Superhero movies have come a long way since Christopher Reeve appeared in the blue-red suit in 1978’s ‘Superman’. While the audiences have had a continuous stream of comics-turned-hero films since then, the advent of the X-Men franchise in the year 2000 really brought the genre of superhero action more fame. Since the 2000s, we saw greater interest in it, which led to bigger budgets, better producers and directors, better castings and better computer graphics and technology flowing into this genre, thus making the whole experience more out-of-this-world.
Rising to the occasion, industry stalwarts Marvel and DC Comics changed the course of superhero films, providing us with works that proved to be much better (in all respects) than their predecessors. Superhero movies, in a way, strike a personal chord with the viewers, sometimes better than a generic action or a romantic comedy film. And in that spirit of acknowledgment, here is the list of top superhero movies ever made in the history of cinema.
25. Blade (1998)
Few are aware of Marvel’s other R-Rated superhero property (apart from ‘Deadpool’) that also received a film adaptation in 1998, starring Wesley Snipes as the titular vampire killer. This is a film that showcases the most ingenious killings for a superhero movie: vampires are shot, stabbed, cut in half, shoved, punched and burned. Safe to say, the R-rating is completely warranted, complete with a lot of profane language too. The film is dark and disgustingly violent (in parts) but almost always stylish and severely cool, much of which can also be credited to the charisma of its lead star, Wesley Snipes. It’s a very definitive comic book movie for its time, a time unlike today when not many superhero movies were made. Fan or not, this is one movie that you should have seen if you like either action/comic book or monster flicks.
24. Doctor Strange (2016)
Behold, the sorcerer supreme arrives in the world full of superheroes! MCU’s ‘Doctor Strange’ is the story of an egoist but acclaimed doctor who loses his ability to use hands in an accident. Looking for a cure, he roams around the world before he reaches the mystic Kamar-Taj. There he learns the art of various realms and discovers the hidden world of magic. Unlike the comics, this served as the origin story and future movies such as ‘Thor – Ragnarok’ and ‘Infinity Wars’ shall explore more about his powers. The wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch played the titular role and was much appreciated for his portrayal of the sorcerer supreme. The movie stands out for its spectacular and mind tripping visual effects.
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23. Dredd (2012)
This one is not the forgettable outing by Sylvester Stallone. Based on the 2000 AD comics character Judge Dredd, the story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the only way by which law and order can be implemented are by the Judges. Karl Urban plays the titular character who gets on the wrong side of antagonist Ma-Ma, a prostitute turned drug overlord, played by Lena Heady. Two things that stand out for this movie are the spectacular effects of the drug Slo-Mo, which brings down the perception level of the abuser to the minimum and the other one is that you never get to see Karl Urban’s face in the movie, which is always covered by his helmet. This emphasizes the fact that the judgment is impartial and is faceless.
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22. The Crow (1994)
Starring Brandon Lee, in his final tragic appearance, ‘The Crow’ is a spectacular work of visual imagery. A dark revenge drama, where the dead lover comes back from the grave to avenge his and his girlfriend’s death, in a gothic version of his persona, accompanied by a crow, which becomes his call sign. Brandon Lee suffered an accidental gun shot during the film making, which led to his death, sharing an eerie similarity with ‘The Dark Knight’ actor Heath Ledger. The movie was universally praised by critics for its style, story and a tremendous background score. It spawned multiple sequels, which unfortunately could never reach the crescendo of the first one. Still, it remains one of the best superhero movies ever made.
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21. Unbreakable (2000)
Arguably one of M. Night Shyamalan’s one of the finest works till date, ‘Unbreakable’ is the story of a man looking for answers for his unimaginable powers. When a horrific train accident kills everyone on board, except one man who escapes without a scratch on his body, he starts looking for answers. To aid him, another mysterious person joins him in his quest who helps him to understand his powers as well as its importance to his existence. The movie questions the age old fact that whether good and evil need each other to exist. Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson lead in this good vs bad battle.
