Total Recall: Marvel Comics Movies, Worst To Best
We count down every movie featuring a Marvel character to hit the big screen.
Blade's reign on top of the Marvel movie critical heap was short-lived, quickly yielding to the movie many fans point to as the first true example of what could happen when a comic book's transition to film was handled with enough care (and a big enough budget). Turning the long-running X-Men series was a huge gamble, both for Marvel and for Fox; not only is it a cornerstone of the Marvel empire -- and thus vulnerable to enormous fan backlash if done wrong -- but the series has always been known for its dense, soap-worthy plotlines and unwieldy cast. In an earlier era, X-Men would have been almost impossible to translate successfully, but with Fox's $75 million, Bryan Singer at the helm, and a picture perfect cast that included Patrick Stewart as Professor X, Sir Ian McKellen as Magneto, Halle Berry as Storm, and (of course) Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the summer of 2000 brought Marvel's favorite mutants to the big screen in style, racking up almost $300 million in worldwide grosses and a healthy stack of positive reviews from critics like New York Magazine's Peter Rainer, who deemed it "A rarity: a comic-book movie with a satisfying cinematic design and protagonists you want to watch."
Given the long odds it faced just getting to the screen, let alone pulling off the transition so successfully, it seemed altogether unlikely that X-Men's inevitable sequel would be able to achieve the same standard, let alone exceed it -- but that's exactly what 2003's X2: X-Men United did, both at the box office, where it grossed over $400 million, and among critics, who praised it even more highly than its predecessor. This was, appropriately, accomplished two ways: One, the screenplay satisfied critics and longtime fans by tackling the comic's long-running sociological themes, most explicitly the fear of "outside" elements (in this case, sexy super-powered mutants) and how that fear is channeled by xenophobic authority figures; two, the sequel ramped up the original's gee-whiz factor by introducing characters like the teleporting, prehensile-tailed Nightcrawler -- and daring to tease at the Marvel title's Phoenix storyline, one of the most beloved, brain-bending plots in the publisher's history. The result was a film that remains both a fan favorite and a critical benchmark for writers like Variety's Todd McCarthy, who lauded X2 as "bigger and more ambitious in every respect, from its action and visceral qualities to its themes."
After 40 years in the comics, a handful of animated series, and one supremely silly live-action television show, Marvel's iconic webslinger finally made his way to the big screen with 2002's Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man. All those years of pent-up expectations cast a long shadow, but Raimi's vision for the wall-crawler held up to the scrutiny, both from fans -- who forked over $821 million in ticket receipts -- and the critics whose near-unanimous acclaim sent Spider-Man all the way up to 90 percent on the Tomatometer. Like X-Men, Spider-Man would have been almost impossible to make before the advent of realistic CG effects -- and as with X-Men, the fanciest special effects in Hollywood wouldn't have mattered if the screenplay or the cast hadn't been up to par. Fortunately, David Koepp and Alvin Sargent were able to split the difference between paying tribute to the character's rich history and serving up two hours of bang-up entertainment -- and Raimi's cast, including Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and a scenery-chewing Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin, tackled the material with enough panache to achieve the massive suspension of disbelief the material required. Ultimately, the responsibility for bringing it all together was Raimi's, and his success was duly noted by critics like Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, who gave him credit for "[giving] this unapologetic fluff a mind, a heart and a keen sense of fun."
2. Iron Man
It's easy to forget this now, but before Iron Man debuted in May 2008, a not-inconsiderable number of people were skeptical of its chances for success; despite an incredible cast that included Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, and Terrence Howard, a passionate director in Jon Favreau, and a $50 million marketing campaign, many regarded the character as too obscure to draw a blockbuster-sized audience to theaters. What the doubters failed to recognize is that any movie that can combine a compelling storyline and character development with killer set pieces involving a man in a metal suit that can fly and shoot lasers (okay, repulsor beams -- whatever, nerds) is probably going to do all right for itself at the box office. Iron Man did just that, amassing more than $580 million worldwide -- and the critical response wasn't too shabby either: 93 percent of critics were sufficiently impressed with Ol' Shellhead's cinematic debut to deliver a Fresh rating. More often than not, the accolades had less to do with the iron-plated action than the smart, funny screenplay (written by John August with a slew of uncredited writers) and the top-notch acting. Downey, capping a hard-fought comeback, received some of the kindest words from critics, among them the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris, who wrote that "his sarcasm and almost drunken Tony Curtis body language transform the scenes."
1. Spider-Man 2
Sam Raimi knew he was setting up a franchise with 2002's Spider-Man, but still, following up that kind of success must have been daunting, especially given the studio's immediate hunger for a sequel, not to mention a protracted search for a workable script which saw Raimi and the producers turning to a succession of writers -- including Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, David Koepp, and Michael Chabon -- before ultimately turning to Alvin Sargent, who stitched together the most workable elements of the previous drafts to come up with a story that centered on Spidey's struggle to conquer his own self-doubt while battling Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina). It might sound like a piecemeal approach, but it worked; although Spider-Man 2 didn't meet or exceed Spider-Man's global box office tally, it came close -- and critics actually liked the second installment better than the first one, sending it all the way up to 93 percent on the Tomatometer on the strength of reviews from writers like Lou Lumenick, who wrote, "sequels don't get much better -- or smarter." While touching on a dizzying array of storylines from the comics, Raimi and Sargent delivered a bigger, more intense version of the original that still managed to keep the action streamlined (and, of course, set up a third installment in the process).
Don't forget to check out out the rest of our Total Recall archives.
Finally, here's the trailer for Roger Corman's unrleased Fantastic Four, from 1994: