Friday's opening of “Thor: The Dark World,” will mark the 31st time a Marvel Comics character has leapt onto U.S. theater screens in a full-length, live-action movie.
Of course, there have been some straight-to-video releases, like Dolph Lundgren's “Punisher” film from 1989. Republic Pictures released serial installments “Captain America” in 1944, although Marvel was still Timely Comics then. And there have been numerous live-action television productions, my all-time favorite being the terrifyingly bad but hilariously entertaining “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” with David Hasselhoff in the title role of the 1998 Fox TV movie.
There have also been numerous animated direct-to-DVD films, and 12 more Marvel-based movies are currently in the planning stages or are in production.
Of those released so far, here are my picks for the 10 best:
10. “The Incredible Hulk” (2008).
Often overlooked or disregarded, this film had a couple of tall orders to fill when it reached theaters. Not only was it released just two-and-a-half months after “Iron Man,” but before it could stand on its own in the Marvel movie pantheon, it first had to overcome the horrific stench left behind by Ang Lee's awful “Hulk” from 2003.
With Edward Norton's spot-on portrayal of Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler's sympathetic-but-determined turn as Betty Ross and Tim Roth's maniacal transformation into the Abomination, this was actually a well-rendered presentation of what was always so fun about Hulk comics. People who griped about the CGI should probably avoid movies about giant green rage-monsters!
9. “X2: X-Men United” (2003)
Picks up where No. 8 on my list leaves off, with a bigger cast, higher stakes and a larger budget, continuing the tale of the clash between good mutants, bad mutants and non-mutants in high style.
8. “X-Men” (2000)
Even if you weren't part of the legions of X-Men fans, you knew as you watched this that it was a game-changer. For the first time, here was a superhero movie featuring legitimate actors that went at its source material straight-up. No tongues planted in cheeks. No weird, Tim Burton-esque “vision.” No bad guys played for laughs. No Prince music. Just an all-out effort to translate a beloved comic franchise into a credible motion picture. Patrick Stewart's masterful Professor X, Ian McKellen's menacing Magneto, Hugh Jackman's Wolverine. These characters burst into three-dimensional flesh-and-blood directly from the printed page. Bryan Singer's film stands as THE template for making a good superhero movie. “X-Men” put the “cool” into comic-book films.
7. “Spider-Man” (2002)
Following in the footsteps of “X-Men,” Sam Raimi's joyful ode to everyone's favorite web-slinger hit all the marks. Near-perfect casting with soulful Tobey Maguire as the hero, a superlatively creepy Willem Dafoe as the evil Green Goblin, (albeit in an awful costume!) and delightful turns by Rosemary Harris as Aunt May and J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. Shot after shot appeared to have been rendered directly from original comic drawings. Raimi's unwavering and complete grasp of the source material raised the bar even higher than “X-Men." The only fly in the ointment? Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson. About as far from the comic's version of the character as one could have gone without casting a man in the role.
6. “Iron Man 3” (2013)
For the fourth time (or fifth, if you count his appearance in a post-credits scene in “The Incredible Hulk.”), Robert Downey, Jr. essays the role of genius/inventor/billionaire/playboy/philanthropist (and armored superhero) Tony Stark. Where things seemed to sag a bit in “Iron Man 2,” the proceedings are rejuvenated here, due both to new director Shane Black's fresh take on the material and Downey's ability to somehow reinvent himself within the confines of his own indelible portrayal of the character. Factor in a stunning reworking of a classic villain from the comics, a boost from the immense popularity of 2012's “Marvel's The Avengers,” and suddenly you have a recipe for the fifth highest-grossing film of all time.
5. “Thor” (2011)
Fans of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's mythological Norse thunder-god-turned-superhero found a lot to love about this film. Almost everything in the movie, from costumes to sets to the realm of Asgard to the awesome Destroyer, looked like Kirby's magnificent artwork brought to life. Director Kenneth Branagh's ear for Lee's quasi-Shakespearean dialogue in the comics is uncanny, and didn't sound nearly as dopey as it might have if not handled so deftly. Newcomer Chris Hemsworth proved to be both a charming and a mighty God of Thunder, and Tom Hiddleston's Loki rose well above the usually one-dimensional comic book villain, with a finely layered performance. The dream casting of Anthony Hopkins as Odin, the Norse All-Father, was the icing on the cake. An almost picture-perfect recreation of the classic comic.
4. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)
Director Joe Johnston is no stranger to picture-perfect comic adaptations, either. His work on 1991's “The Rocketeer” established him as a deft hand at weaving nostalgic tales of high adventure set in the 1930s and 40s. So he seemed like a perfect fit for the job of bringing a character that first came to life during WWII. Johnston did not disappoint. He artfully recreated both the period and the sensibilities that gave birth to a hero like Cap, complete with his transformation from a cheesily costumed war-bond huckster to an actual fighting hero and symbol of freedom. Chris Evans, who had previously played mostly wise guys, including the Human Torch in 2005's “The Fantastic Four,” channeled his inner eagle scout, but he somehow believably walked the fine line between the noble and the cornball. Pitted against Hugo Weaving's classic Nazi uber-villain, the Red Skull, Evans' Cap fought his way through his origin story in perfect, star-spangled form.
3. “Iron Man” (2008)
In what had to be one the most inspired casting choices of all time, director Jon Favreau lobbied mightily to hire Robert Downey, Jr. for the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man. Downey auditioned for the part and accepted a percentage of the gross over an upfront superstar payday. (He reportedly received a mere $500,000 in initial salary.) The rest, as they say, is history. Downey's giddy, snarky, larger-than-life portrayal of the technological genius and billionaire weapons manufacturer who invents a super-powered suit of armor caught fire with film-goers in a way few movie heroes had in years. With Gwyneth Paltrow playing his girl Friday Pepper Potts and Jeff Bridges moving smoothly from mentor to menace over the course of the film, Downey practically tap-danced his way to the finish line, and a star was reborn. Probably more fun than any comic book movie ever, until Downey reprised his role in 2012's “Marvel's The Avengers.”
2. “Spider-Man 2” (2003)
Possibly the finest single comic book hero movie ever made, period. (And I'm more of a Batman fan!) So clear and precise was director Raimi's vision that not even Kirsten Dunst could mar this film. From the rise of classic Spidey nemesis Dr. Octopus to the perils of recently widowed Aunt May, “Spider-Man 2” delivered shot-by-shot, sequence after sequence, a classic comic book experience to the screen. Everything that made “The Amazing Spider-man” one of the world's most popular comic titles throbbed to life in the movie. As in the previous installment, classic comic covers and panels were painstakingly recreated on film. Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker suffered through an angst-ridden personal tug-of-war regarding his responsibilities as a hero and his hopes for his own life, while Alfred Molina's Doc Ock proves almost as sympathetic as he does murderous and diabolical. A film that demonstrates the best of what comics are all about.
1. “Marvel's The Avengers,” (2012)
This might seem like the obvious choice, given its $1.5 billion worldwide box-office take. But when one considers what was actually accomplished by – and with – this film, it's clearly about a lot more than money. From the first “Iron Man” film on, through each subsequent Marvel Studios production, the groundwork was being painstakingly laid for this movie. Fan-favorite director Joss Whedon, who had already proven with TV shows like “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” that no one knew better how to have fun with an obviously human ensemble cast in an absurdly abnormal situation, proved to be the perfect choice for assembling “Earth's Mightiest Heroes.” By focusing on the flawed humanity of his characters and the inherent preposterousness of melding such a group of beings into a cohesive, world-saving team, Whedon created a perfect storm wherein each hero had his/her moment in the sun. Stars Downey, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, shone particularly bright among the all-around solid cast. Took the fun quotient of “Iron Man” and multiplied it by at least five additional heroes. I don't recall seeing anyone leave the theater without a smile.
Whether or not “Thor: The Dark World” cracks the top 10 remains to be seen. But, given solid reviews from other countries and Marvel Studios' penchant for upping-the-ante with each successive outing, it wouldn't be terribly surprising. It might take a Mark Ruffalo-helmed solo film to keep the Hulk in the mix.