For those with access to a kid, March break is officially upon us. That magical week of classroom freedom that will all look on with fond memories and bitter jealously. To celebrate, the TIFF Bell Lightbox is kicking off a screening series of superhero movies to keep the tykes entertained indoors. This being The Lightbox, we’re not talking about screenings of Spider-man, The Dark Knight, and The Avengers, though. Instead the programmers are highlighting some forgotten gems of superhero cinema, mostly taken from the first golden age of the genre in the 90s. The Comic Book Heroes series runs from March 9-24, offering 15 super-powered classics ripe for rediscovery by youngsters or tearful nostalgia trips for immature grownups. To celebrate, we thought we’d provide a brief guide to some of our favorite highlights from the series. If you need some healthy escapism, grab your Superman underoos and buy a ticket to one of these bad boys. Childish regression is but a ticket purchase away.
Superman/Superman II (1978/1980) Screens Saturday March 9 at 1:00PM and Sunday March 10 at 1:00PM, respectively
Here’s the grand daddy that started them all. Back in the 70s, the idea of tossing millions of dollars at putting a funny book character on the big screen felt laughable. Oh sure there were old timey superhero serials and TV shows, but a big budget blockbuster? In your dream geekazoid. At least, that was true until Star Wars made a few bazillion dollars and Hollywood realized that fortunes could be made by pleasing children with fantasy and selling them merchandise on the way out the door. Hot off the success of The Omen, longtime TV director Richard Donner got the gig to turn the world’s first superhero Superman into a cinematic icon. He embarked on a two-movie production of epic proportions, but ambitions were cut short when the budget spiraled out of control and he ended up with 1.5 movies in the can. Superman arrived on screens an instant box office sensation and cultural phenomenon. Christopher Reeve found the role he was born to play, John Williams score elicited chills, Donner made you believe a man could fly (within certain limitations), Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty set the template for campy comic book evil, Brando was Brando, and the opening origin sequences felt like genuine myth-making. Sure it was a little too long and the earth-reversal-time-travel-finale is one of cinema’s worst narrative cop-outs, but the flick was and remains a classic that’s copied to this day (and given the non-stop barrage of superhero movies currently cranked out of Hollywood, you could call it one of the most influential movies of all time). A few years later Richard A Hard Days Night Lester was hired to cobble together the remaining footage for Superman 2. The result is infinitely more campy and not quite as satisfying, but it does have Terrence Stamp’s Zod and is therefore awesome. Here’s where superhero blockbusters began kiddies. Recognize!
The Adventures Of Tintin (2011) Screens: Tuesday March 12 at 1:00pm
It might seem a little early for a retrospective screening of Steven Spielberg’s Tintin adaptation give that it’s not even two years old, but given how criminally underseen/underrated it was in 2011 (well, in North America anyways, it was a hit everywhere else on the planet…much like the comics), it deserves the exposure. Spielberg joined forces with that other great bearded CGI fantasist Peter Jackson to craft the Tintin movie they’d both dreamed of for decades and they delivered the goods. Shot in motion capture to create a distinct living cartoon style, the movie is an entertainment explosion of goofball characters and insane set pieces. Spielberg clearly reveled in the fact that he was no longer bound by earthly laws like gravity when crafting the action sequences and delivered some truly stunning work like a city-destroying chase constructed in a single flying camera shot. Sure, some of the humor is a bit lame and the story can feel convoluted for folks unfamiliar with the source material. However, as a work of pure sugar rush CGI entertainment, it’s hard to beat and feels like a more satisfying Indiana Jones throwback from the most successful director of all time than that Crystal Skull nonsense. Even if you hate Tintin, but love Spielberg it’s worth a look. Lord knows that’s how I felt when I nervously sat down to watch the movie for the first time. Now I sing it’s praises to anyone who will set aside their cynicism long enough to listen.
The Mask (1994) Screens Tuesday March 19 at 1:00pm
Back when Jim Carrey was still “that white guy from In Living Color” he got a call from Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors director Chuck Russell to star in an adaptation of an obscure Dark Horse comic book called The Mask. The story was about a nerdy twirp who finds an ancient mask that gives him unlimited confidence and, for some unknown reason, the physical prowess, sense of humor, and attitude of a Tex Avery cartoon. The result is a goofball romp with Carrey mugging at his most antic levels with CGI enhancements that allow his eyes to literally pop out of his head. Sure, the effects are a little dated now (though the fact that they are supposed to look cartoony helps), the plot is perfunctory, and it’s a bummer the edge from the hard-R comic was removed, but The Mask remains a silly good time. Just make sure you never ever watch the Jamie Kennedy sequel. No one deserves to go through that special brand of torture.
