You know, we comic book fans are a spoiled bunch. If there’s one thing we seem to love more than going to see superheroes on the big screen, it’s tearing those films down when they don’t flawlessly cater to our expectations. We don’t take time to appreciate how good we have it.
So, while we’re quick to label a film “the worst ever” if it doesn’t live up to fan theory and online hype, it’s important to remember the positive things in these movies; even in some of the truly bad superhero flicks. It could be a single scene, a great casting choice or a great idea it just doesn’t execute well; even the most loathed and derided of superhero cinema tend to have some positive quality! Okay, maybe not “Catwoman,” that one’s an indefensible dumpster fire. But here are 15 other bad superhero movies that at least got something right.
15. BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)
A controversial pick to start; and yes, one which has some glaring flaws, from its strange logic and convoluted plot to its incomprehensible tie-ins to several as yet un-launched franchises to its grueling run time: so would you believe us if we said it was actually too short? The “trial of Superman” portion of the film takes so long that it’s a full hour before Batman and Superman even come face-to-face. It’s an additional 38 minutes before a single punch of the titular fight is thrown. That’s the entire runtime of “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.”
The trial itself, however, is great, as is the conflict between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel. The problem isn’t with the stories, it’s the fact that “BvS” tries to fit both its “Dark Knight” and its “Dark Knight Rises” into one movie, and neither gets their full due. There are halves of two great movies buried in “Batman vs. Superman,” and in some alternate timeline where “Man of Steel 2” ends with Clark blinded by a heretofore unseen Bat-Signal as the teaser-to-top-all teasers, a trilogy ending in “BvS” is probably a classic.
14. X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)
If “Deadpool” came in with a bang, 2016’s other X-film went out with a whimper. You’d be forgiven for not remembering “X-Men: Apocalypse” even came out in 2016, as everything about its creaky central plot, starting with its opening “ominous villain intro” scene, feels more at home with the semi-hokey early 2000s comic book films than in our post-“Dark Knight”/“Iron Man” era. But while the forgettable storyline and some lackluster performances make the film stumble, there’s one thing that puts it above all the rest: world-building.
For a franchise whose crux seems to be society’s treatment of mutants, we rarely get to see the world outside of Xavier’s school except government offices and the occasional new mutant’s suburban living room. And while “Apocalypse” does certainly give more of that, we also get a classroom of students learning about mutants in the ’70s, posters adoring Mystique adorning African walls and underground mutant fight clubs in Berlin. No, it wasn’t enough to salvage the sagging storyline, but “X-Men: Apocalypse” poses and half-answers the question “What does a world with mutants in it look like?” in a way that ignites the imagination more than any other film in the franchise.
13. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014)
There’s a lot about the 2014 “Turtles” reboot that’s confusing, from its character design to the fact that, until a last minute change, Shredder was a white dude. Perhaps the oddest choice, though, was the change of the Turtles’ origin to involve scientific experiments. It’s as though they heard audiences leave “Amazing Spider-Man” going “I couldn’t care less about the dad’s weird science experiment storyline” and went “Oh, we believe you could care less, and we’ll prove it.”
There are a lot of complaints about the 2014 film, which we counter with this: the mountain scene. Say what you will about the rest, but for six golden minutes, the film is perfection. Not only do you get a great set piece, but each Turtle is perfectly represented within the context of the action: Leonardo’s take-the-lead attitude, Raphael’s aggression, Donatello’s inventiveness and Michelangelo’s jokes. For kids who grew up with the Turtles, it was the moment we always wanted, but never got from the stunted movements of the rubber-suited Turtles of the ’90s. Plus, it was brought to fruition without doing a disservice to almost any of the iconic characters. For a brief flicker, the film does the Turtles better than anyone ever has.
12. THE SHADOW (1994)
After the smashing success of 1989’s landmark “Batman,” every studio jumped on the ’30s/’40s heroes bandwagon. Some, like “Dick Tracy” or “The Mask of Zorro,” were hits. Others were, well… “The Shadow.” Sure, the early scenes of Alec Baldwin’s Lamont Cranston as a Tibetan drug lord feel like a “30 Rock” skit now, and the film’s decision not to alter any of the “yellow panic” atmosphere of the original source material is downright cringeworthy, but “The Shadow” isn’t nearly as bad as you remember it. One aspect in particular is downright spectacular.
