100 Essential Superhero Movies – Ranked
Some might call it a stretch to call this film a superhero movie since the focus is more on the comedy than any heroics. But when you break it down: it’s based on a Dark Horse comic book, the Mask has plenty of super powers, there is a secret identity/dual persona with Stanley Ipkis and the Mask, and at the climax of the film he does become a hero. That said, the film itself was one of the big films that launched Jim Carrey into the stratosphere in the 90’s alongside Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber. It showcased just the right amount of Carrey’s rubberface antics that turned him into a cartoon character come to life and channeled them into a story that wasn’t entirely a string of rude jokes. It helped that he also had to play the normal guy role when Ipkis wasn’t wearing the mask. Such a shame they never made a sequel, especially not one where some poor sap got stuck with the role instead of Carrey, like for instance Jaime Kennedy. Yes, a shame.
This feels like a bit of an oddity in the movie world. The director Bryan Singer left the successful X-Men movies after the first two for the chance to direct this project which was the first Superman film since the Christopher Reeve versions several years earlier. But instead of completely rebooting the character and the franchise, or even following after the much-derided fourth movie, he wanted to honor the cinematic origins of the character with the version that Richard Donner made with the first film and part of the second. But while trying to follow the Donner versions, he also ended up redoing much of what was in those first two films and caused some fans to be let down. When it was released, it was actually met with mostly critical praise, but only a moderate box office take. It wasn’t until a few years later that the consensus turned sour, focusing on the kid, the relationship, Luthor’s plot, and the fact that Superman never gets the chance to fight anybody. But there is still plenty to like about this film, the sense of wonder, the scale of it, and the exploration of Superman and Clark Kent as a real character and not just a boy scout.
This film is one of the more derided in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was the first sequel and the first casting change as Terrence Howard was replaced by Don Cheadle as Rhodey. It spends probably the most time of any of the phase 1 films setting up the structure that would lead into the Avengers with the introduction of Black Widow, and a lot more S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury. It still has a lot of the same humor and action that was in the first movie, and I rather liked the sub plot of how the arc reactor was slowly killing Stark. The biggest downside of this film is that the character development was more or less stalled or shallow for anyone else who wasn’t Tony Stark.
This film ended the massive Dark Knight Trilogy from director Christopher Nolan that helped bring Batman back from the campy version brought about by Joel Schumacher. Here, Nolan brought his own versions of Bane, Catwoman, and Talia Al Ghul who all give amazing performances and bring new life to these characters. It’s ultimately a fitting end to the trilogy along with the potential to give it to a new generation, even though that never actually happened with a very different Robin in Joseph Gordon Levitt. There is an awesome sense of scope and scale in this chapter as Bane holds the entire city of Gotham hostage after breaking the Bat. The only downside are the many plot holes throughout the film that make it suffer during re-watches.
This is a Japanese superhero movie based on a very weird manga involving a lot of sex and violence, though most of the sex was removed for the live action version. It’s hard to explain without getting into too much detail, but let me try. There’s a giant black orb called Gantz, every few nights or so it makes copies of people from around Tokyo at the moment of their deaths and uses those copies to attack and kill alien invaders across the country. Gantz gives them suits that enhance their strength and speed as well as advanced weaponry and turns it into a game. Each round they are given scores based on how well they have done and if they reach 100 points they can go free, or revive anyone who has previously been killed, and between rounds they are allowed to live their lives as they see fit. The special effects and fight choreography in this film are quite impressive, and while the story is bizarre, it’s infinitely interesting.
This was a reboot of a popular franchise that helped kick off the modern era of superhero movies alongside the X-Men, but instead of horror alum Sam Raimi they tapped a less tested director in the form of Marc Webb. In certain ways, this film stayed more true to the comics it was adapted from: his web-shooters were mechanical not organic, his first love was Gwen Stacy not Mary Jane, and Spider-Man as a hero was much more quippy than Raimi’s ever was. But there were also several different changes: his parents became this mythological force for the story, Peter Parker was less nerdy and more sk8ter boy (though at least not Spider-Man 3 emo Parker), and Uncle Ben skirts around the famous line without ever actually saying it. There’s still plenty of great action beats here, and the real highlight is the relationship between Gwen and Peter, though in time it’s more likely to be forgotten and looked down upon due to the underwhelming sequel.
