100 Essential Superhero Movies – Ranked
This is the film that I’ve most recently watched on this list, and one that I added mostly based on the fact that it was and currently is the only superhero movie in the Criterion collection. It wasn’t until even more recently that I learned that its inclusion was part of the Eclipse series, which is for the more obscure and experimental films rather than based on pure critical acclaim. And while I don’t think this is one of the better films out there, it is notable for a few reasons. One is that it takes a very strong political stance, with the hero Mr. Freedom representing the extreme right of US politics. It also has a very striking visual flair that is very memorable and fascinating. It’s just that the satire becomes a bit too over the top and heavy handed, and some of the concepts are just a little bit too bizarre to be taken seriously. Still worth a watch for the pure spectacle alone.
This movie is a guilty pleasure for a lot of people that grew up in the 70’s & 80’s, and has also become a blast from the past to new fans who were introduced to the film via Seth MacFarlane’s Ted. It starred relative newcomer actor Sam J. Jones in the lead role that was intended to be a call back to the old sci-fi serial movies similar to Star Wars. The big difference was that while Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back which came out the same year as Flash Gordon was on the forefront of special effects that gave those films a fresh cinematic flair. Flash Gordon was stuck in the more theatrical style of special effects which gave it a dated, but nostalgic feel. The acting was also very theatrical as well as campy, silly, with a little sexy thrown in for good measure.
This is the sequel to the original TMNT movie from 1990, they brought in a kid sidekick (who moved up from being Donatello’s fight double in the first film), changed April O’Neals and got Vanilla Ice to do the ninja rap in the middle of the movie. They weren’t able to use the popular characters Bebop and Rocksteady from the cartoon, so instead they made similar mutated animals Tokka and Rahzar for the turtles to fight. It had a much lighter tone than the first film, in fact the turtles never actually use their weapons. It wasn’t quite as popular as the first film, but it still made a fair amount of money, enough to warrant the third movie which was the end of this film franchise until last year with the new film.
This film was quite a bit of a departure from the Hellblazer comics the character was drawn from, but taken on its own merits it’s a fairly decent film. Keanu Reeves plays John Constantine fairly low key and Shia Lebouf is passable as comic relief, but the real stand outs are some of the side characters like Tilda Swinton’s performance as the angel Gabriel and Peter Stormare’s performance as Satan. There are plenty of gorgeous visuals strewn throughout the film and Reeves does come off a bit more like a demon fighting superhero when all is said and done.
This isn’t just a parody of superhero movies, but instead it’s an adaptation of a comic book that’s a parody of superhero comics. The heroes aren’t the A squad, the B squad, or even the C squad but they do all eventually come together to work as a team by the end. It has some great concepts like the arrogant actual hero played by Greg Kinnear whose costume is filled head to toe with sponsors like a Nascar driver. He releases one of his greatest foes in order to essentially boost his ratings, but it backfires and it ultimately leads to his pretty gruesome demise. There’s an odd mix of super powers in the group, like the ability to fling flatware or become invisible only when no one is looking. It also has a great cast of 90’s era comic actors like Ben Stiller, Paul Reubens, Janeane Garofalo, and Kel mixed with character actors like William H. Macy and Geoffrey Rush. Not all of it works for everyone, but it’s still miles ahead of Superhero Movie and the like.
This movie is one that is a little bit divisive nowadays. When it originally came out it was met with middling success. It was marketed as a darker movie for a Marvel character at the time when compared to the X-Men and Spider-Man, but it still had plenty of lighthearted and silly moments like the comic relief of Foggy Nelson, a cameo by Kevin Smith, and the now-practically reviled playground fight between Daredevil and Elektra. It wasn’t until a couple years later when the director’s cut was released on home video that more people gave the film a second chance and appreciated the even darker tone of the DC and from my perspective, there are just as many quiet fans of this film as there are vocal opponents, but nearly all say that the director’s cut is the far superior film.
This movie is one of the better animated Marvel features done through Lion’s Gate that started with Ultimate Avengers in 2006 and ended with Thor: Tales of Asgard in 2011. This was the second to last film produced and is based on the comic run that led to one of the more popular Hulk storylines World War Hulk. For fans of the Hulk that’s more commonly featured in TV and films, it’s a little odd to get used to this version of the Hulk which has no obvious connection to Bruce Banner and is quite a bit more intelligent than just “Hulk Smash!” It takes this Hulk and combines with the typical story of the Gladiator that rises to power through his skill and popularity.
This movie is a bit of a personal preference as it was one of the first lower budget superhero films that I watched after starting this site. I was most impressed with the different direction that writer/director/star Jason Trost was able to take with these characters. Instead of the typical superhero fights, he locked them in a much more horror-focused Saw-like death trap where they were forced to come face to face with death, both of their own as well as those around them. The biggest downside of this film really is the budget and short shooting schedule, where literally pages of the script had to be thrown out due to lack of time or money to actually film those scenes. But I can see his passion for the project come through despite the budget and he is currently working on the sequel which I hope reaches a wider audience and gets more acclaim than this one did.
