Is there anything that fans enjoy more than making Top Ten lists? I know for myself, there are honestly few things I’d rather do to pass my free time than debate the greatest, worst, most influential, favorite, you name it of whatever you want to talk about, whether that be movies, TV shows, restaurants, quarterbacks, color of socks, it really doesn’t matter.
And so, it had to happen. I’d like to present to you my very own Top Ten Greatest Superhero Movies of All Time list.
The standard verbiage for a Top Ten list absolutely applies here. My rankings are totally subjective, and I have no doubt in my mind that at least some of you will say “WHAAAAAAAAT??????!!!!!!!!!!” at least once in reading this list. Keep in mind that I use the word “Greatest” in the title, but they are the greatest in my opinion only. To me, each of these movies not only provides me with a few good wows and surprises, but also inspires and motivates me to some degree in my own life to be a hero. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want from a good superhero movie?
Let’s get right to it!
Ant-Man (2015) Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, and Michael Douglas; Directed by Peyton Reed
In Ant-Man, Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, an ex-con desperately trying to stay on the right side of the law to raise his daughter Cassie, whom he cherishes more than anything. Scott is tempted early and often to return to a life of crime, an easier choice than building a life from the ground up (including working at Baskin Robbins as a first job after prison) but the movie does such a great job keeping you invested that we actually want him to remain a good guy! By the time of Ant-Man’s release, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was rolling and seemingly turning whatever it touched into gold. That was never more so apparent than this movie, which took an admittedly lame comic book character and actually made him cool!
A perfect combination of great humor and great action, all the while staying grounded in its characters’ stories. I’d say it was a pretty good family movie, too. Not quite “Top Ten Greatest” material, but really, really great stuff.
Superman II (1980) Starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, and Terrence Stamp; Directed by Richard Donner and Richard Lester
I wanted to include this movie if for no other reason than just because of how iconic it has become for superhero fans nowadays. Terrence Stamp is fantastic as the Kryptonian war criminal General Zod, a villain so powerful that, along with his two sidekicks Ursa and Non, actually provide a genuine threat for Superman, which is no easy feat. Mix that in with some great character scenes by Christopher Reeve, who convincingly portrays a Superman struggling to juggle his responsibilities with his own happiness (a theme found all over the place on this list- more on that later), and you have some phenomenal stuff here.
The problem is that Richard Donner, the director of the massively successful first Superman film, left halfway through shooting its sequel because of a well-documented fight with its producers. The task of finishing the movie was then given to Richard Lester, whose forte as a director was slapstick humor (see the abysmal Superman III). The movie has too many hokey scenes and cheesy jokes which detract from the quality of the Donner scenes and for me the result was too disjointed to include in a top ten.
Batman (1989) Starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger; Directed by Tim Burton
I was absolutely obsessed with everything about this movie as a kid: Burton’s ultra-stylized Gotham City, the chemistry between Batman and the Joker, Danny Elfman’s amazing score, you name it. This movie did so many things right. It was the first movie that ever portrayed Batman as dark. Really, it was the first time that anything outside the comics ever portrayed Batman as dark. Tim Burton’s Batman is scary. He hides among gargoyles. He floats down the sides of buildings ominously. For the first time ever, the camp of the ‘60s Batman show is nowhere to be found, and the character is better for it.
The film’s downfall for me is that, watching it nowadays, it hasn’t aged very well. The effects and costumes look dated, the Prince soundtrack is like nails on a chalkboard, and worst of all, some of Tim Burton’s choices make you really scratch your head today. Michael Keaton is to this day probably my favorite Batman ever, but his Bruce Wayne is awkward, bumbling, and not really a guy I believe could be Batman. I so, so, so wanted to include this movie in my top ten. Had I done a top eleven list, this would probably just make it.
Best Moment: Great music elevates a good movie.
10. Superman Returns (2006) Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, and Kevin Spacey; Directed by Bryan Singer
Feel free to have your first “WHAAAAT???” reaction that I referred to above with this one.
Bryan Singer is an unabashed uber-fan of Richard Donner’s original Superman films (as if you couldn’t tell by looking at this movie for 30 seconds) and lovingly restores that vision to the present day here. Say what you will, but this movie got it right. Superman in this movie is a hero. He is an ideal, a role model, not unlike Captain America in the current Marvel movies. Superman here is a GOOD GUY. Superman Returns is a positive, uplifting movie, and doesn’t hold back or apologize for doing so. And really, why should it? It’s Superman!
