- There have been dozens of superhero movies in the past decade alone between the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, and other superheroes not attached to any comics at all.
- Insider whittled it down to the 21 best superhero movies you must watch in your lifetime.
- Old favourites like 1989’s “Batman” and instant classics like “Black Panther” made the cut.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
If you’re looking to have a superhero movie marathon while you’re stuck inside this summer, we’ve got you covered.
Insider has picked 21 must-see superhero movies throughout history, from the very first big-budget superhero movie in 1978 to the heartbreaking final instalment of the “Avengers” saga.
Keep scrolling to see if your favourite earned a spot.
There were superhero movies before 1978’s “Superman” starring Christopher Reeve as the titular Kryptonian, but this was the first to truly be a smash hit.
“Superman” fits a lot of story into its 143-minute runtime, tracking Kal-El (aka Superman) from his birth on the doomed planet of Krypton, a 12-year-long training period to become a hero in the Arctic, and his dual life as Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent and Superman in the fictional city of Metropolis.
All the iconic characters from the comic books were brought to life on the big screen for essentially the first time, including girlfriend Lois Lane, buddy Jimmy Olsen, enemies Lex Luthor and General Zodd, and his father Jor-El, played by an excellent Marlon Brando.
Yes, its special effects may be dated, and it’s almost too wholesome for its own good, but “Superman” was the first big-budget superhero movie, ever. If you’re wondering how, over 40 years later, superhero movies have become the the juggernauts that they are today, look no further than Reeve’s first outing as the Man of Steel.
Tim Burton’s 1989 film “Batman,” the first Batman movie in over 20 years, takes the campy hero from years past and turns him into a darker vigilante.
In hindsight, of course Burton’s gothic aesthetic meshed well with the darker undertones of tortured billionaire playboy Batman/Bruce Wayne, but at the time, it was a gamble. The film wasn’t even greenlit until the success of Burton and Keaton’s other film, “Beetlejuice,” a year prior in 1988.
“Batman” jump-started a series of Batman films, ranging from great, like this one, to almost unwatchable, like “Batman & Robin.” But none was truly able to improve on the original. For years, Jack Nicholson’s Joker was the definitive version of the character, and for some people, still is.
There have been plenty of Batmans over the years, but Keaton’s take on the character set the tone for years to come.
And just four years later, Batman got the animation treatment with “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” proving that DC Comics’ animated work is unparalleled.
“Mask of the Phantasm” is the feature film origin story/continuation of “Batman: The Animated Series,” widely regarded as one of the best animated series of all time.
The voice cast is firing on all cylinders, with Adam Conroy as the Bat and Mark Hamill as the seriously deranged (yet loveable) Joker reprising their roles from the show, along with newcomer Dana Delany as one of Bruce’s ill-fated love interests, Andrea Beaumont.
To any Batman completionist, this is required viewing. And for anyone looking to get a different perspective on the Caped Crusader, we highly recommend.
“Unbreakable” is a meta take on what would happen if “heroes” existed in a world that’s already saturated with comic book lore.
As with any M. Night Shyamalan film, there is a twist at the end of “Unbreakable” that we won’t spoil for you. But what we can say about this 2000 movie is that it’s a new take on the superhero genre that still hasn’t really been attempted again – what if someone became so obsessed with comic books and superheroes that they manipulated events to try and create them?
“Unbreakable” spawned a spiritual sequel with “Split,” which was revealed to be in the same universe. Characters from both reunited in 2019’s “Glass,” which concluded the story.
Pixar’s foray into the superhero genre resulted in 2004’s “The Incredibles,” one of the most popular Pixar movies to date.
It was only a matter of time before Pixar tried their hand at a superhero film, and in typical Pixar fashion, “The Incredibles” has both breathtaking animation and a heartwarming story about the importance of family.
Unlike DC and Marvel films, both of which struggle with compelling villains, Syndrome is a deeply relatable antagonist who struggles with feeling like his heroes have let him down, and that he’s inferior to super-powered individuals.
The first “Spider-Man” is a straightforward origin story, but 2004’s “Spider-Man 2” takes the character to new heights.
You might be suffering from Spider-Man fatigue in 2020. Since the very first “Spider-Man” film in 2002, there have been seven more films (with two more on the way) and five actors playing Peter Parker (if you count Jake Johnson and Chris Pine in “Spider-Verse”), plus another version of Spider-Man, whose real name is Miles Morales.
But “Spider-Man 2” holds up after all these years as a defining moment in the superhero canon. Here was a hero who had realistic struggles balancing his personal life with his crime-fighting one, coupled with a morally grey villain dealing with grief and a failed dream.
