There’s no denying that superhero films have become the thing in Hollywood these days. Thanks to their portrayals of fan-favorite characters with decades of mythology, chameleon-like ability to blend genres, and thrilling set pieces, they have been at the top of the totem pole for the better part of the 21st century – and are set to have a long, sustained run in the near future (due to the shared universe boom that’s currently happening). It truly is the Golden Age of the comic book movie.
The genre has been going so strong for so long that it has arguably reached the ranks of the Western, action, and sci-fi as an industry icon all its own. By now, there have been so many franchises and titles that have hit the screen, superhero movies are among the most impactful projects that modern audiences have a chance to see.
In recognition of the origin stories and costumed characters that have graced the multiplex throughout history, here are our picks for the 10 greatest superhero movies ever made.
NOTE: This list is not ranked, entries are listed in order of release.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
Long before the superhero movie movement of the early 2000s, filmmaker Richard Donner set out to prove a man could fly by bringing the Last Son of Krypton to the big screen. Much of the film’s success is due to the pitch-perfect casting of Christopher Reeve, who was able to encapsulate the All-American charm of Clark Kent and the strong, determined values of Superman to create a protagonist who was instantly likable and easy to root for. Even with Henry Cavill set to be a Kal-El for the new generation, and passionate (albeit divisive) reaction to Man of Steel, Reeve’s depiction is still seen as the definitive cinematic version.
But the leading man was hardly the only reason Superman became so beloved. Like so many of the blockbusters in that era, the film looked to wow audiences with a sense of wonder and amazement – as they watched Superman perform his feats of strength. The overall tone and direction of the movie crafted a joyous experience that was equal parts entertaining and thrilling from beginning to end. It may have taken a while for Hollywood to catch up, but Superman: The Movie was one of the first to prove superhero films could be a viable enterprise for comic book fans and casual filmgoers alike.
As we’ve mentioned before, several years prior to the aforementioned shared universe boom we’re witnessing in the 2010s, New Line released this little film to show how live-action comic book movies could be made in a modern Hollywood. Led by the calm and cool Wesley Snipes, Blade ushered in a new era for the industry and not just because of the well-received depiction of its honorable hero. The film also generated acclaim for Stephen Norrington’s filmmaking techniques, which created sleek and visually appealing action sequences that were equal parts stylistic and thrilling.
One of the reasons why the comic book genre has been at the top of the game for so long is its ability to blend genres and work within different tropes depending on which title is being adapted. Blade was one of the pioneers in this movement, as the subject matter made it not just a superhero film, but also a horror/thriller with Blade doing battle against hordes of vampires thirsty for human blood. The story showed that there was more to these type of films than watching super powered beings, and that they provided directors with numerous opportunities to get creative in adapting comic books to live-action.
The Incredibles (2004)
Not all great superhero movies need to be based on a comic book. Brad Bird gave moviegoers something original when he and Pixar teamed up for The Incredibles, which showcased a superhero family looking to overcome their own personal turmoil amidst a greater conflict that involved saving the world. The themes and subplots of dealing with a midlife crisis and trying to find your rightful place in society were surprisingly fresh and mature for an animated film, which easily made it standout from the crowd and become something truly special that all audiences could appreciate.
As Bird works away on the highly anticipated sequel, he has maintained that it’s important to do the characters justice – something he did in spades for this film. From the concerned family man of Mr. Incredible to the cool (in more ways than one) Frozone, the entire cast felt like real people and provided several memorable moments that were heartfelt and/or hilarious. Even a bit player like Edna Mode was standout with her “no capes” policy and eccentric personality. Bird did such a great job building the world and the larger mythos of The Incredibles that there are many ways the follow-up can go and we can’t wait to see what happens.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Many moons before Peter Parker’s cinematic reputation needed to be “saved” by the good folks at Marvel Studios, the character was at the top of the superhero movie food chain thanks to director Sam Raimi. The 2002 original showed that comic book films could be a hot commodity, but the sequel took things to the next level, detailing an emotional character story about the tough choices one has to make in life (that illustrated why Spider-Man is one of the most relatable superheroes) amidst thrilling action sequences (the train, for instance). It was so revolutionary at the time that the American Film Institute even recognized it as one of the best films of the year.
And while Raimi did an excellent job of continuing Parker’s tale as he lived a double-life in New York, his portrayal of Doctor Octopus was what really made Spider-Man 2 stand out. Not your moustache-twirling villain, Alfred Molina injected Otto Octavius with an inspiring sense of scientific ambition and a human side that made him one of the more complex characters in the series. His ultimate decision to sacrifice himself by sinking the fusion reactor was not only a touching moment between mentor and mentee, but also a perfect example of the trilogy’s overarching themes.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s famous Batman trilogy as a whole is one of the watershed film series of the new millennium, but its middle chapter is arguably the defining chapter. Building on the forward momentum from Batman Begins, this great sequel expands upon the themes and characters from the first film, treating audiences to a captivating crime drama that explored the darker side of justice and heroism. The filmmaking techniques and tone Nolan employed became so influential, that The Dark Knight spawned countless imitators – including some in other landmark franchises.
We’d be remiss to not mention Heath Ledger’s groundbreaking performance as the Joker, which famously won him a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. One of cinema’s supreme examples of villainy, Ledger set a new standard on which all bad guys are judged through his unhinged, chaotic, and terrifying personification of the Clown Prince of Crime. His version was so engrossing and became deeply implanted in our minds that it’s difficult for some to disassociate the two, making the task for Jared Leto in Suicide Squad all the more tough.
