Deadpool, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad and Doctor Strange – 2016’s movie release schedule includes at least six major superhero films. The busy slate of flicks based on comic book movies is just a sign of the times. The country’s multiplexes are now dominated by superhero movies. Like westerns and gangster movies of previous eras, movie studios are now relying on comic book characters to drive their summer blockbusters.
While the six A-list superhero features this year might seem like saturation, there’s really no end in sight. Studios have already slated potential superhero flicks into the next decade – some just have release dates and generic non-titles, like “Untitled Marvel Movie, release date: May 1, 2020.”
With so much competition, along with a full library of superhero movies behind us, it’s time to start separating the truly important films in the genre from the ones that mostly function to pay for expensive Hollywood homes for actors and executives. There’s now nearly 4 decades of modern superhero movies to choose from and with the number of entries in the genre multiplying all the time, how do you figure out which ones to focus on? We’re here to help. Here is a list of the top 20 superhero movies of all time (through the end of 2015 at least).
20. Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)
The recent run of superhero success in Hollywood is as much a business story as it is a cinematic one. Marvel, one of the comic book giants along with DC, licensed most of its top-tier properties in the early 2000s (X-Men, Spider-Man). Eventually, the company got into movie production on its own and began a string of success with the Avengers characters.
As the Avengers story was completing its initial run, it was an open question whether Marvel would be able to capitalize on less well-known properties. The company had more than 70 years of characters to move to the big screen, but would anyone but fanboys care?Guardians of the Galaxy proved that they did. Audiences flocked to the jumbled space epic starring a talking raccoon and a taciturn Chewbacca-esque tree, and the movie delivered both a fun experience and a box office triumph.
19. Mystery Men (1999)
Mystery Men was ahead of its time: a superhero spoof movie before the superhero genre became Hollywood’s go-to blockbuster fare. It was a box office failure at the time, but serves as one of the few all-out comedies in the genre.
The movie is uneven and the quality of the humor varies greatly, but it starred some of the top comedic talent of the time. It boasted a cast of Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria and Janeane Garofalo, as well as more actorly types, like Geoffrey Rush and William H. Macy. If it had been made 10 years later, following the rise of pretentious superhero blockbusters (such as the Batman and Superman reboots), the satire might have had a riper target and a more willing audience.
18. Hulk (2003)/The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Hollywood was so sure that America wanted a movie based on the Incredible Hulk character that they made two versions of the story in 5 years. Both were flawed and neither lived up to their blockbuster financial expectations. But both were also interesting movies in their own ways.
The first was directed by Oscar winner Ang Lee, probably the most accomplished director to helm a superhero project. The second starred a brooding Edward Norton (later replaced in The Avengers with a brooding Mark Ruffalo). Taken together, the two Hulk movies have enough to speak for them to make a good single entry on this list.
17. Big Hero 6 (2014)
For the most part, this list consists of live-action superhero movies. Animated superhero films are generally of a different genre. They are often made for TV and tend to appeal to a narrower audience, either to kids or to hard-core comic fans
But Big Hero 6 fits in better with the big-budget theatrical superhero movies that dominate the genre. It was a significant hit, grossing more than $600 million at the box office. It also hit it big in terms of quality, capably blending humor, action and emotion.
16. Superman (1978)
The original Superman is a profoundly strange move. It takes about an hour before Superman arrives in Metropolis. There’s a weird scene of Superman flying with Lois Lane while she gives a voice-over free verse poem. And it includes a famously hammy paycheck performance from Marlon Brando.
But for all that, Superman also ushered in the modern era of superhero movies. It was the first of its kind, the godfather to the current crop of comic-inspired films that now dominate the box office.
It also has qualities of its own. Broad in scope and anchored by a playful performance by Christopher Reeve, the movie delivers sweep and imagination. While it would be surpassed in quality by some of the coming movies in the genre, it will always be the original superhero epic blockbuster.
15. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer had the reverse development of most superhero stories. While most characters move from comics to movies or TV, in Buffy’s case, first it was a movie, then it was a TV show, then it became a comic book.
Writer Joss Whedon was so unhappy with the way the original 1992 film turned out that he decided to reboot the story as a TV series. The show went on to become one of the best-loved programs in television history and Whedon went on to further superhero success as the director of the first two Avengers movies.
But whatever problems Whedon had with the movie, it had all the elements that would make the show such a success. The basic concept of a teenager fighting vampires was there, the humorous tone was there, and original Buffy Kristy Swanson was probably better cast than the show’s Sarah Michelle Gellar. Pound for pound, Buffy (even the movie version) is the best butt-kicking female superhero yet put on the big screen.
14. Batman Begins (2005)
With Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan created a new emotional palette for superhero movies. Pushing aside anything light or cartoony, the movie focused on the darker aspects of the Batman myth.
The film would turn out not to be as good as either of its sequels, but that’s only because the movies got better. Taken as itself, Batman Begins is still a strong accomplishment. Nolan and star Christian Bale created a dark, brooding, psychologically realistic world for their comic book superhero, a mode they would perfect in the two following movies.
13. Blade (1998)
Justifiable criticism has been leveled against the entertainment industry for the lack of diversity in films – just look at the press reaction to this year’s Oscar nominations. This has been especially true for superhero movies, where most of the leads have been white men (or in the case of Superman, a white alien).
Luckily, there’s one superhero played by a bada** Wesley Snipes, who almost single handedly brings some color to the genre. While not a great movie by any means, Blade gets a lot of mileage out of visual flair and attitude. It was a surprise hit when it was released in 1998 and ended up spawning two sequels.
12. Hellboy (2004)
It may be clear already by this point in the list, but three things tend to separate a great superhero movie from the rest of the genre:
- A first-rate director
- A first-rate cast
- Something in the core story/character that sets it apart from the pack of other superhero fare.
Hellboy has all three. It is directed by Guillermo del Toro, who would go on to direct Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim. It stars Ron Perlman, already an accomplished actor by that point, although he is probably best known today for playing gang leader Clay Morrow on Sons of Anarchy.
Meanwhile, the story itself is different than is usually found in the genre, concentrating on a hell-born monster trying to fight for good.
11. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Dark Knight Rises probably suffered from outsized expectations. As we’ll see later in this list, the previous film in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy had set a high standard for what a superhero movie could do. As the culmination of the series, many expected The Dark Knight Rises to become the Citizen Kane of superhero films.
That didn’t happen. The movie was too long, with too many plot holes and not enough all-time moments. But it had more than most superhero movies: a great villain turn from Tom Hardy, a first-rate all-around performance from Anne Hathaway and the typically strong directorial stamp from Nolan.
10. The Avengers (2012)
There was something cynical about the run-up to the original Avengers movie. A series of blockbuster Marvel films came with an embedded crossover trailer and the studio pumped up the hype for what it seemed to think was the One Movie To Rule Them All.
It was probably impossible to live up to accumulated expectations created by several years of build-up. But a combination of star talent and snarky, offbeat notes from writer/director Joss Whedon delivered first-rate popcorn fodder that would set box office records and propelled the next stage in the superhero takeover of Hollywood.
9. X-Men (2000)
The superhero genre is typically dominated by solo performances. Superman, Batman, Spider-man – the big names in the field are usually loners. Anticipating a formula that would later drive the Avengers movies, X-Men established a different vibe.
Using an ensemble structure fueled by top-flight actors, the original X-Men made it safe for accomplished thespians (including those of Oscar and British knighthood caliber) to appear in the superhero genre. It may have been tagged as slumming by some movie snobs, but these performers brought heft and intelligence to the multiplex.
8. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Superhero movies can get repetitive: powers are discovered, enemies are fought, and worlds are saved. To standout, a film has to stake out something new and interesting.
Set in World War II, Captain America: The First Avenger takes advantage of the era to create an entertaining genre blend, mixing the traditional superhero origin myth with a period piece.
