The Best of the Decade (So Far): Comic Book and Sci-Fi

It's the year 2015, which means we're halfway through the decade already!

For the next several weeks, I'm going to assess the decade that is so far.  I'll post lists of the best movies of several genres, as well as the best talents of the decade - all leading up to an overall list of the 50 Best Films of the Decade (So Far), taking into consideration any film that was theatrically released between January 1, 2010 to May 15, 2015.

This week I'll focus on two genres: Comic Book Movies and Sci-Fi. Let's get started.

Comic Book Movies:

Over the past 15 years, we've seen a huge boom of movies based on comic books. It's gone way beyond superheroes; Ghost World, Road to Perdition, and Jonah Hex, just to name a few, have all been adapted for the screen to various successes. It's gotten to a point where comic book movies (or CBMs) have gone beyond a trend and into an entire genre that's here to stay, especially when you consider the 20 movies based on superheroes to be released in the next five years alone. Alas, not every CBM is a hit; Green Lantern, Jonah Hex, and RIPD are only a couple examples of failures in the genre the past few years. Below are the best.

10. Man of Steel (2013)
This film sets tentatively at the #10 spot, as it is likely to get knocked into Honorable Mention territory by the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron.  That said, Man of Steel is a fine Superman film, better than the later Christopher Reeves sequels and 2006's Superman Returns.  Yes, it's a bit more sincere than fans expected. Yes, there is the legitimate issue with Superman failing to express any concern about the people of Metropolis while it was being destroyed near the end (that required only a single line of dialogue to fix).  That said, it's extremely exciting! Hans Zimmer is owed some credit for his slow-build score that crescendos and pulses and gets me on the edge of my seat. Also worth noting: Henry Cavill is a pretty darn good Kal-El and Michael Shannon does a fine job reinterpreting General Zod. Camp is cast aside in favor of spectacular Superman action, the likes of which has only been seen in the comics. I can't wait to see what Warner Bros. has up its sleeve for the rest of the Justice League franchise!

9. X-Men: First Class (2011)
In all honesty, I had pretty much written off the X-Men franchise by the point First Class was announced. X-Men: The Last Stand had pretty much ruined the main franchise and the spin-off, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was horrendous. However, Matthew Vaughan (original director for The Last Stand) nearly knocked this one out of the park and redeemed the franchise. It works much better as a reboot than a prequel, despite a couple cameos (that interpretation would go out the window in 2014), but First Class gets the franchise back to what made X2 great: good script, exciting action, mutant powers, and a couple of fantastic leads (James McAvoy & Michael Fassbender, we applaud you). It also wasn't over-stuffed with a Who's Who of character cameos. First Class was fun and fairly lean, while also creating a great set-up for future installments.

8. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
I already talked a bit about this movie as one of the best romance movies of the decade - and it is a great love story with a creative take on young adult relationships. It's also a solid comic book movie. Anyone who saw Shaun of the Dead knows Edgar Wright's sense of humor and comic timing was a perfect fit for Bryan Lee O'Malley's finite series of graphic novels. Manic behavior, emoticon graphics, and references aplenty make up Scott Pilgrim's DNA. Also, how genius is it to cast Chris Evans (previously Fantastic Four's Human Torch) as a hot-head and Brandon Routh (previously Superman) as a god-like vegan?!  Unfortunately, Scott Pilgrim opened against The Expendables and was terminated at the box office. Yep, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is extremely underrated. It's time to give it its due.

7. Kick-Ass (2010)
This is probably one of the most irreverent and brilliant superhero films ever made. Based on Mark Millar's cynical and brutal graphic novel (two sequels have since been published), Kick-Ass essentially skewers the idea of a masked vigilante fighting crime and mob bosses while also celebrating the genre. Most notably, the film introduced the world to Hit-Girl (the great Chloe Grace Moretz), a play on the kid sidekick archetype who ends up being more dangerous than the hero. Kick-Ass pulls no punches, which is a turn-off for some. But to those who get what director Matthew Vaughan (X-Men: First Class) was doing, it was an amazing ride. Plus, let's not forget one of the best uses of the Crazy Nic Cage era in Big Daddy.

6. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The success of adapting Captain America was a bit of a question mark when Marvel was building its Avengers franchise. Could such a unshakably patriotic and noble character work in today's cynical, terrorist-riddled and grey-area society? As international box office became more important to business, how would the rest of the world take to the character? Captain America (titled The First Avenger overseas) worked really well by beginning with its 1940s Unite-Against-Evil origin story and ending by turning into a fish-out-of-water yarn (which Avengers and Winter Soldier would further). Chris Evans was perfectly believable as Steve Rogers and director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) tapped into his previous successes to make one of his career bests that had Marvel's Phase 1 bouncing back from the mediocre Iron Man 2.

5. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
The idea of adapting the legendary 2-issue comic story 'Days of Future Past' was very exciting to X-Men fans all over. However, I wasn't too thrilled with the cross-eyed continuity flaws that came once it was announced that the 2011 First Class cast was joining forces with the original trilogy cast. Not only did this toss all sense of storytelling logic out the window, but it looked possibly like another cameo-filled hodgepodge spectacle. While the result did nothing to make sense out of the continuity during the main story, with Bryan Singer at the helm Days of Future Past became a film that fans could still be proud of by giving them everything they could want: a respectful script, mutant powers working together, Sentinels, some great action sequences, and possibly ret-conning everything that previously went wrong with the franchise. This film rose above everything that could've gone wrong to become one of the best in the entire franchise.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Sure, even most Marvel fans didn't really know much about the Guardians of the Galaxy comics when this film was announced, so obscure was this entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  But that just allowed Marvel complete creative freedom.  The result: a complete blast. Tapping James Gunn (Slither) to helm got cinephiles excited and ended up being an inspired decision by Marvel. Guardians of the Galaxy calls back to the joy of the original Iron Man that gave reprieve from the dark and heavy superhero films of the time and kick-started the MCU franchise, only Guardians doesn't even try to have social or political relevance like Iron Man; it's just pure fun. And there's nothing wrong with that, especially when you have a grouchy, gun-toting raccoon, a gentle tree giant, a simple-minded brute, and Chris Pratt cracking wise as their Indiana Jones-inspired leader. Guardians was a tangent in the Marvel films that brought a breath of fresh air and kept audiences from being exhausted of the genre. Not only that, but it's a pretty solid flick in its own right and credit is due.

3. Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014)
So, The First Avenger successfully brought Captain America to film and to modern times. Winter Soldier is about this man out of time dealing with the political atmosphere of today and is influenced by the political thrillers of the post-Watergate '70s. Marvel continued their brilliant streak here by introducing an agency-wide conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D. and tearing down everything they had spent building up. Most studios wouldn't be so daring as to destroy something they just finished establishing, but Marvel has proven itself to be smart enough to take risks and understand that audiences will follow, as long as the film is good. Boy, is it! It does get a bit contradictory by pulling its punches once or twice while being so intriguing and raising its stakes elsewhere. But, overall, Winter Soldier showed audiences the MCU story isn't losing steam anytime soon.

2. Iron Man 3 (2013)
The first post-Avengers film in the MCU was extraordinarily brilliant. Directed by Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), this sequel brought back the political timeliness that made Iron Man great by dealing with Middle East terrorists, public executions, Iraq War vets, and the mistreatment of wounded vets - all the while still being a popcorn flick.  Even Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is dealing with his own PTSD after events in The Avengers. Iron Man 3 even separates the man from the machine, opening the door to trouble down the road and a possible departure for Tony Stark. Let's not forget the big left-turn reveal that subverts audience's super-villain expectations! Few superhero films are as well scripted and deceptively complex as Iron Man 3.

1. The Avengers (2012)
Let's take a moment to realize how significant The Avengers is as a franchise film. The original concept was to create a handful of separate superhero franchises and combine them into one giant super-team movie.  For the first time ever, characters from separate films and franchises would cross over and unite in one film. Nothing like that has ever happened before. It was a big risk that depended on every film leading up to it to be a success. What has now become the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become one of the most successful franchises in film history. And now, every studio wants to copy this template: Sony with Spider-Man and Ghostbusters, Warner Bros. with Superman and the Justice League, Paramount with Transformers, and even Fox is rumored to be considering combining Fantastic Four with X-Men in the future. The Avengers was a hugely successful pay-off that took 5 years to work up to. Credit should partly go to Joss Whedon for being able to create such a rewarding and fun film. Marvel had established a certain level of ingenuity with casting its directors by staying away from directors-for-hire and tapping talent (Jon Favreau for Iron Man, Kevin Branaugh for Thor, Joe Johnston for Captain America), but Joss Whedon was the icing on the cake. Whedon played the cast of characters like a puppeteer, injecting wonderful interactions between clashing and similar personalities that lead to classic moments. Not only that, but it all came together for a wonderful superhero climax that did not disappoint or feel stale. The Avengers may not transcend the genre or have much in the way of social or political relevance, but it is the biggest risk to pay-off, the biggest success in the genre, and the most fun for fans and audiences alike. Who isn't excited to see what else is in store for these heroes?

