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The best superhero movies of all time

Superheroes have long been a significant part of American culture, dating all the way back to the first comic book appearance of Superman in 1938. But cinema has taken superhero stories mainstream with record-setting budgets and box-office success. And while studios struggled for a long time to navigate the pulpiness and complex storylines of comics, the past couple of decades have ushered in a new era of superhero films that are both commercially viable and critically successful. From some of the early classics to recent smash hits, these are our picks for the best superhero movies of all time.

More interested in TV series? How about our picks for the best superhero TV shows of all time? Or if it’s just superheroes that aren’t your thing, we’ve got lists of the best movies on Netflix, the best movies on Hulu, the best movies on Amazon Prime, and the best movies on Disney+.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) new

Spider-Man: No Way Home
71 %
8.7/10
pg-13 148m
Genre Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch
Directed by Jon Watts
The Marvel Cinematic Universe revolutionized the way film franchises could be built and intertwined, as well as how individual movies could be used to augment others. But it bit off a new challenge with Spider-Man: No Way Home, a movie that introduces the comic book concept of the Multiverse into the MCU while drawing from Spider-Man’s already rich cinematic history. With characters returning from Sony’s two previous Spider-Man franchises, No Way Home seamlessly introduces an extremely complex idea in a tangible, practical way that’s both a ton of fun for fans and drives the overall MCU meaningfully forward. For sheer ambition, it’s nearly as impressive as the gargantuan Avengers: Endgame. But even with enormous stakes, No Way Home maintains a lighthearted, friendly neighborhood Spider-Man tone that makes it just a ton of fun.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Avengers: Endgame
78 %
8.4/10
pg-13 181m
Genre Adventure, Science Fiction, Action
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
At just a bit over three hours, Avengers: Endgame is long, it’s crowded, and every bit of it feels perfect. Endgame is the triumphant culmination of the MCU’s Infinity Saga, featuring the final battle between just about every surviving superhero to ever appear in Marvel Studio’s films and the nihilistic madman Thanos (Josh Brolin). Most of the film involves a fun, nostalgic time heist, visiting different past moments in the series. It all leads to the insanely massive battle involving Thanos and his alien armies, the Avengers, the Asgardians, the Ravagers, the Guardians, the wizards of Kamar-taj, and even — just for a split second — none other than Howard the Duck. It’s funny, emotionally powerful, and obscenely huge — which is exactly what it should be.

Joker (2019)

Joker
59 %
8.4/10
r 122m
Genre Crime, Thriller, Drama
Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
Directed by Todd Phillips
There is an argument to be made that Joker doesn’t belong anywhere on a list of superhero movies. Even director Todd Phillips told Empire Magazine that he didn’t see his film as a comic book movie. But the story unfolds in Gotham City, Bruce Wayne and his parents are in it, and the protagonist evolves into perhaps the most iconic supervillain in all pop culture. So, you know, we feel pretty confident including it. There are plenty of valid criticisms of Joker, including its depictions of mental illness and race, plus the cinematic conversation it has with films like The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, which some argue misses the mark of homage and simply steals unapologetically. And when it was released, many questioned the timing, as it came in the wake of several mass shootings committed in the U.S. — some feel that perhaps that wasn’t the time to glorify an antihero like Arthur Fleck.But in terms of a movie that does find itself in the superhero neighborhood whether Phillips likes it or not, what Joker does better than any other film is show us exactly how someone could shed their humanity to become a supervillain. Sure, we’ve had plenty of sympathetic supervillains before, like Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, but in Joker, we see the process unfold. We see Fleck transform into a monster, and we see it in a world just like our own that has nothing to do with rainbow bridges or vibranium meteorites.

