100 Essential Superhero Movies – Ranked
This was the first superhero movie from Guillermo del Toro before he went on to do the two Hellboy films. He took a common theme for a sequel and forced the hero to join forces with his enemy to fight a common villain. There’s less of a vampire hunter mentality and more of a monster movie where the GMO vampires called the reapers are treated like these unseen horrors, especially with their monstrous jaw and fast-zombie-like herd mentality. There’s a few betrayals and surprises along with an added romantic sub plot between Blade and one of the vampires, not all of it works, but what does work is really great.
#24 – The Dark Knight Returns pt 1 & 2
This film is another recent DC Animated movie and the first one to be released over two parts. It covers one of the most recognized comic book arc by Frank Miller as it looks at Batman many years later after he had retired for many years, but is still in fighting shape. It’s a story that’s influenced other Batman films like the Dark Knight Rises as well as the upcoming Batman vs. Superman. Peter Weller comes in to voice the role of Batman and he does an admirable job as the older Bruce Wayne and Batman. There’s an absolutely epic fight between Batman and Superman as well as a bloody fight between Batman and the Joker. It’s intense, it has Batman riding a horse into battle and a female Robin, it’s my personal favorite DC Animated movie, it’s just all around great.
#23 – Legends of the Knight
This is the only documentary on this list that just came out less than two years ago. It takes a look at Batman not just as a comic book character, but in a way his evolution from simple character to modern mythology and how that inspires people from different generations in various ways. It takes a look at a few different people’s stories and combines them with videos of children playing pretend wearing superhero costumes and plenty of artwork. The stories themselves are inspiring in and of themselves, and it’s presented in such a heroic way that it becomes a powerful work of art itself. Well worth a watch.
This film came out just a couple years ago and is one of the few instances of a good reboot. It brought back the character of Judge Dredd and made him much closer to how he appears in the comics, at least as far as the fact that he never takes off his helmet. It shared several similarities with another film released the same year, the Raid, though those similarities were coincidental as they were made concurrently. It’s still a great action film with tense moments and visually interesting battles with the inclusion of the slo-mo drug that allowed for the use of dramatic slow motion shots that was originally intended for the film’s 3-D release.
This movie is another one that stretches the limits of what is a superhero movie, but it does center around an actor who played a superhero and has delusions where he thinks he really is that hero. It includes moments where those delusions of super powers may or may not be real. But most of all, this film that is centered around the concept of a superhero won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. On top of that, it’s an excellent film with stellar performances all around on top of a pseudo-one take gimmick that really adds to the visual element of the film, simultaneously giving it a dreamlike quality while grounding it in reality. An excellent film all around and it could be higher on the list except for the admitted fact that the superhero element of the film is a smaller part of it.
This was the start of the second wave of superhero movies that launched the 90’s. It came out in 1989, directed by Tim Burton who had a couple successes under his belt and led by Michael Keaton who was best known at this time as Mr. Mom. It brought Batman much closer to the comic books at the time than the previous incarnation which was Adam West’s comedic version. There’s still comedy and campiness, but right next to a very darkly gothic mood and designs. It became the biggest movie of the year and the iconic Batsymbol is still used in many situations today, like the Lego Batman franchise. This is what made Batman a household name as well as the Joker. Jack Nicholson’s performance can still be debated as the best Joker of all time and this will be a favorite of many for years to come.
This is the film that really set off the modern superhero movie. Even though Blade came out before this, it was less a superhero movie and more a vampire movie, and this was an unmitigated hit. It took superheroes seriously, got rid of the yellow spandex for better or worse, made characters that felt more like people with super powers than caricatures of people, and made a lot of money doing it. It also brought to the screen what will likely be considered the definitive screen version of Wolverine for a long time as Hugh Jackman has gone on and will go on to play the role for nine films. It’s still my personal favorite, though most people consider the second film to be the best.
