Every Thursday, our staff of pop culture addicts tackles a topic or question about movies, music, comics, video games, or whatever else is itching at our brains.
If you’ve been reading Deadshirt.net for a while, you have probably noticed that we like superhero movies here, and that we have opinions about them. This week, a few of our crew members decided to single out their dark horse favorites from the genre that just won’t quit.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (1980/2006)
Superman II was shot simultaneously with its predecessor in England under the guidance of director Richard Donner and the watchful eye of producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the lucky father-son duo who’d secured the film rights to the Man of Steel. While the star-studded first Superman flick, starring relative newcomer Christopher Reeve in the title role, earned considerable praise in 1978, Donner clashed with the Salkinds over budgetary and artistic concerns and was fired with roughly a quarter of Superman II unfinished. Richard Lester (helmer of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! for The Beatles) was hired to complete the film; many praised the quicker pacing and character development, but something about the film always felt off to me, a mix of ill-conceived comedy and skimpy production values in places.
Donner put his stamp of approval on an alternate version in 2006, which I’d owned in a massive Superman box set. One day, I put it on intending to do some writing while it played in the background, but the impact of the movie scuttled those plans. Donner’s Superman II is lean, unburdened by the near hour of origin story its predecessor is saddled with, but also packed with gravity. Terence Stamp’s power-hungry General Zod feels more threatening, and Kal-El’s temptation to hang up the cape and become human remains one of the weightiest superhero dilemmas on film, thanks to some incredible restored footage of Reeve alongside Marlon Brando as Jor-El. Bottom line: if you know the basics of Superman and want to see a stunning, mature film that respects the heroism of that beloved character, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is that film.
– Mike Duquette
Batman Begins (2005)
The dark horse candidate of The Nolan Jams for sure, but underappreciated both in specifically forming the basis for The Dark Knight and generally creating the second wind of superhero films. There was every reason and then some that this could have been the Amazing Spider-Man of Batman movies, following up Batman (1989) for the mere sake of having more Batman movies and having nothing more to say. Instead, Nolan et al. did some deep digging and found the one true unspoiled area of the Batman mythos—his training. Sure, they had a substrate to work with from a few obscure comics and perhaps one episode of the animated series, but the fact that it was a total blank slate to the average audience goer revved the creative engines of this whole script.
The true inspirational masterstroke is taking Ra’s al-Ghul—an obscure villain to most of the audience at the time—and tying him to that origin. Due to the messiness of comics, you had two great seventies-era Batman arcs with a Far East flavor. Of course, they were the same story.
The Dark Knight is the ultimate Batman crime drama, and The Dark Knight Rises is the James-Bond-style epic adventure. But Batman Begins is the transition between the previous WB Batman series and this one, combining the comic-book style with intelligence and realism. With an immediately intriguing premise, a manageable plot, and killer performances, Batman Begins began the graduation of superhero films from a flash in the pan to blockbuster bread and butter.
– Patrick Stinson
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
I’m not here to claim that Punisher: War Zone is a Great Superhero Film, because it is decidedly not. It’s not even a Great Take on Frank Castle, as evidenced by the fact that he has a decidedly un-Punisher-like chest of keepsakes from his old life. Ray Stevenson (a man best known for playing the villain on one of the most infuriating seasons of Dexter) doesn’t have anywhere near as good as take on the character as Thomas Jane, and plays Castle more or less as a Terminator rather than a human. Even the most generous action movie fan will wonder why Punisher hasn’t reloaded his gun a few times. The film’s production woes—including Liongsgate’s tendency to overrule Marvel’s notes on the character, and the long process to get the film made at all—are well documented. I’m not here to argue with any of that.
I’m here to tell you it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had watching a superhero film.
Sure, the film doesn’t have everything. Do you know what is DOES have? Dominic “Jimmy McNulty” West as Jigsaw with a hilariously over-the-top New Yawk accent, a bunch of guys doing parkour getting blown up by a rocket launcher, Wayne Knight as a wonderfully miscast Microchip, and some of the most absurd violence I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie. The film’s first scene features Punisher hanging upside down on a chandelier, spinning around while firing a machine gun in each hand. Jigsaw’s crazy brother cannibalizes someone’s kidney. At one point, Castle straight up punches someone’s face using just his normal fist. There’s even a glorious scene in which Jigsaw gives a speech in front of an American flag a la General Patton and convinces rival gangs to work together.
On top of all that, the film contains FAR better production values than it deserves. The cinematography is fantastic, the pacing is nearly flawless, the soundtrack is so good that it was more financially successful than the film, and even the sets are fitting in their own perfectly corny way.
– David Lebovitz