Whether you were watching the small screen, the large one, or diving into the comics that’ll probably inspire the next wave of movies, 2015 was a great year to be a superhero fan. Here are all the highlights of every medium of superhero story this year, from the movies and TV shows (and one video game) to the comics that started it all.
Because TV and comics are sometimes episodic and sometimes serialized, some of these stories are one installment long and some a lot longer than that, but all came out in 2015 and all are a really good time. (But with so many superhero stories coming out, it’s very possible we’ve missed a few. Your comments, as ever, are appreciated.)
With that in mind, here are the The 20 Best Superhero Stories of 2015 (In Any Medium).
20. Gotham, “The Last Laugh”
Gotham is generally goofy at best, grating at worst, but with the character of Jerome Valeska, it flirted with greatness. The mystery of whether the self-orphaned carnival boy was or wasn’t the Joker came to a head here, in a surprisingly meaty confrontation with several key characters, including a young Bruce Wayne, facing this sort of madness for the first time.
Even the usually ineffective Gordon seemed to raise his game here, and the season’s true villain, Theo Galavan, sprang his master plan. But what really clinched this one was Cameron Monaghan’s performance, almost as haunting as Heath Ledger’s, right up to the very last laugh.
19. Batman: Arkham Knight
Paul Dini didn’t return to write the content for this third and probably final game in the Arkham series, but it still packs plenty of thrills and twists. The Joker, it seems, is able to torment Batman even from beyond the grave, and while the Scarecrow seems like an unlikely mastermind to unite the other villains underneath him, it works here.
The story understands that determination is both Batman’s greatest strength and greatest weakness, and features solid character development all around as various villains react to the end of Batman’s secret identity. Best of all, though, is the revelation of the one thing even the Joker feared.
18. Midnighter #4-5, “Midnight”/”Попуночник”
A buddy movie in 44 pages, “Midnight” and “Попуночник” (“Midnight” in Russian) pairs up the Midnighter, who was introduced as sort of the gay Batman, with Dick Grayson, the original Robin, against a super-high-tech arms dealer who wants to retro-engineer Midnighter’s hyperfast tactical brain.
Grayson and Midnighter also spend most of this issue handcuffed to each other, because Midnighter was worried it might get boring otherwise. A few adorable scenes flesh out Midnighter’s new boyfriend, but it’s really the chemistry between Grayson and M that makes this story sing.
17. Daredevil #13-18, “Man Without Fear”
A few years ago, Waid and Samnee began a run on Daredevil that was overall much lighter than the character’s customary dark tone, but still able to acknowledge those darker days. The underlying message was that happiness is sometimes a choice.
Here, that run comes to an end, and many familiar elements from Daredevil’s darker days return to challenge that idea, including a couple of classic villains, the exposure of even more of Matt Murdock’s secrets, and “the curse of Daredevil’s girlfriend.” As he prepares to release his autobiography, will it be a feel-good action-adventure or a tragedy?
16. The Flash, “Tricksters”
Mark Hamill actually returned to two roles after a long absence in 2015. As the Trickster, a ruthless master criminal who got his start before Barry was born, Hamill is working with a character from an earlier, almost forgotten attempt to bring the Flash to the small screen, channeling his many years voicing the Joker and even having a little fun at Luke Skywalker’s expense.
But the Trickster character is ultimately an unpredictable species of his own, and watching him play against Grant Gustin’s ever-so-earnest Flash, the serious-business Joe West, and a next-generation copycat takes the goofball fun of the Flash TV series to a whole ‘nother level.
15. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #6-8
Speaking of goofball fun, Squirrel Girl has enjoyed a renaissance of her own this year under Ryan North and Erica Henderson, often using a combination of fisticuffs and sweet reason to defeat foes like Kraven and Galactus. But there’s no talking to the villain of this untitled three-issue arc, a squirrel from Norse mythology. And you know what that means: a Thor crossover!
Squirrel Girl’s roommate Nancy is still the only one in her circle of friends without the ability to talk to some kind of animal, but she still gets plenty of glory here, introducing Asgard to Wikipedia and Bluetooth and seeing her fan-fiction creation, Cat Thor, brought to life.
14. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Three years ago, Joss Whedon united six superheroes and four franchises into a giant meta-movie and made it look easy. This time, Whedon had an even more crowded cast and some weighty expectations he couldn’t quite meet, but Age of Ultron was still a grab bag of enjoyable Marvel-esque moments.
Highlights included Stan Lee’s best-ever cameo, the silky speeches of Ultron, the easy camaraderie between Thor and the Vision, and the epic Hulk/Hulkbuster battle. Many of us even liked the controversial Hulk-Black Widow romance, and while the script faltered a bit under the weight of all those characters, the many talented stars still carried the day.
13. Arrow, “Haunted”
After his own reluctant return to the superhero game as Green Arrow, Ollie discovers his ex Sara has come back to life – but not all the way back: she’s a crazed killing machine hunting down one of his other allies. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Felicity discovers her ex might also not be as dead as previously thought.
But the most impressive return here is that of John Constantine, an old contact of Ollie’s that he calls in to save Sara’s soul. Constantine, it turns out, performs better as a foil for Ollie than he did as the title character of his own TV series, canceled early this year. Plus, it’s nice to see Ollie’s new (relative) emotional maturity given a real test.
12. The Omega Men (#1-12, #1-6 published)
Even though it’s not finished yet, this short series is like nothing DC Comics has published in decades. Although it borrows a couple of tics from Watchmen (3×3 grids and chapters that end with literary quotations), Omega Men isn’t making the common mistake of trying to ape that classic.
It’s a gripping tale of revolution against an empire so sinister it makes Darth Sidious look like George Washington, allying us with a crew of religious revolutionaries who seem pretty scrupulous, but still deem it necessary to kidnap and catfish a power-ring-less Kyle Rayner. You’ll never read the Green Lantern oath the same way again.
11. Supergirl, “Pilot”
Demand for superheroines on the screen has long exceeded supply, and 2015 was the year TV finally started to meet it. The show took off like a shot, and this first episode rolled out a delightful cast, including Melissa Benoist in a joyous performance as Supergirl/Linda/Kara, Mehcad Brooks as a surprisingly mature and sexy James “Not Jimmy” Olsen, Calista Flockhart as the gleefully over-the-top Cat Grant, and Chyler Leigh as Kara’s complex, conflicted stepsister Alex.
10. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, “4,722 Hours”
Okay, so Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D isn’t technically about superheroes, but close enough for government work. Still, this bottle episode is a series high point because it ditched its namesake government agency and threw one of its characters into The Martian/Cast Away territory.
We watch Simmons spend 4,722 hours – about six-and-a-half months – on a planet with no sun, almost no color, a creature that may be Death itself and “moods rather than rules.” With the help of a S.H.I.E.L.D smartphone with a nearly inexhaustible battery and a NASA astronaut misplaced there in 2001, she not only figures out how to survive, but how to get home – almost.
While Age of Ultron was hyped to the skies, Marvel seemed almost embarrassed about Ant-Man, showing tiny “trailers” and a bit where lead actor Paul Rudd asks if it’s too late to change the name. The departure of high-profile director Edgar Wright only added to fans’ concerns.
But Peyton Reed was a more than capable replacement and Rudd and costar Michael Douglas form the heart of a story of Scott Lang, a divorced ex-con thief trying to “earn the look in his daughter’s eyes,” and Hank Pym, the fallen hero who needs Lang to take up his old mantle and redeem his own sins. Plus, the last sixty seconds of the movie are pure, delicious Edgar Wright.
8. Secret Wars (#1-9, #1-8 published)
Event comics that roll a whole comics universe into one über-story still sell well, but they rarely get great reviews. Secret Wars has been a welcome exception, beginning in the aftermath of an epic struggle that did what so many other event comics only threatened to do – destroy all reality as we know it.
The iron will of Doctor Doom has seized unlimited power and salvaged a sort of patchwork reality, woven together from the tattered remains of various alternate universes. But can even Doom retain control when Reed Richards and his allies come to this new world? We won’t find out for sure until January, but alternate universes haven’t been this much fun in ages.
7. Ms. Marvel #13-15, “Crushed”
The adventures of Marvel’s popular Muslim superhero have been consistently charming since her debut, but with this story, Kamala Khan crossed two major milestones: experiencing her first crush and coping with an extremist who claims to speak for all her kind – that is to say, all Inhumans.