This film is a smaller indie film that still managed to get a handful of stars and character actors, from Woody Harrelson as the lead to Kat Dennings and Elias Koteas. Harrelson plays a mentally challenged man who has misunderstood some of the rantings of his grandfather who raised him, and now he’s an adult who thinks of himself as a vigilante who is after Captain Industry. But instead, he ends up inadvertently uncovering a real drug and human trafficking ring in the city. It’s a little bit Forrest Gump combined with Super only without the bloody violence. Harrelson gives a great performance with a touch of humor where you’re never laughing at him.
This was the first in the long running line of DC Animated movies aimed at adults, noted by its PG-13 rating. It was based on the famous Death and Return of Superman, though in a very truncated form to fit into a 75 minute movie. It also continued the quality that had been brought to the acclaimed Batman and Superman animated series from the 90’s, and it even took a moment to poke fun at the cancelled live action film Superman Lives where Kevin Smith has a single line referencing a giant mechanical spider. It also started the trend where they brought in known actors to play some of the main roles instead of the traditional voice actors. While they aren’t exactly A-list actors, Adam Baldwin, Anne Heche, and James Marsters are more well known for their live action careers than they are for their voice talents.
This film was initially Sam Raimi’s attempt at making a film adaptation of the Shadow, but when he wasn’t able to get the rights to that character, he altered the story to create a new tragic superhero. Darkman survived an explosion only to have burns covering most of his body, and was treated in an experimental manner that dulled the pain, but made his mind overcompensate with bouts of rage and increased strength. On top of that, before the explosion, he was working on a synthetic skin, but in the current form would only survive for 99 minutes once exposed to sunlight. Liam Neeson played the title role in this first of three films, though the second two would end up straight to video, and it combined Raimi’s visual flair and horror sensibilities with an antihero’s revenge tale.
This was a bit of an experimental film when it came out. It took the character of Batman and the world based around Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe, which at the time only consisted of Batman Begins and the Dark Knight which came out the same year as this film, and allowed several anime directors to offer their own interpretations of the character in this anthology of inter-connected short films. Each short has a different style of animation, and several of them have a more Japanese style of storytelling to them. They vary in quality, but there’s sure to be at least one short that you’ll connect with. It has been tried in a couple different forms later on, where Emerald Knights tried the anthology again with the Green Lantern corps, but used a more uniform and American art direction, and Marvel also had various anime projects as both a handful of short TV series as well as direct to video movies, but this was the first and as likely still the best.
This was the first live action TMNT film that came after the independently published comic book from Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman that blew up into an ultra popular cartoon series, and for many years, this was the highest grossing independent film ever made. It has since been surpassed by plenty of newer films, but it’s still notable for the time. The turtles were played by stuntmen in giant turtle suits with animatronics created by the Jim Henson company and the film struck a tone somewhere in between the highly kid-friendly cartoon and the much darker comic book. For being the first film, it touches on many of the mainstays from the comic and cartoon where Shredder is the main villain and Casey Jones is their ally, it also features a very young Sam Rockwell in a very minor role. This was the cinematic origin for a franchise that is still going very strong today.
This film was a Disney production before they got into bed with Marvel, which is an odd analogy to use since this is a kid’s film. There are very few good superhero comedies, especially in live action and this is probably the best one out there. It has several great comedians and Linda Carter in small roles, like Bruce Campbell as the gym teacher and Dave Foley as a sidekick teacher, excuse me “Hero Support”. It also has several young stars who have continued on into bigger roles through adulthood, like Michael Angarano, Danielle Panabaker, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, two of whom would go on into later roles on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or the Flash. The movie itself is a fairly standard group of misfits who eventually save the day, along with the head misfit who becomes popular and almost abandons his misfit friends before finally realizing his mistake and returning to them. But it’s still a standard plot done fairly well with plenty of comedy all around.
This is the second film from Joe Johnston as a director after Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and later would go on to do Captain America: The First Avenger which is higher up on this list. What he does here is paint a nice little picture of the idealized version of Old Hollywood in the 1930s in terms of the swashbuckling and serials. The style is really the best part of this film, from the design of the iconic Rocketeer helmet to the overall look of the time period in the film. There’s also plenty of character actors from Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino, Terry O’Quinn, as well as a great theatrical premier from Billy Campbell as the hero Cliff Secord. It’s also notable as an early Disney superhero film even though it did not fare too well in the box office, it has gone on to be a bit of a cult favorite, especially after the acclaim from Captain America.
This film is one of the more interesting villain plans against the Justice League as the entire scheme was initially created by Batman himself as a way to disable any one of the Justice League members if they ever went rogue. But Vandal Savage takes his plans and turns it against them in order to try and kill the various members of the Justice League including a new plan of his own device to use on Batman himself. It has Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman which is always a plus, and it’s one of only a small handful of films that were directed by a woman. Many of the Justice League DC Animated films are great, and this falls right along with them. One of the only downsides of this film is the fact that Vandal Savage is not a very well known villain in the DC Universe when compared to someone like Lex Luthor.
