BY MATT TUCK, BLOGGER SUPREME
FB@ The Comic Blog
It’s the lists of all list, the one to decide what non-MCU is the best. From 1978's Superman to The Justice League, here are the best of the best.
Marvel Studios rules the box office with an iron fist, but the love affair with superhero movies extends far beyond the MCU. In fact, if it hadn’t been for those classic DC movies of the 1970s and ‘80s, there might not be an MCU at all. On that note, let’s take a look at 10 of the best non-MCU movies to ever grace the silver screen.
How did I determine my list? These rankings are based on legacy and impact on the genre, originality, and overall entertainment value. You will notice that I have included Spider-Man and X-Men movies on today’s list. Thanks to Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the Fox and Sony movies have been retconned into MCU canon. However, I am counting them as non-MCU because they weren’t meant for Marvel’s shared universe.
So, who’s ready to argue?
1. SUPERMAN (1978)
By today’s standards, this would not be ranked among the best superhero movies. It’s very much inspired by the Man of Steel’s Golden Era, so there’s a large element of 1950s Americana propaganda. Truth, justice, and the American way would be met with cynicism and ridicule especially in today’s political climate.
What makes ‘78 Superman rank so high is that this movie started everything we enjoy today. It was Christopher Reeve who not only donned the suit, but set the standard for all future Superman actors to this day. He was the perfect choice, and in 1978, nothing short of perfect was going to work. If anyone else had sported blue and red spandex with a sweeping cape, the audience would have laughed the movie into infamy. Reeve’s presence and wholesome appeal captured the screen, and the special effects were groundbreaking for the time. Gene Hackman charmed his way to a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars, and John Williams’ absolutely beautiful score is still the standard for all heroic theme songs, superhero or otherwise. Here we are 45 years later, and this remains the single most iconic song for the larger-than-life movie star.
The combination of all these elements was nothing short of magical and brilliant, and fans instantly fell in love with the idea of superheroes flying in live action. If it wasn’t for this movie, there may not be an MCU or a DCEU. That is why Superman deserves its place at the top of the list.
2. THE DARK KNIGHT
This is as close to a perfect superhero movie as there has ever been. Sure, we laugh and make jokes about Christian Bale’s gravely Batman voice now, but we didn’t at the time. We were all too mesmerized by Christopher Nolan’s opus that at one point seemed like the riskiest move in his Batman trilogy.
What grabbed headlines ahead of TDK’s release was Nolan casting Heath Ledger in the iconic role of the Joker. It had been nearly 20 years since Jack Nicholson’s brilliant turn as the Clown Prince of Crime, and movie audiences were highly skeptical of anyone filling his shoes. That went double for Ledger, who at that time was known as a teen heartthrob at the center of controversy due to Brokeback Mountain. Many fans were hardly willing to give him a chance in the role, yet Nolan held true to his vision, and Ledger’s last role before his untimely death was the stuff of legend.
As iconic as Ledger’s Joker was, TDK was masterful across the board. The dichotomy between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent as dueling saviors of Gotham City and their downfalls was brilliantly done.
This was the one superhero film that truly is cinema, and it was the one movie that deserved recognition as the best movie of any genre in 2008. For that matter, it’s one of the best movies of the entire decade.
The best part about Logan was that it was something different. As much as I enjoy the MCU, they have a cookie-cutter formula that could use an overhaul. What Logan has that nothing else can match is sheer emotional impact. Sure, it had the cliche comic book moments with the Wolverine clone and the mysterious super serum that gives him an energy boost, but this was a much more grounded, personal X-Men story than we had ever seen.
Let’s not forget the first trailer with Johnny Cash’s “Hurt.” Most previews are meant to burst your eyes and mesmerize you with stunning visuals and a couple of cheap laughs. This felt like an artistic funeral procession. We knew beforehand this was the end for Hugh Jackman in the role, but hearing Patrick Stewart say, “Logan, you still have time,” while John R. Cash played acoustic guitar was breathtaking. The song meshed so well that it could have been written for Logan. It was as well-done a trailer as I have ever seen and still gives me chills five years later.
