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50 Greatest Superhero Movies of All Time

From the campy to the grimdark, the dark knights of Gotham City to the defenders of Wakanda — these are the best superhero films to ever pow, zap and websling to a theater near you

Rolling Stone Jun 30, 2022

Illustration by Matt Cooley. Photographs in Illustration; 20th Century Studios/Everett; Warner Bros/Everett; Pixar/Disney; Clay Enos/Warner Bros; Sony Pictures/Everett Collection; Marvel Studios; Everett Collection; 20th Century Studios/Marvel Studios; Warner Bros/Everett Collection

By DAVID FEAR & BRIAN HIATT & ALAN SEPINWALL & MOSI REEVES & JOE GROSS & STEPHEN GARRETT

When Action Comics No. 1 hit newsstands in June of 1938 and readers met Krypton’s number-one-son Superman, it was a big-bang event that kicked off what would become the Great American Superhero Obsession. Naturally, the movies wanted in on this craze as well. Thus, a few years later, serials like The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Batman (1943) and Captain America (1944) became matinee staples; even the Man of Steel would get his own 15-part adventure in 1948. Later, these comic-book characters would get co-opted by this newfangled invention called “television,” and you could tune in watch George Reeves move faster than a speeding bullet, Adam West and Burt Ward zap-blam-pow their way through a who’s-who of Bat-villains and Bill Bixby go from mild-mannered drifter to a raging green hulk. Don’t even get us started on Saturday morning cartoons.

By the time superheroes started making their way back to the big screen in the late 1970s and the 1980s, these defenders of truth and justice had become universally recognized icons — you didn’t have to be a comic-book reader to know what that black-and-yellow bat insignia meant, or understand that a red mask with white eyes and a web design equaled your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. And when the one-two punch of the first X-Men movie and Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man hit theaters within a few years of each other, the stage was set for the first part of the 21st century to give birth to what’s now a Golden Age of Superhero Movies.

So, after having navigated several cinematic universes and traveled through a host of multiverses, fought infinity wars and played endgames, rode shotgun with webslingers and prowled alongside dark knights and hung with so many supergroups that we’ve practically become charter members, we’ve ranked the top 50 superhero movies of all time. From the campy to the grimdark, the late nights in Gotham City to the sunrises in Wakanda, these are the films that both define the genre and have helped turn the thrill of watching comic-book characters leap on to the screen into a multiplex lingua franca.

50. ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ (2021)

Photo : HBO Max

Forget, just for a second, the torturous online campaigns and toxic fandoms, the studio-brass handwringing, the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and — please, in the name of Jor-El — the theatrical cut of what was designed to be the pinnacle of DC’s Extended Universe. Zack Snyder’s long, extended version of his supergroup epic does not just improve upon its predecessor; it demonstrates a reverence for these legacy characters, fleshes out some key backstories, and drops everyone into a battle royale against a much more worthy villain. (Give it up for Apokolips’ heavyweight champion of the universe, Darkseid!) This is the superhero movie as self-serious Wagnerian sturm-und-drang epic, a riot of slo-mo action sequences and narrative big-swings that, for at least four hours, makes you feel like there’s someone who is treating these DCEU heroes and villains like the gods and monsters they are on the page. —D.F.

49. ‘Ghost Rider’ (2007)

Photo : Sony Pictures Imageworks

Give it for the iconoclastic Nicolas Cage: As Johnny Blaze, he tumbles off a motorcycle and bursts into flames, twitching and emoting in agony amidst a mock-operatic musical score as he transforms into the macabre 1970s antihero. It’s a scene as awesome as one might expect. But there’s also his pairing with Eva Mendes, and the way the two generate real sparks on screen. Overall, the movie is shamelessly goofy fun in a way that rewards casual, expectation-free viewing. We didn’t get Cage as Superman, but at least we got Cage as Ghost Rider. —M.R.

48. ‘Megamind’ (2010)

Photo : ©Paramount/Everett Collection

This animated flick dares ask the question: “What if Lex Luthor was a big-headed, blue-skinned alien who had a thing for Lois Lane — and then won big because Superman just wasn’t all that into his job?” Will Ferrell’s dastardly bad guy Megamind goes full-Goofus to the Gallant that is Brad Pitt’s bro-of-steel Metro Man; Tina Fey is a spotless semi-romantic foil; and David Cross was born to play the earnest-yet-obsequious bad-guy minion, i.e. a fish sitting atop a robot body. It’s funny, heart-felt and the rare parody of super-rivalry stories that works just as well as a superhero movie. —J.G.

