Need a break from the summer heat? Here’s a list of the best superhero films to binge-watch in your air-conditioned room this summer. Choosing the best superhero films of all time is no easy task. Ask any fan of superheroes, whether it’s the comics or films, and you’re guaranteed to get a different list every time. Share your list with others, and the responses will include either nods of agreement, raised eyebrows, or blunt responses that you’re dead wrong.
In compiling the list of best superhero films of all time, I tried to keep viewers of all ages and devotion to superhero cinema in mind. My original plan was to include Deadpool on the list until I realized there’s an entire generation of movie fans still not allowed to watch the film because of its R-rating. The LEGO Batman Movie also appeared in my initial top ten, but the film felt out of place compared to the other films. (I still recommend LEGO Batman to everyone because it’s goddamn hilarious.) Full disclosure, this light might change as we add and subtract films as they premiere and deserve earn their spot on the list.
After much internal debate, I finally drilled down my ten superhero movie choices for both Marvel and D.C. with personal reasons for each selection. While thousands of fans likely won’t agree with this list, few will argue that all ten films are fantastic and worth multiple viewings. That said, here’s my list of the best superhero movies of all time and where to watch them. Many are available on Disney+ and Amazon Prime for your viewing convenience. Spoilers ahead.
Our list of the best superhero films of all time kicks off with the strongest female character – both literally and figuratively – in the Marvel universe. Captain Marvel, played by Bree Larson, is a Kree warrior caught in the middle of an intergalactic battle between the Skrulls and her people. She lands on Earth in 1995. With the help of a young Nick Fury and before the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain Marvel tries to harness her superpowers to fight the evil Skulls while uncovering the truth about her recurring dreams of a past life as U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers.
Captain Marvel holds a special place in my heart, being the first superhero film to draw the attention of my 8-year-old daughter thanks to a strong female character. Captain Marvel didn’t need the help of Avengers, the Justice League, or anyone else for that matter to get the job done.
Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Main Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou
Runtime: 124 minutes
IMDb Rating: 6.8
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The beauty of Thor: Ragnarak is that the film includes all the action of the typical Marvel movie but with more laughs from opening to closing credits than any purely comedic film released in the last ten years. In the third film in the Thor series, the son of Odin finds himself imprisoned on the other side of the universe, forced to survive in the deadly Contest of Champions against various opponents including his “friend from work,” the mighty Hulk. Thor must win his freedom and stop his sister Hela from destroying Asgard and his people.
Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo are hilarious in Thor: Ragnarak, and Tom Hiddleston as Loki is always welcome in a Marvel film. Still, the real scene-stealers are Jeff Goldblum as Grandmaster and director Taika Waititi voicing Korg, the Kronan warrior made of stone who befriends Thor while waiting to participate in the Contest of Champions. Korg explaining the reason he’s in captivity is that he “tried to start a revolution but I didn’t print enough pamphlets, so hardly anyone turned up” will never stop being funny no matter how many times you watch the film.
Director: Taika Waititi
Main Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett
Runtime: 130 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.9
While the original Superman film paved the way for superheroes on the big screen, Superman II is a far better film. The first movie in the franchise is an origin mixed with a love story and a solid movie from beginning to end. Still, Lex Luthor’s plot to reprogram missiles to destroy large chunks of the country feels too derived from the early D.C. comic books.
The villains in Superman II are far more menacing – three criminals from Krypton jailed by Superman’s father who all possess the same powers as the Man of Steel – with Gene Hackman reprising his role as Luthor. This time, Luthor tries to use the three aliens to destroy the Earth instead of a hijacked military weapon.
Throw in the love story between Superman and Lois, Superman giving up his powers to be with her, and regaining his powers in time for not one but two perfect ending scenes where the Man of Steel proves once again he’s the superior being. The villains getting zapped of their powers is fun, but Clark returning to the diner to seek revenge on a bully is the real happy ending.
