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On November 24th, a film writer named Rhett Bartlett asked his Twitter followers to name their favorite movie moment in 2017. His prompt spread swiftly, fetching some surprising responses in the thread (Rooney Mara’s interminable pie eating in A Ghost Story), and some predictable ones (Tom Hardy’s triumph at the end of Dunkirk). One scene came up more than any other, though:
Wonden Woman, “No Man’s Land scene” (the whole sequence actually is amazing). Such a defining scene in the film and this exact moment is where you see Diana becoming Wonder Woman! pic.twitter.com/hRGZVZx7jd
— Claire ❄🎄⛄ (@CalireBlackInk) November 26, 2017
Wonder Woman, No Man’s Land. pic.twitter.com/VRIrWxLc80
— fix yr heart or die (@ereIamJH_) November 25, 2017
The Wonder Woman no man’s land scene. I saw it six times in the theater and cried every time.
— Jill Sandstedt (@JillSandstedt) November 26, 2017
Wonder Woman in No Man’s Land. The most heroic scene in a superhero film in a very long time, and perfect symbolism for dealing with the horrors of 2017.
— Joseph Douglas (@HobKnight) November 25, 2017
Let the record show that Gal Gadot streaking across a swath of scorched countryside on behalf of humankind was exciting, optimistic, and genuinely moving. Scrolling through the thread, I was inclined to agree that “No Man’s Land” was at least my favorite superhero moment of the year, if not one of the year’s best, super or otherwise.
Then I re-watched Logan (yes, Logan — remember Logan? The one whose release nine months ago had critics and fans clawing over one another to anoint it one of the best superhero films of all time?), and during the scene where Laura’s ferocious abilities are revealed, I was reminded of our staggeringly short memories. Her spree mirrors Wonder Woman’s harrowing journey through no man’s land — each are breathtaking previews of potential that (importantly) reveals something essential about the characters involved. We are moved by Diana’s idealism, courage, and prowess, and as Logan watches Laura wreak terrifying havoc, we are similarly moved by the understanding that spreads across his face while witnessing someone with both his powers and rage.
“No Man’s Land” and Laura’s debut were hardly the only affecting moments in a year that was replete with quality superhero films. Consider Yondu’s ravager funeral in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a poignant send-off for Michael Rooker’s character, and one we didn’t know would wreck us — until it did. Then there’s the end of Logan, a momentous and tonally perfect finale for Hugh Jackman after seventeen years of playing the character. Even Thor had his moments, with the sheer joy of his hilarious realization that The Hulk would be his coliseum opponent in Thor: Ragnarok, punctuated by the hilarious line: “I know him! He’s a friend from work!” (with a heartwarming real-life source).
All of this to say, 2017 was a banner year for superhero movies, despite the absence of The Avengers and the lingering presence of the inert Justice League franchise. In fact, as we look back now, its hard to remember a year with the same balance of quantity and quality of 2017. Was this actually the best year for superheroes of all time? Inspired by the possibility, we tackled the question (not unlike Wonder Woman rushing head first into chaos), attempting to statistically figure out beyond a doubt if 2017 was actually as successful as it seems.
Here’s how it works:
Every year since 2000* was ranked in four separate categories, with their ranking in each category corresponding to points. If a year ranked number one in a category, it received 17 points; number two, 16 points; three, 15 points; and so on. At the end, the year with the most points won. The categories are straightforward:
*One note: You may be wondering why we started with the year 2000. The answer is two-fold. First, Bryan Singer’s X-Men came out in 2000, and that feels like a natural starting point for the modern superhero film landscape. Second, although we love Burton’s Batman and Donner’s Superman (among others), the overall dearth of offerings in the 20th century would have effectively prevented any of those years from competing in the 21st century. Remember, this is about years, not movies.
**2001 is not on this list. No superhero movies were released that year, unless you consider Monkeybone or Pootie Tang superhero movies. We don’t.
On to the list, and our first entry:
16. (Tie) 2005 and 2009 | 10.5 pts
We may have willfully forgotten that before Chris Evans became Captain America, he played Johnny Storm in 2005’s extremely cheesy Fantastic Four. We also seem to have forgotten that the film made $215.5 Million at the box office — if not a veritable hit, then at least a success. That gross is only $50 Million less than Batman Begins, a little movie that only birthed one of the most beloved and successful superhero franchises ever.
