What exactly constitutes a superhero movie? The knee-jerk answer amounts to a comic book adaptation featuring a costumed character who uses his/her superpowers to fight villains. It’s simple and straightforward, but if you ask a large enough group of people to name the superhero movies they think are best you’ll find answers that don’t quite fit a definition this narrow. It turns out costumes and superpowers aren’t required, and instead all that matters is a person — human or superhuman — to stand up for what’s right against those doing wrong. As you’ll see in our contributors’ individual “top tens” at the end of the list, that translates into appreciations for crusaders both caped and grounded in the real world.
That’s essentially why we love superhero movies so damn much. They highlight and celebrate the best of us while beating down the worst, and there’s a catharsis in these tales that we don’t often find in real life. Add in well-crafted action, fun quips, and fantastical visuals, and you have movies that entertain, excite, and encourage an idealism sorely lacking in our everyday interactions.
The list below features films both obvious and obscure, and while readers are sure to agree with some of our choices others are destined to boggle, bemuse, and bolster the belief that we don’t know what we’re talking about. Lucky for you, though, we do, and to that end each of our choices is supported by an argument exploring what makes it worthy of inclusion here. The titles are a mix of old and new, live-action and animated, expected and unexpected, and of course… a definitive look at the 51 best superhero movies ever made.
51. Chronicle (2012)
Christopher Campbell: Before his inventive take on the Fantastic Four wound up ruined for fans, Fox, and the filmmaker altogether, Josh Trank delivered one of the most original superhero movies with this Max Landis-scripted found-footage movie. The format might not be to the liking of all audiences, which is unfortunate because it’s essential for this story, and this story is worth having a larger fan base.
Why do we love supervillains so much? Even more than with villains in general, super-powered villains are especially intriguing because it’s logical that some people would become corrupted by such gifts. In Chronicle, three teens acquire powers and each initially uses them selfishly and puckishly. They don’t think to put on costumes and save the day. At least not until one of them, who’d probably have gone bad anyway given his background, becomes too dangerous. It’s one of the best looks at what would happen if people developed superpowers in the real world.
Is the found footage format necessary? It’s up for debate, for sure, but this might be the best found footage movie. They just don’t get more consistent and creative and necessary in their employment of the format than this. Every shot seems to be of logical capture by some type of camera, with most of the movie being understandable documentation by a few kids who just got superpowers of those superpowers and what stunts they can pull with them. The found footage format is also a great way to stress the way this is meant to be a realistic version of a superhero movie.
50. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)
Chris Coffel: After seemingly a lifetime of trying to bring a comic book movie to life, Nicolas Cage finally got that opportunity in 2007 with Ghost Rider. That first ride with Johnny Blaze left a lot to be desired, but four years later he dusted the leather jacket off once more for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and kicked things up a few hundred thousand levels on the ol’ Cage Rage Meter. The plot isn’t great and the CGI is just a tad above terrible, but Cage is guided by the shaky hands of Neveldine/Taylor and the final result is a frenetic ball of energy that pops you in the mouth and knocks you on your ass.
How do you convince your lame friends that don’t appreciate the greatness of Nicolas Cage to watch Spirit of Vengeance? Remind them of that one time they came out to visit you and got super drunk and woke up at 3:30 AM and came into your bedroom and pissed on your carpet right next to the bed you were sleeping on. Remind them of that time and let them know that they owe you. They’ll feel bad for what they’ve done and thank you for opening their eyes and showing them the fiery light.
How would you describe Spirit of Vengeance to a random person on the street? I wouldn’t talk to a random person on the street because stranger danger, but if forced to do so I would pull up Metallica’s “Fight Fire with Fire” and skip past the 40-second intro. Spirit of Vengeance is basically that song in movie form.
49. Justice League Dark (2017)
Francesca Fau: Batman, Constantine, Deadman, Black Orchid, Jason Blood, and Swamp Thing demonstrate some gory heroics by getting to the bottom of a supernatural sickness in this R rated animated film.
Why should I watch yet another superhero team up? Justice League Dark is a superhero team-up worth the time because it subverts the genre convention that every superhero team has to see each other as a family immediately or even like each other while they work. Sometimes characters have history and personalities that don’t mesh easily or quickly, but that’s OK. Superheroes can be flawed and not play well with others. However, that doesn’t keep this team from getting the job done. It’s also fun to have Batman deal with magic. Logical-minded Batman reacting to magic is like taking Ron Swanson to a Coachella.
Who is the most valuable player? Matt Ryan’s Constantine continues to make me long for the CW show’s past. I’ll settle for the character’s animated resurrection on CW Seed (which is a dumb name by the way). I wish Constantine was still in the Flarrowverse, though. Ryan, the CW does not deserve you.