This movie also nails the now-typical action set piece, with our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man single-handedly stopping a subway from flying off the tracks after a fight with his disgraced mentor, and the people of New York City banding together to keep his secret. Doesn’t get any better than that.
“Sky High” is a high school coming-of-age story that happens to involve superheroes, a formula that has since been replicated numerous times.
After a few years of dark, angsty superhero films, 2005’s “Sky High” took the genre to a new setting: high school. Will Stronghold must grapple with his identity as the child of two of the most powerful superheroes in the world, while also trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school, cliques, parties, and dating.
The movie is clearly a love letter to comic fans, with former Wonder Woman actress Lynda Carter appearing as Sky High’s principal, and references to iconic superheroes like Superman, Batman, and his sidekick Robin.
“Iron Man” has spawned a behemoth of a franchise, with 21 more movies in its particular universe and billions of dollars at the box office.
Not enough can be said about how strange it was in 2008 that Marvel was writing a movie based on a lesser-known hero, Iron Man, and had tapped Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ) to play the leading man. RDJ’s career was pretty much toast after years of drug addiction and several stints in jail, according to The Guardian.
But something about this movie translated into magic. Marvel’s signature quippy tone can be traced back to Tony Stark’s wit, and the stars of this movie have become the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the wake of “Avengers: Endgame,” this movie that started it all is essential viewing, just to see how far our favourite genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist has come.
“The Dark Knight” remains the best superhero movie of all time, 11 years after its release in 2008.
We might call this a superhero movie, but “The Dark Knight” really belongs to Heath Ledger and his haunting portrayal of Batman’s archnemesis, the Joker. There’s a reason this was the first comic book movie to have earned an Academy Award for acting. The Joker stays with you after the film, much like it reportedly did with Ledger, who tragically died six months before the movie was released.
If you’re trying to convert someone who thinks they’re “above” superhero films, this is what they need to see. As Business Insider’s Travis Clark wrote, “Whatever accolades movies like ‘Logan’ or ‘Black Panther’ may receive, it’s hard to match the significance of ‘The Dark Knight.'”
“Chronicle” brought superheroes into the inescapable found footage genre in 2012.
After the runaway success of 2007’s “Paranormal Activity,” it seemed like found footage was everywhere, including the superhero genre.
If nothing else, “Chronicle” is a genuinely exciting attempt at bringing a fairly old genre into a new medium. But thankfully, “Chronicle” is also a truly entertaining film about teenagers attempting to deal with newfound powers.
The struggle of Dane DeHaan’s loner Andrew remains relevant in 2020, as he descends deeper and deeper into darkness, eventually making devastating choices that he is unable to deal with.
“The Avengers” was an unprecedented movie at the time, combining four different movie franchises to make one super team-up movie — and it worked shockingly well.
“The Avengers” was the first of four Avengers movies we’ve gotten over the past seven years, and “Endgame” was easily the most anticipated movie of 2019.
The original “Avengers” is something special. It balances the famed heroes we know and love, plus new additions like Hawkeye, has a compelling villain (one who Marvel has returned to again and again), and manages to be funny, crowd-pleasing, and generally optimistic about the future.
While gritty reboots and sequels are all the rage right now – even “Avengers” sequels have gotten much darker – “The Avengers” remains a perfect example of how to pack an emotional punch without sending viewers into existential funks.
“Captain America: Winter Soldier” proves that gritty reboots also have their place.
“Winter Soldier” is a necessary re-watch in the wake of “Endgame.” It kicks events into motion that are still being felt in the MCU, including the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. (the superhero law enforcement agency), the potential rehabilitation of Bucky Barnes (Captain America’s best friend gone-bad gone-good again), and totally changing Captain America’s mind about government and authority.
The choice to make Captain America, arguably the most pure-hearted Avenger, question his orders for the first time was an inspired one. For once, the choices Cap had to make weren’t so black and white, and both the movie and the character are better for it.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” is still unlike any other film in the MCU six years after its release in 2014.
If you thought Iron Man was an obscure figure in the comics, you most likely had no idea who the Guardians of the Galaxy were when their movie was announced. But this allowed James Gunn and the rest of the team the freedom to create, for lack of a better phrase, a weird little movie.
One thing about “Guardians” that really sets it apart from the ever-increasing pile of superhero movies is its soundtrack. The first scene of this movie, with Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill dancing to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, effectively sets the tone for the rest of the film.
After years of trying to get it made, 2016’s “Deadpool” proved that R-rated movies could still do well at the box office.
