After writing a series of articles on the evolution of movie heroes and hero types, it seemed appropriate to compile a list of top ten hero movies; but a historical approach to picking the best movie heroes proved inadequate.
To me a hero is someone I would want to be, or someone I would want my son to be, or someone I would want my daughter to marry. This excludes Wizards, Hobbits, Vampires, Androids, and Superheroes. I may wish to be a Superhero but I definitely would not want to go through the back story it takes to become one. I have no desire to see my planet blown up, my son irradiated in a secret military lab explosion, or have my daughter marry a schizophrenic who saw his parents murdered at the age of six so at night he dresses up in a bullet proof leather bat suit.
So my definition of Heroes becomes: real flesh and blood characters that prevailed in extreme circumstances and showed a sense of morality, courage and purpose. I also focused on the character in the film and not the actor that portrayed him. I did make one concession to my guiding principles: Dudley Do-Rights do not necessarily make for entertaining movies and from a literary historical perspective, taming the ‘bad boy’ is a classic element of modern romantic fiction.
So Heroes are all flesh and blood, not demigods, have no superpowers, and none of them is immortal.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) staring Errol Flynn, is the greatest swashbuckler and one of the greatest movie ever made. Errol Flynn plays Robin Hood, the handsome roguish displaced noble driven into thievery, but who still upholds the laws of chivalry by protecting the weak and defenseless. He robs from the rich and gives to the poor and none of his ill-gotten gains are for personal enrichment. He is a defender of the weak and he fights for the rights of Englishmen by opposing the oppression of the evil King John. True to conventions of modern romance, Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood is a roguish Prince Charming who is won over by the beautiful maid Marian and in the end they rush off to get married, and live happily ever after.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is another of America’s greatest movies. This is the story of an average man who finds himself in the corrupt halls of Washington power. His innocence is a joke and he is mocked and made fun of, but Jefferson Smith is an honest good man who stands up to the awesome power of a corrupt political machine, the newspapers they run and politicians they own. This is the American David against the corrupt Washington Goliath and director Frank Capra at his best.
Stagecoach (1939) is the movie where director John Ford merged the chivalry of the swashbuckler with the strength of the American working man to create the movie mythos of the American Cowboy. The American Cowboy is the tough honest hard working man of honor who always keeps his word. This is a subtle serious film that challenged the conventions of the day in a thoughtful manner. Stagecoach is a landmark in American film making.
Maltese Falcon (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston, is another transformative movie. The Maltese Falcon is widely regarded as the first important film noir. It is based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett and established the Hardboiled Detective as the urban version of the American Cowboy. He is as tough, smart, and as devious as the corrupt world around him and yet he ultimately stays true to his code of honor. Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade has been copied but never surpassed as the ideal Hardboiled Detective.
High Noon (1952) John Ford and John Wayne may have invented the Western cowboy mythos but it was Gary Cooper in High Noon where it reached its zenith. Sheriff Kane is the perfect honorable Cowboy. Everyone from the town’s people, to his deputy, the ex-sheriff, and even his wife want Sheriff Kane to abandon his principles and flee from the gunmen coming to town to kill him but Kane stays true to himself and his principles comes through in the end. This is the ultimate western movie.
Spartacus (1960) may not be a classic must see film but it oozes bravery and overflows with heroes. Spartacus was the slave that led the revolt that challenged the might of Rome. It isn’t just the physical bravery of Spartacus as the gladiator in the arena, or as the leader of a slave army, it’s the moral courage to not abandon his colleagues when all seems lost, the confidence to show vulnerability to his loving wife, and bravery of the survivors of his defeated army to stand and shout “I am Spartacus!” in defiance of tyranny.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) The American Film Institute’s list of the fifty greatest film heroes ranks Atticus Finch as number one. Atticus Finch has the moral courage to stand up for what is right and the physical courage to calmly stand up to a lynch mob. Atticus is the father every man wants to be and the father every child wished they had.
Goldfinger (1964) is the best of the Sean Connery James Bond movies. James Bond is calculating, callous, and ruthless and while he definitely shows courage and dedication of purpose, he is somewhat flexible in the morality department. Still, James Bond ranks third in AFI’s list of greatest film heroes. Despite his tendency to take what he wants from women, he also saves, protects, and ultimately falls in love with his leading ladies.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is an homage to the movie serials of the 30s and the 40s. It is almost comic book in its relentless cliffhanger action. Indiana Jones is the prototypical Saturday matinee movie idol and one of the great movie heroes of all time; he ranks number two on the AFI list of movie heroes.