This film is a recent Marvel film that’s not part of the MCU, but instead an animated movie from Disney Studios as their first real collaboration. It’s not so much based on a Marvel comic book, but instead it’s inspired by the comic to create a completely different group of heroes that are centered in science as a concept. The film itself has some gorgeous visuals and some brilliant voice work from Scott Adsit who gives life to the big puffy robot that is Baymax. The film also deals with some serious issues like the death of a family member and how to cope with that loss in a way that doesn’t pull any punches or talk down to kids in any way. And in the end, it also gives an action packed film with plenty of fighting and adventure scenes mixed with a lot of comedy and a dash of heart.
This was the sequel to the blockbuster Batman and so Tim Burton was given much more creative control so this feels much more like a Tim Burton movie. The tone is darker, it’s set at Christmas, and the focus is even more on the villains than it was with the Joker. It brought in two more big names with Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as the Penguin as well as Christopher Walken as Max Shreck. There was even a bit of a possibly unintentional homage to the Adam West Batman episode where Penguin ran for mayor. The romance between Batman and Catwoman worked and the monstrous concept for Penguin was different from the comics, but it felt much more in line with Burton’s sensibilities.
This film has gotten mixed feelings from the fans of one of the most celebrated and best selling comic books of all time, and one thought to be unadaptable. Zack Snyder took a fairly literal approach in turning the comic into a film, but also gave it a more cinematic feel with enhanced action scenes, an altered ending, and the removal of the supplemental material outside of the Ultimate cut. The film itself has a bleak look at superheroes in an alternate 1985 during Nixon’s fifth term in office, it’s densely packed with foreshadowing and metaphors, stunning visuals and brutal violence.
This was the first major superhero movie reboot, switching over from the campy neon of Schumacher’s Batman & Robin to the very gray, dour, and realistic-ish Nolan’s Batman Begins. Christian Bale took over the role as Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine came in as Alfred. Instead of starting with the big name villain of the Joker, he went with the slightly lesser known villains Scarecrow, Ra’s Al Ghul, and Carmine Falcone. And yet even with a fairly large roster of villains, the film balances them and interweaves them so it makes sense and doesn’t feel convoluted like the bad Spider-Man films.
This film is very recent, but it’s a return to form for the X-Men franchise and it bridges the two timelines between the first trilogy of films and the older timeline introduced in X-Men: First Class. It also manages to take most of the bad films out of continuity through its introduction of time travel where Wolverine travels from a dystopian future full of Sentinels killing or trapping all the mutants and most of the humans who also have latent X genes. And at the end of the film, some of the well liked characters that were killed off over the course of the first three films were essentially resurrected even though this timeline is not likely to be revisited. It brought together the best of two casts and introduced a few new characters including Quicksilver in a breathtaking slow motion scene that helps show he is one of the most powerful mutants in the X-Men universe. Brilliant fight scenes in the future and a little bit of social commentary to boot it’s a blast from start to finish.
This film was the first big superhero movie blockbuster, directed by Richard Donner it brought in mostly unknown Christopher Reeve and used the best special effects of the time to create believable super powers. It was a fantasy movie set in reality and it worked in the best way possible. It had the right amount of optimism as well as the credibility of Marlon Brando playing Superman’s father Jor-El even though he got an incredible payday for it. This was very much an origin story that spends a lot of time on Krypton as well as a bit of time with Clark as a teenager before he finally moves to Metropolis to become Superman. Hackman as Lex Luthor was also a nice treat even though he tends to be more of a silly personality rather than a true threat. Not all of the effects hold up, but if you saw this any time before Tim Burton’s Batman existed, then this or the sequel would have been the definitive superhero movie for you.