Speed Racer (2008) Screens Wednesday March 20 at 1:00pm
Long before the epic turd of epicness that was Cloud Atlas, the Wachowski siblings suffered their first genuine bomb with this batshit insane anime adaptation. To this day, I can’t understand why. Ok, so maybe Speed Racer didn’t exactly have a compelling narrative or characters with even two dimensions. But the eye candy! Oh boy…the eye candy. I have no doubt the Wachowski’s hoped to produce a hit, but it very much seems like their primary drive in making the movie was to see if green screen technology could ever replicate the seizure-inducing visuals of anime. Well, the answer is “holy shit, yes!” It’s hard to think of a more visually arresting or adventurous movie made in the 2000s. Well, maybe Enter The Void, which makes Speed Racer the child-friendly version of Enter The Void. If that sentence doesn’t make you want to see the movie, I don’t know what will!
The Iron Giant (1999) Screens Thursday March 21 at 1:00PM
Most of the movies on this list are merely glorious works of stupid superhero entertainment. Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant on the other hand is a full on animated masterpiece. Made between his supervising directing duties on the finest years of The Simpsons and his Oscar-winning run at Pixar, The Iron Giant is an absolutely beautiful creation. Part sci-fi action/adventure, part melancholic coming-of-age picture, part comedy, and part Cold War parable, it’s an ambitious movie that shouldn’t work and yet somehow plays out magically. If you still need proof that Brad Bird is a genius a single glorious and teary-eyed viewing of The Iron Giant will erase all doubts. I don’t even want to describe the plot, because it’s so unique that unfamiliar viewers should be able to experience of joy and wonder that comes from discovering it for the first time. The best I’ll offer is a cheesy elevator pitch: imagine a cross between a 50s giant robot B-movie and the fairy tale emotional perfection of E.T. Even that feels like short changing what Brad Bird accomplished. The Iron Giant is one of the greatest animated features ever made and one of the last hand-drawn epics before Hollywood animation went digital. See it on the big screen where it belongs. Oh and Vin Diesel also gives his greatest performance as the voice of a 50-foot car eating robot. No, I’m not making that up.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) Screens Friday March 22 at 1:00PM
I feel likes it’s impossible for anyone from my generation to accurately try to describe the appeal of the pizza-scarfing, Shedder-stomping mutant turtles with kung-fu skillz to pay the billz. There’s two much nostalgia involved for me to watch it honestly and I can’t even imagine what kids today would make of it without growing up during the peak of Turtlemania. Look people, it’s the Ninja Turtles. If you grew up in the 90s, ‘nuff said. If not, best of luck to you making sense of this one.
Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (1993) Screens Saturday March 23 at 1:00PM
Whenever there is a discussion regarding the greatest TV/Film representation of Batman comes up, there is only one acceptable answer: The Batman Animated Series. Made in the early 90s following the success of Tim Burton’s Batman blockbusters, the afternoon cartoon series mixed the dark tone of the movies with the more fantastic elements of the comics and the result was Batman perfection. In fact, it worked so well that Warner Brothers let the folks in charge create a feature film spin-off as the live action movies transitioned from Burton to Schumacher (shudder). The result was Mask Of The Phantasm and while it sadly bombed in theaters in 1993, it remains easily one of the finest feature film adventures for the caped crusader. Someone is killing crime bosses around Gotham City while dressed as a creepy supernatural figure. Batman sets out to discover who is responsible and ends up rediscovering someone from his past as well as battling Mark Hammil’s perfectly pitched Joker for good measure. The film is darker, bloodier, broodier, and smarter than Burton’s brilliantly silly goth cartoons and in hindsight feels like a perfect middle ground between that rendition and Christopher Nolan’s take on the character. Throw in some absolutely stunning gothic/art deco designs and you’ve got an unheralded Batman masterpiece begging for a little big screen rediscovery. This sucker NEVER plays in theaters and can even be a pain to find on DVD without suffering the horrors of pan-and-scan. Not to be missed.
The Rocketeer (1991) Screens Sunday March 24 at 1:00PM
Long before director Joe Johnson nailed the old timey matinee idol charms of Captain America, he made this little beauty at the height of the post-Batman superhero movie explosion. It was supposed to start a family friendly superhero franchise for Disney, but it bombed and the dream of superheros running the house of mouse died until they bought Marvel Studios. However, that failure had nothing to do with the quality of the movie. While The Rocketeer may be impossibly earnest and cheesy, that’s exactly what makes it so great. Johnson clearly held a soft spot in his heart of the old cornball cliffhanger movie serials of his youth and nailed their nostalgic charm as perfectly here as he later would for the Cap at Marvel. It’s a movie with a hero whose superpower involves slapping a dangerous rocketpack to his back that also features Alan Arkin as his sarcastic mechanic, Timothy Dalton as a delightfully over the top Nazi villain posing as a Hollywood heartthrob, and a vintage Jennifer Connelly at her most radiant. The effects are great and the tone offers nothing but breezy, brainless escapism. It’s an unjustly dismissed B-movie treat and a swell way to wrap up this peachy series of vintage superhero gems. Golly gee! Gadzooks! Etc.
For a full list of features and films being shown in the series, head on over to the TIFF website.