This is almost a stretch to call it a movie, but it is still an impressive example of storytelling at its finest. It came out during the writer’s strike in 2008 and was released for free online in three 20 minute acts. As the title implies, it’s a musical that follows the villain Dr. Horrible in his quest to enter the Evil League of Evil. The songs are catchy, the story-telling is engaging, the characters are unique, and the story it tells is something that hadn’t been told in that way before. This is the second superhero musical on this list though it is far superior to the Return of Captain Invincible. It also was likely part of the reason why Joss Whedon ended up getting the role of director on the Avengers.
This was one of the Marvel animated features released through Lion’s Gate home video. Many years after the Peter Hootin TV pilot and many years before the upcoming live action film with Benedict Cumberbatch came this animated origin story for the dear doctor. He’s an arrogant neurosurgeon that happens to be connected to the mystical realm and after losing use of his hands in an accident he eventually comes to train under the Ancient One to learn sorcery. This has some great animation and voice cast and manages to make a character that seems like a dick in theory into an actual likable character. There are some high stakes by the end of the film and if you’ve never heard of the character before this should be a pretty good primer to get you caught up before the new film comes out.
This film is likely most well known for the tragic death of lead actor Brandon Lee who died during filming and made this one of the earliest films to use digital technology to combine his image from earlier scenes to use in new scenes that had to be filmed with a double. The film itself is a great supernatural revenge tale with a superhero element involving this crow that brings him back to life and imbues him with several different powers, most notable the power of invulnerability. It has a very gothic fairy tale quality to it that almost feels Burtonesque only with more violence. It’s extremely quotable, and Lee’s performance helps bring this film up into something that could be watched every year, likely on Devil’s Night.
This movie wasn’t Guillermo del Toro’s first entry in the superhero movie biz, but it brought a lesser known character into the forefront with an amazing performance by Ron Perlman as the lead character. It wasn’t a huge success at the box office, enough to bring on a second film but not enough to end the anticipated trilogy. Hellboy is more of a blue collar hero that treats being a superhero as a job rather than a calling. He cleans up these supernatural menaces because that’s all he has known, and he’s not exactly the type of person who could fit into the regular world. The biggest detriment of this film is the addition of Agent Meyers as the audience surrogate so the film can explain its own mythology.
This film is the 3rd #MCU film on this list and the 2nd from director Joe Johnston. Before this film, Captain America was probably the Marvel character that had seen the most movies that were the furthest away from his comic book incarnation, from the 40’s serials to the 70’s TV movies to the ’90 low budget film that never got a proper release. This was the first one to get things right in terms of the scrawny but brave young man who gets recruited into a secret program during WWII that turned him into a super soldier. This follows him during his time in the war and tosses out some clever references to past versions of the character while still allowing him to prove himself as a total badass. And on top of that, it sets up the Tesseract as one of the first real seeds to a plotline that won’t see completion for at least 8 years down the road. It does PG-13 the war a little too much for me with the blue explody guns, but the look and feel of the movie combined with Chris Evans’s performance helps sell it.
This was the second film out of the #MCU coming right on the heels of Iron Man and now it almost feels like a stand alone movie aside from the fact that John Hurt will be coming back in Captain America: Civil War, but neither Edward Norton or Liv Tyler played Bruce Banner and Betty Ross before or since. There were some issues during filming where Norton had problems with the script and reportedly did some of his own rewrites to help improve the film, and that is also reportedly why he did not return in the Avengers. But this film did its best to try and fix the problems that audiences had with Ang Lee’s Hulk movie where he never really had the chance to fight anything. This Hulk film had quite a bit more action, was sprinkled with more humor, and dropped the overly angsty plots. It’s still not a perfect Hulk movie, and arguably a perfect Hulk movie may not actually exist, but this is the best one out there right now.
This film is another slight stretch to be called a superhero movie, though it was very loosely based on a Malibu comic after the label was purchased by Marvel, so technically this could be considered a Marvel film. Plus, the heroes are fighting super powered alien beings with highly advanced weaponry and training. As for the actual film, it’s a fun buddy cop story with a sci-fi backdrop where Will Smith is the hot shot rookie while Tommy Lee Jones is the seasoned veteran days away from retirement. What really sells this film more than anything else are the performances and chemistry between Smith and Jones alongside the great characters from Vincent D’Onofrio, Rip Torn, and Tony Shaloub. Great film all around, the third one as well. The 2nd? Not so much.
This film fell a little bit under the radar. It was generally well liked, made a decent amount in the box office, but was eclipsed by the other villain film at the time Despicable Me which has been the film to go on to spawn a sequel and a spin-off (and I consider him a spy villain rather than a supervillain). This takes the well worn concept of the eternal struggle between superhero and supervillain and flips the script to look at the conflict from the villain’s perspective. It tosses around several superhero cliches, but puts a new spin on them. What happens when the villain wins? What happens when you’re trying to groom a superhero and he would rather be a villain? It also helps that Megamind is voiced by Will Farrell and the Lois Lane analogue Roxanne Richie is voiced by Tina Fey. It’s a very funny satire on superheroes in general with a heartwarming story at the bottom of it.
This film along with the Incredible Hulk is one of the more overlooked films in the #MCU, but Chris Hemsworth has brought just as much character and charisma to Thor as Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. Kenneth Brannagh adapts Marvel’s version of Norse mythology into something closer to a sci-fi fantasy. Instead of simply swords and sorcery, the Norse gods are aliens with technology so advanced that it would appear to be as if magic, and yet their culture is much more barbaric and in line with ancient cultures. It ties in the culture clash with a mix of humor and science, and the entire family dynamic between Thor, Odin, and Loki plays out like a Shakespearean drama. And speaking of Loki, this film introduced what has become the MCU’s best villain out of all of the movies so far.
This is the animated film from 2009 and sadly the best out of only four other female-led superhero films on this list. This isn’t a perfect movie by any means, and even has some questionable moments of sexism alongside moments of calling out sexism. But it’s still a fun adventure with some great voice acting including Rosario Dawson who would later go on to voice Wonder Woman herself in a different animated movie and Alfred Molina as Ares. It’s crazy to think that it has taken so long for a live action Wonder Woman film to go into development, but this wouldn’t be the worst template to go off of.
This film was the only theatrically released animated Batman film to date even though there have been many released on home video, in fact it’s the only theatrically released animated DC movie period. It was done just after the first year of the iconic and award winning Batman: The Animated Series which many people call the best version of Batman out there, including the most iconic portrayals of both Batman and the Joker, voiced by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. This film explores the origin of the Batman, hints at the beginnings of the Joker, while having Batman deal with love lost, and a vigilante imitator who is killing the criminals rather than arresting them. It has the same look as the art deco noir Animated Series as it was co-directed by Bruce Timm. And even though it didn’t do that well in its theatrical run, but has become a fan favorite for those who have either grown up or later discovered the animated series.
This is another slight stretch to call it a superhero movie rather than just a sci-fi movie, but I think the closest comparison in terms of superheroes would be the Punisher, and Robocop is more super, has a cooler costume, a secret identity, and the same level of villains that he is up against. As for the movie itself, it’s a little on the campy side, but for those that love action films it’s an amazing example of an 80’s action film, complete with the one liners, the massive amounts of blood and violence, and a little bit of social satire around the edges. On top of that, it’s peppered with these commercials and snippets of a Benny Hill-like show that help take the edge off the violence and inject some very welcome humor. I’d buy that for a dollar!
This film was Fox’s attempt at rebooting the X-Men franchise with a new cast after the critically lambasted Last Stand and spin-off Origins Wolverine. They brought in Matthew Vaughn and centered the story around Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier pre-wheelchair, and relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence who had only made a name for herself at that time for her performance in the critical indie Winter’s Bone. This film mostly kept the timeline from the original films as it was set in the 60’s during the Cuban Missile Crisis and had ties to the original films like the truncated redo of the first film’s opening. It’s a great addition to the X-Men canon and a great set up for the timeline crossing Days of Future Past a few years later.
