Friday, 16 July 2021

Top 15 Remakes of 1980s

COMPLEXITY & SOPHISTICATION: 

15 Best Movie Remakes 1980 - 1989

Commercial cinema maintains the industry and recycles past winners, breathing new life into used plots and forgotten pictures, just like a fresh coat of paint revives rooms and sprucing up homes for sale as houses. It’s often a generational practice, of course, and changes of details or in scope and scale are sometimes radical to match whatever gets attention. Zeitgeist drives ambitions, but safe bets are normally the best choices.

Tech advances are vitally important for cultural developments, especially for cinema. The crucial difference between Metropolis’ silent-film expressionism, and retro-futurism in science fiction's masterpiece Blade Runner, is 55 years, or half a century of progress. Typical reasons for movie revisionism are cultural, and/ or usually artistic, especially when older works from the B&W era get updated with colour, and other film-making tech. Remakes usually keep traditional elements, particularly those of specific genres yet frequently address modern concerns. An excellent example is William Friedkin’s dynamic ‘road movie’, Sorcerer (1977), an American updating of Cluzot’s thriller The Wages Of Fear (1953), that improves on the gritty French original, not just in colour but adding the skills of Hollywood adventure cinema that enhance many hair-raising stunts.

Another was Philip Kaufman’s definitive Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978), the paradigmatic movie that delivers urban paranoia enough to beat its small-town 1956 original. A third case is Murder By Decree (1979), arguably still the greatest Sherlock Holmes movie, although its basic plot was borrowed by A Study In Terror (1965). On the continent, Werner Herzog’s exceptional Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979), rang the changes on F.W. Murnau’s expressionist original Nosferatu: A Symphony Of Horror (1922), adding colour and sound to subtly enhance a phenomenal classic and perhaps spark off ideas for many of these top 15 outstanding remakes, during the next decade.

My listing’s in chronological order...

Flash Gordon (1980)

Created to rival the time-warped sci-fi astronaut Buck Rogers, comic-strip space-hero Flash Gordon appeared in chaptered movie serials (1936) that often seem unbearably creaky, today. After his critical success with The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), and then following the massive box-office influence of Star Wars (1977), British director Nicolas Roeg failed to make his Hollywood debut with a lavishly conceived, seriously biblical SF drama that was, perhaps unfortunately, derived from intellectual readings of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comics. Italian mogul Dino De Laurentiis produced Mike Hodges’ vaguely surreal adaptation, FLASH GORDON, as a cheerful adventure, that begins with UFOlogy themed attacks on planet Earth, evoking This Island Earth (1955). After their plane crash, Flash (Sam Jones), and Dale (Melody Anderson), are launched into deep space aboard a rocket by rogue NASA scientist Dr Zarkov (Topol). What happens next is brightly coloured pulp sci-fi that’s lavishly designed yet simply filmed, but its combination is often more than sum of its fantastic parts, and so Flash Gordon is almost hallucinatory at times. 

“What if it isn’t a dream?” Ming proves he is a merciless psycho with a great performance by Max von Sydow, as Emperor of shiny futurism, and quite intentionally cheesy glamour, in this fascist utopia (fascistopia?). “Show us this loyalty. Fall on your sword.” Simplistic visual effects are easy to forgive when a brisk pace with memorable set-pieces and a quotable script ensure this ultra-stylised pantomime bazaar of the bizarre has contrary standards to slicker, expensive visuals of Star Wars. Flash has courage and tenacity enough to survive a cruel death, by execution, and every other unkind attempt on his life, so “flying blind, on a rocket cycle?” sums up the heroic resistance to malevolent Ming. Re-enactment of pulp-era sensations, with a knowingly extravagant flamboyance and post-modern styling, this fabulous tribute movie celebrates its origins while avoiding the epic hyper-realism of rival space operas by embracing its own preposterously naff quality. Forty years later, Flash Gordon’s enduring appeal lies in its commitment to such colourfully charming escapism and moments of witty humour, so it’s now called a ‘cult camp kitsch classic’ by its makers. 

Outland (1981)

A fully updated revision of western heroism in High Noon (1950), OUTLAND appears to have been inspired by Battle Beyond The Stars (1980), an amusing sci-fi remake of classic Hollywood cowboys film, The Magnificent Seven (1960), a gunslingers version of Japan’s iconic Seven Samurai (1954). To celebrate inter-world futurism, character-names are borrowed from real people in science, industry, and SF... physicist O’Neil, astronaut Sheppard, author Ballard, tycoon Hughes, astronomers Lowell and Sagan. At a mining colony on Jupiter’s moon Io, trouble comes for Sean Connery’s marshal. His wife leaves, taking his young son away to Earth, and corporate management (led by Peter Boyle) hates police. Life is hard on this highest frontier, where only drugs or death provide any hope of escape from greedy exploiters. Outland is gloomy SF, with  industrial rigour, set during a time of Solar-system expansion, perhaps before Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), where freedom just seems like a liberal myth. So, it’s no wonder this space western feels like its thematic umbilical is connected to new TV series The Expanse (2015-21). Is one man with a gun the only defence against capitalist power? The lone lawman becomes a hero whether he wants his damned job, or not. Fighting oppression when any individual is powerless to change the system is quite pointless, but the marshal defeats the killers, and punches the villain, anyway. Somebody’s got to do it, obviously. Finally, playing the cranky old Dr Lazarus, Frances Sternhagen is effortlessly formidable, especially when she upstages Connery. 

Cat People (1982)

Paul Schrader transformed the mystery noir Cat People (1942), from creepy suspense into a grisly masterpiece of erotic horror. This version makes explicit what could only be suggested 40 years earlier. Virginal orphan Irena (Nastassja Kinski) finds long lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) in New Orleans, discovering a shared heritage and their family’s curse. If she has sex, Irena transforms into a panther, a feline beast that must kill before she can become human again. A lesser director might have made this 1980s version a sleazy exercise in serial murder with wild-cat excuses for its werewolf styled violence. But Schrader turns both magical affect and mythic tale into a psycho-drama of abstinence, with an apparently incestuous relationship offering the haunted Irena her only escape from alternatives of a lonely existence, or a nightmare life-style. Working at a local zoo, she finds a kind of salvation with curator Oliver (John Heard). After closing time, she stays behind, sketching animals, especially the jaguar captured in a hotel room. Paul and Irena’s relationship soon changes, from peculiarly awkward to dangerous. The mysterious black cat kills a zoo keeper (Ed Bgeley Jr), then escapes while Oliver invites Irena to a bayou cabin, where she rejects his attempted seduction. Police keep finding violent crime scenes of terrible carnage. Irena expresses curiosity, frequently, but also reveals her fears of sexuality, like an unhealthy mix of shame and fragility. Eventually, feverish dreaming of her dreadful ancestry unmask a goddess of death knowing that love means freedom. David Bowie’s theme song (“putting out the fire with gasoline”) fits perfectly into this slow-burning shadowy movie’s twin moods. Unlike the original, Schrader’s version shivers and seethes with brooding intensity as its builds from an ominous beginning to erupt into electrifying supernatural hostility. Cinematic visualisations of tribal mythology in CAT PEOPLE proved so potent it was an obvious influence on after-life imagery in superhero movie Black Panther (2018). 

The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter’s masterwork THE THING succeeds where The Thing From Another World (1951) failed. Although the old B&W picture is not a bad sci-fi classic of its era, it never evokes grim SF-horrors built in our minds from reading John W. Campbell’s original story Who Goes There? (1938). Carpenter’s darkly brooding version explores the unique blending of Alien (1979), with Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978), as identity crises merge with alien monsters for a crucible of intense paranoia combined with the grotesque and yet flamboyant shock of shape-shifting transformation scenes. Lovecraftian themes explode into life-like menace when this ghastly monstrosity first appears. Isolated by wilderness in their Antarctic research base, men working on this frozen continent are confronted by howling sled dogs turning inside-out, so the weird beast of deep space can escape from its cage of mewling flesh. It develops strangeness enough to present viewers with something only imagined before in baroque surrealist artwork. 

