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The 51 Best Superhero Movies Ever

Published in 2017, this list celebrates the great superhero movies by counting down the 51 best ever.
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By  · Published on November 17th, 2017

10. Unbreakable (2000)

Rob Hunter: An ordinary man discovers something extraordinary about himself in M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense, and in addition to being the filmmaker’s best feature it’s also one of the best origin stories to ever hit the screen.

But is it a superhero movie? Don’t be dumb, of course it is. The only Bruce Willis-related question less in debate is the one wondering if Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Unbreakable introduces a hero discovering and learning about his powers, it shows him flexing those life-saving muscles, and just as importantly it also introduces his arch-nemesis in Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass.

But aren’t superhero movies supposed to be a part of a franchise? Don’t be dumb, they don’t need to be. Look at John Ritter’s Hero at Large for example. Not only is it one of the best, despite inexplicably not making the cut on this list, but it’s also never seen a sequel. Because no one remembers it. Which I guess explains why it didn’t make this list. No, you shut up! But also, spoiler, the sequel to Unbreakable is scheduled to hit theaters in 2018 pairing it together with the director’s recent hit, Split. It’s called Glass, and it’s gonna be super.

9. Batman Returns (1992)

Neil Miller: Tim Burton’s first Batman film delivered an iconic villain. His second delivered two. Maybe three if you count Christopher Walken doing all the best Christopher Walken things.

What is it about Batman sequels? Like most superhero franchises, the first film is a game of feeling out what works, what doesn’t, and how much origin story you can fit into a reasonable runtime. The sequel is where the director, especially one with a strong vision like Tim Burton, gets to play freely and reap the benefits of the first film’s hard work. For Returns, Burton took the towering gothic playground of Gotham City to the next level and allowed it to become inhabited by more of Batman’s iconic rogues.

It’s all about the villains again, isn’t it? As we’ll likely discuss toward the top spot of this list, the villains really make a great superhero movie. Michael Keaton’s Batman is great. His Bruce Wayne is a little better. But they are both better served when Michelle Pfeiffer is also in the frame. She lights up every frame that she’s in. From Selina Kyle’s transformation to her negotiations with the Penguin to her prickly romance with The Dark Knight himself, this is Catwoman’s movie. Everything she does is deadly, deadly magic.

8. The Avengers (2012)

Brad Gullickson: Here is where the shared universe experiment paid off, and our cinematic culture will never be the same. With an unabashed confidence in their source material, Marvel Studios showed the rest of the world the sheer magic of comic book melodrama. Sure, we all want to see the Chitauri devastation of New York City, but there’s equal enjoyment to be had in Agent Coulson’s fanboy idolization of Captain America and the Tony Stark/Bruce Banner bromance.

What about that villain problem? No issue here. Thanks to the building blocks that were constructed in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, we absolutely understand the sibling rivalry rage that sparks Loki’s assault upon Earth. Tom Hiddleston is allowed to flourish as the brattish rogue who slays with a smile as much as that “glow stick of destiny.” The real star of the MCU is born.

The Splash Page comes to life: Joss Whedon proves that he’s no stranger to the comic book art form. While delivering on the trademark Marvel Team-Up, Whedon shows off the skills of his heroes while tracking the battle of New York in one long CG aided shot. Iron Man bouncing his repulsors off Cap’s shield, Hulk prying scales from a space dragon only to plunge them into its thorax, and Hawkeye flinging his grab-bag of arrows. This epic splash page is what The Avengers has been building towards, and the payoff is at once utterly cinematic and totally aligned with the comic book tradition. The Avengers is a validation of all that hard-earned time we geeks spent filing singles into basement long boxes.

7. Deadpool (2016)

Neil Miller: For Ryan Reynolds and writers Rhett Rheese and Paul Wernick, the surprise smash hit, R-rated, excessively violent, rude, lovable, scrappy Valentine’s Day miracle of Deadpool is one of the great shows of fan passion you’ll ever see on a giant screen. In fact, one might say that it’s the greatest fan film of all-time.

Who is truly responsible for Deadpool? Trick question, it’s you. There’s never much truth to the Hollywood platitude, “We made it for the fans.” We all know that the Wu-Tang Clan was right — cash rules everything around me, including the production of superhero cinema. Deadpool defied those odds. Following X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in which Ryan Reynolds played Deadpool (and whatever abomination he becomes in the film’s last act), the notion of a real Deadpool movie seemed lost. But a “leaked” bit of test footage, a lot of fan interest later, and plenty of hard work behind the scenes led to the creation of this scrappy wonder. For the man behind the mask, it was a payoff almost a decade in the making. And we’re all responsible for helping make it a reality.