Director: Richard Lester, Richard Donner
Main Cast: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Ned Beatty
Runtime: 127 minutes
IMDb Rating: 6.8
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Next on our list of the best superhero movies of all time is the film that kicked off Phase One of the MCU. Iron Man is a gateway drug that will get even the casual superhero movie fan addicted to the genre.
The film explains the origin story of Stark donning the Iron Man suit as the billionaire weapons maker finds himself taken hostage by terrorists using weapons of Stark’s creation. The terrorist group – knowns as the Ten Rings – want Stark to build a Jericho missile of their own. After the capture, another doctor being held hostage implants an electromagnet into Stark’s chest to keep shrapnel shards from reaching his heart and killing him. Instead of building a weapon of mass destruction, the future Avenger assembles an iron suit powered by Stark’s new heart to escape his captors. Iron Man returns to the United States and builds a more powerful suit to combat crime and terrorism.
Iron Man is everything a comic book fan would want in a film, and Robert Downey Jr. brings the brash, brilliant, and hilarious Tony Stark to life. Stark will anchor several more films in the MCU, and his final selfless act in Avengers: Endgame hurts even more because of Downey’s exceptional performances that brought the character to life.
Director: Jon Favreau
Main Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow
Runtime: 126 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.9
In Captain America: The First Avenger, viewers witness Steve Rogers’ transformation from puny but scrappy enlisted U.S. soldier to a hulking superhuman thanks to a few dozen syringes shoved into his body and Dr. Erskine’s top-secret “Project Rebirth” and the assistance of a young Howard Stark. Project Rebirth turns the bantam from Brooklyn into a fighting machine, and the super-soldier eventually dubbed Captain America leads a band of soldiers to fight the Nazis and stop the Red Skull and HYDRA from winning the war against all things America.
Unlike the other films on this list of the greatest superhero films ever, my love for Captain America: The First Avenger happened over time and not after the first viewing. While I enjoyed the movie on the initial viewing – and especially loved how the wimpy nice guy transforms into an unstoppable human weapon – my opinion of the film has been slightly swayed because the comic book version of Cap never really appealed to me as a kid. The later MCU films, and Chris Evans’ excellent portrayal of Steve Rogers in Winter Soldier, Infinity War, and Endgame, caused me to finally came around to realize that Captain America is one of the most important and iconic superheroes ever. I also have a soft spot for anything involving Stanley Tucci.
Director: Joe Johnston
Main Cast: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell
Runtime: 124 minutes
IMDb Rating: 6.9
The importance of this film – on many levels – cannot be understated. Travel back with me to 1989. I’m an 11-year-old with a love of superheroes but, up until that point, someone who’d burned out his VHS copies of Superman I-III but was growing tired of the Man of Steel’s goody-two-shoes attitude. Batman hitting theaters on June 23 was a huge deal. Released two days after my birthday, I distinctly remember my birthday wish was for someone to take me to see Batman in the theaters. A visiting aunt took my 22-year-old cousin and me to see the film, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t move the entire time.
In the film, a mangled lunatic named “The Joker” takes control of Gotham City’s underworld and plans to turn the entire city into his smiling zombie army. Batman must protect the city and keep his identity a secret while trying to uncover the origin of this new but familiar foe. Plus, he must keep the smoking hot Vicki Vale out of the danger she constantly finds herself in.
My trepidation with the guy from Mr. Mom, another favorite film from childhood, playing the Dark Knight was alleviated early in the film. Keaton is still my favorite Batman of all time, and casting doesn’t get much better than Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Tim Burton brought a dark, ominous feel to the Caped Crusader and made fans forget about the campy 1960s T.V. series for the first time in years.
Director: Tim Burton
Main Cast: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl
Runtime: 126 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.5
According to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative minds behind Spider-Man: Into The Spider-verse, their intention was “to make the viewer feel as if they are in the pages of a comic book.” And to say the film was successful in that endeavor is a massive understatement.
