Two things quickly become evident when putting together a list of the 100 Best Superhero Movies of All Time. First, this is the Golden Age for such films, a decade where technology, long-unrequited fandom and surging popular awareness have all combined to thrill moviegoers and make Hollywood billions of dollars. Second, it’s still fair to say there are plenty of superhero films are not that good. There’s no real contradiction at play here. The niche just lacks the pedigree of its fellow movie genres. Though superhero comic books may have started to make a dint in popular culture 75 years ago (give or take), technology only crossed over from hindrance to enabling force in the last 20 years or so. As a result, while curating a 100 Best Westerns of All Time or 100 Best Documentaries of All Time list requires the exclusion of arguably good films to select the best 100. When we first compiled this list a few years ago, the pickings got slim after 40. In fact, the real challenge was choosing amongst the dreck (some of it beloved dreck!) that would fill out the bottom half. It turns out it’s much easier to argue for or against a top 10 film’s exact placement (and frankly, compelling arguments could be made for almost any of our top 5 as deserving the #1 position), than weighing the relative “merits” of Masters of the Universe, Swamp Thing and Elektra.
But that Golden Age mentioned above? That also means this list is rapidly evolving due to the flood of new films. It would be an unusual, near unprecedented event for our Best westerns, noirs or even science fiction movies to suddenly have a new movie appear in the top 10. Cinematic recency bias can only do so much, and the competition is stiff. Meanwhile, this latest list, updated after just a year of new films, boasts two new entries in the top 3 and two more in the top 20. (2018 was a very good year for the genre.)
Before we dive in to the updated list, some criteria. To be considered for this list, a film must possess at least two of the following three qualities: 1) It must involve costumed shenanigans, 2) It must involve a superpowered protagonist and/or 3) the protagonist must exist in a world where the supernatural/extraordinary is demonstrably present. These criteria are why meta-commentary films like Kick-Ass and Super are not on this list. And it’s also why some films with pulpy characters like Zorro, Tarzan and Conan are not, while others like The Phantom are. (Zane’s costume combined with the Skulls of Touganda do the trick.) Admittedly, the lines gets blurry. Also absent from this list is any consideration of foreign superhero films. That’s not because some are not worthy—especially given the movie quality issue mentioned at the top—it’s just an area we’d rather get better versed in before pouring into this list. Next year, perhaps.
Swamp Thing draws a straight line from Universal Monster movies to ’70s superhero comics, giving Wes Craven—two years before Nightmare on Elm Street—a surprisingly bright and colorful marshland to create something violent and goofy within. That he also cast Adrienne Barbeau in the part of Cable, a relentlessly badass government agent with a relentlessly badass name, means that for Craven to only craft an homage to campy creature features wouldn’t be enough. A Frankenstein story with guns and good one-liners, the film touches on notions of environmental influence and human nature and the amorality of science in between karate chops (of which there are many), explosions and grotesque body horror. It may have been Craven’s first bid for big, blown-out studio success, but Swamp Thing makes it clear the director’s ambition demanded something meatier than a movie starring a stuntman in a crappy piss-green rubber suit. —D.S.
The Adam West Batman film offers the sort of gleeful insanity you need to inflict upon modern comics fans who are unaware of its existence, because once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget it. With a plot that defies any attempt toward description, it’s the height of camp, featuring incredible performances by Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin and especially the great Burgess Meredith, as the Joker, Riddler and Penguin respectively, in a team-up to take down the caped crusader and his dopey ward (Burt Ward, that is). The film is just a string of jaw-droppingly silly moments, one right after another—the “shark-repellent bat spray” gives way to Penguin’s bird-shaped submarine, and into the two full minutes of West running around with a giant bomb held over his head, unable to find a place to dispose of it. There isn’t a more campy or joyful superhero movie on this entire list. But be warned—Batman ’66 is best paired with your booze of choice. —Jim Vorel
Part of the ’90s pulp movie train that included The Phantom and The Rocketeer, Russell Mulcahy’s The Shadow is the least of the trio, though that’s really more a function of setting than anything else. Alec Baldwin’s Lamont Cranston comes from the well-established “crime-fighting multi-millionaire” school of do-gooder (that’s got to be the best school, right?) and the Shadow’s powers to befuddle minds and be invisible make him the bookish, pasty cousin of the high-flying, Nazi-battling Rocketeer or the jungle-to-New York-and-back-again Phantom. Nonetheless, even as the script hobbles the film’s otherwise sleek design, Baldwin shows an Alec Guinness-worthy ability to inhabit strange characters and deliver potentially hokey lines with sincerity and charm. (Seriously, check out his turn as The Conductor in 2000’s Thomas and the Magic Railroad—the man kills it.) But while that may make the film must-see for all his fans, it’s probably not enough to justify anyone else seeing it. —Michael Burgin
If you’re sick to death of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and their career insistence on mocking celebrities for making political statements while making political statements of their own, then maybe you won’t want to give Orgazmo, their second film, a revisit. But you should! One-joke movies have a shockingly limited shelf life. They have a way of withering on the vine as you watch them. Orgazmo maintains its freshness from start to finish, mostly because the joke—a Mormon missionary is sent to Los Angeles and becomes a pseudo-porn star/superhero—is pretty damn good and pretty damn broad: Stone and Parker take the piss out of the porn industry, out of the prototypical superhero mythos, out of religion, out of L.A. and, well, you get the idea. That the film is coated in layers of the most delightful raunch is a side benefit. —Andy Crump
Even before 2000’s X-Men announced the arrival of comic books as a source Hollywood could take seriously, there was 1998’s Blade, a Marvel character brought to life onscreen by Wesley Snipes, with buckets of blood and cool to spare. And in 2002, the Guillermo del Toro-helmed sequel successfully upped the ante and expanded the world’s mythos. Then, in 2004 we got Blade: Trinity, which raised the question: Unholy Blood God, what the hell happened? Reading the hilarious account by Patton Oswalt certainly helps shed some light, but Blade and Blade II writer David Goyer was clearly in way over his head beyond Oswalt’s telling in directing this sequel. So many terrible decisions made it all the way to the celluloid—Parker Posey’s woefully miscast vampire villainess, the short, trunk-necked Dracula with underbite fangs and played more as a WWE heel (instead of an ancient evil awoken after centuries) by Dominic Purcell, and even Posey’s little Pomeranian dog that’s actually a Reaper-thing? You know, the super vampires from Blade II that ate vampires like her? It’s telling when the best thing in a movie is Ryan Reynolds, landing funny quips that are so tonally jarring to the rest of the film they work almost as a meta commentary on the film itself. —S.W.
Proof that Warner Bros.’ negative aptitude for the DC Universe’s potential-laden source material existed before the arrival of Zack Snyder, Green Lantern wastes a solid cast—Mark Strong’s turn as Sinestro should have lasted longer than a single movie, or at least survived the reboot—and the enviable but too often fumbled “first pick” of an established hero’s mythos. The latter is a too-often overlooked cardinal sin of bad productions—the studio literally had its pick of any Green Lantern tale from the character’s 70+ years of stories. They chose Parallax, a villain who is … complicated, and the result was a foe who visually was only a few steps removed from what the 2007 Fantastic Four film did to Galactus in suckage. The film also provides an important reminder for anyone wishing to make superhero films, or, for that matter, sci-fi and fantasy films: CGI is a friend that can become your enemy in the beat of an eye. Rely too much on it at your peril. Fortunately, Ryan Reynolds would survive the film, showing a Chris Evans-like resilience as he went on to make a definitive Merc with a Mouth. (At least his time as Hal Jordan would yield two jokes for the Deadpool film.) —M.B.
