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!
40. Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015)
This film couldn’t be more controversial or polarizing if it tried and I fucking love every second of it. Superman as the son of Zod? Sold. Batman as a vampire? Double sold. Wonder Woman being a New God instead of an “old god” from Greek mythology? Jesus Christ, just take all of my goddamn money. It’s one of the only animated DC films I continually revisit because it’s just so goddamn strong. But I understand why people wouldn’t like it. It’s a huge fucking departure from the norm but why is that a negative? Mix the shit up. Take risks. Be bold. This film should be the example everyone uses when pitching a crazy new idea because sometimes the craziest ideas are the best.
39. Shazam! (2019)
I can’t lie. I have not been a huge fan of DC films. Perhaps I got spoiled by the MCU? Or I just had trouble finding the DC superheroes as interesting. But… DC began to win me over with their incredible origin story of Diana Prince and then came Shazam! I really wasn’t sure what to expect but Shazam! ended up being so incredibly endearing and wonderfully balanced with action and humor. Zachary Levi channels his best Tom Hanks (Big), except instead of being stuck in the body of an adult man, he’s a teenager stuck in the body of an adult man who is also a superhero, and he really does a fabulous job exuding innocent joy and uncertainty. Granted, the plot of Shazam! is pretty basic and it could have perhaps used a more exciting villain and a tighter script, but there is enough to like in Shazam! that I am more than happy to overlook its flaws.
38. X-Men (2000)
The godfather of 21st Century comic book movies. Not to mention that it still holds-up beautifully 20 years later and is a damn fine rewatch too. Thinking back to catching it in cinemas for the first time, I’m remembering how marvelous it was to see Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan anchoring the infamous characters. At the time of release, things almost felt like the wild west. Formula hadn’t been perfected yet, some ideas were better than others, but this film was just as likely to be a flop as it was a success. The buy-in from viewers hadn’t been earned yet. Tough to remember that these days, but the influence of X-Men and its success cannot be understated. Not to mention, it’s a flat out solid blockbuster. Just enough origin to keep us in the loop; not too much gate keeping to alienate; fantastic special effects (for the time); and about as fine a cast from top to bottom as you’ll find in the game. X-Men represents the best of what the American Cinematic Zeitgeist can be.
37. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2012/2013)
Considering it’s one of the most influential comics ever made, it’s surprising how long it took DC to get around to making an animated movie adaptation of it. It’s importance cannot be understated. There is no Marvel Cinematic Universe without it. There is no Tim Burton’s Batman without it and there’s certainly no Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy without this book.
Every piece of entertainment whether it be music or literature or movies, has that “thing” that comes out of nowhere that becomes a defining moment in history. I call it the “Star Wars moment.” Where you can trace the evolution of all pop culture back to a single event and determine that there was a time before and a time after that event. That’s how important Star Wars is and that’s how important the Dark Knight Returns is. It redefined what a comic book could be. They were no longer consider funny books that only children would buy. This was literature.
This film was originally a two-parter, but there was no way I was going to separate them because who the fuck would only read half the book? When you adapt the greatest Batman comic of all time, you include everything, even if that means you need to split it up to do it. You don’t want to leave a word unused or a moment trimmed for time. All parts are essential. As is the casting. There might not be a more intimidating work to adapt without the safety net of Conroy and Hamill. Some fans are a bit disappointed that they weren’t asked to come back but when you have Peter Weller and Michael Emerson knocking it out of the park, it’s hard to stay mad for long.
36. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
While not the most popular origin story in the MCU, I will fight to the death that The First Avenger was still one of the strongest. It may not be as action-packed as some of the others, but it was still amazingly entertaining to watch the evolution of Steve Rogers into Captain America. The movie also sets in motion what is to come in future films such as The Avengers, The Winter Soldier, and even Avengers: End Game. Steve suffers plenty of loss in TFA, but he never falters and proves he is more worthy of the shield when he sacrifices himself to save the world. I remember very clearly how powerful it is when Steve wakes up in the present day to realize everything and everyone he’s ever known is gone. “I had a date.” Heart. Broken.
35. Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)
Hey y’all, let’s jump into the wayback machine and go all the way back to the crazy days of the ’90s. Yeah, we’re not done talking about that stupid ass decade yet. After the success of Batman, every studio in existence wanted a piece of that fat money cake but none wanted to pony up the coin to get one of the popular characters, so they all decided that obscure independent or old ass pulp novels were the way to go. In a short period of time, we got films based on: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Rocketeer, Dick Tracy, and The Crow. With the exception of The Crow and the Ninja Turtles, they all had one thing in common: they were period pieces. We had an obsession with making hero flicks set in the ’30s. The ’90s man, a crazy time.
