They're everywhere; unavoidable, inescapable, Hollywood's ongoing 'flavour du jour.' The superhero genre's ever accelerating rise to popularity over the last 40 years has led to more comic book movies than you could shake an angry Hulk at, and while the overall quality has been far from consistent, they only seem to be getting better with each passing year (let's just forget Justice League ever existed for now, yeah?).
For every handful of unmissable showstoppers, though, there is the odd stinker, so you'd be wise to focus on the good stuff before your appetite for the genre begins to sour. Hence the list you see before you. We'll readily admit that it's not easy to round down the best superhero movies to a paltry 25, but the following films are a diverse selection of modern masterpieces and cult classics, from MCU highlights to R-rated indie darlings. Here's hoping that we'll be able to add Avengers: Infinity War to this list come April....
25. Chronicle (2012)
The movie: Superheroes and found footage are so ridiculously popular at the moment, it's a wonder that this idea didn't take root sooner. Years before Josh Trank bungled Fantastic Four he bashed out a solid - and rather scary - coming-of-age superhero story, told through the handheld lens of three high school friends (Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan).
The use of handicams and smartphones to capture the experiences of the trio, who stumble across an alien artefact and come away "changed", works because it puts you directly into their shoes. What would you do if you were suddenly blessed with extraordinary abilities? Get up to the craziest shit possible and record it! Which is what this bunch do until self-appointed gang leader Andrew takes things a little too far. "With great power comes great responsibility," a wise man once said. An ignored mantra that guides this film toward an unexpected conclusion.
Best superhero moment: The gang decide to go flying in the clouds, and take a football with them for a quick kickabout.
24. Super (2010)
The movie: Bang on about Deadpool's R-rated rule-breaking all you like, but make no mistake: it was James Gunn's black-as-night superhero comedy that paved the way for Wade Wilson's shenanigans. Super relishes the blood-splattered realism of everyday heroism and the bittersweet consequences of doing good, for an unusual take on what it means to be a superhero.
Thrown into a scenario where his girlfriend is at the whim of a drug lord, it's up to Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) to set things right. So he does what anyone would in that situation - he transforms himself into a superhero. "The Crimson Bolt" might not boast the showy tech of other crime-fightin' do-gooders, but it's his unstoppable desire for justice that he wields as the ultimate weapon. Together with his sidekick, the self-dubbed "Boltie", they make it their mission to take down the bad guys.
Best superhero moment: Frank's so-bad-it's-good one-liner he delivers after each victory - "Shut up crime!"
23. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The movie: Christopher Nolan floored it with the closing chapter of his Batman trilogy. Does it possess the finesse of The Dark Knight? No, but that's the entire point. Getting loaded up on a continuous stream of action set pieces somewhat mirrors Bruce Wayne's shaky emotional state: he's reached breaking point. Enough is enough.
Bigger and brasher than its predecessor, Rises repurposes the cerebral superhero movie into a streamlined actioner. Sure, there's no shortage of subtext - seeing as Gotham falls at the hands of a masked madman. But that's where the moralising stays, in the shadows, letting Batman's final stand emerge like a caged fighter going out strong. Scenes between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle throw a bone to fans, a nice counter to Bane's bombastic villainy, which is pure comic book gold.
Best superhero moment: After ages stuck in The Pit, Bruce Wayne eventually claws his way out. Seriously. Talk about upper body strength.
22. Black Panther (2018)
The movie: Even before its release, Black Panther was making headlines for its record-breaking pre-sale success, political timeliness, and significance as a step forward for diversity in Hollywood. But the fact is, even when you isolate it from its historical importance, Black Panther is a thrilling, endearing ensemble movie that oozes flair and originality through every Wakandan seam.
Compared to most Marvel origin stories, the cast is large and varied - filled with both rising talent and celebrated thespians - but all of them play an important role in the story, each providing motivations and viewpoints that enrich the jaw dropping Afro-futurist setting with warmth and humanity. And Marvel finally has a villain worthy of your attention in Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger, whose raw energy is never put to waste for a single second of his screen time.
Best superhero moment: T'Challa heads to South Korea, where a cascading Russian Doll chase sequence snowballs into increasingly pandemonic levels of mayhem.
21. Unbreakable (2000)
The movie: Imagine the surprised looks on people's faces after seeing M. Night Shyamalan's first post-Sixth Sense movie. Audiences gearing up for a similar ghostly tale were instead given a glimpse into the director's life-long passion: superheroes.
A self-confessed comic book fan, Shyamalan decided the worries of fan service and rights issues were not worth the hassle when he could create something original. The story takes a subtle approach to the life of a superhero, with security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) suddenly coming to grips with his abilities and dealing with the shady Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). It's a refreshing, minimalist film that's gone on to gain a cult following for its simplicity. There's no spandex to be seen, and no moral ranting about responsibility to the people - this is how the real superheroes do it.
