I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Spider-Man about to swing into action.
Technology has really changed filmmakers’ abilities to create realistic action sequences in movies. The superhero movie genre especially benefits from these advances, and filmmakers have been able to really capture the abilities and situations that these characters face in the original source material. These days, there are no limits to what can be done on screen, and as a result, audiences have been given the opportunity to see their favorite heroes in all their glory. Below are 10 of my favorite action scenes in superhero movies ranging from the first Superman movie to the current dynasty of the MCU. These aren't actual fights as much as they are rescues and chases. I've saved the fights for a different list.
Batman (1989) – Race To the Batcave
Synopsis: After saving Vicki Vale from The Joker, Batman races her away to the bat cave through dark woods where he can provide her with information on how to stop The Joker's deadly toxin from spreading throughout Gotham City.
Why It’s Great: After a very long, Joker-centric first act, it’s finally time for some action, and this is the climax of a sequence of events that includes crashing through the museum roof, swinging Vale to safety, racing through the streets of Gotham, and fighting some goons in an alley. The Batmobile looks its best barreling down the dark, wet roads, blowing leaves into the stylish, Tim Burton woods as a vocal-rich score plays swells over the roar of the engine.
They're not even being chased at this point. There are no road blocks to swerve away from or waterfalls to jump into. It's just a dark, yet exciting scene that fits in with the dark, gothic tone of the film. Vale’s reaction to the car speeding towards the cave wall only to have the door open at the last second is priceless. Batman is his stern, sinister self, refusing to speak or let her get too close of a look at him. It says so much about him without saying anything at all.
Superman (1978) – The Helicopter Scene
Synopsis: After her helicopter becomes stuck on some cables on the roof of The Daily Planet, it teeters on the edge of the roof, eventually throwing Lois Lane towards the ground before Superman scoops her up in mid-air. On their way back up to the roof, the helicopter falls toward them, and Superman picks it up with one hand and flies both it and Lois to safety.
Why It’s Great: The use of practical effects is astounding for its time, and the sequence still holds up today. From Superman using a revolving door to change costume, to speeding up the side of the building to grabbing the falling helicopter with one hand while holding Lois in the other is incredible. You find yourself holding your breath with the spectators on the ground below, and you can feel the strain as Lois hangs out the door of the helicopter for as long as she can before she lets go. Some signature Richard Donner humor is thrown into the dialogue with Lois exclaiming, “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” All of the work that went into "inventing" human flight for this movie really pays off in this sequence and sets a standard for all Superman movies, and superhero movies in general, to follow.
Spider-Man (2002) – Avenging Uncle Ben
Synopsis: When his uncle is shot and killed by a carjacker, Peter Parker seeks revenge, running into a back alley to suit up and cut off the thief who is being chased by the police. Here, he uses his powers for the first time in pursuit of the criminal and gets his revenge, unintentionally causing his uncle’s killer to fall out a window to his death.
Why It’s Great: Fueled by vengeance, this scene shows Spidey successfully swinging for the first time. He bursts into that back alley like a race horse as the music swells. Nearly every power is exhibited from wall climbing to jumping before he takes a second to prepare to swing off of the building. That stylish Sam Raimi close up as Peter leaps off of that building, grasping his webbing exhibits the wide range of emotions that Peter goes through, from anger, to fear, to excitement.
The camera follows Peter through the air as he hooks to another building before detaching and swinging awkwardly down the street, his body sprawling around as he falls and then catches himself with more webbing. The choir kicks in as you witness this boy doing something both animalistic and fantastic, years in the making, on to one of his first and most important battles in his superhero history.
He leaps onto his uncle’s car, avoiding gunshots and causing the carjacker to crashing into a gate. Peter pursues him through an abandoned building. More of Raimi’s signature fight moves are employed as Peter slams the thief’s head through some window glass before confronting the villain face to face just before he stumbles backward to his death. It's not much of a fight considering how much Peter dominates over his cowardly-armed opponent.
Of course, Peter doesn’t intentionally kill him, but he still has blood on his hands, and it does little to erase the guilt of lying to his uncle and belittling their relationship in their final conversation just a few hours earlier. While on the exterior, Spider-Man feels like a fun, summer blockbuster, this scene provides depth and a morality tale for its all-ages audience along with the groundbreaking camera work and CGI effects that became available during this decade.
Superman Returns (2006) – The Plane Crash
Synopsis: After the plane carrying an innovative shuttle launch malfunctions with Lois on board, Superman spends his first day back at work first saving the damaged plane from being launched into space with the shuttle and then from falling to Earth in a fiery crash.
Why It’s Great: This is a very long sequence, especially for a first big action sequence in a movie. The set up is very drawn out, but it pays off as the plane becomes fused to the launching shuttle and then is irreparably damaged. Success is imperative being that Lois is on board and not strapped in to her seat. As she is thrown around the plane while in zero gravity, things don’t get much better as they plummet to Earth. She finds her seat but then is hit with falling bags and oxygen masks and then thrown forward as the plane nose dives towards a ball field.
The speed with which the plane descends and Superman’s inability to slow it down until the very last possible moment makes for a fun, chair-gripping finale before he stops the plane just before it hits the baseball field and then sets it down safely. While CGI tends to be overused in this film, it does allow the character to do things that we've never seen him do before, like punch through the wing of a plane as if its tissue paper, fly at incredible speeds, and slow the plane down by its nose in a larger and more powerful sequence than any 1970's effects would allow. The sounds in this scene are really sharp as well, and the score adds the right amount of intensity and spectacle that's needed to reintroduce this character after a long hiatus from the big screen. A sense of calm follows the sequence followed by triumph as the baseball crowd applauds Superman's first rescue upon his return from space.
Dark Phoenix attack.
X-Men: The Last Stand – The Phoenix Rises
Synopsis: When a team of soldiers fire plastic guns spewing needles laced with “the mutant cure” at Jean Grey, Jean unleashes her wrath as The Phoenix and destroys everything in sight.
Why It’s Great: While I agree that The Phoenix’s powers did not get the treatment that they deserved in this adaptation of the character, you have to appreciate what does appear on film. This final showdown demonstrates Jean's destructive power. She takes out the soldiers and then flies for the first time, floating up onto a hill where she can look down at her victims. Everything is turned to dust, including both humans and mutants, and gravity is thrown out of whack in her presence. Those inky black eyes and blue-veined skin are unsettling as she looks forward with her raging stare.
The water around Alcatraz flies up into the air like a reverse waterfall, and debris floats around them. As she rips the flesh from Logan’s adamantium skeleton, you see the lengths he must go to in order to stop her, both physically and emotionally. As he plunges his claws into her at her teary request, the water and debris fall to the ground along with her, creating a calm, smoky, and cemetery-like atmosphere. This feels truly like the end of Jean Grey, and the fact that Logan has to be the one to stop her makes for a bittersweet catharsis.
Iron Man 3 (2013) – The Plane Scene
Synopsis: One of The Mandarin’s henchmen disguises himself as The Iron Patriot and uses the suit to kidnap the President of the United States while in mid-flight on Air Force One. His exit causes the rest of the crew on board to be sucked out of the plane where they fall thousands of feet to the water below. Iron Man employs a “barrel of monkeys” technique and instructs the 13 falling people to link together so that he can carry them to safety just before they hit the water.
Why It’s Great: This scene is a welcome sidebar from this intricate movie, which, for nearly an hour, has not featured any Iron Man suit. Tony is stripped of his gadgets and comforts for a good chunk of this film, but once he gets his suit back, it’s not long before he uses it in an intense, action-packed sequence. The impressive stunts and clever carry out of the rescue are fun to watch as Air Force One blows apart overhead. Tony orders everyone to “grab your monkey,” and he steers them toward each other so that no one is left to plummet to a watery grave. Once he has them all, they are lightly dropped into the water where they applaud gratefully at their hero.
Throughout the franchise, Tony Stark has gradually learned how to put others first. He also has a realistic way of saving people. While his wit and humor generally stays in tact, you can see the stress and strain that rescuing people can induce. He doesn't know if his plan will work. He can only execute it as best he can and panic a little while he is carrying it out. Tony Stark may not have military training or superhuman abilities, but he does know when to stop to rescue those in danger, even if it means side-tracking from his more personal mission to save Pepper.
Batman Returns (1992) – The Penguins Attack
Synopsis: After his original plan to kidnap and murder all of the first born sons of Gotham falls through, The Penguin straps a rocket to each of his pet penguins and sends them to Gotham Square where he intends to launch the rockets and blow up as much of the city as possible. Meanwhile, Batman races to the scene in the bat boat and, with Alfred’s help, is able to turn the penguins around and keep the villain from doing any catastrophic damage.
