100 Essential Superhero Movies – Ranked
It’s been over a year since I posted my list of 100 Essential Superhero Movies, and I do want to keep this list updated every year, adding in new movies from the previous year, and taking out movies that only just barely made the cut. Another thing that I decided to do a little bit differently is to rank the films by their quality, so that it’s more obvious which films are the failures that are still important in the grand scheme of superhero movie history, but aren’t very high quality films. And while my personal preference will obviously come into play, I did make a decided effort to combine my opinion along with the general opinion. Also, I will be sharing my rankings every day for the next 100 days over on Facebook and Twitter and will be collecting them here afterwards. Enjoy!
Update: For the most current version of this list, here’s the 2016 Edition
It fits into this list as one of the first fan films, or more appropriately a mockbuster as it took the barest of concepts from Adam West’s Batman and tried to make it a success. But a lack of budget, lack of talent, and lack of writing made this film fade away until Mystery Science Theater got a hold of it and brought it back into view as a so-bad-it’s-good cult film.
This was the first major superhero movie with a woman in the lead role, unfortunately it came after the increasingly low budget and low quality Superman films and is not a good film by any means. The two bright spots are the introduction of Helen Slater in the lead role, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score even though it’s pales in comparison to the original Superman score.
This was the end of the Batman universe started by Tim Burton and ended by Joel Schumacher. It brought in an older Batman with George Clooney, gave Arnold Schwarzenegger top billing as a pun spewing Dr. Freeze, turned Gotham into a neon filled amusement park, and turned fans of the character away in droves grossing just over $100 million and the lowest of any modern live action Batman film. It has basically turned into a big joke that even those involved in the film have turned against it. It is a prime example of what not to do in a comic book superhero movie.
The sequel to Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing which was a cross between a creature feature and a superhero film. The sequel ditched a lot of the horror elements outside of the creature effects and played up the comedy quite a bit more. It also brought in Heather Locklear off of Dynasty as a love interest for Swamp Thing. It seemed to try too hard to recreate what made the first film good, but they did bring in superhero movie alum Sarah Douglas in the best role of the film, even though it was somewhat similar to Ursa in Superman 2 only without the super powers.
The beginning of the end of the Salkind/Christopher Reeve Superman films that originally brought superhero films into the mainstream. This film sidelined Superman in favor of hot comedian at the time Richard Pryor who was allowed to pretty much let loose as an accidental computer genius and accidental supervillain. It also got rid of Margot Kidder in favor of Annette O’Toole who plays Lana Lang and would eventually go on to play Martha Kent for many seasons on Smallville. The comedy was not the right direction for this franchise, though it does stand the test of time for introducing the evil side of Superman, also known as “drunk dad” Superman.
This film was the last TV movie from the iconic 70’s and 80’s Incredible Hulk series with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. In some ways it was the end of an era even though it came out so many years after the end of the TV series it still felt like a fitting end to that show with the literal death of the Incredible Hulk. Even though it was always possible to come back from the dead in the comics, and there were rumors that if the ratings were better they would have made another one, this was ultimately the swan song to one of the most popular live action Marvel shows, if not the most popular. Unfortunately, it does not nearly hold up on its own today.
This film is such has such an odd story behind it and is such an awful movie when all is said and done. But for all its flaws it is, at this moment, the single, solitary superhero film that has a Black woman in the lead role. It seemed to be intended as a spin-off of the popular Batman franchise, and yet the filmmakers took nearly every mention and reference of Batman away from the story outside of a few photographs of previous Catwomen. Instead of being a skillful cat burglar who occasionally helps Batman, she is a mousy secretary who dies and gains the powers of the Egyptian cat which makes her act like a common house cat in every way possible. Just laughable in every way, shape, and form.
Specifically, the 1989 version of the Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren. It wasn’t released in theaters in the US, and it didn’t feature the Punisher’s iconic skull. In fact, it barely felt like the Punisher at all outside of the fact that his name was Frank Castle and his family had been gunned down by a mob hit a few years ago. Even though it came out the same year as Tim Burton’s Batman, it essentially treated the source material like it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, and made what felt like a throwback cop movie ten years too late. But it’s still the first Punisher film and has its fun moments here and there. Sidenote – I find it funny that the best looking image I found from a UK DVD has added a tiny skull on his jacket even though it’s nowhere in the film.