This was the sequel to the first Captain America which has some fans, but was a fairly mediocre entry. This was the film that pushed the summer blockbuster season back an extra month, breaking all sorts of records for movies released in April. They brought in two guys mostly known for comedy, especially quirky comedies like Arrested Development and Community, but they gave us an amazing and action packed film with plenty of visual flair. Some may say that at this point they were just cogs in the Marvel machine, but that machine is humming along nicely at this point and Chris Evans has really grown into his role as Captain America in more ways than one. This felt less like a superhero movie and more like a classic spy thriller, especially as it brought in the likes of Robert Redford to play an important character.
This film was one of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies before he went downhill, but the concept of the film was to take a typical superhero origin story and stretch the first act into a full movie in itself. So the movie itself is very action-lite, but instead is a very grounded look at a superhero discovering that he has always had super powers and never took that extra step to actually use them. It has some amazing visuals that help simulate the panels of a comic book with narrow framing, but it’s also very slow paced and introspective with it’s own family drama mixed into the plot. Not only that, but it has great performances from Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.
This movie was one of the many animated movies that DC made straight-to-video in the past several years and the one where they got it right in all the best ways. It’s one of the many Batman stories involving a masked vigilante who comes into town and takes care of the criminal element by killing them, and in this case even working with some of them. But the biggest difference is that this vigilante has a secret that connects him to Batman’s past. It examines the issues with Batman and the Joker and how his decision not to kill has likely cost the lives of dozens of people, it has the voice talents of Jensen Ackles, Bruce Greenwood as Batman, and Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing. Brilliant film, worth checking out if you’ve never seen it even with it’s very short run time.
This film is often neck and neck with the first film in the series for being considered the best, but this one gets rid of all the introductions and goes straight to the action. It has the great prison break scene with Magneto, the amazing White House scene with Nightcrawler. As somebody once said, “the enemy of my enemy is my frenemy.” We get the Brotherhood and the X-Men working together against Striker and his force of mind-controlled mutants who are trying to destroy all the mutants in the world at once with a copy of Cerebro. We also get a fun mutant-as-coming-out scene with Wolverine and the film ends with a tease of the Phoenix saga which doesn’t entirely come to fruition. The characters all grew from the first movie and the new characters Nightcrawler and Pyro fit into the dynamic very well.
This film is the first sequel to the first great superhero movie, and even though it was transferred to Richard Lester after being taken away from Richard Donner. Lester brought a more lighthearted, comedic take to the film which carried on even more in the much maligned Superman III. But this film is where he really got the chance to fight another super powered being in General Zod and his two companions. Terrence Stamp gives a great performance as Zod with his ever quotable “kneel before Zod!” line as does Sarah Douglas as his first lieutenant Ursa. There are two versions of this film, the theatrical as well as the restored Donner cut version where Richard Donner was allowed to go back through the footage and re-cut from some of his original footage as well as some of Lester’s, Donner’s is much less comedic but suffers from the re-use of the first film’s ending since that was the original plan and obviously they wouldn’t have been able to re-shoot a new ending.
This film is the second chance for Guillermo del Toro to play around with the Hellboy mythology without having to shoehorn in an audience surrogate character or deal with the origin story. He had an expanded budget and more creative control so this film felt much more like a del Toro film than the first one with plenty of amazing creature creations, especially those at play in the Troll Market scene. Not only that, but his love for practical effects over digital shines in most of these scenes as well, giving a realistic feel to these fantastical creatures outside of a couple fully digital ones like the forest elemental. There’s some gorgeous visuals and an improved relationship between Hellboy and Liz Sherman, it also has a pair of mostly sympathetic villains in the royal family of Prince Nuada and Princess Nuala. It also has a fun vocal performance by Seth Macfarlane as gaseous spirit Johann Krauss. And while it was a modest success at the box office, it didn’t to well enough to justify a more expensive third movie despite rumors swelling up every now and then.