The Rotten Tomatoes scores for Batman Begins are surprisingly unspectacular in retrospect, considering what came next. Christopher Nolan’s first outing currently rests at 84 percent on the site (Ant-Man, for instance, sports an 82), but the middling critical performances of Fantastic Four and Batman Begins are not the reasons for 2005’s last-place finish. No, the actual cause would be Elektra, a historic bomb that fizzled at the box office and was maligned by both critics and audiences alike (10 and 29, respectively). We eventually will need an oral history of the superhero movie explosion, if only to understand how Elektra was tapped for a solo film before Wolverine, any of the Avengers, or Wonder Woman. If the need arises to describe Elektra to a friend, you could accurately say that the film misses the presence of Ben Affleck as Daredevil — not great.
In 2009, X-Men Origins had a respectable box office gross, but was not fondly received (understatement), and is now remembered for an inexplicably mouthless Deadpool. Meanwhile, the divisive Watchmen is maybe Zack Snyder’s best-loved superhero adaptation — which apparently counts for a mediocre box office take and similarly unenthusiastic critical reception. These years did show some promise of things to come though — Fox would eventually make two successful Wolverine solo movies, and Batman Begins would beget The Dark Knight.
2004 was a fascinating year for a number of reasons. Just look at how uneven superhero adaptations used to be: thirteen years ago Halle Berry starred as Catwoman in perhaps the worst superhero movie of the century, full stop. Someone made a Punisher movie, and that someone chose Tom Jane as The Punisher. Those things happened.
The year also featured two notable gulfs between audience and critical perception, as ticket buyers were determined to give The Punisher a pass, but were less moved by Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy than critics were. Blade: Trinity marked the end of a franchise that seems completely foreign thirteen years later, but the real story in 2004 was Spider-Man 2.
Raimi’s webslinger will send shock waves through this list further on, but his first feat is saving this mediocre year from crashing to the bottom of the list. We wrote here that Spider-Man 2 is one of the best superhero movies of all time, and certainly the best Spider-Man film, but the passage of time has only made the film’s gaudy box office numbers more shocking. Wonder Woman, a surprise blockbuster that seemed to be in theaters for eight months straight, sold over $100 Million less in adjusted gross than Spider-Man 2.
2003 was the definition of a forgettable year, buoyed only by a behemoth X-Men movie that — with its $318.3 Million gross — was barely eclipsed by 2006’s Last Stand as franchise’s most successful X-Men installment of all time.
There is one interesting note from this year (although it has more to do with films that came later): while Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner might have us forgetting Ang Lee’s Hulk (as well as Edward Norton’s The Incredible Hulk), the $195 Million gross of Hulk places that film in line with the likes of Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor. This is a film about which Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly wrote the following: “A big-budget comic-book adaptation has rarely felt so humorless and intellectually defensive about its own pulpy roots.”
That statement now looks hilarious considering how many superhero movies have aspired to maturity using unceasing grimness over the past decade, but it captures an overarching sentiment about Hulk at the time of its release: the movie wasn’t fun enough. And it still performed like The First Avenger and Thor would eight years later. Marvel’s most important victory may have been recognizing earlier than competitors how starved audiences were for comic book adaptations. All they had to do was look at Hulk.
We can thank 2007 for emo-jazz Peter Parker, dancing through New York City with finger guns blazing — and for appearing to poison the well for future adaptations of both the Venom and Silver Surfer characters — but this plainly barren year is inflated a bit because both Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four: Silver Surfer performed at the box office (Silver Surfer barely broke even, but it’s $171 million take helps the average box office score here — we aren’t really concerned with studio profits). Side note: it might be worth a critical reappraisal of Spider-Man 3. 63% on Rotten Tomatoes seems awful high for this:
By 2010, superheroes had become so entrenched at the movies that Kick-Ass was able to wrangle a substantial audience into theaters by taking aim at genre traditions — a concept that only tens earlier was relegated to niche cartoons or curiosities like Orgazmo. You’ll remember that much pearl-clutching was done over Chloe Grace Moretz, as Hit Girl, having to say the c-word in the film (she was 13 at the time), and to a lesser extent, over the ultra-violence in Kick-Ass. The resonance of the those elements, as well as the film’s broader commentary, depends largely on whether or not the viewer finds naughty words and blood spurts witty or subversive — a fact that made Kick-Ass predictably divisive. Still, the film boasts an 81% on Rotten Tomatoes, which presumably accounts for Roger Ebert calling it “morally reprehensible.”
