Looking for the best superhero movie to watch this weekend? Look no further. This “best superhero movies” list is coming to the rescue! Superhero movies go back a long way before becoming culturally relevant in the early 2000s. While there’s a glut of movies about weirdoes in costumes punching other weirdoes in costumes, that wasn’t always the case.
I’ve been watching superhero movies dating back to the early 90s, so I remember a time when they didn’t quite dominate the box office. With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 bringing another one of the modern greats to a close, I think it’s time to look back at the history of the genre and share what I consider to be the best superhero movies ever made. Also, if you’re wondering why Logan isn’t on this list, that’s because it’s an apocalyptic Western!
Without further ado, here are my picks for the best superhero movies:
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
This was the one when people realized that superhero movies could be considered serious cinema. The first Spider-Man is great fun, but it’s silly and cartoony. Spider-Man 2 throws this out the window and replaces it with a much more refined version of Sam Raimi’s style, more impressive CGI and cinematography, and a script with actual weight and stakes compared to the comic-esque bombast of the previous film.
It also successfully takes one of Spidey’s sillier villains, Doctor Octopus, and makes him sympathetic and interesting in a way that the comics didn’t tend to attempt. Of course, much of that is due to Alfred Molina’s powerful portrayal of the character that carried such gravitas that it not only inspired Sony’s excellent Marvel’s Spider-Man video game but led to the character being a major part of No Way Home.
X2: X-Men United (2003)
The sequel to X-Men succeeds for many of the same reasons as Spider-Man 2. But X2 makes for an even more impressive showing compared to its predecessor, as that movie didn’t quite nail the tone and characters as well as the first Spider-Man did. X2 simply has a much more epic scope with much more personal stakes for the characters. Instead of the first movie’s broad “Magneto uses a machine to do a bad thing to non-Mutants,” X2 builds its narrative off of the core of the series’ clear main character, Wolverine.
The Weapon X storyline was always a high point in the comics, and the movie doesn’t disappoint. The acting, pacing, and usage of the cast are still impressive, making for a movie that’s still better than most modern flicks a couple of decades after the fact.
The Dark Knight (2008)
And the sequel train rolls on. The Dark Knight is a heavily unique superhero movie, in part because it’s arguably barely a superhero movie at all. While Batman Begins is unquestionably a Batman movie, The Dark Knight is more of a Gotham movie. Although it features plenty of the haphazard editing found in other Christopher Nolan movies (the way some of the car chases are stitched together is kind of a mess), few superhero movies reinterpret and successfully present a story’s themes the way this movie does.
This is because it took the central premise of The Killing Joke (we’re all one bad day away from madness) and shifted it from James Gordon to a grounded Two-Face. The Dark Knight has a lot to say about the nature of villainy and the importance of the way the public perceives its heroes. Batman’s sacrifice at the end of the movie is a particularly effective conclusion that few movies have topped, if any, landing it here on the best superhero movies list.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Here’s one that benefits from being zany fun. Guardians of the Galaxy is a zany, Star Wars-inspired space caper. General audiences mostly weren’t familiar with the rag-tag bunch, but James Gunn went ahead and basically made his own version of the characters built out of his own sense of humour. The result is one of the best superhero movies that’s just plain fun.
Few directors can catch the wild exuberance of comic books without damaging how things work on the silver screen, but Gunn was simply a fantastic choice. The action scenes are stellar, the dialogue is downright funny, and the cast has such magnetic chemistry that it’s hard to find a comic book movie that radiates such pure joy as this one does.
Iron Man (2008)
It takes a hell of a movie to build a foundation for the biggest cinematic universe around, but Iron Man did it with aplomb. Instead of shying away from aspects of the source material, Iron Man took the original comic and faithfully recreated Tony Stark’s origin. Robert Downey Jr. is so effortlessly charming and sardonic that the film took him from a Hollywood risk to one of its biggest stars.