Why It’s Great: It may seem dopey and awkward to have rocket-clad penguins attack Gotham City, but it’s a quirky and sinister revenge done in The Penguin’s unique style. He begins with a Shakespearian speech, ordering his penguins to punish all of a Gotham City, which has now abandoned him twice, before they dive into the water one-by-one and swim to the surface to start their march to Gotham Square. The seemingly harmless penguins waddle through the snowy streets as Batman races to the scene underground and uses a signal to turn them all around. To deliver on the promise of explosives, the rockets still detonate, just not where The Penguin had intended, and there is even hand-to-hand combat between the hero and villain that ends with The Penguin falling to his death back into the penguin exhibit as his abandoned zoo hideout explodes around them.
The penguins seem out of place in this city landscape, despite the fact that it is snowing, but that's what gives it its comic book feel. It's silly but sinister. It's an easy fix but still fun to watch. Despite the lack of a worthy opponent, Batman does not escape unscathed. He crashes his bat boat, is nearly strangled by The Penguin, shot by Max Schreck, and scratched by Catwoman, both physically and emotionally. With so many characters to face, he emerges victorious but with a few new scars to add to his collection.
Capitan America:The Winter Soldier (2014): Nick Fury Chase Scene
Synopsis: Nick Fury is under attack in his SHIELD car and has to use his quick thinking and the built-in toys to save himself from The Winter Soldier.
Why It’s Great: Nick Fury has always been one of the coolest characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but this scene captures what a good agent he is and how smart and impressive he can be when in peril. He makes use of his available gadgets and instincts and quick thinking to get himself out of danger. The Jason Bourne-style car chase with loud sounds and the intensity of probable failure shows that Cap and The Black Widow are not the only superheroes in the film. He barely escapes, but that is more of a testament to The Winter Soldier's skills than Fury's lack of abilities.
The armored car chase in The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight (2008) – Car Chase
Synopsis: While transporting convicted criminal and self-professed Batman, Harvey Dent, to prison, The Joker and his men intercept the parade of police vehicles involved in the transport, and Batman must come to the rescue to save Dent from The Joker’s attack.
Why It’s Great: The lack of music mixed with gun fire and heavy vehicle sounds lit by the orange, city street lights make this a very realistic yet thrilling sequence. A lot is at stake with The Joker’s track record, and Harvey is in grave danger. Batman’s entrance helps to ease the tension, and even when The Tumbler is destroyed in a sacrificial jump, Batman pulls a fast one and breaks out the Bat Pod without even leaving the scene, culminating in a showdown that tempts Batman into the breaking his “one rule” to avenge the apparent death of Jim Gordon. But he refuses to stoop to his enemy’s level, ending with a temporary victory for the good guys in The Joker’s capture and securing Harvey’s safety.
Guardians of the Galaxy - Vol. 2 (2017) - Saving Quill
Synopsis: As Peter's father, Ego, reveals himself to be not only intent on taking over the universe but also as the cause of his mother's deadly illness, he captures his son and uses his powers to set off the flowers that he has implanted on every planet he has visited, which grow into deadly rock structures that overtake everything in its path. Meanwhile, the rest of The Guardians have regrouped, and they all gather together to save Peter and stop Ego from taking over the universe.
Why It's Great: With the team having been separated for most of the movie, seeing them gathered together again sets off a grand finale of spaceship chases, a bomb detonation, and an ultimate sacrifice. The original team is joined by three new members: Nebula, Yondu, and Mantis, even though some introductions to the team are short-lived. When they all come together in that iconic group shot, though, you know that the galaxy has a chance with them. However, they all work together to distract Ego long enough for Groot to plant the bomb and escape before it goes off.
This is not just about saving the galaxy from a madman. This is about accepting the family that you have built and sticking together till the end. Peter turns his back on his father only to realize that Yondu is his real dad. Mantis abandons her murderous master and in turn is taken in by Ego's latest victims, especially by Drax. Gamora and Nebula come to terms with their relationship and come to see each other as allies over enemies. Rocket learns that his tough exterior is just the act of a scarred psyche. Groot learns to follow directions and be an asset to the team. They may argue while they do it, but they get the job done, effectively rescuing Quill and destroying Ego while stepping out of their own way.
Watch The Guardians take on Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
What are your favorite superhero action scenes? Leave your responses in the comments below!