Miles Morales, a teen from Brooklyn just trying to fit in at a new school, becomes the Spider-Man of his universe after being bitten by a radioactive spider while tagging an abandoned subway station with his uncle. Miles must deal with his newfound powers while joining forces with five spider-powered heroes from other dimensions to stop Kingpin and his Super-Collider from ripping all their dimensions to shreds.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-verse demonstrates the idea that anything is possible in the pages of a comic book and on the big screen. This film includes heroes and villains from different dimensions, strong male, female, and minority characters, and the introduction of Spider-Ham to a new generation of fans. Fine, that part might only be important to me and the handful of people who grew up reading Spider-Ham. Still, the comic book character is one that I never dreamed I’d see in a movie or on television, meaning anything is genuinely possible these days.
Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Main Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali
Runtime: 117 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.4
How do you tie together an entire universe of characters and twenty-odd movies, all leading to one final epic showdown? Avengers: Endgame, a film likely unanimously in the top five on any best superhero movie list.
After the devastating events of Avengers: Infinity War and Thanos’ success in assembling the Infinity Gauntlet, the universe is in shambles. Half the world has disappeared after “the snap,” and those left behind are forced to pick up the pieces and move on. The remaining heroes devise a plan to reverse the actions of Thanos and restore balance to the universe. With the help of a returning Tony Stark – who spent the first half of the film stuck in space – and Bruce Banner stuck in “Smart Hulk” mode after refusing to physically fight and instead relying on his intellect to recreate another Infinity Gauntlet.
The final battle scene in Avengers: Endgame that sees the reemergence of all of the heroes who disappeared after “the snap” to fight Thanos and his legion still gives me goosebumps, and if you didn’t shed a few tears watching Tony Stark’s memorial service, you have no soul.
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Main Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans
Runtime: 181 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.4
All three films in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy are about as close to perfect as superhero movies can get, and honestly, all of the films could be included on this list. Forced to choose just one, The Dark Knight Rises narrowly beats out The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight Rises finds Batman in hiding, eight years after his battle with the Joker and taking the fall for the death of beloved district attorney Harvey Dent. Batman is a fugitive, but Gotham is safe, that is until a terrorist named Bane appears and unleashes a bomb that will wipe out the entire city. While the other movies feel cartoonishly fictional in a “this could never happen in real life” way, The Dark Knight Rises leaves viewers with the slight sensation that these events could happen in any major city at any moment. Especially after the reality of the last few years of civil unrest in major cities right in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.
While Heath Ledger’s Joker is superior to Tom Hardy’s Bane, The Dark Knight Rises is the better film thanks in part to a more satisfying ending. The Dark Knight Rises brings the brilliant trilogy to a close, while the Heath Ledger film leaves fans just wanting more Joker.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Morgan Freeman
Runtime: 165 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.4
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Every MCU film demands to be viewed on a massive theater screen to take in all of the sights, sounds, and extras going on in each scene. Unfortunately, my first viewing of Captain America: Civil War wasn’t in an I.M.A.X. theater but on a tiny screen built into the back of an airplane seat on the flight home from a vacation. This viewing experience didn’t make Captain America: Civil War any less spectacular.
In Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers are a team divided when political pressure from the United Nations after epic battles in New York and Sokovia force the passing of the Sokovia Accords. These accords will establish an oversight panel to control Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and hold them accountable should things go wrong again. Captain America trusts himself and his counterparts more than the government, while Tony Stark surprisingly supports the oversight committee because of the devastation in the tiny nation and his role in the accidental creation of Ultron.
This movie also marked the first time many of the MCU heroes shared the screen. The subplots of Steve Rogers trying to save his brainwashed best friend and the revelation that Bucky Barnes had a hand in the deaths of Tony Stark’s parents make the film a nail-biter from start to finish.
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Main Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan
Runtime: 146 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.8
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