How do you narrow down the best superhero movies? There’s certainly no shortage of them right now, what with Marvel and DC both churning out new comic book adaptations at a steady pace. 2020 may have seen a year without the MCU on the big screen, but Marvel is going to make up for that in the near future with a whole load of new content coming very soon.
A mammoth task like this needs lots of brainpower behind it, so GamesRadar+, Total Film, and SFX teamed up to put this list together. This selection of movies spans over four decades and isn’t limited to comic book adaptations, either – as long as it follows a character (or characters) classed as a superhero, it’s on the list. Read on to see which caped (and non-caped) crusaders made the cut... or listen to the Total Film podcast team talk through the list below of the best superhero movies!
25. Chronicle (2012)
It’s not often that a truly original superhero movie swoops in and soars past its more esteemed and well-established peers. Chronicle, though, does exactly that. Putting a spin on the found-footage genre, Josh Trank’s movie instantly sets itself apart from other superhero outings with its harrowing come-of-age story starring a trio of teenagers who gain superpowers and struggle with their newfound abilities.
Tragedy inevitably strikes and Chronicle hurtles forward at breakneck speed, the final eschewing a neat conclusion in favour of a more realistic, grounded ending that deals with how superheroes would survive (or otherwise) in the real world. Bonus points for featuring Michael B. Jordan’s first role in a superhero movie, too.
Best superhero moment: The friends flying together through the clouds is one of the few times we get to see everyone enjoying a happy, carefree moment. It’s all downhill from there.
24. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)
Director Guillermo Del Toro cut his superhero teeth with Blade II, shimmied successfully into Hellboy, and then brought out the big guns, quite literally, for the sequel, The Golden Army. This isn't merely a carbon copy of the original – a trap many superhero sequels fall into. Instead, Del Toro crams this deliciously bonkers sequel with a complicated plot that nevertheless works thanks to the sheer bombasity of it.
Everything you loved from the first movie – the quippy one-liners, supporting characters, steampunk props – is still here in abundance. Ron Perlman's on top-form as Hellboy, plus the supporting cast, including Selma Blair, Doug Jones and Jeffrey Tambor, are given their fair share of screen time.
Best superhero moment: Hellboy, champ that he is, takes on the entire golden army – an ancient race of killing machines.
23. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
After Kenneth Brannagh's Shakespearean origin story and Alan Taylor's po-faced sequel, Thor was begging for a fresh start. Thank goodness, then, for Taika Waititi, director of What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, who turned the character around, re-imagining the God of Thunder as an arrogant, comedic mess.
Thor: Ragnarok may not be the most important MCU movie, story-wise, but the movie makes for the funniest Marvel outing to date. Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, and Jeff Goldblum are all clearly having a blast playing off the fast and loose script. Also featuring dazzlingly outlandish visuals, thanks to some impressive set design and fantastical uses of CGI, Ragnarok makes for a comic book-induced fever dream.
Best superhero moment: Hulk vs Thor... Do we have to say any more?
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22. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directors The Russo Brothers took what could have been a bland sequel to a so-so superhero movie and made something very special with The Winter Soldier: an action flick that, instead of harkening back to the first film's Second World War adventure, brings the paranoia of the Regan Era into the 21st Century. They even cast Robert Redford.
Having now caught up with the world, Cap's back, and ready to bring down the enemy. But who's the enemy? That's the central question here, and one that leads to a jaw-dropping twist that changed the MCU (and the TV show Agents of Shield) forever.
Best superhero moment: When Steve Rogers takes out an entire elevator full of Hydra agents. "Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?"
21. Superman 2 (1980)
The number of superhero movies that have successfully juggled including multiple villains can be counted on one hand (the number of failures, though, requires you to use your fingers and toes). Against the odds, Superman 2 successfully managed exactly that, pitting Christopher Reeve's Son of Krypton against numerous antagonists (Krypton criminals General Zod, Ursa and Non in addition to a returning Lex Luthor), and pulling it off in near flawless style.
