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!
50. The Golden Bat (1966)
Predating both comics, manga, and anime as we know it, The Golden Bat is one of the world’s oldest superheroes. Originating in the Japanese art of Kamishibai (translated as “paper theater”), these slide shows laid the groundwork for manga and even though they’re almost 100 years old, there are still stands operating today. That’s how popular he is in Japan — people will pay money to see someone narrate over stills when they can easily watch his adventures on their phones. And it’s not just Japan. Italy, Germany, and South Korea all have shows and movies dedicated to the character, with South Korea being so obsessed with him, that the rip-offs of him, also have rip-offs.
His influence can be seen on pop culture throughout the world and everything from TV to manga to anime has his fingerprints on it. While a good chunk of his movies have been lost to time, there is one that still exists. Released one year before the anime, the 1966 live-action movie stars future martial arts legend Sonny Chiba and is just as great as it is bananas. The film is about a group of scientists who must go to a mysterious island in the Pacific to find a special mineral to power the only lazer strong enough to explode a rogue planet that’s about to collide with Earth. While there, they discover that the island is guarded by a mad scientist (alien?) who will stop anyone from discovering the mineral because he engineered the planets collision in the first place. But what the mad scientist doesn’t realize, is that the island is the home of a sleeping 10,000-year-old super mummy who just woke up and is now hungry for action.
Armed with a powerful cane that he uses to thwap anyone in his vicinity and with basically every other superpower in existence, The Golden Bat delights in beating the shit out of his foes so much, that his catchphrase is just him cackling to himself. This isn’t a superhero that follows the hero’s journey. He doesn’t have to train nor is he ever tested. He’s far more powerful than everyone else in the movie, so the fun is just watching him kick as much ass as he can in 90 minutes. He’s a super-powered mummy who can’t die, has every power imaginable, and laughs while he beats people with a stick. Why are we still obsessed with Superman and Batman again?
49. Kick-Ass (2010)
Sometimes, a movie just needs to be fun. Kick-Ass fits that bill and is something that I can put on any time of the day, any time of the year, and know that it will put a smile on my face. Full of humour but not without its fair share of action and hard-hitting moments, it gets this mix just right. I’m not familiar with the Mark Millar comics but Matthew Vaughn’s directorial style just feels perfect for a comic book adaptation. The plot follows an ordinary teenager who sets out to become the real-life superhero, Kick-Ass. It’s not your typical superhero character arc as it follows a more realistic angle, with our protagonist on the receiving end of many beatdowns. But that’s part of what sets it apart from the crowd and makes it a must-watch.
48. The Rocketeer (1991)
Nothing fuels the nostalgia train quite like The Rocketeer. I mean, this movie has everything to make a superhero fan happy. Want to watch an All-American hero punch Nazis? The Rocketeer has you covered. Looking for a fun caper that’s fun for the whole family? The Rocketeer has the Disney treatment without selling out too much of action. Or do you simply need to relive the simpler times of childhood? The Rocketeer has aged surprisingly well.
Equal parts homage to cinema’s golden age and good-hearted adventure, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more universally approachable title than The Rocketeer. Brilliantly self-aware while still selling the “camp is high art” concept. It’s impossible to have a bad time when firing this one up. I wish they made more like it. Certainly, there’s room for flicks like this one alongside the self-serious connected universe sagas, right? Anyway, the world is more fun, more wholesome, more honest, and more beautiful because movies like The Rocketeer exist. If for nothing else, that would be enough to make it worthwhile.
47. The Mask (1994)
In an alternate universe, The Mask is a horror-comedy because that’s what the studio wanted when they bought the rights to it. They wanted their own Freddy Krueger knock off and somehow, they heard about this comic that involves a magical mask that grants people the power to do anything they want, which usually involves bloody revenge, and decided it would be perfect. Their plans ultimately died once they hired Carrey. Realizing they had a potential comedy classic on their hands, they quickly rewrote the script to suit Carrey and the rest is history. He single-handedly turned this from a horror movie into a comedy and not only that, he was so adept at the prosthetic work, he saved the production thousands of dollars of CGI because they never had to enhance his facial features.
He could not only act through the thick makeup but makes it seem like his actual skin. While Cameron Diaz was never hotter and Peter Green was never more menacing, this film does not work without Carrey’s performance. Between the constant improvs, ad-libs, and Buster Keaton level physical comedy, Carrey is earning every penny of his huge ass paycheck. Since it doesn’t follow the typical definition of a superhero movie, his performance is never listed amongst the greatest of the genre like Robert Downey Jr or Hugh Jackman but I’d argue it’s just as great and just integral to the success of his film as they are too theirs. I can’t say that it’s an important superhero film but I do think it deserves some credit for helping legitimize a trash genre that took another eight years to crawl out of the garbage.
46. Darkman (1990)
After bursting the scene with his horror breakout Evil Dead movies, Sam Raimi set out to complete a career goal of his and that was to direct a superhero film. After Batman and The Shadow slipped through his fingers because he was unproven on the mainstream level, he simply just created his own superhero movie with his own blend of zany darkness. In steps, Darkman.
A scientist, played by the wonderful Liam Neeson, is horrifically deformed during an attack by a group of thugs. He then develops synthetic skin to help him get his revenge. Seems like a typical superhero set up but Raimi mixes in his unique directing style with a dash of Universal Monster love to help give this superhero flick a more violent and dark feel. Watching Neeson goes bananas during the carnival scene is worth the watch alone.
