March Madness of Movies: Best Superhero Movies

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In the first round, Batman and Superman squared off yet again, as “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” beat out “Superman 2.” In keeping with the tradition of “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” this showdown saw another Batman victory over the Man of Steel, as the much lower seeded Batman film upset the top-five seeded “Superman 2.” It was a clash of classics, as “Superman 2” features Christopher Reeve’s seminal portrayal of Superman, while “Batman: MotP” features fan favorites Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, who reprise their roles (as Batman and the Joker, respectively) from “Batman: The Animated Series.”

In another first round upset, “Spider-Man” beat out “Watchmen.” Sam Raimi’s first film with the titular webhead is a superhero classic, which, along with the early “X-Men” films, helped redefine the genre. On the other hand, “Watchmen” (especially the director’s cut) is Zack Snyder’s superhero masterpiece, a faithful adaptation of one of the greatest comic books of all time.

From the start, “Deadpool” faced some tough competition, as it went against “Iron Man” in the first round. Both films are landmark achievements in defining the modern comic book genre — “Iron Man” kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while “Deadpool” came as a direct response to the MCU’s tropes and faults and kickstarted a surge of R-rated superhero films. Ultimately, it was the bold subversion of the genre in “Deadpool” that put it ahead of “Iron Man,” which led to a face-off against another superhero titan, “Spider-Man 2.” “Deadpool” ultimately upset the higher seeded Spider-Man film, which is widely considered one of the greatest superhero films of all time. In the third round, “Deadpool” came up against another of 2016’s smash superhero hits, “Captain America: Civil War.” Though more ambitious than “Deadpool,” “Civil War” became mired in an overly complicated plot, which allowed the Merc With A Mouth to advance to the final four.

Speaking of the final four, no MCU films made the final cut despite being a franchise with a staggering 14 movies. “Guardians of the Galaxy” offered some tough competition for “The Dark Knight” in the third round, but it comes as no surprise that Christopher Nolan’s seminal film beat the MCU’s best film to make the final four. Interestingly, half of the final four is comprised of 20th Century Fox’s R-rated X-Men films “Deadpool” and “Logan,” which shows audiences’ appetite for superhero fare that emphasizes character and story rather than strict universe continuity. Easily the most emotional out of the bunch, “Logan” handily earns its spot in the coveted final four. Like “The Dark Knight,” it’s no surprise that the No. 1 seeded “The Incredibles” found its way there as well. “The Incredibles” is a perfect encapsulation of what it means to be a family — the best Fantastic Four movie Marvel never made. It also offers great homages to the superhero genre, and perhaps most importantly, another endlessly quotable Samuel L. Jackson line.

To say that the triumph of “The Dark Knight” over “The Incredibles” was predictable undermines how great “The Incredibles” really is. Still, “The Dark Knight” is the standard to which all superhero films are held. For better or worse, Nolan’s realistic take on Batman has inspired countless knockoffs, to the point where “dark and gritty” has become a catchphrase for directors living under Nolan’s shadow. We have “The Dark Knight” to thank for the grit of “Skyfall,” but also for the misguided direction of 2015’s “Fantastic Four.” Beyond its pervasive influence though, “The Dark Knight” is quite simply a masterpiece. It is a crime epic that has been described as this generation’s “The Godfather,” but it also functions as a response to the trauma of 9/11 and its surveillance aftermath. Regarding the performances of “The Dark Knight,” Heath Ledger’s posthumous Best Supporting Actor win for his portrayal of the Joker says it all. As for Christian Bale’s Batman, his Bat-rasp has been endlessly mocked, but when Hans Zimmer himself praises Baleman, all jokes are immediately laid to rest.

If box office numbers are any indication, the superhero genre is one that will persist. We can only hope that future films will remember the level of craftsmanship and storytelling that “The Dark Knight” and the other films in the final four brought to the table.

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March Madness of Movies brackets were voted on by the Arts & Entertainment staff.

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].