Since it’s open to interpretation, defining what is or what isn’t a superhero movie is so maddening, it’s damn near a fool’s errand. The genre is usually categorized as a person imbued with super powers deciding to use said super powers to fight crime but that’s so broad a a definition, it could literally include anything. Constantine has powers and fights evil doers but are they criminals? The Punisher fights criminals but he doesn’t have any superpowers, so is he a superhero? Do you need a costume and a secret identity or could you be a robot or some other gigantic protector? Godzilla and Gamera save their respected cities on the regular but often times, it’s by accident. Does that make them less of a hero?
However you define it and whether you even like them or not, there’s no denying the impact the genre has had on cinema. They’ve been dominating the box office for almost fifteen years now and there’s a strong possibility that the last major blockbuster that we’ll ever see, will be Avengers Endgame. From the birth of serials almost 100 years ago, to the inevitable death of theaters in about five minutes from now, they’ve always been a constant staple in cinemas. As long as there are movies, there will be superhero movies. To honor their their long lasting contributions to film, the SAW community decided to count down what we believe are the best and most important films of the genre.
This is the 50 Greatest Superhero Movies of All Time!
10. Unbreakable (2000)
Years before the caped-crusader boom took over Hollywood, Shyamalan proved that not only could superhero movies be taken seriously but could do so without adapting a pre existing comic. As wonderful as they are and as much as they still provide a fertile ground for movie adaptations, more filmmakers need to take a cue from this movie and stop making nostalgia filled toy commercials and take a chance on something original. While it may tap into some familiar story beats and tropes, Unbreakable most definitely qualifies as original.
An anomaly within the genre, the film focuses more on the reality of being a super powerful being and not on the punchy punch action. It’s a clever reworking of the Superman mythos in that Superman is a real person but has no idea that they’re Superman. It’s an ingenious deconstruction and reinterpretation of a story we all know so well executed flawlessly. Unlike every other Superman origin story ever told, the revelation that the protagonist has super powers isn’t a cause for celebration. He doesn’t immediately don a cape and go out and fight crime. Quite the opposite in fact, it’s a burden.
It’s ruining his marriage and is making is life a hell. His son believes in his powers so fervently, that he almost kills him and his wife is trying her hardest to understand the situation. She isn’t a nagging shrew, and although she’s estranged from her husband, she’s tenderly making an effort to repair their marriage. Both the son and the wife react realistically and their performances help ground the movie in reality. They help sell the universe, as does Samuel L Jackson, but in a much different way. He’s the most comic book thing about it and even he is believable. It’s a fantastic performance as is Bruce Willis in the lead role. Since he’s phoned in every performance for the last few years, it’s easy to forget how good an actor he used to be. He, with the help of Shyamalan, make you believe that superheroes could actually exist.
09. X2: X-Men United (2003)
Why have so many folks forgotten about this one? This flick, for being widely beloved, still feels like it’s under acknowledged and tragically MIA when it comes to most comic book flick lists. Especially in the early days of the superhero movie renaissance, when the blueprint hadn’t really been established yet, X2 delivered a powerful experience in just about every measure. Not only did it vault the X-Men series into can’t miss status, it toed that line of earned emotion and prestige spectacle to near perfection. Not to mention a second installment topping an already stellar first flick, the noteworthy achievements of X2 remain rare finds in the greater arena. A sequel with incredible momentum, bold story, and rising stakes. It earns our buy-in and delivers grade-A entertainment alongside authentic social commentary. X2 is a top 10 comic book movie, period. Here’s my proof.
08. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
It’s hard to remember when there was just one Spider-Man movie that had ever graced the silver screen, but until Spider-Man 2, that’s all we had. Now there are endless debates between Spidey buffs who is the best Spider-Man, who’s the best Peter Parker and which movie just hits the nail on the head. But Spider-Man 2 has held the line all these years as among the top 3 for most people (with Into the Spider Verse and either of the Tom Holland films). Although Willem Dafoe was great as a hammed up Green Goblin in the franchise opener, Alfred Molina’s portrayal of Doc Ock really took this film to the next level. Peter’s struggle handling life as Spider-Man and Peter Parker also gave the film a great pace as you really sympathize with the choice of Peter doing what’s best for himself and what’s best for others. If Iron Man put the MCU on the map and The Dark Knight made DC a force to be reckoned with, Spider-Man 2 arguably busted the door open for all of superhero filmdom as we know it, building even on the success of the original.
07. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Avengers: Endgame may have been the true culmination of the MCU as we know it, but Infinity War was our first look at what we were about to get in this massive universal team-up to stop Thanos. Whereas Endgame gives us a proper emotional sendoff for our OG Avengers, Infinity War gave us the nonstop action and banter we had all long waited to see. It also gave us arguably the best iterations yet of multiple characters, particularly Doctor Strange and Thor. Everyone was scratching their heads before this movie how the Russo brothers could possibly juggle this many heavy hitters, and they managed it amazingly gracefully. And despite hardcore fans knowing how this movie must end, they still managed to accomplish that in genuinely surprising ways that led to one of the biggest cliffhangers in cinema history that is partly responsible for making Endgame the biggest box office hit of all time.
