1. The Incredibles (2004). This was Pixas animator Brad Bird’s foray into the costumed hero arena, a typically slick, witty, and accomplished piece that swiftly established a whole new universe of characters and possibilities. It remains the most successful of cinema’s original superhero creations. For longtime comics fans, of course, there was nothing new here: The Incredibles borrowed from the Fantastic Four, as well as Superfolks and Marvelman’s vision of an out-of-shape, middle-aged superhero, and it even quoted Alan Moore’s dark Watchmen series with its notion of a hero ban. But its intended all-ages audience and high standards of writing and animation gave it a refreshing exuberance, reminiscent of the optimistic space-age comics of the 1950s and 60s. It’s hard not to enjoy the film’s color and charm, its excellent character work and adrenaline-powered fight scenes that play out like childhood memories made real (although why Mrs. Incredible never used her stretching power to tighten the expanding butt she complained about was never adequately explained).
2. Unbreakable (2000). This masterly film by M. Night Shyamalan provided the first real hint of what was possible with a serious, well-made, and realistic superhero story. The hero was David Dunn, played by a lugubrious Bruce Willis, whose alliterative name immediately fingered him as a potential comic-book hero. Dunn began his journey as the sole survivor of a horrific train wreak. He was unable to understand how he’d managed to survive until the measured unwinding of the plot compelling him to face the impossible truth that he’d never been hurt in his entire life. David Dunn, the ordinary Joe, married with a kid and a mortgage, was the world’s first superhuman, and he’d lived to be forty without ever noticing. Willis was a world-weary, blue-collar Atlas with the weight of the world on his shoulders, setting the standard for a decade of realistic superfiction with a stylish, original, and intelligent recreation of the form.
3. Batman. Ah, but which one? There have been seven in all, from Michael Keaton’s grim, gothic version in Tim Burton’s films to Val Kilmer’s handsome introspective version and George Clooney’s smirking peacock. But as relief from the beautiful darkness of Christian Bale’s The Dark Knight, consider returning to the first successful on-screen Batman, Adam West. West was 38 when he took on the role, and he wore his costume like Salvador Dali rocked his mustache. He stretched the Batman concept to include self-mocking burlesque and distilled every previous Batman into a thin-lipped, clipped, and stylized performance that was funny for adults to watch and utterly convincing, quintessentially heroic to children. The show was made for color TV, so out went the natural shadows of Batman’s ink-on-paper world, and in came the bright palette of a Roy Lichenstein canvas. The blue was bright blue, the gray was light, the yellows were acidic, lysergic sun colors. The brightness wasn’t just in the colors: In this version of Batman, there were no psychological shadows, either, no mention of why Batman did what he did, no flashbacks to his parents dying of gunshot wounds in a grimy alley. Adam West’s Batman was Batman because being Batman made perfect sense to him. His flat, earnest delivery may have amused chortling adults, but every child knew that was exactly how a superhero would talk. As a kid, I took his Batman very seriously indeed.
In 1990 I stood in line at a video store to have my VHS copy of Batman: The Movie signed by Adam West. As he scribbled his signature, I told him I’d just had my own Batman book, Arkham Asylum, published to some acclaim. He looked at me the way you’d look at a floater drifting across the viscera of your eye and grunted.
That was good enough for me.
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