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20. Darkman (1991)
It’s said that Sam Raimi wrote his own version of a superhero, after being refused the rights of Batman. ‘Darkman’ is the story of a scientist who gets badly disfigured in an acid attack. To avenge himself, he uses one of his inventions of creating synthetic mask resembling any face on earth for 100 minutes. Sam Raimi’s writing was heavily influenced by Batman. There’s a scene where one of the informants pleads for his life as he has told him everything, after which Darkman calmly says: “I know you did…But let’s just pretend, you didn’t…” This actually feels like a tribute to the Dark Knight himself. Liam Neeson was pretty new on the circuit when he did ‘Darkman’ and he did a swell job. Watch it if you haven’t.
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19. Watchmen (2009)
All superheroes have one thing in common: national security is the supreme cause. They watch you for your own safety. But who watches the watchmen? Based on an earth where post-cold war tensions pit two nuclear superpowers at loggerheads, it’s a fantastic take on superheroes. Created by Alan Moore, who famously fell out with Warner Bros. on the creative content, ‘Watchmen’ is the ultimate superhero movie. When all superheroes retire or get unmasked due to a Govt. initiative, somebody starts killing them one by one. This brings them together and while looking for the killer, they stumble upon a fact that will probably end up in the annihilation of the very world they live to protect. A stunning work of visual imagery and a story that forces you to think otherwise, ‘Watchmen’ is the story of ‘the times they are-a-changin’ !!
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18. Batman (1989)
DC Comics had been spreading its kingdom since the 70s and reached its zenith with ‘The Dark Knight’. ‘Batman’ was DC’s initial installment of the Batman series, which had already garnered a cult following among the avid comic readers. In ‘Batman’, we saw design over story, fashion over substance – in all, a great film with shattering sound effects and modern filming style. Michael Keaton (as Batman) and Jack Nicholson (as The Joker) gave some of their best performances and through the astute direction of Tim Burton, the film increased our expectations from DC.
17. Superman (1978)
Though we do not see the red-blue superhero called the Superman until nearly an hour into the film, director Richard Donner makes use of the first hour, building a weighed story about how a responsible father sacrifices himself for his son and sends him to a better place. But when Superman does appear on-screen, little did audiences know then that what they are seeing is the first movie of a genre that would go on to become a money making machine. With Christopher Reeve as the shy reporter (who can fly!), Clark Kent, Gene Hackman as Superman’s nemesis, Lex Luthor, and the story and screenplay by Mario Puzo, this piece made us stare at the screens in awe.
16. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ has some have-to-be-seen-to-be-believed action sequences that like Spider-Man 2 (2004) are truly epic. But the actors excel in their roles giving the film a beating heart and a soul. Holland might be the best Peter Parker yet, or the best Spider Man yet. Okay, maybe I’m not sure about that; I just know he was great fun to watch and entirely believable. Downey Jr. has always been marvelous as Tony Stark, the smug, arrogant billionaire who is also Iron Man, and here he is no different than before – a mentor of Peter. Keaton continues his career renaissance with yet another great performance that is a wonderful display of economic acting. This guy knows how dangerous he is, and anyone he speaks with sees it in his eyes, so a threat from him is indeed something to take very seriously.
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15. Iron Man (2008)
The movie that laid the foundation stone for the massive MCU Empire. ‘Iron man’ brought a fairly unknown superhero to the screen with the perfect casting of Robert Downey Jr. The actor who had been rebuilding his career after a hiatus leading to his substance-abuse problems found a platform to catapult his way to the pinnacle of success. Downey Jr. brought to his character a much-needed humor and cockiness that made Tony Stark an iconic superhero. Director Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., and Jeff Bridges reworked the original script and more-or-less ad-libbed the dialogues to make a landmark movie. It also set the tone for its successors to follow.
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14. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
When this movie released, I wasn’t as impressed with it as so many critics were, going to the lengths of even calling it the best Marvel movie. Upon re-watching the movie more than half a dozen times since, I have come around on my first impression. It was risky for the studio to make a film without a single scene with an established character. But the movie brought minor characters and formed a team of misfits. While most MCU movies have spurs of comedy, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is a riot of laughter. It manages to establish new characters to actually span a universe. The overuse of dated references mostly unknown to the target audience is forgivable for the interesting characters featured.
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13. The Avengers (2012)
Was there any doubt about this one? If you’re not convinced, just imagine a world where no movie series had ever tried to amalgamate so many of its characters from stand alone movies into a single team of Earth’s mightiest superheroes. Now, it may seem quite normal to have multiple superheroes cross paths and even team up for a movie of two but before ‘The Avengers’ was made, it was unimaginable.