The New Frontier is set in the sixties, so the comparison doesn’t really make sense but it feels like what those films were trying and failing to do. Which is to not only capture look and feel of a time period but embrace what was great about it. To celebrate it. The New Frontier is many things but at it’s core is an absolute love letter to a bygone era where edginess and cynicism don’t exist and where Superheroes would save cats from trees. A quaint time that Hollywood doesn’t depict anymore and that’s why it’s so important. Sometimes all we need is a film about good guys doing good things.
34. Wonder Woman (2017)
As the DCEU and MCU continued to churn out movie after movie for over a decade, I was waiting (im)patiently for one of those movies to be headlined by a female superhero. After enduring plenty of “discussion” about whether or not the world was ready for a female superhero movie, the DCEU finally came through with Diana Prince’s origin story, Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins. In a way, Diana reminded me a lot of Steve Rogers in The First Avenger. Straightforward and unapologetic in her values, worthy of her own power even while trying to find her place in the world against the backdrop of a bleak war. Wonder Woman maintained a perfect balance of action, humor, and romance that I felt had been missing from the previous DCEU entries. And it gave us one of the most empowering, thrilling moments in superhero history with Diana’s cross of No Man’s Land.
33. Deadpool (2016)
People like to complain about “fan service” a lot. Sometimes they have valid points. When it comes to Deadpool, the limit of fan service doesn’t exist. We deserved Deadpool. We deserved to be serviced! Especially after what we saw in the putrid X-Men Origins movie. When we saw them mutilate our boy like that. We needed justice. That film’s only bright side was Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson. On the other hand, we shouldn’t be so hard on the Origins team. After all, they did give us Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson. Years and years and leaked test footage later, we finally get a beautiful adaptation of the Merc with the Mouth! Reynolds and Wilson are a pair made in … I wouldn’t say heaven, but you get it. They are made for each other. So much so, after the purchase of 20th Century Fox, Marvel Studios boss, Kevin Feige, came out to relax everybody. The pair are staying together and we should see them again, but next time, in the MCU!
32. The Crow (1994)
The Crow has a strong cult following and it’s easy to see why. The gothic setting and atmosphere, uniquely cool looking hero and banging soundtrack. Add all that to the controversy around Brandon Lee’s death and you’ve got plenty of intrigue and multiple talking points. At its heart, The Crow is a revenge tale, where Eric Craven (Lee) rises from his grave to avenge the rape and murder of his fiancé. Not to mention his own murder. Some elements have aged a bit by today’s standards and that might put younger viewers off. I still find it as pulsating to watch today as I did when it was first released over 20 years ago.
31. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
There was a time when this held the record for the most successful independent movie of all time. Dirt cheap horror movies eventually dethroned it but it had that title for damn near a decade and it’s not just because comic book fans were hungry for a decent superhero movie in the 90s, it’s because everyone, not just nerds, saw this thing in theaters. It’s crazy to me that this started off as a comic for adults (the first issue has April O’Neil almost get raped and Shredder getting decapitated) when the premise lends itself perfectly to children. It’s a group of mutated turtles that learn ninjutsu and love pizza, you couldn’t create a more appealing story for kids. The cartoon was so great, it made me want to live in the sewers. Not the bat cave or the fortress of solitude, a nasty ass sewer. That’s how big of an impact the turtles had on me and everyone else in the 80s. We bought the toys, we ate the ice cream and when they announced a movie, we lost our minds.
We could’ve wait to see the turtles in live action and looking back at it now, I’m amazed they didn’t fuck it up. They not only made a movie with turtle and rat puppets not look ridiculous but actually made it believable. There was an edge to this movie. Splinter bleeds. The turtles cry when they think they’ve failed. People die. This was the first superhero movie that took the lessons from Burton’s Batman movie, the most important one being, “take this shit seriously.” If you create something real, people will buy the ridiculous. People bought into this world and these characters because they were real. There are turtles living in the sewers of New York and when it’s dark out, they come out and fight crime. The film never needed to wink at its audience to sell its premise and it never undercuts a serious moment with a joke, which is a lesson both the MCU and the DCEU could learn.
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!