / 10 (down 10)
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How do you mix an atmospheric thriller with inter-species romance, body horror, a jaunty opening sequence and a buddy comedy between children? Short answer: you don't. And yet, we have The Return of Swamp Thing, a baffling mixture of eight different movies starring a man in a rubber suit. With Heather Locklear, Ursa from Superman II and Louis Jourdan (six years on from his villainous turn in Octopussy), it's hard to imagine who this film is aimed at, compared with the darkness and boob shots of the original Wes Craven interpretation seven years earlier.
So there we have it, a Top 30! If you have differences of opinion on the placement of certain films, let me know in the usual manner.