What is a more nuanced issue is the fact that such powerful heroes had to get a more or less equal part in taking down baddies? It would also be absurd to have a team of powerful heroes fight a singular villain so they were made to battle an entire army of aliens. While this device has been overused since then, this movie was the first to do it on such a scale. The sheer joy of seeing your favorite superheroes fight together was immense but it was also a visual treat to experience. It is something that the DCEU has tried to replicate but failed. Till somebody can come up with a way to one-up ‘The Avengers’, it is the best Marvel movie of all time.
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12. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
While Sam Raimi’s first ‘Spiderman’ was a success in all regards, this is the best Spiderman movie by a mile. ‘Spiderman 2’ brought a villain born by accident and barely in control of his own actions. Doctor Octopus blames the friendly neighborhood superhero for his accident and purely seeks revenge. He strikes a deal with Harry Osborne who also blames Spiderman for his father’s death (Green Goblin). But in the end, Doc Ock sees the greater good and sacrifices himself, thus giving us the best redemption of a villain in the movies.
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11. Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014)
The second installment in the Captain America solo movies, deviated from the superhero genre full of big explosions and powers beyond the realm of science, to venture into the field of spy thrillers. The movie is directed by the Russo brothers, previously known mainly for the comedy TV series, ‘Community’. They brought Bucky Barnes back from the dead as the eponymous Winter Soldier. The inner struggles that Captain America goes through, fighting his childhood friend, outline much of the story and set up important events of the Civil War. The movie was also instrumental in fleshing out the character of Black Widow since whatever time she previously had onscreen; she had shared with a lot of heavyweights.
10. Big Hero 6 (2014)
This is the only animated Marvel movie that received a big release, mostly because of it being produced by Disney. It illustrated the power Disney had to bring together two of their properties and make a great movie out of it. The movie had a tear-jerking moment quite early on with the death of Hiro’s brother in a fire. There is a magic that Disney casts which makes animated characters more relatable than those played by real actors. It also has these typical jokes that are mixed into the emotional exploration of the story. Baymax also dons a suit of armor that is slightly reminiscent of Iron man’s, especially given his superpowers.
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9. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Even if today, X-Men movies seem like the stepchild of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it actually brought the Marvel characters to the world’s attention with a star-studded cast and good stories and believable CGI in 2000. The first X-Men brought success to the Marvel name after the awful movies in the 80’s and 90’s. But with the disappointing ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ and ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’, it seemed like this franchise was going to die a dishonorable death.
When ‘X-Men: First Class’ blew some fresh air in its lungs, ‘Days of Future Past’ expanded its scope and ventured to literally erase the mistakes of their past. Bringing in Peter Dinklage as a villain was clever in light of the unmatched popularity of Game of Thrones. The super-slow-motion scene of Quicksilver running around and doing his thing will go down in history as a landmark in SFX. While the entire movie was very well made, that scene alone was worth the ticket price.
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8. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The year 2016 had promised us two huge movies with superheroes fighting superheroes. But when ‘Dawn of Justice’ had disappointed a lot of fans, there was a ton of pressure on ‘Civil War’ to be good. And it was mind-blowing! I had read the Civil War comic storyline, so I frankly was disappointed by the scale of the war. But I believe that it would be impossible to get a scale much bigger than what we got. The movie divided audiences into Team Iron Man and Team Cap but almost everyone changed teams at least once. This was a commendable achievement in the direction as it let the audience choose whom they sided with, without antagonizing one or the other half of the protagonists. More importantly, we got an all out fight between the two sides with an underlying difference of opinion throughout the movie. We also got two new characters in Black Panther and the new Spidey.
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7. Wonder Woman (2017)
The only solid piece in an otherwise fragile DC armor, ‘Wonder Woman’ seemed to make a statement that DC is still alive and running after the two big disappointments in ‘Batman vs Superman’ and ‘Suicide Squad’. Set in the World War 1 era, it follows Princess Diana, a fierce Amazonian warrior and her quest to put an end to the war. The plot is fairly straightforward but what wins points is the treatment meted out to the substance and the heart thumping music. Not to mention Gal Gadot’s unexpectedly brilliant performance, making it a treat to watch.
