Best Superhero Films of All-Time

Running down the ten strongest thus far…

Now that ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is out in theaters, it sort of feels like we’ve reached a milestone point in the realm of superhero flicks…perhaps even an apex if you will. Everything that will come next for the genre will be judged on a different playing field due to that film and this year’s ‘The Avengers’ as well (essentially you now have to go big or go home). Those two films were as anticipated as any other major comic book film out there, and some might say the hype has been as much as any other big flick in general. As most people would argue that 2012 has seen the release of two of the best superhero movies of all time, I thought it was only proper to give a little rundown of what I think are the 10 best of all time (at least so far). Obviously there are lots of contenders for a list like this one, some more universally embraced than others, and it’s fair to say that no two people would come up with the same combination of flicks, but this is mine, so just keep that in mind as you read on. Of course I’ll want you all to give your picks later in the comments, but for now let’s get started and focus on my picks and see where things go from there. Which filmmakers who took multiple dips into the superhero pool got a citation from me here? Did I give any love to Tim Burton’s contributions to the genre? What about Jon Favreau’s? Presumably Christopher Nolan’s, right? Perhaps Sam Raimi’s? Bryan Singer’s could be in play, couldn’t they? Maybe even Joel Schumaker’s? (I assure you I did not go that route). First off, here are some that just missed the cut for me when compiling this list of lifesavers…

Honorable Mentions: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Captain America: The First Avenger, Chronicle, Spider-Man 2, Superman Returns, and Unbreakable

10. The Amazing Spider-Man

Yes, I know that a lot of people have issues with Marc Webb’s reboot of the webslinger, and it might not have been the most needed flick ever made, but I loved what he and Andrew Garfield did with the character and fully embraced it. Spider-Man 2 was excellent, but the more character driven and emotional nature of The Amazing Spider-Man is my preferred method of dealing with Peter Parker’s tale. Rumors of studio interference have explained some of the issues the film has for a number of viewers, but it never affected my enjoyment of the movie. Garfield and Emma Stone have so much chemistry it hurts, which is a rarity in the genre. I don’t know if it’ll stand the test of time, but I’m a big fan of it right here in this moment and am eager to see Garfield, Stone, and (hopefully) Webb tackle another adventure real soon. You can see my full thoughts on the flick here.

9. Kick-Ass

Perhaps the most twisted and violent superhero tale to date, I really dug how this flick managed to both be a commentary on the superhero origin story while also functioning on its own as a strong superhero origin story. Matthew Vaughn made a gonzo movie that deserves credit for many things (among them getting an effective performance out of Nicolas Cage), but I believe that the way he brought Hit Girl into the world is what truly will be remembered about the film. Chloe Moretz was phenomenal there and in my mind deserved Oscar consideration for the role. This stylish flick is unlike anything else on this list, and it’s a rarity for the genre as well. I both welcome and dread the impending sequel…

8. Batman Begins

As I wrote in my Historical Circuit review of the film, this is a movie that has an important place in cinematic history. At the time, it was the darkest portrait of a hero that we’d ever seen, and the smartest superhero flick as well. Christopher Nolan brought the genre to new levels that have since been surpassed, but in that moment, it was hard not to get swept up in what he had accomplished. I’ll obviously have more to say about this franchise as we move down this list, but you really can’t cite the best superhero movies of all time without including Batman Begins. It’s not the strongest of the trilogy, but that has more to due with the outstanding nature of its sequels than anything else.

7. X2: X-Men United

I was never huge on the X-Men franchise, but the strongest installment in that series was the second one. It’s ambitious and still stands the test of time as one of the better sequels of all time, regardless of genre. I enjoyed the recent X-Men: First Class as well, but it never reached the level of this one. Especially the second half of the movie, it’s hard not to be a fan of it. Things might have gone way off the rails with the next X-Men flick (damn you Brett Ratner), but almost everything went right here. Bryan Singer knew what he was doing and the result was a high point for superhero flicks at the time. It wasn’t perfect, but it was really good.

6. The Incredibles

Among Pixar’s many crowning achievements was their ability to make an incredibly satisfying superhero movie that’s for both adults and kids alike. It’s fun, full of adventure, witty, and surprisingly mature. Most superheroes have a message for the citizens they protect, but this was also a message movie, expounding on a number of things that I appreciate children being exposed to. Yes, it’s a bit more violent than most cartoons, but it’s just a richer experience than most as well. Brad Bird knocked this one out of the park This is upper echelon Pixar and upper echelon for the superhero genre as well. I don’t know about all of you, but I’m 100% looking forward to a sequel!

