Are you as excited as we are about the release of Marvel's The Avengers? We're betting you are. After all, the film stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson. Plus, it's written and directed by Joss Whedon, the man responsible for the classic TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, not to mention this year's brilliant meta-horror film The Cabin in the Woods. The last few years of Marvel movies have been leading up to this epic team-up between Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Iron Man, and Nick Fury. We know many people who have been watching as many comic-book movies as they can in preparation for The Avengers. That can be a daunting enterprise, considering how many are out there. Here's a quick rundown of the best-of-the-best to help you decide:
10. Watchmen (2009)
This adaptation of Alan Moore's classic deconstruction of the superhero genre is beautiful to look at, and it captures the sense of chaotic dissatisfaction at the heart of the story. As a metaphor for the social upheaval of the '60s and '80s, it works quite well; but it also tells a compelling story in its own right. This is what superheroes would be like in the real world, and it's very unsettling.
9. Mystery Men (1999)
This one's more spoof than deconstruction, featuring a cadre of would-be avengers with questionable abilities. The film gets a lot of flak, but the truth is it's ridiculous fun with a great cast. Look for Greg Kinnear as the corporate-sponsored Captain Amazing, Eddie Izzard as one of the Disco Boys, and Tom Waits at his growly best as non-lethal weapons specialist Doc Heller.
8. Spider-Man (2002)
Spider-Man was always on the campier side of superhero culture, and this film – along with its two sequels – gets the tone right. Willem Dafoe is menacingly great as the Green Goblin, and James Franco plays perhaps the most interesting character, his son Harry, with tortured charm. It'll be interesting to see what director Marc Webb does with Columbia Pictures' reboot The Amazing Spider-Man this summer.
7. X-Men (2000)
This series takes on an entire world of mutant super-people, and does it with style to spare. In its best moments (the first two films), it uses mutation as an effective metaphor for anyone who feels outcast from society, and it shows the power they wield when they stick together. Managing to flesh-out a whole team of characters, this is a story about superheroes who feel entirely human.
6. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
This film lives and breathes comic-book style, as well as incorporating elements from anime and video games. Its genius is to take the mundane details from an indie romantic comedy and blow them up into larger-than-life action set pieces. Is being vegan a superpower? This movie will convince you. Plus, the action is well-choreographed and genuinely thrilling.
5. Men in Black (1997)
You may not have known that this one was based on a Marvel comic, but indeed it was. Written by Lowell Cunningham, it was first published in 1990 by Aircel Comics, later bought by Marvel. Packed with surreal concepts and off-kilter comedy, this is one of the most satisfying films you'll see in any genre. A detailed scan reveals it to be composed of pure fun.
4. Hellboy (2004)
Based on Mike Mignola's cult favorite, Guillermo del Toro's adaptation does everything right, marrying Lovecraftian horror with Nazi occultism and noir slapstick. An idea this silly shouldn't be quite this engaging, but somehow it is. Red's team of misfit monsters and scientists is fascinating to observe. They've got heart, wit, and awesome weapons that they use to take out the inter-dimensional trash.
3. The Crow (1994)
It's rare that a film plays tragedy and supernatural vengeance with such heartfelt seriousness. This gothic tale of one man's life being ripped apart by a vicious act of aggression is all the more haunting because its star, Brandon Lee, was accidentally killed during filming. The message that our innocent hopes and small kindnesses will matter after we're gone stays with you long after the story's conclusion.
2. Iron Man (2008)
This is perhaps the Platonic ideal of a superhero tale. Perfectly paced, it takes us from Iron Man's origins through his rise to fame, and to his ultimate confrontation with the evil he helped create. Riveting from beginning to end, Robert Downey Jr.'s excellent performance as a devil-may-care billionaire who learns to fight for something better is the film's backbone – but props must also go to director Jon Favreau for nailing what's good about the genre.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Inspired by Tim Burton's original Batman in tone and visual style, Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight simply tells the best story about the most interesting characters in superhero comics. Batman's struggle with the Joker, an elemental force of chaos and anarchy, is what every story of this genre is trying to achieve. It's poetry; it's philosphy; it's unstoppable. If you're not on the edge of your seat waiting for this summer's follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises, then you're doing it wrong.
Special Mention: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984)
This one doesn't make the list because it's not actually based on a comic; however, Buckaroo Banzai is a comic-book hero within the universe of the film, and there have been multiple comics based on him in real life. He's a man so larger-than-life amazing that you can't help but adore him. He's a neuroscientist, rock star, particle physicist, martial arts master, and he saves the world from alien invaders. If you've never heard of this film, watch it immediately on peril of your immortal soul.