Last of the Mohicans (1992) is based on a modernization of the nineteenth century American romantic novel. It is essentially a love story between the Nathanial Poe and Cora Munro, but is also a blend of romanticized European chivalry and nineteenth century American nationalism updated for modern American tastes. Nathanial is the perfect frontier American hero – honest, brave, and resourceful. He represents the ideal American pioneering spirit.
Superheroes are primarily thought of as comic book stars but the superhero is actually a multimedia phenomenon with roots going back to newspaper comic strips. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and the Phantom all began as newspaper comic strips. It was the Phantom, introduced in 1936, that was the first famous masked and costumed crime fighter. Flash Gordon also began as a comic book character and, within two years went from being a comic strip character to the hero of the motion picture serial, Flash Gordon (1936).
Not all superheroes began in comic books or comic strips. The Shadow began as an anonymous announcer for a detective fiction radio show and proved so popular that author Walter B. Gibson was hired to write pulp crime novels featuring the Shadow as a crime fighter. Universal Studios produced six film shorts featuring The Shadow in 1931 and 1932. The Shadow starred in his own radio show beginning in 1937 and only became a newspaper comic strip and a comic book superhero hero in 1940.
These early superheroes paved the way for their superhero successors. It was the Phantom who invented the superhero costume with mask while the Shadow’s real identity as millionaire playboy Lamont Cranston was a major influence on Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne.
Superman and Batman are the superstars of superheroes. They are the comic book characters everyone thinks of as the definitive superheroes and dominated the golden age of comic book superheroes by selling millions of books annually. Superman and Batman owe their dominance in the world of superheroes due to the fact they were multimedia stars. Superman was introduced in Action Comic #1 June 1938. By January 16, 1939 he was a daily newspaper comic strip and on February 12, 1940, Superman became a radio star. It was the Superman radio show that introduced “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” to the Superman mythos and it was as an animated cartoon produced by Fleischer Studios (creators of Betty Boop and Popeye) that gave us “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive.” The Fleischer cartoons also began the custom of Clark Kent using a phone booth to change into Superman. He was a hugely popular star of motion picture serials, a b-feature movie star, and with the arrival of television; Superman was the first superhero to get his own television show, the Adventures of Superman.
Batman, like Superman, was a multimedia superstar of the Golden Age of comic books. Like Superman, Batman quickly had his own comic strip and motion picture serials, and while Batman did not get his own radio show, he was a regular on the Superman radio program to give the Superman radio stars time off for vacations. Batman’s greatest contribution to superhero multimedia was the campy Batman television series of the 60s, which was a two part weekly television series that included a cliff hanger each week as homage to Batman’s motion picture serial past.
In 1968, 2001 a Space Odyssey proved that special effects movies could make money. Special effects had improved to the point that they were believable, seamless, and even unobtrusive in cinematic storytelling. In 1977 Star Wars (1977) rocked the motion picture industry as the first special effects action packed summer blockbuster film. Special effects action thrillers continue to dominate cinema to this day. It is no surprise that Superman: the Movie (1978) was the first blockbuster feature film starring a superhero and also number three at the box office the year after Star Wars came out. Batman would follow in 1989 as the top office champion.
Blockbuster special effects movies are enormously expensive. Star Wars: the Force Awakens (2015) had a budget of over three hundred million dollars. Studios cannot afford to invest these kinds of sums into movies without some guarantee of box office success. Movie franchises like Jurassic Park, James Bond, and Star Wars have dedicated followings guaranteed to pull in significant audiences to the theater near you. So do, superheroes. When studios produce high quality productions which stay true to the superheroes’ mythos they have a huge fan base with which to draw fans into the theater. Batman (twice), Spider-Man (also twice), and the Avengers have all been number one at the box office. In 2016, four super hero movies were in the top ten Captain America: Civil War #3, Deadpool #6, Batman Vs. Superman Dawn of Justice #8, and the Suicide Squad #9. Within a short period of time the Marvel World has become the third highest grossing movie franchise behind James Bond and Star Wars. For movie heroes, this truly is the Age of the Superhero.