Honorable Mention: The Kingsman: Secret Service

Sci-Fi Movies:

What makes a great science fiction film?  It isn't necessarily the special effects or the futuristic settings, although those can certainly impress.  A great sci-fi film is one that is creative, intelligent, or uses the genre as a means to reflect the world we live in.  Lesser sci-fi films focus only on the spectacle and are derivative of what came before. Here are the best.

10. Snowpiercer (2014)
A dystopian future where the last of humanity is stuck on a forever-in-motion train divided between the rich and the poor. Chris Evans leads a class uprising in this, Bong Joon-Ho's first English-language film. Korea has had a lot of talent making great films lately. However, the cross-over to the States hasn't been so successful; Snowpiercer is the first success, both commercially and critically. The cast, which includes Tilda Swinton as a homely right-hand to the train's enigmatic leader, is intriguing. It's dark, brutal, intelligent, and exciting. The same could be said of few other sci-fi films.

9. Interstellar (2014)
Interstellar is not one of Christopher Nolan's best films, as it requires quite a leap of faith during its climax (ironic given how much science the film involves). But it is quite an extraordinary experience. Yes, the film is visually awesome. Yes, it introduces another cool robot character. Yes, Matthew McConaughey is especially powerful and carries the 2 1/2+ hour film. But what's most striking about Interstellar is how well it conveys its stakes through time. As McConaughey's character travels to another world via a black hole, years are flying by on Earth. If he doesn't complete his mission in mere minutes, decades will pass on Earth and he will never be reunited with his aging daughter. This becomes more potently felt with every setback and challenge. To make something as intangible as time so tangible a thing to his viewers is reason enough - on top of its other achievements - to place it on this list.

8. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Edge of Tomorrow (aka All You Need is Kill aka Live. Die. Repeat.) may have suffered from a bit of an identity crisis and a bland title, but those who opted to see The Fault in Our Stars or Maleficent instead missed out on the most fun movie of the year. Adapted from a manga, Edge of Tomorrow stars Tom Cruise as a military talking head, a man who'll do anything to avoid combat, but will talk about it on air until he's blue in the face. He gets ordered to the front lines of a world-wide war against an invading alien species. Things go badly and he finds himself repeating the same day over and over again. Imagine Groundhog Day combined with Starship Troopers. It handles the concept with about as much wit as the former and treats the sci-fi action without the latter's tongue-in-cheek. As such, it's an incredibly exciting action film. But the real MVP is Emily Blunt's war hero. She is one of the best female characters in all of sci-fi - perhaps all of film - as she is the active agent toward saving the day, not the typical hero (Cruise). If it weren't for those last two minutes that robbed us of a darker ending, Edge of Tomorrow would be perfect.

7. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Planet of the Apes is classic sci-fi, one of those films that has become so entrenched in pop culture that most people can quote it without ever having seen it. The thought of creating a prequel and the chances of that prequel being nearly up to snuff with the original is both ridiculous and unlikely. Holy bananas, did this exceed expectations or what?!  No, it isn't perfect, but it is way better than it had any right to be. Credit must go to the geniuses at WETA and Andy Serkis' performance as Caesar.  As with his performance as Kong in 2005, Serkis transcends the technology and his character's ape-ness. Caesar is a growing, learning, empathic, and dangerous character. His character arc is one of the most riveting and well-developed of its year. What's also great is the film takes its time and isn't in a hurry to get to an action set piece. It earns every beat it hits. That is exceptional for a sci-fi tentpole film, especially a prequel or sequel to a classic.