The Suicide Squad (2021)

The Suicide Squad
72 %
7.2/10
r 132m
Genre Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Stars Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena
Directed by James Gunn

The Suicide Squad (2021)

The Suicide Squad
72 %
7.2/10
r 132m
Genre Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Stars Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena
Directed by James Gunn

While certain entries of the DCEU like Shazam! worked hard to scrub off the narrative’s reputation of unnecessarily gloomy stories, few superhero movies from Warner Bros. — or really, from anyone — has been filled with as much carnage, deep-diving comic book know-how, and unmitigated fun as 2021’s The Suicide Squad.

Written and directed by Guardians of the Galaxy veteran James Gunn, The Suicide Squad reaches back to the game-changing John Ostrander run of the comic for a film that — as early as the first 15 minutes — does a much better job living up to its name than its 2016 predecessor. With a huge, impressive cast including Idris Elba as the mercenary Bloodsport, Margot Robbie reprising the beloved role of Harley Quinn, John Cena as the twisted Peacemaker, and even Sylvester Stallone providing the voice of the powerful King Shark, The Suicide Squad is one of the funniest and bloodiest superhero films you’ll ever see.

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Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther
88 %
7.3/10
pg-13 134m
Genre Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o
Directed by Ryan Coogler
While the late Chadwick Boseman gives a wonderful introductory performance as Black Panther in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, it isn’t until the character’s own 2018 solo film that T’Challa really gets to shine. With a cast composed almost entirely of actors of color and a setting in Marvel’s fictional Wakanda, Black Panther manages to feel completely singular in the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also staying firmly a part of it. With Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler succeeds where Thor fails: Realizing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s vision of a world apart from the world. Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Wakanda’s forgotten son, Erik Killmonger, remains one of the most affecting and sympathetic portrayals of a villain in superhero movie history, Marvel or otherwise, while other standout performances include Boseman as the eponymous conflicted king, Danai Gurira as the unstoppable Okoye, and Winston Duke as the rebellious and charismatic M’Baku.

The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers
69 %
8.0/10
pg-13 143m
Genre Science Fiction, Action, Adventure
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo
Directed by Joss Whedon
After we’ve seen so many other films uniting leading men and women from different franchises, it can be easy to forget how novel the concept of Avengers was when it was released in 2012. The film was a singular spectacle, bringing together Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye to battle Loki and aliens invading Earth, with no inherent guarantee of working. But it did anyway. With a perfect blend of humor, action, and amazing special effects, The Avengers made cinematic history.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
87 %
8.4/10
pg 117m
Genre Action, Adventure, Animation, Science Fiction
Stars Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld
Directed by Rodney Rothman, Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti
In a relatively short time, we’ve seen so many different versions of Spider-Man — Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Tom Holland, not to mention all the voices of the character in animated series and video games. There’s a real argument to be made that none of them ever had a chance to surpass 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. With its unique brand of animation and a multidimensional team of Spider-Men, a Spider-Woman, and a Spider-Ham(?!), Into the Spider-Verse — like the Marvel Comics event upon which it’s based — is a celebration of not just the history of Spider-Man but the legacy of superhero comics. Into the Spider-Verse is hilarious, full of action, and introduces so many to the great young hero Miles Morales.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

X-Men: Days of Future Past
75 %
7.9/10
pg-13 132m
Genre Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Stars Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender
Directed by Bryan Singer
After the twin failures of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine — along with the relative success of 2011’s X-Men: First Class — it seemed like maybe the cast of the original X-Men films might be done for good. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. With 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, the filmmakers brought together the casts of both eras, while at the same time paying homage to one of the most well-loved stories from the source material. The story begins in the not-too-distant future, when the sentinel robots are driving mutantkind to extinction. With the help of a not particularly well-conceived plot device, Wolverine travels back in time to 1973 to stop the chain of events that would lead to his future dystopia. Along with bringing back a lot of old friends to the franchise, Days of Future Past also includes a great performance by Peter Dinklage as scientist Dr. Bolivar Trask, and Evan Peters makes his first appearance as Quicksilver, including what remains the most impressive portrayal of super speed on the big screen.