This film was one of the two animated Hellboy films that originally aired on Cartoon Network before being released on home video. This was actually a prequel in more ways than one as Professor Broom was a main character as well as the central character in a series of flashbacks from before he became Hellboy’s guardian. The four Hellboy films each take on a different culture’s mythology, and this one took on the European tale of the vampire. It had all the key players from the live action films return for the voice work and they handle their characters just as well in animation as in live action. Great film if you’re a fan of Hellboy or even just vampires in general.
This was the most successful of the three Punisher films which unfortunately isn’t saying much at a mere $54 million worldwide. It changed much of his backstory, instead of coming from the war, he was a deep undercover agent. Instead of his wife and kids being gunned down, his entire extended family was killed, and instead of being in and around New York, he’s in Miami. But it did draw many of its elements from the comics, like the goofy neighbors, and the popsicle torture trick to make him feel like a more likable character who only kills those who deserve it. There are still some silly elements alongside a relatively well crafted revenge tale that’s almost akin to a heist film as far as how much planning had to come together in the final raid. It’s still my personal favorite Punisher film, though I understand people’s issues with it.
This film was more or less supposed to be the bridge between the three live action films from the 90’s in order to bring them into the 2000s. It had a handful of callbacks to those films while still creating a new vision of the Turtles in CG animation from director Kevin Munroe. It brought in some known superhero actors to play the voices, like Patrick Stewart from X-Men, Chris Evans before Captain America but after the Fantastic Four, and Sarah Michelle Gellar obviously from Buffy, and also had the legendary Mako to voice Splinter in his last role. It didn’t get much box office success, as the writer/director had sequels planned that never came to be, even though the film had a relatively small budget which they were able to use the most of and it was ultimately profitable. If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth a watch. It’s much better than the recent Michael Bay produced reboot, and a bit better than the original live action ones.
This was the first full length Batman film, based on the popular Adam West TV series. It was filmed in between seasons and they used it as an excuse to expand some of his bat-vehicles like the bat-copter. It flowed essentially like an extended episode of the show, except that it had four of his infamous villains working together on a dastardly plan. The one exception is that Julie Newmar was unavailable due to other work so she was replaced in the film as Catwoman by Lee Meriwether. It has a lot of the camp factor that the show had, and it’s practically a parody of superheroes both then, and especially now, but there are some iconic scenes here. Where else are you going to see Batman using shark repellent, or holding a giant cartoon-like bomb because some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.
This was the first film to follow the culmination of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: The Avengers. It brought in veteran Christmastime action movie writer/director Shane Black to take over for Jon Favreau who stayed on as Producer and Stark’s assistant Happy Hogan. It was the biggest movie of that summer, but got mixed reviews for its weak villain in Aldritch Killian and their whole twisted take on the Mandarin. It also has one of the least important endings as Tony Stark blew up all of his Iron Man suits only to come back in the armor a mere two years later. For all its minor flaws, it still has enough Robert Downey Jr. charm to go around and the snappy dialogue to go with it, even though I’m one of the ones who thinks it’s the weakest of the trilogy.
This movie is the sequel slash spin-off from the X-Men franchise and in some ways an apology for the first Wolverine movie four years earlier. It brings him to Japan which is an important part of his origin in the comics, but it brings him there after the events of the Last Stand along with all the guilt which came from the death of Jean Grey. There are some good character interactions and the concept is great: Wolverine returns to honor a Japanese businessman he saved many years ago who promises to take away his healing factor so he can die an honorable death. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, and things get a little convoluted with the Yakuza, mutants, and a giant Silver Samurai armor suit. It still has plenty of flaws when compared to the better X-Men movies, but comes off much better than the Wolverine Origins film or the Last Stand.
This movie was James Gunn’s precursor to Guardians of the Galaxy though it is much darker and a whole lot more violent. Rainn Wilson plays a naive but well-meaning man who wants to get his wife back from a life of drugs. Only the way he does that is to become a costumed crimefighter called the Crimson Bolt with a giant pipe wrench as his weapon of choice. There’s blood used for comedy, there’s blood used for dramatic effect all while we watch this man essentially go over the edge so far that he comes all the way back around again by the end. It’s not for everyone, but it is one of the darkest superhero movies around, but peppered with enough humor so that it’s still entertaining.
This film is a little bit divisive for those who have seen it as it almost feels like two different films stitched together. The first half is a great comedy that takes a look at super powers from a darker angle than we’re used to. Hancock starts out as a self-centered Superman who generally only looks out for himself, and when he does try to help people he opts for the easy route that isn’t always the best option. The second half gets a little bit more philosophical and wrapped up inside its own mythology, losing sight of what makes the first half so great. But once you know it’s headed in that direction, the pill is a little easier to swallow on a second viewing, not to mention that this is the best Black superhero next to Blade so that has to account for something.
This was one of the straight-to-video DC Animated movies that came out a couple years before the live action movie. In my opinion, this 75 minute film handled Hal Jordan’s origin much better than the Ryan Reynolds version ever did. It helps that this film is almost entirely set in space where the rest of the Green Lantern corps is. It also not only sets up the Sinestro betrayal, but also follows through with it, and it has one of the most effective visualizations of hundreds of lives lost within a PG film and without losing any of its effect. The voice acting is great, the animation is great, and I just all around enjoy this film.