Worse, those two problems are really basically one problem, as Kamala’s first crush turns out to be in league with those extremists. It’s her biggest emotional challenge and certainly a setup for future conflicts, but the story sticks to the positivity that makes Ms. Marvel’s adventures fun to read. In days like these, teenage girls and Muslims and all of us need heroes like Kamala.
6. The Flash, “Fast Enough”
We were pretty sure we had the season finale of Flash all figured out. Barry Allen was going to try to undo his own personal tragedy, the death of his mother, and in so doing, create a whole new timeline. That’s what had happened in the comic books (the Flashpoint mini-series) and everything in the season seemed to point to it. The episode began with wonderful maturity, as Barry consults the important people in his life to discuss this momentous decision.
But ultimately, his most important advisor turned out to be himself – his older self – and for the good of all, Barry respects the original timeline, only taking a moment to say a heartbreaking goodbye. All this plus the final showdown with Eobard Thawne, another memorable sacrifice, and one hell of a cliffhanger ending.
5. Marvel’s Daredevil Season 1
Marvel is reserving its grittiest source material for Netflix, where it doesn’t have to worry about the FCC or MPAA ratings, and it hasn’t been stingy about using the most-admired stories in its vault.
This series channels many of Frank Miller’s best ideas, and while its corrupt version New York (undergoing urban renewal after the damage sustained in Avengers) might be out of step with today’s, the notion of a powerful, über-rich crime boss who owns large swaths of law enforcement is as potent now as ever. Against the Kingpin, Matt Murdock seems to have only one advantage, and it’s not his powers – just his determination to make things right, which lets him take beating after beating and keep on fighting.
4. Justice League: Gods and Monsters
A very different, more sinister Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman than we’ve seen before – the son of Zod, a vampiric Kirk Langstrom and a vengeful New Goddess – are framed for multiple murders. A fearful Earth may have finally developed the technology to overcome their super-powers, but whose is the hand that controls that technology?
An animated movie in the Bruce Timm tradition, with plenty of nods to the comics and genuinely original flourishes (you won’t believe what happens on Apokolips!). And in this other world, it’s impossible to say who’ll come out on top, or even who we should be rooting for.
3. Agent Carter, Season 1
As this season begins, two issues weigh heavy on Peggy Carter’s head. She mourns the loss of Captain America just before their promised first date, and in the aftermath of World War II, chauvinistic male colleagues are trying to marginalize her. Where once she served the Strategic Scientific Reserve in every capacity, now she’s lucky to get an SSR assignment more involved than fetching coffee.
Her solution to both problems is to push herself to be every inch the force for good and country that Captain America was, but can even she outflank her own organization long enough to prevent its destruction and clear the name of the fugitive Howard Stark?
2. The Black Hood #1-5, “The Bullet’s Kiss”
While Daredevil channels noirish stories inspired by the Hell’s Kitchen of the 1980s, Archie Comics (yes, that Archie Comics) presents a gritty crime drama for today. Officer Greg Hettinger is shot in the face in the line of duty, but gets off one round himself before going down – and finds that he’s accidentally killed the vigilante known as the Black Hood.
The public praises him for ridding the streets of the feared figure, but Hettinger struggles to cope with his ruined face, slurred voice, and increasing addiction to painkillers. There’s a connection in Philadelphia’s drug traffic that he as a cop perceives but can’t quite find. And the Hood’s hood calls to him.
1. Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Season 1
Marvel’s onscreen efforts have often lacked compelling villains, but the same can’t be said about its Netflix series. As a psychopathic ex-boyfriend who can control seemingly anyone with a word, David Tennant’s Kilgrave boasts the smooth charm of Loki, the resourcefulness of the Kingpin and a terrifying sadism all his own.
While the comics dealt with Jessica’s PTSD after her time under Kilgrave’s control, the TV series puts her into a fierce battle of wits with her one-time abuser, who has fixated on her for the scariest reason imaginable, one that resonates all too well with real-life abuse survivors – he thinks he’s in love.
Can you think of any other superhero stories that should be here? Let us know in the comments!