We live in a golden age of superhero movies, with an endless backlog of costumed heroes ready to charge to the top of the box office. The Marvel Cinematic Universe gets most of the credit these days for ushering in this era. However, the seeds for that actually go all the way back to August 21, 1998. On that day, Blade, — starring Wesley Snipes as the day-walking vampire hunter — proved that the world was ready for a new era of superheroics just a year after Batman & Robin definitively closed the book on a sillier take.
Blade set the tone for films like X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman Begins, which helped solidify audiences’ love affair with superheroes years before Robert Downey Jr. became Iron Man. Of course, not every superhero film is created equal. For every Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s a Green Lantern, and for every Wonder Woman, there’s a Catwoman. Yet, with Black Panther perhaps kicking off another stage of superhero cinema’s evolution, let’s take a look back at the best the genre has had to offer over the last 20 years.
Of course, any list about superheroes is bound to disappoint some passionate fans. So, after you’ve scrolled through our choices, feel free to share your picks in the comments.
20. Man of Steel (2013)
Yet, despite its divisive reputation (we will concede that the third-act mayhem is a bit much), Man of Steel retains many of the classic elements of Superman while simultaneously modernizing and reimagining the more dated elements of his backstory. Throw in a solid cast, impressive visuals, and a soaring (literally) Hans Zimmer score, and you have easily the best Superman film since Richard Donner’s original.
19. Kick-Ass (2010)
Deadpool was lauded for its irreverent take on the superhero genre, but Kick-Ass arguably has the more difficult task in trying to bring it down to earth. Sure, viewers need to suspend their disbelief more as the story goes on. Yet, the premise of an everyday teen who dreams of being a real-life superhero marks a welcome departure from expectations. Plus, Chloe Grace Moretz owns the screen as the foul-mouthed badass known as Hit Girl.
18. Blade (1998)
We referenced it above, but the impact of this one cannot be understated. A hard-R superhero film — let alone one with a person of color in the lead — had never become a mainstream success like Blade, and the film was the first release based on a Marvel Comics character to not be an embarrassment to the source material (Howard the Duck, 1990’s Captain America, etc.). Plus, the film itself is a blast from beginning to end.
17. Spider-Man (2002)
Kids today have no clue how much the idea of a big-budget film featuring Spider-Man blew people’s minds back in 2002. The wallcrawler was, up to that point, essentially the most iconic Marvel character to never lead his own film. Thankfully, director Sam Raimi found the perfect balance between action, humor, and heart, creating a box office phenomenon that cemented Marvel Comics as a Hollywood force to be reckoned with.
16. V for Vendetta (2006)
Hugo Weaving may be better known for The Matrix trilogy and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, the eccentric revolutionary known simply as V may remain his most memorable role. While it does smack of George Orwell’s 1984 and takes great liberties with its source material, the film does feature undeniably slick visuals, thought-provoking social commentary, and exciting action sequences, courtesy of writer-producers The Wachowskis.
15. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Charged with finally uniting Fox’s disparate X-Men franchise, X-Men: Days of Future Past serves as the culminating chapter of the previous six mutant-fueled adventures. With a deep well of cinematic history to draw from, the film places each of its lead characters in morally intriguing positions, creating and enriching the dynamics between them and correcting many past missteps. Here’s hoping X-Men: Dark Phoenix justifies that approach.
14. Deadpool (2016)
It may not be the first tongue-in-cheek superhero film or the first R-rated one, but neither of those approaches to superheroes had ever yielded a hit the size of Deadpool before. Surpassing everyone’s expectations, the Ryan Reynolds-led action comedy emerged from years of development hell to become the highest-grossing film in the entire X-Men series. Time will tell how its impact will shake up the industry, aside from giving us Deadpool 2.
13. Wonder Woman (2017)
After more than 70 years, Diana Prince finally got the compelling big-screen origin story she deserves. Director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot crafted a loving portrait of Wonder Woman as a compassionate warrior and, along the way, inspired women and men alike by telling a thematically rich tale that serves as both timeless parable and poignant social commentary. Wonder Woman also gave DC Films the unquestioned victory it needed.
12. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
In many ways, Captain America: Civil War is really more of an Avengers film than a solo one. Nonetheless, its efforts at tying together its disparate heroes through a story about accountability, consequences and moral ambiguity are admirable. Perhaps it doesn’t push its risk-taking far enough, but Civil War still stands as a shining achievement for the MCU, rounding off Cap’s story and setting the stage for the upcoming Infinity War.