Viewers looking for plot, logic, punchlines, shame or sense: The Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie will be a desolate slog. Even making it through its full title is a test of patience and reason, one of many walls directors/creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellero throw up between the casual moviegoer and the movie people are supposed to be paying money to see. But, as they make it clear from the beginning—with a warped take on the classic “Let’s all go to the movies!” parade of anthropomorphic theater food intro—they have your money now, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Otherwise, ATHFCMFFT is a blown-out episode of the Adult Swim cartoon, following a giant, hovering box of fries, a six-foot milkshake, and a rolling sphere of meat as they “solve” “mysteries” in their local New Jersey town, mysteries which usually involve horrifying violence toward their next-door neighbor, Carl (Dave Willis). What probably began as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle parody has long since abandoned anything that would be classified as a point, and that’s probably how Willis and Maiellero like it. They probably don’t care if you feel the same way either. —D.S.
It’s difficult to consider Joel Schumacher’s initial turn at the helm of the Batman franchise absent an awareness of the hideous film that would come after. All the signs are there—cartoonish flair threatening, scenery-chomping actors where Batman villains should be, bat nipples—but if viewed without remembering this would all lead to Batman and Robin, it’s possible to enjoy aspects of the film. Opening mis-en-action, à la Bond movies—here with Batman (Val Kilmer) foiling Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones)—Schumacher’s film establishes off the bat a sense that this is a day in the life for our caped crusader. Unfortunately, once Jim Carrey’s Riddler fully takes the stage, it all dissolves into a mug-off between two of Batman’s more important non-Joker adversaries that’s in no way true to the actual characters. (Though, granted, Ahnold’s turn as Mr. Freeze a few years later was enough to make one long for the subtlety of Carrey’s performance.) Still, ultimately, for anyone who has seen Batman and Robin, it’s difficult not to suppress a shudder when viewing this particular take on the Dark Knight. —Michael Burgin
Deep into the goop of Venom, ersatz Elon Musk, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), performs alien-human hybrid experiments on San Francisco vagrants (of which there are many, the movie implies, because San Francisco is the urban poster child for the housing crisis) to eventually figure out how humans can live off-planet. Dr. Skirth (Jenny Slate, token and expendable lady scientist) tells Vice-like multimedia alt-reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) that Drake has been urgently planning his interstellar escape because our species basically has a generation left, if that, before catastrophe. Brock understands completely, nods without flinching at Skirth’s prognostications. He’s also about to understand exactly what those experiments are like, soon to be intimately inhabited by an alien who goes by the name of Venom in an adventure resembling a comic book movie made before there was such a thing as an MCU, or a DCEU, or a Deadpool openly tearing away the veil that separates continuities and studio properties, exposing these enterprises as divided up only by billions of dollars, not by allegiance to canon or adherence to the tenets of comic book release strategies. Which is why Ruben Fleischer’s unabashedly pulpy Venom sometimes feels so special: It exists on its own. It concerns itself with modern problems in a modern world, but it acts like an early-2000s sci-fi blockbuster, molecularly unable to take itself seriously. It relies on a popular existing property within a genre enjoying unprecedented popularity, populated by Oscar-winning actors and unheard-of budgets, but it doesn’t pretend to have any claim to the well-established universes it can only point to, would seem to never dream of awards talk or critical love. It has Tom Hardy chewing so gleefully through its celluloid we should have talked awards and should have flirted with better critical love, but it also doesn’t quite do much of anything, doesn’t quite go far enough, with the insanity it potentially wields. It’s not a buddy comedy, but it’s also not not a buddy comedy. Venom could have been the most original superhero movie to come out in a long time, had it been released ten years ago. They just don’t—and one could argue for good reason—make movies like this anymore. —Dom Sinacola
A neon noir reveling in vulgarity, Punisher: War Zone may be the nastiest Marvel movie the company’s ever put their name behind (counting Deadpool), mostly because of Ray Stevenson, who plays Frank Castle with enough gnarled dread to make any of film’s levity seem well earned. Director Lexi Alexander of course doesn’t shy away from the franchise’s patented superhuman hyper-violence—witness more than one fully collapsed face within the course of three minutes—and her sense of space in otherwise straightforward action scenes is pretty impeccable. All in all, it’s tasteless, gross, visceral, endlessly surprising and totally without expectation—it is, in other words, the kind of superhero movie “they” just don’t make anymore. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not. —Dom Sinacola
If this first Incredible Hulk stand-alone movie had come along later, in the days of the MCU, it never would have been placed into the hands of Ang Lee. It’s a truly lofty endeavor, but one that is badly misjudged by its writers and Oscar-winning director. The Hulk simply isn’t a character that fits or deserves “Greek tragedy,” as Lee was quoted in describing the film’s theme. In the end, he’s a dual character—a typically unlikable, whiny scientist, and a raging, smashing automaton, neither of whom lend themselves well to daddy issues and attempts at deep pathos. The film’s interesting aspects tend to revolve around its unique visual style, which Lee used to directly reference and allude to the sequential, flowing experience of flipping through comic panels. However, it’s simultaneously let down somewhat by cheap-looking Hulk visuals (even for 2003), and an antagonist in the form of Bruce Banner’s father as played by Nick Nolte, who feels like he’s walking through his scenes, improvising every other sentence. This Hulk aspired toward grand psychological drama for a character the MCU later proved was much more lovable in a more limited capacity. —Jim Vorel
If you had asked fans of the X-Men franchise what kind of movie they wanted in 2006, following the greatness of X2 they probably would have drafted one that looked quite a bit like The Last Stand. Which is to say: Fans can’t be trusted to create a film that will actually work and flow. The “Dark Phoenix” saga is one of the most iconic—the most important—X-Men stories ever, and in The Last Stand it just doesn’t quite come together like it was supposed to. The film often feels way overstuffed, with characters such as the Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) simply shoehorned in as henchmen, when in the comics they’re often the subject of whole story arcs. Angel (Ben Foster), for instance, was heavily used in the promotion of the film, but has only a few minutes of largely inconsequential screen time. The Last Stand, though, does manage to pack some raw, often satisfying emotionality into the already-packed run-time, from the destruction of Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) physical form to the loss of Mystique’s (Rebecca Romijn) mutant powers and subsequent rejection by Magneto (Ian McKellan) and his mutant brotherhood. Ultimately, The Last Stand suffers from a surplus of ambition and ideas more than anything else. Perhaps in a parallel universe, it could have reached the same highs as the rest of the core X-Men film franchise. —J.V.
While Marvel Comics has plenty of villains, it has far fewer archvillains. Among those dastardly types, there are some hall-of-fame level archvillains who frequently threaten the world and, occasionally, existence itself. The Red Skull, Loki, Ultron, Magneto, Doctor Doom. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, we’ve seen great portrayals of those villains … well, except Doctor Doom,” then you’re also well on your way to understanding why the 2005 Fantastic Four (and its sequel, and 2015’s Trankian abomination…) fails. For whatever reason, the writers, directors and studio decision makers shy away from just allowing one of Marvel’s transcendent villains from being himself. Thus, while Michael Chiklis’ Thing and Chris Evans’ Human Torch ring true, Ioan Gruffudd’s Mister Fantastic is serviceable, and Jessica Alba is, eh, Jessica Alba, the film’s thunderous whiff on Victor von Doom leaves viewers new to the material unimpressed and fans of the source material keenly aware of what’s been squandered. But hey, at least the sequel features Galactus, right? —Michael Burgin
Thomas Jane as Frank Castle—he doesn’t announce that he is the Punisher until the movie’s last dud of a moment—looks good in a black tee-shirt and a leather duster. He is the Perfectly Serviceable Punisher, and as the PSP, Jane’s whole dead-eyed android schtick seems like a reasonable character decision to make for an actor responding to the script before him. So when he stabs a slimy thug through the jaw—when he, inevitably, kills everybody—you feel fine about it. He has well-sculpted muscles. The film’s real treat is John Travolta as Tampa crime lord Howard Saint, a damnedly vain man slowly transforming into a bitter gargoyle, and a prime argument for Travolta’s late-career purpose as VOD cinema’s go-to slick asshole/bad guy. In fact, once The Punisher reaches its third act, when all of Castle’s “punishments” start clicking into place, Jonathan Hensleigh’s film feels like it could, just maybe, have been something great—capped off with a final murder so satisfying it should both shame and captivate you. Meanwhile, Rebecca Romijn listens to some dope-ass nü-metal and Beta version Ben Foster is here, real sweaty. —D.S.