But it’s actually a good movie, right? Yes. Internet fandom does not a great movie make. As much as Deadpool could have become the next Snakes on a Plane, it ultimately turned out to be a blast of a movie. Everything from the many perverse uses of Mr. Pool’s regrowth superpower to the delightful surprise of Negasonic Teenage Warhead make this movie endlessly fun. And while Reynolds gets a lot of the credit for being both star and guiding creative force, the film benefits from a strong supporting cast and a director who knows how to keep things moving. For a superhero film made on the relative cheap (insomuch as $60m is cheap), there’s a wicked level of spectacle to go along with the humor.

6. Wonder Woman (2017)

Rob Hunter: The long overdue big screen solo appearance of DC’s most iconic female hero had a lot riding on its shoulders, and both star Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins delivered well above expectations.

But Rob, aren’t all women wonderful? Yes, they are. Hopefully this film’s massive success — it’s the highest-grossing superhero origin story ever! — will see both DC and Marvel step up their game when it comes to putting women front and center in these franchises. That said, I’m not even sure if DC has other female heroes, but in lieu of a She-Hulk feature I’d happily take some newly-created characters.

Why is it so damn good while DC’s other recent films have been… less so? It’s an interesting question and one worth asking when none of the other films in DC’s Extended Universe — Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, or Justice League — made the cut here. (And I refuse evidence to the contrary.) A big part of it may be because neither Jenkins nor the film’s writer, Allan Heinberg, were previously involved in the superhero complex. The brought fresh vision as filmmakers more used to human characters and heart than CG and spectacle. The film also managed the rare feat of pairing a cynicism towards humanity’s past and present with a visceral hope for its future, and that’s no small wonder.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Natalie Mokry: A charming film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, with some of the most charismatic and memorable leads in the genre. A true trendsetter for the MCU and, basically, today’s superhero films in general.

How was Guardians a superhero movie game changer? One of the best things about this film is that it could have gone the traditional route; mostly business with few games. But the genius of James Gunn created something different; something light-hearted, fun, and extremely hilarious. Not only do the Guardians reluctantly step up to the plate to be the heroes of their own story, but the film is very self-aware, framing some of their more heroic acts in an awkward or comedic light to comment on the ridiculousness that can come with being a “superhero”, and what that term means at the end of the day. Guardians proved that a superhero movie could make fun of the genre and still be a story about heroes. And that it could have a totally rocking soundtrack that pairs perfectly with the narrative.

What makes the Guardians story unique? There are very few superhero films that I can say have truly touched my soul, and Guardians of the Galaxy is definitely one. In choosing to make the movie fun, a completely heartfelt and relatable story with genuine characters was created. The movie was never about Thanos or Ronan or any old infinity stone. It was about whether or not the Guardians would be able to find a connection amongst each other. Rocket, Gamora, Peter, Drax, and Groot, are not individuals born to greatness. And separately, they were outsiders and loners, but together they’re a family and that’s something we can all get behind. It’s a film that stands for anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t belong. We’re not rooting for one of them to save the day, we’re rooting for all of them.

4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Rob Hunter: The sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger blows up its hero’s world in beautiful and thrilling ways, and while its brilliant blend of heroic antics and 70s paranoia thriller deserves praise it’s also a terrific film about loyalty and friendship.

Winter Soldier? I hardly knew her! I won’t pretend to know what that means, but I do know that the relationship between Steve Rogers and his best friend Bucky Barnes (ie the Winter Soldier) is the strongest bond in the Marvel Universe. (Sorry Pepper Potts.) Other films see character motivations come and go as needed, but we can’t help but buy into the friendship between these two lifelong pals to the point that scenes of Steve reluctantly facing off against Bucky are as heart-breaking as they are exciting.

What makes this the best superhero movie ever made? Oh, you think it’s the best too? Nice. The intimacy of the friendship above is a big factor here, as most superhero movies don’t allow this degree of believable, platonic love, but it’s also a film with endlessly exciting and impressive action sequences. Too often the antics are understandably bombastic and filled with CG standing in for physical awe, but here viewers are gifted with beautifully-choreographed action beats ranging from terrific brawls to a thrilling car chase. It’s down to earth and very physical, and it serves to remind us that while Captain America is super he’s still very much human.