If the early 2000s, comic book movies were all about “Look what we can do with computers now;” in the land of ’90s comic films, the Art Director was king. Every studio wanted its film to emulate that art-deco influence of Burton’s “Batman.” Each one had to feel sleek and stunning, classic and new, with visuals varied enough to produce shelves full of merchandise. Nobody did that better than “The Shadow.” The German Expressionist style of The Cobalt Club, the dazzling dance of the pneumatic tubes across the city streets, the imposing silhouette of the character’s costume all burn in the memory well after the odd plot fades away. Two decades later, “The Shadow” deserves a revisit, if for no other reason than style.
11. SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)
One of the most infamous “bad” superhero movies in recent memory, it seems like every critique of the film has involved retconning Uncle Ben’s death, the lackluster Venom, a hammy James Franco, a bizarre love triangle and of course, the dance scene. But you ever notice how nobody ever brings up Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman?
The story goes that Sam Raimi didn’t even want to include Venom in the film, and just focus on the Harry Osborne and Flynt Marko arcs. Needless to say, it shows. While the symbiote suit scenes seem to exist as a “f*** you” to meddling studio execs, the Sandman storyline is not only compelling, with a beautifully reserved performance from Church, but resolves itself in a manner unique to the superhero genre: A penitent Marko, driven to crime through desperation and a love for his daughter, is mortified at what he has become, and chooses to dissolve into the wind rather than go on as the monster he was becoming. For a genre that seems not to know what to do with villains besides killing them, the story of “Spider-Man 3” could have been a gamechanger; a bold step forward in superhero movies’ maturity.
10. X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009)
The best superhero movies are like classic albums, you play them over and over again, getting a rush from every note and lyric. But for every “Sgt. Pepper,” there’s a “Beatles For Sale,” where there’s some real gems if you’re willing to cherry pick. “Origins” made some bold choices, particularly moving away from Tyler Mane’s animalistic Sabretooth to the more human Liev Schrieber, who manages to wring some powerful emotions out of occasionally dreadful dialogue. Additionally, it’s safe to say the movie is absolutely great until it actually gets started. The introductory scene pulled straight from James, Jenkins and Quesada’s “Wolverine Origins” miniseries segues into a complete history of American warfare through the eyes of Sabretooth and Logan. It’s enough to put you on the edge of your seat, and indeed a whole film of those sequences fleshed out would have been absolutely engrossing.
Instead, the film derails as it enters into its main story, but even then the film has one last gem in store: the pitch-perfect casting of Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool. Sure, they sew his mouth shut for some bizarre reason, but that led to one of best sight gags in Deadpool’s solo film. So no, “Origins” wasn’t a game-changer, but it was the primordial ooze from which a game-changer crawled.
9. HANCOCK (2008)
Alright, we’ll forgive you for forgetting this one. Everyone did, and that’s a downright shame. The marketing of the film promised us a fantastic comedy about a down-on-his-luck superhero needing a PR firm to fix his image and get his life on track, and the movie absolutely and near-faultlessly delivered on that… for the first half.
We’re not gonna sit here and pretend that the ending isn’t pure nonsense, because it absolutely is. The very inclusion of Charlize Theron’s character at all adds nothing to the film, while the revelation that she and Will Smith’s superhero are… ancient gods who are connected through… something… detracts so much of the film that it burns through all the good will it built up like a match to gasoline. If “Hancock” is remembered at all, it’s for “that stupid ending,” and not the scene where Will Smith launches a whale he’s trying to save into a boat, which is a shame. “Hancock” proves to be one of the few superhero comedies that doesn’t slag off the genre itself. The first half of “Hancock” is genuinely a great time, and the film deserves to be remembered for its good as well as its bad.