5. Iron Man

Let’s be clear…Robert Downey Jr. made this movie by doing nomination worthy work as Tony Stark, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks so. Jon Favreau deserves a lot of credit for beginning the new era of Marvel movies with a bang, but RDJ is the MVP of the picture. He perfectly captures Stark and raised this second tier superhero to rock star status. This movie had a bit of its thunder stolen later that summer by The Dark Knight, but in some ways it’s almost as good a flick as that one. It’s certainly lighter and more fun than that particular film (a comparison that can also be said for The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises), if not as highly regarded. I love it though and re-watch it often, even if it spawned a sequel that wasn’t nearly as good.

4. Superman: The Movie

We all believed that a man could fly when we first saw Christopher Reeve take to the sky in Richard Donner’s classic. Bryan Singer loved it so much he pretty much completely homaged Donner with Superman Returns (which also functioned as a sequel to Superman II, pretty much negating the existence of Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace…quite rightly, I might add) to an almost humorous extent. I really enjoyed Singer’s film, and have it in the Honorable Mention section of this article, but the original is easily the best incarnation of the Man of Steel (at least until we see the reboot, aptly titled Man of Steel). It may be earnest and silly, but it was a transcendent experience for me as a child and was always going to be high on this list. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…a classic movie!

3. The Avengers

Every Marvel film was leading up to this, and somehow it succeed in a way that few people ever would have expected. One had a bit of a right to be worried after Marvel was only really able to capture greatness with the first Iron Man flick, but I always had confidence in the project and the fact that even the lesser Marvel movies were still very entertaining only helped matters. As I said in my review of the film here, it’s a comic book come to life. It’s also full of humanity and epic set pieces that frankly threaten to blow your mind. Seeing these superheroes come together to save the planet was a positively giddy experience. The movie was pure cinematic pleasure. I’ve yet to watch it another time, but that will undoubtedly change before the year is out…it’s just that good (it’s also a fringe Best Picture contender, though Batman might again overshadow a Marvel success story). It’s certainly raised the bar a bit for all superhero movies going forward, not just Marvel’s own slate. It’s a game changer and we have Joss Whedon to thank for that.

2. The Dark Knight

Many argue that Christopher Nolan made not only one of the best superhero flicks of all time with his Batman sequel, but that he just plain made one of the best flicks of all time here…and quite frankly I’m not one to really argue. Nolan took a great reboot in Batman Begins and followed up with a complex crime movie classic. This was a superhero film with more on its mind than just watching the caped crusader tangled with the crown prince of crime. Heath Ledger of course gave a performance for the ages as the Joker, but now that some time has passed it’s easier to look at all the other elements of the film that was top-notch as well. Ledger deserved his Oscar, and though the film itself deserved a Best Picture nod, that snub doesn’t reduce the quality of the movie one bit (honestly, the affect it had on the Academy’s rules and voting might be a bigger victory overall). This is an incredible movie.

1. The Dark Knight Rises

Maybe in a few years I’ll change my mind (hey, maybe even later this year), but for now this film is not only superior to the last film in its franchise, but it represents the best that the superhero genre has to offer. The flaws that others are chuffing over in Christopher Nolan’s latest work don’t bother me one bit, and I stand by my statement in my recent review here that it’s a near perfect film. It’s grand filmmaking on a scale you rarely see, both in terms of action, ideas, and execution (including Hans Zimmer’s incredible score, which I neglected to wax poetic on in my review for some reason), so taken as a whole, this is the ideal capper to one of the greatest franchises of all time. Aside from perhaps Toy Story 3, I don’t know of any other 3rd films that I hold in such high regard. Whether it can break the genre’s woes with Best Picture remains to be seen, but I fully embrace this movie as a modern classic, a game changing movie (much like The Avengers was earlier this year) and the pinnacle of superhero films. I’m sure not all of you agree (the general consensus is that it’s about a half step down from the last movie or so, and I can respect that opinion for sure), but I’m resolute in my thoughts…at least until I watch it a few more times.

There you have it ladies and gents…the films I feel are the best that the genre has to offer so far. I stand by my choices, but I obviously know that they’re mine and mine alone, not the final word on the subject in the least. In fact, the rest of the staff sent me their picks as well, and they’re rather varied and feature the likes of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, The Incredibles, Spider-Man 2, and Superman: The Movie. Now I of course need to hear you all chime in and tell me where I went right and where I went wrong…it’s an Awards Circuit tradition with these sorts of pieces. Feel free to leave your own list, or just say what the best superhero flick is. Hell, tell me what the worst one of all time is too if you’d like. The choice is yours, so have at it!

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!

What do you think?

Film Lover

Written by Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.


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