It is time once again, in this post-Infinity Saga world, to narrow down the top 25 best superhero films of all time.
With the MCU heading into a new phase, the 20th Century Fox Marvel properties like X-Men and Fantastic Four on the verge of merging with the broader Marvel Studios world, DC’s properties hitting new creative heights, and a swath of “indie” comics titles also getting adapted, the superhero movie genre clearly isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
A few notes on this update to this list: Whereas in the past we’ve focused only on films based on actual comics, this time around we’ve decided that original characters created for the big screen are also eligible (you’re welcome, The Incredibles fans!). Also, this list features superhero-based movies only. Sorry, no Road to Perdition or Ghost World or a handful of other excellent movies that happen to have been notable comics first. We love those flicks, but you kind of have to have superpowers (or a pretty dope costume) to hang in this 25.
The IGN Entertainment team voted on this list, resulting in a few changes since our last update to it in 2018. As for the movie that have been added or removed to this list since our last update, Marvel did well with several new titles, including Avengers: Endgame and Avengers: Infinity War, Thor: Ragnarok, the Sony-Marvel animated hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and the classic Wesley Snipes-starring Blade. The rule change allowing original characters created for a movie brings Unbreakable and The Incredibles into the top 25. And then V himself also sneaks onto the list with V for Vendetta. As for what has been cut from the 2018 list, the original Hellboy, Watchmen, Kick-Ass, The Crow, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, KIngsman: The Secret Service, and Captain America: Civil War are all out. So quite a bit of churn there.
All that said, let’s dig into brainwashed super-soldiers, foul-mouthed invulnerable vigilantes, ragtag crews of galactic scavengers, a couple of Spider-Men, several Batmen, and more!
Also, be sure to watch the video above for our top 10 best superhero movies!
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2012’s damn fine Dredd adventure, written by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) and directed by Pete Travis, gruesomely brought John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s 2000 AD comic strip to life with a tight, violent story set in the dastardly dystopian future metropolis of Mega-City One.
Featuring a mostly-masked Karl Urban as the titular “judge” — a cop with the jurisdiction to summarily arrest, convict, sentence, and execute criminals — Dredd captured the intense and gritty nature of the source material while providing a principled and pulp-y story that allowed Judge Dredd to simply be… Judge Dredd. By the time Urban growls “I am the law” — Dredd’s simple catchphrase — you get chills, and totally forget the silly ’90s Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd movie even existed.
24. V for Vendetta
This dystopian superhero film takes place in an Orwellian landscape where oppression and corruption and misinformation are rampant. V, played by Hugo Weaving, isn’t fighting conventional criminals, he’s taking his fight directly to the government, blurring the line between superheroism and terrorism and coming to uncomfortable conclusions about whether or not there’s any meaningful difference.
Oddly enough, this cynical film — directed by James McTeigue and written by the Wachowski sisters — is a little more hopeful than the comic by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, but its distinctly non-superhero slant on a superhero figure is intriguing, and its visuals and philosophical ponderings help to make it one of the best of the genre.
2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man get most of the credit for sparking the current superhero boom in Hollywood. But where would either of those movies be without 1998’s Blade? This dark horror/action film debuted in a time when Spawn and Steel were the most Hollywood had to offer as far as superheroes went. And as it dusted off a mostly forgotten Marvel hero, Blade proved that any franchise can succeed with the right spin and enough visual flourish.
Wesley Snipes stars as the titular hero, a half-human, half-vampire “Daywalker” who dedicates his life to wiping vampires off the face of the planet, and he really shines in the role. The combination of brutal martial arts combat, gunplay, and sword fighting makes Blade a force to be reckoned with onscreen. Snipes’ Blade has charisma and menace to spare, but his ongoing struggle to suppress his vampiric desires gives Blade the humanity he needs. Blade was a great start to a new Hollywood franchise. Unfortunately, neither the sequels nor the eventual TV spinoff were able to recapture that magic, but we have high hopes for the MCU version that will star Mahershala Ali.
22. Wonder Woman
The DCEU movie franchise finally struck elusive oil with Patty Jenkins’ soaring Wonder Woman movie, where Gal Gadot reprised her Batman v Superman role in a fun, earnest adventure about true heroism and sacrifice. As the first modern superhero film with a female lead, and director, Wonder Woman stands as a landmark success that smashed barriers. All of a sudden, Princess Diana and her adventures were the true star of the DC-verse, and not the usual Bruce and/or Clark fare.
Filled with dazzling, heart-swelling set pieces that wowed audiences worldwide, Wonder Woman was a risk that rightly relied on fans’ need and desire for an uplifting adventure about the struggle for peace and unity.
21. X-Men: First Class
Despite persisting rumors of a rushed production and various problems, X-Men: First Class turned out to be a first-rate prequel that re-imagined the franchise while opening us a glorious gateway to an entirely different second run (and second timeline) of films.
First Class benefits from an ace cast – featuring the likes of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence — working under the care of writer-director Matthew Vaughn, a guy who’d had an X-Men movie churning around inside him for years ever since he left X-Men: The Last Stand weeks before shooting began. No, continuity within the X-Men franchise will never truly make sense, but First Class’ sequel, Days of Future Past, did its best to connect the original trilogy to the leg that Vaughn jump-started here. First Class was fueled with a vibrant new energy that allowed non-Wolverine X-Men projects to flourish at Fox.