Superman’s supporting cast is phenomenal here, as well, full of accomplished actors and Superman TV show veterans. Kevin Spacey, in particular, is amazing as Lex Luthor, and I don’t care if his land scheme makes any sense or not. There is a real menace that drips off of every one of his lines, and Singer takes full advantage.
The only reason this movie isn’t much, much higher on this list is not because of Superman’s son, which didn’t bother me nearly as much as it did everyone else, but because Kate Bosworth and Brandon Routh are too young. In fact, for a movie that’s supposed to take place after a five-year gap, they’re way too young. While I understand casting actors who are young enough to be available for an eventual franchise of movies, it hurts the credibility of the story here. Even so, despite being rebooted five years later, I’ll take Superman Returns over Man of Steel any day.
Best Moment: This scene ALONE lands the movie a spot on my top ten:
9. Spider-Man 2 (2004) Starring Toby Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Alfred Molina; Directed by Sam Raimi
Peter Parker might just be the most relatable superhero ever. His life is a mess. He has money problems. He has girl problems. He just can’t seem to juggle having a personal life, getting good grades or even holding down a job with his tremendous sense of duty to his late uncle’s memory. Each of us finds ourselves in a similar situation at one time or another in our lives, and how we respond to these problems is what defines us as people. Are we tempted to take the easy way out and think only of ourselves first, if it means struggling no more? Or are we willing to take the harder, more narrow path to do the right thing even if it means our problems won’t go away?
This is the central theme of Spider-Man as a character, and is the central theme of this movie, which for me is still the best Spider-Man film to date. Sam Raimi did a great job setting the table in Spider-Man two years prior, and kicks it up several notches with this one. It doesn’t hurt that the villain of the piece, Doctor Octopus, is an intriguing, tragic character who is at one time Peter’s professor and a victim of his own good intentions. Everything flows together beautifully, and by the end we as an audience know that, truly, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.”
Best line Stan Lee ever wrote. 🙂
8. The Dark Knight (2008) Starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger; Directed by Christopher Nolan
Here is where a lot of you are having a second “WHAAAAT???” moment, and I get it. For some, this is the gold standard of what superhero movies should be, and the number one on many lists I read. Christopher Nolan is an absolutely amazing director. The movie is superbly acted, tightly edited, well directed, pretty much everything you’re looking for in any movie, and certainly in a superhero movie. Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker has now become the stuff of legend, as has Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face, Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon, and on down the list. I’ll admit, it is a very nearly perfect movie.
The reason it’s so far down this list, and why I even struggled to keep it on this list, is because of Batman himself.
(Ducks flying objects being hurled in his direction)
If Michael Keaton is a great Batman but a poor Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale is the exact opposite. Even though I prefer unknown actors to play these characters, I think his Bruce Wayne is fine. The problem is he overacts every time he’s in the Batman costume, and the fact that he has a lisp, a horribly synthesized “Batman voice,” and a triple chin when wearing his mask really doesn’t do him any favors. In a recent article Bale told an interviewer that he never really made the character “his own” while playing him, and I’m inclined to agree. For me, the movie is better when Batman is not even on screen. And if your main character is the weakest link in an otherwise amazing movie, well, sorry.
Still a great movie overall though. And we did get some hilarious Youtube videos out of it, too. 🙂
Best Moment: Pretty much all of it, so here’s the trailer.
7. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) Starring Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey, Jr, James Spader; Directed by Joss Whedon
I wasn’t quite as thrilled with this movie when I first saw it (see my review from two years ago here), but having watched it again recently, and seeing where the Marvel Cinematic Universe went after it, I have a new appreciation of this one. It’s a darker film than its predecessor. It depicts a very blurry line between right and wrong, which the antagonist happily reminds the audience of each time he’s on screen. The characters don’t even like each other in every scene. But at the end of the day, like every good hero would, they put aside their differences and work together to do the right thing.
