The Top 10 Superhero Scenes on Film
In the Golden Age of superhero movies, the best scenes involve revelation
I thought this would be easy. Best superhero scenes. I rattled them off in my head: Superman doing this, Spider-Man doing that, the X-Men doing the other.
Then I tried thinking of scenes that didn’t involve these guys.
This is supposed to be the golden age of superhero movies, but beyond the first two installments of “Spider-Man” and “X-Men,” what’s been good? “Fantastic Four 2: The Rise of the Silver Surfer” is being released this month, and some of the trailers look cool, but should we hold our breath? The first “F.F.” stunk. So did “Hulk,” “Daredevil,” “Catwoman,” “Elektra,” “Ghost Rider,” on and on. Superhero movies are supposed to soar but most of these limp. Some just lay there, quivering. They are the movie equivalent of what happens to Senator Kelly in “X-Men”: Splooosh!
Still I cobbled a list together. Turns out what’s memorable is revelation: of the hero’s power, of the hero’s love, of the hero’s identity. At least that’s what’s memorable to me. You may be one of those guys who thinks there’s nothing cooler than a superhero brooding on a rooftop or cathedral spire. At night. In the rain. Good luck with that.
I tried to spread things out by choosing only one scene per movie. One movie was so good, however, it got two scenes. Let the second-guessing begin.
10. “What are you???”
Enter: The Bat in Tim Burton’s “Batman”
Director Tim Burton plays with us right from the start. A couple, with a small boy, try to hail a cab in a section of Gotham where theater and crime meet. Could this be a young Bruce Wayne and his parents?
Nope. It’s the thieves who rob them we’re interested in. As they count their loot on a nearby rooftop, one worries over what happened to Johnny Gobs. “I hear The Bat got him,” he says. The other is disbelieving “The Bat?...”
Sitting in a theater in 1989, this was music to my ears. Our hero wasn’t yet “Batman,” your friendly neighborhood crime fighter, or even “The Bat-Man,” a creature of the night. He was just “The Bat,” and all that entailed — including flying and drinking blood.
Burton, a B-horror fan, actually gives us Batman’s intro from the crooks’ perspective, as if it’s a horror movie. He descends in silhouette to Danny Elfman’s dark, brilliant score. Freaked, the crooks shoot and run, only to see his shadow rise behind them like a vampire. He knocks out the first dude; the disbelieving one runs, is tripped up, and is slowly pulled towards this dark creature, who holds him over the roof’s ledge. Then we get their famous exchange: “What are you???” “I’m Batman.”
The entire series went downhill from there. Batman quickly became friendly and familiar, with too many gadgets, too many villains, and too many sidekicks. But at least we have this one scene and the dark purity it suggests.
9. “Let’s put more.”
A hero begins to realize his strength in “Unbreakable”
M. Night Shyamalan’s movies are all about slow revelation. “Oh, so I’m dead!” “Oh, so that’s why God killed my wife!” “Oh, so we're actually living in the 20th century!” His movies have a dreamlike quality because his protagonists don’t know who they are yet. His movies are all about waking up.
David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the sole survivor of a train wreck outside Philadelphia, becomes the focus of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), an art and comic collector who was born with osteogenesis-something. His bones snap easily, in other words. He’s infinitely breakable. But he has a theory of opposites. He believes if there’s someone like him, then there must be someone who is the opposite of him. Someone unbreakable. Someone like David.
More, he believes the superpowers in comics may be an exaggeration of truth, but truth nonetheless; that there’s a group of strong, unbreakable people put here to protect us. David thinks he’s nuts. David’s son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), is more open to the idea.
So in the basement Joseph helps David lift weights. “How much did you put on?” David asks after bench-pressing the weight. He adds it up himself: 250 pounds. Too much. Joseph apologizes and adjusts the weights. David lifts again, then asks how much he took off. Joseph admits, “I lied.” The camera closes in on David as he realizes his son added weight. And he was still able to lift it. Then the two add all the weights in the basement, plus paint cans dangling off the sides, and David lifts that, too. He is beginning to realize his true power. He is beginning to wake up.