47. ‘Infra-Man’ (1975)

Photo : Everett Collection

Inspired by the runaway success of the Japanese TV show Ultraman, legendary Hong Kong movie producer Runme Shaw decided to come up with own story of a scientist (Danny Lee) who’s turned into a bionic hero with superstrength, laser-beam eyes and the ability to grow 20 stories tall — all the better to fight any kaiju that a recently awakened demon princess throws his way. Sure, it’s campy in the same way that a lot of those Seventies’ Godzilla movies were. But it’s also an absolute blast, and you can see the trace influences of this nuclear-energy fueled, martial-arts fighting, metal-glove launching defender of Earth (described in the hyperventilating trailer as “six million light years beyond believability!”) everywhere from the Power Rangers series to Pacific Rim. —D.F.

46. ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ (2010)

Photo : Double Negative

Edgar Wright’s giddy adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels — about a lovesick Toronto musician named Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) who must battle the seven ex-lovers of his literal dream girl, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) — borrows from a host of nerd cultures, from hipster neo-garage rock to anime to Mortal Kombat-style video games. But like the source material, it tips its hat a lot to superhero comics, and by extension superhero movies; watch Pilgrim punch and kick his way between the evil men and women who stand between him and romantic bliss, and you can see how this beautifully slides in sideways to the genre. All the dude needs is a mask and a cape. (And thanks to the miracle of retroactive viewing, you can now watch Cera fight Captain America for the hand of the Huntress, while mourning the loss of his previous ex-girlfriend Ms. Marvel.) —D.F.

45. ‘The Old Guard’ (2020)

Photo : AIMEE SPINKS/NETFLIX

Ancient empires have risen and fallen, yet one thing has remained constant: a group of immortal warriors — led by Charlize Theron, at the top of her do-not-fuck-with-me game here — have acted as heroes for hire (or villains, if the price is right and “depending on the century”). They soon discover that a young Marine named Nile (KiKi Layne) has the same regenerative powers that they have; quicker than they can say “Welcome to a lifetime of endless battle,” however, the gang and their new recruit must deal with the aftermath of a mission gone bad and a Pharma-bro bad guy who wants to find out the source of their genetic special sauce. Writer Greg Rucka adapts his own comic book story for the screen and director Gina Prince-Blythewood complements his taste for carnage with both emotional heft and some truly kapow-worthy fight scenes. A sequel is currently in the works. Long live this new franchise. —D.F.

44. ‘Batman: The Movie’ (1966)

Photo : ©20thCentFox/Everett Collection

POW! WHAP! TWHACK!! Batman and Robin take on filthy super-criminals the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and the Catwoman in this widescreen whirligig of self-mocking mayhem and candy-colored set pieces that expand on the hit TV show’s cheeky-campy Pop Art sensibility. The silver-screen debut of Adam West’s caped crusader is also the character’s most batty movie appearance, with exploding sharks, Polaris missiles that skywrite cryptic dad jokes, overly Bat-branded paraphernalia, and a device that reduces the world’s political leaders into vials of dehydrated crystals. It’s the Swinging-Sixties love child of DC Comics and Mad magazine, and an early roadmap for 21st century superhero levity. —S.G.

43. ‘Thor’ (2011)

Photo : Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios

Director Kenneth Branagh drew on his background to lend a Shakespearean gravitas to this first solo entry regarding one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Thor, son of Odin, wielder of the hammer Mjölnir, and everyone’s favorite God of Thunder. Exiled from the mythical realm of Asgard by his father to our own planet, the blonde deity — seriously, was Australian actor Chris Hemsworth created in a laboratory for the sole purpose of playing this comic-book character?! — he quickly catches the eye of astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and begins to settle into his new home. His trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has other plans, however. It’s a great introduction to the character and the Kirby-esque world his divine peers call home, not to mention Hiddleston’s sly take on a supervillain that would soon become a key MCU staple. —D.F.

42. ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’ (2017)

Photo : Warner Bros. Pictures

Thank you, director Chris McKay and producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, for remembering that Batman doesn’t have to be grimdark 24-7 — the Caped Crusader can be funny. Turning a standout cameo from The LEGO Movie into a full-on feature, the holy trio gave us Bat-toy story finds Will Arnett embodying Batman at his most self-important and Michael Cera as Robin at his most earnest. Packed with C-list bad guys and plenty of Easter eggs for DC comics lifers in a movie anyone can enjoy, it’s easily an instant Bat-classic. —J.G.

41. ‘The Avengers’ (2012)

Photo : Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios

Fending off an alien invasion in Manhattan might have seemed like a quaint exercise by the time the stakes became “half the living beings in the universe are about to disintegrate.” But the audacity of the original Avengers entry remains undeniable: No had ever tried jamming so many superheroes into a single movie before.  It was mostly the sturdiness of the cast — including Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, both debuting here, plus Scarlet Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston reminding us that screen presence is a superpower too — that kept it all from sliding into kiddie-flick ludicrousness. The Battle of New York is a universally recognized MCU high point, along with comedy beats like Hulk slamming Loki into the ground. Yet less-recognized moments, like the angry green giant chasing Black Widow through the underbelly of a Hellicarrier, pay off just as well. —B.H.

40. ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012)

Photo : Wally Pfister/Warner Bros

If there’s one standout moment from the finale of Christopher Nolan’s classic trilogy, it’s the scene where Bane and Batman go mano-a-mano — and then the supervillain pummels the world’s greatest detective like he’s tenderizing beef. Then there’s Bane’s crazed speech calling for anarchy, which has drawn comparisons to real-life anti-government groups like the Proud Boys. And though its ending is cathartic, this bleak conclusion to Nolan’s reinvention of the Caped Crusader still feels like a cautionary tale even as its most entertaining. This is the superhero movie as a portrait of a society that’s as broken as Batman’s back. It’s both thrilling and scary, exploring tones and ideas that most blockbuster fare is afraid to touch. —M.R.

39. ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ (2022)

Photo : Marvel Studios

Welcome back, Sam Raimi! The Spider-Man director returns to the genre he helped level up and adds some very old-school, Evil Dead-era horror elements to this sequel, in which Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, natch) and a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) skip through alternate universes to stop Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) from tearing the fabric of reality asunder. While you admittedly do need a PhD in Advanced MCU Studies to follow the plot — or at least know WandaVision inside and out — you don’t have to be a Marvel expert to dig how Raimi turns the last third into a cinematic haunted house while still delivering a superhero blockbuster, or the way he uses the multiverse concept to twist and tweak a lot of franchise lore. Like, for example, introducing some intriguing casting choices and what-if versions of legacy characters…and then literally exploding the entire idea before your very eyes. Kudos, sir. —D.F.

38. ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (2011)

Photo : ©2011 Marvel Entertainment, LLC

The single most overlooked MCU movie is filled with throwback, 1940s-serial-style thrills that feel like a cross between the Indiana Jones movies and The Rocketeer — which is no surprise, since it was directed by George Lucas protege Joe Johnston. (He not only helmed The Rocketeer, but also art-directed the first two Indiana Jones movies and, for good measure, designed Boba Fett.) The film’s pacing thankfully belongs to an earlier time as well: we spend a full 37 minutes getting to know the digitally de-muscled version of Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers before he gets super-serum-ed into Captain America. That kind of old-fashioned approach allows for vintage thrills, spills and chills, but also one of the franchise’s best scenes: a powerless Rogers throwing his body on what he thinks is a live grenade. A great introduction to a hero that would become a key MCU player. —B.H.

37. ‘The Batman’ (2022)

(L-r) ZOË KRAVITZ as Selina Kyle and ROBERT PATTINSON as Batman

Photo : Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros

We’ll confess to being a little confused when it was announced that Matt Reeves was making a new Batman movie, and the actor playing this latest iteration of the D.C. flagship hero would be…Robert Pattinson? It turned out to be a bit of a casting coup, as The Lighthouse/Tenet actor brings a genuine sense of discomfort, trauma and hair-trigger intensity to this early-days Dark Knight, who’s still earning his “World’s Greatest Detective” title. It’s a Batman constantly on the verge of a psychotic break, which in many ways makes him the ideal person to track down an equally unhinged version of the Riddler (Paul Dano in supreme negative-creep mode). Meanwhile, Zoe Kravitz’s extra-slinky Catwoman and a near-unrecognizable Colin Farrell as a grotesque Penguin round out the gallery of rogues. An impressive addition to the ever-growing Bat-canon, to say the least. —D.F.

36. ‘Tank Girl’ (1995)

Photo : ©MGM/Everett Collection

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Folks didn’t quite know what to make of Rachel Talalay’s movie that brought Jamie Hewlett’s postapocalyptic comic-book adventurer to the big screen. (Hewlett, of course, went on to greater fame as part of the Gorillaz team.) It’s a quirky and unforgettable blur of Alternative Nation iconography, from the Courtney Love soundtrack to Iggy Pop showing up as a character named “Rat Face” and a virtually unrecognizable Ice-T as a kangaroo named T-Saint. Lori But Petty is the perfect choice to the punkish hero — you’d have thought she stepped right out of Hewlett’s panels. And whether it’s seducing a goon before kicking him in the balls and blowing him away with a grenade or sneaking away with a female friend for some off-camera play, Tank Girl‘s subversive spin on superhero tales continue to be debated by feminist scholars and genre-film geeks to the present day. —M.R.

35. ‘Ant-Man’ (2015)

Photo : Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios

It’s easy to forget the diversity of tone in the early phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the full-on comedy that Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man often pushed into was one its most welcome experiments — just as the ever-boyish Paul Rudd, as a virtuous convict who just wants to see his daughter, was perhaps the single most charming of its leads. The movie’s smartest move, however, was following the lead of the comics and making Rudd’s Scott Lang the second Ant-Man, which allowed the film to come with its pre-built mythology and let Michael Douglas (and eventually, Michelle Pfeiffer) play a superhero. —B.H.

34. ‘The Suicide Squad’ (2021)

Photo : Warner Bros.

The Synder-ified world of the DCEU was always a weird fit with source material that included a Superdog, various interdimensional imps, and a giant, purple, alien starfish named Starro. Thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn didn’t get around to including Krypto or Batmite in his take on the supervillain supergroup, but he did build an entire plot around the aforementioned starfish. With its cavalcade of oft-doomed B-level characters — and one A-lister in the form of Margot Robbie’s incandescent Harley Quinn — The Suicide Squad hits a tone of Grand Guignol zaniness that no other superhero film has yet matched. Extra points for a brilliant fake-out of an opening sequence (with the introduction of an entire team soon doomed to grisly deaths) and for spawning the utterly perfect TV spin-off with Jon Cena’s Peacemaker. —B.H.

33. ‘Blade II’ (2002)

Photo : Everett Collection

It was not lost on Guillermo del Toro that Wesley Snipes’ vampire hunter was a character who originally had one foot in the superhero world and one foot in 1970s horror comics — and his superior sequel to the 1998 pre-MCU-renaissance Marvel movie makes sure to give both genres equal time. A new breed of bloodsuckers known as “Reapers” are decimating both the human and creatures-of-the-night communities; Blade must team up with a group of undead renegades known as “the Blood Pack” to take these extremely viral vamps down. It’s a dark take on superhero stories before it was the fashionable thing to do (to put this in comic-nerd terms: Imagine a Marvel B-title getting a full-blown Vertigo makeover.) But you can tell del Toro is both reverent of the pulpy source material and clearly having fun playing around in this sandbox, from way the Reapers’ mandible-like jaws pop open to the tough-guy banter to his staging of Blade slicing through a trio of bad guys like it was a splash panel. —D.F.

32. ‘Unbreakable’ (2000)

Photo : ©Walt Disney Co./Everett Collection

Po-faced stadium security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) experiences a profound personal awakening after surviving a massive train wreck unscathed — and, with the help of infirm intellectual Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), slowly unearths his own steely potential. Plot-twist impresario M. Night Shyamalan pulled off his greatest narrative feat by turning a mournful mystery with realistic emotions and everyday characters into a stealth superhero origin story. It’s also a coy commentary on the delicate symbiotic dance between protagonists and their antagonists, plus the first installment of an unexpected and wildly original film trilogy that stretches over two decades. —S.G.

31. ‘V for Vendetta’ (2005)

Photo : ©Warner Bros/Everett Collection

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November….” Alan Moore’s dystopian tale of a masked vigilante — that Guy Fawkes visage would soon become the default visual symbol for 21st century political-underground activists — is a radical re-imagining of superhero mythology, in which a costumed crusader becomes the fly in the fascist alt-future ointment. And this adaptation from director James McTeigue and producers/writers Lily and Lana Wachowski comes impressively close to capturing the comic legend’s voice, leaning heavily into the notion that there’s a fine line between terrorists and freedom fighters even when super powers (via mutations from a government-sponsored virus) are involved. Long before she’d aid the God of Thunder — or pick up the hammer herself — a shaven-headed Natalie Portman would aid and abet the man known as “V,” as he mobilizes an army against totalitarian forces. Let’s just say it’s the rare superhero movie that seems to get more prescient as the years go by. —D.F.

30. ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ (2021)

Photo : Marvel Studios

Finally: the first major American film focused on an Asian superhero. At its center is breakout Chinese-Canadian star Simu Liu, who’s sturdy, earthy performance fuels this origin story of the 1970s comic-book character Shang-Chi, and his battle against criminal organizations, otherworldly threats and his own destiny. Like any Marvel flick, there’s action galore — a set piece where Shang-Chi battles thugs on a MUNI bus in San Francisco is particularly thrilling — but it’s the fraught relationships between Liu and his family (played by Hong Kong legends Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh) that resonates the most. —M.R.

29. ‘The Crow’ (1994)

Forever haunted by the on-set death of star Brandon Lee (son of martial-arts cinema legend/pop culture icon Bruce Lee), this story of a resurrected musician-turned-undead-superhero who’s hellbent on revenge remains both a tribute to the actor and a genre highlight. Creator James O’Barr wrote and illustrated the comics after his fiancé was killed by a drunk driver; director Alex Proyas translates the comic’s inherent mope into something that’s somehow exhilarating and transcendent while also appropriately Goth-trashy. It helps that Michael Wincott was note-perfect as a Detroit crimelord villain and the terrific soundtrack is one of the 1990s alt-rock greats. —J.G.

