The Best Superhero Movies of All Time (September 2021)

We’ve finally started getting some new superhero movies this year and — in some cases more than others — it’s felt worth the wait. Not only do the technologies for creating both computer-generated effects and practical ones continue to expand, but the past few years have seen filmmakers continue to broaden the notion of what superhero movies can and can’t be. From examples of decades-old films to ones that have come out in the past few months, here are our picks for the best superhero movies of all time.

More interested in TV series? How about our picks for the best superhero TV shows of all time? Or if it’s just superheroes that aren’t your thing, we’ve got lists of the best movies on Netflix, the best movies on Hulu, the best movies on Amazon Prime, and the best movies on Disney+.

Robert Downey Jr. In Avengers: Endgame.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

At just a bit over three hours, Avengers: Endgame is long, it’s crowded, and every bit of it feels perfect. Endgame is the triumphant culmination of the MCU’s Infinity Saga, featuring the final battle between just about every surviving superhero to ever appear in Marvel Studio’s films and the nihilistic madman Thanos (Josh Brolin). Most of the film involves a fun, nostalgic time heist, visiting different past moments in the series. It all leads to the insanely massive battle involving Thanos and his alien armies, the Avengers, the Asgardians, the Ravagers, the Guardians, the wizards of Kamar-taj, and even — just for a split second — none other than Howard the Duck. It’s funny, emotionally powerful, and obscenely huge — which is exactly what it should be.

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 181 minutes

Bruce Willis in Unbreakable.

Unbreakable (2000)

Security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is not only the lone survivor of a horrific train accident, but when he wakes up in the hospital, there isn’t a single mark on him. Already in the middle of what looks to be a painful separation from his wife (Robin Wright) and urged on by what sometimes seems like the insane ramblings of wealthy, eccentric Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), Dunn looks for meaning in what happened to him. The more he looks, the more he leans toward Price’s strange way of thinking — that he is meant to be the kind of champion whose stories are told in comic books.

Unbreakable is by no means a perfect movie. Sometimes director M. Night Shyamalan’s storytelling pace strays from careful to just plain stagnant, and his trademark surprise ending was guessed by many viewers beforehand. Still, with Unbreakable, Shyamalan accomplishes something we haven’t seen before or since — a human and emotionally powerful story of a superhero character who has nothing to do with Marvel, DC, or any other comic book mythos.

Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
Stars: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 107 minutes

Joaquin Phoenix dances on the stairs in Joker.

Joker (2019)

There is an argument to be made that Joker doesn’t belong anywhere on a list of superhero movies. Even director Todd Phillips told Empire Magazine that he didn’t see his film as a comic book movie. But the story unfolds in Gotham City, Bruce Wayne and his parents are in it, and the protagonist evolves into perhaps the most iconic supervillain in all pop culture. So, you know, we feel pretty confident including it.

There are plenty of valid criticisms of Joker, including its depictions of mental illness and race, plus the cinematic conversation it has with films like The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, which some argue misses the mark of homage and simply steals unapologetically. And when it was released, many questioned the timing, as it came in the wake of several mass shootings committed in the U.S. — some feel that perhaps that wasn’t the time to glorify an antihero like Arthur Fleck.

But in terms of a movie that does find itself in the superhero neighborhood whether Phillips likes it or not, what Joker does better than any other film is show us exactly how someone could shed their humanity to become a supervillain. Sure, we’ve had plenty of sympathetic supervillains before, like Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, but in Joker, we see the process unfold. We see Fleck transform into a monster, and we see it in a world just like our own that has nothing to do with rainbow bridges or vibranium meteorites.

Rotten Tomatoes: 68%
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
Director: Todd Phillips
Rating: R
Runtime: 122 minutes

The heroes of The Suicide Squad.

The Suicide Squad (2021)

While certain entries of the DCEU like Shazam! worked hard to scrub off the narrative’s reputation of unnecessarily gloomy stories, few superhero movies from Warner Bros. — or really, from anyone — has been filled with as much carnage, deep-diving comic book know-how, and unmitigated fun as 2021’s The Suicide Squad.

Written and directed by Guardians of the Galaxy veteran James Gunn, The Suicide Squad reaches back to the game-changing John Ostrander run of the comic for a film that — as early as the first 15 minutes — does a much better job living up to its name than its 2016 predecessor. With a huge, impressive cast including Idris Elba as the mercenary Bloodsport, Margot Robbie reprising the beloved role of Harley Quinn, John Cena as the twisted Peacemaker, and even Sylvester Stallone providing the voice of the powerful King Shark, The Suicide Squad is one of the funniest and bloodiest superhero films you’ll ever see.

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Stars: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena
Director: James Gunn
Rating: R
Runtime: 132 minutes

Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa in Black Panther.

