20 Of The Absolute Greatest Superhero Movies Ever Made

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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).

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

2 Unbreakable (2000)

Remember when M. Night Shyamalan made good movies? If you're under 25, probably not.

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.


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20 Of The Absolute Greatest Superhero Movies Ever Made