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There are way too many superhero movies. This is an undeniable fact, especially now that we’re edging closer to our third Spider-Man reboot in 15 years.
That means there are plenty of films to consider when it comes to choosing the best of the bunch. Here are the 21 best films in the genre, from cult hits to must-watch classics.
The Dark Knight is not number one on this list. You have been warned.
21. Sky High
Sky High arrived around the same time as High School Musical, a relatively basic riff on the teen movie genre. It didn’t make waves at the time, but wound up being a low-key cult favorite due to its lovable characters and surprisingly interesting worldbuilding. Taking place in a world full of superheroes, it follows a group of kids who attend a superhero school where students are separated into heroes and sidekicks, creating a cruel social divide that follows them throughout their careers.
20. Big Hero 6
Disney’s first 3D animated superhero movie is cute and fun, and its narrative themes of grief and recovery are more effective than the subtext of many “adult” films in the genre.
This list is cruelly subjective and bound to my personal whims as a fan and critic, but Deadpool is my one exception. I didn’t actually like this movie, but I’ll grudgingly admit that its fourth-wall-breaking humor is a breath of fresh air, and it’s certainly the most interesting superhero movie of 2016. Plus, you’ve got to love Ryan Reynolds’ obsessive dedication to the role.
18. X-Men: First Class
Reinterpreting Charles Xavier as a sleazy douchebag was a stroke of genius, this film gives us Michael Fassbender as a deliciously intense young Magneto. While Jennifer Lawrence was wasted on this early version of Mystique, the ensemble cast is still more than worthy of the X-Men name. This is an excellent movie if you enjoy watching James McAvoy cry, or are a fan of minimally researched historical dramas.
A lot of people tout “realism” as an important goal when making a superhero movie, which isn’t always a smart choice for, say, Superman. However, Chronicle‘s strength is its authenticity, as three teenage boys struggle to control and understand their newfound superpowers—with disastrous consequences.
Chronicle is a critically lauded sci-fi thriller in it’s own right, but it’s also interesting from the perspective of what the cast and creators did next. Dane Dehaan and Michael B. Jordan moved on to roles in high-profile comic book franchises, while director Josh Trank was quickly hired to make the Fantastic Four reboot—an unfortunate example of a young filmmaker biting off more than he could chew.
16. Iron Man 3
The third Iron Man movie was a box office success but made surprisingly little impact on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, possibly because Avengers: Age of Ultron stomped all over its conclusion of Tony Stark’s story arc. Directed and cowritten by Shane Black (who made the excellent Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, also starring Robert Downey Jr.), its interpretation of the Mandarin is one of the most subversive ideas in the MCU—although admittedly, there isn’t much competition for that title.
Iron Man 3 also focuses strongly on Tony’s PTSD, allowing Robert Downey Jr. to give a stronger performance than in the undeniably messy Iron Man 2.
Blade kickstarted the modern era of superhero movies in 1998 with an adult-rated action movie that arrived before X-Men or Spider-Man. Arguably it’s more action/horror than superhero, but if Doctor Strange can be counted alongside Ant-Man, then Blade is a damn superhero. Wesley Snipes’ badass performance (and rad ‘90s haircuts) turned the Blade trilogy into cult movies, and the world is surely ready for a reboot.
It’s strange to think that such a smart examination of the genre came before the superhero boom of the 2000s, but much of Unbreakable‘s genre-savviness comes directly from comics instead of movies. While Watchmen is seen as the ultimate superhero critique in the comic book medium, Unbreakable is the best mainstream movie to examine the idea of superheroes in a realistic way.
13. X-Men 2
Building on the qualities of the first X-Men movie, X2 digs deeper into the political message of the mutant/human divide. By bringing Magneto back as a not-quite-villain, it put the X-Men franchise in the unique position (in the superhero genre, anyway) of having a truly sympathetic antagonist. Colonel Stryker is the real villain here, with Magneto as the darker side of the mutant rights movement—an idea that provided the basis for the prequel trilogy.
The 1978 Superman is literally a rom-com, with Clark Kent as a lovable dork and Lois Lane as an impatient and confident career woman. Clocking in at 143 minutes, it’s also surprisingly slow-moving compared to modern superhero movies, opening with a lengthy preamble on the planet Krypton. Best watched on the big screen for its beautiful non-CGI effects and Kansas landscapes, it’s a nostalgically sincere interpretation of Superman. The soundtrack will bring a tear to your eye.
11. Captain America: The First Avenger
The first Cap pales in comparison to The Winter Soldier, but it’s still a fantastic pastiche of 1940s adventure stories, and well worth watching at least twice so you pick up on all the details. The musical number is a particular highlight, and you can follow up your rewatch by catching all of Agent Carter, the TV series about Peggy Carter after WWII.
10. Batman Returns
Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is deservedly iconic, right up there with Eartha Kitt. Batman Returns was a true Tim Burton movie from the days when that was still a great thing, the last vestiges of Batman as a gothic figure before the ‘90s glam of Val Kilmer, the campiness of George Clooney, and the grim violence of Christian Bale and Ben Affleck.