One of the main criticisms of comic books and superhero movies is that they’re for kids. But this foul-mouthed, wise-cracking assassin quickly proved that not all heroes are safe for work.
“Deadpool” is currently the second-highest-grossing R-rated movie in history, as it made over $US360 million worldwide. Anyone who’s gotten sick of the inspirational superheroes we’ve gotten as of late needs to see “Deadpool.”
“Wonder Woman” gave an entire generation of women a hero to look up to in 2017.
Business Insider’s Jason Guerrasio called “Wonder Woman” “one of the best superhero movies ever made.” After years and years of waiting for the female superhero the world deserved, fans were finally given a film centered around Wonder Woman, the most iconic female superhero of them all.
After the missteps of the DC Extended Universe, people were cautious about the movie, but with a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, “Wonder Woman” did not let us down.
Plus, Diana’s run through no man’s land to take on the German army is one of the biggest goose-bump-inducing scenes in superhero movie history.
“Thor: Ragnarok” is Marvel’s first attempt at a straight-up comedy — and it’s a huge success.
Come for Chris Hemsworth’s abs, stay for the laughs. “Ragnarok” was a total tone shift from the other two “Thor” movies, which were perfectly adequate, if not a little irrelevant to the larger MCU story.
But “Ragnarok,” led by indie director Taika Waititi, finally let Hemsworth lean into his comedic tendencies, and allowed the God of Thunder to not take himself too seriously.
“Logan” is a fitting swan song for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, whom the actor had portrayed for the better part of two decades.
As you might have noticed, “Logan” is the only X-Men movie that meets the must-watch criteria. Superhero team-ups have been done better (see: “The Avengers”) and the rest of the movies are sometimes too chaotic and confusing to follow along with, timeline wise.
But “Logan” stands out as a superhero movie that’s not really a superhero movie. It’s more of a Western than anything else, which is what makes it essential for any superhero fan. The film depicts what happens to a hero when he begins ageing, when he’s done with the fight.
Need more convincing? “Logan” pulled off something that no superhero movie had done before. It received an Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay.
“Black Panther” was the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Historically speaking, superhero movies haven’t been the most diverse. “Black Panther” was a step in the right direction by having a significant chunk of the movie taking place in the African country of Wakanda, and by having an almost entirely black cast.
The movie raises complex questions about the role of Wakanda among the rest of the world, and if the nation has a duty to share its knowledge or if it should protect itself and stay in hiding. The villain, portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, is the MCU’s best since Loki way back in 2012.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is visually stunning, and another step towards diversity.
“Into the Spider-Verse,” the 2018 Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature, was so unique that Sony filed patents for the technology used to animate the film. Simply put, there’s never been anything like it before. It looked like a comic book come to life.
A new origin story for a new Spider-Man, Miles Morales, was a breath of fresh air after years of hearing that “with great power comes great responsibility.” The movie also found ways to include iconic Spider-Man characters like Peter Parker, the Prowler, and Doctor Octopus.
“Avengers: Infinity War” spawned countless memes, buckets of tears shed, and changed the game for superhero movies as we know it.
“Infinity War” is the definition of a cultural moment. For weeks, even months, after the film premiered, people were talking about the grand finale, which we won’t spoil here – though you should probably get on it before watching “Endgame.”
“Infinity War” is the beginning of a conclusion to a story 20 films and 10 years in the making, combining all of our superheroes, from the original Avengers, to the Guardians of the Galaxy, to new faves like Black Panther and Ant-Man, and it managed to do it in a satisfying way. Literally, no other movie can say it’s done that … or at least, before “Endgame” was released.
If you thought “Infinity War” was a tearjerker, it has nothing on “Avengers: Endgame,” which was a fitting end for two of the most iconic superheroes of our generation.
Spoilers, of course, for “Endgame,” which has become the highest-grossing movie of all time. The movie’s staggering 3-hour runtime fit so much story inside it, it’s impossible to summarize.
But from the heartbreaking beginning showing the disappearance of Hawkeye’s family, to the shocking 5-year time-jump, to the many goosebump moments – Cap picking up Thor’s hammer, the return of all our favourite superheroes, “I am Iron Man,” to name a few – to the deaths of not one but three of our beloved Avengers … this movie is overwhelming.
All this to say: “Avengers Endgame” was a cultural moment unlike any we’ve seen before, and most likely will ever see again. It’s the definition of a must-watch movie. Don’t forget the tissues.
- Read more:
- 30 celebrities you probably didn’t realise appeared in Marvel movies
- 15 facts about your favourite superheroes that you’d be surprised to know are true
- The 50 best superhero movies of all time, ranked link
- We made a timeline showing the entire history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
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