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6. Black Panther (2018)
The action sequences in this film are utterly breathtaking; some of the best committed to film in the last thirty years, with dynamic chases, stunts, and feats of courage and strength performed by Black Panther. Ryan Coogler, an unknown five years ago, will move to the top of the A director list with this film, boldly directed with a confidence that was thrilling to see. He remade Rocky with Creed (2015), refashioning the myth of Rocky Balboa in the film, and he brings that myth-making genius to this picture.
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5. Batman Begins (2005)
Superhero movies were doing quite okay. But it was the entry of one of the most critically acclaimed directors, Christopher Nolan, into the genre, that turned the genre into a phenomenon. And who can be more phenomenal than a superhero, who has, arguably, the largest number of fan-following in the world despite being devoid of any real superpowers, a.k.a. The Batman? With a highly regarded cast of Christian Bale (as Batman), Michael Caine (as Alfred Pennyworth) and Liam Neeson (as Ra’s al Ghul) and superb direction by Nolan, ‘Batman Begins’ walked us through the tortured path via which multi-billionaire Bruce Wayne became a vigilante from a parentless childhood and rose the character to be held with utmost respect.
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4. Logan (2017)
I know it may seem a bit too early to include it in this list but it absolutely deserves the spot, in my opinion. The fact that it is the last portrayal of Wolverine by Hugh Jackman may be making me quite sentimental about this movie but doesn’t it affect everyone the same way? This movie, with its R rating, allows Wolverine to be as violent as he inherently is. With blood and severed body parts flying around, this movie unleashes Wolverine’s savagery we got only a glimpse of previously in the first few minutes of ‘X-Men Origins’. In the same way that the movie is named Logan and not his superhero name, it explores the human struggle the famed mutant has to go through. All his flaws are laid bare for us to see and so are his virtues. It is almost unbelievable to see a man that barely aged in decades to sport a white beard and be frail (or the wolverine equivalent of frail). Even with Hugh Jackman retiring from his role, Wolverine will live on in the hearts of the millions of fans he garnered.
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3. Deadpool (2016)
It is very rare to see a movie with such high stakes that experiments with the formula that defines the genre and occasionally throws out the rulebook altogether. A string that joins three of the movies in this list is the fact that some actors embody their characters. RDJ and Hugh Jackman became the permanent images of their characters but the case with ‘Deadpool’ is maybe the other way round. Ryan Reynolds was born to be Wade Wilson. A character created to parody a serious Slade Wilson from the DC comics, ‘Deadpool’ became much more than just a spoof of the superhero genre and became a pop culture icon.
‘Deadpool’ had been in the works for a while and even when it was green-lit, it was given a much smaller budget than most superhero movies. Then again, ‘Deadpool’ is not a conventional superhero. He is a crazy antihero with a power that nobody else can match; he can talk to the viewers directly. His hilarious narration and uproarious antics transcend the genre and create an experience that nobody else had been able to create before. Even its promotion campaign was evident of the creators’ vision for the character
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2. The Incredibles (2004)
We’ve had enough superheroes who have been introduced to us by this time; some lost, some remained. We’ve had heroes who can fly, who can run and even one who can fight crimes despite being blind. At such a moment, Pixar gave us something to be drooled upon as it had given with ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Finding Nemo’ — ‘The Incredibles’. Filled with adorable outlooks of the characters, which include Mr. Incredible (who has immense strength), Elastigirl (who can stretch her body up to any limits), Dash and Frozone, we saw director Brad Bird give us something very original. ‘The Incredibles’ might be an animated film, but it surely is smarter than most other films on this list.
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1. The Dark Knight (2008)
No surprises here. I don’t think any superhero movie can ever surpass ‘The Dark Knight’. The Dark Knight’s success in shaking the conscience of the film-going audience and leaving a mark on their minds is not a mere coincidence. It has a lot to do with Christopher Nolan’s genius — that lies in the way he conceived a deep, intelligent and morally complex story out of a comic-book. By re-imagining the approach to make a film based on a comic-book, he proved that superhero films can be thought-provoking and be entertaining at the same time.
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