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The 10 best superhero movies ever made

In this list we count down a selection of what we consider to be the ten best superhero movies released to date. The superhero genre over the past 15 years has exploded, with superhero movies regularly dominating yearly highest-grossing film lists.

Our appetite for stories of superheroes has never been greater. Caped crusaders, web-slingers, egotistical billionaires, superhero ensembles and Bruce Willis all feature in our best superhero movies list.

The genre has grown into an increasingly rich and well-stocked movie genre in itself, so picking ten films was not easy. The list below is based on opinion, not on box office numbers or overall critic response.

10 Watchmen (2009)

best superhero movies watchmen
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian in Watchmen. Image courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.  Watchmen is the first entry in our top ten list of best superhero movies.

Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen is a film that certainly splits opinion.  Some have labelled it as “too faithful”,  claiming the intense adaptation labors over the source material too heavily  – and  that it just doesn’t work as a balanced movie-going experience like it does as a graphic novel.

However there are those in the other camp,  like the writer of this article, that applaud the faithfulness of Zack Snyder’s adaptation. Visually,  Watchmen is a wonder to behold.  Frames straight from the pages of the graphic novel are painstakingly recreated for the cinema.

Looking at it from a purely visual angle,  Watchmen is certainly the most breathtaking comic book adaptation around.  But it’s a lot more than that too.

Snyder does a very good job at bringing Alan Moore’s rich and multi-layered story to the screen.  It’s a film like nothing else in its genre,  delving into themes and topics rarely explored in superhero/comic book movies.

Superheroes are not blameless in Watchmen; they have human traits, good and bad. Once held in high esteem, they are now regarded as no-good vigilantes – a threat to society rather than a help.  Some have abused their powers, committing awful, brutal crimes. Sex, violence and mucky language are evident throughout the film – it’s certainly not one for kids.

The concoction of Alan Moore’s brilliant source material, Zack Snyder’s direction, striking visuals and an awesome soundtrack arrangement all contribute in making the Watchmen movie something special.  That’s why it ranks amongst our ten best superhero movies.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating – 65%

Rating: 8/10

9 The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Bane and Batman clash in Warner Brothers Pictures The Dark Knight Rises
Bane and Batman clash in Warner Brothers Pictures’ The Dark Knight Rises. The concluding chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is ninth on our best superhero movies lists

This is one of two films from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to make our list. It is the concluding chapter of the trilogy, and a truly epic and fitting finale to the greatest series of superhero films out there.

We get to see Bruce Wayne’s Batman pushed to the very edge of retirement and death, a character who has acted as a powerful symbol of justice, pushed into total and utter helplessness. Witnessing Batman at his most vulnerable makes his rise to conquer his demons all the more satisfying.

A whole host of stellar acting performances are seen throughout the cast, along with remarkably realistic action set pieces (which include an amazing inflight plane hijacking at the start of the film) and a gripping against-all-the-odds storyline. These factors all help make Dark Knight Rises an outstanding cinematic experience.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating – 88%

Rating: 8/10

8 Iron Man (2008)

best superhero movies iron man
Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man in the 2008 film. Image courtesy of Marvel Studios. Iron Man is eighth in our best superhero movies list

Iron Man was the film that really got the ball rolling for Marvel Studios.  It was their first major motion picture production and the start in a long line of back-to-back hits from the studio.

By all means, before the release of Iron Man this ironclad Marvel superhero was not really such a big household name. He was part of a second tier of  heroes, loved by diehard fans, but not really on the radar of the masses. However, this quickly changed with the release of the Iron Man film in 2008.

Tony Stark/Iron Man quickly went from rank outsider to household name and a firm superhero favorite. This is in a big part due to the brilliant Robert Downey Jr.,  who in Tony Stark found his perfect character match.

Downey Jr. does an outstanding job of making Stark (who becomes Iron Man) a hugely likeable character. He seamlessly brings wit,  comedy, ruthlessness and charm to a character who is also an arrogant, genius billionaire. But lest we forget, surrounding Downey Jr. is a pretty good movie too.