8. GREEN LANTERN (2011)
The second film to be ridiculed by “Deadpool” on this list, “Green Lantern” is easily the more disappointing of the two. Lifelong fans of Hal Jordan delighted in the idea that finally special effects had reached a point where the powers of the Green Lantern and the world of Oa could be brought to life on-screen, and while the rest of the film may falter, it can’t be denied that “Green Lantern” did that brilliantly.
Seriously, go to your local bargain bin and fish out the Blu-Ray. The design and execution of Oa is downright stunning, and the rush of zooming over those landscapes during the introductory scene is one few sci-fi films of recent memory have matched. Oa also features the film’s finest casting in the roles of the other Lanterns, the highlight of which is a pitch-perfect performance by Mark Strong as the infamous Sinestro. The film may fall apart when it spends its time on Earth, and Ryan Reynolds seems like nobody told him he was playing Hal Jordan and not Kyle Rayner, but set aside some time to take another trip to Oa. You won’t be disappointed.
7. FANTASTIC FOUR (2015)
Love or hate the early “Fantastic Four” films, they have their defenders. Nobody, however, goes to bat for Josh Trank’s dismally received 2015 attempt. A colossal flop, and presumably the final nail in the coffin for any non-MCU attempts of Marvel’s first family, the film is not utterly indefensible. Actually, it boasts one of the best comic book castings in recent memory.
When Michael B. Jordan was announced to play Johnny Storm opposite Rooney Mara’s Sue, there was internet uproar. Some over the changing of Sue and Johnny from biological to adopted siblings, others… well, because some ‘net dwellers are just awful. But when push came to shove, Jordan proved himself to be the one genuinely remarkable thing in that mess of a film, nailing both the swagger and angst of Johnny Storm in a way that’s never been captured properly. He undeniably steals the show, and if perhaps the cast had been built around him, the chemistry might have salvaged the otherwise mess of a movie.
6. PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008)
Now, “Punisher: War Zone” does have its defenders. “The San Francisco Chronicle” praised it upon release. Patton Oswalt is a staunch advocate for the film, and he and director Lexi Alexander made a case for it on one of the most engaging and insightful episodes of the “How Did This Get Made?” podcast. But maybe you remember seeing “War Zone” and hating it, so why should you give it another chance? Simple: “Daredevil” Season 2.
Stick with us here. One of the biggest qualms people had with “WZ” was that it “wasn’t a Punisher movie” or it “didn’t get the character.” True, the movie never really “gets” Frank Castle, and arguably even actively hates its protagonist. But now, after Jon Bernthal’s stellar turn as the definitive Frank Castle on Netflix’s “Daredevil” fulfilling that need, “Punisher: War Zone” plays like a remarkably violent, gloriously stupid “What If…” story. The film features parkour flippers being blown up by rocket launchers, “Saw”-style carnage, a lampooning of “Fahrenheit 9/11” and perhaps the first ever sincere line-reading of “Yummy in my tummy.” It’s an unflinching and audacious interpretation of Frank Castle, and we should enjoy it for being so brutally bold.
5. DAREDEVIL (2003)
There’s no getting around the fact that 2003’s “Daredevil” is dated as all hell. From its garish character design to its poor CGI and the mere presence of Evanesence and Hoobastank on its soundtrack, no film could feel more firmly planted in the early 2000s comic book movie boom. But what if you didn’t watch it as a superhero story at all?
The Netflix version gives us the tortured, brooding Murdock of Frank Miller’s run, while 2003’s Matt is more Mark Waid’s light-hearted take on the character. This Murdock is quick with a smile and a quippy comeback, even using his blindness as a sort of “pick up line,” and when he stumbles across Jennifer Garner’s Elektra, sparks and fists fly. Sure, the playground fight scene is absurd, but that just signals what this film ultimately gets right. It’s a rom-com that just happens to involve superheroes. The tension and interplay between Affleck and Garner makes for the most convincing comic book romance this side of the Skee-ball scene in “Deadpool.” It’s a bold, perhaps accidental move, but you’ll be hard pressed to find chemistry between a hero and love interest more palpable and believable in almost any superhero film then or since.