Many fans reacted with appropriate horror when they saw Michael Bay’s name attached to the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie in seven years. “Oh, shit. This is going to end up another Transformers-like bastardization, isn’t it?” Although Bay didn’t himself direct it, they were at least partially right; his explosion-attracting fingerprints are all over it. From the obnoxious visual noise of the Turtle Brothers’ new outfits, to Shredder’s ridiculous knives-within-knives-within-knives Samurai outfit, it’s unmistakably Bay. (Poor Master Splinter looks like one of those little mutts that annually wins the “World’s Ugliest Dog” ribbon, and is, puzzlingly, voiced by Tony Shaloub, while Shredder is basically the backup villain to William Fitchner’s crooked CEO character.) Megan Fox’s April O’Neil is less intrepid reporter happening upon both a ninja-based crime wave in New York and a band of giant, crime-fighting turtles, than she is an excuse to have some eye-rolling personal connection to the origin of our titular half-shelled heroes. But despite the dripping Bay-ness of it all, at least Jonathan Liebesman directs the big action sequences with a verve and clarity most decidedly un-Bay. None of it adds up to a movie worth seeing, even with Will Arnett on hand to inject a little GOB Bluth into the proceedings, but hey, it could have been worse, I guess…? —Scott Wold
The premise of Hancock is promising enough—a super-powered man (Will Smith) with some drinking issues tends to be a little sloppy on the execution side of superheroing, causing a decent amount of collateral damage and public ill-will even when otherwise do-gooding. A PR pro he happens to save sets out to help his image and perhaps figure out exactly why an invulnerable, super-strong guy who can fly is so gloomy. Along with Smith, Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron round out a solid cast, but what begins as an interesting character study quickly gives way to truckloads of “12-year-old-makes-a-comic-book!” origin story exposition and some cliché CGI-enhanced fight scenes. Apparently, a sequel is still in the cards, which might be interesting if only to see exactly how a post-MCU explosion, post-Deadpool Hancock 2 would look to distinguish itself (if at all). —M.B.
Featuring the voices of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Brad Pitt and David Cross, Megamind is a family-friendly superhero-themed movie with a simple premise: What is an arch-villain to do when he successfully and permanently defeats his nemesis? The answer is not really that inspired, but neither is it annoying, wasteful or otherwise an example of the type of misstep so common with films in the bottom half of this list—this is competent kid fare whose focus on the villain will remind many of Gru and Despicable Me, though the humor falls short of that minion-infested franchise. In this and other particulars, Megamind is unlikely to stick with the viewer long after the closing credits. —M.B.
Mystery Men, commercial filmmaker Kinka Usher’s first and only foray into feature directing, is a production ahead of its time in the most literal sense possible. The movie opened in 1999, just a few years before the start of the 2000s superhero boom, back when comic book films weren’t an industry unto themselves. These were the days when no one took superheroes seriously and most representatives of the classification were straight-up garbage, so intrinsically bad that they well near spoofed themselves. A dedicated send-up didn’t make a lot of sense then, but it makes more sense now, and if Mystery Men is outdated compared to the modern crop of superhero flicks, and if it is in fact the same kind of trash as the period-specific movies it was made to mock, it still does the job of showing off just how goofy the superhero concept is by its very nature. (You also can’t refuse a movie where Wes Studi speaks in chiasmus.) —A.C.
The character of Apocalypse is no easy task to work into a film adaptation, and considering that X-Men: Apocalypse is really all about the villain, it stacked the deck against the feasibility of a truly great film from the start. He suffers from the issues of many ultra-powerful, omnipotent superhero film villains: He’s capable of seemingly anything, at any given moment, which robs him on some level of personality. Even the talents of Oscar Isaac struggled to fully flesh out the character in a way that could compare to say, Magneto (Michael Fassbender), whose lifetime of suffering is so much more relatable. Still, Apocalypse the film manages a more than ample entertainment factor, leaning on its now burly ensemble cast to carry each scene, even if the result feels somewhat inconsequential. There was all-too-much internet furor leading up to its release that the film would be “all about Mystique/Raven,” and that Jennifer Lawrence’s star had eclipsed the series, but any objective viewer would call those assertions unfounded. In reality, Mystique’s story is perhaps only the third or fourth most prominent, following those of Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto and even the young versions of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). It’s a fair question to ask how much more potential lies in the X-Men universe at this point before a studio burns the whole thing down and starts fresh, but Apocalypse at least provided an action-packed bridge between the era that began with First Class and eventually ends up at the first Bryan Singer films. —J.V.
After Batman Returns, Daredevil seems to bear the brunt of “joking reference to bad superhero movies” more than the many films that so richly deserve it (oh, X-Men: The Last Stand). It’s unfair. The challenge of successfully capturing a character whose power is basically enhanced radar and physical fitness and condensing any of the superb story arcs into one film was daunting. (There’s a reason even the MCU juggernaut has opted for a small screen serial effort for the Man Without Fear.) Mark Steve Johnson’s take on Daredevil had solid casting—Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner inhabit their roles as much as the script allows, and as Bullseye, Colin Farrell is, well, a bull’s-eye. Even the condensed Elektra arc is pretty well done. Does Daredevil belong in the upper echelon of superhero movies? Of course not. But there are plenty of worse efforts out there, and for its time, I’m not sure how it could have turned out better. —M.B.
The premise for Suicide Squad is as simple as it is indelible, a re-brand of The Dirty Dozen filled out with an undercard of DC’s most naturally colorful villains and anti-heroes. Director David Ayer slips into this framework with ease, introducing Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) as she flips through her dossiers, allowing Ayer to offer a slick montage of each candidate’s greatest hits before, minutes later, Waller is in front of the criminals laying out a deal of commuted sentences for off-the-books operations. Falling into same the pratfalls of Ayer’s previous effort, Fury, Suicide Squad is another case where story elements are continuously piled on in the hopes that a coherent narrative arc will emerge. Individual moments land with nearly every character, especially Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), but despite being a firmly character-based film, it lacks a through line. In action scenes, Ayer is exceedingly generous, allowing each character a turn in the limelight, but the film is constantly muddling its own sense of purpose, making plot decisions that feel improvisatory by its end. It’s actually kind of perfect that Suicide Squad would have the most problems with defining what a hero is and what its ersatz heroes are supposed to be. These characters have been told they’re bad their whole life. If only the film knew how to say anything else. (See full review.) —Mike Snydel
After Frank Miller and Alan Moore, Mark Millar is the comic book writer whose work has yielded (and is yielding) the steadiest stream of film properties. (Apparently darker takes are really appealing to movie execs. Or having a last name that begins with “M.”) While most of Millar’s non-Marvel work barely misses this list (Kick-Ass and Kingsmen) due to criteria, Wanted barely makes it, thanks to a Loom of Fate and a scattering of superhuman abilities. The film itself is pretty standard action fare bolstered by a solid cast that includes Professor X (James McAvoy), Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie), Star Lord (Chris Pratt), General Zod (Terence Stamp) and Morgan Freeman. —M.B.
Spawn is the kind of character born of the edgy, “alternative” superhero scene of the ’90s, and it’s hard to overstate how insanely popular he was for that period … but not quite popular enough to be relevant outside of nerdy comics circles. The Spawn film adaptation, then, had the difficulty of being released into a market with not nearly a big enough audience to truly understand or appreciate its aesthetic, and struggled as a result. The irony is that in a post-Deadpool era, Spawn is probably exactly the kind of adult superhero film that would now thrive with an R rating in 2017. Looking back at the ’97 film now, though, it’s easier to find things to admire. Michael Jai White ably plays the first-ever major black superhero on film (seriously), and although John Leguizamo is officially weird as hell in playing Clown/The Violator, it works in its own campy way. Spawn as a franchise is always going to primarily appeal to the teenage boy/Zack Snyder fanboy subset, but with enough humor added to balance the “totally badass dark violence,” I see no reason it couldn’t have a Deadpool-style resurgence. —J.V.