A host of fun action set pieces, good supporting performances,  enthusiastic direction from Jon Favreau and a classic good vs. evil storyline make Iron Man one bad-ass movie.  A few years on and many Marvel movies later,  it is still one of their best.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating – 93%

Rating: 8/10

7 Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

The superheroes assemble in 2012's monster hit "The Avengers." Image courtesy of Marvel Studios
The superheroes assemble in 2012’s monster hit The Avengers. Image courtesy of Marvel Studios. The Avengers makes it to number seven on our best superhero movies list

“I’m here to talk about the Avenger initiative” said Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) during the end credits of 2008’s Iron Man.  Ever since those words were uttered,  Marvel fandom had squealed in excitement at the prospect of an Avengers movie.

Over the following four years, Marvel hit after Marvel hit  –  Thor,  Captain America and Iron Man 2 – put the foundations in place for what was to come.  And when The Avengers arrived,  it well and truly exploded on to the big screen, becoming the most lucrative superhero film of all time.

The opportunity to see Marvel Studios’ favorite superheroes share the screen together for the first time was a thrill in itself.  The film could have gone either way,  with each of these very different characters (bar Hawkeye and Black Widow) previously not used to sharing the screen with other leading superheroes.

Usually these guys headlined their own films, but in The Avengers they all became supporting characters. Thankfully, the balance was just right and the character dynamics are a pleasure to behold.

Director Joss Whedon created a non-pretentious Avengers movie that keeps all the fun and colorful fluff from the comics. It doesn’t aspire to be as grounded and realistic as DC’s The Dark Knight, but instead embraces the fantastical nature of the Marvel universe. It’s a pretty damn fun movie.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating – 92%

Rating: 8/10

6 Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Tobey Maguire as Spider-man in 2002's Spider-Man 2
Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man in 2002’s Spider-Man 2. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures. The Spider-Man sequel comes in at number six on our best superhero movies.

To date this is the best Spider-Man movie made. Sam Raimi built on the good start made in 2002’s Spider-Man and unleashed Spider-Man 2 (yes, not the most imaginative title).  The back story was set up in film one, and with Spider-Man 2, Raimi creates a more complete Spider-Man movie. It’s an exciting roller-coaster of an action movie that has also heart.

The heart comes from Peter Parker (the costume-less Spider-Man).  Peter Parker’s (Tobey Maguire’s) relationships with himself,  Spider-Man,  his enemies and the people closest to him are what really drive Spider-Man 2.

Ultimately Peter keeping hold of his Spider-Man costume has mixed results for him in the film, eventually winning over the woman he loves (Mary Jane), but in turn losing his best friend (Harry Osbourne) and killing a mentor (Alfred Molina’s character Doctor Octopus).

Spider-Man 2 is the middle-entry in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, but works perfectly as a standalone film. It’s a film that has all the right ingredients for a cracking superhero movie.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating – 94%

Rating: 8.5/10

5 The Incredibles (2004)

best superhero movies the incredibles
The Incredibles family of superheroes. Image courtesy of Walt Disney/Pixar. Incredibly entering our best superhero movies list at number five

What’s incredible about The Incredibles? Well, a hell of a lot. For a start it was the first mainstream superhero movie about a dysfunctional family of superheroes, which is a cool concept in itself. After all, superheroes would indeed pass on their genes to their offspring and hence have the usual family ups and downs.

Secondly, it was the first superhero movie from the outstanding Disney/Pixar, a production company that rarely put a foot wrong. They certainly didn’t with The Incredibles. The brilliant Brad Bird superbly crafted a superhero movie that is unbelievable fun, comical and interesting enough so that adults and children can enjoy it in equal measure.

The Incredibles takes bits out of pretty much every well-known superhero franchise out there and blends them seamlessly to create an unbelievably funny and clever superhero movie.  Just thinking of this film puts a smile on this writer’s face.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating – 97%

Rating: 8.5/10

4 Unbreakable (2000)

best superhero movies unbreakable
Poster artwork for Unbreakable. Image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures. Unbreakable comes in at number four on our best superhero movies list

M. Night Shyamalan had a tough job trying to follow his debut hit The Sixth Sense with another – but with Unbreakable, he did just that.  Unbreakable is not based on any previous comic book material, but certainly fits into the superhero genre. It is very much a mystery movie,  cloaking a tale that has all the fundamentals of a superhero story. It’s a formula that very much works as well.

This is not a special effects extravaganza, but very much a character-driven movie about how an on-the-surface ordinary father/husband gradually comes to terms with an extraordinary power he possesses.