Much more than just another live-action cartoon-creature, the changeling of Otherness easily becomes whatever ‘it’ can absorb. Proving human ID gets reduced to a crude test when blood samples evade burning. Characters are skilfully written, and memorably performed by a varied ensemble cast, staged as a microcosm of American culture. Kurt Russell as pilot ‘Mac’ MacReady, and the radio expert named Windows (Thomas Waites), forms a witty yet thinly-veiled critique of human dependency upon computers, or machines in general. The scenario puts strong individualism at its core but this body-horror theme embraces a weird conformity, so diversity means nothing. I remember seeing it first on a pan-and-scan (4:3) VHS release, only later discovering that The Thing seemed like an entirely different picture in widescreen on DVD or Blu-ray. Prequel, The Thing (2011), was just a satisfactory monster-movie, quite unable to mimic the ground-breaking intensity or cross-genre impact of Carpenter’s version. At the end of 1951’s picture there’s an iconic line about “keep watching the skies” but, for 2011’s drama, the star-gazing heroine says (perhaps, in a comment about 1982’s film) “we’ll never look at them the same again.” Insist on the best, accept no imitations.

Never Say Never Again (1983)

Updating 007 spy-fi, two decades after Thunderball (1965), this unofficial re-vision is quite dramatically superior to Terence Young’s humdrum adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1961 novel, later co-credited to producer Kevin McClory who claimed film rights after a legal battle. Origins aside, this movie’s linchpin was Sean Connery’s welcome return as James Bond, bringing some much needed self-parody to a sprawling franchise already in clear danger of descending into campy farce starring Roger Moore. NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN wins its place as second-best 1980s’ Bond movie (Licence To Kill gets my vote as #1 of 007’s decade), because of its astute casting and well-paced story. Traditionally, the Bond girls are usually talented newcomers, but Kim Basinger’s role, as the villain’s girlfriend, Domino, was just a break-through that established her as an international star. However, Basinger is almost over-shadowed by Barbara Carrera as the SPECTRE agent, Fatima Blush, whose attempts to assassinate Connery’s hero are equally menacing and playful. As a violent psycho that Bond cannot resist, she proves to be his perfect rival. Humour is an essential part of all 20th century 007 movies and the character of ‘Q’ (Quartermaster of gadgets), played by Alec McCowen, delivers the ultimate meta-fictional quip, a wry critique of how Roger Moore had made Bond soft: “Now you’re on this, I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence!” In the field, Bond meets Foreign Office rep. Nigel Small-Fawcett, a blatantly comic-relief role for Rowan Atkinson, who later won his own brand of stardom in the obvious 007 parody, Johnny English (2003), and its two franchised sequels. 

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

“Wanna see something really scary?” It’s the Midnight Special and you’ve just crossed over into the TWILIGHT ZONE. Transforming the greatest TV anthology series into a portmanteau movie was not easy. What makes it work is the producers decision to get four genre directors to contribute, with remakes of episodes chosen for their balanced diversity of socio-political themes. One strange night, ranting racist Bill (Vic Morrow) suddenly finds he’s living under Nazi occupation, and hunted by the Ku Klux Klan, so he gets his comeuppance, repeatedly. John Landis’ quite vividly composed shocker, A Quality Of Mercy, was eclipsed by real-life tragedy after a helicopter crash during the filming of its Vietnam sequence. Starring Scatman Crothers as Mr Bloom, Spielberg’s Kick The Can should have been a lively and compassionate drama of reminiscence, in a retirement home, but the director’s tendency here drowns elderly sorrows in grossly absurd sentimentalism. KTC is most entertaining for its young cast playing amusingly juvenile versions of their adult characters. 

This movie improves with It’s A Good Life. Joe Dante directs Kathleen Quinlan as teacher Helen, who meets a bizarrely eccentric ‘family’ cringingly tormented by wishes of magical boy Anthony. Whimsy turns nasty for their creepy cartoon lifestyle where “everything’s okay” at home, or else. Monster-effects are prompted by exploring the crazily violent horrors that underlie all childish fantasy and slapstick mayhem. George Miller’s revision of Nightmare At 20,000 Feet is the best segment and it improves on the TV original starring William Shatner. John Lithgow is the ultimate paranoid passenger on a jet-plane caught in a stormy sky, as a gremlin on the wing smashes an engine. A white-knuckle ride, with fears of flying that become sweaty panic, this flits along a knife-edge between extreme psycho-terror and black comedy. Of course, it’s always the safest way to travel... but never in the movies. This exploration of that artistic realm where imagination meets anxiety remains, very much, a classic of its format, despite some flaws. If only they’d got Carpenter, instead of Spielberg to direct a remake (of The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street perhaps?), this could have been the greatest genre anthology movie of them all. 

Enemy Mine (1985)

Although it’s based on Barry Longyear’s novella (1979), this sci-fi adventure has most of the development criteria for viewing as a genre switched remake of war-movie Hell In The Pacific (1968), John Boorman’s drama of American and Japanese servicemen, stuck together on a remote island. It’s a co-operate or die story that perfectly suits SF themes of isolationism and Otherness. ENEMY MINE has spacer pilots crashing on a planet, where they are forced to abandon hostility, overcome mutual intolerance, and share to just survive. Dennis Quaid plays human, Will Davidge, well enough, but here it’s Louis Gossett Jr, as the weird alien Jeriba ‘Jerry’ Shigan, who steals the show. His amazing performance as reptilian ‘Drac’ is one of the finest in all 1980s’ SF movies or TV. Besieged by environment, misfortunes, and misinterpretation, the desperate duo eventually learn that willing co-operation instead of hate and opposition is their only chance to live, for them as individuals, and for rival species to exist in our indifferent universe. Their hard lessons mean questioning all political propaganda, and personal prejudices, and it’s most difficult for the blinkered human to understand Drac culture and philosophy, and never mind comprehending the alien’s hermaphrodite life-cycle. Moving away from their antagonisms, with taunts of ‘toadface’ and ‘irkman’, the foes wholly unlikely friendship wins an unearthly peace, after their meeting of minds, and this movie evades the blatantly racist overtones of Byron Haskin’s flawed space opera Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964). When its castaway story avoids  sentimentality, or melodrama, with an approach to sci-fi adopted by later Star Trek TV shows and Star Wars sequels, Enemy Mine is extraordinary for masterly designs and stunningly rich images, that together create the fabulous milieu for an engaging and compelling tale. 

The Fly (1986)

“I’m working on something that’ll change the world... and human life, as we know it.” David Cronenberg updated 1958's sci-fi monster-movie with explicitly modern body-horror tropes and all the shocking impact of genre drama, including a cancer allegory. As the original B&W cult film was set in Montreal it seemed appropriate for Canadian auteur Cronenberg to write (with Charles Edward Pogue), and direct, a new visionary intelligent-SF adaptation of this cautionary tale. Cronenberg’s THE FLY has superior qualities, dropping the flashback structure of Kurt Neumann’s likeably cheesy original, and opting for a linear approach to George Langelaan’s story. It’s also a weird romantic triangle, that can only end in tragic death, with an extraordinary star performance by Jeff Goldblum as reclusive scientist Seth Brundle. He’s involved with journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) after she agrees to document his work. Instead of the silly effects seen in previous Fly movies, the new script is focused on Cronenberg’s familiar themes of biological mutation, so the transformation here of man into monster (Brundle-fly) is accomplished slowly, mimicking the grotesque symptoms of a grimly leprous disease, later explained as changes made at genetic-hybrid levels during a teleportation procedure. 

The instantaneous jump from one ‘tele-pod’ to another has spliced human DNA with that of a housefly. At first, Seth appears to have been improved by his human experiment, but, soon enough, his newfound athleticism is found to be only the initial stage of his disturbing mental and physical degeneration. Cronenberg also explores the stages of a psychosis that frightens poor Veronica, especially after discovering her pregnancy. Apart from addressing pro-choice issues for abortion, The Fly also tackles irrational fears about HIV, in a memorably poignant scene where sympathetic heroine Ronnie unhesitatingly embraces Seth’s decaying body and comforts him. Goldblum delivers his tour-de-force monologue on the hitherto unexplored subject of insect politics, as Brundle’s conscience and compassion slip away, and it’s powerfully affecting because he knows what’s happening to him. It’s a stunning sequence of psychological horror, that ranks highly among the best genre movie roles of all time and yet Goldblum was shamefully overlooked at the Oscars. Despite some impressive effects, and seemingly higher production values, Chris Wallas’ The Fly 2 (1989) simply lacks the impressive imagination of Cronenberg’s remake. 