It doesn’t hurt that one of the best actors in the business, Jeff Bridges, plays the villain. Comic book adaptations rarely do the “hero and villain are basically good and evil versions of one other” thing quite as well as it’s done here, and this was years before the CW DC shows ran the trope into the ground so hard that it’s hard to take them seriously. Iron Man remains one of Marvel’s best superhero movies and a sterling example of the potential the studio had.
Thor: Ragnarök (2017)
And we’re back in sequel town. Thor: Ragnarök does the opposite of what Spider-Man 2 and X2 did. Thor: The Dark World went a little too dour, despite the menace Christopher Eccleston brought to the proceedings. But comedy maven Taika Waititi swung in and put a unique spin on the character. Sure, Thor in the comics (especially Jason Aaron’s) certainly wasn’t a comedic character, but Ragnarök leans into what made Chris Hemworth’s character fun in the previous movies.
With yet another top-tier actor serving as the antagonist (Cate Blanchett as a supervillain? Uh, yes, please) and a huge dose of Waititi’s humour and penchant for quirky characters, Thor: Ragnarök is easily the best Thor movie and one of the best superhero movies in general. Sure, its follow-up leaned way too hard into comedy territory for most people, but this one serves as an example of it being done right.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The last couple of Avengers movies are fantastic in their own right, but there’s something to be said about not having your focus be too broad. Captain America: Civil War is basically a sequel to both the Captain America and Iron Man franchises, but it makes for a considerably better movie than both of Iron Man’s sequels. The way it incorporates a beloved comic storyline without stretching it too far while also roping in a large supporting cast (and introducing Spider-Man to the MCU) is stellar, as is the central dynamic between the two leads.
On the other hand, the movie did start a trend where even flagship movies for superheroes lost some of their focus by having two leads share screen time in someone else’s movie (Ragnarök gets a pass because Hulk never got his own movie, okay?) but it works extremely well here, making for a movie that’s as poignant and exciting in equal measure.
Mystery Men (1999)
Bet you weren’t expecting to see this one here, huh? While Spider-Man and X-Men proved that superhero movies could be taken somewhat seriously, Mystery Men showed how well they could work as comedies. With an incredible cast made up of Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Geoffrey Rush, and Greg Kinnear (plus many more greats), the movie is packed with great performances buoyed by irreverent dialogue.
While the source material for the film is far from well-known to audiences (which the film suffered greatly for), it’s simply an exceedingly colourful, entertaining movie with great pacing and lots of solid jokes. And Paul Reubens was allowed out of acting jail, which is a great win all on its own. The movie may have bombed horribly, but it definitely deserves more respect, as it’s probably the funniest superhero movie.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
While The Dark Knight is easily the best live-action Batman movie, only one film captured the character and his arch-rival perfectly. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a short one, running at close to 70 minutes, but it takes everything that worked so beautifully about Batman: The Animated Series and makes it work as a feature.
The doomed love story, the iconic vocal performances, the unbeatable art direction and the aesthetic of The Joker’s defunct amusement park hideout make the film an enduringly great Batman movie that, as far as I’m concerned, completely overtakes the Burton films. It was also amazing to see a Batman: The Animated Series-style story given more time to breathe, as the feature-length really allows the narrative and characters to flourish in a way that they didn’t always get a chance to when stuck on television.
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Okay, maybe Punisher: War Zone isn’t a particularly good movie. It’s insanely stupid, vulgar, oftentimes offensive, and so ridiculous that it’s impossible to take seriously. And that’s why I can’t help but feel it’s one of the best superhero movies. The Punisher is a murderous sociopath famous for tearing his way through mobsters, and this movie is pretty much the only time we get to see him in his full glory.
Sure, Jigsaw feels like a retread of The Joker in Burton’s Batman, and Doug Hutchison is probably still pulling scenery out of his teeth, but Ray Stevenson was the perfect choice for The Punisher, and this stupid, violent movie is a great vehicle for him. No other comic book movie offers such a gory slab of sheer stupidity, which is a shame, because it really is a lot of fun.