This year's summer movie season is a dream for comic book fans, with two superhero movies already debuting in theaters and two more yet to come.
Adaptations of Marvel Comics classics in "Thor" and "X-Men: First Class" have already made their mark, and a DC Comics hero will come to life this weekend with Ryan Reynolds starring as "Green Lantern."
And moviegoers can still look forward to the July 22 premiere of "Captain America: The First Avenger."
As all these movies will find out, comic book fans are a very discriminating lot when it comes to the adaptations of their favorite superhero tales for the big screen. Especially in the age of the Internet, the process of making a superhero movie is one heavily scrutinized from the minute a project is announced, and will oddly be forgiven IF it works.
If it earns the distinction of becoming a classic, its standards will become those upon which all other superhero films will be judged. Here are five of those films.
Who's your friendly neighborhood webslinger?
No. 5: "Spider-Man 2" (2004)
Hollywood finally gave visually gifted horror-film maestro Sam Raimi his due with the director's chores for Marvel's "Spider-Man" in 2002, and his webslinger tale starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man thrilled beyond expectations with high-flying special effects and raw character emotion.
But Raimi and Maguire didn't hit their stride until 2004's "Spider-Man 2," which far exceeded the original film.
The daring sequel not only introduced the best villain of the entire trilogy in Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), it confronted a tangled web of emotional issues including Peter's strong romantic feelings for his longtime friend, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and the tormenting responsibility Peter felt for his Uncle Ben's (Cliff Robertson) death.
Also in an uncharacteristic move, Raimi also unmasked Spider-Man in public in the film's thrilling runaway train scene, a general no-no in the superhero genre. The payoff here, though, is big, as is the film.
Where does he get those wonderful toys?
No. 4: "Batman" (1989)
After the "Superman" series came to a dismal end in 1987, the superhero movie genre was rejuvenated two years later -- not so much with an re-introduction to DC Comics' Batman legend and his iconic nemesis, The Joker, but with director Tim Burton's daring casting choices in the key roles: Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.
But thanks to the comedian's deathly serious role as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the serious actor's turn as a deadly but hilarious Joker, "Batman" quickly earned its classic movie status.
With Burton at the helm, it wasn't a shock that we saw The Dark Knight through a twisted, dark maze of havoc created by The Joker -- a far cry from the lightweight camp of the "Batman" television series (1966-1968) starring Adam West in the title role and Burt Ward as his sidekick, Robin.
The film was a monster hit and spawned one Burton-directed sequel, before the series descended into a hapless quadrilogy and the "Batman" series turned into an embarrassing "in-thing to do" for the "who's who" in Hollywood.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
No. 3: "Superman" (1978)
Sure, the special effects don't quite hold up to today's visuals, but the spirit of "Superman" makes DC's Superman soar high above most films the superhero genre has to offer.
Starring Christopher Reeve in his first major film role, the film covers all of the important bases of the Superman legend: his roots on Krypton (with Marlon Brando as his dad, Jor-El, to boot); his descent to Earth and earnest upbringings with George and Martha Kent; his journey to the Fortress of Solitude and, lastly, his job as a reporter at the Daily Planet in Metropolis where he will realize his full superhero potential.
The casting -- including Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor -- is spot on, but no mold is more flawless than Reeve as the chiseled Man of Steel.
The only downside watching the film is knowing the eventual fate of Reeve the man -- who carried on with a Superman-like dignity from the day he became quadriplegic in 1995 to his death in 2004. Watching "Superman" today is exhilarating as much as it is heartbreaking.
Who's got the X-factor?
No. 2: "X2: X-Men United" (2002)
In 2000, director Bryan Singer ushered in a new era of superhero movies with not only an entertaining x-pose of Marvel's "X-Men," but a diverse character study that made Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) a superstar and set up an even-better sequel.
The plot of the film is exactly as the title implies, where, in a rare instance, Professor Charles Xavier's (Patrick Stewart) X-Men team up with Magneto's (Ian McKellen) Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to stand up against Colonel William Stryker (Bryan Cox).
A vindictive military scientist in denial because his son is a mutant, Stryker kidnaps Xavier in a plot to use his Cerebro mechanism to eradicate the Earth of all mutants.
The film is every bit as exciting as it is emotional, particularly when the comic book's iconic "Dark Phoenix Saga" rises in the final stages of the film, as Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) makes the ultimate sacrifice to save her fellow X-Men. Indeed, superhero films can be tearjerkers, too.
Why so serious?
No. 1: "The Dark Knight" (2008)
Thanks to the successful reboot of DC's Caped Crusader film series in 2006 with "Batman Begins," director Christopher Nolan's follow-up, "The Dark Knight," was intriguing nearly from the get-go, as an unlikely dramatic actor, Heath Ledger, was cast opposite star Christian Bale in the iconic role of The Joker.
The positive buzz about Ledger's performance started to grow, though, during the film's savvy viral campaign and unexpectedly became a haunting specter that hovered over the film seven months before it was released because of the actor's untimely death at age 28.
In the wake, bits of foreboding interview sound bites by Ledger emerged, where he proclaimed the role disturbed him on many levels -- and the anticipation for "The Dark Knight" was at a fever pitch by the time the film was released.
Ledger didn't disappoint in his final, full performance, and turned the once campy, comic book film character's exploits into deep, psychological torment.
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