Invaders From Mars (1986)

Tobe Hooper’s take on War Of The Worlds derivative, Invaders From Mars (1953), a movie for “scientists of all ages”, has aliens arrive, like nocturnal thieves, with remote control of humans and the very ground that people walk on. Designer turned director William Cameron Menzies presented his picture’s core message as - ‘always question authority’, even if it means breaking any rules, and it seems likely to have a profound effect upon young SF fans. But what if a dream was a premonition? This mad remake delivers an epic nightmare of impressive set-pieces with a magnificent upgrade of the special effects. Hooper’s genius for INVADERS FROM MARS offers cult-worthy pulp sci-fi revivalism, with a full-scale cosmic-horror story all wrapped up in 100 minutes. The 1953 version appeared between Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters (1951), and The Body Snatchers (1954) by Jack Finney. Clearly, all this SF about UFOs and aliens inspired Larry Cohen’s TV series The Invaders (1967-8), so Hooper’s remake had plenty of genre influences drawn from SF themes already toyed with, and practically exhausted.

“Everything is fine, now,” assures nodding dad George, but his anxious son knows it’s a lie. Louise Fletcher plays an evil biology teacher. Karen Black makes a great heroine as the school nurse Linda while the actress’ own son Hunter Carson plays 10-year-old radical David. As in the original, blank-faced people stroll around like puppet-drones. However, now the back of that wicked teacher’s van resembles the serial killer’s house in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Indeed, witty in-jokes are everywhere, like any Joe Dante adventure. The mega-brain of the Martian supreme intelligence is only one image from a kid’s worst dreamscape. “Hope you know what we’re doing,” says a US marine to a SETI scientist. When troops enter the tunnels under the sand-pit, this scary mystery wholly becomes a black-comedy, and bonkers menace appears at every twist. During a military evacuation, the slot-machine ray-gun is hilarious. Finally, the plot switches to, oh no, not again! If nothing else, this grisly amusement is a far better boy-meets-alien thriller than Spielberg’s corny fairy-tale E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Ray Garton’s witty novelisation revels in taking some literary inspiration from The Wizard Of Oz and Alice In Wonderland. Amusingly, 21 years later, Hooper’s IFM was a clear influence on Body Snatchers remake and zombie nightmare The Invasion (2007). 

Dead Of Winter (1987)

The original version for this mystery-thriller was melodrama My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), based on Anthony Gilbert’s crime novel The Woman In Red (1941). That B&W gothic that starred Nina Foch as a secretary kidnapped from London to Cornwall. She is cruelly treated for hysteria, but escapes from her captors in the cliff-top mansion, discovers  an unsolved murder, and turns the tables after a showdown on the beach. This remake benefits from North American settings (but filmed in Canada), where an opening cloak-and-dagger sequence has fatal results. Struggling NYC actress Katie (Mary Steenburgen) is invited to video auditions for a mysterious director. Roddy McDowell plays Murray, a talent-scout (actually a kidnap accomplice) for a ‘leading lady’ as look-alike replacement for movie star Julie Rose in a supposed thriller script.

Trapped in an isolated house where her resident host is creepy wheelchair-bound Dr Lewis, unwary Katie soon learns that there is no acting role, and Murray’s deception covers up a blackmail plot. After losing a finger, Katie - as Julie - discovers the house has a secret passage hidden behind her bedroom’s mirror. Suffering through drug-induced hallucinations, she switches from morbid submission to frantic desperation when local cops arrive. Another woman appears, Julie’s sister Evelyn (also portrayed by Steenburgen), and the resourceful actress fights her double. Arthur Penn (Euro actioner Target) directs with Kubrickian precision and Carpenterish scares, and so DEAD OF WINTER offers a witty blend of subgenre themes on identity crisis with clever twists, a frozen landscape as metaphorical claustrophobia, and black comedy from various moral panics. Climactic violence is a clearly decisive action that re-sets disturbances in this distorted reality in favour of our tragic heroine, but DOW has no happy ending. It’s only the case of a survivor of psycho horrors and physical trauma.

No Way Out (1987)

Originally filmed as The Big Clock (1948), then a French version, Police Python 357 (1976), both based on a post-war novel, NO WAY OUT is a Pentagon spy-thriller that begins as a romantic drama before it becomes a criminal conspiracy about the secret manhunt for suspected KGB agent code-named ‘Yuri’. Roger Donaldson directs, with escalating tensions, while US navy officer Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner) is “trying to be subtle”, when the target of an investigation is actually himself. The real villain here is US Defence Secretary David Price (Gene Hackman) whose mistress, cynical party-girl Susan Atwell (Sean Young), is killed in a jealous rage. With the help of a slimy lawyer, Pritchard (Will Patton), the increasingly desperate Price manages to circumvent CIA and FBI inquires with a political cover-up. “You have no idea what men of power can do!” Crucial to generating the pressure of suspense, in developments of this neo-noir plot, is an image-enhancement program that works (oh so slowly!) on photo evidence that’s expected to identify the killer. A clever Cold War twist-ending is also very witty. Not only was this movie a career milestone for actor Costner, boosting the Hollywood high-flyer into a superstar orbit, but its themes and unusual setting proved influential enough to kick-start the modern subgenre of ‘military justice’ - when it was followed by Peter Hyams’ The Presidio (1988), legal drama A Few Good Men (1992), murder mystery The General’s Daughter (1999), popular TV series JAG (1995 - 2005), and a spin-off NCIS franchise. 

The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988)

Terry Gilliam’s lavishly staged production remains one of the top five greatest fantasy movies of all time. Its earlier versions include Josef von Baky’s Munchhausen (1948), intended as German propaganda, and Karel Zeman’s partly-animated Czech film The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962). This updated tale is quite suitably Pythonesque and features Eric Idle, playing a supporting role, one of the powerful characters in the Baron’s own motley super-team of comic-book heroes wearing period costumes. This remake isn’t, however, a typical superhero movie, despite adventures that resemble a mission where success is rarely in doubt. The unstoppable Baron routinely defeats an army of invading Turks, saves a besieged kingdom, and magically defies ‘Death’ itself. Oliver Reed and Uma Thurman are great fun as the Roman deities Vulcan and Venus. What makes this especially notable is how easily it forms Gilliam’s auteur trilogy after the seemingly-unrelated genre adventures of Time Bandits (1981), and Brazil (1985). 

THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN is an emboldened fairytale of sorts, about a crazy hero who’s boastful enough to outrage historians or any logical thinkers with his archly conceited claims of possessing a convincing superiority over mundane reality. To reiterate and clarify, the Baron (winningly played by John Neville) is never an offensive rebel, because his formidably absurd dreaming simply challenges formal authority and entirely rational thought. His charming antagonism just rejects the Age of Reason completely, and in favour of imagination... “You do believe me, don’t you?” asks the Baron. “I’m doing my best” replies the confused little stowaway Sally (Sarah Polley). Each time his wishing triumphs over trouble, deadly adversity, or failure, the geriatric Baron regains his youthful appearance, with a sparkling, renewed vigour, as if his life-force is magically refuelled by hope. This expression of whimsy as creativity forms the heart of Gilliam’s artistry, and here the director achieves his most fantastic level of inventive novelty. The sing-along chorus (as commentary) “What will become of the Baron? Surely this time, he will not escape” just prompts bigger unruly evasion tactics so that a surprisingly indomitable willpower avoids undesirable consequences. “Those were the days, eh?” Inspirational storytelling with a pair of by-his-boot-straps twist-endings, Baron Munchausen is the essence of what ‘legendary’ really means. 

The Blob (1988)

Jim Wynorski’s trashy 1988 remake of Roger Corman’s space-vampire movie, Not Of This Earth (1957), is a typical example of how to update venerable B&W sci-fi without adding even a moment of modern genre creativity, yet displaying witless contempt for Corman’s fans. Yet another ‘first contact’ scenario, Chuck Russell’s horror movie THE BLOB marks a genuine progression from its 1958 original, directed by Irvin Yeaworth as an obviously cheesy B-movie, and best remembered as the star debut of Hollywood legend Steve McQueen. Thirty years on, it’s local bad-boy Brian (Kevin Dillon) who is the first to comprehend the big scale of new danger for his town and the unsuspecting world. To nobody’s surprise he acts irresponsibly, and only turns all heroically selfless just before the end. Before his change of heart, Shawnee Smith makes a gutsy heroine as sensible cheerleader Meg, clearly framing this remake as a ‘rebel youth’ adventure. 

