Superhero Movie Rankings: The Best and the Brightest

10. Superman II (1980)

This was a hard one to rank.  On the one hand, it’s got General Zod, one of the all-time great villains.  On the other hand, Ursa and Non are not that compelling, and Non is merely comedic relief.  I think the movie gets bogged down a little in the existential crisis that Superman undergoes when he decided to give up being Superman and just be Clark Kent, but when he gets his powers back, it’s game on.  That would also be a formula that future superhero movies would replicate to various degrees (Spider-Man 2, Iron Man 3, The Wolverine).  Someday I need to watch the Richard Donner cut.  Also, oddly enough, this movie debuted in Australia in 1980, and didn’t open in the US until summer of 1981.  The 80s were weird.

9. Batman (1989)

It’s funny, for years this was the gold standard for superhero movies for a lot of people.  I think if it was made today the online outrage would be through the roof.  Tim Burton definitely brought a gothic sensibility this movie that was the right tone for it, but Michael Keaton would have been a highly controversial casting decision that could have broken the internet.  But Tim Burton knew better than everyone else.  Jack Nicholson was also inspired casting as The Joker, a performance that arguably overshadowed Keaton’s and towered over the Batman film franchise for nearly 20 years before Heath Ledger stepped into the role.  Also, Kim Basinger has never looked better.

8. X2: X-Men United (2003)

2000’s X-Men announced the arrival of the modern generation of superhero films, and it served as the launching off point to a bigger, better sequel in X2: X-Men United.  Nightcrawler was an excellent addition to the cast.  Stryker was a threatening foe who with resources.  It forced Professor X and Magneto to be on the same side for much of the movie, and Hugh Jackman got to go all out as Wolverine.  The story was focused and the ending had stakes.  At the time, it was everything you could hope for from an ensemble superhero movie and it hinted at an even bigger story to come, which only further fueled the disappointment of X-Men: The Last Stand.

7. Spider-Man (2002)

Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe and Kirsten Dunst made me a very happy fanboy in 2002, bringing my favorite comic book to life on the big screen that year in Spider-Man.  As far as origin stories go, it is right up there.  There’s an excitement to Peter Parker discovering his powers after being bitten by that spider.  Raimi’s love of the source material is evident.  Dafoe’s Green Goblin may be a little over the top, but forgivable.  I thought they did a great job taking the older, classic Spider-Man story and modernizing it.  Some people disliked him, but I thought Maguire was leagues better than Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man.  I thought he struck a good balance between the action and the goofy, kind of cheesy charm of the character.

6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The First Avenger was a pretty good movie, and The Avengers was huge at the box office.  The Winter Soldier was one of the first forays into Phase 2 by Marvel, and it was, in my opinion, a roaring success.  The movie was not just a great superhero action movie, it felt like a legit paranoid political thriller out of the 70s.  This was helped by casting Robert Redford, one of the men who helped make those movies so popular in the 70s.  It also brought back Bucky Barnes and introduced Falcon, and the underrated Anthony Mackie.  There was some question whether these standalone superhero movies by Marvel would measure up in the same way in the wake of The Avengers, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier excelled.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I think it is safe to say that no one saw this coming.  Guardians of the Galaxy is a comic book that wasn’t even on my radar.  And it was just as much sci-fi as anything.  And yet it ended up being a massive hit.  It was very funny and had great action and was genuinely entertaining.  It helped make Chris Pratt a star.  It featured Bradley Cooper voicing a raccoon and Vin Diesel voicing a walking tree.  And it works because of the chemistry and camaraderie of the ragtag group and the direction of James Gunn.  It also has a killer soundtrack.

4. Iron Man (2008)

Iron Man, like Deadpool and Hellboy, is a perfect melding of character to actor.  Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as Tony Stark, the snarky genius billionaire.  Jon Favreau knocked it out of the park with this movie, and casting RDJ was a big reason for that, bringing a considerable amount of charisma and charm to Tony Stark.  There was also a life imitates art aspect to it, as Downey was someone who had dealt with substance abuse problems and had turned his life around, and here he was playing a flawed playboy genius.  Jeff Bridges was brilliant casting as the evil corporate nemesis to Tony Stark, and Gwyneth Paltrow and RDJ had great chemistry together.  I always had the impression that Iron Man was a notch below the upper echelon of Marvel superheroes, just below the very top of Spider-Man, Hulk, Captain America, Wolverine (and the X-Men in general).  This movie was so good that it felt like it elevated Iron Man into that group.

3. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Spider-Man 2 was everything I wanted in a superhero movie.  It remains a personal favorite to this day.  As I said before, Spider-Man was the comic book I read as a kid in the 1980s, and seeing it realized in such an exciting way on the big screen was very satisfying as a fan.  They took everything from 2002’s Spider-Man and perfected it.  The internal struggle of Peter Parker to balance his personal life and his responsibility that comes with his power, as well as his powers failing him was compelling.  Alfred Molina was perfect as Doc Ock.  The fight are thrilling, from the bank scene to the great train sequence, to the climax of the movie, everything worked for me.

2. The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers is the pinnacle of success for Marvel Studios.  It’s wasn’t just the culmination of Phase One of their M.C.U., it was also the crowning achievement of the previous 12 years of Marvel intellectual property, ranging from The X-Men and Fantastic Four at other studios as well as their own Marvel Studios.  Joss Whedon managed to strike the perfect balance in servicing the story, uniting the team, and giving adequate time to each character.  The difference between this and Age of Ultron shows what delicate balancing act that can be.  It’s fun, entertaining, and full of exciting action.

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

This should be no surprise.  As much as I personally love Spider-Man 2 and as entertaining as The Avengers is, there is no denying the supremacy of The Dark Knight.  At the forefront you have Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as The Joker, taking a familiar rogue in a very dark and fascinating direction, serving as an instrument off chaos in this universe.  Even the juxtaposition between Batman as Gotham’s Dark Knight and District Attorney Harvey Dent as its “White Knight” is well told, and Dent’s fall works.  There’s the love triangle between Bruce, Rachel , and Harvey.  I could go on, but what makes The Dark Knight the best is that it transcends its genre and whatever limitations or stigmas may be attached to “comic book movies” and can stand on its own as a compelling crime drama.  It’s not just Ledger’s performance that is iconic; this movie is the icon of superhero movies.


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