The Rating System

I’ll rate the movies with capes, from four capes for the ideal comic book movie to zero for the worst possible comic book movie. Only three films rate all four capes, and one of them is not even a true comic book film. Conversely, only one very special film earns zero capes.

I will also add from zero to three tents to indicate a film’s level of unintentional amusement. One tent means it’s unintentionally amusing once in a while, two means it’s getting toward “so bad it’s good” and will entertain you if you’re easily amused by bad movies, and three tents means it’s an Alternative Classic, practically another Robot Monster. Only two films here earn three tents. The tent symbol is meant to suggest camp value, but you don’t earn any tents by being campy on purpose. It’s a measure of accidental entertainment.

In general, tents are how we separate the good bad movies from the bad bad movies. But there are exceptions to that — occasional special cases where the magic can’t be captured by a tent rating.

This is a cape: cape and this is half a cape: halfcape and this is a tent: tent and half a tent: halftent

Note that, because of the general standards that the superhero genre has held itself to over the years, the ratings here have to be rather heavily, ah, prorated. Graded on the curve, that is. At least five of the movies I’m reviewing have appeared on the IMDb’s list of the 100 lowest rated films of all time (though many have since been bumped off of it), and for a long time, not one made it into the top 250. (But after The Dark Knight broke through, several have managed to get up there... including some which do not, in my opinion, deserve the distinction.) Quite a few of these comic book films have been nominated for Golden Raspberry awards, a.k.a. Razzies, which are granted annually to the worst films of the year. Some of these are Razzie winners, sometimes in multiple categories. Many have also won awards from the Razzies’ less prestigious rival The Stinkers (now defunct), whose own list of the 100 worst films of all time includes seven of these movies. Many of these are hardcore B movies... and even worse, some of them are Summer Blockbusters* from the Era of Dumb. Despite recent successes and accolades, this is a group of films where a mess like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, at the time it came out, actually ranked as better than average! Since then, the bar has been raised somewhat, but even at their best, these movies are usually a long way from being fine art.

There are true examples of fine cinema that are based on comic books — ahem, graphic novels — but they’re mostly not to be found here. Including something like Ghost World in the rankings would mean that nothing else would be able to get more than about two and a half capes.

The three films that I awarded four capes to are the only ones here that I would hold up as competitive in quality with “real” movies, to be discussed as significant artworks rather than just entertainments. And even they aren’t going to be fully appreciated unless you have one toe in the B-movie world.

Furthermore, even among the good ones, the majority are essentially juvenile. Only a few of these films qualify as authentically grown-up. These films are marked with a special grownupness icon, to wit, a balding head. Or half a head for movies that are partly grown-up and partly still, ah, young at heart.

But since the hardcore superhero audience is now largely middle aged, they often try to say something fresh to the grownup audience members, as well as having fun action for those who are youthful in spirit. One way filmmakers try to do this is to have an alternate take on superhero tropes that deconstructs our normal comic book expectations. This is now so common that I’ve made an icon for deconstructive looks at superheroes: a wrecking ball. This is a new feature of the site as of 2013.
deconstructionpartial deconstruction

What the hell, here are the approximate cape ratings I’d give for some of those excluded graphic-novel films, graded according to the same generous curve:

Ghost World capecapecapecapecapebald
Road to Perdition capecapecapecapebald
A History Of Violence capecapecapecapebald
American Splendor capecapecapehalfcapebald
Lone Wolf and Cub capecapecapehalfbald

Speaking of ratings, most superhero movies get the same maturity rating from the MPAA, namely PG-13. I will display the MPAA rating at the top of a review only if it differs from this norm.

Everyone should allow some room for differing points of view... so in some cases I will include a quote from a reviewer whose, ah, standards are very different from mine. To wit, John Stanley, principal author of Creature Features: The Science Fiction, Fantasy, And Horror Movie Guide. Long ago, John Stanley hosted a late night movie show called Creature Features... a show I watched religiously in my teens — especially when its previous host, the godlike Bob Wilkins, was in charge. Bob Wilkins was the greatest movie host in the history of television, but never mind that... he handed the show over to John Stanley, who has an encyclopedically thorough knowledge of genre movies, especially horror, as his Creature Features guide proves. But... god damn, is he a terrible critic! At least, to me. Here’s an example of how John Stanley rates movies... according to him, each of the following is worth exactly the same rating, three stars (out of five):

  • Terry Gilliam’s magnificent The Adventures of Baron Münchausen
  • Godard’s seminal Alphaville
  • William Shatner’s own Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
  • The Three Stooges Meet Hercules
  • Mortal Kombat

So for certain films where Mr. Stanley’s judgement differs sharply from mine, I’ll give his star rating and a quote from his review. For example, my review of Judge Dredd awarded one cape, but John Stanley granted it four stars out of five, so I quote his review thusly:

But what does John Stanley say?

  those bizarre shoulder pads of Judge Dredd couldn’t have been filled better than by Sylvester Stallone... frequently stunning, and always exciting.

* It should be noted, though, that as Summer Blockbusters go, comic book films have been lucky. Perhaps because of the numerous geek fans who demand “respect for the source material”, more often than not the big-budget comic book adaptations tend to be reasonably well-fashioned, and generally don’t turn into the sort of heinous Van Helsing-esque turds that used to give summer blockbusters such a bad name. With comic book movies, usually the bad ones are cheapos. Of course, there are exceptions... mainly for DC characters. Marvel hasbeen luckier, having been able to shop around for the best people to make its films, whereas DC has been locked for a long time into a single studio, since it’s owned by Time-Warner. And after 2009, when Marvel was bought by Disney, they got to set up their own semi-autonomous film studio, and fortunately the people they put in charge of it have proven they really know what they’re doing. They had been working toward that for a while, carefully gathering back all the character rights they’d rented out to other film companies, and boy did it pay off.