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The Top 10 Superhero Movies

By Terris Ko · December 9, 2014

Comic books. Radio serials. TV shows. None of them quite do our favorite superheroes justice the way the big screen does. These ten films brought our heroes to us the way we were meant to enjoy them: in eye-popping, larger-than-life action.

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Photo: Marvel

10. Hulk (2003)

Although criticized by some for being less fun than a movie about an angry, big green giant of a comic book hero ought to be, Ang Lee’s Hulk was beautifully shot and gave us insight into the beast by taking us into the tortured soul of the man who was fighting a constant battle to try not to spin out of control (not surprising to see long-time Lee writing-producing collaborator James Schamus with story and writing credits here).

More importantly, Hulk showed that digital effects technology was finally mature enough to bring audiences true-to-life live superhero action (Hulk included some of the most complicated shot effects Industrial Lights and Magic had ever created to date), and as part of the second wave of superhero movies (together with X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002)), paved the way for today’s effects-laden, action-packed blockbusters.


9. Unbreakable (2000)

M. Night Shyamalan takes a backdoor look into the world of superheroes by letting an everyman have the chance to realize his unfulfilled potential. Possibly the darkest of Shyamalan’s films, and originally planned as the beginning of a three-part story, Unbreakable invited us to ask ourselves the question: what if you were a superhero and didn’t know it?


8. Watchmen (2009)

Like The Incredibles, these superheroes were more human (in this case, read: fallible) than most other superheroes to date. Somber and satirical, Watchmen was based on the landmark graphic novel, a contemplation on power using superheroes to ask, what if the wielders of power were not the noble, idealized idols we wanted to worship?


7. Iron Man (2008) / Iron Man 3 (2013)

Just as Tony Stark is the soul of the Avengers, the Iron Man films are the soul of the Avengers franchise. The first Iron Man (and its hero) was the perfect movie to set into motion possibly the most ambitious plan for a film franchise in cinematic history, as it also set the tone for Marvel’s new universe of superhero films: just good old fashioned fun.

Iron Man 3 was the perfect waystation for the Avengers franchise following the end of Phase I, a gut check for the franchise the way the story was a chance for Tony Stark to catch his breath. Written and directed by Shane Black, no surprise Iron Man 3 managed to see Stark through a mid-franchise crisis without devolving into an overwrought inner psychological battle.


6. The Incredibles (2004)

Just as insightful as Watchmen, but with less of the mopeyness, drama and gore. This film showed, possibly better than any superhero movie, that under the mask and cape, superheroes (and their superkids) can be real people too.


5. X-Men (2000) / X-Men: First Class (2011) / X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Bryan Singer’s X-Men could be said to be the spiritual godfather of the modern era of superhero films, skating a fine line between full-blown fantasy and having fantastic things happen in the real world.

X-Men: First Class brought us even deeper into the real world by focusing on the characters, stripping away the costumes and giving us young men and women coming into their own, making them human by humanizing them, instead of resorting to relying on stock character flaws. The 1960’s as imagined by writing team Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz and created by director Matthew Vaughn look like they’ve sprung directly from the pages of Marvel comics.

X-Men: Days of Future Past was an impressive feat in storytelling, masterfully taking what ostensibly had been a soft reboot and weaving it together with the original franchise to reset the entire film universe.


4. Batman (1989)

Although some feel that Tim Burton’s Batman hasn’t aged well, the film was the first spectacle of a superhero movie to bring a comic book-sensibility–and foam latex–to the silver screen.

Casting Michael Keaton as Batman and alter ego Bruce Wayne was a controversial choice, but it was a performance that came to define not only the franchise (Val Kilmer and George Clooney followed Keaton, both to less acclaim), but his career, as well (see: Birdman).

Likewise, people may forget now but at the time, Jack Nicholson’s Joker was no less iconic than Heath Ledger’s.

Batman is also a cautionary tale about how quickly a franchise could collapse under the weight of its own lesser sequels, but with the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Batman is also part of the new paradigm: if it doesn’t sell, reboot it.


3. The Avengers (2013)

The thrilling climax of all the individual films and separate franchises leading up to it (together, Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), The Avengers was just fun. This is what it should be like to have a comic book come to life. Where X-Men: First Class brought us scenes straight out of comic books, The Avengers translated comic book scenes into a cinematic experience.

Although considering its success it seems like a no-brainer now, in retrospect The Avengers is especially impressive considering it was conceived and greenlit in the studio age, where the bottom line and risk management reign supreme.

However, The Avengers is most impressive because for it to have worked effectively, all the pieces must have fired on all cylinders–it’s hard enough to make one solid movie, even harder to make a series of movies, but Marvel was able to create a series of franchises, all tied back to one, overarching (and ongoing) vision. We’ll see if they can keep up the pace and quality through Phases Two and Three.


2. Superman (1978)

Arguably the first blockbuster big-screen adaptation of the superhero genre, Superman gave us the superhero of all superheroes, in all his flying glory. Who could forget seeing Superman on the big screen for the first time, when Clark Kent improvised by using a revolving door to change into Superman and then saved Lois Lane in one arm and a nose-diving helicopter in the other?

Christopher Reeve, virtually unknown at the time, beat out a handful of A-listers for the part of Superman. Inspired casting: Reeve was Superman. More importantly, he was also Clark Kent. He was the embodiment of “superhero” for a generation, and remains a reminder how important (and difficult) casting any superhero is.


1. The Dark Knight Trilogy

Too dark? Not enough action? Overly complicated plots? Overly-simple plot points? Whatever detractors might say about Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the fact remains that at a certain point, the criticisms feel more like nitpicking, and Nolan’s trilogy should be recognized for what it is: an imposing contribution to superhero cinema.

Make no mistake, the three films should be taken as a whole, not picked apart and dissected individually. How many franchises have been able to give their heroes such a complete and compelling throughline over an entire series? Not Superman. Not Bond. Not Spider-Man.

More importantly, how many franchises have so immediately influenced an entire generation of films, in this case, to go “grittier” and “more real?”

To top it all off, only Michael Caine’s Alfred could chastise you–and then give you wink and nod to let you know that as bleak as things look, everything will be alright.