48. Batman Forever (1995)
Neil Miller: If we were to compare a movie to a kiss from a rose on the grey, would that make any sense? It would if we’re talking about the criminally underrated, pulpy Joel Schumacher-directed Batman Forever.
Name a better superhero movie cast. I’ll wait. Sure, there are superhero films with casts that work better together, but the acting prowess on display in Batman Forever is staggering, especially when we look back on it 20+ years later. Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar played Two-Face’s wicked girlfriends. Nicole Kidman was in this movie! The best one is that you can spot a young, svelte Jon Favreau as an anonymous Wayne Enterprises assistant in the scene where Bruce is touring Edward Nigma’s lab.
Who really is the best Batman? In the period following the release of 1997 — all the way up to Batman Returns in 2005, if we’re being honest — the purest debate around cinematic Batmans existed. It’s easy to miss the days when you’d have nerdy arguments about how Michael Keaton was the best Bruce Wayne, but perhaps Kilmer was the best under the cowl. It was a more innocent time, but the fact remains that Kilmer’s Batman was much better than you probably remember. And the absolutely bonkers supporting cast in this movie is always worthy of a revisit.
47. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Bethany Wade: The final film in the Iron Man series left many desiring more, especially after featuring one of Marvel’s most disappointing villains. But, for a closer to Tony Stark’s personal story, it leaves fans with a warm fuzzy feeling of hope for him.
Tony Stark, the nervous wreck? We get an uneasy, unconfident hero with some real stakes to deal with. Tony may have 42 different suits, but the man inside the suit does the most growth in the film. He’s sleep deprived, even more apathetic than ever, miserable after the events of The Avengers, and he truly has to face the consequences while fighting the Mandarin. It’s a unique take on Tony Stark that at the time of the film’s release, we hadn’t seen before.
New director, new Tony: The only film in the trilogy not directed by Jon Favreau, the change of pace and mood compared to the other two is clear. But the story is more intense compared to the story we see from Favreau’s films. Favreau chooses to go for the quippy moment, even in the worst situations, while Shane Black goes for the darker shot. You get the traditional Iron Man feel in a new light, and it doesn’t turn into a complete disaster.
46. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Bethany Wade: It may not have lived up to the expectations set by The Dark Knight, but The Dark Knight Rises brings us a strong finale in the best Batman film series. Christian Bale and co. return to show us how to make a great Batman film one more time. Thank you, Christopher Nolan, for giving us the dark, gritty Batman we never knew we needed.
Robin John Blake… wait what? Though the reveal of his character is the most bullshit part of this film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake is a standout moment. Though his time is short, the moments spent on screen are a reminder of what Batman stands for: justice for the good of the people. Had he been introduced sooner, he would have made a positive impact on The Dark Knight.
*Deep muffled Tom Hardy voice*: Coming after a performance as strong as Heath Ledger’s Joker, Tom Hardy as Bane offered a terrifying yet well-done job. Similar to the Joker, Bane is after total anarchy, but for more politically-based reasons. This makes him all the more terrifying, as his plans feel based in reality. That mask doesn’t help him either.
45. Ant-Man (2015)
Karen Gomez: The 12th installment of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was in development even before Iron Man made its triumphant debut in theaters and shared universes became a thing. Genre deconstruction extraordinaire Edgar Wright was hired to direct and co-write the film adaptation of the character back in 2006. Almost a decade later, following a dramatic turn of events that resulted in Wright’s departure from the project, Marvel managed to pull off the seemingly impossible: deliver a fun and entertaining take on a superhero with one of the weirdest set of abilities from all of their catalog (on schedule).
Why watch a movie about a superhero with the powers of an insect? Even after the MCU successfully introduced a talking raccoon and a sentient tree from outer space (and James Gunn’s offbeat sense of humor) in Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man was still a daring move. But fortune often favors the bold. The movie balanced the high stakes of a heist film with a healthy self-awareness of its own silliness, and this combination is what turned what seemed to be one of the least promising Marvel movies into a comedic dark horse. In the same way Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Tony Stark, Paul Rudd embodies Scott Lang perfectly, and he is backed up by a solid supporting cast. Also, if a movie manages to make you care about an ant’s death, it’s because it is doing something right.
The best moment? The fight scene scored by The Cure’s “Plainsong” and the moment when Thomas the Tank Engine crashes into Darren Cross’ Yellowjacket are glorious, but Michael Peña steals the show with the heist tip and the final Avengers tie-in montages, which are the closest we’ll ever be to an Edgar Wright-directed Marvel movie.