28. ‘Batman Begins’ (2005)

Photo : Warner Bros

The kick-off entry to Christopher Nolan’s gamechanging trilogy was the first live-action Batman movie to draw upon the best modern comic-book interpretations of the character (most obviously Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One) in a world so grounded that we even learned a great deal about the specifics of Batarang manufacturing. Christian Bale is an appropriately obsessive Bruce Wayne, but it’s the supporting cast — Michael Caine’s instantly definitive, fatherly-but-sardonic Alfred; Morgan Freeman’s blatantly Q-like Lucius Fox; Cillian Murphy’s underrated, creepy-as-hell Scarecrow; Gary Oldman’s weary Jim Gordon — that really brings this revisionist look at the Caped Crusader to life. —B.H.

27. ‘Hellboy’ (2004)

Photo : ©Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

Guillermo del Toro’s take on Mike Mignola’s eponymous superhero  — a cigar-chomping demon with a giant romantic soul — captures the writer-artist’s vision and the book’s tone so well, shifting between supernatural horror (with a jump scare or two), wonderous fantasy, militaristic action, and shadowy cynicism, sometimes within the span of seconds. Much of the film’s success is due to Ron Perlman, who plays the giant  with a pugilistic intelligence akin to Gray Hulk. Selma Blair’s performance as the psychokinetic Liz Sherman and David Hyde Pierce’s voicework for the amphibious Abe Sapien stand out, too. But this is ultimately a del Toro affair, and his blend of Gothic delights as Hellboy and Rasputin do battle is enough to thrill old-school comic readers and fans of his acclaimed filmography alike. —M.R.

26. ‘Darkman’ (1990)

Photo : ©Universal/Everett Collection

Before jumpstarting the MCU with Spider-Man and seasoning Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness with moments of genuine terror, Sam Raimi created a sui generis superhero-as-antihero. Regenerative-skin scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), horribly disfigured and left for dead by mobsters, survives due to an experimental procedure that leaves him immune to pain and susceptible to adrenaline-fueled surges of augmented strength. His only weakness: a profound sense of alienation. His lifelike but unstable synthetic masks transform him into a crime-fighting master of disguise, but mental instability makes him unpredictably monstrous. Darkman proved that even morally complex stories can have a broad-stroke comic-book sensibility. —S.G.

25. ‘The Rocketeer’ (1991)

Photo : ©Walt Disney Co./Everett Collection

Most of the post-Batman wave of superhero and pulp adaptations were forgettable, but Joe Johnston’s tale of a WWII-era pilot with a jet-pack battling gangsters and Nazis is a retro delight. Has there ever been a more photogenic superhero couple than Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly? Years later, Johnston would apply a similar gee-whiz throwback tone to his contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (see No. 38). But this tribute to the old-fashioned derring-do of 1930s serials, i.e. the original superhero movies, got there first. —A.S.

24. ‘Batman Returns’ (1992)

Photo : ©Warner Bros/Everett Collection

Tim Burton’s original 1989 Batman may be the more historically important film in terms of establishing superhero movies as sure-thing tentpoles. But his aggressively weird sequel — including Danny DeVito as a grotesque mutant Penguin and Christopher Walken as a Trump-ish politician — is ultimately the more memorable movie, in particular thanks to Michelle Pfeiffer’s wonderfully perverse purr-formance as Catwoman. It also feels more like a Burton film than its predecessor, from its melancholy tone to the hints of mall-Goth kink, and the weird friction between his style and the traditional good-vs.-evil comic story helps make this stand out as a superior Caped Crusader movie. —A.S.

23. ‘Deadpool’ (2016)

Photo : ©20thCentFox/Everett Collection

You may remember meeting Wade Williams in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) — that’s the version of the Merc with the Mouth that fans thought was just a little too tame. So when director Tim Miller brought the character back for his own stand-alone movie, we got to see a much more violent, way more vulgar version on the cult comic character. Ryan Reynolds inherently got why this wiseass assassin-for-hire was so popular with comic readers: He’s extremely good at what he does, i.e. killing people, and never, ever shuts up. Both the actor and the movie leaned into Wade Wilson’s obnoxious, snark-heavy bad behavior and didn’t flinch when it came to taking the genre into NSFW gross-out comedy territory. The result made those other “edgy” superhero movies feel like Disney cartoons by comparison. —D.F.