Iron Man (2008)
The film that started the MCU, Iron Man is a movie that could have gone wrong in several different ways. At the time of its release, Robert Downey, Jr. was hardly the global superstar he is today, and director Jon Favreau was largely untested in the realm of action blockbusters. Not to mention, the film entered production without a finished script. However, the creative team overcame all the odds and churned out one of the landmark comic book films that impacted the industry in more ways than one.
As one of the few projects in the MCU free from all the “shared universe” connecting that Marvel movies are known for now, Iron Man was able to focus solely on its protagonist, played to perfection by RDJ. Injecting the character with his natural charm and sarcastic wit, the actor made Tony Stark one of the most memorable heroes we’ve seen. At the movie’s core was also a heartfelt story about doing the right thing and making yourself a better person, which gave this flick a rich and interesting character arc. Balancing comedy and drama to a tee (with cool action to boot), it firmly established the template for the MCU and the many, many films that followed it.
The Avengers (2012)
When Samuel L. Jackson made his famous first appearance as Nick Fury during the button scene of Iron Man to announce Marvel Studios’ Avengers Initiative, many thought the plan was overly ambitious at best. With their A-list characters at other studios and outside of Marvel’s rights, they were going to rely on “secondary” heroes like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America to carry a mega franchise. Obviously, their plan worked, and The Avengers became one of the most successful films ever made.
Breaking box office records and earning critical acclaim, Joss Whedon made every comic book fans’ dreams come true by bringing together Earth’s Mightiest. Not only was the novelty of seeing so many superheroes fighting alongside each other thrilling to watch, Whedon’s writing and the chemistry between the actors gave the film sharp humor and memorable dialogue sequences to complement the action. And the fan-favorite Loki was there every step of the way, with Tom Hiddleston charmingly chewing the scenery as he tried to plot and scheme his way to becoming the planet’s ruler. For you DC fans looking forward to the Justice League film universe, you have Marvel to thank, as they showed that this shared world building could be done.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
In 2014, Marvel took a break from the core Avengers members and journeyed up to the cosmos, where they met Peter Quill, Rocket Raccoon, and the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Even Marvel maestro Stan Lee didn’t really know who these guys were once upon a time (making this film a massive risk). But like most things Marvel, it’s one that paid off with unprecedented box office totals and strong reviews. Audiences everywhere were hooked on a feeling.
A lion’s share of the credit has to go to writer/director James Gunn, who used his creativity and enthusiasm for the material to craft an exciting, humorous space opera populated by some great characters that we can’t wait to see on the big screen again. And while it was certainly different than what we were accustomed to seeing in the genre (with sentient trees and such), Guardians had a big heart that grounded everything to a relatable emotional level. In the end, it was a touching story about friendship (with some family drama on the side) that captivated viewers from all over, gave Marvel a whole new franchise to market, and built anticipation for the sequel that’s in development.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The first Captain America film certainly had its fair share of fans, but the sequel is the project that showed how awesome the Star Spangled Man could be. Helmed by Anthony and Joe Russo, The Winter Soldier sports some of the most sophisticated and thrilling action sequences in the MCU to date. The titular villain also made a strong impression with viewers. Also of interest was the dynamic between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, after the latter had been brainwashed to fight against his former friend.
But it wasn’t just the action sequences that made Captain America 2 work so well. Using their love for 1970s political thrillers as a primary source of influence, the Russos added layers of governmental intrigue and espionage to the proceedings, which made the film work as a solid standalone conspiracy tale that anyone could pick up and enjoy. The themes presented not only foreshadowed vital character arcs to be explored in later films (Cap’s distrust of government control), but also provided the film with some real-life sensibilities and commentary on how the world is ever-changing.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
In addition to Blade, Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film (released in 2000) is considered one of the Founding Fathers of the modern superhero movie age. As the series progressed, however, its critical standing (and box office returns) decreased, setting the stage for a soft reboot in 2011 with X-Men: First Class. For the follow-up, Days of Future Past, Singer returned to the director’s chair to bring one of the more beloved comic arcs to life. His ambition to not just tell a time-traveling narrative, but also look to correct the wrongs of prior films in the franchise is something that many admired and helped the movie earn a place among the genre’s elite.
Singer did the material and characters justice in a multitude of ways. First, he crafted several standout action set pieces (like the Quicksilver scene) that raised the bar for future entries. Secondly, the director gave us a great character story, as all of the main players (Wolverine, Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique) had several layers to them that made them interesting to watch (due in large part to the magnificent actors portraying them). Though the film didn’t right all of the continuity errors that have plagued the franchise in recent years, Days of Future Past is arguably the finest installment of the series and brought the X-Men back to the forefront of superhero movies. Bring on Apocalypse.
As the superhero genre continues to grow with new films from Disney/Marvel, Sony, Fox, and WB, it will be interesting to see if any of the films we have on the horizon will be able to join the ranks of the titles presented here. Certainly, fans are hoping that Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, and those two-part Justice League and Infinity War events are special occasions that show why the comic book movie is here to stay. Fingers crossed this “trend” doesn’t end any time soon.
We cannot stress enough that this list is not meant to be all-inclusive. So be sure to share your choices for the best superhero movies in the comments below and let us know why they’re your favorites.