X2 (2003)

X2
68 %
7.4/10
pg-13 133m
Genre Adventure, Action, Science Fiction
Stars Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen
Directed by Bryan Singer
While 2000’s X-Men launched the movie franchise for Marvel’s outcast mutant heroes, it wasn’t until the 2003 follow-up X2: X-Men United that Charles Xavier’s gifted students started to feel like their comic book counterparts. While he seems a little neutered in the earlier film, in X2 we finally see the brutality Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is capable of when he tears through a black ops team invading Xavier’s school. Opening with a perfectly-shot assassination attempt in the White House courtesy of a mind-controlled Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), X2 is an early example of how wonderfully cinematic superpowers could manifest with a little help from CGI. It also highlights how socially poignant the creations of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could be, particularly in a brilliantly conceived scene in which Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore) tells his family he’s a mutant and the dialogue unfolds as if he were coming out as gay.

Batman (1989)

Batman
69 %
7.5/10
pg-13 126m
Genre Fantasy, Action
Stars Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger
Directed by Tim Burton
Tim Burton’s Batman is not a perfect film, but there’s a reason why some fans — in spite of decades of other live-action and animated realizations of the Dark Knight — still defer to Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson as the “real” Batman and Joker. Keaton was a surprising casting choice at the time, as he was largely known for comedic roles like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice, though he proves the perfect choice for Burton’s fusion of darker Batman comic book fare and the campy 1960s Batman TV show. These days, Nicholson’s Joker is unkindly judged against grittier interpretations, and those comparisons forget his Clown Prince of Crime was meant to be over-the-top. It’s a role Nicholson seems born for, as he gives us a Joker who revels so thoroughly in his villainy that you’re almost mad at Batman for beating him in the end.

Superman (1978)

Superman
81 %
7.3/10
pg 143m
Genre Science Fiction, Action, Adventure
Stars Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve
Directed by Richard Donner
For a generation, Christopher Reeve’s version of the Man of Steel defined Superman. His unyielding determination, his humility, his love for no-nonsense reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and the painstaking care with which he wields his godlike power come through effortlessly under Reeve’s care. Gene Hackman remains one of the most devilishly ideal actors for the part of Superman’s genius arch-nemesis Lex Luthor and Kidder fully owns the role of the award-winning journalist who won’t give an inch before she has the story, but still can’t spell worth a damn. With an iconic score by John Williams and flawless casting, 1978’s Superman lay the foundation for all the best superhero films that would follow in subsequent decades.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok
74 %
7.9/10
pg-13 131m
Genre Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Stars Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett
Directed by Taika Waititi
With Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi took one of Marvel’s flagging film franchises and turned it into one of its most successful. Ragnarok yanks Thor (Chris Hemsworth) out of his mythological comfort zone and puts him in the more sci-fi flavored setting of Sakaar where the hilarious tyrant Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) runs a deadly gladiator contest. While the Marvel Studios flicks were already known for not taking themselves too seriously, Waititi infuses his own improvisational brand of humor in Ragnarok and proves just how much of a laugh riot Hemsworth can be, especially when paired with Mark Ruffalo as either the monosyllabic Hulk or the more wordy and neurotic Bruce Banner. If there’s any weakness to Ragnarok, it’s that it occasionally sacrifices characterization for humor, but you’re usually laughing too much to notice or care.

Spider-Man (2002)

Spider-Man
73 %
7.3/10
pg-13 121m
Genre Fantasy, Action
Stars Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst
Directed by Sam Raimi
Perhaps the most important part of the formula of Spider-Man’s popularity is that he doesn’t have a mansion or a secret Arctic fortress. He’s a socially awkward nerd who, once he eventually leaves his aunt’s house, can’t pay his bills. Director Sam Raimi gave us this more fallible superhero in 2002’s Spider-Man, and his potent humanity proves just as likable as it was when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced the character in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy No. 15. While Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker doesn’t have the arsenal of quips his comic book counterpart uses, the movie reflects webhead’s humor. Purists may still bemoan the absence of Spidey’s mechanical webshooters in favor of making the webs part of the hero’s powers, but the commitment to the spirit of the source material shines through regardless.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
70 %
7.7/10
pg-13 136m
Genre Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
There’s a reason why Joe and Anthony Russo took over as the story architects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Joss Whedon, and that reason is 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Contrasting sharply with 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Joe and Anthony Russo’s follow-up finds Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) up to his neck in a decades-old conspiracy involving the Nazi off-shoot organization Hydra and Cap’s new home SHIELD. The Winter Soldier is a suspenseful action-espionage thriller with some of the most flawlessly executed action sequences you’ll find in any superhero film, particularly in the famous scene where Cap takes on around 10 Hydra agents in a glass elevator.

Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder Woman
76 %
7.4/10
pg-13 141m
Genre Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Stars Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright
Directed by Patty Jenkins
A bright spot among a lot of disappointments from Warner’s DC Extended Universe installments, 2017’s Wonder Woman finally and triumphantly gives Princess Diana of Themyscrira (Gal Gadot) a chance to shine on the big screen. Gadot wonderfully embodies Wonder Woman’s identity as both a driven warrior and a woman with genuine concern for the world beyond her island home. Director Patty Jenkins mixes the starkly different Greco-Roman mythology of Wonder Woman with the wartime setting of 1918’s Europe. With humor and stunning action sequences, Wonder Woman takes what some thought would be one of DC Comics’ unadaptable franchises and turns it into one of its best.

Deadpool (2016)

Deadpool
65 %
8.0/10
r 108m
Genre Action, Adventure, Comedy
Stars Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein
Directed by Tim Miller
When it comes to an actor redeeming himself in the eyes of comic book fans, few are as fortunate as Ryan Reynolds who starred in not one, not two, but three of the most hated superhero movies — 2004’s Blade: Trinity, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and 2011’s Green Lantern. Finally, Reynolds strikes gold with 2016’s Deadpool, where he plays a superpowered mercenary with a healing factor that makes Wolverine’s look like a pack of Band-Aids, and a mouth that would make a drunken sailor blush. Set in Fox’s pre-Disney buyout X-Men universe, Deadpool lampoons superhero tropes while cutting a gory trail through the bad guys, and X-Men resident boy scout Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and his young charge Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) pop up occasionally to play straight man to the Merc with a Mouth.

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Spider-Man 2
83 %
7.4/10
pg-13 127m
Genre Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Stars Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco
Directed by Sam Raimi
Sam Raimi followed up the success of 2002’s Spider-Man with a bigger, more exciting, and more human story in 2004’s Spider-Man 2. Living on his own, Peter Parker struggles to make ends meet while freelancing for the Daily Bugle and trying to earn a college degree. His challenges both in and out of costume eventually lead to a psychosomatic loss of his powers. Compared to Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin from the first film, Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus proves a more sympathetic and redeemable antagonist. If there’s anything regrettable about Spider-Man 2, it’s the promise and potential it builds up that was lost on the deeply flawed Spider-Man 3.

Superman II (1980)

Superman II
83 %
6.8/10
pg 127m
Genre Science Fiction, Action, Adventure
Stars Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty
Directed by Richard Lester
Two years after Superman came the follow-up Superman II which saw the return of most of the original’s principal cast, including Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. This time, though, it was time for villains that posed a physical challenge to the Man of Steel, and so enters Ursa (Sarah Douglas), Non (Jack O’Halloran), and Zod (Terence Stamp) — three Kryptonian convicts who are each as powerful as Kal-El. Their arrival is at just the wrong time, as Kal-El decides to renounce his powers in favor of living a mortal life with Lois Lane. Epic in scope with all the humor and heroism of the original, Superman II was sadly the last truly satisfying entry in Reeve’s time as the Man of Steel.