3. Logan (2017)

Ciara Wardlow: Movie sendoffs are often disappointing, but not James Mangold’s Logan, the explosively violent and gut-wrenching farewell to Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. It’s not just the best X-Men movie to date, but arguably Marvel’s crowning cinematic achievement. In the past decade, Marvel has shown they can produce quality cinematic entertainment, but more than once has their potential for emotional depth been called into question. Logan demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that Marvel movies can pack a serious emotional punch, and look fantastic while doing it.

What makes Logan special? In 2008, Christopher Nolan and company proved that superhero movies could be serious business that made for shining examples of not just film as entertainment but film as emotionally impactful and nuanced art with The Dark Knight. But as the years started ticking by and the superhero movies piled up—some good or even great, some horrendously bad, plenty of others in between—Nolan’s work started to feel more and more like a fluke. Even the most highly entertaining, technically stunning new entries to the superhero genre lacked that element of emotional depth and the particular sort of almost intangible grit which gave The Dark Knight a compelling verisimilitude where other entries to the genre feel, for the lack of a better word, too shiny. Then came Logan. It’s visually stunning, thoughtful, and packs an emotional wallop. It still feels like an X-Men movie and also like the best kind of Western, but at it’s heart it’s a character study about a jaded guy called Logan who in spite of it all is still ultimately just trying to do the right thing. It’s not just an amazing superhero film but an amazing film, period, with the sort of heartstring-pulling ending that leaves grown men (e.g. my dad) in tears.

“So, this is what it feels like.” [Ugly cries] The original X-Men movies were my childhood and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine was my childhood and now he’s gone and my childhood’s gone and—just give me a minute, okay?

2. The Incredibles (2004)

Farah Cheded: Pixar’s animated feature about a dysfunctional nuclear family with a secret – they’re superheroes in hiding from a public who no longer want to be saved – is a triumph of a genre hybrid. Rarely have we seen a film combine relatable drama and wry comedy in one spandex superhero package as deftly as this one does.

I’m over the age of 10 – why should I watch The Incredibles? What with its Pixar credentials, heightened drama, and simplified moral bottom line, this is, ostensibly, a kids’ movie – but in the film’s nuanced portrait of a flawed family, director Brad Bird’s characters are instantly relatable for adult audiences. Mr. Incredible’s nostalgic inclinations, plus the everyday frustrations of parenthood, marriage and working life he shares with wife Helen (née Elastigirl), mean that there’s plenty of credibility in The Incredibles. It never borders on self-serious, either; The Incredibles’ gleeful skewering of superhero tropes, corporate culture, and classic spy flicks ensures grown-up audiences enjoy a big slice of the fun.

Who is The Incredibles’ standout character? Edna Mode, or “E”. Voiced by the film’s director, the comically diminutive figure this accented fashion designer cuts is on Anna Wintour-levels of chic. She’s also deliciously direct – “My God, you’ve gotten fat…” – and full of ingenious ideas about how to keep superhero costumes functional as well as fashion-forward. A sartorial visionary with a total aversion to capes, The Incredibles’ homage to Bond’s Q steals every scene she’s in.

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

Neil Miller: If there were ever a superhero movie that fit into Auteur Theory, it would be Christopher Nolan’s rumination on order and chaos — a Michael Mann-esque jaunt through the towering streets of Gotham, pitting two inimitable foes in a battle for the soul of the city.

What’s the real secret to The Dark Knight’s enduring legacy? If you look around the internet (dare you be so bold) around the release of any modern superhero movie’s release, you’ll find one pervasive argument. You can set your watch to it. “Does X have a villain problem?” The Dark Knight isn’t just a movie that doesn’t have a villain problem, it’s the reason everyone thinks everything that has come since has one. There is at least one working theory around here that Heath Ledger as The Joker, an Oscar-winning performance, broke our perception of what makes a great superhero movie villain. That theory remains correct.

The most electrifying single action sequence in the history of superhero cinema. What is a tie between the two big action sequences in this film, Alex? In both the opening bank robbery sequence (most effective character intro ever? Yes.) and the semi-truck chase sequence later in the movie, Christopher Nolan fills the IMAX frame with immense scale and brilliantly choreographed action. It’s the perfect storm of a director’s vision, a cinematographer’s keen eye, an editor’s expert restraint, and a cast paying it off with brilliant embodiments of their characters. It’s pure cinema acrobatics at the highest level with no safety net.

On the next page, our individual lists.

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