With the arrival of a certain super-powered baby from Krypton in 1978, superhero movies took over the mantle of the ’70s disaster movies. Films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno did huge business early in the decade, but ever since superhero movies have been trying to out-do each other for scenes of jaw-dropping devastation. Inevitably, special effects have improved since then, and the on-screen carnage has become more and more impressive. Avengers Assemble , out on DVD on 17 September , features a spectacular battle for New York that will be hard to beat – but where does it rank on our list?
Compiled by: Neil Ramsden
10 The Dark Knight
Damaged: Gotham General
Culprit: The Joker
It might be just one building on the receiving end in this instance, but the destruction of Gotham General Hospital is on a grand scale.
A memorable moment in a film full of stand-out moments, the Joker’s destruction of the hospital is just another example of chaos for its own sake. One of Heath Ledger’s great pieces of improvisation, his miffed reaction to the measly initial explosion is both funny and chilling.
It’s also a spectacularly good example of practical film-making: director Chris Nolan blew up the old Brachs Candy factory in Chicago for real, resulting in an explosion which could be seen city-wide. Of course, it had to be done in one take, including Ledger’s oh so casual reaction to being so close.
9 X-Men: The Last Stand
Damaged: The Golden Gate Bridge
Ever a stylish and practical man, Magneto takes the obvious route when his Brotherhood storm Alcatraz’s labs.
Uprooting and floating San Francisco’s iconic bridge across the water using his power over metal, this is the stuff classic comic-book movies are made of. (Shame about the film as a whole.) Technically the damage done is limited, as the bridge remains intact, but there are extra points on offer for sheer audacity; this is the most photographed bridge on the planet, a modern world wonder, ripped from its moorings. The effect on tourism alone would be huge!
The scene reportedly took up one sixth of the movie’s budget, and was achieved using a mix of CGI and a miniature of the bridge; it certainly makes for a striking image.
8 The Incredible Hulk
Damaged: Harlem, New York
Culprits: Hulk and Abomination
Considering his penchant for destruction, Hulk’s had a relatively small-scale movie history (at least, until Avengers Assemble ).
The sheer out-of-control, destructive power of Banner’s alter-ego hadn’t really been captured until we saw just how afraid of him the rest of the Avengers were, but his rampaging battle with Abomination comes close.
The pair batter each other through Harlem, using cars and buildings as weaponry- including Hulk’s use of two car halves as impromptu boxing gloves, apparently a nod to videogame Ultimate Destruction . With the crashing of a chopper, and a “Hulk smash” on the rooftop of an apartment building that surely renders the place unsafe to live in, this scrap rates as one of the most destructive between two super-powered individuals.
A surprising amount of the effects are CGI-free, using motion-capture and practical effects like smashing models through brick walls. Some suggested this resulted in a reaction against the battle scenes in Ang Lee’s Hulk , which got some stick for looking like a videogame.
7 The Dark Knight Rises
Damaged: Gotham City
Proof that you need to defeat the superhero if you want your masterplan to succeed, Bane’s next step is to blow stuff up.
Having put Batman out of action, the masked mercenary severs Gotham from the mainland by destroying its many bridges, as well as blowing the foundations out from under the Gotham Rogues football stadium, trapping thousands of police below.
No wonder John Daggett is a rich man – running a construction company in Gotham is like owning a goldmine!
Once again, Nolan kept as much of the scene as possible in the real world: it’s shot in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Heinz Field, with 11,000 extras. Some of the Gotham Rogues’ players are in fact real Steelers, and the pitch itself was due for resurfacing, so Nolan had no qualms in blowing the turf away with explosive squibs.
Damaged: Los Angeles
As evidenced by being the only superhero on this list to be arrested for the damage he causes, Hancock’s drunken heroics aren’t fully appreciated by his city.
Little wonder he’s so unpopular; as well as causing millions of dollars’ worth of property damage through his intoxicated actions (for example, derailing a train to save PR spokesman Ray), Hancock also routinely ignores court summons to address the havoc he wreaks.
Even after he sobers up and becomes a true hero, his battle with Mary leads to spectacular destruction in downtown LA, whipping up lightning and tornados.
This was a film that was big on visual effects: the estimated 300 shots turned into 525 by the end, as the script changed from a gritty, mature story to a full-blown FX-fest.
Damaged: Puente Antiguo, New Mexico/Jotunheim
Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearian-flavoured Marvel movie contains two scenes of mass wanton destruction.
The Destroyer’s assault on the fictional New Mexican town of Puente Antiguo is pretty devastating – it’s such a small place that any diner or post office destroyed is surely the only one, meaning huge ramifications for those without cars.
However it’s Thor himself who causes the most damage, during his attack on Jotunheim early in the film. Showcasing how powerful he really is, he pulls out a lightning strike that crumbles Jotunheim like a soggy biscuit and renders Laufey’s palace a crater.