44. Constantine (2005)
Meg Shields: Constantine isn’t strictly-speaking a good movie, but it is a bold one that deserves a pat on the back for taking inspiration from its source material (Garth Ennis’ Dangerous Habits and Alan Moore’s Hellblazer) rather than striving for a slavish replica. The result is something unapologetically silly, stylish, and relentlessly entertaining. It also features an unintentionally hilarious scene where Keanu Reeves gives up on traditional exorcism techniques and tries to punch the demon out of a possessed girl. Nice.
A rare hard-R comic book adaptation: One of Constantine’s biggest strengths is its mood: a commingling of metaphysical theology and nihilistic chain-smoking neo-noir. But any pretense towards sophistication aside, it’s one of the few superhero films to score an R rating. The MPAA slapped an R on it for violence and, get this, demonic images. Niiiiiiiiice.
We need to talk about Satan: This film belongs to Peter Stormare, who steals both Constantine’s cancerous heart and the whole goddamn show. Personally, this is my favorite interpretation of the devil: clad in white, barefoot, snarling, and having an extraordinarily good time. It is a bonkers and completely mesmerizing performance that takes me to church every time.
43. The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
Bethany Wade: A film meant to parody Batman and his previous incarnations ended up being a fun, light-hearted superhero film. Combining a strong story with the humor that won audiences over in The Lego Movie, Lego Batman raises the bar and shows us that a good kids’ movie can be for everyone.
How this Batman performance lines up to the others: Will Arnett’s Batman takes his job too seriously. But with the comedy comes the heart, especially in the form of his self-sacrifice during the third act. On top of that, he’s the only Batman with a musical number opening his film. That’s a plus on our list.
Alfred is… the BatDad: Every Batman is only as strong as their Alfred, and Ralph Fiennes is the quintessential Alfred. Alfred has always been a father figure for Bruce, but Fiennes’ Alfred goes into full-on dad mode. From setting parental controls on his computer to reminding him of every cringy phase he’s gone through, to his ability to get from point A to point B when there is no explainable reason how it felt like I was watching my father play Alfred this time. All I needed was terrible dad jokes and he would’ve been the perfect Alfred.
42. The Crow (1994)
Kieran Fisher: Alex Proyas’ adaptation of James O’Barr’s graphic novel about a reincarnated rock star out to avenge the murder of his girlfriend is a straightforward supernatural vigilante tale on paper. Yet, The Crow is so much more than that.
Why is The Crow so effective? The original graphic novel was conceived as a cathartic outlet for O’Barr to deal with the death of his fiancée at the hands of a drunk driver. But that wasn’t the end of the tragedy as during the filming of the movie, star Brandon Lee was accidentally shot by a real bullet and passed away shortly after. The Crow’s legacy is steeped in misfortune, but because of these unfortunate real-life events there’s a bittersweet quality to both the comic and the movie which makes their central story of loss and grief hit harder. Still, viewing this solely as a superhero movie without taking external factors into account, it’s still an exhilarating ride. The film boasts a selection of colorful characters, non-stop R rated action, and style in abundance, which makes it good fun first and foremost. But at its heart is a melancholic love story which lends an emotional gravitas that will speak to anyone who’s swooned by doomed romance. It’s super Goth like that.
How well has it aged? Like a fine wine, my dudes. Even though it’s as quintessentially ‘90s as movies get and serves as a perfect time capsule to that era, The Crow still holds up today because it’s a great movie – pure and simple. It’s the dark, Gothic outsider of the superhero genre, with the coolest taste in clothes and music. Even in a future where humankind is controlled by robots and we all have flying cars, people will revisit this movie from 1994 and revel in its glory.
41. Doctor Strange (2016)
Karen Gómez: After dealing with Norse mythological gods, having Thor very vaguely explain the relationship between science and magic, building anticipation around the Infinity Stones and their mysterious powers, and treading new, slightly psychedelic territory when Scott Lang entered the quantum realm in Ant-Man, Marvel took a leap of faith with Doctor Strange. It marked the franchise’s first steps towards fantasy and it was the official introduction of magic into the cinematic universe.
What makes Doctor Strange so peculiar? It’s true that Stephen Strange’s journey of self-discovery is something that we’ve already seen in Iron Man. Both Strange and Stark are cocky, ridiculously rich, geniuses in their respective fields, who are learning to be less selfish. However, Strange, the MCU and even director Scott Derrickson (who previously stuck only to horror films) stepped outside their comfort zone and the result was a visually stunning, mind-bending film that not only one upped Inception, but also approached magic differently. Not as a vague explanation, but as a discipline that is not completely removed from reality.
The most iconic moment? While the Cloak of Levitation steals our hearts, and while Tilda Swinton definitely opens our inner eye and the psychedelic, mesmerizing visuals are the closest some of us will ever get to experiencing drugs, the endless loop of bargain with Dormammu is without question the best bit.