Freed from much of the awkwardly executed origin re-retelling of its 2012 predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 should have more life to it. In his second turn at the helm, director Marc Webb has a solid cast of returning stars and high-caliber newcomers, and a budget befitting one of Sony’s big gun properties. Nonetheless, in many ways this second installment of the rebooted Spidey is worse than the first. How can that be?
Oh, yeah … the script.
When not being presented with yet another Screenwriting 101 exercise in ratcheting up dramatic tension through the accumulation of subplots, the movie feels like a test pilot of Young Spider-Man on The CW. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have nice chemistry, but whoever thought moviegoers would rather watch the two of them talk about their relationship rather than Spider-Man, Spider-Man, doing whatever a spider can … well, that person doesn’t understand what makes a good superhero flick tick. Ultimately, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is noteworthy for one thing—not waiting until the third or fourth film to achieve the overstuffed, increasingly garish look one associates with less popular (2007’s Spider-Man 3) and outright ridiculed (1997’s Batman and Robin) franchise efforts. (See full review.) —M.B.
Once you get past the explicitly turtle-based finishing moves (like the shell-smushing knock-outs) and the Domino’s Pizza plugs, what’s left is a brooding narrative and surprisingly extended, unadorned fight scenes. Although Steve Barron’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is still staunchly a product of its time (featuring a young, greasy Sam Rockwell as “Head Thug,” no less), it’s also a handsome, even appealingly gritty film, shot with sepia filters and samurai silhouettes, and threaded throughout by the kinds of panoramic melees that years later M. Night Shyamalan attempted with The Last Airbender and then failed. Look especially to the brawl in April’s family’s antique shop to watch how four grown men in turtle costumes—that have gotta weigh a ton—combatting a bunch of ninjas can best serve Barron’s unexpected talent at flushing out visual space in order to make a dead premise feel—seriously—lived in. —D.S.
Most superheroes look like they’re wearing their underwear on the outside of their clothes. What this movie gleefully presupposes is: Maybe one can. The presumptuously titled Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, based on Dav Pilkey’s first four children’s books in the Captain Underpants series (all of which have amusingly lengthy titles themselves), pokes a lot of fun at the concept of superheroes, the concept of action movies and the very cinematic medium in which it’s found itself. Captain Underpants’ plethora of animation styles (including a wonderful sock puppet sequence) separates the film into imaginative sublayers, keeping it from feeling like the one-joke wonder that it often edges towards. Fans of the book will love the adaptation’s loyalty and specific references, while those unversed in Underpants lore will find themselves admitting (reluctantly, I’m sure) that they had a good time. (See full review.) -Jacob Oller
The Power Rangers franchise was never in need of a gritty reboot (Joseph Kahn saw to that with a short film and James Van Der Beek in 2015), and director Dean Israelite obviously never had one in mind. Instead, his big budget Power Rangers reboot re-focuses the early ’90s Mighty Morphin TV series on the five misfit teenagers coming to grips with the ways in which their new, vaguely defined superpowers can maybe make their troubled young adult lives better—or just exacerbate the problems they already have. The Red Ranger, Jason (Dacre Montgomery), is hell-bent on wrecking his guaranteed athletic route out of small-town Angel Grove, while the Blue Ranger, Billy (RJ Cyler), confesses he’s on the spectrum, and so has trouble making friends, what with his inability to identify most social cues. Yellow Ranger, Trini (Becky G), is the new girl at school, her outsider status compounded by her questions over her sexuality; Pink Ranger, Kimberly (Naomi Scott), is a popular cheerleader, but suffering some major social blowback; and Zack (Ludi Lin), the Black Ranger, suppresses the fear of his ailing mother’s impending death by living on the fringe. Brought together by the discovery of a secret alien lair, lorded over by giant floating head Zordon (Bryan Cranston, able to make anything work), and the powers they’re gifted because of that happenstance, the newly appointed Power Rangers go on to learn how to harness their abilities and, above all, work as a team to defeat cosmic menace Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks, delightfully chewing walls). Amidst the explosions and kaiju battles, Israelite never looks away from the lives of his multicultural pubescent posse, so that by the time their town really does seem like it’s in peril—soundtracked by Brian Tyler’s pretty-awesome Tron: Legacy-like score—we’re fully invested in the fates of these outcasts. —Dom Sinacola
If it achieves anything, Zack Snyder’s messy, badly plotted and awkwardly paced film proves that prepping for a shared universe is no simple task, no matter how easy Marvel makes it look. This seems true even when one is starting with one as established and as powerfully etched into the popular consciousness as DC’s. It’s bad enough that Snyder and company dutifully preserve and transfer many of the excesses and offenses from Man of Steel to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice—the wildly out-of-character behavior by our heroes and a super-mobile Lois Lane to prod the plot along when needed, etc.—the film also is filled with plot holes large and small that will niggle at the mind of those viewers who like their fantasy films to make sense at least within the confines of the worlds they portray. Ultimately, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice serves as a reminder of why so many people dislike the Snyderian take on the DC universe—and as a reason to look forward to the solo Wonder Woman film. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
Much like The Simpsons Movie and Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, The Powerpuff Girls Movie is a perhaps inevitable cinematic manifestation of a long-running television series. A more detailed origin story for the heroes of Craig McCracken’s superb Cartoon Network show, the movie basically serves an an extended episode and is appealing for all the same reasons. As such, The Powerpuff Girls Movie will not shed light on some previously unexplored aspect of the show’s mythology, but if all it does is introduce some new viewers to the show, that’s worth it. —M.B.
One of the better “comic strip/pulp era” heroes brought to the big screen, The Phantom holds up pretty well as a realization of its source material (even if it will never be considered among the best superhero films). The plot—the leader of a nefarious brotherhood seeks to control a mystical item that will bring him absolute POWER!—is pure pulp goodness. Billy Zane is beefy and believable as the 21st Phantom out to avenge the death of his dad (the 20th), and I sort of wish Catherine Zeta-Jones had spent more of her career playing rogue-ish femme fatales who lead a squadron of female mercs. —M.B.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though, mockery comes in a close second. The Lego Batman Movie’s silliness is just the stationery on which creator Chris McKay (an animation co-director on The Lego Movie) has composed his love note for the World’s Greatest Detective, at once a sharp parody of representations of Batman on screens both big and small as well as an honest go at exploring what really makes the icon tick beneath the cape, cowl and cool gadgets. It isn’t the grim posturing seen in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, or the gaudiness of the Joel Schumacher films, or the violent, kinky cheese factor of the Tim Burton films—it isn’t the campy 1960s vibe of the Adam West TV series, either—no, it’s loneliness that makes Batman Batman, and The Lego Batman Movie dives into his self-imposed isolation with equal parts sympathy and glee. (See full review.) —Andy Crump
If it achieved nothing else, The Incredible Hulk deserves credit for picking up the ball from Ang Lee’s 2003 version, throwing it away, buying a new ball and pretending that radioactive tree poodle never happened. Just the second entry in the still brand new MCU, Louis Leterrier’s film also does something that we wish more films would do—it gets the origin story out of the way in the opening credits. (But hey, let’s show the deaths of the Waynes or of Uncle Ben one more time … we may have forgotten!) As the titular smasher of puny things, it’s hard to say whether Edward Norton is better than Eric Bana. (In fairness, Bana never got a fair shot.) But what can be said is this iteration actually gives viewers more Hulk (and more quickly) than its predecessor, and it trots out an actual Hulk-specific villain in Tim Roth’s Abomination. Besides being encouraging evidence that Marvel knew better how to handle its recently reclaimed property, such moves make some of the less sensible moments—and there are plenty—easier to overlook. No one will ever claim The Incredible Hulk is one of the best MCU efforts, but it deserves credit for being one of the first. —M.B.