The movie itself was a fitting end to Jackman’s time as Wolverine. The unsaid truth that Professor X lost control of his powers and inadvertently killed the X-Men left our hearts aching. Seeing Charles Xavier no longer as the superhero but as an elderly man with dementia was captivating, and Stewart deserved an Oscar nod for his work. The entire movie deserved to have been at least nominated for Best Picture, but such is the superhero stigma.
4. SPIDER-MAN 2
This movie’s title is deceptive. Although it’s called Spider-Man 2, it wasn’t exactly a Spider-Man movie. Rather, it was the best Peter Parker movie ever made.
There’s plenty of action and web swinging, and it has classic throwdowns with Doctor Octopus, but Peter is the heart of this film, not Spider-Man. It’s less about the struggle of good versus evil and more focused on his conflict with being Spider-Man and the untold sacrifices he has to make in order to be a hero. The best moment is when we realize that despite all the lives Peter has saved as Spider-Man, Peter needs saving most of all. He wants to be saved, and Mary Jane rescues him in the most beautiful moment of all three films.
5. BATMAN (1989)
When you stop and think about it, this was a movie that shouldn’t have worked. Remember that director Tim Burton at that time was famous for the comedy Beetlejuice and a handful of episodes for the rebooted Alfred Hitchcock Presents. To suddenly put him in the driver’s seat for the second-most famous character in all of comics was questionable. Don’t forget that to this point, only Superman had been given the silver screen treatment (minus the 1966 Batman that was spun out of the silly Adam West show, which we’ll try to forget).
When Burton was adamant that he wanted to cast Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman, it was met with groans. At that point in his career, Keaton was known as a comedy actor having starred in Beetlejuice, Mr. Mom, and Gung Ho around that time. It’s easy to understand how audiences would have initially thought Burton’s vision of the Dark Knight would be a joke. When Jack Nicholson came on board as the Joker, suddenly audiences took the film seriously.
And then we saw the movie, and it was gorgeous. What Tim Burton did that resonates through every interpretation of Batman to this day is the aesthetic. As wonderful as the actors’ performances were in Batman, the real star was Gotham City. Never before has anyone captured the essence of Gotham quite like Burton.
There is a story that Burton had to fight tooth and nail to give Batman a black costume. Supposedly, the Warner Brothers executives didn’t think an all-black Batman suit would work for Happy Meal toys and action figures. In fact, they reportedly hated the idea of the dark and grim look of the entire film. It stands as further proof that it’s best to let the filmmakers create their visions without interference from the corporate executives.
6. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
This is where we might begin to disagree. The top-five movies on today’s list are generally accepted as being among the best of the best. You can mix and match those top five, but most people would have those on their lists. It’s from six through 10 that the debate really gets underway.
Before Marvel and DC were exploring the Multiverse in their cinematic universes, the X-Men were exploring alternate timelines. Of course, ‘78’s Superman dabbled in time travel to an extent when the Man of Steel caused the Earth to reverse its rotation. (I’m no expert, but I somehow don’t think that would work, but, hey, comic book logic, right?) The X-Men took a different path in a story inspired by one of the all-time great comic writers, Chris Claremont.
After X-Men: the Last Stand, it seemed the franchise was dead in the water. The horrendously bad movie was a complete flop at the box office, and it left a lasting impression on fans. Then Fox took things in a new direction with the 1960s setting of X-Men: First Class. Although the timeframe didn’t make sense for most of the characters being used, it was well received among X-fans. Then came the task of merging the ‘60s First Class with the earlier X-Men movies. Thanks to time travel, the franchises interlocked seamlessly.
What made the movie so great was its casting. Hugh Jackman never looked as ripped as he did in DOFP, and Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence further established themselves as the faces of the franchise. The inner turmoil that James McAvoy transcribed into the younger Charles Xavier helped define his character. By the time McAvoy and Stewart meet on screen, it is a heartfelt moment.
7. WONDER WOMAN
When I first saw Wonder Woman, I was taken by surprise. Following WW’s debut in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, this was a much more Marvel movie than Snyder’s installments. I was looking for this to be a cheap imitation of the MCU with corny dialogue and too much humor. I was half right. What I discovered was a superhero movie with heart. It had its jokes, but they mostly hit their marks. In the end, it was an unapologetic melding of Captain America and Thor. In other forms, this might come off as a cheap facsimile, but it worked perfectly for Wonder Woman.
