You won’t see (most of) the standard critical picks on Superhero Hype’s top 10 movies of 2022. That’s because we’re pulling solely from the ranks of the movies we cover: superhero, science fiction, and fantasy. Those categories are flexible, but not breakable — as much as 60 year-old Tom Cruise still being the best fighter pilot in the world may seem like a fantasy, Top Gun: Maverick is set in the real world, and not eligible.
This was something of a slump year for superhero movies. While the MCU entries still hit the baseline of providing solid entertainment, the best Marvel stuff mostly arrived via streaming shows on Disney+. Large productions still showed obvious signs of pandemic restriction, while behind-the-scenes drama at DC offered more plot twists than even the Riddler could conceive.
Against all of that, some really creative smaller productions snuck in and took as by surprise, even as some of the most-hyped mega-movies actually did live up to the anticipation. Several cinematic superheroes emerged who’d never even had comic books.
Not every movie on this list gets the same rating as it did when it came out. Time and consideration may alter opinions somewhat. And with that consideration in mind, here are our picks:
Honorable Mention (tie): Black Adam/Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness/Thor: Love and Thunder
We can’t quite call these comics-based efforts noble failures, as they definitely had some redeeming value. Black Adam captured the kind of comic book in which heroes spend the whole movie flying around and blasting each other, without a deeper story. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness allowed Sam Raimi to get some truly great Raimi-ish moments into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but made us wish he’d had more time to nail down a script he liked.
Taika Waititi’s script for Thor: Love and Thunder frequently feels disconnected and illogical. But we still enjoyed Natalie Portman as Mighty Thor, Christian Bale’s creepy turn as Gorr, and Russell Crowe’s bizarre Greek accent for Zeus. All three films deserve at least a look from superhero fans.
Original superhero movies not based on existing IP are tough to pull off, even for actors with super-physiques like Sylvester Stallone. (Though there were comics, they were based on the original screenplay and simply saw release first.) It didn’t help Samaritan that fans conditioned to expect Marvel-style shocking reveals thought they were smarter than the movie’s obvious “big twist” that the star is actually playing an evil twin…of sorts. Yet the movie telegraphs it so far away, and it works so much better if audiences do figure it out before the reveal, that it feels intentional.
Where the movie excels is in the heft Stallone carries with him as an action hero who hasn’t fully aged out despite wanting to, and its portrayal of a slum-covered fictional city where people took the wrong lessons from their heroes. Maybe it doesn’t interrogate the copaganda nature of costumed vigilantes — or the idea of killing one’s idols — deeply enough. But it still touches on topics that feel radical in this subgenre, and depicts a lived-in setting that feels as alive as Gotham or Bludhaven.
9. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Had it been the movie Ryan Coogler originally intended to make, the Black Panther sequel might have topped this list. Through no fault of his own, however, it faced unprecedented obstacles for a Marvel movie. Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death meant that the original story couldn’t go forward. Then, with the movie re-centered on Shuri, actress Letitia Wright courted controversy by posting an antivax video on social media.
Wright also sustained an injury that kept her off the set for months while she recovered. Additionally, the overworked visual effects artists may have affected the final look of the CG backdrops. That said, the pandemic had that effect overall, and every Marvel movie released this year clearly used soundstages with as few primary cast members as possible.
With all that in play, it’s a masterful achievement on Coogler’s part that he delivered a coherent final product. Let alone one that’s as profound a meditation on grief and rage as these movies are ever likely to pull off. Tenoch Huerta’s Namor may be a major departure from the comics — mostly to give Aquaman some space — but boy, can he sell it when Shuri injures those ankle wings.
Most Predator movies are at least dumb fun, but Prey manages to do better than most. Since Schwarzenegger, the franchise has struggled to come up with a new protagonist as striking as the creature they fight. However. Amber Midthunder’s Naru is up to the challenge. Taking on a more primitive Predator in the year 1719 on the Great Plains, Naru rises above her tribe’s expectations — and previous Yautja-fighters like Adrien Brody and Boyd Holbrook — to best the alien hunter and French trappers.
A lower-budget approach doesn’t mean the film looks cheap, as some gorgeous cinematographer and plenty of cloaking and gore effects keep Prey from becoming a too-predictable one-on-one contest, except when it needs to be. And even though it appears to diverge from some continuity, its ending ultimately fits it comfortably into the existing franchise. It also gave Midthunder the breakthrough role she’s worked hard for.
7. Crimes of the Future
At last, an answer to the question, “What if David Cronenberg made an X-Men movie?” Returning to the body-horror themes for which he’s best known, the Canadian auteur depicts a future in which humans have evolved beyond pain and infection, and thus where amateur surgery is now legal, because everyone’s basically Wolverine.
But as new mutations develop, largely manifesting as brand new organs that seem to have no purpose, the government looks to hunt down anyone who doesn’t register their latest internal growths. Against this backdrop, the movie focuses less on action, and more on the relationship between performance artist partners portrated by Viggo Mortensen and Lea Seydoux.
It’s not quite a superhero movie, but could very much work as an edgy one-shot within a superhero universe.
6. Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe
Sure, it’s a blatant crib from Rick and Morty to depict a massive council of alternate reality Beavises and Butt-Heads in outer space. But it’s in the service of a noble goal: bringing back MTV’s two most famous dumbasses in multiple forms that still work as canon. In the new movie, they come through a space portal from the ’90s, and exist as boys out of time.