Marc Webb’s film proves that rebooting a successful franchise is no sure thing. First, a reboot works best with properties that have become stale, over-burdened by conflicting bits of canon or weakened by over-exposure. Only ten years removed from the first film (and five from the third), it’s not like Raimi’s trilogy was a distant memory for viewers. Considering the films occupy spots #1 through #3 in all-time box office for Sony/Columbia, it’s tough to argue flagging interest, either. Finally, unlike another popular rebooted property, Star Trek, where its heroes’ early days have been untouched on film—and thus make for intriguing fan-bait—Spider-Man’s origin story is a central part of his Big Screen tale. As a result, Webb was faced with a daunting proposition: Retell a story that was just told (and told well) a few years earlier—and, oh yeah, no major changes to the origin allowed. Perhaps this stricture explains why The Amazing Spider-Man feels less like a reboot than an extended paraphrasing of the plot points and emotional beats from the first two films in the Raimi/Maguire trilogy. But whether judged in relation to Raimi’s trilogy, compared with successful superhero franchises as a whole, or just rated on its own terms as an action film, the only thing amazing about Webb’s reboot is how quickly a Hollywood studio can forget the lessons its own films have taught it. (See full review.) —M.B.
In the past half-decade (and two similar Lego movies later) there’s hardly a shred of anything original left that hasn’t been commodified into oblivion. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part blasts off into that oblivion, attempting to grow up with the younglings it once courted while, as well as it can given its hyperkinetic guiding koan of “everything is awesome is everything at once,” shooting for unexpected shades of nuance. Written by Lord and Miller, but directed by dependable animated studio hand Mike Mitchell, the second episode in the ongoing saga of Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) and the citizens of Bricksburg starts only minutes after the first film, but feels like a lifetime separated. Lord and Miller seem to get that. They feel it too. Is everything still awesome? (Short answer: no.) After the most important Master Builders in the ’burg—including Benny (Charlie Day), Unikitty (Alison Brie) and Metalbeard (Nick Offerman)— are kidnapped, Emmet’s the only figure left behind. Out of his element, he reconfigures his house into a spaceship and heads for the Systar System to rescue his friends.
Though The Lego Movie 2 reboots at the end, refusing to quit without a happy ending, it admits: Everything is not awesome, but everything isn’t so bad either. How could it be when everything is everything? Perhaps this is the lesson on which kids can glom amongst this admittedly overlong, overwhelming experience: Yoda was wrong; trying is what matters. It’s a lovely lesson, and a lovely movie. It’s okay to be angry and sad and hurt by the world, because it will hurt, but you shouldn’t give up. You shouldn’t break things when you can build them. You shouldn’t break people down when you can build them up. (See full review.) —Dom Sinacola
The real difference between Justice League and Snyder’s previous DCEU entries is that the distinct Snyder-ness of it all has been neutered, chastised even. The movie is under two hours, for god’s sake, its many typical philosophical conversations generally snipped and tucked, mythology abridged into brisk expositional conversations or relegated to—in the case of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) identifying Aquaman (Jason Momoa)—literally seeing everything one needs to know on a wall mural. All in all, Justice League seems to want to just get on with it, which is probably as good a sign as any that anyone who complained Zack Snyder’s films are bloated, ponderous, humorless slogs of pretentious “adult” populist entertainment will find his latest blockbuster operates at a clip much more—dare we say it—delightful that anything he’s done before. Justice League may be a more functional film that its predecessors, but it also lacks the style and go-for-broke big ideas that made Batman v Superman such a fascinating shitshow. In the place of Snyder’s all-consuming hubris is something seemingly committee-created, too aware of past mistakes to try anything that could make the film something more than a thoroughly mediocre $300M investment. (See full review.) —Dom Sinacola
Loosely based—very loosely—on an early story arc from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s eponymous comic, The Wolverine has several advantages going for it: one of Marvel’s most popular and enduring mutants, the return of Hugh Jackman for a sixth time in a role he owns, and one of the richer story arcs tied to the character’s many decades of adventures from the page panels. (Plus, it couldn’t possibly be worse than X-Men Origins: Wolverine.) But as much as director James Mangold’s cinematic interpretation has going for it, it only seldom succeeds. Taken as a whole, The Wolverine is nearly as hit-and-miss as the rest of Mangold’s filmography: it ain’t Cop Land or his first-rate remake of 3:10 to Yuma, but nor is it Knight and Day or Kate & Leopold. However, given the enviable headstart this movie had at its greenlight, viewers may be disappointed they couldn’t do better than two steps forward, one step back. (See full review.) —S.W.
Alex Proyas’s gothic cult classic, in which Brandon Lee’s Eric Dravin flits from rooftop to rooftop, makeup supernaturally intact, is almost hilariously bleak, a sort of Hot-Topic-toned cousin to something from Hermann Warm’s wettest of dreams. Because of that, The Crow is either something completely understood, an object with which a select few audience members can truly sympathize, or something to be consumed in bewilderment—like an H.P. Lovecraft story or what Rob Zombie does. After this and Dark City (1998), it became clear that a studio could put their trust in Proyas to later take over the Blade brand (however successful): So shamelessly stylized and earnest is Proyas’s emo heart. —D.S.
A cautionary tale in how a successful franchise can maintain most of the ingredients in its creative team, and yet still be derailed by what seems like the smallest of adjustments. Sure, Spider-Man 3 was a financial success—$890 million or so in worldwide box office on a budget of $258 million—but it also sported some “classic” transgressions of the genre. There’s the overly convenient—and worse, unnecessary—sewing together of plot points that were originally disparate. (Flint Marko is also the man who shot Unca Ben!) There’s the cramming of too many subplots and villains into the movie (the latter tendency perhaps best thought of as a Schumacher Effect). And then there’s a few eyebrow-raising moments unique to the film, like, sigh, that Jazz club scene. All in all, it represents a sudden low for anyone relishing the high of its predecessor, and the end of the Raimi-Maguire era. —M.B.
Man of Steel begins well enough. Director Zack Snyder brings his signature richness of design to Krypton, treating its final days like the end of a rollickin’ space opera upon which the viewers have stumbled. As Jor-El, Space Ranger, Russell Crowe is less spindly scientist (or bloated Brando head) than the character has ever been, and the final days of Krypton allow Michael Shannon to get a welcomed early start on chewing up the scenery as General Zod.
But once young Kal-El reaches Earth, action grinds to a halt, as Snyder breaks apart the classic “growing up supah!” montage, inserting it instead throughout the next lifetime—I mean, hour or so—of the film, which switches back and forth from childhood to present day and the now grown Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). There are a couple of nice superpowered ninja saves—a bus full of children here, an oil rig crew there—but mainly, the scenes consist of Clark looking angsty, Ma Kent (Diane Lane) giving comfort and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) giving increasingly dubious “advice” that culminates in a nice father-son assisted suicide. Once Zod and crew reach Earth, the action picks up, but so do the film’s issues—there’s the heavy-handed Jesus-ing, the wholesale public endangerment and just overall exposition-heavy, plot-sloppy script.
For some heavy-handed allegory might make Man of Steel worthwhile, and that’s great. If others have become so inured to bombast, sloppy plotting and the substitution of cliché for character in sci-fi blockbusters that they enjoy Snyder’s game attempt at the Superman tale, all the better. However, for those looking for a Superman tale well-told—there’s nothing to see here. (See full review.) —M.B.
Constantine is the classic case of a film that is fairly entertaining on its own but frustrating when judged as an adaptation of a beloved comic book character. It wouldn’t have taken that many tweaks to bring it more in line with what fans of the comics would have been expecting, but the casting of Keanu Reeves in particular fundamentally changed the character of John Constantine in ways that many fans had a hard time accepting. Gone was the typically witty, sarcastic, cheeky British magician scamp of the comics, replaced by a surly, depressed-looking Reeves who was lacking a fundamental piece of the character’s charm. At the same time, though, Constantine does boast some absolutely mesmerizing supporting performances that have helped the film develop a late-blooming appreciation: In particular, the radiant, androgynous Tilda Swinton as the scheming angel Gabriel and the malevolent Peter Stormare in a sadly brief but brilliant portrayal of Lucifer. It almost makes one hope for a different film featuring the same characters in more depth, rather than the somewhat generic plot of Constantine itself, which is strongest when hewing to a specific comics subplot about John’s life-threatening lung cancer. In the end, Constantine is simply uneven, but the bright spots almost demand a watch. The ill-fated Constantine TV show on Fox, meanwhile, actually gave audiences a more accurate and charming take on the title character, but failed in an opposite respect: A lack of any interesting supporting characters. At some point, hopefully the character of Constantine will have another moment in the sun. —J.V.