This film is infamous to anyone who has done any digging into the past adaptations of Marvel characters as it is the only one that we know of that was produced, but never released. Not only that, but never even intended to be released to the general audience. It was one of those studio rights games where they had to start a film or lose the rights to the Fantastic Four characters and so they made this film on the cheap with the intention of making it for reals a few years down the line when they got the script & funding lined up. They brought in Roger Corman to direct, and most of the cast and crew had no idea that the film they were working on would never see the light of day. It was fully completed, and was an early commodity in early comic book conventions as a bootleg VHS, and later DVD, and has since found a home on YouTube. It’s extremely low budget, but was an honest attempt at bringing the characters to life. For all it’s flaws, it still has its charms.
Super Inframan, also known as Chinese Superman was made by the very prolific martial arts filmmakers the Shaw Brothers. It was also the first superhero film made in China whose tradition follows today in the many Sentai shows and films like those used for the Power Rangers. Looking back on it now, it does look very much like an overblown episode of the Power Rangers. The effects are cheesy, but the fight scenes are well choreographed and it’s mark is still felt in that section of entertainment today, so that has to account for something.
This is a well known disaster as it marks the very first theatrical release of a Marvel comics adaptation. Not only that, but it had the clout of George Lucas as producer and Lucasfilm special effects behind it. Unfortunately there were plenty of struggles with the duck costume and animatronics which created an inconsistent look for Howard throughout the film, and it hit a really odd tone that couldn’t decide whether it was supposed to be marketed towards children or adults. It was a failure at the box office and faded into relative obscurity until a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy brought him back into the public’s notice, if only slightly.
This may not be the first black superhero movie, or the first superhero comedy, but it succeeds slightly better than some of the others in either category. Robert Townsend plays a cowardly teacher who gets super powers from a meteor and suddenly has super strength, can fly, can talk to animals, and can absorb all the information from a book for thirty seconds after touching it. There’s a bit of a message behind it all and all sorts of cameos from rap stars, sitcom stars, and a very young Don Cheadle. It’s a bit on the silly side of things, but there’s some fun to be had here.
This one is a bit of an oddity that I have a little personal fascination with. It’s a theatrically released (kinda) superhero musical comedy starring Alan Arkin and Christopher Lee. Surprisingly not the only superhero musical on this list, but it has more or less fallen into obscurity. It still has some interesting takes on superheroes that are mostly unique to this film. The biggest downsides are the very low budget and the pacing, there are plenty of boring stretches in between cheesy silliness. But still fascinating as a movie oddity.
This was Warner Bros.’ response to Tim Burton taking Batman too far into his dark territory so they had Joel Schumacher bring it back to a neon-lit glory. They brought in Mad Martigan to play Batman, Chris O’Donnell to play a Robin who needed to be adopted at age 24, Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones to play variations of the Joker named the Riddler and Two-Face, and a brain-sucking device that never made anyone smarter. It’s not fully ensconced in puns and Laffy Taffy jokes, but it’s about halfway there at this point.
This is a fairly recent movie flop that was supposed to bring one of the biggest DC superheroes outside of the trinity to live action for the first time. If successful, it would have really started the DC cinematic universe in the same way that Iron Man did for the MCU. But instead, it was a critical and financial failure and caused DC to rush back to Superman two years later with Man of Steel which started their current DCEU. They didn’t seem to want to take the film seriously, pushed the most interesting villain Sinestro off to the potential sequel, gave him an odd looking animated suit, and had him fight a giant space cloud at the end which he then defeated with a giant green fist to the cloud face.
This was the first big budget, serious superhero movie to cast a Black man in the lead role. There were a couple comedies that came before it, but this was the first one to take things seriously and take it to a very violent PG-13 rating. It was based on the popular series from Todd McFarlane, though it took some liberties with the story and some major shortcuts with the CGI in places including the WORST CGI DEVIL EVER! It gave Michael Jai White his first major lead after his role as Mike Tyson in a TV movie a couple years earlier. There are many flaws with this film, but it has occasional moments of greatness and worth checking out.
This film was the first DC property made into a movie that wasn’t Batman or Superman, or even much of a traditional superhero. Instead, the film was more of a cross between a creature feature and a superhero film, and it was also one of the early works from Wes Craven two years before he would go on to make a name for himself via A Nightmare on Elm Street. It had a surprisingly strong female character played by Adrienne Barbeau even though she still had to be saved by Swamp Thing. It also had Ray Wise playing Alec Holland before becoming the creature, but dropped him in favor of Dick Durock once the makeup went on. There are some hints of greatness, but it’s stuck between not scary enough for horror, but not enough action for a good hero film. There’s still enough campy humor to get through it at least.