“Puente Antiguo” was in fact an entire town built from scratch in New Mexico, so there were no issues in blowing it up for the final battle. The Destroyer armour is also a physical model, which goes some way to explaining how it looks so real.
4 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Damaged: The world
Culprit: The Silver Surfer
While it’s a little harsh to pin this on the shiny guy (he can’t help radiating cosmic energy), his arrival on Earth does create a whole lot of problems.
His very presence causes molecular fluctuations which result in mass power blackouts, one of which hits New York during the celebrity wedding of Reed Richards and Sue Storm.
While these blackouts cause pretty substantial damage, Silver Surfer is really on this list for the novelty value of causing gigantic craters to open up all over the planet. The Four fail to stop this happening in London, resulting in the Thames draining away like so much dirty bathwater. That can’t do the ecosystem any good at all.
As you might expect, CGI is employed widely throughout the film, from the blades of the helicopter that almost crashes into Sue and Reed’s wedding, to the draining of the Thames. Frankly, the sophisticated effects are probably the film’s greatest achievement.
3 Superman II
Culprit: A quartet of Kryptonians
This was, at the time of release, the most pulsepoundingly authentic translation of comic book action to the big screen that audiences had ever seen. Before Superman II, screen superheroes had tended to fight against non-super-powered, human opponents – hoodlums, crime bosses, crooked businessmen, men in leotards with puzzle fixations. Occasionally their opponents may have had some budget-friendly, low rent power (telepathy, a robot hand) but usually the productions had spent so much money creating the effects for their heroes, they had nothing left to spend on their villains other than a freaky haircut or a snazzy suit.
Superman II changed all that. And it was worth the wait. Finally we had a superhero battling not one, but three villains with superpowers that matched his own.
The result was awesome. The collateral damage was like nothing we’d seen before.
As Superman squares up to bin-bag-wearing trio Zod, Ursa and Non, we have them crashing through skyscrapers, destroying neon billboards, playing Frisbee with manhole covers and lobbing buses at each other. Rubble plummets to the ground. Dust fills the streets. The Statue of Liberty’s torch explodes*.
It’s not perfect. When Richard Lester replaced the original movie’s Richard Donner as director part way through the project, he brought in lots of comedy touches (a man’s toupee flies off when the supervillains use their super breath) that still rankle with fans; a few of the FX haven’t dated well; some of the editing is a little slapdash. But this is the granddaddy of all superhero slugfests. At the time it was like nothing we’d seen before… well, other than in comics. Suddenly, comics had arrived on screen in the purest form, giving a two-fingered salute to bean counters** who would otherwise forever have had screen superheroes battling non-super-powered zeroes.
Hollywood would never be the same again.
(* Statue Of Liberty in Metropolis? Don’t ask… Calgary Tower turns up in Metropolis in Superman 3 .)
(** The bean counters had their revenge: the sequence is full of product placement, thanks to all the Metropolis billboards. Odd that there are so many adverts for cigarettes considering Superman’s anti-smoking public service announcement in the first film.)
2 Superman: The Movie
Culprit: Lex Luthor
In what must be one of the most evil plans ever conceived: Lex Luthor tries to wipe California from the map just to increase the value of his real estate.
With Superman distracted by one nuclear missile, a second finds its mark in the San Andreas Fault, triggering a devastating earthquake. The Man of Steel has his work cut out preventing a huge landslide, but he’s too late to stop the Hoover Dam splitting, flooding a town and a power plant below.
He’s also unable to save Lois, whose car is crushed by an aftershock, leading to one of superhero cinema’s most iconic scenes: Superman flying around the planet so fast that he reverses the direction in which it spins, turning back time.
The real special effects revelation for Superman was in making him fly, but camera trickery was also employed for the splitting of the Hoover Dam (shot in slow-mo to emphasise the volume of water), and the wobbly Golden Gate Bridge (an epic model was constructed, 70 feet long and 20 feet wide). The film hasn’t aged a day.
1 Avengers Assemble
Damaged: Huge swathes of New York
Culprits: The Chitauri (and the Avengers)
There’s a whole lot of destruction in Avengers Assemble, but one sequence comfortably eclipses the rest.
With an estimated insurance bill reaching $160bn dollars – that’s more than Hurricane Katrina or the Japanese tsunami – the climactic battle between the Chitauri hordes and Earth’s mightiest heroes is top of the destructive charts in terms of on-screen destruction.
Skyscrapers are smashed, toppled and generally battered, hundreds of cars are blown to bits, and even Grand Central Station is ruined when Thor and Hulk crash-land an enormous serpent/warship through it.
The film’s effects guru got wide aerial shots and added CGI later, to try and make the scenes that little bit more realistic. An entire street in Cleveland, Ohio, was also taken over for four weeks, strewn with wreckage and filled with the US Army. The combo of millions of dollars to throw at real sets, and the marvels of modern effects, means these scenes are breathtaking.