One more interesting note: according to the stats on TorrentFreak, the film was the second most pirated of 2010 (with Avatar coming in first), suggesting that those most predisposed to love Kick-Ass are, presumably, also the least likely to pay for it.
Oh, and Iron Man 2 (the one with Mickey Rourke) came out in 2010. It wasn’t good. It made $350 Million.
Three positively average films (in terms of performance) and one certified bust. The surprising takeaway from 2011 is that in retrospect it appears critics and audiences were unsure of how to react to Marvel’s burgeoning Cinematic Universe. The studio’s overwhelming presence is now an undeniable fact of the movie landscape, but the sums of Thor and Captain America, while hardly paltry, pale in comparison to both later films like Civil War and the Iron Man films that were released in 2008 and 2010.
The First Avenger and Thor posted Hulk numbers, and were received with enthusiastic shrugs by critics and audiences alike, yet they both managed to out-earn X-Men: First Class, even though the franchise reboot was the most lauded superhero film of 2011 (and remains one of the most purely fun, if flawed X-Men installments). If it weren’t for Green Lantern, 2011 would be a nice little year with some memorable gems that have through no fault of their own been overshadowed by subsequent films. Alas, Green Lantern exists.
Age of Ultron was a regression for the Avengers franchise — an overcrowded, somewhat incomprehensible, and emotionally inert regression that still managed to thrill purely as a spectacle. It should also be considered a warning sign that Avengers: Infinity War, due out in 2018, may have logistical problems balancing thirty-two characters while telling a cogent story (shocking, I know). Of course, the Avengers’ second time saving the world was both financially successful and moderately well received. Ultron isn’t the bug in the 2015 mainframe. Nor is it Ant-Man, a film about a minor superhero that Marvel turned into a tightly scripted caper story, and a reprieve from the apocalyptic stakes of the Avengers franchise. 2015 owes its low standing in part to a limited slate, but in much larger part to Fantastic Four, a film most famous for its fraught production.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone (hardly a takedown artist) called the Fantastic Four “worse than worthless.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “a 100-minute trailer for a movie that never happens.” This year is notable for being around the time that franchises were handed over to young upstart directors with limited but proven track records: Colin Trevorrow helmed Jurassic World after the success of 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed; Ryan Coogler was tapped for Creed (and now Black Panther) after directing Fruitvale Station (his only movie at the time); Fantastic Four was handed to Josh Trank after the success of Chronicle, his directorial debut.
Trank is now most famous for a tweet storm blaming the Fantastic Four debacle on studio meddling, and for his ouster from a subsequent standalone Star Wars film after his Marvel movie flopped. Fantastic Four is currently the worst reviewed Marvel Movie on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s not close.
Superman Returns made $272 Million, and currently sits at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, two facts I would wager are a surprise to anyone reading this in 2017. While Brandon Routh’s turn as Superman might be remembered as an idealist flop that was quickly washed away by the gritty tide of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, re-watching it now can be a refreshing experience — especially contrasted with Henry Cavill’s (actually pretty enjoyable) moody spin on the character. It’s accurate to say that Superman Returns has mostly been forgotten, which fits — 2006 is a mostly forgettable year, with two films that haven’t left us much in terms of legacy or impact. In fact, the next X-Men film will re-adapt the comic’s “Dark Phoenix” arc, which was bungled by Last Stand.
Both films were both legitimate blockbusters, and moderately received at worst. If nothing else, The Last Stand featured Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine at the height of his popularity (until 2017, maybe, although box office numbers don’t bear that out), and concluded the first modern superhero trilogy. But like most of the early mediocre years, 2006 reflects just how spoiled superhero fans have become.