This, on top of the much publicised behind-the-scenes woes (original director Richard Donner was fired over halfway through production), makes Superman 2 something of a movie miracle. How did the sequel succeed where others have since failed? By focusing on the endearing romance between Clark and Lois,giving the movie a very human heart. That, plus some of the finest physical action sequences of the 20th century.
Best superhero moment: Superman's god-like battle with General Zod in Metropolis is one for the ages.
20. Black Panther (2018)
The first superhero movie to ever receive an Oscar Best Picture nomination, Black Panther makes for a politically astute blockbuster that marks a significant step forward for diversity in Hollywood. However, even when you isolate the movie from its historical importance, Black Panther's a thrilling ensemble action flick that oozes with director Ryan Coogler's flair.
Featuring an impressive cast roster and an incredibly realised Afro-futurist setting, Black Panther features warmth and humanity. Plus, Marvel finally has a villain worthy of your attention in Michael B Jordan's Killmonger, whose raw energy is never put to waste.
Best superhero moment: T'Challa heads to South Korea, where a cascading chase sequence snowballs into increasingly levels of mayhem.
19. Batman Begins (2005)
Between Tim Burton's and Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, there were a couple of, shall we say, mixed outings for the Caped Crusader. The thought of another one in the vein of Batman & Robin was hard to stomach, which perhaps made Batman Begins such a dark surprise.
Nolan brought a certain seriousness to the tale of a billionaire with an alter-ego, the director approaching the comics without wanting to create another frivolous spectacle. This was the first time that a superhero movie was quite so downbeat, Bruce Wayne being a troubled, tormented protector, desperate to make a difference.
Best superhero moment: Eager to escape the cops, Batman shoots into his handily-parked Tumbler and makes his getaway.
18. The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
Who is Batman? A tortured vigilante? Courageous hero? Wanted criminal? Or maybe, as The Lego Batman Movie makes clear, he's a privileged douchebag who's desperate to be loved? As well as being a slapstick comedy rendered in gorgeous Lego visuals and crammed with Easter eggs, The Lego Batman Movie is one of the best character studies of the Dark Knight out there.
Director Chris McKay, previously best known for episodes of Robot Chicken, wrings Bruce Wayne's isolated soul for brilliantly perceptive comedic effect. The fact that everyone's made out of Danish plastic is just a bonus.
Best superhero moment: Seeing what Bats gets up to when he's not crime-fighting, which mainly involves heating up lobster thermidor in the microwave.
17. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Captain America: Civil War basically amounts to Avengers: 2.5. The groundwork for the rift between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers is established in the lesser Age of Ultron, and finally comes up trumps in Civil War. Who's on the right side of history? The man who wants to ensure freedom and the American way? Or the the philanthropist who desires to have a world where superheroes are held accountable?
There are still wise-cracks and silliness contained within Civil War, yet the movie takes a more serious tone than other MCU outings. The Russo Brothers do a miraculous job, somehow giving everyone their dues and introducing the world to Black Panther and a new-look Spider-Man.
Best superhero moment: That airport fight. Has there been a better Avengers tussle since?
16. The Avengers (Assemble) (2012)
Take Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Captain America, throw them together and what do you get? Not only The Avengers, but a mammoth blockbuster that established Marvel Studios as a true powerhouse. While team-ups had been happening in the comics for years, cinema finally caught up in 2012. And, while nobody expected The Avengers to work, Joss Whedon proved critics wrong, bringing together the superheroes in seemingly effortless style.
No Avenger feels clunky or unnecessary to the story and the action sequences fly by. The Avengers fuse together into a slick machine ready to dispense justice like no other onscreen team before, and the result is thrilling.
Best superhero moment: Cap and Thor are locked in battle, but that doesn't stop Tony delivering an excellent one-liner: "Doth your mother know you stole her drapes?"