22. ‘Robocop’ (1987)

Photo : ©Orion Pictures Corp/Everett Collection

Paul Verhoeven’s merciless skewering of America’s obsession with law and order is one helluva social satire — but it’s also a superhero movie (or maybe a super-antihero movie), and a really great one at that. After Peter Weller’s police officer in future-dystopia Detroit is murdered, he’s assembled into a cyborg that’s marketed as the cutting-edge of crime fighting. Soon, this robotic law officer begins suspecting there’s something shady going on with his corporate masters. The violence is so over-the-top that it plays like a parody of might-makes-right comic-­book morality stories, which is part of the point — no wonder The Dark Knight Returns writer-artist Frank Miller borrowed the character for his own subversive comic-book stories. We’d still buy this for a dollar! —D.F.

21. ‘Doctor Strange’ (2016)

Photo : Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios

Meet Stephen Strange, former egotistical surgeon turned Master of the Mystic Arts. Benedict Cumberbatch lends just the right amount of wounded pride and tongue-in-cheek humor to the inaugural big-screen adventure of the Sorcerer Supreme, while director Scott Derrickson makes you feel like you’re watching all these surreal, hallucinogenic Steve Ditko panels from the original Strange comics come to life. That M.C. Escher style chase scene remains one of the most wonderfully WTF MCU set pieces to date. And it’s no surprise that Strange would end up becoming the go-to supernatural guest star in virtually every other Marvel movie that came after. —D.F.

20. ‘Superman II’ (1980)

Photo : ©Warner Bros/Everett Collection

Look, even the Man of Steek needs a break sometimes! Richard Lester’s sequel to the original finds our planet’s guardian wanting to retire to enjoy the normal life he’s earned with Lois Lane. Unfortunately, he decides it call it a day right as three Kryptonian supervillains break out of the Phantom Zone and try to conquer Earth. The Christopher Reeve/Margot Kidder/Gene Hackman core makes it all sing, as does the focus on the relationship between Superman and the woman he loves. Also: Kneel before Zod! —A.S.

19. ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’ (1993)

Photo : ©Warner Bros/Everett Collection

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Serious Bat-nerds view Batman: The Animated Series as the truest screen adaptation of the character, and this film spinoff makes a seriously strong case for deserving pride of place. It takes the bottomless grief of its Bruce Wayne (voiced by Kevin Conroy) seriously without making his Batman insufferably grim and gritty. It has Mark Hamill — yes, that Mark Hamill — earning chilling laughs as the Joker. The era-spanning design of its Gotham City looks gorgeous on the big screen. And the introduction of Dana Delany as a woman from Bruce’s past sets up one of the most tragic conclusions to any Bat story. —A.S.

18. ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’ (2014)

Photo : Zade Rosenthal/©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Everett Collection

The first of the Captain America sequels distinguished itself by modeling its story after paranoid Seventies thrillers like Three Days of the Condor; it even cast Robert Redford as a S.H.I.E.L.D. official with some shady ulterior motives. It also forced the patriotic hero to fight against his own government, not to mention a fellow supersoldier straight out of his own past. (Welcome back, Bucky Barnes.) Winter Soldier suggested that the MCU could fit a far wider style of stories into its big-picture sagas. It also gives more screen time to a host of key supporting players (Black Widow, Falcon) and features some of the best fight scenes (that Cap-vs.-goons elevator melee) in any Marvel film, too. —A.S.

17. ‘X2’ (2003)

Photo : ©20thCent Fox/Everett Collection

“Have you found them? Have you found all the mutants?” The follow-up to the original X-Men features a genuinely unsettling scene in which a malevolent Homo superior tricks Patrick Stewart’s Professor X into hunting down innocents — and that’s only one of the many masterful set pieces in this film. From the opening White House assault to the straight-from-the-comics sequence of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine single-handedly fighting off an armed battalion, this sequel helped set the bar for superhero movies in terms of action (and intolerance metaphors) early on. —B.H.

16. ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (2018)

Photo : Marvel Studios

Critics exasperated with the MCU’s dominance tend to overlook the uniqueness of its intertwined storytelling — by 2018, it was already the most elaborate shared universe in cinematic history. It all pays off in Infinity War, which is full of delightful fan-service pairings (Captain America and Groot, Thor and Star-Lord, Dr. Strange and Spider-Man), humongous action sequences (that battle in Wakanda), and genuine pathos as it becomes clear that Thanos will go ahead with his plan to annihilate millions of people with a snap of his fingers. You get the sense that, for once, the bad guy is going to win. —B.H.

15. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (2014)

Photo : Marvel Studios

Who’d have guessed that a hodgepodge group of supporting characters from an obscure, decades-old sci-fi comic would become one of the saving graces of the Marvel universe? Troma Studios veteran James Gunn brought a goofy, giddy sense of fun to this story of interstellar outlaws whizzing across the cosmos, led by Chris Pratt’s rakish thief Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, and featuring the snarkiest, rudest raccoon ever to wield a blaster. It’s a blast, from the vintage AM radio soundtrack to the banter between Pratt and a green-hued Zoe Saldana. We are all Groot. —D.F.