The death of Uncle Ben in “Spider-Man”
Spider-Man has one of the best psychological motivations for fighting crime, and the first “Spider-Man” movie actually improved upon it.
Instead of letting the Burglar go out of pure selfishness, as Peter does in Amazing Fantasy #15, here he lets him go to get revenge on the wrestling promoter who just screwed him out of $2900. And we’re with him. “Way to get the bastard,” we think.
Outside there’s a crowd and flashing lights. Then something pulls Peter toward the crowd and he sees what everyone is rubber-necking: Uncle Ben lying bleeding to death. In the comic, Peter is simply told his Uncle Ben is dead. Here he gets to speak to him. At first this worried me. “Oh crap,” I thought, “He’s gonna blah blah blah and then die. It’s gonna stink.” But Cliff Robertson delivers. Peter’s voice seems to call him from a faraway place and he looks confused and scared to be where he is, then grateful, grateful to see the face of his nephew. He says his name once, twice, a gurgle in his voice. Then he slips away.
Later, Peter will realize the man who killed Uncle Ben is the Burglar he let go (allowing him to kill Uncle Ben), and so he will fight crime, not for revenge, as Batman does, or simply to do good, as Superman does, but out of guilt. Not only is guilt a more complex, more adult emotion, it’s more universal. Few of us walk around every day with revenge in our hearts, but the weight of the guilt in the world is heavier than gravity.
7. “Go Aquaman, go!”
The definition of a hero in Aquaman”
OK, so this movie doesn’t really exist. The making of “Aquaman” was the main story arc during season 2 of HBO’s “Entourage,” and season 3 begins with its opening weekend.
At one point our boys take in a matinee on a scorching Friday afternoon and we get this scene from the fictional movie. First a long shot of the Santa Monica pier. People in panic. Then we see a tux-wearing Aquaman, actor Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), walking toward what everyone’s fleeing. He undoes his tie. More panic. A girl drops her doll. Now Aquaman is running and everyone is streaming in the opposite direction and the music builds until finally we see the danger: a tidal wave about to hit L.A. And just as Aquaman leaps off the pier and into the tidal wave...the power in the theater goes out. Part of a series of rolling blackouts in California that may or may not affect “Aquaman”’s opening B.O. totals.
At this point a groan goes up in the theater and it was echoed by me at home. For days afterward I had a visceral urge to see this movie that didn’t exist. And I never even liked Aquaman. Who did? That’s part of the in-joke on “Entourage.” Yet director Julian Farino, filming in half a day, on no budget, in part homage/part satire of superhero flicks, makes it work better than filmmakers given years and hundreds of millions of dollars. He gives us the definition of a hero: the man who runs toward what everyone is fleeing.
So maybe Julian Farino should get the next big superhero movie? (Update: Nope. But he is giving us “The Oranges.”)
6. “When they come out, does it hurt?”
What Wolverine brings to a knife fight in “X-Men”
Let’s face it: When we get picked on, most of us acknowledge, in some core part of us, the logic in choice of victims. “Gotta hand it to them, they picked the right guy,” we think as we get pummelled.
That’s often the secret thrill of superhero movies. Some ordinary person (Clark Kent, Peter Parker) gets picked on and we get to think: They’re messing with the wrong guy.
The introduction of Wolverine in “X-Men” is one such example. Thanks to the cage match we already know he’s the toughest guy in the bar. But one defeated opponent can’t deal with his loss and bugs Wolverine, who just wants to be left alone with his cigar and his beer. The guy whispers, “I know what you are.” Then he pulls a knife.
Snkt! Out come the claws.
But now the bartender presses a shotgun to Wolverine’s neck and says, “Get out of my bar, freak.” There’s a beat or two before Wolverine slices the shotgun in two.