06. Superman II (1980)
Whether you are talking about the original theatrical cut or the Richard Donner cut, this film is an outstanding sequel to the original (and also outstanding) film from just two years earlier. Only this time things make a little more sense to the sequence where Zod and his cronies are vanquished to the Phantom Zone. This sequel creates one of the all time great villains ever. How he didn’t make our list is beyond me. I only wish we got to see Donner’s original vision for the film when it was first released and not the Richard Lester one that came out in theaters. Sure we got an approximate version of it when they released The donner Cut, but still.
05. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Steve Rogers had a shaky introduction into the MCU. While his World War II period-piece origin story is good enough and does really inform his actions throughout the franchise, the movie just wasn’t as exciting as many people had hoped for. Then Cap was slightly maligned and cheesy at points in Avengers, although I still contend his character worked well in that film. But The Winter Soldier came and completely redefined the character and vaulted him to the top tier of Marvel’s stable. Having Captain America in a spy/espionage thriller being hunted by his own government is a stroke of genius that really turned the character on his head and continued to influence his direction. Coupled with his buddy teamup with Falcon, his undying loyalty to Bucky and his out-of-nowhere perfect chemistry with Black Widow, this movie remains one of the top gems in the entire Marvel collection. Not to mention we get the best Nick Fury scenes in the whole franchise.
04. Logan (2017)
James Mangold made a perfect film. This is my personal number one. It is so much more than a superhero film. It’s more than a western. It is a gorgeous farewell letter to characters we loved for 17 years. Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart put in career performances. The best scene in the film doesn’t have any action. No fighting. No strategizing. No capes. No powers are being shown. It is the dinner scene. Logan and Charles are reminiscing on the old days at the school. You feel Logan reflecting on his unnatural lifespan and see his eyes light up when the memories of the school are brought up. After all, the X-Men have always been about acceptance, love, and found family. And here he is, with a family they found that love each other and accepted them in their home. A perfect film.
03. Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse (2018)
Plenty of moviegoers were feeling superhero fatigue when Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was released in 2018. Fan of the genre or not, Marvel seemed to be everywhere you looked. So it came as a complete surprise just how unique and original this movie felt. The first animated film in the Spider-Man franchise, instead of starring our usual protagonist Peter Paker the story follows Miles Morales. Morales was created by writer Brian Michael Bendis in 2011 to take over the mantle of Spider-Man in the comics. It was a bold move but one that allowed the film to take on a completely different tone than what we were used to. The comic-inspired visuals are great, the soundtrack is exceptional, the self-referential humour is hilarious (shout out to Spider-Ham). The whole production just feels like a breath of fresh air. Personally, I went in with low expectations and was absolutely blown away.
02. The Incredibles (2004)
The running joke for quite some time is that Brad Bird directed the best Superman film ever made with The Iron Giant and the best Fantastic Four film ever made with The Incredibles. And it’s not far from the truth. While most movies on this list take a lot from comic stories, Bird created the Incredibles characters and world whole-cloth, managing to both pay homage and parody classic comic superhero tropes. While not quite as inventive as some of Pixar’s other films, the movie just really hits no wrong notes. The film is paced perfectly between comedy, action and drama with a stellar soundtrack and visuals. There are no slow points in the film. There are deeper messages too, which some movies gloss over for the action. Like most of Pixar’s films, this movie is an absolute classic regardless of genre and happens to be one of the best superhero stories ever put to screen.
01. The Dark Knight (2008)
Even though Batman Begins isn’t on the same pedestal as some of the best first entries in trilogies, there’s no denying that this is among the best sequels ever made. Other ones like Toy Story 2 or Godfather 2 might be more impressive since they’re following up masterpieces and are somehow better in most regards but I’d argue that this is just as impressive a feat because not only does The Dark Knight improve upon on everything from the first one, it actually makes the first one better. It compliments that first film in a way few sequels do. Every plot element Begins started, Dark Knight added to. It’s like that famous drawing from M.C. Escher where two hands are drawing each other, both are essential to the other and neither exists without the other. Nolan needed to climb that hill in order to tackle this mountain.
And what a mountain it is. I can count on one hand how many films have as many iconic moments and set pieces as this one does. From the Heat inspired heist at the beginning to the hospital blowing up to the magic trick and the truck flip and on and on and on. It’s a Christmas present that keeps on giving, which is a perfect way to describe Ledger’s performance. A controversial casting at the time, Ledger would eventually prove all the haters and doubters wrong by giving one of the greatest performances in the history of film. With his Tom Waits voice and his penchant for licking his lips, Ledger created a memorable maniac who’s the epitome of a scene stealer. Every time he’s on screen, you can’t look at anything else nor do you want to. He’s electric, magnetic and captivating. When he was nominated and then won a posthumous Oscar for best supporting actor, no one was surprised. He’s the cherry, whip cream and nuts on top of a four scoop sundae that’s covered in the finest butterscotch and chocolate. Batman has been adapted many times before and since, but none has reached the heights of this masterpiece and I doubt any other superhero movie ever will.
What did you think of the list? Agree or disagree, let us know in the comments.