Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top five list and debate the merits therein.
Greg: Greetings and salutations, dear readers! Welcome to Countdown … is … us?
Nick: Wouldn’t it be Countdown …. is … HARD?!?
Greg: Sometimes our wrestling references work. Sometimes they don’t. In any event, we’re just a few short weeks away from the epic release of the highly anticipated sequel to Joss Whedon’s 2012 superhero classic “The Avengers.” Or is it “Marvel’s The Avengers”? However you say it, it was awesome, and “Age of Ultron” promises to be equally entertaining.
In anticipation of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes returning to the big screen, we’ve assembled lists of our favorite comic book movie sequels. Now, as you’ll see, we limited our lists to only the SECOND films in a given franchise. Why? For starters, we wanted to avoid repetition, and both of us fanboys consider Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequels to be the finest films in the genre. Furthermore, it helps us include some more franchises than would otherwise have appeared.
Nick: Yes, we’re talking about specifically the second films in a series, although there are some fuzzy rules in places. For example, films such as “The Wolverine” or “X-Men: Days of Future Past” are eligible because while they could be viewed as continuations of the X-Men franchise, we’re counting them as direct sequels to “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “X-Men: First Class,” respectively.
Is that a cop out? No, because neither film was directed by Kevin Smith.
Greg: HOHO WOW!
Like Shawn Michaels in 1997, you make the rules and we … will … break ’em!
Let’s get this thing started.
Greg’s No. 5: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Nick: Dammit, Greg.
Nick’s No. 5: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Greg: What are the odds?
Pretty high, given our track record.
Nick: This one ranked for me for several reasons. While I enjoyed the first solo Cap outing, I felt like The Winter Soldier raised the bar in nearly every respect. Better acting, better writing, better cinematography, more interesting characters … the list could go on and on.
BUT, the biggest reason this found its way onto my list was the fight choreography. The hand-to-hand combat in this one was among the best I’ve seen in the superhero medium, whether on the big screen or TV. Cap’s early showdown with Batroc the Leaper stands out, as it showed the audience immediately that the spotlight was going to be placed on Cap’s combat skills in a major way.
I also have to give this one some love for raising the bar in terms of what we should expect from Marvel’s solo sequels. Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World were both great efforts in their own right, but neither felt as impactful on the large cinematic universe as The Winter Soldier. By the end of this solo Cap movie, we had seen the downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D., which has had far-reaching effects on the MCU in the television realm and will be further explored in the aforementioned Age of Ultron.
All around, just a great piece of filmmaking from Marvel, and I can’t wait to see how they follow it up in Age of Ultron and next year’s Civil War.
Greg: This 2014 box office smash is a prime example of a great sequel. It brings back all the strong points of the first film, fixes the weaknesses and amps everything up to another level. While the best aspects of the first film were its tongue-in-cheek humor and its heart, this one adds political intrigue, swashbuckling superheroics and much, much better character development. While Bucky Barnes was woefully underdeveloped in “The First Avenger,” here we are able to empathize with him despite his villainous position.
And as Nick said, “Winter Soldier” sets a new bar for superhero-supervillain throwdowns. The casting of UFC legend Georges St. Pierre undoubtedly influenced that, as his early fight with Cap demonstrates an uncommon realness and believability mixed with the necessary theatrics. The main event is the slugfest between Cap and the Winter Soldier, which serves as a great climax to a movie largely built on character exploration. The Russo Brothers deserve all the credit they get for this one.
Nick: After seeing their handling of this one, I have full faith in the Russos taking over for Joss Whedon on The Avengers after Age of Ultron. They’ve proven themselves.
Greg’s No. 4: X-Men: Days of Future Past
Nick: Love this selection. In fact, I love it so much I’ll have more to say on it in a bit. For now, the floor is all yours.
Greg: Marvel Studios gets a lot of well-deserved praise for its box office outings, but I don’t think the studio has ever gone as bold with a sequel as its counterpart Fox did last year with this gem. Attempting to not only adapt one of the most beloved X-Men stories of them all, but to tell a story involving time travel and more mutants than had ever been assembled on screen, well, that took gumption.