This film was an absolute phenomenon last year. It came from a director few people had ever heard of unless they were fans of low budget schlock horror or his quirky indie comedies like Super or PG Porn, but James Gunn was able to tap into this band of misfit scoundrels and turn them into something greater. He was able to craft a science fiction space epic under the guise of a Marvel superhero movie. The Avengers made everyone realize that Marvel was a force to be reckoned with, and Guardians of the Galaxy made people realize that they could practically do no wrong. This was a group of heroes that nobody knew about beforehand aside from a small group of comic book readers that may have heard of some of the characters before. They were able to turn a movie about D-list characters into the number one movie of the summer and they did it with a soundtrack full of 70’s hits. On paper, there’s no way this movie works, and yet it has the charm, the action, and the humor to pull it off.
This movie is the apex of the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy with the sympathetic villain in Doctor Otto Octavius as well as Peter’s crisis over his identity as Spider-Man. It culminates in one of the best scenes in a superhero movie ever where he puts himself in harms way to stop a speeding train before it falls off a bridge only to be rescued by the people of the city who don’t recognize him, but still promise to keep his secret before giving him back his mask which had been ripped off earlier in the fight. It also sows the seeds of villainy for Harry Osborne to become another version of the Goblin even though it doesn’t exactly pan out the way we would have hoped in the third movie. It also has some amazing fight scenes like Doc Ock and Spidey on the side of the building. Really just an overall brilliant and fun film.
This was the film that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe off the ground and helped shape it into what it is today. It brought Robert Downey Jr. back into the movie star realm and took a C-level superhero and turned him into an A-list hero practically overnight. He’s a major part of the Marvel movies and it really did all start with this one. It brought the action, the humor, and all around the fun with Jon Favreau in the director’s chair which started the trend for Marvel hiring directors most well known for quirky indie comedies that end up being very successful with a big budget light-hearted action film. This made a character covered in armor and found a way to be able to see the actor inside without finding a way to remove or break his helmet every other fight scene. It’s just all around fantastic.
This is not only the best animated superhero movie of all time, it ranks right up there with the best live action superhero movies as well. It gets all the superhero elements right, but it also has characters that you care about, and a plot that doesn’t just revolve around defeating the villain. It offers subtext to the family’s powers and it also manages to place them in context with where they were at their prime compared to where they are many years later. It manages to capture the joy of Dash getting to let loose with his powers for the first time and Mr. & Mrs. Incredible both get to use their powers in inventive ways to sneak into a highly secure facility rather than bust in through the front door. It also has plenty of humor, especially Mr. Incredible’s interplay with Samuel L. Jackson’s Frozone not to mention his hilarious super suit scene. It manages to combine elements from the Watchmen and the Fantastic Four while still creating a unique and original world all its own. One of my favorites for a long time to come and I hope they do it justice with the forthcoming sequel.
This is the best superhero movie for most people hands down. It’s the one that’s made with an eye towards critics, fans, and casual filmgoers alike. It helped quite a bit that it had Batman to go on who has always been the most popular superhero character. Director Christopher Nolan also revamped the Joker. He brought in Heath Ledger who was mostly known for playing teen romantic comedies and yet he brought a raw, psychotic energy to the role that was very different from any performance before it and created a new Joker in the eyes of fans for years to come. When I ask people what their favorite superhero movie is, this movie was always the most popular answer and still is. It’s the highest grossing Batman film and helped legitimize superhero films in the eyes of critics.
As if you couldn’t have guessed. But this movie is the best superhero movie out there in more ways that one. It got plenty of praise from critics and fans and is the 4th highest grossing film of all time just below Avatar, Titanic, and was recently passed by Jurassic World. It managed to balance a cast of several different superhero characters and make none of them felt like they got the short shrift (besides Hawkeye but at least he didn’t have a movie of his own). Not only that, but it changed the way Hollywood went about making franchise movies, it proved that the build up to a multi-franchise mega-movie worked and nearly every studio has jumped on board with their own franchises, from Warner and DC, Universal and their monsters, even Sony combining 21 Jump Street and Men in Black. It’s a ton of fun and it’s still going strong.