4. HULK (2003)
Superhero movies tend to be studio jobs devoid of any singular vision, but every once in a while, a genuine auteur gets to take the reigns, like Guillermo Del Toro (“Hellboy”), James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) and Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy). But before any of them, two-time Oscar winner Ang Lee decided to take a swing at an art-house action movie. And boy-howdy, did he swing for the fences.
Lee’s “Hulk” is a wild departure from the typical action fans wanted, which would be more in-line with Michael Bay’s style of filmmaking. Yet there’s an admirable audacity to Lee’s decision to take ideas from creators Bill Mantlo and Peter David and extrapolate them as a two hour metaphor for repression. The film is singular in its use of color, its experimentation with transitions, and its deliberate pacing and character introspection. That doesn’t mean all or even most of those choices are successful, but nor does it mean the film should be shrugged off completely. Experiments conducted in “Hulk” paid off for Lee years later in “Life of Pi”, and you have to give it to him for at least trying to break the mold of modern comic book movies.
3. SUPERMAN III (1983)
When you think of “Superman III,” odds are you really think of “Office Space,” the inexplicable presence of Richard Pryor or the dismantling of all the good will Richard Donner had built up with the previous two installments. So what on Krypton could anyone possibly see as good from this film? Christopher Reeves, that’s what.
Reeves is tasked with embodying two distinct and unique personalities, and uses it as an opportunity to explore how important the “Kent” part of Man of Steel’s identity is to his concept of right and wrong. During a stellar junkyard fight between the two halves, Superman bemoans how Kent has always forced him to repress his powers, his selfish desires and be a servant when he could be a god. Reeves terrifies us with a vision of Superman that’s both strange and familiar, and reminds us how absolute power could have corrupted absolutely. Sure, the film’s villains are awful and its humor far too broad, but Reeves’ performance during the junkyard fight give a more honest and deep look at what makes Superman who he is than Snyder or Singer ever did.
2. WATCHMEN (2009)
For all the flak Snyder gets, at the end of the day, he delivered about as faithful a “Watchmen” adaptation as we were ever going to get. Perhaps the episodic nature of the story could only work as a miniseries, and maybe what makes “Watchmen” work is the medium in which it was presented. And yet, while it is brutally misguided (“Hallelujah” sex scene, anyone?), when Snyder steps away from the near unflinching reverence for the source material and remembers the cinematic medium in which he’s working, he knocks it out of the park.
Interestingly, the one truly noteworthy scene in “Watchmen” is the one least reverent to the original book: the opening montage set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin.” By placing The Comedian on the Grassy Knoll and having Silhouette kiss the nurse on VJ-Day, Snyder concisely and intimately fleshed-out this alternate world, dangerously ticking towards Doomsday. It’s unlikely another director will come close to capturing the tone, sentiment and cynicism of Moore’s work better than Snyder did in those five minutes.
1. BATMAN & ROBIN (1997)
Here it is. The big one. The go-to answer for “bad superhero movie.” Loathed so greatly even “Batman: The Animated Series” took a jab at it in their “Legends of the Dark Knight” episode. And while its overly campy tone and egregious script are outright unforgivable, if you push past the bulk of what actually wound up on screen, the central premise of the film is actually one of the best core stories ever told about the man beneath the cowl.
Now, set aside the Bane subplot and the horrendous dialogue, and let’s look at the actual story of the film. Bruce and Dick Grayson are butting heads because Dick Wants to move beyond just being Bruce’s surrogate son. Bruce, however, remains resistant. Meanwhile, his lifelong guardian Alfred reveals he’s dying. Bruce is forced to reconcile the fact that he’ll once again lose his family, but this time no amount of training or tricks can avenge it. Set as his foil is Victor Freeze, whose cryogenically frozen wife suffers from the same disease as Alfred. In the end, both find reconciliation, not through trying to freeze time, but by accepting what changes come. Asking Bruce to wrestle with a new grief, to see himself in his enemy is an absolutely genius idea for a Batman film.
Which terrible superhero movies do you think should be defended? Make your case in the comments!
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