The suspenseful and mysterious nature of the Unbreakable plot sets it apart from any other superhero movie, and there is nothing quite else like it out there. A truly mesmerizing film, with superb leading performances from Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. It’s perhaps a little underrated too.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating – 68%

Rating: 8.5/10

3 X-Men 2 (2003)

best superhero movies x-men 2
Promotional image for X-Men 2. Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox. X-Men 2 is number three on our best superhero movies list

Bryan Singer followed up his relatively mundane first entry into the X-Men franchise with a much more appealing X-Men movie – X2. The first film was fine, introducing the characters and the mutant/mankind conflict. However the second film really puts its foot down on the peddle and totally ups the ante for the X-Men.

Bryan Cox gives the film a strong and motivated villain in the form of William Stryker, who is not just another throwaway comic book villain like you often see in superhero movies.

The performances throughout the film are high quality, with the likes of Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart also cementing themselves in their mutant characters.

On top of that, lots of cool new mutant character, larger/better scale action set pieces, plus a more complex and compelling plot all contribute in making this second outing a far superior film than its predecessor.  The X-Men really get to spread their wings in X-Men 2.

Easily the best entry in the mutant series to date.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating – 87%

Rating: 9/10

2 Superman: The Movie (1978)

Christopher Reeve as Superman in 1978's Superman: The Movie
The late Christopher Reeve as Superman in 1978’s Superman: The Movie. Image courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures. Superman is number two on our best superhero movies list

There have been two big-budget attempts at rebooting the Superman franchise on the big-screen, but neither have quite captured the imagination like Richard Donner’s 1978 hit – Superman: The Movie.  Still as fun to watch now as it was 20 or 30 years ago, Superman was the film that set an early benchmark for superhero movies.

Key to the film was the casting of at-the-time unknown actor Christopher Reeve. He quickly became the definitive Superman for multiple generations. He bought real charm to his geeky alter-ego Clark Kent and a great presence to Superman. Also testament to Christopher Reeve was the fact he beat off many household names to the role – including Burt Reynolds and Robert Redford.

Despite all the cool action set-pieces (which still look okay even by today’s standards), the heart of the movie was the relationship between Clark Kent and Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane, who is brilliantly portrayed by Margot Kidder.

The two of them have great on-screen chemistry that is a pleasure to watch. Fantastic supporting performances from Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, plus a memorable majestic soundtrack from John Williams, enrich Superman: The Movie further.

It’s over 35 years since its release,  but Superman: The Movie still ranks amongst the best superhero movies.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating – 93%

Rating: 9/10

1 The Dark Knight (2008)

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight
The late Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Image courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures. The film tops our best superhero movies list

The Dark Knight is director Christopher Nolan’s best in his magnificent Batman trilogy. It brought real gravity to the superhero genre with a grounded feel rarely felt in superhero movies, which until The Dark Knight were more superficial than intelligent (with some exceptions of course).

For his second instalment, Nolan got hold of a hero we all knew and loved, then placed him in a gritty, bleak, yet believable environment.

It had a compelling story, a raft of superb acting performances from some of Hollywood’s best stars, believable action set-pieces with high-tech gadgets and masterful direction from Nolan.

These all contributed to the success of The Dark Knight.  However,  it was one performance alone in the film that stole all the headlines.

When Heath Ledger was first announced to play Batman’s most iconic nemesis – The Joker – a lot of fans cringed in disbelief.  The actor had been known by the masses previously for rom-coms and tame action tales like A Knights Tale.

Though those who had seen the actor’s stature grow in films like Lords of Dogtown and Brokeback Mountain knew he was capable.  But still, his conventional pretty-boy looks even made the writer of this article think twice about the selection.

It soon became evident from early promotional material for The Dark Knight that hiring Heath as The Joker was a stroke of genius. He created one hell of a Joker. A comical and calculated psychopath – one of cinema’s greatest movie villains. It’s sad we’ll never be able to see Heath Ledger build on such a superb performance, following his untimely death in 2008.

The film is as much a crime thriller as it is a conventional superhero movie,  something that works in The Dark Knight’s favor. By the time you’ve got through watching Nolan’s second Batman film, the bad memories of Joel Schumacher’s crappy and camp 1997 Batman & Robin film are all but extinguished.  The caped crusader was back.

As a result, The Dark Knight tops our list of the best superhero movies.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating – 94%

Rating: 10/10

Feel free to comment about the list above and post your own lists of best superhero movies in the comments section below.

James has worked for Monsters and Critics since it started back in 2003. He oversees the business and technical side of things. You can contact... read more
James Wray

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