The year that gave us X-Men, the first modern superhero blockbuster, also featured a surprising deconstruction of superhero myth-making in Unbreakable. It was an impactful year, evidenced by the fact that the X-Men franchise is still running seventeen years later, albeit in split timelines, and that Unbreakable is still relevant enough to warrant a sequel: Glass, due out in 2019, is currently in production.
X-Men was a gamble on a property that — while beloved by comic (and cartoon) fans — lacked the ubiquity and the cache of either Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man. It parlayed an untapped public appetite for spectacle (the movie’s premier was on Ellis Island) into the sixth biggest opening of any film, and the biggest opening weekend for a superhero film of all time. It would quickly be dwarfed by properties that owe their success — their existence, really — to X-Men.
A few random thoughts about a very inconsistent year:
There is a significant jump in point totals between numbers six and seven on this list (from 32 to 40.5) due to those gargantuan box office totals. We’ll remember 2016 as the year this genre became both prolific and critic-proof, and the chasm between critical and audience appraisal yawned widest. Suicide Squad, a mostly irredeemable slog that was trashed by critics, earned $340 Million domestically, pleasing 61% of viewers; Dawn of Justice, a film that is probably better than Twitter and Marvel loyalists imagine — but not as profound or “adult” as DC fans occasionally claim — was a financial success.
2016 is also the year that resurrected the R-rated blockbuster, a species of film that was largely considered extinct until a foul-mouthed Ryan Reynolds proved the concept was alive and well as long as the protagonist was wearing spandex.
A little honesty here: 2002 was the year that had us us wondering whether or not this formula was either inaccurate or so, so incredibly accurate. Could a year with only one major film truly be considered “better” than say, 2016 and its large but uneven buffet of offerings? The answer to that question is complicated. Better? Maybe not. More significant? Absolutely. Here are some Spider-Man facts:
That last “fact” is obvious, but crucial to understanding the magnitude of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The film’s domestic gross now sits third behind The Dark Knight and The Avengers, neither of which are truly comparable. The Dark Knight was a highly anticipated sequel that became a fascinating craze after the tragic death of Heath Ledger and the hype surrounding his performance. On the other hand, The Avengers wasn’t just a sequel — it was a coronation. Spider-Man doesn’t merely trail those two films — it comes shockingly close to eclipsing them, only $43 Million behind The Dark Knight and $68 Million behind The Avengers, seemingly substantial gaps that are in fact shockingly small considering the notable circumstances surrounding the release of those two films.
We stand by everything we’ve written about X-Men in this list, but if it was the big bang of superhero movies, Spider-Man was the discovery of fire. The studio’s list of potential directors reflects a working knowledge of the film’s potential, but one would have to imagine that the monumental success of Spider-Man still came as a surprise. 2002 lacks the luxury of choice now routinely afforded to superhero fans, but it provided the first — and still one of the only — true craze of the era.
Save for a lone clunker in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (which somehow nearly matched the earnings of Days of Future Past), 2014 struck a balance between quantity and quality. Marvel’s releases that year represent both a visionary leap for an established character in Winter Soldier, and essentially a $360 million brag in Guardians of The Galaxy. By turning an unpopular, patently absurd superhero team into a massive success with both its own singular feel and a shocking amount of emotional resonance, the studio proved that from now King Midas should defer to Marvel in terms of touch efficacy.
While its true that The Avengers is a marker bisecting two distinct eras of superhero film, there are similarly distinct periods in the time leading up to The Avengers. In 2000, X-Men kick-started an era of studios clumsily grasping for success, forming — and just as quickly scrapping — plans. X-Men paved the way for Spider-Man, but it also preceded Elektra and Catwoman. Thanks, X-Men. The dawn of a second age begins with 2008, a year of importance that can’t be understated.