In the subsequent TV episodes, they’ve been depicted both as teens from the present day, and middle-aged burnouts as they might appear if they’d aged normally. All while outer space versions of themselves resembling really stupid versions of Marvel’s Watchers monitor their progress, or lack thereof.
As the original disclaimer proclaimed, “for some reason, the little wienerheads make us laugh.” They still do.
5. Wendell & Wild
Henry Selick’s collaboration with Jordan Peele isn’t likely to become as iconic a Halloween movie as the one that bears Tim Burton’s name. That’s because it’s much more complex, and it tells a story about demons who want to run a theme park that competes with Hell itself, and turns it into a critique of the orphanage-to-private-prison pipeline, a plot point Netflix reps asked critics not to mention in the first round of reviews.
The animation itself looks astonishing, as some of the smoothest, least herky-jerky stop-motion we’ve ever seen. But beyond its incredible style, the movie respects its viewers enough to throw in many characters and subplots, cool ’90s tunes, and a genuinely diverse cast. If the climax feels a bit abrupt, it’s only because properly playing out every idea in the film might have made it five hours long.
4. Mad God
Special effects maestro Phil Tippett, a trailblazer on Star Wars, Robocop, and Jurassic Park, has directed exactly two features in his life. One was 2004’s direct-to-video Starship Troopers 2. The other is this passion project that took 30 years and gave him a mental breakdown. Primarily stop-motion with some live-action elements, Mad God plays like an 83-minute Tool video from the ’90s.
A mysterious assassin descends into the bowels of an industrial nightmare of a planet, gets captured and subjected to horrendous surgeries, as his memories reveal a fascist world in the grip of apocalyptic war. With almost no dialogue and more of a premise than a plot, the near-experimental film offers little relief from its relentless darkness, and suggests an endless cycle of destruction is endemic to its universe. It’s every heavy metal album-cover hellscape come to life, and an astonishing achievement in handmade world-building.
3. Everything Everywhere All at Once
With Marvel and DC movies attuning the moviegoing public at large to the concept of the multiverse, the filmmaking duo known as Daniels pushed it even further. Michelle Yeoh, no stranger to the concept after playing two wildly different alternate-universe versions of Captain/Emperor Georgiou on Star Trek Discovery, divides even further across universes as Evelyn, a launderette co-owner on the verge of divorce.
Faced with an IRS audit, Evelyn finds herself splitting into alternate realities, as an omnipotent variant version of her daughter threatens to tear every dimension apart with her own nihilism. In short order, Evelyn is leaping into dimensions where she alternately becomes a martial arts master, a movie star, a woman with hot dogs for fingers, and the human costar of a Ratatouille-esque tale of a raccoon chef.
It’s up to her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) to save her with love, much as he did Indiana Jones many years ago. It’s as great to see the former Short Round be an onscreen hero again as it is to see Michelle Yeoh showcase her acting and ass-kicking skills in equal measure. That they find themselves in a multiverse much madder than those immersing Doctor Strange and Loki yields the year’s most audaciously original adventure.
2. The Batman
Now this is Gotham City. Dark, old, perpetually raining, neon-adorned, combining the most forbidding historical architecture styles with modern urban blight. This is the place that would spawn a Batman (Robert Pattinson). Yet it does more than that, by offering up an actual mystery for him to solve, and a Riddler (Paul Dano) who is finally as much of an evil mastermind as he is in the comics, even if he’s also more murderous.
The only minor bummer is Matt Reeves’ insistence on “realistic” costumes for everyone not dressed as a bat. Gotham’s villains usually provide bright colors to contrast with the gloom, but here, even the Joker has muted tones. That may yet evolve. In the meantime, Pattinson’s Batman is arguably the first live-action version since Adam West to truly play Batman as the real character, and Bruce Wayne as an ill-fitting cosplay. (Christian Bale gave lip service to that notion, but then did that Batman goofy voice.)
Batman finally feels like a real collaborator and friend with Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), and a caped crusader who likes being a hero, rather than one who aspires to find love and leave the cowl behind. Batman has had a lot of live-action movies. But none that get him quite as well as this one does.
1. Avatar: The Way of Water
It’s literally the best movie money can buy. James Cameron has a history of record-breaking budgets, record-setting grosses, and technology that pushes the envelope. For his first non-documentary feature since 2009, he hit the trifecta again.
The Avatar films, which we can now speak of collectively, succeed because they feel like an actual travelogue on an alien planet, in part because they’re fundamentally optimistic, and beyond that, they just have the kickass action Cameron has always been unimpeachable at. He’s also good at giving actors their defining roles — the first Avatar put veteran Stephen Lang on everyone’s radar, but the sequel makes him a star, as the more conflicted clone of the villainous Quaritch.
Not all will agree, but in the three-hour-plus running time, not a single scene feels wasted. The large cast all get screen time, dramatic scenes breathe, and while the struggle at hand gets closure, hints of an even larger narrative emerge. Bring it on. The sooner, the better.
What did we miss? Where did we go wrong? Let us know your lists in comments below.
Recommended Reading: James Cameron’s Avatar: Tsu’tey’s Path
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