Luckily, director Bryan Singer returned to the helm and steered this into classic territory. Mixing the casts of his own X-Men flicks and the Matthew Vaughan-directed “X-Men: First Class,” Singer brought back the breakneck pace he made famous a decade earlier and managed to modernize a comic book classic. In addition to featuring some of the very best action sequences I’ve seen in a superhero film (Quicksilver’s musical interlude in a kitchen, for instance, or any scene involving Blink), the movie never loses sight of its characters. Wolverine, my favorite X-Man (sue me), is perfect here, providing some comic relief much as he did during some of the best X-Men stories. Much of the dramatic heavy lifting is carried by James McAvoy as a young Charles Xavier, and he excels.
There are so many winks and nods to the comics throughout this, it’s hard not to smile for the duration. The X-Men are my favorite Marvel characters, and it was great to be able to see them act as a team and bring to life such a beloved tale. Bring on Apocalypse!
Nick: Bring on Apocalypse indeed.
Nick’s No. 4: Thor: The Dark World
Greg: I figured this one would show up on your list, and it’s a worthy entry. Like “Winter Soldier,” this one surpassed the original in nearly every way. One-dimensional characters like Jane Foster were able to grow and expand, and Loki was a delight.
Nick: Now, while I did say earlier that I thought The Winter Soldier felt more important to the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe than this second Thor outing, it doesn’t mean I automatically prefer it to The Dark World.
As I’ve written many times in our various columns, I’m a bit of a Thor fanatic. Everybody’s got a favorite Avenger, and the God of Thunder is mine. I like the first Thor movie more than most, and it’s not a surprise I like its sequel more than most as well.
Much like The Winter Soldier, I thought The Dark World did a great job of taking the concepts and characters from the first film and moving them forward a step. Asgard had already been introduced to audiences, so the film chose to ramp up its story in terms of the beloved mythology of the comics. We get to see various realms, the introduction of the Dark Elves and the furthering of the Thor/Jane Foster romance. And while, never directly mentioned, we also get a tease of the Thor/Jane/Sif love triangle in the form of Sif’s longing glances at the studly, manly, musclebound, ruggedly handsome…. um, I mean, uh, Chris Hemsworth.
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is back as well, providing the movie with enough spark to more than make up for the fact that Chris Eccleston’s Malekith was a bit one-dimensional. Everyone knows Loki’s betrayal is coming, but its eventual form is a real crowd-pleaser, as is his nearly movie-stealing scene of shape shifting.
All in all, this Thor movie just gave me more of what I love about the character and the mythos. Here’s hoping the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok is willing to delve into the Asgardian aspects of the character even further.
Oh, and lest I forget to mention it, we got FREAKING FLYING LONGBOATS on the big screen. My inner nerd can die happy.
Greg: It can’t be overstated how much better most of the characters were in this one. In the first flick, Thor and Loki felt like the only really developed individuals. Odin, Frigga, Jane, Darcy and even Heimdall get moments to shine and add dimensions to themselves that were missing in the original.
The Dark Elves didn’t set my world on fire, but the humor, world building and great action more than made up for that.
Greg’s No. 3: Spider-Man 2
Nick: As blasphemous as it will be to many, I just couldn’t find a spot for this one on my list. I still love Spidey’s second outing, but I don’t think I’ve ever loved it as much as Greg and many others do.
Greg: To date, this is the best film featuring Marvel’s most popular character. It’s also the Spider-Man movie that’s come closest to accomplishing its goal of capturing Peter Parker’s pathos. It also destroyed the box office and sent superheroes into the stratosphere, from which they never looked back.
The story is kind of a hodgepodge of a few classic Spidey tales, including the legendary “Spider-Man No More!” Tobey Maguire turns in the best of his three performances, James Franco kills it as a Harry Osborn that is relatable and yet also ominous. But the real star here is Alfred Molina, who creates the single best version of Doctor Octopus I’ve ever encountered.
I’ll admit I’ve never been a fan of the evil super genius character from the comics, so Molina’s more sympathetic take on the character appealed to me from the get-go. He’s a force of nature here, stealing the show in a way not unlike Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker in “Batman.” He can drift between hammy and heartfelt with ease, and Director Sam Raimi follows suit.
Speaking of Raimi, he does a masterful job of balancing multiple story threads. Peter is struggling to establish and maintain a relationship with Mary Jane Watson, keep the city safe and deal with a sudden power loss that threatens his very existence. To top it all off, there’s Doc Ock breathing down his neck and his best friend hates his masked persona. It’s a great movie, and hopefully future Spidey flicks can take the strong points here and inject even more of the superheroics that drew me to the character as a kid.