Disney’s Sky High manages to be neither that memorable nor the least bit offensive. (And the latter may seem like faint praise, but as the upper regions of this list attest—there is ample wince-worthy live-action superhero crap out there.) Instead, Sky High is one of those films a nerd-leaning adult can watch with his or her kids and enjoy for its cast alone. There’s Wonder Woman classic (Lynda Carter), Ash (Bruce Campbell), Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) and even Caitlin Snow/Killer Frost from the CW’s Flash (Danielle Panabaker). And while those kids will likely not care about any of those names, they will enjoy the straight-forward, lightly spoofy take on what awaits them (or currently afflicts them) in high school. —M.B.
There’s still healthy debate as to which of the original Tim Burton Batman films is actually superior, but Batman Returns has a case to make as one of the most entertaining takes on the Caped Crusader. Michelle Pfeiffer certainly is responsible for the most fun take on the Catwoman mythos, although that’s certainly not saying much when the alternatives are the disastrous Halle Berry feature or the disappointing mundanity of Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises. But the casting is so strong all around—a wild-eyed Christopher Walken as the bizarre-looking corporate villain, a more comfortable Michael Keaton who has settled into the Batman role and the impeccable Danny DeVito as the real star of the film, the hideously makeup’d Penguin. Oswald Cobblepot is a character of significant pathos and audience empathy here, alternately shrewd and pathetic, which makes for a fascinating villain. Yeah, the movie dives into Bruckheimer-esque absurdity during the portion when it’s revolving around penguin soldiers with missiles strapped to their backs, but you can’t argue that doesn’t jibe with the tone of classic Batman comics of the ’60s and ’70s. —J.V.
At two hours and 44 minutes, The Dark Knight Rises is way too long … and way too short. Welcome to the temporal paradox that is the third, final and a bit overladen entry of Christopher Nolan’s tripartite take on the caped crusader. In the third film of his trilogy, Nolan brings his A game (and A team, for that matter) to bear in an attempt to at least match the billion-dollar-grossing, Heath Ledger-elevated The Dark Knight in tone, tenor and pace. But between multiple characters afflicted with “plotty mouth” and a need to have readers suspend disbelief early and (a bit too) often, this trilogy capper falls well short of the two films that preceded it. After all, nearly three hours may seem like a long time to maintain tension and viewer interest in anything not involving hobbits or the NFL, but it’s also all too short when you’re trying to juxtapose the slow burn of a hero’s psychological journey (and physical recovery) with a villain’s crisp, diabolical plan (and throwing in three to four additional character arcs for good measure). It’s at this intersection of hurry up and slow down that the film both bogs down and skips beats. It’s why 30 minutes more would have told a more convincing tale of Bruce Wayne, and 30 minutes less would have done wonders for the story of Batman’s battle with Bane. Still, though The Dark Knight Rises may have joined the long list of finales that did not measure up to what went immediately before, that doesn’t make it any easier of an act to follow. (See full review.) —M.B.
It’s sad that Superman Returns never got the real accolades it deserved—that is, until one reflects on the fact that, were Bryan Singer and Kevin Spacey successful in this reboot, the world might never have suffered Zack Snyder’s oppressive vision of the Man of Steel, instead in thrall to an even stronger legacy for two undeniably horrible people. Superman Returns was never meant to soar. And still: the balance between an arch tone and an overwhelming sense of awe; the themes and concerns and thrills; all the Christ-like imagery—in Superman Returns, Singer gave DC and Warner Bros. the film they wanted (an updated sequel/reboot to the immortalized ’70s franchise) and they paid him back by using middling box office as an excuse to hand everything over to Snyder, who proceeded to fundamentally misunderstand everything about the character and its cinematic roots. Look only to Snyder’s casting of Henry Cavill and Singer’s signing on of Brandon Routh—the latter is the spiritual successor to Christopher Reeve, and the former isn’t—and know that with Singer’s stake in the franchise died any hope that a Superman movie could ever be good again, which in retrospect, knowing what we know now, is just the most depressing thing ever. —Dom Sinacola
Like a thick green clot, Jim Carrey solidified his star power in the hearts of 12-year-old boys everywhere by proving that if you loved cartoons hard enough, you, too, could one day guilt a pretty lady into kissing you. In The Mask, Carrey plays the man with the perfect weiner name, Stanley Ipkiss, a sniveling bank drone who finds the mask of the god Loki, which, upon wearing, transforms him into an anti-hero Looney Tune. Pretty obviously a psychopath—who the movie implies is Stanley’s unfettered Id come to life or something—The Mask robs a bank, murders over five people, sexually assaults a mechanic, threatens to kill his landlord, sexually assaults Cameron Diaz, and vicariously allows The Mask 2, starring Jamie Kennedy, to exist. Which also sounds like a typical day for Donald Trump. This movie is as funny as that joke—and pretty much the mean-spirited epitome of mid-’90s PG-13 comedies. —D.S.
For all of its star power and CGI wizardry (some of the action scenes seem perfectly calibrated to tickle your superfan receptors), Iron Man 2 can’t quite manage the balance between plot development and action. Just as you think there’s about to be some payoff for yet another overlong sequence spent plumbing Stark’s family history, or watching Mickey Rourke’s Vanko pace like a caged animal and generally devour scenery, the movie abruptly shifts gears and tosses in another joyless chase sequence or string of explosions. It’s a shame that director Jon Favreau didn’t place more of the film in the hands of his actors; where the first Iron Man was a character-driven delight—something of a thinking-man’s blockbuster—the sequel succumbs to, well, sequel-itis, opting instead to crank up the special effects and noise and hope for the best. The most cynical and calculating part of it all is that the movie never really finds a justification for its existence—except, that is, as a bald-faced setup for The Avengers. —M.B.
For millions of fans, Batman: The Animated Series stands as the definitive Batman—the Batmaniest iteration of all the Batmen through the decades. It’s easy to understand why. Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and company went back to the character’s roots, drawing from both the graphic style of the era, and the original purpose of the Dark Knight himself: Batman is a detective first, dramatic crime-fighting vigilante second. Following the success of the cartoon series, Warner Bros. decided to release what was meant to be a straight-to-video Batman: The Animated Series movie in theaters, instead. Unfortunately, it was rushed in production as a result, and not very well promoted by the studio, and so failed at the box office. But the failure falls squarely on the shoulders of WB marketing execs, because Mask of the Phantasm makes a strong argument for being the best Batman movie. It’s a minor tweak on Batman’s origin, but a damn effective one. It may be the most humanized Bruce Wayne has ever been treated onscreen—of course, it’s the murder of his parents that initially shapes his obsession with justice—but it’s a different Bruce Wayne, jilted by a new love, who finally dons the cape and cowl. And it’s a new Batman who emerges parallel with the mysterious Phantasm, who helps him determine the best way to mete out his vigilantism, by standing in sharp relief of his new rival who’s perfectly content to kill criminals in the name of justice. Using the The Animated Series as a template from which to tell the story was a savvy move by the filmmakers. The neo-noir feel and art deco look beautifully underline the dark places the story goes. It’s not just a Batman origin that’s “mature for a cartoon,” this is a Batman story that’s most assuredly all grown-up. —S.W.