This movie is an odd one, it came out just five years before Marvel started its Cinematic Universe and the only one that still has a loose connection to the Disney Marvel franchise as the Incredible Hulk started in South America where this film ended. This was another case of the early superhero movie craze started with X-Men where they brought in auteur director Ang Lee to bring his vision to the Hulk as much more of a drama than an action film. He also brought in comic book elements like split screens to simulate art panels, but the general audience reaction was that it was too heady, not enough action, and looking back the animation used on the Hulk himself just doesn’t hold up.
This was the first superhero starring role for noted comic book fan Nicholas Cage almost 10 years after Superman Lives fell apart. This was the second Marvel superhero licensed to Sony besides Spider-Man and while this film did enough business to garner a sequel, after that film failed they ended up letting the rights to the character lapse back to Marvel ahead of the contractual expiration. It has Nicolas Cage being Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes as his sassy love interest, and Sam Elliott playing the overly-knowledgeable gravedigger slash wild west Ghost Rider. There’s some fun to be had here, but nothing is taken overly serious and it gets even worse in the sequel which (spoiler alert) didn’t make this list.
This is the second Fantastic Four film on this list as well as the last one, it’s also the first Fantastic Four film to be released in theaters. One of the biggest problems with this film is that the writers couldn’t figure out how to make this a serious superhero film, so instead they turned it into one big joke. The powers are generally treated as jokes, and an excuse to get Jessica Alba in her underwear. The dysfunctional family dynamic is used for jokes, even the love triangle is generally used for jokes. But when everything becomes a joke, the action just doesn’t feel right at the end. The tone was off, and while I do enjoy the humor here and there as a guilty pleasure, I readily admit that most of the time the humor doesn’t have the right tone for these characters. It’s used too often in more of a derogatory way or just simple slapstick. But it did make enough money to warrant a sequel and is probably the most fun out of the four films to watch.
This was the first animated Marvel film made through an eight picture deal for the home video market through Lion’s Gate Entertainment. Instead of going the route they would use in the live action films starting two years later, they began the series with the origin of the Avengers loosely adapted from the Ultimates. It’s not nearly as good quality as most of the DC animated features, but there are some interesting parallels that would eventually make their way to the live action Avengers six years later, like the team fighting the Chitauri rather than a more well known threat like the Skrull, but many of the other characters are not handled quite so well.
This was one of the first horror films from Troma Entertainment after a string of unsuccessful sex comedies and was their most successful film for a long time. It’s even still the mascot for the company even though the sequels to this film didn’t get nearly as much success or acclaim, and there hasn’t been a new film since 2000 even though talk of a remake starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and a sequel about Toxie’s twins bubble up from time to time. The film itself is a mixture of over the top exploitation horror combined with a superhero narrative, a bit of comedy, and plenty of amateurish actors. It’s along the lines of a so-bad-it’s-good, but there’s enough actual comedy that helps push it over the top.
This film is generally considered to be the first feature length theatrical superhero film. There had been many superhero serials before this, but this was a single story clocking in at a short 58 minutes by today’s standards, but still feature-length. It has George Reeves in the title role who would go onto play him for several seasons in the TV series, which this was essentially what’s now referred to as a “backdoor pilot” and it was even re-cut into a two-part episode to run on TV. Looking back on it, it’s rather dated, has poor special effects, and doesn’t really feel much like a Superman story. Instead, I thought it felt more like a lesser episode of the Twilight Zone, but that still includes a bit of praise. It’s absolutely worth it to look back at the beginnings of superhero movie history with this one.
This is one of my personal favorites, and if I were ranking these in personal order it would be at least 10 to 20 spots higher. It’s based on a property that started out as a radio drama in the 30’s and went on to feature in pulp magazines, movie serials, novels, and of course, movies. The film itself suffered from some plot issues and an odd tone that was the wrong mix of lighthearted and serious for many people. It was intended to be a franchise starter like Batman, but the low box office killed that idea. Sam Raimi currently holds the rights, but has said that he wasn’t able to get a workable script together and is working on other projects now.
This is a new addition to the list as it just came out last year and while it wasn’t received very well there was a major development as a near-direct result of the film’s performance. The movie’s underperformance was likely the tipping point for Sony Pictures to make a deal with Disney Marvel so that Marvel’s most popular character is now allowed to appear in their own cinematic universe, starting with Captain America: Civil War. Also, future Spider-Man films will be co-productions with Marvel taking a larger role in the creative process. As far as the film itself, it had a lot of more comic book oriented moments and some great action scenes, but it fell into the trap of too many characters so that none of them got enough development. Also, it spent too much time setting up future movies that aren’t likely to happen now. It still made over $700 million worldwide, but that fell $50 million short of the first one and less than anticipated.