And finally, there’s the wondrous train sequence, still one of the best fight scenes in any superhero flick.
Nick: Can’t disagree with anything you said here. Again, I love Spider-Man 2 and revisit it often. Just had to cut it in favor of other choices, including this somewhat controversial one…
Nick’s No. 3: Batman Returns
Greg: Wow, I didn’t see that one coming. I know you’re a big fan of it, but I didn’t imagine it sniffing your top five.
Nick: Look, we can all sit here and make somewhat objective arguments about which of these films we love or like or dislike or hate, but it’s hard to quantify or argue when it comes to an emotional connection or a memory that takes you back to your childhood, and Batman Returns is as sentimental to me as it gets.
1989’s Batman might be the first film I can vividly recall watching over and over again on VHS back when I was a kid. I wore the hell out of that cassette tape, so when commercials and marketing for its sequel started popping up, 4-year-old me was as pumped as I could get. So pumped, in fact, that my mother agreed to take me to the theater to check it out. It was the first movie I can really remember seeing in a theater, and the experience was one for a lifetime.
I’m well aware of the movie’s detractors and the criticisms they have of it. Many of those criticisms I would even say are pretty much warranted. But I really don’t care. This is a fun movie for me, whether it’s Batman showing up to thwart the circus gang in the film’s opening action scene, Chris Walken’s delightfully over the top Max Schreck or Danny Devito’s bizarre portrayal of the Penguin as a castaway child who was raised by penguins. Yes, this movie has some cheese to it, and it does largely feel like more of a Tim Burton movie than a Batman movie.
BUT, what it does have is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Holy hell, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. I didn’t even like girls at age 4, but I knew I liked Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Somewhere, in a parallel dimension, there’s me and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor stranded on a desert island….
Once again, I have digressed. Fact is, all the logical arguments in the world can’t make up for the connection I have to Tim Burton and Michael Keaton’s second Batman offering. Hate if you must, but can we all at least agree that it’s better than the steaming bowl of diarrhea (TM Tim Capel) that is Batman Forever?
Greg: Without question. I don’t hate this movie like a lot of folks seem to, but it’s never been a favorite of mine. I do love the aesthetics and the performances from Keaton, Walken and Pfeiffer (despite the … questionable characterization). And I will never forget the marketing campaign, which to this day is my favorite for any comic book film. Best. Happy Meals. Ever.
Greg’s No. 2: X2: X-Men United
Nick: I knew you’d have this one in this spot on your list. It’s a fantastic X-Men film and one of the best in the GENRE.
Greg: Indeed it is, and it was groundbreaking. In many ways, this is the superhero sequel that started it all. Sure, there had been good sequels before this one. “Superman II” narrowly missed my list, and “Blade 2” was a blast. But this was the first comic book sequel that really blew away its original, and it set a bar that few have been able to touch since.
This is, in my view, Bryan Singer’s masterpiece. The pacing is absolutely flawless from the opening to the closing credits. In fact, it’s one of the best-paced action films I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.
Like “Days of Future Past,” X2 takes inspiration from several X-Men stories and weaves them into a cohesive plot that centers on three key players: Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine. The performances are strong across the board, as even Halle Berry’s much-maligned turn as Storm works for me in this one. A lot of X-Men purists don’t like this one, arguing that it’s a Wolverine movie and wastes Cyclops and Jean Grey, among others. Even if I were to acknowledge that, it wouldn’t bother me, as Wolvie is my favorite X-Man and I’ve never cared for Scott (Mr. Capel knows my stance, and we’ve made our peace about this division. We are united in the House of El.). However, I think that argument ignores the amazing performance from Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler and the screen time devoted to Xavier and Magneto, who are pivotal in the plot.
Nevertheless, Wolverine is the star of the show here, with Hugh Jackman really staking his claim to the character. He has the gruff, gritty qualities of the comics Logan, but adds a level of humanity that helps anchor the film. There are laughs, shocks and, yes, tears to be shed here.
