A-List: Best Scenes from Superhero Films
By David Mumpower and Kim Hollis
June 16, 2011

I think I saw the dude on the right on Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law.

Green Lantern is hitting theaters, and we have to be honest. It looks bad. Really, really bad. I mean, we like Ryan Reynolds, Peter Sarsgaard, Greg Berlanti, rings and the color green as much as anyone (okay, we just lied about the color green), but this is stuff we wouldn't wish on our worst enemy. The DC Comics character isn't the strongest one in the catalog - sure, he's better than Jonah Hex, but that's not saying much. Seriously, the Green Lantern is averse to the color yellow. Sure, they fixed that in later iterations of the story, but it's just awfully hard to get past that sort of character flaw. Yes, we're going to be there opening night, but only because our friend (and occasional BOP contributor) Pete Kilmer wants us to.

To ease our pain, we've decided to pick out few of our favorite scenes from recent superhero films. We've limited ourselves to one per character and/or franchise, so while we acknowledge that a lot of these films (*ahem* The Dark Knight *ahem*) might have a multitude of great options, for purposes of this column, it gets only one entry... but what a great entry it is.

The Bank Robbery (The Dark Knight)

The scene zooms to a large skyscraper covered in glass windows. Silence surrounds us. Suddenly, a window bursts, and the camera shifts to show us the culprit responsible – a thin man in a modified clown mask. We cut to a man standing on a street corner. In his hand, he holds a similar clown mask. A large bag hangs from his shoulder. He puts on the mask and climbs into an SUV. Two men hop on a zipline and ride it across to the roof of the building on the opposite side of them. When we return to the SUV, we learn that there are five men in this group with specific assignments, but the cut will go six ways, because there is one more man involved – The Joker.

As the heist unfolds, the various “Jokers” pick each other off one by one as per the instruction of the man with the plan. Eventually, only one Joker remains – the only one who matters. He’s been on the scene the entire time, overseeing and making sure everything goes according to plan. He has ripped off a “mob” bank, putting himself squarely in their sights.

This intricate scene is only about six minutes long, but perfectly encapsulates the mad genius of the Joker. Not only has he devised a bank heist wherein he eliminates every one of his henchmen, but he has also sent a message to all of the (very) bad men in Gotham City. When watching the scene in retrospect, it’s easy to see that the “real” Joker has always been the focus. The camera lingers on him far more than the others, and at one point his demeanor changes as he begins to use the shambling gait that we’ll come to associate with him during the film. He sidesteps a bus, allowing it to take out a stooge who has become aware that his cronies are disappearing. And finally, he shows us his real face, telling the mob plant at the bank (played by the great William Finchtner), “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you…stranger.” He hops into the vehicle and drives it away, perfectly timed, into a waiting line of other school buses. (Of course, that bus would show up later in the movie as the Joker uses it to haul around some hostages. When he finds a toy he likes, he keeps it.)

Honestly, we could have chosen any number of scenes from The Dark Knight as one of the best, from “magic trick” to “I want my phone call” to the party at Bruce Wayne’s. The commonality is that Heath Ledger as the Joker owns every single one of them, even this first scene, where he only truly “appears” in the final moments. The brilliance of the bank heist is that it tells us in only a few minutes exactly who the Joker is. He’s demented, but he uses that “strangeness” to his advantage. He zigs when you expect him to zag. That first six minutes of film is a masterpiece of setup, unlike any other you will see in a superhero or any other movie.

Opening Credits (Watchmen)

Edited to the music of Bob Dylan's socio-political masterpiece, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the credits of Watchmen chronicle the entire history of super-heroism in a dystopian version of the United States. From the moment the bloody “Have a Nice Day button” fades out and the credits roll, Watchmen proves the maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words. The very first image shown is of a masked vigilante, the original Nite Owl, delivering a bloody punch to a gun-wielding robber as a patrician couple looks on from a few feet away. The husband’s bruised cheek and a cheeky quartet of Batman posters on the wall imply that in this universe, Martha and Thomas Wayne are saved from an ill-fated trip to the theater.

From there, the images come in a controlled frenzy, beginning with a telling shot of the original Silk Spectre surrounded by several older male police officers. She is but a sexy figurehead representing male fantasy in a sexist period in American history. Her intrinsic nature as a sellout is reinforced throughout the film but the embodiment of every action her character takes is summarized with this single smile for the cameras. Of course, when it comes to smiling for the cameras, nobody does it better than The Comedian, whose nihilistic need for adrenaline makes him the scariest of the “heroes."

Moments later, the two of them are joined by the other six members of the original Minutemen, the hero guild of 1940. Their first appearance has them stand resolute, but the mini-stories revealed in the following moments demonstrate that despite their efforts to improve humanity, several die horribly. Dollar Bill’s armored costume made by the bank who employs him fails because…wait for it…they cut corners financially in its creation. Slutty Sally is forced to retire due to her pregnancy, her knowing smile during the retirement party hinting at a plot point that is not revealed until the very end of the film. Both sides of the table at this party are comprised of homosexual couples, and each relationship ends in bigot-based homicide. And the funny little dude in the silliest costume (a tough competition to win), Mothman is institutionalized, which seems like the most likely fate for any grown up who willing dresses as a superhero. In 180 seconds, Minutemen rise and fall before our eyes. This is a cinematic triumph and it’s only half of the story to be told.