What put this movie above so many others is that it was so long overdue. Wonder Woman had been in publication for seven decades. She had long been one of DC’s holy trinity and the third most-famous character in their history. Not only did she get a movie, but she starred in a great movie. It was just enough like a Marvel movie to win over mainstream audiences while staying true to her comic roots.
No movie represents the divide between mainstream MCU fans and the DC faithful quite like Joker. Although the protagonist is the iconic Batman villain, this is not a superhero film. Instead, it’s more of an art house noir flick that happens to star a Joker-like character. There’s nothing fun and lighthearted here, and it baffled the hardcore Marvel Studios audience. Even DC fans had their complaints, specifically Arthur Fleck feeling anything like the criminal genius that has plagued the Caped Crusader for nearly a century.
Those looking for a superhero movie were sorely disappointed with Joker, but I urge you to give it a second chance. Instead, watch this movie through the lens of social commentary. Fleck’s tale spotlights how society discards the sick and the poor. In this case, the would-be Joker is afflicted with severe mental illness, leaving him mistreated and misunderstood. He works as the least funny clown in Gotham and relies on government programs to help him get his medication. When the office is shut down, his case worker delivers the news with cold bureaucratic efficiency. There’s nothing in place to help him transition, and no one cares. Without his medication, his mental condition worsens. He lashes out against the world that threw him away. In the process, he becomes an unintentional martyr for everyone who has felt discarded and small.
That’s what this movie is all about, Charlie Brown. There are allusions to Batman, but using the Joker brand is more about delivery to the mainstream audience.
This movie is just dripping with nostalgia. From the techno beat to the black trench coats and chrome weapons, this movie is painfully ‘90s, yet it is still a highly entertaining movie.
The sequel would fall short of the original, and Blade: Trinity was an absolute mess. The trouble with franchises is that the subsequent installments can be so bad that they ruin the memory of the original. Blade stands on its own to this day, and it helped set the precedent that a superhero movie could be taken seriously.
In essence, Blade was a vampire movie combined with a classic martial arts flick of the 1970s. It was also groundbreaking by casting an African-American lead in a major superhero franchise, something that hadn’t been done to that point.
The bigger picture in Blade’s legacy is that it established that Marvel’s characters were worthy of their own film franchises. To that point, the only superhero movies were led by either Superman or Batman. There were some low-budget duds with Marvel properties, but Blade was the first legitimate foray onto the silver screen for the House of Ideas. In many ways, Blade helped lay the groundwork for X-Men, Spider-Man, and eventually Iron Man and the MCU.
10. JUSTICE LEAGUE SNYDER CUT
Again, I fully expect an argument here, and that’s perfectly acceptable. This is the story of two polar opposite movies. On one hand, there’s the abomination known as Joss Whedon’s Justice League recut. As the story goes, Zack Snyder originally planned a three-part epic for the JL that revolved around Darkseid’s invasion of Earth. After Snyder was forced to exit the movie, Warner Brothers hired Whedon to steer the ship. Don’t let anyone fool you. At the time, most fans vehemently supported handing off Justice League to Whedon. Before his reputation went down the toilet, he was on top of the comic book world. He had a successful run writing the Astonishing X-Men and he directed the biggest superhero movie to that point, The Avengers. But the same action-comedy formula that made him a superstar among Marvel fans completely ruined JL.
For years, the legend of an unreleased version of the film grew until it became a movement. Luckily for us, Warner invested more money for Snyder to complete his vision, and we were treated to a complete film and not the mashup of two visions. The story was grand, sweeping, and much more dramatic. As great as The Avengers was, the JL Snyder Cut was everything Avengers wasn’t. Batman became Batman, and the emotional stakes were raised all around. There were no throwaway joke characters, down to the Flash. It was enough to make us wonder what could have been had Warner let Snyder finish the three-part tale.
Matt Tuck is the author of the novel, Lost Bones of the Dead. He is a professional writer, avid comic collector, former teacher, and the Blogger Supreme. You can follow him on his Facebook page, The Comic Blog, or on Instagram at matt.tuck.writer.