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The 10 Greatest Film and TV Superheroes

From Superman to the Green Lantern, Peter Travers picks his favorites

Photograph by Francois Duhamel/ Warner Brothers Picures, TM & © DC Comics

I've got superheroes on my mind: NBC is debuting a new series on January 9th called The Cape, about a cop who fights crime by taking on the identity of his son's favorite comic-book legend; Ryan Reynolds hits theaters this summer in Green Lantern; and director Christopher Nolan is prepping the last chapter in his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. Here's a list of my ten favorite superheroes — and three superduds — from film and TV.

— Peter Travers

Stephen Vaughan / Warner Bros

Batman

As played by Christian Bale in 2008's The Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader is what he was meant to be in Bob Kane's original and Frank Miller's bleak rethink — the most haunted and haunting superhero ever. Bale is electrifying as the fallibly human crimefighter at war with his own conscience and the Joker, the supervillain immortally embodied by Oscar winner Heath Ledger. So what if Batman, living as playboy Bruce Wayne, has no superpowers? He has a mind on hyperdrive and all those wonderful toys, starting with the Batmobile. Bale chillingly renders his Dark Knight as a lost warrior, evoking Al Pacino in The Godfather II in his delusion and desolation. The best of the twisted best.

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©Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

Superman

With due respect to George Reeves, who cemented Supie in the public consciousness on TV in the 1950's, the iconic Man of Steel for me is Christopher Reeve in 1978's Superman: The Movie. The actor, who died in 2004 after years of fighting the paralysis that resulted from a horseback riding accident, made an ideal Superman and played his alter ego Clark Kent with a bumbling, bespectacled Cary Grant charm. The guy has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men — how cool is it that he flies? In this movie he reseals the San Andreas Fault. Reeve fully captures the spirit of the comic series created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster as Supie fights for "truth, justice and the American way."

Paramount Pictures

Iron Man

Even if you know diddly about the character Marvel created in 1963, Robert Downey Jr. brings real creative juice to the party that is 2008's Iron Man (forget the disappointing 2010 sequel). Hard to believe that Iron Man and his alter ego, boozing, lecherous, right-wing manufacturer of WMDs Tony Stark, had never been exploited as movie subjects before. You can feel the exhilaration in the telling and updating of this origin story as Tony gets blown up by his own weapons in Afghanistan and builds an iron suit that powers his shrapnel-shattered heart. Downey does something resonant for this flying hunk of metal: He gives Iron Man a soul.

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©Sony Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Spider-Man

The unlikely superhero that Stan Lee created at Marvel Comics in 1962 makes a perfect fit for actor Tobey Maguire in this 2002 movie blockbuster. He builds a real character out of the sketch that is Peter Parker, an orphan from Queens, New York, whose life changes dramatically when a mutant spider bites him and he starts climbing walls. Peter testing his powers with small skips and jumps until he is leaping across rooftops defines director Sam Raimi's style: slow build, huge payoff. The 2004 sequel is every bit as good.

© 2009 by Twentieth Century-Fox Films

Wolverine

Hugh Jackman steals the show as the lupine superhero of the X-Men series. Among the X-Men, Jackman's Wolverine takes pride of place with his long metal claws and short temper. As Wolfie joins the misfits and mutants who seek shelter with Professor X (Patrick Stewart), who wants to integrate them into human society, he must deal with Prof X's counterpart, Magneto (Ian McKellen), who plans to destroy humanity. Adapted from Stan Lee's Marvel Comics series by director Bryan Singer, the 2000 movie is loaded with smart special effects, notably the fight between Wolverine and himself (don't ask, just dig in).

© Disney Pixar

Mr. Incredible

Pixar's 2004 gem is not like any animated film. Director Brad Bird, who cut his satirical teeth working on The Simpsons, animates human beings. Take Mr. Incredible, voiced with beleaguered bluster by Craig T. Nelson. This legend in spandex is so besieged by frivolous lawsuits from people who claim they never wanted to be rescued that he enters a superhero-protection program and becomes Bob Parr, suburban slob. But when Mr. Incredible must squeeze back into his old costume to save his family, suddenly the movie is James Bond, Indiana Jones and the X-Men all rolled into one kick-out-the-jams superhero.

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©Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

Catwoman

I am not referring to Halle Berry's disastrous 2004 take on the character. The real cat's meow is Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton's 1992 Batman Returns. Pfeiffer nails the role of Selina Kyle, the mousy assistant to corrupt Gotham City tycoon Max Shreck (a fiendishly funny Christopher Walken). When Max tries to kill her, Selina is revived by cats and uses her nine lives to become a feminist avenger, a ravishing kitten with a whip who nonetheless falls hard for Michael Keaton's Batman. When they rip off their masks and face each other (it's a knockout scene), they look lost and touchingly human.

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Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The Incredible Hulk

Here's where television easily trumps the two Hollywood versions (Eric Bana in 2003 and Edward Norton in 2008) of the Marvel Comics charcter created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The CBS series, which ran from 1978 to 1982, starred Bill Bixby as scientist Dr. David Banner and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk, the mean green machine Banner becomes when rage overtakes him. The computerized Hollywood Hulks can't hold a candle to Ferrigno. He's the real deal.

© 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Kato

As played by the irreplacable Bruce Lee, Kato stole the show on The Green Hornet TV series that ran for a year on ABC starting in 1966. Kato is the masked driver and sidekick to Britt Reid (Van Williams), a newspaper publisher who fights crime using his secret identity as the Green Hornet. Created as a radio series in the 1930's by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker, the Hornet owes its iconic status to Lee, who gave Kato the wit and astonishing physical grace that had you cheering. Whatever the fate of the new film version with Seth Rogen as Reid and Taiwanese actor-singer Jay Cou as Kato, it's the image of Lee — speeding through the night behind the wheel of the "Black Beauty" or felling villains with his lethal kicks — that sticks.

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©Troma Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Toxic Avenger

OK, maybe the 1984 tackfest from Troma Entertainment defines cheap, violent and vulgar. But the movie achieved cult status because it's still kickass fun to watch Mark Torgi, as 98 pounds of solid nerd called Melvin Ferd, morph into the Toxic Avenger after New Jersey bullies leave him for dead in a vat of burning toxic waste. Melvin the Monster Hero may be a low-rent excuse for anything super, but I wouldn't think of leaving him off the list. You got a problem with that?

Mary Evans/WARNER BROS/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Super Dud: George Clooney as the Caped Crusader in ‘Batman and Robin’

Director Joel Schumacher's 1997 take on The Caped Crusader is arguably the worst Batman movie ever. Even Clooney rags on himself for his horrendous acting, playing Batman in a rubber suit with built-in nipples. Yikes!

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Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

Super Dud: Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in ‘Tomb Raider’

Jolie looks great, but looks can't save this 2001 clunker from blinding dullness as the very British Lara — Lady Croft to us swine — plots to save the world. But who cares about plot? I was more distracted by the fact that Jolie's breasts seem to balloon and deflate from scene to scene. Double yikes!

©Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Super Dud: Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze in ‘Ghost Rider’

Once again Hollywood takes a dark, twisted hero from the Marvel Comics playbook and homogenizes him into a toy-boy suitable for mass consumption. Cage plays the motorcycle stunt driver who makes a deal with the Devil to stay alive. I could barely stay awake. Some people like this movie. There's no accounting for taste. And Cage is threatening a sequel. Triple yikes!

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