After the demise of America’s first league of superheroes, Kennedy is assassinated by a former champion, Nixon assumes power, man walks on Dr. Manhattan’s moon, Ozymandias impersonates Disco Stu, and the Watchmen are formed as spiritual successors to the Minutemen. And this time they feature a much hotter Silk Spectre and a dude whose mask paint morphs into the creepiest shapes. Finally, the capper to the subtle but horrifying turn of events revealed in the credits is on display. Richard Nixon has been elected to a third term in office.

Acerbic, contemplative and imaginative, the opening credits to Watchmen are a fitting tribute to the genius of the graphic novel’s author, Alan Moore. This sequence demonstrates an understanding of what he attempted to accomplish with his heralded masterpiece, and it segments the pieces in easily consumed snack bites of genius. As divisive as the entire movie has proven to be, no one ever debates the genius of the opening credits of Watchmen. There is more character development in these few moments than is on display in most full length features.

Attack on the White House (X2: X-Men United)

We have yet another opening scene on our A-List, which we suppose shows the importance of establishing a tone right away in superhero films. Here, we are introduced to the fabulous character Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), who “bamfs” his way right into our hearts as he mounts a full-on assault at the White House, one that is bound to get him some heat from a lot of scary people.

He runs through the halls of the White House, and all we truly see of him in those initial moments is his blue, demon-like tail. He materializes through walls and ceilings to take out Secret Service agents, using style, grace, and…well, a sort of blue smoke that appears as he vanishes and returns. When we finally do see him, his white, white teeth stand out against the deep blue of his skin, and he bounds on all fours toward the Oval Office. The fear of the men protecting the President is palpable, and only becomes worse as they realize that even if they shoot at their enemy, they aren’t really able to hit him. A clever bit of suspense is built when the president’s bodyguards surround him, and can hear the chaos in the halls around them. Nightcrawler’s mutant powers are on full display as he completely annihilates all the men in the Oval Office, then hops on top of the President and hisses at him. His tail pulls out a knife, and he’s about to get stabby right at the moment when a bullet somehow hits home. Wounded, the mutant disappears, but leaves behind the knife, bearing the message, “Mutant Freedom Now.”

This is the perfect introduction for the events that occur in X2, as Dr. Xavier sets out to discover who is behind the attack, while the President brings in General William Stryker, who will raid Xavier’s school and take custody of several mutants. The effects are stellar, and anyone who is a true Nightcrawler fan will thrill to the sounds and movement made by the character. The scene is tense and exciting without being overly simplistic, and a truly terrific way to bring a new mutant into the fold.

"He's just a kid" (Spider-Man 2)

One of the aspects of Sam Raimi’s masterpiece, Spider-Man 2, that is not appreciated enough is the end of the train scene when Spider-Man is unmasked. In the opening moments, mad scientist Doc Octopus leaves the webslinger behind. The train conductor quickly relays to the superhero that the brakes have failed and all of the passengers are in grave danger. His mask singed, Spider-Man is forced to remove his identity-hiding garment and attempt a dramatic rescue in order to save the people on board. Obviously, he accomplishes this task. He is Spider-Man, after all.

The beauty of the sequence, however, is not the action portion. After the superhero has saved the day, he is unconscious and prone. At this moment, the people whose lives have been saved lift him up and lay hands upon him in an almost Christ-like sequence. Finally, one of them makes a point that underscores the novelty of Spider-Man as a character. “He’s just a kid, no older than my son.” A mere boy has saved a train full of passengers and this is not an out of the ordinary act of heroism for him. His actions belie his youth, an aspect of the character Sam Raimi utilizes brilliantly in this, easily the best Spider-Man film to date.

Iron Man returns to Afghanistan (Iron Man)

Iron Man is a novel character in the realm of superheroes and this is reinforced in two key areas of the best scene of the first movie adaptation of the character. Tony Stark gets liquored up at a party, grows enraged while watching a news report, and flies straight to Afghanistan to combat the Ten Rings army. One of the smartest men in the world, Stark demonstrates no forethought with his actions, instead allowing the ferocity of his rage to lead him into an epic firefight. Stark’s demons have been thoroughly explored in the comic books, and director Jon Favreau wisely placed a few of them on full display for the viewers. His reactionary anger, his reckless attempt at resolution, and his egotistical belief that he can fix anything place him in the middle of nowhere, fighting for his life.

Of course, Tony Stark has one key advantage. The Iron Man suit reeks of awesomeness. Moments before an innocent man is mercilessly executed, Stark explodes on the scene and within moments, a wave of destruction eviscerates an entire deployment of troops. One soldier is knocked for approximately 36 loops, another is thrown through a concrete wall, and several others are precisely executed without any harm coming to the people they were using as human shields. In a few brief moments, the viewer understands the technological marvel that is the Iron Man suit, a device that can turn an ordinary drunk into a virtual god of war. An action movie is a form of marketing where the lead character must be sold to the audience in order to make them want to see more. With Marvel having such huge plans for Iron Man and the rest of The Avengers, there was an imperative to identify the things that make the character novel. The nearly instantaneous ass-whipping Stark administers on an army of mercenaries accomplishes just this, but the scene doesn’t end there.

The other thing that makes Tony Stark different is that he delivers the would-be assassin to the people who had been oppressed by the terrorist’s actions. Whereas characters such Batman, Superman and Spider-Man would want to see such a criminal thrown in jail, Stark proves he is different with the line, “He’s all yours.” By leaving the leader of the mercenary army at the mercy of his victims, Stark demonstrates that he has no ethical issues with street justice. Rather than create a media spectacle with a war tribunal, he effectively sentences the man to die immediately…and brutally. Stark is a man of action who will recklessly endanger himself as well as others if he believes he can save the day and if/when he does, the brand of justice he delivers would seem extreme even in Texas.