Deadpool 2 never stops leaping around and jumping for your attention, in a way that’s more winning and affable than it probably should be. A lot of this is Ryan Reynolds, but the expanded cast brings plenty to the table as well. Zazie Beetz of Atlanta is certainly the standout of the X-Force crew, as a mutant whose talent is “being lucky,” which doesn’t sound like a superpower but certainly feels like one when you see it in action. (It might actually be the best superpower.) Rob Delaney has a delightful small role as the least gifted but most relatable member of X-Force. And Brolin gives the film an added gravitas that it doesn’t necessarily need but certainly doesn’t hurt. But this is Reynolds’ show: He is grandmaster and main event of this circus, all by himself. Ultimately, Deadpool 2 is a film that works best when it’s entirely irreverent about its own irreverence, when it is constantly riffing on its increasingly large place in the comic book movie canon. (It even notes that it’s the reason Logan existed.) It’s tough to create a universe like that, and it’s that, not the love story or Deadpool’s journey, that sets these films apart. I don’t remember the last time I enjoyed a post-credits sequence. But I didn’t want Deadpool’s to end. It’s all disposable, but in this franchise’s case, that’s a happy feature, not a bug. (See full review.) —Will Leitch
The Golden Army is a somewhat divisive sequel to Hellboy, with some proponents praising Del Toro’s vivid imagination as crafting an even better film than the first while others consider its an example of Lucas-ian drift from character and story into a world-building wonderland. Regardless of the comparison, though, it’s a very solid sequel that gives us more of the first film’s better elements—the genius of Ron Perlman, Doug Jones as Abe Sapien, a bit of John Hurt—and the addition of the eccentric Johann Krauss, the disembodied, ectoplasmic professor contained in a diving suit. The elven antagonist, Prince Nuada, can’t quite measure up to the first film’s villains in terms of how they fit into the mythology of Hellboy’s creation and destiny, but the MacGuffin of the titular Golden Army makes for a spectacular final fight sequence. Also neat: Seeing an expansion of the fantasy/fairy world that coexists next to the human one in the Hellboy universe, including their memorable trip to the Troll Market existing in a parallel dimension under the Brooklyn Bridge. The story is ultimately slightly less focused on Red himself, but The Golden Army is never anything short of entertaining. —J.V.
Chronicle is a sometimes fun, slightly dark film about a boy and his camera. Directed by Josh Trank, the film wants to be more interesting, more complicated than its found-footage counterparts (Cloverfield, Blair Witch Project, etc.), and in many ways, it is. Trank clearly wanted to create a true character in Andrew (Dane DeHaan), to explore familial bonds and dysfunctions and strange friendships that are as weak as they are strong. The characters, although annoying at times (being teens and all) are well-cast. They are never just problem kids, or just kids with superpowers, or creepy kids with cameras (like those wretched brothers in Another Happy Day). But the storyline of Chronicle does not fully allow for a deeper exploration of what makes them tick. Clichés overwhelm the piece, and as with most found-footage films, it gets extremely difficult to believe that someone is still determined to get the shot when all hell is breaking loose.
One wonders if the short film (84 minutes) might have benefited from a slightly longer running time. Too quickly, the victim becomes the villain, and the transformation lacks authenticity—even with good, quality acting. Ultimately, the script does not ring as true as the performances, and this failure weakens what might have been a much stronger film. (See full review.) —Shannon M. Houston
The Rocketeer came at an ideal time: In the U.S., post-Reagan and pre-Clinton (right in the middle of the nougat-y term of Bush I), people could still believe in the righteous morality of the American institution, could still stand behind the country as symbolic of Good while all else—the proverbial Other—was an obvious representation of Evil. Joe Johnston, who’d later go on to be the perfect choice to helm the first Captain America movie, built his second family adventure for Disney around such foundational beliefs, not simply imbuing his film with the retro Art Deco aesthetic that’d go on to make icons out of tycoons, but creating a new-old hero out of the Everyman bonafides that gave every man hope that, in this Great Country of ours, anything is possible and anybody (white, male) can be a hero. With an impeccable cast behind him—from Alan Arkin’s shaggy Dad Mechanic to Timothy Dalton’s sophisticated secret Nazi—an on-the-nose score, and one indelible image after another (the Rocketeer running along the top of a blimp with the swastika looming behind him is still an incredibly haunting shot), Johnston gave Disney a hit. All these cynical years later, it still stands up against today’s blockbuster brethren. —D.S.
After failing to get the rights to classic superheroes like The Shadow and Batman, Sam Raimi did what came naturally: He created his own. Cobbled together from the detritus of radio drama, noir, crime-leaden comic books and all kinds of chiaroscuro pop culture churning beneath the surface of whatever illusions of morality people cling to in order to sleep at night, Darkman is Raimi purging every dusty corner of his brain. More than a trial run for Raimi’s Spider-Man series, Darkman is as weird and ghoulish and outsized as anything the director accomplished with his Evil Dead flicks, though obviously tailored for more of a mainstream reception. If Marvel is building their MCU empire on the backs of directors who find their cinematic egos perfectly satisfied by their assigned lot in the universe, then Raimi’s creepy origin story of a super-scientist (Liam Neeson) demonstrates that the director had their formula figured out decades ago. —D.S.
The Matrix, like several of the other big action/superhero trilogies of the 2000s (Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean), kicks off with an iconic first installment before going bigger and bolder in the first sequel and then collapsing utterly in an overloaded third film. The first film lifted some imagery from the underseen Dark City, combined with William Gibson-style cyberpunk themes to create a “cool, edgy” visual aesthetic that came to dominate the next few years of action movies and, especially, videogames. The themes were certainly familiar to fans of comics or kung fu films, but The Matrix was a watershed moment in combining those themes with the Internet-Age subculture of the “hacker,” in a way that was easier to swallow and less ridiculous than a film such as The Net. Between the cutting-edge special effects, fight choreography and new agey mysticism, The Matrix had something to offer multiple potential audiences, all of which was expounded upon in the underrated first sequel, The Matrix Reloaded. That film’s reputation has suffered in the years since, despite fabulous action sequences, simply because the third film wasn’t able to pay off the much more ambitious, complex ideas established by Reloaded. Having seen the disappointment of The Matrix Revolutions, it’s easy to hate on Neo’s confrontation with The Architect in Reloaded, but what the scene actually represents is the setup of a fascinating premise that could have made for a spectacular conclusion … if the Wachowskis had known where to go from there. Unfortunately, they did not. —J.V.
History seems to have forgotten that the modern gold rush of “serious” Marvel comic book movies didn’t begin with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002, or even Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000. In 1998, screenwriter David Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy) and director Stephen Norrington (uhh… The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), brought a Marvel property to the big screen, and took full advantage of a hard-R rating. Likely because of not being one of the comic giant’s better-known characters, the filmmakers were able to make significant changes to the Daywalker, upping his coolness level since his debut in 1973’s Tomb of Dracula by about, say, a thousand-jillion percent—starting with casting Wesley Snipes, who absolutely crackles with badass-ness. This version of the half-vampire is the ultimate predator or predators who, along with his guru/weaponsmith Whistler (the awesomely grizzled Kris Kristofferson), slices and stakes his way through the secret vampire society. The history of this world’s vampires and their various castes is well-explored—and strangely believable. While they do clandestinely rule from the shadows, they unfortunately are (un)dead meat to our titular dhampir, and look nowhere as stylish wearing shades. —S.W.
In comic books, the Thor series has long been among the most otherworldly of Marvel titles. After all, its protagonist is a Norse god, basically immortal and mostly invulnerable. While so many of the other heroes of the Lee, Ditko and Kirby era were compelling in the way they mixed in the mundane and angsty with the heroic—the Fantastic Four bickered, Peter Parker struggled to pay rent, the X-Men just wanted to belong!—Thor always outshone his lame alter ego, Donald Blake. In Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor and Marvel Studios embrace the extra-dimensional grandeur of it all. The result is an Asgardian space opera the enjoyment of which is consistently buoyed by its grade A cast—and occasionally dragged down by “plot incidentals” best ignored by the viewer. As Thor and Loki, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston make it easy to look past the flaws. Combined with a lushly realized production design, liberal doses of humor and a plot that doesn’t let the need for sustained coherence get too in the way, their performances prevent The Dark World from degenerating into merely a collection of bombastic action set pieces. Instead, it’s outlandish, occasionally silly and surprisingly fun. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
Edgar Wright’s energetic adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s hit indie comic book has its detractors. Sure, Scott Pilgrim himself (Michael Cera) is an unlikable dweeb who somehow manages to land multiple hot girlfriends. But Pilgrim is more videogame avatar than character, anyway—he’s got multiple levels to conquer, in the form of his newest beau Ramona Flowers’ (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) Seven Evil Exes, all of whom are imbued with crazy superpowers. Some real casting mana here: Captain America (Chris Evans) and Superman/Atom (Brandon Routh) themselves, Arrested Development’s Mae Whitman, and Wes Anderson fav Jason Schwartzman rank among the film’s colorful antagonists. And speaking of color: You’d be hard-pressed indeed to find a more visually expressive live-action movie from the past decade. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World absolutely crackles with verve, making it look and feel more like a comic book-come-to-life than previously believed possible. Even folks who do not respond to its (admittedly, very specific) dog-whistle appeal, must admit its videogame/manga source material saturates every frame, to rapturous effect. —S.W.