This was the first modern superhero movie blockbuster. X-Men was successful, but this was a phenomenon, and to be expected considering that Spider-Man was and likely still is Marvel’s most popular superhero. It’s still the highest domestic grossing film in the franchise, though #3 wins worldwide. X-Men was the film that made studios realize they could take superheroes seriously, and Spider-Man was the film that made them realize that they could be a cash cow. But besides the amount of money it took in, Sam Raimi still crafted an excellent origin story for Spidey and included some impressive special effects for some of his webslingling, even if they don’t hold up quite as well today. It was also another film that took an unlikely actor in Tobey Maguire that fit the Peter Parker role quite well and saw him get pretty buffed up to play the hero role, though not as built as some of the later heroes have gotten in recent years. An excellent start to this franchise that served Sony well for many years.
This is one of the more recent DC Animated films as well as one of the most violent while still being rated PG-13. It has some time travel, alternate futures, and the main focus is on Barry Allen’s the Flash. It has Bruce Wayne as the one who died that night in Crime Alley and Thomas Wayne is the one who goes on to become Batman. And the world is a much darker place where Aquaman and his Atlanteans and Wonder Woman and her Thymascerans are fighting a war that will likely end the world as we know it. There’s also plenty of other DC heroes, villains, and side characters in different roles. There’s plenty of action and a nice twist at the end plus a truly heartfelt moment with Batman at the very end. Very much worth watching if you have enjoyed any other DC Animated movie.
This film came out within a few years of some other superhero films that all took their own spin at bringing a superhero into the real world, and while this was the least realistic of all of them it was also the most successful. Matthew Vaughn brought a colorful comic book style and a punchy soundtrack and combined it with some amazing choreography and blood-spurting violence mainly caused by an 11 year-old girl. While nerdy comic book geek Kick-Ass was the hero of the story, it was Big Daddy and Hit Girl who really stole the show. Nicholas Cage brought his best Adam West impression and Chloe Grace-Moretz combined her adorable-ness with a fowl mouth and killer moves to bring to life these impossible characters. And to top it all off, this is the film that introduced us to not just one, but two actors who would go on to play Quicksilver in different movies released in the same year.
This movie came right before the modern superhero era just two years before Fox’s X-Men. It took the comic book material seriously, though because Blade isn’t a traditional superhero and is more of a vampire hunter it’s often thought of less as a superhero movie and more of a vampire movie. Snipes plays the vampire hunter well, though there’s plenty of residual 90’s action star quips alongside his more stoic performance. Plenty of blood and martial arts action, it’s still a memorable film and arguably the first good Marvel film.
This film came out of nowhere in 2012 from two new filmmakers, Max Landis son of John Landis and Josh Trank. They took the concept of found footage which had been all around the block in horror films. It had started to spread out to other areas of film when these two brought it to the concept of a superhero origin story. Even though it’s less a superhero origin story and more from the supervillain’s point of view. Aside from possibly Unbreakable, it took one of the most realistic takes on having super powers in any movie. When you have three teenage boys who gain incredible power, it will end up looking a lot more like this and a lot less like Superman. It also helped launch the careers of Dane Dehaan and Michael B. Jordan and brought opportunities to Trank and Landis that haven’t quite bore fruit just yet, but for the time being they have at least crafted one mighty fine movie together.
This film has gotten a lot of controversy over just the couple years since it was released, people love it, people hate it, but worse comes to worse this is the start of a possibly massive DCEU that may or may not rival the MCU depending on how the next two films do next year. It has brought a much more cynical and pessimistic Superman to the audiences and while there was the occasional comic relief it was marred with some obvious product placement. Personally, I think that many of the arguments over the destruction in the third act are overblown. It gives us a fantastical look at planet Krypton and an intriguing glance at Clark’s past as a young child. It has bits that make it feel out of time, where everyone has cell phones, but there’s still a place for an investigative newspaper reporter. I have hopes that it will improve with time so long as the latter movies support the foundation that this movie built. Time will tell.