14. ‘Spider-Man’ (2002)

Photo : Columbia Pictures/Everett Collecrtion

The web-swinging scenes alone — which showed how CGI could finally let filmmakers replicate comic-book visuals onscreen for real, opening the door to an entire era — would earn this classic its spot. But even more importantly, Sam Raimi understood the soap-operatic core of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation, digging in hard on the film’s central love story between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and literal girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). In the process, he gave the world an upside-down kiss that will live forever. —B.H.

13. ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ (2014)

Photo : Alan Markfield/20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved/Everett Collection

Fox’s X-Men franchise did their universe-spanning, time-traveling version of Infinity Wars/Endgame well before the MCU, and Days of Future Past‘s wild ambitions pay off with an epic that feels as much like a massive comic-book crossover series as any movie ever made. The film manages to effectively jam together the original and youthful-reboot versions of the X-universe characters in the name of staving off mutant extinction across several timelines, and even pulls off a gambit to push the then-wildly-in-demand Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique to the center of the story without feeling contrived. —B.H.

12. ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ (2017)

Photo : Chuck Zlotnick/Columbia Pictures

Tom Holland’s cameo as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War (2016) suggested he’d bring something fresh to the Marvel icon; his first solo joint as the webslinger confirmed it. This next-gen Spidey updates the character for the MCU-crossover age while brilliantly channeling the Peter Parker from Stan Lee’s original 1960s run, all teen angst and great-power-equals-great-responsibility handwringing. Throw in Zendaya as a spiky M.J., Robert Downey Jr.’s father-figure Iron Man and Michael Keaton’s menacing, teched-up Vulture, and you have one truly amazing superhero movie. —D.F.

11. ‘Iron Man’ (2008)

Photo : ©Paramount/Everett Collection

Tony Stark and his customized metallic suit may have been around since the beginning of Marvel’s heyday. Outside of the comics, however, you could say he was a bit of a pop-culture nobody; the only reason he was given his own movie was because Marvel had sold away the rights to Spider-Man and the X-Men to Sony and Fox, respectively. (It’s a long story.) Not to mention that Robert Downey Jr.’s career had seen better days. But the wisecracking combination of actor and role turned out to be perfect cinematic alchemy, paving the way for the MCU to conquer multiplexes and establish what’s become the dominant movie franchise of modern times. Not to mention the jaw-dropping post-credits sequence that suggested we’d only scratched the surface. —A.S.

10. ‘The Incredibles’ (2004)

Photo : Disney/Pixar

Brad Bird’s first Pixar movie is a dual homage to the Ozzie and Harriet-­style sitcoms of the Fifties and the sleek, cool spy movies of the Sixties — not to mention that it’s a great addition to superhero toons, with its sly, funny riff on a Fantastic Four-style group as a near-dysfunctional nuclear family. The retro look and primo action sequences add to the fun, but you have to credit the voice work for really making this animated movie shine: Holly Hunter and Craig T. Nelson as Ma and Pa ­Incredible; Samuel L. ­Jackson as fellow crime fighter Frozone (“Honey! Where’s my supersuit!?!”); Bird himself as the Anna Wintour avatar/world’s greatest ­costume designer Edna Mode; and Jason Lee as a shock-haired super­villain nursing a long-held grudge. —A.S.

9. ‘Wonder Woman’ (2017)

Photo : Warner Bros. pictures

Gal Gadot radiated benevolence as the title character — an Amazon warrior who earns the “wonder” part of her name — in a way that no actor had managed in a superhero movie since Christopher Reeve. And the World War I setting of Patty Jenkins’ film helped familiar tropes feel fresh, as did the simple fact that a female superhero was finally getting a great movie of her own. The No Man’s Land battle scene, with Wonder Woman’s costume practically glowing against the gray backdrop as she deflects bullets and pummels soldiers, is indelible. —B.H.

8. ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ (2017)

Photo : Marvel Studios

Director Taika Waititi pushed the MCU’s usual self-deprecating humor to its limit and beyond, unlocking a comedic flair that Chris Hemsworth had never shown in his previous Thor films. It’s both a perfect addition to the series’ mythical tales of gods fighting among themselves and a general skewering the pomposity of the entire franchise — not to mention that Mr. Waititi was very much getting his money’s worth for the rights to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” —A.S.

7. ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)

Photo : ©Warner Bros/Everett Collection

“You either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” A strong contender for the best Batman movie ever, the second in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy builds off of Christian Bale’s moody, brooding Caped Crusader from Batman Begins (2005). But it’s Heath Ledger’s Joker — played as a stabby late-period Tom Waits, both nightmare-inducing and actually kind of funny, as a Joker should be — that truly elevates this into the superhero movie canon. And scenes like Batman’s vertiginous Hong Kong building assault are unmatchable IMAX spectacles that achieve Nolan’s stated goal of beating the Bond franchise. —B.H.

6. ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ (2018)

Photo : ©Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

This animated addition to the Spider-Man universe — make that universes, plural — is bursting with color, imagination, and Spider-Men… and women… and a wall-crawling pig. It’s complicated, yet never hard to follow, as Afro-Puerto Rican graffiti artist Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) inherits the Spidey mantle. The teen soon meets his peers from across parallel realities, voiced by everyone from Jake Johnson to Hailee Steinfeld to, yes, Nicolas Cage. Together, they must cross their webstrands and save the multiverse. A dazzlingly new take on a very old story. —A.S.

5. ‘Superman’ (1978)

Photo : ©Warner Bros/Everett Collection

Yes, it was the movie that made you believe a man could fly. Yet the greatest special effect in any superhero film happens a little over 90 minutes into Richard Donner’s big bang event for the genre: Clark Kent stands in Lois Lane’s foyer while she gets ready for the date she’s forgotten about. When she’s not looking, Clark removes his glasses, straightens his posture, and somehow transforms from a clumsy nerd into the Man of Steel. Such is the magic of Christopher Reeve’s performance in both halves of the role — not to mention Margot Kidder’s pitch-perfect Lois and Gene Hackman’s casually megalomaniacal Lex Luthor. — that helped Superman prove you could successfully bring comic-book heroes and villains to the screen in a big way. It all starts here. —A.S.

4. ‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2019)

Photo : ©Walt Disney Co./Everett Collection

If you saw this final chapter to Marvel’s multi-movie “Infinity Stones” saga on opening weekend, odds are the audience reaction to the sequence — featuring the return of T’Challa, Spider-Man, and every other hero that Thanos turned to dust at the end of Avengers: Infinity War — was the loudest, most enthusiastic response you’ve ever heard in a movie theater. That’s the benefit of Endgame acting as the emotionally overwhelming season finale to a long, complicated, enormously entertaining narrative that was over a decade in the making. It gathers a number of MCU O.G.s together for one last hurrah, satisfyingly ties up a number of loose ends and that epic final battle against Thanos is one chill-inducing story beat after another. —A.S.

3.’Logan’ (2017)

Photo : Ben Rothstein/©20thCentFox/Everett Collection

In the 1980s, comic-book creators helped define a mode of adult (or at least late-adolescent) superhero storytelling, with noir-ish, ultraviolent stories set in something approximating the real world. James Mangold’s magnificent Logan beautifully brings that same approach into the movies, complete with a gloomy, dystopian, decapitation-packed take on the last days of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Nodding to classic Westerns (Shane, in particular), this addition to the X-Men films depicts a not-altogether-unfamiliar future world where superheroic and American dreams are dying out together. And Patrick Stewart’s chilling performance of the world’s most powerful mind now waylaid by dementia should’ve gotten him award nominations. —B.H.

2. ‘Spider-Man 2’ (2004)

Photo : ©Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

Early in development, the first Spider-Man was going to feature both the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus; director Sam Raimi worried, however, that it was too much to stuff into one movie. Instead, he saved Doc Ock for this masterpiece of a sequel, where the filmmaker’s ultra-sincere approach to the material was firing on all cylinders — from Spidey’s crisis of confidence to Alfred Molina as Peter Parker’s tragic, mecha-tentacled foe. It’s one of the best villain performances in any comic book movie, and the subway train fight (and its aftermath) remains the genre’s single most emotional set piece to date.  —A.S.

1. ‘Black Panther’ (2018)

Photo : Marvel Studios

Ryan Coogler’s tale of T’Challa — part-time Avenger, full-time regent of the fictional African empire known as Wakanda — is more than just the crown jewel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an old-school epic that combines widescreen thrills with a glorious, gorgeous Afro-futurist aesthetic and genuine moral gravitas; it proved that you could successfully fuse a filmmaker’s sensibility into the MCU without compromising the corporate bottom line; and it gave us a Shakespearean tragedy in comic-­book cosplay, complete with a conflicted hero (rest in power, Chadwick Boseman) and a multilayered villain via Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. Most of all, it proved that superhero movies could be about ­something more than just entertainment — they could reflect, refract, and represent the real world around us while still transporting us to some other place entirely. They could be more than just a roller-­coaster ride. They could, in fact, be something close to cinema. Wakanda forever. —D.F.

From Rolling Stone US.

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