Helped by a feisty performance by Hayley Atwell as one of the more memorable love interests in the genre, Captain America provides a welcome twist on genre stereotypes. It also provided a key building block for the Marvel universe, setting the stage for both the original The Avengers and for this year’s Civil War story line.
7. The Incredibles (2004)
Like Big Hero 6, The Incredibles breaks out of the animated movie ghetto and earns a spot alongside the best of the live-action superhero movies.
The Incredibles was part of the run of classic Pixar movies of the early 2000s, which included Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. As such, it took advantage of one of the best collections of movie talent in the history of the industry, led by Brad Bird, the movie’s writer/director, who would eventually move into live-action films with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in 2011.
The movie played with the standard superhero plot and blended it with a family comedy, making a unique and entertaining entry in the genre.
6. Superman II (1980)
If Superman created the modern superhero movie, Superman II established it as a vehicle for character-rich franchises. The fact that the movie turned out as well as it did was a bit of a miracle. Richard Donner, director of the original Superman, was replaced by Richard Lester (known for his work with the Beatles on A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) mid-way through the creation of the sequel.
But for all the turmoil, the movie manages to deepen the Superman character, taking advantage of Christopher Reeves’ well-rounded performance and a cadre of memorable villains.
5. Iron Man (2008)
Robert Downey Jr. is possibly the coolest man on the planet. Therefore, it’s no surprise that his Tony Stark is one of movie history’s most alluring heroes.
Downey (who would also carry the semi-superhero Sherlock Holmes the following year) brings the full force of his unmatched charm to the original Iron Man movie. Capably directed by Jon Favreau and aided by some unexpected romantic quirk from Gwyneth Paltrow, the movie set the stage for the Avenger-centered Marvel empire to come.
4. Spider-Man (2002)
It took decades to bring a big-budget Spider-Man movie to theaters. Over that time, many of Hollywood’s top directors were attached to the project. The job eventually went to Sam Raimi, the brain behind the Evil Dead movies.
The result: critical and commercial fireworks. Spider-man was always considered the jewel in Marvel’s intellectual property crown and the success of the movie would help convince the company to get further into the movie business. Led by Tobey Maguire‘s affable performance as the lead character, the movie set the stage for the Marvel-dominated box offices of the next decade.
3. Batman (1989)
Tim Burton has built a cult following with movies like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. He also revived the superhero genre in the late 1980s/early 1990s with the release of Batman.
By 1989, the superhero movie was dead. A series of terrible efforts in previous years (Superman IV, Captain America) had left Hollywood unsure about the genre. But Burton’s Batman was a critical and commercial success. It shattered opening weekend box office records, while keeping to Burton’s dark and quirky style. The movie served as an early peak in the superhero-movie-as-art genre, one that Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboots would perfect.
2. Unbreakable (2000)
Remember when M. Night Shyamalan made good movies? If you’re under 25, probably not.
But that time did exist. From 1999 to about 2004, Shyamalan looked on his way to become the next Spielberg, breaking out with hits like The Sixth Sense and Signs. That period also saw the release of Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s slow-paced, contemplative deconstruction of the superhero genre, starring Bruce Willis as a regular guy coming to terms with his extraordinary powers. It gets credit on this list for being different than other movies in the genre and for having higher cinematic ambitions than most superhero movies
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is in a different category than other superhero movies, even the ones on this list.
Created by a top-tier filmmaker (Nolan had previously created the critically acclaimed movies Memento and The Prestige) and taking its story from one of the darkest and richest mythologies in the comic book cannon, The Dark Knight was the ultimate superhero movie success. It earned $1 billion in worldwide box office and garnered 8 Oscar nominations.
But with everything else that it had going for it, the factor that put The Dark Knight into its own league was the presence of Heath Ledger. In one of his last on-screen appearances before his tragic overdose, Ledger created one of the all-time great show-off movie performances. His Joker was scary, funny, weird and aggressively unique. Ledger posthumously won the Oscar for best supporting actor.