Anyone who thinks Thor is bad can fight me. It’s hilarious, heartfelt, and has multiple well-written female characters in a genre that usually draws the line at including one woman in a love interest role. Loki remains a high point in the MCU’s pantheon of often lackluster villains, introducing Tom Hiddleston to the world as a creepy yet charming alien god. This movie is also a strong reminder that Chris Hemsworth is much better at comedy than serious dramatic roles, as per his performance in Ghostbusters.
Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie came out in 2002, but it already feels like something from another era. Heavy on emotions and light on plot, it’s a truly classic superhero origin story from a time before audiences were sick of the formula.
Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker is a little mopier than most comic book depictions of the character, but the scenes were he swings from the rooftops are electric with youthful excitement. Plus, Willem Dafoe and J.K. Simmons were surprisingly well-cast as the Green Goblin and J. Jonah Jameson.
7. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
The first Hellboy is an underrated masterpiece, but I’m including Hellboy 2 because it’s even more underrated. It’s also a perfect illustration of why Guillermo del Toro should be making more comic book movies… and why he hasn’t been able to do so.
Hellboy 2 is imaginative, energetic, and aesthetically weird, with a cast of unquestionably bizarre characters. It isn’t your typical spandex-wearing superhero movie, but as a comic book adaptation about a team of super-powered beings, it definitely qualifies.
6. The Avengers
Marvel’s shared universe floundered a little with Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, but The Avengers delivered on every fan’s hopes for a crossover between the MCU’s first phase of superheroes. All of the Avengers fit together like puzzle pieces, both narratively and during the enviable final battle sequence, which is an impressive reimagining of the team fight scenes of the comics.
The Avengers also had the dubious honor of changing Hollywood’s attitude toward franchises, inspiring every other studio to try a crossover team movie. So far, none of them have managed to surpass the success of The Avengers.
5. The Dark Knight
From a technical perspective, Christopher Nolan is the most skilled and critically acclaimed filmmaker to work in the superhero genre. However, I’m deducting points because he spent about 10 billion years working on The Dark Knight‘s action sequences, but seemingly forgot that female characters need personalities and motivation. Like Amy Adams as Lois Lane in the DC Comics movie universe, Maggie Gyllenhaal did the best she could with a dud role.
Heath Ledger is obviously incredible, and The Dark Knight remains a highly respected example of an auteur director working on a franchise project, but it’s hard to get past the film’s sexism when so much thought went into everything else.
4. Iron Man
Aside from the final battle scene—often a weakness in Marvel Studios movies—Iron Man still holds up as a funny and very well-paced action movie. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow provide instantly engaging portrayals of two characters who, at the time, most viewers had never even heard of, marking RDJ’s comeback to the Hollywood A-list.
As well as being a very entertaining movie, Iron Man is interesting as a cultural artifact. At the time it was seen as a risky project, but it ended up creating the blueprint for every subsequent MCU movie. That formula is undeniably effective, although Marvel has paid less attention to Iron Man‘s other lesson: Sometimes you need to experiment with something new.
In retrospect, the casting of the first X-Men movie was some kind of miracle. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart added gravitas to a story about mutant teenagers and forged a lovable celebrity friendship in the process. Hugh Jackman, who at this point was still relatively unknown, turned out to be the living embodiment of Wolverine, and the rest of the cast (with the possible exception of the underutilized Halle Berry) were equally perfect for their roles.
Rogue’s teen angst is a wonderfully authentic interpretation of what makes the X-Men universe so compelling, making us wonder why later X-Men movies spent so much time focusing on conflicts between powerful adult men. X-Men was the last X-Men movie that really feels like it has an underdog in the lead role.
2. Batman (1989)
Am I ranking Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman above The Dark Knight, a film that IMDb users and internet polls routinely rate alongside The Godfather and Citizen Kane? Yes I am, because Batman is better than The Dark Knight.
Jack Nicholson’s Joker is obviously a highlight, but he’s just one element in a movie that was already brilliant overall. In 1989, Tim Burton was the ideal choice to reimagine Batman as a gothic hero, but without the moral darkness and violence of the more recent versions. Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is sensitive and surprisingly dorky, and while Kim Basinger has a fairly traditional damsel role, she acts the heck out of it. Operatic and beautifully designed, Batman is just silly enough that you don’t find yourself asking if it’s realistic, because it doesn’t need to be.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
As a mournful and politically astute follow-up to the nostalgic Captain America: The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier has everything—except decent cinematography during the fight scenes, thanks to the lack of action filmmaking experience from directors Joe and Anthony Russo.
Sebastian Stan shines as the intimidating yet tragic Winter Soldier, the emotional lynchpin of the trilogy. Black Widow, whose characterization is otherwise uneven across the franchise, received her best role to date, with Sam Wilson being introduced as Steve’s much-needed emotional support—probably the only happy person in the entire movie.
There’s so much going on in The Winter Soldier that fans are still analyzing it two years later, from the many visual callbacks to the first film, to the themes of memory loss and identity, to the political subtext of HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D. The only real downside is that it set the bar too high for Captain America: Civil War, which was entertaining but disappointingly incoherent, and didn’t deliver the emotional payoff fans expected for the Winter Soldier’s redemption arc.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor