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!
20. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
The Avengers is one of the biggest gambles in movie history and one that seemingly should never have worked. However, here we are. Sure, the MCU had been successful before this movie hit theaters but would the MCU be the success it is today if The Avengers didn’t work and was a failure? I’m glad it worked because for the first time ever on this scale, we were treated to our biggest superheroes and movie stars all in one place telling an intriguing story with many narratives intertwining. To be able to see Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, and many others share the screen was a sight to behold with the definitive cinematic 360 degrees shot of the heroes ready for battle.
19. Spider-Man (2002)
Ahh, 2002. What a time to be alive. As much as I credit X-Men to be the official jumping off point for modern comic book movies, we’re not where we are without Spider-Man. X-Men wasn’t without its flaws. (I mean look at those costumes.) With Spider-Man, no more black leather. Instead we have one of the most authentic representations of page to film adaptations. For non-comic readers, we met Uncle Ben for the first time. We saw Uncle Ben die for the first time. But most importantly, we saw how Peter Parker reacted to Uncle Ben’s death. Tobey Maguire was the perfect Peter Parker. Especially in 2002. We were even given the gift of Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin! Sam Rami is on my list of free passes for the rest of his career. If he never makes a “good” movie again, he can live happily knowing he made Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2.
18. Batman Begins (2005)
After there being the two god awful Joel Schumacher films I never expected Batman to come back on the big screen again. Let alone with Christopher Nolan at the helm. But call me a monkey’s uncle because in 2005 just that happened. And man was it a great return to form. A little more grounded in reality but still has that comic book sensibility to it. A truly great film and trilogy that I wish carried over into the new DCEU more. Although I do like Batfleck, I would have loved to see more of what Christian bale brought to both roles as Batman and Bruce Wayne.
17. X-Men: Days of Futures Past (2014)
In comic books, we have time travelling, multiverses, alternate realities, etc. It’s 2021 and when it comes to comic book movies and TV shows, we’re only just now really getting our feet wet with the high sci-fi that comic books originally took us to. I’ll credit The Flash TV show for really bringing it to he mainstream, but another property from 2014 that did it was X-Men Days of Future Past. This feels like a conclusion and a torch passing of such from the original X-Men cast to the younger iterations of their characters. X-Men, X-2: X-Men United, and X-Men: The Last Stand, really felt like a jumping off point for modern superhero films. To have the original cast come back for one last hoo-rah, plus some time travel, and their young counterparts, and to collect their roses really, meant a lot for the people that grew up with those movies. The Fox X-Men opened up doors again for the modern superhero movie.
16. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Save for a couple of trips to Asgard, the majority of Marvel’s movies have been Earthbound. So it was a really nice change of pace to shoot the audience into the cosmos and introduce us to a whole new band of anti-hero misfits, led by Peter Quill, aka, Star Lord. Guardians of the Galaxy felt like the MCU pushing their creative boundaries and the result was this quirky, bizarre, joyous film filled with a lot of heart and a lot of nostalgia. Visually, it’s bright and colorful, and the cherry on top is the incredible soundtrack. Honestly, I feel like I could have just written “We are Groot” for this write-up and you all would have known exactly what I was trying to say.
15. Batman (1989)
Yeah I’m writing about Batman again, so what? I remember when the casting of Michael Keaton was announced for this film. Sure it made sense that he had already worked with Tim Burton before, but Keaton? As a superhero? No way. But damn did the man prove us all wrong … he is Batman. I saw this in the theater twice as a kid, my dad fell asleep both times. I honestly don’t think he ever finished the film in it’s entirety. To me almost everything about it was great, minus the Prince music if I’m being honest. And I think it’s sequel may be even better, but that’s for someone else to talk about.
14. Superman: The Movie (1978)
Superman: The Movie will always hold a special place in my heart. Not only is this one of the first superhero films I ever saw, it’s also the film that introduced me to the world of Superman, the last son of Krypton and his love for Lois Lane. While there have been a number of Superman stories told since then, none of them has ever been able to match the awe that this movie can generate whenever I watch it. And is that really a surprise? Look at what all went into this movie! You have Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent perfectly cast with Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando is the quintessential Jor-El, and lest we forget, Margot Kidder remains the Lois Lane in my opinion. This perfect casting is blended perfectly with John Williams’ iconic score to create a story that few superhero films can top.
13. Iron Man (2008)
Once upon a time, there was a fledgling movie studio that sprang out of a comic company, seeking to break through the cinematic noise without even the rights to their most iconic characters. Wow. 2008 seems like ages ago, doesn’t it? At this point it seems like Marvel Studios, like Thanos, was inevitable, but Marvel placed a big bet on Iron Man and boy did it ever pay off. Seeing this billionaire playboy genius philanthropist build his first ever Iron Man suit in a cave with a box of scraps and coming out a humbler man really sets the tone. And then becoming the obsessed scientist, endlessly tinkering in his garage until he has his first suit ready to fly – it’s all just exhilarating stuff we had never seen before. Unlike later movies, the suit is bulky and mechanical – and just freaking awesome. The whole scene taking out the terrorists in that little town remains one of the most iconic scenes in the MCU canon. And Stane is a great villain too, even if his transition to Iron monger is a little bit clunky. This film is the only reason we have the other 15 or so films on this list and deserves it’s rightful place among them as one of the greatest of all time.
12. Watchmen (2009)
Watchmen tells the story of an aging superhero gang attempting to reintegrate into society. However, when one of the team is brutally murdered, Rorschach, a vigilante, sets out to investigate the mysterious circumstances uncovering a raft of horrifying secrets. Being set to the backdrop of a late 80s dystopia, we see it tackle more than just your standard superhero tropes.
It is hands down one of the best superhero movies of all-time. Zack Snyder’s film is visually stunning with kick-ass action and some of the best characters of any superhero movie. One of the best aspects of the movie is that it is a superhero film for adults. No kiddie cartoon fun here. There are actual consequences where you never feel like the heroes are going to save the day and everyone lives happily ever after. The film (and comic) uses the powers and the celebrity of superheroes to satirize war-monger culture and the cold war. The cast is awesome, the script is fantastic while being dark and funny.
11. Batman Returns (1992)
Hot Take: Michelle Pfeiffer deserved an Oscar.
Hotter Take: Returns is Tim Burton’s best film.
29 years later and Batman Returns still slaps. Why? Sure the cast is next level. Production design is peak Burton. The Gotham gothic-ness is sinister yet endearing for all the right reasons. And the undeniable Christmas cheer! Underneath all of that sets a subversive masterpiece commenting on the tragedy of pursuing redemption.
Less superhero, more villainous character study. Easier said than done. But in this case, Returns sets the standard and, in many ways, has yet to be matched.
In the thick of this villain character study sets a symbolic imagery of celebration, joy, gratefulness, and the promise of renewal. Penguin tried to craft his own redemption narrative and it ended with an arctic funeral processional. Renewal certainly found Catwoman whether she liked it or not, and things got much more complicated … and sexual. Nevertheless, Returns delivers A+ goods in just about every meaningful metric: cast, narrative, production design, holiday flair, makeup, rewatchability, and high-octane entertainment. Plus, a delicious subversion of genre from the mind of Burton, back when he made good stuff. A darkly original yet deeply IP-driven blockbuster of yesteryear that still feels fresh and ghoulish for all right reasons. Take it in with DeVito and Pfeiffer’s career-best performances and you’ve got the makings of a delightfully unconventional superhero movie.
What do you think of the selection so far? What are some of your favorite superhero films? Maybe they will show up further on the list!