This week’s release of “The Green Hornet” fills a movie/comics nerd/geek like me with guarded optimism.

On the one hand, the offbeat casting of an improbably buffed-out Seth Rogen and the unexpected entrusting of a potential superhero franchise to art-filmy director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) promises something unique.

On the other, most superhero movies are hopelessly botched by studio executives whose flawless logic usually goes something like, “This character’s been popular and lucrative for about 50 years; clearly we should monkey around with everything that people like about it.”

While I have various degrees of optimism for the rash of super-movies coming out this year (Joss Whedon’s “Avengers”? YES! Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor”? Maybe! Chris Evans as Captain America? Umm), there’s no doubt the cinematic superheroic landscape has had its ups and downs during the past couple of decades.

THE FIVE BEST

5. “The Specials”: Not every super-guy or gal can be Superman. Sometimes, you’re gifted with powers a little more eccentric. That’s the premise for this sly, smart comedy about “the sixth or seventh best superhero team in the world,” where workaday super-dudes Thomas Haden Church (The Mighty Strobe), Rob Lowe (The Weevil) and James Gunn (Minute Man he gets small, he’s not fighting the Revolutionary War) sweat out their action-figure line, look for new members and think about jumping ship for a better team.

Like the tagline says: “Not as good as regular superheroes, but slightly better than you.”

4. “Spider-Man 2”: Once he got past the requisite origin story, director Sam Raimi was free to just have some fun with Doc Ock (Alfred Molina). Raimi and a cracker-jack special effects team replicate the best of the “high-flying fun” that Peter Parker’s Spider-Man is legendary for.

3. “The Incredibles”: That title could apply to the PIXAR organization as a whole, but especially with regards to this animated epic of a world where superheroics have been outlawed and the titular family of paranormals have to try and hide their abilities and fit in, until a supervillain from their past comes back to torment them.

Sure, there’s an Ayn Rand-ian creepy undertone in the message, but I choose to ignore it and concentrate on the thrilling stuff, the huge laughs, the “Watchmen”-level mythology and the great voice acting from Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee and Sarah Vowell.

2. “Iron Man”: In 2008 (perhaps by accident), studios decided to just butt out and let a pair of comics nerd directors (see No. 1 for the other) make a superhero movie the way they saw fit, and the results were electrifying.

Jon Favreau’s take on Marvel Comics’ armored hero is about as fun, exciting and inventive as you can get, especially with Robert Downey Jr. donning shellhead’s suit with his customary snarky, quick-witted aplomb as corporate-titan-turned-titanium-Avenger Tony Stark. Bumped out of the top spot because I’ve never particularly taken to Stark’s government-friendly take on superhero-ing. (Plus, he killed Captain America.)

1. “The Dark Knight”: It’s a predictable pick, sure, but that’s because you can’t really argue with greatness. About twice as good as its undeniably decent predecessor, “Batman Begins,” director Christopher Nolan’s take on Gotham City’s favorite vigilante is a thrilling, cleverly-plotted, daringly dark action flick that just happens to be a superhero movie.

Sure, I’m not quite sold on Christian Bale’s raspy Bat-monologues (which should be a crippler), but it’s more than made up by the brilliant work from Aaron Eckhart (Two-Face), Michael Caine (Alfred), Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) and, of course, Heath Ledger’s Joker, one of the most indelible villains in movie history. I’m genuinely PO’d that he won’t be around for the sequels. 

THE FIVE WORST

5. “X-Men: The Last Stand”: Ditching the undeniably talented Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”) for the deniably talented Brett Ratner (“Red Dragon”) means this once-promising franchise about Marvel Comics’ mutant super-team devolves into an overstuffed, under-directed, inadequately-dramatized mess.

Sure, there might be worse superhero movies objectively (“Steel,” “Supergirl,” the unreleased, original “Fantastic Four”), but nothing makes my comic geek rage Hulk out more than potential squandered. Plus, Halle Berry’s insipid Storm continues to make me all sad inside

4. “Captain America”: It seems cruel to pick on this low-budget, utterly inept 1990 misfire snoozefest, where America’s super-soldier is played by J.D. Salinger’s charisma-less son and limps along as a halting James Bond knockoff (keeping Cap out of uniform for most of the movie). But, you know, they made it, and I want my 97 minutes back.

3. “Daredevil”: I don’t blame Ben Affleck. Really, I don’t. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson (whose “Ghost Rider” just barely missed this list), this poorly-realized tale of Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer turned into a super-senses nighttime Hell’s Kitchen crimefighter, suffers, among other things, from a criminal basic misunderstanding of the character: Matt Murduck did not become Daredevil so he could murder the people he’s too inept a lawyer to convict.

2. “Batman and Robin”: I’m on record as thinking Tim Burton’s two Batman movies are massively overrated, sacrificing comics verisimilitude and narrative coherence in favor of allowing an aging, overindulged wunderkind to indulge his precious, pretentious art-school fantasies. (Thankfully, his woefully ill-conceived Superman movie never happened.)

But this DayGlo, toy-friendly, cartoonish (in the worst sense) fourth Batman film makes Burton look like Grant Morrison. (Comic nerds will get the reference.)

Where to begin? The bat-nipples? Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl flinching at every sudden movement? Sky-surfing? Schwarzenegger pronouncing the hero’s name as “BAT-mnnnnn?” Even the ever-reliable George Clooney looks embarrassed. As well he should be.

1. “Catwoman”: Forget “worst superhero movie,” this thing may be the worst movie ever made. Or perhaps the worst thing ever made. humans. Disregarding everything interesting about the DC Comics anti-heroine, this misbegotten clump of action excrement is woefully scripted, limply directed (by something called “Pitof”), and firmly cemented the fact that Halle Berry is the least-deserving Best Actress winner ever. At the risk of overusing the cat-poop metaphor, this emblem of every enduring, stupid idea in the superhero genre should be buried — deep. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

 


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