6. Looper (2012)
Rian Johnson is one of the best directors of our time and needs to be making more films! His one contribution to the decade was many years in development. So important to Johnson was it to get time travel 'right' that he even consulted the director of one of the most 'realistic' time travel movies (Primer), Shane Carruth. Looper isn't as confusing or intellectual as Primer, but it is a pretty solid film. What if a hitman had to put a hit on himself? What if said character was faced with his older self? Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt do a fantastic job with this premise. Emily Blunt is in fine form as a mother figure protecting an endangered child. Jeff Daniels plays against type as a beleaguered mob boss. Looper is a lot of fun and executed wonderfully.

5. Never Let Me Go (2010)
For those of you who prefer less action in their sci-fi and more dialogue-driven plot and character development, there's Never Let Me Go, starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Sally Hawkins, and Charlotte Ramplin. Based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, adapted by Alex Garland (Ex Machina), and directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), Never Let Me Go plays like a Merchant-Ivory film with a pinch of sci-fi. As such, it's a bit dry for some, but it offers one hell of a gut-punch third act.  The young cast truly impress and prove themselves here; see a pre-Spider-Man, pre-Social Network Andrew Garfield give a guttural howl of emotional turmoil.

4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
So, Rise of the Planet of the Apes raised eyebrows and straightened backs. Then Dawn must be just as good, if not better, right? Right. After a nifty worldwide decimating prologue, Dawn kicks off with silence and subtitled sign language for about ten minutes. Audiences went right along for the ride. Aside from the spectacle, which there is more of here, and the improved motion-capture technology, which is also extraordinary, Dawn shows us how fear of another culture can lead to misunderstanding and violence. It just takes one person to spread that fear and misunderstanding for everything to go to hell. It's a timely theme for these xenophobic times. Serkis and co-star Toby Kebbell tip the scales in their favor, performance-wise here (Keri Russell is nearly wasted), playing the Professor X / Magneto dynamic of the apes. Matt Reeves not only improves upon his previous efforts (the just-missed-the-boat Cloverfield and inferior remake Let Me In), but also improves on the franchise's predecessor, both creatively and technically. This should not be as great as it is. But it is.

3. Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan took a break from his Dark Knight trilogy to give us this amazing heist film. Even though Inception is about a group of people entering a man's dreams and creating dreams within that dream, it really boils down to a heist film, where a team is hired to accomplish a high-risk task without getting caught. It's one of the best heist films ever made. It's got one hell of a cast (DiCaprio, Gordon-Levitt, Watanabe, Ellen Page, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, and Tom Hardy), one hell of a score (by Hans Zimmer), one hell of a script, and some visual effects that will blow your mind. This is mainstream sci-fi at its best: mind-blowing, edge-of-your-seat excitement, and incredibly intelligent. Nolan has yet to match it since.

2. Her (2013)
I already praised Her as one of the best romance films of the decade. Well, given its sci-fi backdrop, it's also one of the best sci-fi films - ne' the second best. I know some of you Apple fans love your iPhone and all, but who would have thought that we'd be able to fall in love with a phone this much (okay, so it's technically an OS that mostly appears in a phone)? The success of this relationship's believability can not be praised enough. Nor can Scarlett Johansson's performance.

1. Under the Skin (2014)
Scarlett kills it one more time! As a matter of fact, she kills more than once here, but nevermind that. Under the Skin is NOT for everyone. That's true for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Annie Hall, The Godfather, Metropolis and a number of film's greatest creations.  You don't always know what's going on in Under the Skin, but you eventually get the general idea. Scarlett stars as a mysterious woman who says little, but drives around Scotland in a van while trying to seduce random men. Who she is and what she's doing is unknown - and, to an extent, irrelevant.  Few films this decade have sparked so much discussion as Under the Skin. What is it about? What does it say about female body imagery? What does it say about male / female dynamics? What do you make of that third act and how it plays into feminist themes? It's a head-scratcher, no doubt. But this is what science fiction and the art of filmmaking are all about.

Honorable Mentions: Pacific Rim (2012), The One I Love (2014), Super 8 (2011)

Those are my picks for the best Comic Book Movies and Sci-Fi of the decade so far. What do you think?

Check back soon, as I'll look at the Action and Animation genres. If you haven't already, check out the best Romance and Documentaries of the decade so far.


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