Much like Carpenter’s shape-shifter The Thing (1982), and Larry Cohen’s sci-fi satire The Stuff (1985), this alien-invader thriller has an element of Lovecraftian mythos in its comedy make-up. Superbly designed and performed, various special effects for the gloopy creature spread rapidly, with results often copied from typical slasher shocks, but featuring an unstoppable killer that’s obviously... not from around here. With its blend of popular trends, the rampaging space-monster emerges from a cosmos where the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise meets Aliens (1986), for small-town mayhem and some Twilight Zone weirdness, including a loony preacher who easily believes its appearance on Earth is a sign of the Rapture. Eventually, the uncannily pink-plasmic people-eater expands so quickly, along with busy dimensions of this shrewd remake’s conspiracy plot, that it bursts up from street drains like a volcanic eruption during the climactic sequence. Considered as a form of living pollution, the Blob owes something to Hedorah from Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971), and it pre-empts Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), where a plant mutation threatens Japan. Metamorphic menace here lacks any obvious intelligence but its giant amoebic form exhibits a ferocious brutality that’s compelling as grotesque horror, if not always credible as SF. 

D.O.A. (1988)

A man walks into a police station and reports a murder... his own. This crime-story of 1950 unfolds in flashback. After he’s poisoned in some booze at a San Francisco night club, the doomed protagonist runs for his life. There’s a luminous toxin (iridium) that glows in darkness, during the briskly-paced B&W mystery with a sadly melodramatic finale. Updated for modern noir by Charles Edward Pogue (also writer of Psycho III, and Cronenberg’s The Fly), an impressive remake was directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, best known as creators of cyberpunk TV icon Max Headroom (1985). After an Xmas suicide on campus, Professor Dex Cornell (Dennis Quaid) is caught off balance, especially after he’s unjustly suspected of murdering of his wife. The toxicity of radium chloride displays luminous in a blood sample, and his doctor explains Dex has 24 hours to live. Filmed in sweaty Texas, locations add layers of cultural stress to already fraught narrative complications, bolstered by a fine supporting cast. 

Mystery is linked to a tragedy of literary ambitions and crime scandals concerning rich widow Fitzwaring (Charlotte Rampling). On his way to justice, or oblivion, Dex gets himself super-glued to student Sydney (Meg Ryan) in her Freudian slip. Running from cops, Dex finds Syd’s crush on him turning into a one-night fling. Witty ideas and startling images abound in this fascinating whodunit, where the victim investigates his death, lurching from psychological trauma and moral crisis to violent danger as he confronts mortality like an “ever darkening dream”. Although people keep dying all around him Dex manages to expose an earlier crime. There’s the first use of a nail-gun as a deadly weapon in this non-horror movie, a mainstream match for Miracle Mile with scenes of tar-pits on a location, featured here as a historical time-sink metaphor. In the end, it’s all about the graded ‘A’ homework of an unread novel manuscript. D.O.A. was not this era’s final remake of a classic noir. These upgrades continued with Peter Hyams’ witness-protection thriller, The Narrow Margin (1990), the super-charged version of 1952’s train drama.   

Always (1989)

An updated version of A Guy Named Joe (1943), Steven Spielberg’s ALWAYS is about fire-fighting pilots, who drop water bombs and foam on forest fires. Hot-shot air-man Pete (Richard Dreyfuss) is reckless to impress fellow flyers but upsets feisty girlfriend Dorinda (Holly Hunter). Pete saves pilot buddy Al (a garrulous John Goodman) from a burning plane but then he dies in a mid-air explosion. Wandering from his Afterlife, the reluctantly deceased Pete meets guiding angel Hap, played by Audrey Hepburn in her last role. Although unfairly dismissed as another silly romantic-fantasy, produced in Hollywood’s matinee mode, this aerial action movie is considerably more than just strange adventures in daredevil flying with archly feminist, albeit largely stereotyped, aspects mostly centred on Hunter’s spirited transformation from tomboy to princess.

A seemingly awkward style of theatrical unreality is wholly appropriate as time-worn tropes are explored in charmingly unfashionable circumstances. Wittily, Always flits between rom-com and aviation thriller, but Spielberg’s direction elevates the original film’s wartime melodrama to superior mystery-movie with a quiet-ghost story (rarely depending on special effects) for affecting episodes of tragedy and weighty mourning. Dorinda’s dreaming opens communication with Pete, who learns to act as a guardian angel for handsome Ted (Brad Johnson) and so, eventually, heroine Dorinda falls for this new bloke at the flight school. A climactic mission is coached by Pete but actually piloted by Dorinda, complete with the mysticism of night flying. Like Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait (1978), a remake of Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), this examines a mixed-bag of supernatural themes, focused on dead people not ready to cry ‘goodbye’. In its sentimentality, Always adopts the Capra-esque manner of It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), but playing with opposites, when farewell means freedom. Peppering comedy with quirky slapstick scenes among telepathic encounters, where love’s persistence in grief enables a psychic link with the ghost, even if dancing alone. Certainly, Always is one of Spielberg’s most under-rated efforts.

* * *

Runners-up...

AIRPLANE! (1980)

Excluded from the top 15 because it’s just a parody, not a proper remake, this comedy about disaster movies nevertheless owes a substantial debt to the story of Zero Hour! (1957). Oddly enough, the follow-up to this spoofy success, sci-fi comedy Airplane II: The Sequel (1982), is much funnier, to me, partly because it features William Shatner. 

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN (1981)

Another spoof, this colourful sit-com and critique of American consumerism lacks the moral values and genre sincerity that ensured Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) became such a classic of B&W sci-fi horror.

SCARFACE (1983)

With his update of Howard Hawks’ original Scarface (1932), Brian De Palma proves that nothing succeeds quite like bloody excess, offering gangster violence that’s now so hysterically sensationalist, it has long since lapsed into hyper-violent caricature.

THE BOUNTY  (1984)

Roger Donaldson’s re-telling of Mutiny On The Bounty (1935, remade 1962) is glossy and stylish, but hardly a great improvement as sea-faring entertainment, or historical drama, despite a good cast led by Anthony Hopkins, and Mel Gibson.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986)

Roger Corman’s horror comedy (1960) was adapted into a 1982 stage musical, before Frank Oz directed a movie version. It’s a peculiar combination that never appealed to me, partly because I dislike any traditional screen musicals, except for Singin’ In The Rain (1952). 

AND GOD CREATED WOMAN (1988)

It’s a rarity in new versions when a director recycles their own movie. Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (1956), was a French showcase for Brigitte Bardot, baiting censors with liberated sexuality, then considered indecent. Vadim’s American remake had a new storyline, a sexy comedy that stars Rebecca De Mornay as escaped convict Robin, a flighty jailbird with ambitious designs on a state politician (Frank Langella). 

And finally...

In franchised media, some productions avoid easy identification as remakes - and yet the label ‘reboot’ might seem appropriate. Partly, if not mostly, this applies to various new versions of serial-films and early TV shows about superheroes, fitting very neatly into the retroactive continuity (ret-con) frameworks of comic-book alternative worlds and so Richard Donner’s epic Superman: The Movie (1978), is mirrored by TV-movie Captain America (1979), as great examples of more imaginative adventures linked to earlier screen adaptations without being just updated and obviously refreshed origin-stories. Cleverly directed by Tim Burton, Batman (1989), never feels like a remake, so it’s not on my list, but it deserves a mention here. Hugh Hudson’s magnificent picture Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes (1984) is another visionary film adaptation that was developed so differently than any previous screen adventures it’s evolved far beyond any ‘remake’ status. 

See also: Top 20 Live-Action Superhero Movies

Top 15 remakes in alphabetical order -

The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988)

Always (1989)

The Blob (1988)

Cat People (1982)

Dead Of Winter (1987)

D.O.A. (1988)

Enemy Mine (1985)

Flash Gordon (1980) 

The Fly (1986)

Invaders From Mars (1986)

Never Say Never Again (1983)

No Way Out (1987)

Outland (1981)

The Thing (1982)

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Top 20 Supers

Top 20 Live-Action Superhero Movies 

Superhero cinema in the 21st century was enabled by advanced filmmaking technologies developed with varying degrees of creativity and triumph by the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999), Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-3), and Michael Bay’s robot-series launched by Transformers (2007). On the genre spectrum, superhero movies have elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery, so this assorted content blends many kinds of comedy-drama, including odd satire and spoofs, weirdness and surrealism. What’s a superhero? If not a costume or special powers, it must be thoughts and actions. Time and space are unlimited in these narratives and all of history folds with imagination. I considered including John Boorman’s greatest masterpiece, of Arthurian legends, Excalibur (1981), and auteur Terry Gilliam’s remake The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988), which ends his informal genre trilogy - after Time Bandits (1981), and Brazil (1985) - but soon decided that they belong to screen traditions still unrecognisable as superhero pictures.