The movie enjoys swimming in the now fully established shared universe its characters occupy. Their chemistry, already very strong from the first film and in their individual films, is now given a whole new dimension with new characters and a new mission. In Ultron, Whedon has the unenviable task of giving all ELEVEN Avengers a scene or two for each to shine in, and does a fantastic job of it without harming the integrity of the story. Yes, it was a setup movie, a middle chapter for other films, and as such may not exactly stand on its own, but then again, neither did The Empire Strikes Back. Besides, each of the MCU films is meant to fit into a greater narrative anyway, which is half the fun! In the end, Whedon set out to make a continuation of what he himself began in Avengers while keeping it distinct, and he succeeds Marvelously. 🙂
Best Moment: I love the Avengers theme from the first film interpreted by superhero movie veteran Danny Elfman:
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Starring Chris Evans, Scarlet Johansson and Sebastian Stan; Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Winter Soldier does so many things amazingly well. In the first Captain America movie, we meet and follow Cap in his own element- fighting Nazis in the 1940s. In this movie, we meet and follow a displaced Captain America, one who is now very much a part of the 21st century and trying to redefine himself. Despite feeling like a fish out of water throughout, somehow Steve Rogers finds out who his new enemy is, and teaches the audience that maybe the things he stood for in WWII- truth, freedom, democracy- have not only remained in style but are more relevant now than ever before.
Wrapped around this amazing theme is an incredible villain from Cap’s past, the Winter Soldier, who is every bit Steve’s equal but a darker, mirror image. Throw in the breathtaking action sequences and political thriller scenes, and I’d include this in a top ten spy movie list as well. This movie carved out a corner of the Marvel Universe for Captain America to occupy for years to come, and really is what a superhero movie should be in so many ways.
5. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Starring Christian Bale and Tom Hardy; Directed by Christopher Nolan
It’s getting old now, so I won’t even quote your reaction, but I’m pretty sure I can hear you from here.
Often considered the weakest movie of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, I enjoyed Rises the most. The movie has the usual Nolan quality- tight editing, beautiful direction, excellent acting, high stakes, etc, only with a new twist: Batman’s war has been over for eight years. After cleaning up the city and restoring peace in the wake of the Joker’s attacks, we see that Bruce Wayne has cloistered himself in his mansion without even an inkling of what to do with his life. Since this is a Batman movie though, a menace eventually emerges and Batman once again rides in on his white horse (or Batmobile/Hummer thing, anyway) to save the day. The theme of this movie is the question some face when considering retirement- who am I if not defined by my job? Saving the day works in superhero movies, but what about real life? Do we define ourselves based on what we do? And how far will we go to find out?
Despite Warner Bros.’ urging to use the Riddler for the final chapter of the trilogy, Nolan went completely against type and gave us a relatively unknown but far more interesting villain, Bane, along with the more familiar quasi-ally Catwoman. For that alone, I love this movie. For me the dynamic between Batman and all the bad guys, as well as the aforementioned retiring theme, just works. The result is phenomenal. A fitting final chapter in a landmark superhero saga.
On top of that, whoever’s decision it was to have Batman speak about half as much and not synthesize Bale’s voice deserves some kind of an award for granting the rest of us mercy.
4. X2: X-Men United (2003) Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Brian Cox; Directed by Bryan Singer
I have always been a huge X-Men fan. I’m not sure if it’s the theme of “gifted but not fitting in” which all pre-teens and teens relate to, or if it’s the premise of mutation and how it’s perceived, or something else. All I know is something about it has always really worked for me.
Despite not being made by Marvel Studios (which didn’t exist yet), the X-Men franchise was handed to a capable director in 1999 to be brought to the big screen. Like Sam Raimi did with his Spider-Man films, Bryan Singer had already set the table for the X-Men franchise in his first film, and then really went to town with the sequel. Of the ten X-Men films made to date, to me Singer’s second outing will always be the best. It captured the tone of the characters and the overall story absolutely perfectly. Even though some casting decisions were clearly made with box office more in mind than faithful adaptation of the material (*cough*Halle Berry*cough*), the movie still accomplishes what it sets out to do.
The theme of this film and of the X-Men as a book is that the heroes are a persecuted minority fighting to protect those who hate and fear them. The greatest adversary the X-Men face is not a super powered villain with a cape and mask, but human hatred. There are super villains in the stories, to be sure, but even they are meant to be juxtaposed against the real antagonists. Is Magneto’s way of “kill or be killed” the best solution to mutant persecution? Or is Professor Xavier’s “dream”- a clear metaphor for Martin Luther King, Jr.- of mutants and humans peacefully coexisting worth fighting and dying for? Very powerful questions, and Singer puts them at the heart of the film.
Sadly, no X-Men movie has even come close to replicating what this one accomplished, although several have tried. At least we got X2 before the wheels fell off…
3. Superman: The Movie (1978) Starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman; Directed by Richard Donner
There’s a very good case to be made for this being THE greatest superhero movie of all time. While I wouldn’t quite go that far, it’s importance to the superhero genre cannot be overstated.
Following the success of Star Wars a year prior, Warner Bros. set out to make a sci-fi mega franchise of their own out of a property they already had the rights to. The ultra-ambitious Richard Donner did just that, by crafting the first serious take on a superhero ever. Is it ever lost on anyone that the writer of this movie was also the writer of The Godfather Parts I and II? Or the fact that two of the stars of the movie- Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman- were already multiple Academy Award winners by the time of its release? Throw in the Shakespearean trained Christopher Reeve, a tight story and cutting edge special effects and you have the makings of a classic.
Donner gets it, and it shows. Superman’s Kryptonian parents die in Krypton’s explosion so that baby Kal-El may survive. The powerful image of young Clark reflecting on his human father’s life lessons at his grave. The “quest” to the north pole to discover his Kryptonian heritage and who he is meant to be. The question of what it means to be a hero and the sacrifices and hardships that come with it. All are woven together into a magnificent opus. The pacing and unfolding of the story is so effective that we know who Superman is before he even appears on screen in costume.
The effects nowadays do look a little hokey and my word, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is not exactly the greatest villain of all time, even less so his two lackies, who are easily the weakest part of the entire movie. Still, this was a labor of love by Donner and a love letter in many ways to Superman and superheroes in general. Although not completely perfect, this film was and still is the basis of all superhero movies that succeeded it.
In short, we believed a man could fly.
Best Moment: One of the most iconic themes in cinema history played against a beautiful montage:
2. Iron Man (2008) Starring Robert Downey, Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges; Directed by Jon Favreau
In many ways, the movie that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still the best one.
When it was announced that Robert Downey, Jr had been cast as Tony Stark, it signaled to fans like me that the folks at the newly formed Marvel Studios knew what they were doing (see my article on “Demon in a Bottle” here). Much to everyone’s pleasant surprise, it wasn’t just the casting they got perfect, but pretty much everything else as well. A superhero film achievement was the result.
Everything in this movie worked. RDJ’s portrayal of Tony Stark’s simultaneous success and frailty comes across brilliantly. The actors have chemistry. The film is over two hours but feels like seventy-five minutes because of how well edited it is. The theme of the story- admitting one’s mistakes and making amends- is perfect for an origin story. The film begins with Tony Stark a spoiled, self-centered billionaire and ends with him a hero. And, speaking of endings, the movie also did us the favor of making the after credits scene a staple in every superhero movie!
The two highest grossing movies of 2008 were The Dark Knight and Iron Man, which also happen to be two of the greatest superhero films ever. We are still reaping the benefits.
Best Moment: I absolutely love the strings/hard rock score by Ramin Djawadi.
1. The Avengers (2012) Starring Robert Downey, Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston; Directed by Joss Whedon
It doesn’t get any better than this.
After five years of steadily building one individual superhero film after another (and good ones, too!), the payoff was Joss Whedon’s first and still greatest Avengers. Had there ever been a movie, in any genre, of a collection of main characters from individual movies that come together in one shared universe for one common adventure? Even more impressive was how the director handled each character when assembling them. Despite the fact that the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor (and by extension Loki, Black Widow and Hawkeye) had been directed by four very different directors, you’d never know it in this film. Every character is in character, and is given moments to shine that play to their strengths as if it were their own movie. Clearly under the watchful eye of Marvel Studios’ producer Kevin Feige and his team, Joss Whedon gave us what is for me the best superhero movie of all time.
The crazy thing about the Avengers is that, unlike the Justice League or even the X-Men, they really have no business being a team at all! Each character is absolutely nothing like the other, and no one common bond unites them other than doing good.
The way in which they realize this is the driving force of this story. After first being reluctant to work together, each character realizes they have unique gifts that do work together. The common threat of Loki and an alien invasion, along with Agent Coulson’s heroic sacrifice, are what brings the inner hero out of each character and the glue that ultimately brings the team together. In reality, it’s a wonderful lesson for any group of people, be it a sports team, co-workers, family or even church to remember: we are stronger when we are united, and don’t let rough edges get in the way. Or, to put it another way, we are greater than the sum of our parts.
I’ve never had so much fun watching a movie in the theater. Seeing a culmination of so many characters, stories and themes fantastically mashed into one superhero epic is entertaining as anything. And I’d be lying if I didn’t play the theme song in my car.
All the time.
Best Moment: Everything.
That’s the list! Agree or disagree? Feel free to send me comments in the section below. Hope you enjoyed it!