Best superhero moment: David's son piles a load of extra weight onto his dumbbells without his dad knowing. David lifts it anyway.
20. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
The movie: Guillermo Del Toro cut his superhero teeth with Blade II, shimmied successfully into Hellboy and then brought out the big guns for its sequel, The Golden Army. Literally.
This is what it feels like to watch a director who's confident with the material. There's no pandering to what came before out of a misguided desire to create a carbon copy of the original. Del Toro crams this deliciously bonkers sequel with everything that worked so well in the first outing. Quippy one-liners, well-rounded supporting characters, insane steampunk props, it's all here in abundance. Even a puzzling, overly-complicated plot still doesn't detract from its brilliance.
Ron Perlman is on top-form as Hellboy, and his supporting cast of Selma Blair, Doug Jones and Jeffrey Tambor are given their fair share of bad-ass dialogue. This might be the closest we ever get to Del Toro's designs on Justice League Dark.
Best superhero moment: Hellboy, champ that he is, takes on the entire golden army - an ancient race of killing machines.
19. Spider-Man (2002)
The movie: The late '90s and early '00s saw the superhero movie begin to creep back into the conversation. We'd had Blade and X-Men, and they couldn't be more different; one drips with darkness, the other grins with glee. That space in between was waiting for something, someone to swing in.... and then came Spider-Man, the first proper live-action movie based on the Marvel character.
Tobey Maguire fits Peter Parker with a child-like wonder yet turns on a hardened edge when needs be, and Kirsten Dunst makes us love Mary Jane while taking our mind off where the hell Gwen Stacy is. In retrospect it still stands up as one hell of a franchise-starter. Plenty of action sequences, a superb hero vs. villain arc, and oh, you know, a truly great take on Spidey's origin.
Best superhero moment: Mere seconds away from being pulverised by the Green Goblin, Peter gets a second wind when Osborn threatens MJ.
18. Kick-Ass (2010)
The movie: Matthew Vaughn and Mark Millar's collaboration brought about much controversy at the time of release. Not because it's full of violence and bad language - which it undoubtedly is - but because 12-year old Chloe Moretz was dishing out both.
It's subversive to the point of making you wince. The idea of a self-made superhero, one who possesses no actual abilities, is turned into an amusing, dark-as-hell escapade. Aaron-Taylor Johnson's teenager embraces his love of comics and lets them spill into the real world by becoming Kick-Ass. Going up against wealthy foes who wipe the floor with him time and time again, leads him to join forces with Hit-Girl (Moretz) who wields a katana like a seasoned pro. It's also the only film to make Nicolas Cage's quirkiness the least batshit thing onscreen.
Best superhero moment: Kick-Ass visits Rasul, a low-life drug dealer who's been harassing the girl he likes, and does what you think he does. Yep, kicks his ass. With a little help from Hit-Girl.
17. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The movie: Guardians of the Galaxy rewrote the rules of Marvel's Cinematic Universe. Superhero movies can be silly and irreverent without damaging their soul. And boy, does Guardians have a lot of that. From the opening scene right up until the final moments, all you feel is heart, most of which comes from writer-director James Gunn's love for the material.
And his cast. And his crew. OK, so everyone involved in this hilarious space opera loved going to work. The great thing is, it shows. Every single element of this whacked-out story of misfit superheroes joining together to fight evil works in harmony. You've got the throwback soundtrack, spot-on casting, and just enough fan service to prevent it tipping into oblivion. If you like your superheroes without the swagger, this is for you.
Best superhero moment: Peter Quill's insistence that people call him Star-Lord - which no-one ever takes seriously.
16. Batman (1989)
The movie: It's amazing that Batman ever got made considering the 25,000 letters of objection the studio received when Michael Keaton was cast, along with Jack Nicholson having late start times and an insane box-office percentage inked into his contract. But it did.
Tim Burton's singular vision for a dark, brooding superhero is an off-kilter mix. It's a nostalgic trip into eighties cinema that dresses Bruce Wayne in chunky-knit sweaters, then seconds later becomes a riotous gangster film from the 1940s, complete with the overblown pap-pap of pistols. While Burton himself confessed to not being completely happy with the finished product, describing it as more a phenomenon than a good movie, he did gift the movie world with one of the nuttiest performances ever: Nicholson's Joker.
What's crackers about his take on the Clown Prince of Crime is that Burton actually gives him an origin. In the comics, part of the Joker's mystique is that his real name is never revealed. Here? Damn, it's only ruddy Batman that creates his cackling alter-ego.
Best superhero moment: The first time Batman appears on a misty Gotham rooftop, in his suit, doing what he does best: catching crooks.