You know the phrase “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight”? This is the update.
5. “You’ll never be alone.”
Superman discovers he’s no longer the last son of Krypton in “Superman Returns”
Who knew the big guy was so troubled?
In “Superman,’ Jor-El tells Lara, before they send baby Kal-El to earth, “He will never be alone,” but nearly 30 years later, in “Superman Returns,” director Bryan Singer begs to differ. For five years Superman abandons earth on the slim hope that some part of Krypton still exists. He hangs in outer space. Lois hates him. You get a real sense of, if not Superman’s loneliness, then at least his aloneness. “I’m all that’s left,” he tells Ma Kent.
Which is why the most emotional scene in the movie is Superman’s realization that he has a son. What he tells the sleeping boy, as he watches him with pride and gratitude, he could now be telling himself: “You will be different. Sometimes you’ll feel like an outcast. But you’ll never be alone.”
The movie begins with Superman’s failed search for Krypton. It ends with a different lesson: Krypton lives.
4. “I’m the worst one.”
There goes the neighborhood in “X2”
You kinda wonder about Ronny Drake, don’t you? His older brother, Bobby, is coming out to the family as a mutant, as “Iceman,” and Ronny runs upstairs and immediately phones the cops, telling them that he and his family are being held hostage by a bunch of mutants. So the next thing you know, even as Mom is asking Bobby, with a subtext so obvious it’s supratext, “Have you tried not being a mutant?,” the cops surround the place. Wolverine leads the student-mutants outside but the cops use excessive force. They crash into the Drake household and throw mom and pop against the wall. One nervous cop shoots Wolverine in the forehead. The others are told to hit the dirt. They do. Except for one. Pyro keeps standing. A female cop tells him, “We don’t want to hurt you, kid,” and the camera closes in on him, breathing anxiously.
The X-Men have always been seen as a metaphor for an embattled minority, often gay, since so many “pass” or hide their powers, but a civil rights metaphor works even better. In this sense, Professor X is Martin Luther King, Jr. (trying to talk sense to an oppressive majority), while Magneto is more like Malcolm X. At the end of “X-Men,” he even uses Malcolm’s most famous line: “There’s still a war coming, Charles, and I intend to fight it by any means necessary.”
Pyro will soon be recruited by Magneto, who will tell him, “You are a God among insects,” and outside the Drake household, in suburban Boston, he’s about the demonstrate it. More, we want him to demonstrate it. If the thrill in Wolverine’s introduction is this: “You don’t know who you’re messing with,” then the thrill, as Pyro stands there, and the female cop tells him, “We don’t want to hurt you, kid,” is this: You really don’t know who you’re messing with.
3. “He’s...just a kid.”
The passion of the Spider-Man in “Spider-Man 2”
It’s not just the best battle between superhero and supervillain on film, contained, as it is, within a small enclosed space: a moving (and, of course, non-existent) “el” in Manhattan. No, the filmmakers up the ante. They bring in the religious metaphor.
First the battle. After fighting high over Manhattan, Doc Ock and Spider-Man land on a moving commuter train. Passengers shriek. Spidey keeps getting knocked off and slinging his way back on. Doc Ock grabs two passengers and throws them to the winds. Spidey saves both.
At this point you can almost hear the “Bah!” from Doc Ock and he goes for bigger fish by accelerating the train and destroying the controls, leaving it shooting like a bullet through midtown Manhattan. Spidey has to take off his mask, temporarily aflame, and his spider senses tell him they’ll soon run out of track. His solution? Webbing onto nearby buildings and using himself, at the head of the train, to slow it and stop it. In the process he exhausts himself and loses consciousness.
Now comes the religious metaphor. As the music turns ethereal, the hero with special powers, who has sacrificed himself in a cross-like pose for the greater good, is passed back, in pieta fashion, by the passengers, who lay him down. They wonder if he’s still alive. Has he died for them?
Then one passenger states the obvious: “He’s...just a kid.”