But let’s face it: the reason this film is so beloved is the timeless action. The famous Nightcrawler scene at the beginning remains one of the best uses of CGI in an action film. Period. William Stryker’s infiltration of Xavier’s mansion is breathtaking. And then there’s the savage battle between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike. X2 is an achievement and doesn’t get enough credit for its innovative visuals and unparalleled pacing.
Nick: I can’t disagree with anything you said. Actually, I take that back. You find this to be Singer’s masterpiece, while I prefer a more recent effort.
Nick’s No. 2: X-Men: Days of Future Past
Greg: Ah yes. I have already sung the praises of the most recent movie about Marvel’s Merry Mutants, so I’ll let you do your thing.
Nick: Think back to 2009, just after the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That film proved to be the second straight mutant-led cinematic trainwreck after 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. The entire X-Men cinematic franchise had been leveled, and its very foundation was crumbling.
In 2011, Matthew Vaughn repaired that foundation with X-Men First Class, a fine X-Men effort that some even preferred over X2. But, to me, First Class was simply a breath of fresh air that was able to clear the room after the fast food farts that were Last Stand and Origins. Once that room was clear, we were able to get something truly magnificent in the form of X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Bryan Singer was able to seamlessly combine the familiar cast of the first three X-Men films with the younger cast introduced in First Class and in doing so reminded us why we loved those previous X-Men films in the first place.
I’ve often said that First Class is Michael Fassbender’s movie from beginning to end. He dominates the screen and gives as great an X-Men performance as there’s ever been. Well, in Days of Future Past, it’s James McAvoy as the young and troubled Charles Xavier that steals the movie. His Xavier is tormented, moody and a bit of a mess, yet in his performance, you can see the potential for him to become the man Patrick Stewart showed us in several previous movies.
In addition to McAvoy, we get more fantastic performances from Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman, Fassbender and Ian McKellen. Add those to the outstanding action Greg mentioned previously (seriously, that Quicksilver scene is AMAZING) and you’ve got the recipe for a film that restores the franchise to its once lofty standing.
And as we mentioned before, more is on the horizon, as Apocalypse will be gracing our screens next year. As Greg’s favorite New York Jet Bart Scott might say, “Can’t wait!”
Greg: Bart Scott, you can go straight to heck! Straight to heck!
Nick: And now comes the part of the column where we present to you the least surprising outcome since Rock vs Cena II at WrestleMania 29….
Greg and Nick’s No. 1 : The Dark Knight
Greg: Yeah, we kind of telegraphed this one.
Nick: I’m going to say very little here, actually. We’ve waxed somewhat poetic on the virtues of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece so much that most people who know us are probably getting tired of it at this point.
Greg: “Shut up about it already!”
We hear you. Let me just extoll, once more, the virtues of this amazing cast and crew. The actors, in particular, deliver across the board. From Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman’s wise mentors to Christian Bale’s conflicted hero to Aaron Eckhart’s driven crusader to Heath Ledger’s mad genius, it’s a tour de force the likes of which we may never see again in the realm of superheroes. And, yes, it has humor. It just doesn’t beat you over the head with it, as is appropriate for the movie’s tone.
Nick: Suffice it to say this — The Dark Knight gives us the finest portrayal of the Batman mythos ever put on the screen. Bale’s Batman is the best Batman. Oldman’s Gordon is the best Gordon. Freeman’s Fox is the best Fox. Caine’s Alfred is the best Alfred. Eckhart’s Dent is the best Dent. And, yes, without question Ledger’s Joker is the best Joker.
The action is the best of any Batman film. The acting is the best of any comic book film. The story and character development are second to none. This isn’t just the best comic book film of all time, Greg and I both consider it to be one of the finest films of all time. Period.
It’s the film I rewatch the most and still find myself picking up on new details to love. If you believe in such a thing as a perfect film, this is mine.
Greg: And with that predictable conclusion, we wrap up another edition of Countdown. But never fear, Countdown will return next month, and Mr. T will no doubt be proud, because we’ll be listing our favorite comic book moms in honor of Mothers Day!
Nick: We even love them on Arbor Day.
Greg: And, yes, even on Fathers Day.
Nick and I will be right back here next week with a new Longbook Hunters. This time around, we’re reviewing “Daredevil: Hell to Pay Part 1” by Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark.
Nick: Until then, you can give us your thoughts on our lists and provide your own through Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87), email (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com) or through the Place to Be Nation Comics Facebook page.