In the last 20 years, dozens of movie-makers jumped on the Marvel & DC bandwagon for success, and their seemingly unrelated efforts established links to this ‘tent-pole’ genre, so that, for example, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) can be seen as a superhero movie. However post-millennial cinema cycles, adapted from various comic-books are viewed, some of the current trends for colourful adventure have influential predecessors in 1980s’ productions, not all of which are immediately obvious, or considered relevant. But, I hope this piece might change a few, rather limiting, judgements of what’s genuinely significant in this field. For my overview, this A-Z listing of genre diversity collects cult originals, Art house, and mainstream blockbusters.

Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984)

Looking back at W.D. Richter’s directing debut again, it’s clear this master-class of pulpy sci-fi action shifts like stormy weather, and its bizarre inter-dimensional invasion plotting makes overlong epics such as Avengers: Endgame (2019) seem plodding by comparison. Even though Richter steals, most blatantly, from Doc Savage: Man Of Bronze (1975), this boasts impressively quirky ensemble casting (Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, Clancy Brown) who mesh so imperfectly, for Team Banzai, that any playfully confusing distinctions gives this jigsaw of characters an electrifying bravado, unmatched in mainstream cinema, until - again featuring versatile Goldblum - Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004). Ellen Barkin plays the hero’s suicidal romantic-interest, but John Lithgow almost out-acts everybody, delivering a comically-demented portrayal of quasi-alien villainy that not even Christopher Lloyd can match for memorably hilarious one-liners. In too many of comic-books’ key works, the strange power of grotesque absurdity is neglected, in favour of a conventionally malevolent antagonism. Lithgow’s maniacal Dr Lizardo, later revealed as Lord Whorfin, enthusiastically promotes an awesomely funny insanity, so dangerously unpredictable he is always mesmerising. Comics fans might consider that the Joker is #1 for crazy, but measured against the obsessive rages of psycho Lizardo, he’s just a clown.  

Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)

Joss Whedon’s sequel gets my vote as the best Avengers movie, primarily for introducing one of my favourite Marvel characters, the Vision. Unlike the comic-books’ origin stories, this first screen appearance for Marvel’s android hero adds complexity and happenstance for a primal scene, where the baseline program from robot Ultron, and Stark’s A.I. butler, J.A.R.V.I.S, combines with the cosmic ‘Mind’ stone, for implanting in artificial ‘flesh’ bonded to vibranium metal (from Wakanda). Gifted with new life by a jolt of Asgardian lightning, the Vision has an explosive ‘birth’ that mimics Frankenstein movies. This is esoteric and quasi-mythical in the manner of Promethean meta-physics. The Vision proves to be too ‘perfect’ a creation for service to antagonistic Ultron, and a super-being of wise but naive intelligence and logical morality, proving worthy enough to handle Thor’s magic hammer. The brisk pace means there is no time for indulging non-fans to explain versatile powers. This revisionist beginning for the ‘synthezoid’ superhero is much better devised than any of the comics’ variations. SF action scenes with a keen sense-of-wonder, out-performing the source material, are a fundamental part of all great superhero cinema. Several changes are welcome alternatives to existing lore, re-wiring Marvel ultra-universe circuitry for a post-cyberpunk currency to emerge, evolved from much less intellectually challenging material, but with emotional charge preserved in fantastically imaginative content (we are not alone!) that always made Avengers canon such good fun in comics. Yesteryear’s fantasy reforms into today’s hyper-reality, so narrative development of this exploding franchise revels in exploring sci-fi genre variants of mythological archetypes and telling allusions to modern history.

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016)

Although it’s a stylish update, Man Of Steel (2013) was, basically, a fantastical remake of Superman The Movie (1978), and Superman II (1980). Zack Snyder established a unique trademark on DC movies with MOS, but this sequel offers something new in a franchised universe; an intensely dramatic super-team saga that rivals the spectacular genre impact of Snyder’s previous comic-book movie Watchmen. Whereas earlier efforts from DC's arch-rivals Marvel, like Avengers Assemble (2012), Fantastic Four (2005), and X-Men (2000), had to formally introduce most of their characters to audiences unaware of the heroes’ history in their decades of comics, BATMAN v SUPERMAN included Wonder Woman for its peerless trinity of icons, already easily identifiable in popular culture, following a variety of incarnations in cinema and TV. Snyder’s weighty approach, to childish source-material, is extraordinarily serious, with media-commentary and subplots about political corruption, for analysing these living legends driven to suicidal heroics. Confronting villainy shaped without a conscience, this super trio battle quasi-mythic weirdness formed like a cosmic Frankenstein’s monster after shocking mutation and re-animation by unknowable power. 'Doomsday' marks a fresh start for team-ups, and BVS is a welcome addition to DC’s rapidly expanding multi-verse. While four Avengers movies are usually leavened with too many inappropriate jokes, Snyder’s efforts turn sincerity to his advantage. By avoiding melodramatic farce, BVS concentrates on honesty and so delivers authentic SF plus fantasy that’s never trite or inconsequential. I hope that the 2021 director’s cut of Justice League (2017) finally consolidates the genre leadership role of Zack Snyder as the greatest artistic mastermind in comicbook movies.

Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

I am certainly not against humour and jokes being used in superhero movies, but it only works, for me, when the funny scenes also display some intelligence. John Carpenter is a craftsman of genre cinema, so his BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA delivers farce and larking-about with a grinning charm. It is never blithely inane, like Marvel’s wholly disappointing spoof Thor: Ragnarok (2017), or dismally vulgar like Deadpool (2016). Kurt Russell plays blundering lorry-driver Jack Burton as the best amusing parody of John Wayne, although Jack is really a sidekick to the story’s actual Asian hero, Wang (Dennis Dun, Year Of The Dragon). So, buddy-movie racial stereotypes are pointedly subverted with dry witticism, and many traditional elements of Hong Kong fantasy-comedy are disrupted, in favour of role-reversals and refreshing interpretations. In this world’s hyper-reality, magical tricks and psychodrama seem interchangeable, just as magic metaphors become dangerous truth. In the villainous and guru roles, James Hong and Victor Wong play westernised versions of iconic eastern mystics. The result is a rock ‘n’ roll party with circus clowns and monsters. BTILC didn’t win enough popularity to match Ghostbusters (1984), but it's much greater genre entertainment. Carpenter adapted Burton’s adventures into comic-books (2014-7), for a series that includes the sequel Old Man Jack.

Birdman (2014)

It’s not often that a superhero movie wins big at the Oscars (although Black Panther was at least nominated for ‘best film’), but this delightful comedy-drama scooped four awards including ‘best screenplay’ and ‘best director’. Michael Keaton stars in Alejandro Inarritu’s genre satire BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), a picture with off-beat stage work, filmed mostly in very long takes. While quietly exercising levitation and telekinetic powers, washed-up movie-star Riggan risks everything by doing his Broadway play based upon Raymond Carver talking about love. Still haunted by his costumed alter-ego, Riggan roams about backstage and ruminates while his theatre troupe are exploring the meaning of mass-media celebrity, and exposing a seemingly fraudulent existence for professional actors. “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” Edward Norton (The Incredible Hulk, 2008) plays the super-annoying replacement star Mike. Naomi Watts and Emma Stone form a cadre of supporting players here, but Andrea Riseborough easily out-acts them both, and Lindsay Duncan is outstanding as scathing critic Tabitha. Preparation meets humiliation during rehearsals, but previews are saved by resolute Riggan’s quirks of improv showmanship, flitting between ego-frenzy and Zen-styled calm. An ultimate kind of genre comeback movie, BIRDMAN has Keaton soaring above city streets like a daredevil Icarus, to indulge in retro wish-fulfilment of starring role-play as Bruce Wayne in Batman (1989). So, yeah, let’s break a leg, and blow many Art-snobs' minds, before shooting off the hero’s nose (to spite his face?) for an uplifting twist of wryly philosophical self-determinism. You might never believe a man can fly, but Keaton’s commitment here proves he can dream. 