The Dark Knight, maybe the most beloved, most impactful, and most objectively well-crafted superhero film ever, was released in the summer of 2008, instantly calcifying Nolan’s Batman franchise as a standard-bearer of the genre. Its impact was an unfortunate shockwave into the future of Batman’s comic universe, signaling to filmmakers that realism and craftsmanship might be mistaken by critics and audiences alike as “maturity.” The Dark Knight is a standalone masterpiece that begat a lineage of films striving to be labeled “adult,” thanks in large part to critical appraisal in 2008 that likened the film to Heat and even The Godfather: Part II.
That same summer, Iron Man arrived in theaters. It’s $396 Million earnings seem preordained now, which ignores the fact that for decades, Marvel’s marquee properties were Spider-Man and The X-Men. Iron Man wasn’t even the most popular or famous Avenger, titles that likely go to Captain America and The Hulk, respectively. The success of these two films, coupled with their objective quality and the way they laid tracks for competing franchises to follow, cement 2008 as one of the most important years for superhero movies of all time.
Behold, your answer to the entire premise of this exercise. Apparently, 2017 was not the greatest year for superhero movies. We respectfully disagree — this year was notable for offering six films with hardly a blemish among them, especially considering that even Justice League has vehement defenders (and critics considered it an improvement on Dawn of Justice). Admittedly Guardians, while patently hilarious and surprisingly affecting, fell prey to the same bloat and ambition that tinge many sequels, and the box office of Logan was probably limited due to the film’s brutal violence and subsequent R-rating, but if there is a flaw in 2017, it’s not a lack of quality — more a seeming lack of importance.
If this list has illustrated a single truth, it’s that superhero franchises are (unsurprisingly) structured around bona fide spectacles. Conversely, 2017 was a year for pleasant surprises, from Wonder Woman rescuing the DC Extended Universe from fatal grittiness to Ragnarok providing not only the best Thor film, but one of the funniest Marvel films, period. Homecoming was a triumphant return for Spidey after two misguided Amazing Spider-Man films, while Logan was an intimate genre exercise that became a sensation. But with no clear behemoth among the pack, 2017 resembles a seamless transition into the next phase of superhero films. It portends a rich future, where Wonder Woman anchors a universe of films, and (owing to Ragnarok and Logan) the tonal and formal possibilities of these movies are stretched.
There are a number of ways to consider 2012. It birthed the superhero era we currently inhabit, making it a watershed year like 2000 or 2008. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy came to a close, drawing the curtain on the most popular Batman iteration of all time, and yielding to a franchise of films that would ape Nolan’s style with none of the virtuosity or heart. The Avengers became the most successful superhero movie of all time to fulfill the promise of Marvel’s vision, a feat that five years later seems fated, but at the time was truly breathtaking. Post-credits tags, superhero crossovers, nine-film acting deals, billion dollar revenues — all of it now feels baked into the superhero form, but none of it exists without an MCU gambit that culminated with The Avengers.
We shouldn’t overlook The Amazing Spider-Man either, a now-maligned entry that was both an actual blockbuster and a critical success. That film points to the most important trend in 2012: it was a year of heavyweights. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is truly loved, as is the Superman Character, but the planets aligned in 2012 with a swan song for the most popular portrayal of perhaps the most popular hero in Dark Knight Rises, the birth of a cinematic force in The Avengers, and the attempted reboot of Marvel’s most popular hero in The Amazing Spider-Man. If nothing else, 2012 proves that comic adaptation remains a character-driven medium, and while a year like 2017 was lucky enough to maximize the potential of under-served characters, the headliners were trapped in muddy films (Justice League) or upstart reboots (Spider-Man: Homecoming).
2012 was the last year both Marvel and DC had proven blockbuster commodities to trot out, although that will likely change. Maybe we can do this again in five years, and remember 2017 as the year that Diana of Themyscira saved DC, and restored balance to the superhero universe. Or maybe a new crop will take over altogether.
That’s the list folks, and it was created by math, so just go ahead and try to dispute it. So, what do you think? What was the best year for superhero movies?
Mike hails from the great state of Massachusetts, where he structured his identity around three inarguable truths – that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, Pearl Jam is the best band since 1980, and those who disagree are dead wrong. He complains about the proliferation of superhero movies while gleefully forking over sixteen dollars for each new release, and believes Tom Cruise has yet to make a bad movie. Follow Mike on twitter @haigismichael.
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