11. Watchmen (2009)
In an adaptation many thought impossible, Zack Snyder remains true to the classic graphic novel, capturing its philosophical themes and unique color palette. Buoyed by standout performances by Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Watchmen could have been a disaster but winds up an unlikely (but flawed) masterpiece. In the end, the film is an underrated bit of comic book cinema that will certainly stand the test of time.
10. Batman Begins (2005)
Stripping the character of his Bat-nipples and neon color scheme, Christopher Nolan took Batman literally all the way back to the beginning. The untold (at least on the big screen) origin of why a traumatized child chooses to strike terror into the hearts of big-city criminals finally comes to light. For the first time, audiences were taken deep into the psychology and inner workings of “The World’s Greatest Detective.”
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
No one expected this sequel to take the Star-Spangled Man into a political thriller. But that’s exactly what directors Joe and Anthony Russo do. Thrust into the modern world; Cap soon realizes that things are now much more complicated. In that way, Captain America: The Winter Soldier neatly builds on its predecessor, even as it folds in richer themes, more kinetic action and a complex story of its own. Chris Evans also becomes an MCU standout.
8. Unbreakable (2000)
Released just a year after The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up underperformed at the time. In the years since, it has maintained a cult following that saw demand for a sequel to this stealth superhero origin story reach a fever pitch. Finally, fans got their wish with last year’s Split, which was revealed to be set in the same universe in a last-minute twist. We can’t wait to see Bruce Willis’ David Dunn back in action next year.
7. X2: X-Men United (2003)
Whereas 2000’s X-Men was merely an introduction to the world of mutant powers, this follow-up sharpened the franchise like a certain Canadian mutant’s adamantium claws and remains a shining example of a comic book movie sequel done right. Fox’x X-Men series has faced a rocky road ever since, filled with as many bright spots (X-Men: First Class) as misfires (X-Men: The Last Stand). But X2 is still one of the franchise’s finest moments.
6. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Even after Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man: Homecoming, Sam Raimi’s sophomore effort still stands as the best adaptation of the character to date. The pitch-perfect casting of Alfred Molina as the sinister eight-limbed Doctor Otto Octavius and Peter Parker’s complicated balance between his personal desires and his duty place the film leagues beyond its solid predecessor and abysmal follow-up. Like X2 the year before, super-sequels just dig deeper.
5. The Avengers (2012)
After four years of build-up, this ultimate team-up of Marvel heroes changed the way movies are made. By introducing four characters in separate franchises and then converging them into one super-franchise, The Avengers created Hollywood’s current obsession with creating cinematic universes. Bonus points for proving Joss Whedon’s adeptness at handling a super-powered ensemble, Justice League notwithstanding.
4. Black Panther (2018)
Following up on T’Challa’s introduction in Captain America: Civil War, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler takes moviegoers into the tech-heavy nation of Wakanda at last. More than just a cultural milestone, Black Panther offers a politically rich story — brimming with memorable new characters and breath-taking dramatic beats — about social responsibility to one’s people and indeed the world. A new MCU benchmark has been set.
3. Logan (2017)
After 17 years, Hugh Jackman finally hung up the adamantium claws with this Western-inspired epilogue to the story of Wolverine. By stripping away the glossy flourishes of its predecessors (including director James Mangold’s own The Wolverine), Logan creates an aesthetic that feels entirely new for the superhero genre. We hate to see Jackman step away from this iconic role, but if he must, we can’t imagine a better swan song.
2. The Incredibles (2004)
It’s hard to believe that we are finally getting a sequel to this, arguably one of the best films Pixar has ever made. Focusing on a couple of retired heroes and their kids, The Incredibles uses the superhero genre to evaluate the difficulties of keeping a family together. Its whiz-bang action and jazzy score harken back to classic comics, and the sharp story by writer/director Brad Bird captures superheroes better than almost any other film.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Taking into consideration both cultural impact and pure, unadulterated acclaim, no other film could possibly top this list. Nolan’s Batman Begins sequel set a new standard for superhero movies and played an instrumental role in the genre’s acceptance as a true art form. Of course, Heath Ledger’s ingenious Oscar-winning performance steals the show as well, helping to cement The Dark Knight‘s status as a true milestone of cinema history.
Outraged that your favorite modern superhero film didn’t make the cut? Make yourself heard and let us know which film(s) we missed.