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Although it’s loosely based on Marvel comics’ popular event-series, this movie drastically reduces the epic scale of its source material, to focus on a dozen heroes. Iron Man heads a U.N. group - supporters of ‘registration’ for Avengers, while Steve Rogers leads a rogue team, escaping from Euro custody to uncover terrorism by vengeful soldier Zemo. Although it lacks Thor and Hulk, CIVIL WAR launched ‘Phase Three’ of MCU’s franchise and, basically, it’s now ‘Avengers 2.5’ charted on the Marvel timeline. Directing two Captain America sequels, the Russo brothers took inspiration from spy-fi movies, continuing links to Soviet plotting about Bucky Barnes, alias Winter Soldier. After the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D, trails of destruction by Avengers spread from New York (see Avengers Assemble, 2012), and Washington DC, to Sokovia (Avengers: Age Of Ultron), and now Lagos. Bombing a U.N. building in Vienna does a rascally job of building upon this continuity of spectacular property-damage, and also introduces African prince Black Panther. There’s a new version of Spider-Man appearing for the centre-piece appeal of this movie’s 23-minute combat sequence, at a German airport, that starts with Hawkeye’s arrival at Avengers’ base, and ends with the flying-suited War Machine shot down by Vision. Happily for Cap’s team, the android Avenger takes only a minor part in the battle, but superb combinations of stunts and effects, especially when Ant-Man becomes Giant Man, who tips the fight’s balance, make this one of the very best super-team rumbles. Encounters between such different powers means their conflict only results in catastrophe. The coda, of course, is that revenge turns all sides into victims, or failures. Tony and Steve both get an ethical message. There’s no winner in this scenario.

Captain Marvel (2019) 

A tricky balancing act, performing strongly as an immediate prequel to the MCU franchise of 21st century adventures, this mixes a UFO-abduction mystery and space-opera action, with spy-movie details about shape-shifters. Kree heroine amnesiac Vers, alias MIA USAF test-pilot Carol Danvers, becomes immersed in a galactic war, and several identity-crises involving enemy Skrulls. Genre in-jokes (ET phones home, OK?), are to be expected here, but CAPTAIN MARVEL almost perfectly blends a variety of comicbook-style comedy thrills, set in 1995, during the cultural heyday of popular genre TV show The X-Files. Delivering origin-story intrigues, ensures a narrative complexity, and cool escapism with witty asides in the recovery of Carol’s lost memory. Elements previously explored in DC movies Green Lantern (2011), and Wonder Woman (2017), are combined for this Marvel production but with better coherence and a more balanced tone, so that comics traditions are respected, without compromising a dedication to modernity. This results in a hugely enjoyable, often exhilaratingly hectic, and - retrospectively - an expansively influential movie on Marvel’s timeline. Juggling its vastly cosmic and broadly comical themes, Captain Marvel maintains MCU brand quality while adding layers of feminism to its male-dominated field.

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

John Milius was very lucky to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger for this adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian hero. Austrian Arnold was the perfect choice to play Conan. He simply looks the part, talks with a suitably foreign accent, and his limited ability as a Hollywood actor was actually a bonus here, not a liability. In retrospect, it’s as if body-builder Arnie was born to star as savage Conan in the world’s greatest swords ‘n’ sorcery movie. Drawing upon samurai traditions, and Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, varied design elements for CONAN THE BARBARIAN ensure this is one of cinema’s best realised fantasy realms. It’s a tale of sorrows. Surviving his tribe’s massacre, growing into slavery and a gladiatorial pit, young Conan is tempered like steel for swords. Schwarzenegger’s first speech as Conan is: “Crush your enemies...” After killing a witch and a monstrous serpent, warrior Conan is crucified, but resurrected by a wizard. Arnold is most ably supported by dancer Sandahl Bergman, excellent as Amazonian heroine Valeria. Top thespians Max von Sydow, and James Earl Jones, bring heavyweight appeal to roles as a troubled king, and cult-leader Thulsa Doom. Conan beheads the cruel baddie in a finale recalling the bleak ending of Apocalypse Now (1979). A magnificent score by Basil Poledouris super-charges operatic violence in CONAN to shine through its gruesome scenario, for success despite studio censorship and critical indifference. Richard Fleischer’s enjoyable sequel Conan The Destroyer (1984) is more of a fun adventure than Milius’ more sombre saga. CONAN was the finest picture in its subgenre, until Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-3). The remake Conan The Barbarian (2011), starring Jason Momoa, with a huge budget and some good visuals, turned out OK. But it’s a poor cousin to Milius’ masterpiece.

The Dark Knight (2008)

From its first action sequence, where the Joker un-masks himself, explaining: “I believe, whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you stranger,” this second movie of Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy blends urban sci-fi and crime thriller into a stylish drama that quickly and easily banishes Adam West’s 1960s’ TV show, and Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, into the genre-history dustbin of obviously weaker efforts. Following Nolan’s reinvention of DC media canon, for Gotham’s hero in Batman Begins (2005), this outstanding version of the caped crusader sheds its mythic and dumb comedic influences for a supremely insightful perfection of the shadowy champion. He becomes a fearsome protagonist who provokes utterly psychopathic mayhem from his worst enemies. The Batman is always a stunt-man’s dream-job, while Christian Bale portrayal of Bruce Wayne is nuanced with social awareness and acute physical agony of his moralistic failures and human limitations. Because even a city-superhero with dual lives and a secret identity cannot be in two places at once, injustice wins in the end. Turning Batman into a tragic figure and the victim of cruel fate makes Nolan’s ambitious production a groundbreaking example of superhero cinema, that eventually became one of the century’s most popular entertainments so far. Unerring use of noise in a rumbling soundtrack that soon cranks up tensions for electrifying drama ensures a hyper-realistic tone. The siege-thriller sequel The Dark Knight Rises (2012) adds plenty of equally astonishing action scenes, boosting THE DARK KNIGHT’s appeal with a double-bill worth re-watching.   

Doctor Strange (2016)

TV movie Dr Strange (1978) introduced comics’ superhero magician to media audiences, following shows like The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-9), and The Incredible Hulk (1977-82), but no series about Marvel’s sorcerer supreme was produced. Other attempts failed until British TV actor Benedict Cumberbatch was signed up, with Scott Derrickson directing. It resulted in a major expansion of genre themes for the MCU franchise, not just in magical wonders and impressive visual effects, but a breakthrough for blending sci-fi and fantasy in ways that impose the reality of miracles, and mysterious dimensions, on the core bio-tech and super-science of Marvel’s wholly improbable worlds. DOCTOR STRANGE enables the esoteric and impossible with such ease that quirky gestures shatter even open minds. As master of the mystic arts, Stephen Strange bends space-time with sheer imagination, so dreaming and thinking become more powerful than typical superhero attributes, such as futurism or muscles. Wizardry turns monsters and even gods into pawns. Psychedelic illusions or distortions of reality are possible in cinema today because of several radical developments in visual effects. The process began with CGI, and became PRA (photo-real animation), where anything imaginable could be put on screen with a new verisimilitude. Stunning battles of wit fought in twilight zones of cosmic fantasy, where logic is laughable raise the magnificent scope of tragic events, and high-stakes conflict seems hallucinatory when death is irrelevant, while counter-clockwise reasoning presents weirdness as only a new normal. What it lacks in horror, Doctor Strange makes up for with its many edgy surprises, and with Dr Strange’s involvement in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), his miracles of sorcery helped to make that super-team saga a climactic addition to Marvel’s grandest franchise.   

Dredd (2017)

In the wake of Marvel’s homicidal vigilante, the Punisher, British comic 2000 AD published a futuristic satire where Judge Dredd is a killer with a badge, on streets of black-comedy gold. Created by John Wagner, this comic-strip about fascistic anti-heroes was developed by various writers for decades, before its screen adaptation, spawned a franchise of industrial scale. I enjoyed Danny Cannon’s spectacular sci-fi actioner Judge Dredd (1995), and thought it was quite unfairly criticised just because of Sly Stallone, but this lower-budget remake simply gets the soiled Mega-City of Cursed Earth solidly realised with conspicuous dystopian style. Pete Travis directs Karl Urban who, just like Dredd in the comics, never takes his crash-helmet off. Although Stallone played Judge Dredd as very much a larger-than-life super-cop, Urban’s version is a far more down-to-earth character, partnered with a mutant recruit, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), for a ‘drugs bust’. Dredd and his resourceful psychic rookie, are opposed by a vicious gang, led by nasty Ma-Ma (scar-faced Lena Headey). Action heroics are stylised by cinematic enhancements, linked to a ‘slo-mo’ drug stretching a user’s perception of time. Perhaps inevitably, DREDD was compared to Gareth Evans’ martial-arts thriller The Raid (2011), and also steals imagery of long falling scenes from Jodorowsky and Moebius’ The Incal (1980) comics, but director Travis and Dredd screen-writer Alex Garland, do justice to such copycat examples, so their obvious borrowings are suitably blended into superior and relevant narrative concerns. Dredd lacks the satirical asides of its comics source, but filming on South African locations helps to generate the essential atmosphere of terminal wasteland, most appropriate for the hideously over-populated sprawl of Mega-City One.