Black Panther (2018)

While the late Chadwick Boseman gives a wonderful introductory performance as Black Panther in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, it isn’t until the character’s own 2018 solo film that T’Challa really gets to shine. With a cast composed almost entirely of actors of color and a setting in Marvel’s fictional Wakanda, Black Panther manages to feel completely singular in the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also staying firmly a part of it. With Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler succeeds where Thor fails: Realizing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s vision of a world apart from the world. Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Wakanda’s forgotten son, Erik Killmonger, remains one of the most affecting and sympathetic portrayals of a villain in superhero movie history, Marvel or otherwise, while other standout performances include Boseman as the eponymous conflicted king, Danai Gurira as the unstoppable Okoye, and Winston Duke as the rebellious and charismatic M’Baku.

Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o
Director: Ryan Coogler
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 134 minutes

The Avengers gathered.

The Avengers (2012)

After we’ve seen so many other films uniting leading men and women from different franchises, it can be easy to forget how novel the concept of Avengers was when it was released in 2012. The film was a singular spectacle, bringing together Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye to battle Loki and aliens invading Earth, with no inherent guarantee of working. But it did anyway. With a perfect blend of humor, action, and amazing special effects, The Avengers made cinematic history.

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
Director: Joss Whedon
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 143 minutes

Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, and Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

In a relatively short time, we’ve seen so many different versions of Spider-Man — Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Tom Holland, not to mention all the voices of the character in animated series and video games. There’s a real argument to be made that none of them ever had a chance to surpass 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. With its unique brand of animation and a multidimensional team of Spider-Men, a Spider-Woman, and a Spider-Ham(?!), Into the Spider-Verse — like the Marvel Comics event upon which it’s based — is a celebration of not just the history of Spider-Man but the legacy of superhero comics. Into the Spider-Verse is hilarious, full of action, and introduces so many to the great young hero Miles Morales.

Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Stars: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld
Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Rating: PG
Runtime: 117 minutes

Hank McCoy, Charles Xavier, and Logan in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

After the twin failures of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine — along with the relative success of 2011’s X-Men: First Class — it seemed like maybe the cast of the original X-Men films might be done for good. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. With 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, the filmmakers brought together the casts of both eras, while at the same time paying homage to one of the most well-loved stories from the source material. The story begins in the not-too-distant future, when the sentinel robots are driving mutantkind to extinction. With the help of a not particularly well-conceived plot device, Wolverine travels back in time to 1973 to stop the chain of events that would lead to his future dystopia. Along with bringing back a lot of old friends to the franchise, Days of Future Past also includes a great performance by Peter Dinklage as scientist Dr. Bolivar Trask, and Evan Peters makes his first appearance as Quicksilver, including what remains the most impressive portrayal of super speed on the big screen.

Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Peter Dinklage, Evan Peters
Director: Bryan Singer
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 132 minutes

Nightcrawler in X2: X-Men United.

X2: X-Men United (2003)

While 2000’s X-Men launched the movie franchise for Marvel’s outcast mutant heroes, it wasn’t until the 2003 follow-up X2: X-Men United that Charles Xavier’s gifted students started to feel like their comic book counterparts. While he seems a little neutered in the earlier film, in X2 we finally see the brutality Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is capable of when he tears through a black ops team invading Xavier’s school. Opening with a perfectly-shot assassination attempt in the White House courtesy of a mind-controlled Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), X2 is an early example of how wonderfully cinematic superpowers could manifest with a little help from CGI. It also highlights how socially poignant the creations of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could be, particularly in a brilliantly conceived scene in which Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore) tells his family he’s a mutant and the dialogue unfolds as if he were coming out as gay.

Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Alan Cumming
Director: Bryan Singer
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 134 minutes

Michael Keaton in Batman.

Batman (1989)

Tim Burton’s Batman is not a perfect film, but there’s a reason why some fans — in spite of decades of other live-action and animated realizations of the Dark Knight — still defer to Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson as the “real” Batman and Joker. Keaton was a surprising casting choice at the time, as he was largely known for comedic roles like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice, though he proves the perfect choice for Burton’s fusion of darker Batman comic book fare and the campy 1960s Batman TV show. These days, Nicholson’s Joker is unkindly judged against grittier interpretations, and those comparisons forget his Clown Prince of Crime was meant to be over-the-top. It’s a role Nicholson seems born for, as he gives us a Joker who revels so thoroughly in his villainy that you’re almost mad at Batman for beating him in the end.

Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Stars: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger
Director: Tim Burton
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 126 minutes

Christopher Reeve in Superman.