Which says it all. If Peter Parker’s secret is that he’s truly powerful, Spider-Man’s secret is that he’s truly vulnerable. He is...just a kid.
2. “You’ve got me? Who’s got you!?”
Superman saves Lois (for the first time) in “Superman”
Besides a brief glimpse at the Fortress of Solitude, we don’t see Superman until more than an hour into the movie. Once he hits Metropolis, Clark, re-made as a nerd, gets a job at The Daily Planet, meets Lois and Jimmy, meets Rex Reed of all people, and saves Lois from a mugger. He tries to make a date with her but she’s taking a helicopter to meet Air Force One.
Ah, but those troublesome cables. One breaks loose, gets tangled with the helicopter during lift-off, the thing crashes, Lois screams. The helicopter is hanging, passenger-end out, over the edge of a skyscraper, and Lois is looking at, what, a 50-story fall? Always adept at making a bad situation worse, she unbuckles her seatbelt, slips, falls, and dangles by a cord. The crowd below watches, fascinated and horrified.
Enter Clark. As he exits the building, he picks her hat off the ground, looks up, and we’re off. With a phone-booth site gag for the oldsters, and a ’70s-style pimp joke for the youngsters, the John Williams’ score begins to build and Clark morphs into Superman, just as Lois slips and falls and the horrified crowd resigns itself to her death. Then a streak cuts across the sky and an onlooker asks, “What the hell is that?”
What is it? It’s our greatest wish fulfillment. The man who is to adults as adults are to babies. The one who’s always there to break our fall with seemingly magic strength and abilities.
What helps make the scene is not just Superman’s majestic calm but Lois’ disbelief. The crowd below — prodding us, the theater audience — breaks into applause too easily. A flying man? Who can grab a helicopter effortlessly? They should be stunned into silence. Instead they react as if someone just hit an 8th inning homerun. Hooray! But Lois looks stricken, like she’s lost her mind.
I saw “Superman” six times as a kid and again on television in college. When this scene was over, my friend Todd and I looked at each other. Both of us were grinning ear-to-ear. It’s still my reaction.
1. “Hi... This is really heavy.”
The big reveal in “Spider-Man 2”
It’s near the end of the movie and once again Spider-Man takes off his mask. But this time it makes sense. He’s revealing his humanity to Doc Ock in order to bring out the humanity in Doc Ock. It works. Octavius agrees to sacrifice himself and destroy his experiment in order to save the city. Spider-Man watches him go.
Then he turns and there’s Mary Jane and we get the shot: the revelation of a superhero’s identity, power and love all in one. It’s the culmination of 100 years of superhero making. From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman to Spider-Man, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. I.e., she rejects me (Clark), but she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She rejects me because she fails to see what’s super in me. The superhero love triangle plays upon our deepest, saddest fantasies.
And here, in one scene, the girl finally gets it. The disconnect is connected. The two men become one.
Kirsten Dunst, bless her heart, pulls it off. A shocked intake of breath, a camera close-up as myriad emotions cross her face, ending in a small, grateful smile. It all makes sense now.
I have to admit, when Peter Parker’s gaze goes from Mary Jane to the roof collapsing above her, I thought: Oh crap, they’re not going to let this last. I thought: She’ll probably get hit on the head and develop amnesia and blah blah blah. I’d seen it a million times. I’d see it again with Harry Osborne in “Spider-Man 3.”
Bless their hearts, they didn’t go this route. Instead an unmasked Spider-Man stops the roof. And then they do something really, really smart. They have him act like Peter Parker. “Hi,” he says, all goofy and tongue-tied. And then: “This is really heavy.”
Of course once the disconnect is connected, where do you go? In most stories you don’t. You say: The End. But the movie business is a business, and if there’s money to be made it’s made. Which is why we got “Spider-Man 3.” But we don’t have to get into that until I write about the 10 worst superhero scenes.
--originally published on MSNBC, June 2007