Ghost In The Shell (2017)

Casting white American actress Scarlett Johansson as Japanese super-heroine Mira Killian prompted an outcry about cultural appropriation, but any $100 million movie might never have been made without a bankable Hollywood star for its marquee value. Even following so many animated movies and TV serials, based on manga comics, this cyberpunk franchise only became a live-action picture directed by Rupert Sanders, because of Johansson, with Takeshi Kitano and Juliette Binoche as main supporting players. GHOST IN THE SHELL is set in the dystopian Asian megalopolis, where the mostly-robotic super-cop Major Killian investigates terrorists, while also uncovering dark secrets purged from her own memory. Johansson turns in a good performance as the stoic Major, a coolly violent operator in an urban jungle of hacked tech, broken minds, and ubiquitous corporate criminality. GITS is a sometimes chilling but spectacular thriller, where human virtues struggle for survival in wholly intrusive systems of omnipotent control and brutal corporate exploitation. With its brisk character development, GITS adapts its sci-fi horror comics-source into a cinematic milieu that’s every bit as polished and stylish as Blade Runner 2047, but also manages to avoid the overly slow pace that makes Denis Villeneuve’s movie a leisurely experience of cyber-futurism compared to Ridley Scott’s SF-masterwork Blade Runner (1982). Exhilarating on every level of its astonishing visuals, intriguing plot, and several fascinating characters, here’s a exceptional superhero movie that finds a heart and soul hidden inside the body electric.

 

Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes (1984)

Created in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs, jungle survivor Tarzan was tragically orphaned but became a superhero 25 years before Superman and Batman. Hugh Hudson’s grandly revisionist adventure GREYSTOKE is a colonial mystery drama of surprising maturity and exquisite hyper-realism. Older fans might well remember Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan movies, or Ron Ely on TV in the 1960s, but this classic picture stars Christopher Lambert as John Clayton II, and the name Tarzan is never mentioned except in the film's title, although he is still presented as proto-conservationist, and something of an eco-warrior. Newcomer Lambert gets admirable support from Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm, and James Fox. For her pivotal role as Jane, US model Andie MacDowell was dubbed by Glenn Close. Peter Elliott, now Hollywood’s celebrated ‘primary primate’, and special make-up effects wizard Rick Baker, both worked on realising a group of great apes. With roots in classic SF, like Wells’ The Island Of Dr Moreau (1896), Greystoke presents a dramatic version of ‘uplift’, delivering a superb character-study of the archetypal noble savage. Raised from infancy by apes, he adapts quickly, but remains untamed by man’s world. Confronting, and then dismissing, blasphemy, it’s amusing that Lord John’s first decisive act against civilisation is burning a British flag. Learning English from a Belgian officer, who guides John towards accepting another family-life in Scotland, Lambert has a brooding stare, and a tremendous charisma in this role as the deeply troubled outsider with an uncanny talent for mimicry. He struggles with the absurd etiquette of social grace, but has no difficulty expressing basic humanity, with a fearless love, and a feral grief. Of course, after inheriting the Clayton title and vast estates, the new Earl of Greystoke returns to the jungle, because that’s his adoptive family’s home. For its visual style in early sequences, David Yates’ The Legend Of Tarzan (2016), owes much to Greystoke, but that remake soon develops into a more typical superhero adventure, despite a finale packed with tree-top stunts and the disaster-effects of stampeding animals.

Hellboy (2004)

Establishing that superhero comics are the finest medium for combining elements of science fiction and fantasy, Guillermo del Toro’s magnificently inventive movie HELLBOY offers a startling verification for masterwork cinema, like only a very few distinctive screen adaptations (Hulk and The Dark Knight are others). It offers grander entertainment value than similar genre pictures, of impressively scaled verisimilitude, resulting in a dimensionally supreme version of esoteric narrative concerns that arguably improves upon the comicbook source material. Much as I really admire del Toro’s Spanish fantasy productions - like The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), I do prefer the accomplished mix of quirky humour, and uncanny action sequences, that distinguish Hellboy from the rest of recently produced superhero-cinema, although Timur Bekmambetov’s appealing and imaginatively conjured Russian offerings, Night Watch (2004), and Day Watch (2007), explore similarly horrific territory. For Hellboy, the director continues the good work that he put into Blade II (2002), adds a doomed romance to existing B.P.R.D. secret agency relationships, and weirdly composed Otherness, so this adventure fields more levels of madcap fairytale fun, stylish chills, and winning pathos, than either of those equally light-hearted, but less interesting, SF super-team movies about The Fantastic Four (2005/ 2007). HellboyII: The Golden Army (2008) is also very good, and last year’s Hellboy remake has its own fair share of strange tropes and gory horrors.

Hulk (2003)

Watching interior-monologues by Gollum in Lord Of The Rings trilogy made it so perfectly clear to me that photo-real animation was now developing from motion-capture technology, so it could match a live-action performer to create a genuine character. But what about a non-speaking role? Ang Lee’s true masterpiece HULK remains the greatest superhero epic. Getting a film director who’s best known for Art-house dramas, to helm such a highly commercial blockbuster, was a daring approach, and yet all the risks paid off, handsomely, resulting in the best picture of its year, and of that decade. What Lee did was the very first serious drama of its type, rich in mutated genre themes, and supremely iconic images, derived in part from the same influential mythic sources and literary classics that had most inspired the original comic-book Hulk’s creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, back in 1962. Ang Lee’s singular tour de force blends sci-fi adventures, monster-movie traditions, and miraculous wonders of modern heroism with bravura visuals. It remains far superior in every way to its unnecessary sequel/ unfortunate remake, or needless franchise-reboot, The Incredible Hulk (2008), which I did enjoy, but still think is rather unexciting and formulaic, when it’s compared to this instant classic. For a lot more comments by me, explaining why HULK is the very best 21st century superhero movie, so far, please read my book (HULK by Tony Lee).

Logan (2017)

Blending western themes into a superhero’s finale, this X-Men movie was based on comic-book Old Man Logan (2008) about Wolverine, an iconic rebel mutant whose longevity and popularity spearheads Marvel’s genetic outcasts from Lefty school to revolutionary action. Easily the finest of this weaponised character’s movies, James Mangold’s LOGAN eclipses X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), and The Wolverine (2013), with its study of the retired and doomed hero, suffering melancholic failings before a fateful atonement. This is also a road-movie with skilfully plotted tributes expanding the range of richly thematic references that superhero cinema is fond of circling, not simply tick-box listing details but also encompassing sublime allusions to reinvigorate this golden age of superhero cinema, now over-exploited by Hollywood. A significant cycle of cross-genre adaptations began with Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960) was the gunslingers version. Battle Beyond The Stars (1980) has a super-team gather in outer space. Recent additions include Tsui Hark’s wuxia tribute Seven Swords (2005) bringing the process full circle. Another strand of movies relevant here is the 'weird western', some of which should be re-interpreted to find links to superhero cinema. A few, like bounty-hunter, Jonah Hex (2010), comedy steampunk remake Wild Wild West (1999), and that most iconic masked cowboy The Lone Ranger (2013) challenge or blur the existing lore, between lawmen and outlaws. However, making a modern-styled western that so fully respects cowboy tropes pledged to be something very special, and Logan is exactly that. Remixing elements from the influential Shane (1953), cited on-screen, and True Grit (1969, Coens’ remake 2010), ensures that horrific violence, permitted here by Logan’s genre revisionism, never loses sight of moralistic borrowings from earlier adventures in frontier heroism.