M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense is a brooding superhero movie, about a man who’s lived his whole life never realizing his full potential. Bruce Willis gradually realizes he might have superpowers, but the revelation brings with it new and serious problems, and the one person who believes in him — a comic book merchant played by Samuel L. Jackson — isn’t telling him everything. This is the dark side of superhero stories, by way of a dreary midlife crisis, and a relatively brilliant motion picture.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the long hoped for sequel was such a disappointment when it finally arrived 19 years after Unbreakable’s release, particularly as it came in such an interesting manner, as a surprise shared-universe reveal in Shyamalan’s film Split.
Featuring the role Ryan Reynolds was born to play — so much so that he’d already played a (literal) muted-down version of it in X-Men Origins: Wolverine — the massively violent, vulgar (and hilarious) Deadpool hit theaters at just the moment when the surplus of super-flicks had seemingly reached a tipping point and fans were ripe and ready for a gory, go-for-broke meta-take on the topic.
Wise-cracking Wade Wilson’s transformation into the fourth-wall-breaking Deadpool may have been yet another origin story, but it was overflowing with legit laughs, some much-needed jabs at the genre, and righteous usage of Wham!’s “Careless Whisper.” Reynolds, who’d been an underutilized “next big thing” for years, finally found his grail and audiences fell in love with a crass crusader on a rudimentary revenge mission (set loosely within the X-Men universe).
Without Tim Burton’s ghoulish and gothic take on Batman, which ushered the Caped Crusader to the screen in 1989 for his first stab at stardom sans Adam West, who knows what the superhero movie landscape would even look like today, if it in fact existed at all?
Influenced by gritty, mature spins on the Batman character — from the likes of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and countless other writers and artists who helped bring Batman back from the comedic and campy brink of the ’60s and early ’70s — Batman was a box-office bonanza. Admittedly, at times Batman was the least interesting character in his own movie, as Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a bonafide show-stealer, but this movie brought superhero cinema roaring into pop culture and proved that it could be shadowy, dark and adult-oriented.
17. X2: X-Men United
If Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film was like a warm-up session in the Danger Room for Marvel’s merry band of mutants, then the 2003 sequel was the real freakin’ deal. Escaping the occasional cheapness of the original, X2 — given the subtitle X-Men United for some reason by Fox — finally manifested its mutant power to be pretty, pretty great.
Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine doesn’t just get to kick more butt while uncovering his Secret Origin, but the character’s affinity for the gentler side of life — kids, redheads named Jean — is further explored here, building on the Wolvie/Rogue relationship of the first film. Meanwhile, new characters like the angel-in-devil’s-clothing Nightcrawler and the villainous Stryker are interesting and compelling. And returning characters such as Storm, Jean Grey and Cyclops are all much more polished than in the previous film.
16. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Before Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, this animated theatrical release was Batman’s best big-screen outing. And some fans can still make the argument that it is the best ever made. While we might not make that argument ourselves, we can understand why a brave few would.
Bruce Wayne’s past takes center stage as Batman must stop a new rogue on the block, the Phantasm, from killing Gotham’s local mob population. The crimes and the perpetrator are connected to Bruce’s first — and last — shot at true love, a relationship he was willing to give up the cowl for if it meant he could be happy.
Tragedy and Batman are meant to go together, and when you throw Mark Hamill’s Joker into the mix, you have one of the most heartfelt and dramatically satisfying stories DC has ever told. The Phantasm is a great nemesis, and the reveal of who is behind the mask is both surprising and justified. The climax, set at an abandoned Gotham World Fair ground, is truly epic and, moreover, violent as hell thanks to Joker challenging Batman to the fight of his life.
15. Black Panther
With a $700 million domestic take and critical adoration, Black Panther was a triumph on all fronts. As a massively budgeted film featuring a majority African American cast, and director, it both broke boundaries and answered a call that had long needed heeding.
Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler opened up an entire new world within the MCU as the fictional African nation of Wakanda became the battleground for worldwide salvation, and a thriving, engaging villain in the form of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger was introduced to challenge Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa and the old-guard non-intervening ways of a society that selfishly kept to themselves the answers to so many people’s problems.
Black Panther instantly became a pop-culture phenomenon and Wakanda found itself as one of the main selling points in the marketing for Infinity War, which would open a few months later. A talented ensemble, a Shakespearean center, and endless imagination helped this film tower above the competition and strike a chord with fans all over the globe.
14. The Incredibles
The Incredibles is is a marvel of comic book ingenuity. While the story does bear some resemblance to the very low-budget comedy The Specials — not to mention Marvel’s Fantastic Four, of which many elements (even the family dynamic) are borrowed — The Incredibles makes up for it with intense visuals, blinding action and rounded, complicated characters, as well as some terrific voice work and amusing comedic set pieces.
This is a great film, with plenty of thrills, laughs, and action — enough to please both families and comic book geeks, and remains one of Pixar’s finest achievements.