Deadpool 2 (2018)

Deadpool 2
66 %
7.7/10
r 119m
Genre Action, Comedy, Adventure
Stars Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin
Directed by David Leitch
Deadpool 2 came out in a crowded superhero movie year alongside huge hits like Avengers: Infinity WarBlack Panther, and Aquaman. But Wade Wilson’s second solo flick stands out with a unique blend of absolutely merciless carnage, relentless humor, and surprising emotional resonance. Everything about the first flick is dialed up past 11, with Deadpool chopping up Yakuza while Dolly Parton croons in the background, a whole bunch of short-lived superheroes learning the dangers of sky-diving during high wind advisories, and post-credits scenes wreaking havoc all over the history of superhero movies. Josh Brolin plays the time-traveling cyborg Cable and Zazie Beetz stars as the luck-powered Domino, while Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead return to lend a hand.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Avengers: Infinity War
68 %
8.4/10
pg-13 149m
Genre Adventure, Action, Science Fiction
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
After the resounding success of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, it’s almost easy to forget how impressive its predecessor was. Avengers: Infinity War pulls together major and minor characters from over a half-dozen disparate franchises, gives them all time to shine and somehow forges an epic and emotionally powerful story. We get explosive super fights in New York City and Edinburgh, we follow the Guardians and Thor all over the cosmos, and we return to Wakanda for a battle that would make Peter Jackson jealous. Infinity War does it all while keeping Josh Brolin’s Thanos as the true protagonist. The digital realization of Brolin’s performance is stunning, making you wonder where Thanos begins and Brolin ends.

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight
84 %
9.0/10
pg-13 152m
Genre Drama, Action, Crime, Thriller
Stars Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine
Directed by Christopher Nolan
If you were to watch Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight without knowing anything beforehand about the cast or the plot, you would not recognize Heath Ledger as the Joker. His transformation into Batman’s clown-faced nemesis is just that good. He was so committed to the role he insisted co-star Christian Bale hit him for real in their amazing interrogation room scene, and it’s that commitment and Ledger’s talent that makes him the best reason to watch The Dark Knight. He’s so good that Aaron Eckhart’s equally dark transformation from hero District Attorney Harvey Dent into the monstrous Two-Face is often forgotten in discussions of what is unquestionably the best of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

Iron Man (2008)

Iron Man
79 %
7.9/10
pg-13 126m
Genre Action, Science Fiction, Adventure
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges
Directed by Jon Favreau
Iron Man, which hit theaters in 2008, gave viewers across the world an exciting and gripping introduction to Marvel comic stories, brought to the big screen through incredible production and acting that was right on target. The protagonist, Tony Stark, played by the talented Robert Downey Jr., is a witty, over-the-top, technological genius who runs a multi-billion-dollar business empire. Stark’s close-call with near-death opens his eyes and drives him to create a new, automatic super suit. When he dons the suit, he’s able to do the impossible and save the world. Combined, Jon Favreau’s direction and Downey’s acting take Iron Man to the next level and set the basis for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It brought millions to the fan base and forced Hollywood to consider the power of superhero movies.

Logan (2017)

Logan
77 %
8.1/10
r 137m
Genre Action, Drama, Science Fiction
Stars Hugh Jackman, Dafne Keen, Patrick Stewart
Directed by James Mangold
Director James Mangold delivers a robust, poignant, and exceptional conclusion to Wolverine’s story with Logan. Hugh Jackman portrays the title character and helps transport viewers to a desolate setting in the not-too-distant future. At this point in the saga, all but a few of the mutants remain alive, including Logan and Charles Xavier, played by Patrick Stewart. Professor Xavier is losing a battle with Alzheimer’s, while Logan suffers under his metal-laced bones’ weight. Laura (Dafne Keen) is Logan’s lab-conceived daughter. The story drastically changes course when Laura needs a quick escape to Canada. Logan is saturated with emotion, unlike other big-budget hero films. The acting holds audiences’ attention captive; Stewart’s portrayal of Professor X, coming to grips with the hardships of age is emotionally powerful and often hilarious. Jackman’s sheer talent and representation of a ruthless hero leaves no one questioning why he’s on the big screen in the first place.

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