The Right Stuff (1983)

What seems more obvious now, than during the 20th century, is how THE RIGHT STUFF was the first great modernist superheroes movie. Produced in the gap between Superman: The Movie (1978), and Batman (1989), its witty episodes, and chaptering of big adventures that span decades, cleverly deconstructs the legendary exploits of pioneering test-pilots (‘flyboy’, etc), and navy aviators. It humanises America’s astronauts as space-men with character-flaws, then rebuilds their mythology as demon-slayers and sky-breakers for a soaring finale, after forging their super-team: the Mercury seven, solo voyagers into the unknown. These spacers became famous as real-life equivalents of comics’ superheroes, like Buck Rogers (cited twice in the movie), and Flash Gordon, although astronauts were celebrities even before they had done anything important. Archive B&W news-reel clips, and contemporary footage by NASA, enhances the documentary style of this drama in many sequences, while recreations using an artistic licence guarantee that events deliver heavy wallops of emotional impact, despite certain historical inaccuracies. The flyers of Project Mercury (1958-63), were succeeded by the two-man missions of Project Gemini (1961-6). Marvel first published The Fantastic Four in 1961, about a super-team adventure that began with their own experimental rocket-ship, action clearly inspired by America’s burgeoning space programme. Five names of the Mercury astronauts - Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon, and John - became pilots of International Rescue in TV puppet-show Thunderbirds (1964-8), a classic example of unique machines cast in superhero roles. Adapting Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book for The Right Stuff movie, this race-into-space saga now cements the clear influence of 1950s' science and technology on popular sci-fi in 1960s’ media, specifically helping to kick-start superhero fantasy trends. Going boldly where no director had been before, Philip Kaufman’s movie did all of this even before Alan Moore’s Watchmen was published.

RoboCop (1987)

Partly inspired by the anti-hero Judge Dredd (created for British comics in 1977), director Paul Verhoeven’s queasily prophetic satire ROBOCOP, established the Dutch filmmaker in Hollywood, leading to a loose thematic trilogy of SF-horrors, with Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997), exploring an escalating wave of dark futurism, even as studios exploited the iconic character of lawman Murphy portrayed by Peter Weller for increasingly comic-book styled sequels, plus franchising spin-offs. The long history of mechanical characters on screen, ranges from Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis (1927), to Robert Wise’s classic The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and George Lucas’ debut THX-1138 (1971). The cyborg hero in TV-movie The Six Million Dollar Man (1973), led to a popular series, before Future Cop (1976-7) put its android in uniform, and sitcom Holmes & Yoyo (1976-7) reduced SF formula to farce. Ridley Scott’s genius in Blade Runner (1982) only suggested the anti-hero was a robot, but hits like Blue Thunder (1983), and The Terminator (1984), most clearly promoted the blending of intelligent SF and grisly humour, that forged RoboCop into an urban western. Its media satire in a cultural dystopia with unashamedly grotesque set-pieces, included a ‘product violation’ program, a plot harking back to The Golem (1920), that awarded executives the corporate insurance of ‘Directive 4’, stopping the Robocop from arresting yuppie villains. Splashy critiques of consumer society and jaded futurism, overcome the pulpy limitations of low-budget origins, so that its man-against-machine themes ultimately transcend the rather silly title. Frankensteinian science and Christian resurrection allegory are background sources of influence, within the subgenre of robot-man movies, but it’s an uncanny re-emergence of human identity and sense of morality that drives this narrative through agonising ordeals of bitter grief and betrayals to win an emotionally satisfying conclusion. “They made this to honour him” forgives Irvin Kershner’s actioner RoboCop 2 (1990). Its social commentary on corruption extends Murphy’s humanity, but this fades most of Verhoeven’s astutely cynical attitudes about the USA. Fred Dekker’s funny RoboCop 3 (1993) delivers amusing hokum with a jet-pack that now (restored, uncut on Blu-ray), reminds us this trilogy pre-dates Iron Man (2008). Jose Padilha’s slick remake RoboCop (2014) is a worthwhile update. 

Watchmen (2009) 

Zack Snyder’s director’s cut, boasting 24 minutes of extra footage, enhances the cinema version with its subtle character moments and the interplay of dystopian themes. Alongside this movie’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal comics, WATCHMEN reaches beyond the scope of purely artistic creativity or intellectual enlightenment, becoming a witty statement of socio-political philosophy about humanity’s gross limitations, confronting a universe that maintains a terrifying indifference to any such fictional concerns. There can be no doubt, the use of surrealist montages here enjoys links to inventive pop-video streams, while its cultural significance varies, depending upon audience education standards, or generational heritage. What seems undeniable now is how, ten years later, this picture has become a foundational tale in the overall jigsaw-puzzle scheme of superhero cinema’s golden age. Its distinction from notable contemporaries, like Avengers Assemble and Justice League, or Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four (aka: FANT4STIC, 2015) remake, are so pronounced that most if its movie rivals appear trivial, in comparison. Weighty issues of immortality, technological ascension, and the unavoidable corruption resulting from authoritarianism, converge in sinister mastermind plotting that exposes the essentially frivolous nature of mankind’s morality. Throughout a comprehensive future-history that’s packed with chills and thrills, incidental jokes and ultimate horror, Watchmen combines its literary and visual genius, and professes a deeper understanding of what 'superhero' means, like nothing else on this list. Damon Lindelof’s TV series Watchmen (2019) is a sequel that begins strongly with a dark futurism in an alternative world, and its nine-episode run concludes with plenty of spectacular action scenes. However, its fractured tale of racism sags quite horribly, in the middle, with a weakly contrived B&W episode.  

X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014)

In marked contrast to the usual heroic-actioner themes of ‘one man can make a difference’, team-work is actually the core message of all modern cinema about superheroes. It’s crucial to Avengers, Justice League, and Watchmen movies but its philosophical depth is simply too often ignored by critics and viewers unable to see, or look, beyond the surface of colourful costumes, endless punch-ups, and property-damage spectacle. Condescending attitudes are frequently offered by snobs as if sneering is a legit critique, especially with dismissive comments about ‘men in tights’, forever mistaking the shameless TV parody of Adam West’s archly camp Batman as part of DC's canon (it isn’t, really). Using time-travel to change the world for everybody, in order to erase a history with 50 years of catastrophic warfare is, perhaps, the ultimate example of a socially benevolent dictatorship. In more ways than one, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is also about man versus machinery, where humans and militant or peaceful mutants must all face mutual destruction by fearful mankind’s runaway ideology for weaponry systems, here geared to exterminate further development of life on Earth. The good fight means ending history’s cycle of repetition, turning back from the march to genocide. This movie promotes co-operation instead of competition to a point of acceptance that nobody is indispensible, but everyone who is still sane should be involved, so its plot hinges on imitations by Mystique, and (in the extended ‘Rogue Cut’), Kitty is replaced by Marie as facilitator of projecting Wolverine’s consciousness back to 1973. There are clever interactions between various super-powers, especially in the case of Xavier’s telepathy as mental projection or tele-presence, and Blink opening portals with imaginative choreography for extraordinary combat scenes. 

10 Runners-up (honourable mentions)... 

Unbreakable (2000) - followed by Split (2016), and Glass (2019), this ‘Eastrail’ trilogy by M. Night Shyamalan, explores the most realistic of superhero dramas.   

Superman Returns (2006) - Bryan Singer’s essentially revisionist version of Superman The Movie (1978) is a wholly under-rated tribute. 

Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (2007) - overcomes blandness of F4 playing to a family audience, with its cosmic menace in good attempts to depict Galactus, and his spacer herald.

Ghost Rider (2007) - paired with its overlooked sequel Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance (2011), this stylised cult movie imperfectly captures an essence of zombie weirdness that Deadpool lacks.  

Clash Of The Titans (2010) - this remake of 1981’s adventure offers excellent spectacle and it’s a great improvement on the original.

Immortals (2011) - before Man Of Steel, Henry Cavill played Greek superhero Theseus, slayer of a mythic Minotaur, in this stunningly designed, ancient-world movie directed by Tarsem Singh.

Avengers Assemble (2012) - most notably, this landmark movie is one that I waited 40 years to see.

Wrath Of The Titans (2012) - this apocalyptic sequel is exactly the kind of epic fantasy that Thor: Ragnarok should have been, but they decided to make a super-spoof instead.

Gods Of Egypt (2016) - very best of the recent Nile-side superhero movies, this fantasy plays its game of thrones for keeps.

Godzilla: King Of The Monsters (2019) - a magnificent spectacle, blending mythology into rousing sci-fi adventure, this escapes from its pulpy origins and implausible scenario to become a new classic about gigantic creatures, saving humans from conquering aliens.

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My top 20 list in chronological order...

Conan The Barbarian (1982) 

The Right Stuff (1983) 

Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984) 

Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes (1984) 

Big Trouble In Little China (1986) 

RoboCop (1987) 

Hulk (2003) 

Hellboy (2004) 

The Dark Knight (2008) 

Watchmen (2009) 

Birdman (2014) 

X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) 

Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015) 

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016) 

Captain America: Civil War (2016) 

Doctor Strange (2016) 

Dredd (2017) 

Ghost In The Shell (2017) 

Logan (2017) 

Captain Marvel (2019)