Superman: The Movie (1978)

For a generation, Christopher Reeve’s version of the Man of Steel defined Superman. His unyielding determination, his humility, his love for no-nonsense reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and the painstaking care with which he wields his godlike power come through effortlessly under Reeve’s care. Gene Hackman remains one of the most devilishly ideal actors for the part of Superman’s genius arch-nemesis Lex Luthor and Kidder fully owns the role of the award-winning journalist who won’t give an inch before she has the story, but still can’t spell worth a damn. With an iconic score by John Williams and flawless casting, 1978’s Superman lay the foundation for all the best superhero films that would follow in subsequent decades.

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Stars: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman
Director: Richard Donner
Rating: PG
Runtime: 140 minutes

Thor and Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

With Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi took one of Marvel’s flagging film franchises and turned it into one of its most successful. Ragnarok yanks Thor (Chris Hemsworth) out of his mythological comfort zone and puts him in the more sci-fi flavored setting of Sakaar where the hilarious tyrant Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) runs a deadly gladiator contest. While the Marvel Studios flicks were already known for not taking themselves too seriously, Waititi infuses his own improvisational brand of humor in Ragnarok and proves just how much of a laugh riot Hemsworth can be, especially when paired with Mark Ruffalo as either the monosyllabic Hulk or the more wordy and neurotic Bruce Banner. If there’s any weakness to Ragnarok, it’s that it occasionally sacrifices characterization for humor, but you’re usually laughing too much to notice or care.

Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett
Director: Taika Waititi
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 130 minutes

Spider-Man sticking to a pole.

Spider-Man (2002)

Perhaps the most important part of the formula of Spider-Man’s popularity is that he doesn’t have a mansion or a secret Arctic fortress. He’s a socially awkward nerd who, once he eventually leaves his aunt’s house, can’t pay his bills. Director Sam Raimi gave us this more fallible superhero in 2002’s Spider-Man, and his potent humanity proves just as likable as it was when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced the character in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy No. 15. While Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker doesn’t have the arsenal of quips his comic book counterpart uses, the movie reflects webhead’s humor. Purists may still bemoan the absence of Spidey’s mechanical webshooters in favor of making the webs part of the hero’s powers, but the commitment to the spirit of the source material shines through regardless.

Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Stars: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe
Director: Sam Raimi
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 121 minutes
Sebastian Stan in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

There’s a reason why Joe and Anthony Russo took over as the story architects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Joss Whedon, and that reason is 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Contrasting sharply with 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Joe and Anthony Russo’s follow-up finds Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) up to his neck in a decades-old conspiracy involving the Nazi off-shoot organization Hydra and Cap’s new home SHIELD. The Winter Soldier is a suspenseful action-espionage thriller with some of the most flawlessly executed action sequences you’ll find in any superhero film, particularly in the famous scene where Cap takes on around 10 Hydra agents in a glass elevator.

Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Stars: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 136 minutes

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman (2017)

A bright spot among a lot of disappointments from Warner’s DC Extended Universe installments, 2017’s Wonder Woman finally and triumphantly gives Princess Diana of Themyscrira (Gal Gadot) a chance to shine on the big screen. Gadot wonderfully embodies Wonder Woman’s identity as both a driven warrior and a woman with genuine concern for the world beyond her island home. Director Patty Jenkins mixes the starkly different Greco-Roman mythology of Wonder Woman with the wartime setting of 1918’s Europe. With humor and stunning action sequences, Wonder Woman takes what some thought would be one of DC Comics’ unadaptable franchises and turns it into one of its best.

Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright
Director: Patty Jenkins
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 141 minutes

Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool in 2016's Deadpool.

Deadpool (2016)

When it comes to an actor redeeming himself in the eyes of comic book fans, few are as fortunate as Ryan Reynolds who starred in not one, not two, but three of the most hated superhero movies — 2004’s Blade: Trinity, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and 2011’s Green Lantern. Finally, Reynolds strikes gold with 2016’s Deadpool, where he plays a superpowered mercenary with a healing factor that makes Wolverine’s look like a pack of Band-Aids, and a mouth that would make a drunken sailor blush. Set in Fox’s pre-Disney buyout X-Men universe, Deadpool lampoons superhero tropes while cutting a gory trail through the bad guys, and X-Men resident boy scout Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and his young charge Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) pop up occasionally to play straight man to the Merc with a Mouth.

Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller
Director: Tim Miller
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man 2.

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Sam Raimi followed up the success of 2002’s Spider-Man with a bigger, more exciting, and more human story in 2004’s Spider-Man 2. Living on his own, Peter Parker struggles to make ends meet while freelancing for the Daily Bugle and trying to earn a college degree. His challenges both in and out of costume eventually lead to a psychosomatic loss of his powers. Compared to Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin from the first film, Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus proves a more sympathetic and redeemable antagonist. If there’s anything regrettable about Spider-Man 2, it’s the promise and potential it builds up that was lost on the deeply flawed Spider-Man 3.

Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Stars: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina
Director: Sam Raimi
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 127 minutes

Christopher Reeve in Superman II.

Superman II (1980)

Two years after Superman came the follow-up Superman II which saw the return of most of the original’s principal cast, including Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. This time, though, it was time for villains that posed a physical challenge to the Man of Steel, and so enters Ursa (Sarah Douglas), Non (Jack O’Halloran), and Zod (Terence Stamp) — three Kryptonian convicts who are each as powerful as Kal-El. Their arrival is at just the wrong time, as Kal-El decides to renounce his powers in favor of living a mortal life with Lois Lane. Epic in scope with all the humor and heroism of the original, Superman II was sadly the last truly satisfying entry in Reeve’s time as the Man of Steel.

Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Stars: Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder
Director: Richard Lester, Richard Donner
Rating: PG
Runtime: 127 minutes

Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool 2.

Deadpool 2 (2018)

Deadpool 2 came out in a crowded superhero movie year alongside huge hits like Avengers: Infinity WarBlack Panther, and Aquaman. But Wade Wilson’s second solo flick stands out with a unique blend of absolutely merciless carnage, relentless humor, and surprising emotional resonance. Everything about the first flick is dialed up past 11, with Deadpool chopping up Yakuza while Dolly Parton croons in the background, a whole bunch of short-lived superheroes learning the dangers of sky-diving during high wind advisories, and post-credits scenes wreaking havoc all over the history of superhero movies. Josh Brolin plays the time-traveling cyborg Cable and Zazie Beetz stars as the luck-powered Domino, while Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead return to lend a hand.

Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin
Director: David Leitch
Rating: R
Runtime: 119 minutess

Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

After the resounding success of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, it’s almost easy to forget how impressive its predecessor was. Avengers: Infinity War pulls together major and minor characters from over a half-dozen disparate franchises, gives them all time to shine and somehow forges an epic and emotionally powerful story. We get explosive super fights in New York City and Edinburgh, we follow the Guardians and Thor all over the cosmos, and we return to Wakanda for a battle that would make Peter Jackson jealous. Infinity War does it all while keeping Josh Brolin’s Thanos as the true protagonist. The digital realization of Brolin’s performance is stunning, making you wonder where Thanos begins and Brolin ends.

Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 149 minutes

Heath Ledger as Joker in The Dark Knight.

The Dark Knight (2008)

If you were to watch Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight without knowing anything beforehand about the cast or the plot, you would not recognize Heath Ledger as the Joker. His transformation into Batman’s clown-faced nemesis is just that good. He was so committed to the role he insisted co-star Christian Bale hit him for real in their amazing interrogation room scene, and it’s that commitment and Ledger’s talent that makes him the best reason to watch The Dark Knight. He’s so good that Aaron Eckhart’s equally dark transformation from hero District Attorney Harvey Dent into the monstrous Two-Face is often forgotten in discussions of what is unquestionably the best of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Stars: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart
Director: Christopher Nolan
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 152 minutes

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man.

Iron Man (2008)

Iron Man, which hit theaters in 2008, gave viewers across the world an exciting and gripping introduction to Marvel comic stories, brought to the big screen through incredible production and acting that was right on target. The protagonist, Tony Stark, played by the talented Robert Downey Jr., is a witty, over-the-top, technological genius who runs a multi-billion-dollar business empire. Stark’s close-call with near-death opens his eyes and drives him to create a new, automatic super suit. When he dons the suit, he’s able to do the impossible and save the world.

Combined, Jon Favreau’s direction and Downey’s acting take Iron Man to the next level and set the basis for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It brought millions to the fan base and forced Hollywood to consider the power of superhero movies.

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard
Director: Jon Favreau
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 126 minutes

Hugh Jackman in Logan.

Logan (2017)

Director James Mangold delivers a robust, poignant, and exceptional conclusion to Wolverine’s story with Logan. Hugh Jackman portrays the title character and helps transport viewers to a desolate setting in the not-too-distant future. At this point in the saga, all but a few of the mutants remain alive, including Logan and Charles Xavier, played by Patrick Stewart. Professor Xavier is losing a battle with Alzheimer’s, while Logan suffers under his metal-laced bones’ weight. Laura (Dafne Keen) is Logan’s lab-conceived daughter. The story drastically changes course when Laura needs a quick escape to Canada. Logan is saturated with emotion, unlike other big-budget hero films. The acting holds audiences’ attention captive; Stewart’s portrayal of Professor X, coming to grips with the hardships of age is emotionally powerful and often hilarious. Jackman’s sheer talent and representation of a ruthless hero leaves no one questioning why he’s on the big screen in the first place.

Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen
Director: James Mangold
Rating: R
Runtime: 137 minutes

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