45. Mystery Men (1999)
“Everybody heard me say ‘reset button,’ right?” Mystery Men came and went in 1999 with barely a ripple, but it’s always been one of my favorite superhero movies. Featuring a (then) all-star cast, including Ben Stiller, Geoffrey Rush, Janeane Garofalo, Greg Kinnear, and Tom Waits, Mystery Men is a film about the second or third-tier heroes, the working-class men, and women without the flashy powers of supers like Captain Amazing, who nevertheless need to step up and do battle with the city’s greatest villain, Casanova Frankenstein.
There’s some subtext in the film, Kinnear’s Captain Amazing is a commentary on the corporate nature of mainstream superheroes, his uniform covered in sponsorship logos and with a willingness to put the city in danger to get some front-page press. Really, though, it’s a character-based comedy, with most of the fun coming from the interactions and conflicts, from The Shoveler’s marital stress, Mister Furious’ anger (and personality) issues, and The Spleen’s, well, flatulence. Not every joke lands, but there are so many of them, and so many good lines, that you forgive the occasional clunker.
The Mystery Men started out as a group of blue-collar superheroes in Bob Burden’s surrealist superhero comic, The Flaming Carrot. The offbeat, random and just plain weird tone of the comic doesn’t quite translate to the film by Kinka Usher (his sole feature), but it finds its own voice – with humor, pathos, action, and, yeah, weirdness – that’s both funny and endearing. Mystery Men might not have set the box office on fire, or even had that much influence on superhero media in general (though I feel like The Boys has some parallels), but it’s an incredibly fun, entertaining, and quotable film. It might be fairly low in this list, but in my own personal ranking – to quote The Sphinx – “We are number one. All others are number two or lower.”
44. Justice League Dark: Apokolips War (2020)
It seems unlikely that the DC Extended Universe will ever build up to anything close to Apokolips War. It’s a glorious and bloody grand finale of the New 52 Movie Universe that DC Animation spent six years building towards. Set after Darkseid conquered Earth, it follows Constantine, Raven, and Superman as they assemble what is left of the Justice League (and their affiliates) to try for one last chance to take back their planet. It’s the emotional and action-packed equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame only better. It is everything a live-action DC universe should be building towards.
43. Iron Man 3 (2013)
The post-Avengers landscape had an impact on both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and our own. For us, the idea of a cinematic universe became a must-have for a studio and within the next three years, there was everything from a DC Extended Universe to a Transformers Universe to the Dark Universe. Frankly, it got a bit much. However, the impact was much more profound in the MCU. The Battle of New York became their 9/11. No one was affected more than Tony Stark. He was still a billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, but he was now suffering from PTSD brought on by his brief heroic sacrifice at the end of Marvel’s The Avengers. The audience was able to see a side of Stark that was new. In many ways, Iron Man 3 is the end of the old Stark and the beginning of the Stark we see throughout Phases 2 and 3.
Iron Man 3 gets a lot of flack for ending with Tony Stark, sans arc reactor, seemingly giving up the Iron Man identity remarking that he is Iron Man even without the suit; however, then showing up in Avengers: Age of Ultron suited up. I think that Stark’s closing lines in Iron Man 3 hold more meaning than some give them credit for. Iron Man 3 closes the chapter on Stark’s evolution into a man worthy of operating an Iron Man suit. When Stark first became Iron Man, he was still a genius playboy that had only just had his eyes opened to the world he helped create via Stark Industries. By the end of Iron Man 3, Stark has developed into a character that is far less self-centered and is ready to help with the betterment of society.
Anyone can operate an Iron Man suit, this film makes that abundantly clear. However, not everyone is worthy of operating one. The Stark we see in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming has learned from his past mistakes and realized that he can still help the world without being in an Iron Man. Iron Man 3 shows that Stark, like his suits, can adapt and evolve over time. He doesn’t need the suit to be able to uphold the beliefs of Iron Man. He is Iron Man and that’s enough.
42. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
This movie has no business being this fantastic. Well, maybe that would be the case in the hands of literally anyone else. But when the project is helmed by Guillermo del Toro, the bar gets raised. Hellboy II is not just one of the stronger superhero movie sequels, it’s a top-shelf second installment period. From the opening myth recalled by puppet animation, to the perfectly cynical Ron Perlman, to the story of a prince desperate to defend his dying people — del Toro captured a rare phenomenon with the best of cult-classic comic book lore.
But the pinnacle is found in the healing scene. Hellboy laid before the Angel of Death; Liz facing an impossible decision; and the weight of everything hanging in the balance. That lone scene stands as one of the darkly beautiful moments comic book cinema has ever given us. Again, only something that devastating, that tenderly misshapen could come from a true visionary like del Toro. Hefty in narrative and statement, but sharp in humor and spectacle, Hellboy II is a rare one in the finest sense of superhero cinema. This movie is a gift.
41. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Guardians of the Galaxy took the superhero world by storm in 2014 when it gave us something different from what we were used to in the MCU. James Gunn introduced this motley crew of characters with a kick-ass soundtrack and took us on a fun space adventure. The fact he was able to do it a second time is extremely impressive. In Vol. 2, the beloved characters were already established and here we get to take an even more intimate look at this newly found family. We got the kick-ass soundtrack again and a grandiose space adventure but where Gunn really excelled here is by allowing each character to have their time to shine. Plus, having the incredible Kurt Russell playing the human embodiment of a god and watching Michael Rooker as Yandu steal every scene he was in certainly helps your case for one of the best superhero movies of all-time.
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!