The evolution of superhero movies over the past several decades is fascinating. What used to be cheesy action movies with little substance have since then transformed into interesting character studies that now dominate the box office. Now that we seem to be getting five or more superhero movies a year, it seems that now would be a good time to try picking the best out of the bunch. Oh, and a disclaimer: this list only includes movies that I have seen, so you won’t be seeing Blade or Spawn anywhere on the list. Though from what I have heard about Spawn, it belongs on another list entirely.
10. Batman Begins
While Batman Begins didn’t start the trend toward more serious portrayals of superheroes, this was the first time that a superhero movie went all the way, breathing new life into the Batman franchise with a completely grounded and serious take on the world’s most popular superhero. Filled with pitch-perfect performances, great action and well, BATMAN, Batman Begins represents the true beginning of the superhero renaissance. That being said, it isn’t perfect, and is filled with more plot holes than you can count. The climax is particularly disappointing, as Batman practically breaks his no-kill rule, and the fear gas hidden in the water supply makes no sense. What would happen when someone took a shower? Would they start losing their mind? Why didn’t the microwave machine instantly vaporize the water in all the humans? If the ending had been as fantastic as the beginning and middle of Batman Begins, it likely would be put higher on this list.
9. Avengers: Age of Ultron
The latest entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Age of Ultron, mostly lives up to the hype. Many were confused by James Spader’s portrayal as Ultron, as his quips and jokes were a large deviation from the source material. Personally, I thought that it was great, but I may be biased by my love of the “lizard king.” Age of Ultron also suffered from some pacing issues, notably with Thor’s bizarre trip to a vision (get it?!) pool. All in all, however, Age of Ultron is a great follow up to The Avengers, and definitely worth a viewing if you love over the top action, amazing special effects, and all of your favorite superheroes teaming up again to fight a new, and strangely hilarious, threat.
8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier has the notable honor of being the first movie where I took Captain America seriously. While I had enjoyed The First Avenger and The Avengers in the past, I still had always considered Cap to be my least favorite main member of the Avengers. That is, until, Winter Soldier came along and made him one of my absolute favorites. Like the Batman franchise, The Winter Soldier grounded Captain America in a more-realistic-than-usual spy thriller, complete with a great villain and supporting characters. The Winter Soldier also has some of the best fight scenes you will see in any superhero movie, and is hugely important in the large-scale Marvel Universe.
7. The Avengers
Looking back now, few fully understand the full scale of The Avengers in not just the superhero genre, but cinema as a whole. The Avengers was the first time that a shared-universe movie model had ever paid off in such a huge way, making it one of the most successful movies of all time. It was the first time that big-name superheroes were all brought together in a team, and boy did it feel good. Part of The Avengers’ success lies on its universal appeal, mostly brought about by its relatively simple plot: Loki has come to take over Earth. The movie didn’t have to spend a lot of time on set-up or exposition, as the past six movies introducing all of the major characters had already done that. This movie was just a pure thrill-ride, practically the entire time, with the last half-hour being just one gigantic battle filled with fanservice—just plain awesome.
6. X-Men: Days of Future Past
Days of Future Past finally told one of X-Men’s most well-known and loved comic storylines, and it did not disappoint. While it wasn’t the exact same as the comic, it was close enough to have almost no fans walking away disappointed. It did a great job tying together the original cast with the newer one from the semi-reboot First Class. (Though, at times the huge cast hurt the movie, as many characters didn’t get nearly enough screen time. Rogue in one scene? Come on!) The biggest success of Days of Future Past is that it all actually worked, given the scale of the movie, both in and out of the fiction. I can only hope that Apocalypse can keep the momentum going, because no one wants another X-Men: The Last Stand.
Watchmen is a bit of a dark horse in the superhero movie world, because while the reviews are generally positive, it was a box office bomb that few in the mainstream movie community have even heard of. It’s a shame, because other than the ending—which I actually think is better than the comic—Watchmen is one of the most faithful comic book adaptations ever made. Some scenes are even panel to shot recreations from the original, and it is obvious watching the very long movie just how much love the filmmakers had for the original comic book. Watchmen also is probably the most gritty and adult superhero movie out there, with extremely mature themes such as the inevitability of death, the dangers of a strict moral code and glowing blue cancer dongs. Watchmen is the kind of movie that demands to be seen more than once, if only to hear Rorschach scream “I’m not locked in here with you! You’re locked in here with me,” just one more time.
4. Iron Man
Iron Man faced the daunting task of making the flagging superhero movie genre feel exciting again, which it pulled off with AC/DC-blaring style. As the first entry in the MCU, Iron Man had a lot riding on its shoulders. Without its success, we likely would have never seen an Avengers movie or a movie about a talking space tree that can only say three words. But thanks to absolutely perfect casting, a relatable plot and snarky dialogue, Iron Man blew away everyone’s expectations and ushered in a renewed era of superhero movie success.
3. The Dark Knight
Say what you will about Christian Bale’s performance as Batman, but the true star of The Dark Knight was Heath Ledger in his last on screen performance as the Joker. Boldly deciding to do a fresh take on the classic character, Ledger’s Joker captivated the audience with his deadpan and highly unsettling performance, which even earned him posthumous Oscar, the only time a superhero movie has ever done so. The Dark Knight still stands as the golden example of a serious superhero movie done right, with the movie being praised even to this day.
2. Spider-Man 2
Spider-Man 2 was the amazing follow-up to the original Spider-Man, which was the first major superhero movie in the modern era to really capture the imaginations of the audience. Surprisingly, the sequel actually did better than the original both critically and financially, showing the world that superhero movies were here to stay. Cutting back a bit on some of the eye-rolling cheesiness of the original, Spider-Man 2 also featured much better fight scenes (holy crap, that train scene), a better villain and a relatable crisis for our hero, as he battles not only supervillains but also his own self-doubts and misgivings over being a costumed hero. Were it not for the abysmal Spider-Man 3, the franchise could have continued riding on the coattails of Spider-Man 2 for years to come.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
Come on, what else was it going to be? Guardians of the Galaxy proved that audiences didn’t need prior knowledge of the heroes in order to enjoy a superhero movie, and once again proved that the MCU is still going strong. Armed with great casting, a catchy old-school soundtrack and a hilarious script, Guardians took the box office by storm and became one of the most successful movies of 2014, despite almost no one expecting it to do so. Now all we need is the Guardians to meet up with the Avengers, and all us geeks can die happy.
Is ‘Guardians’ the best superhero movie to date? Love or hate this list? Tweet me @adam_mcconnell. And be sure you follow us @YouNerded.
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