2002’s Spider-Man may have been the impetus of the current superhero blockbuster, but it was Bryan Singer’s X-Men that gave birth to the “modern superhero film” in 2000. In that sense, you might call it one of the most influential films on the list—or even the most influential. Keep in mind, this is only three years removed from the likes of Batman & Robin, when it would be safe to say the genre was at an all-time low in terms of mass appeal. X-Men helped bridge that gap, presenting a semi-serious take on the classic Marvel mutant team, anchored of course by the indispensable Patrick Stewart as Professor X, who lends much-needed gravitas. In terms of plot … well, that’s not the strongest facet of X-Men, as we see a fairly generic story about Magneto trying to mutate the entire world. What the film did well was bring together a colorful cast of characters upon which a budding franchise could lean, including Ian McKellen as Magneto, Halle Berry as Storm, Famke Janssen as Jean Grey and of course Hugh Jackman as breakout character Wolverine, whose popularity threatened to overshadow the entire series. Watching it in 2016, the result is rather cheesy (Storm and her “toad struck by lightning” line?), but X-Men is like a cinematic proof of concept: Big-budget, major studio superhero movies could become the new tentpoles. Meanwhile the sequel, X2, would go on to improve upon that foundation in almost every way. —J.V.
Superman, the original superhero, had been depicted onscreen prior—with a live-action television show, as well as both animated and live-action big screen serials, it’s true. But the most iconic version of the legendary figure unquestionably belongs to Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner’s 1978 film. “You will believe a man can fly,” promised the tagline, and, although the impressiveness of the SFX of the time have diminished considerably, one has to be the hardest of hard-bitten cynics to not succumb to its euphoric tone and myriad charms. Following the Man of Steel from his exodus off his doomed planet of Krypton as a baby, to growing up the adopted child of loving Smallville parents, the Kents, Superman is a hell of a rousing tale of the ultimate immigrant, mixing happily with the action, romance and goofball comedy set pieces. Apart from Reeve’s inspired handling of his dual role as both a gentle demigod and nerdy reporter, Clark Kent, there’s practically an overabundance of talent in front of the camera. As Lois Lane, feisty journalist and fulcrum of Superman/Clark’s love triangle, Margot Kidder nails both the physical comedy and starry-eyed wonder. Gene Hackman as the Blue Boy Scout’s arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, instills the mad scientist with a note of vulnerability to pair with his massive ego. And—oh yeah—Marlon Frickin’ Brando is Superman’s daddy, appearing both as Krypton’s sole voice of reason in the film’s opening moments and later as a disembodied computer AI who reveals Kal-El’s true heritage to him. Of course, there’s John Williams’ unforgettable score—an iconic piece of work all on its own. Oh, Man of Steel tried to become the de facto origin of Supes in 2013, but Snyder and company should have known they were wasting their time. Superman 1978 is not just your father’s Superman, it’s the Superman. —S.W.
I was a Watchmen defender when Zack Snyder’s film arrived in 2009, and I’m still a Watchmen defender today … more or less. Alan Moore’s infamously “unfilmable” landmark graphic novel is a bit grander in its philosophy at times than a superhero feature film may be capable of, but when it comes to Ozymandias’ argument for cold, calculating utilitarianism, the film fires on all cylinders. It sports a fabulous look, and the universe’s “futurepast” qualities are visually dazzling and dreamlike in execution. Jackie Earle Haley was perfectly cast as sadistic antihero Rorschach, and most of the film’s best scenes revolve around him in some way, or in the slow stripping away of humanity from the nigh-omnipotent Dr. Manhattan. The issue with Watchmen often seems to be that viewers intensely focus on one of several potential issues, from the pointless (there’s a blue penis on screen momentarily!) to the pragmatic (an ending that ties things together much more neatly than in the graphic novel, if we’re being truthful). I’ve often read arguments that Snyder’s film, in the mode of his earlier 300, fails the ethos of Watchmen by “glorifying violence” rather than critiquing it, thanks to the presence of several gratuitously violent action scenes. This feels like missing out on everything else Watchmen does well—as well as anyone could have done. It’s certainly not popular to praise or even defend anything Zack Snyder-related in the wake of the justly derided Batman vs. Superman, but Watchmen remains the director’s best work by a long shot. —J.V.
When the folks at Marvel Studios truly realized, likely via The Avengers in 2012, that these films were comedies just as much as they were action-adventure stories, it crystallized the format in ways both positive and somewhat limiting. The result is that one can never quite take seriously claims that a new film is going to “break the mold” of the MCU, but at the same time it’s hardly something to complain about, when that mold is fundamentally solid and entertaining. To that end, Doctor Strange is crowd-pleasing and exciting—funny when it should be, sober when it has to be and crackling with a magical mystique that adds a veiled layer of depth to the inner workings of the Marvel universe. Even without too many overt references to the rest of the MCU, everything in Doctor Strange makes one wonder how the revelation of the Marvel Multiverse will affect the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and others. (See full review.) —J.V.
With each passing year, it becomes harder to remember that for decades, the popular perception of Batman was not that of the brooding, grim vigilante. Before Tim Burton’s Batman, it was that of the super-campy TV series (and 1966 movie) Batman, colorfully portrayed by Adam West. Though hyped to unholy hell ahead of release, Burton’s version of the character and world restored a great deal of respectability to not only the Caped Crusader, but to comic books in film. Applying the Burton house style of German Expressionism-inspired visuals, Gotham City was again rebuilt as the Great Depression-era New York-at-midnight it was originally conceived as. And Michael Keaton’s astonishing sharp-left turn from being perceived as only a comedic actor to that of the split personality Billionaire Playboy/World’s Greatest Detective, created what may have created the film’s biggest critical shockwaves. With Jack Nicholson applying the full second half of The Shining mode as the Joker, the full package amounted to one entertaining-as-hell summer movie. (Enough so to forgive a archvillain’s needlessly changed origin story.) As both the genre and the Batman mythos itself have received more and more sophisticated treatment, it’s harder and harder to view Burton’s film a Batman film, and easier to see it as as pure Burton. Still, in 1989, it was an initial glimmer of things to come. —S.W.
Compared to the two Marvel films that immediately preceded it, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man provided a welcome respite from extinction-level threats and superhuman bombast. Instead, and in what can only be considered power-set-appropriate, everything feels smaller and more human. That’s not to say that there’s not plenty at stake, or that the superhuman action isn’t dependably fun, and occasionally really fun to watch—the film just lacks the genocidal ambition of Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy and Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron. And while Ant-Man has more than its share of logic lapses and convenient (read: sloppy) scripting, most viewers won’t care. In much the same way Guardians of the Galaxy is powered by the charisma and affability of Chris Pratt, Ant-Man is buoyed by the charm of Paul Rudd. The combination of a charismatic lead, a solid supporting cast, and the debut and dramatization of a new (to moviegoers) superpower (or two) has proved a winning formula for Marvel Studios for the last, oh, 10 or so films now—and it’s no different here. With Ant-Man the MCU’s Phase Two ended on a small note, but it was just the right one. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
Wan and his team have taken what Justice League incapably worked around—talking/interacting/fighting/living underwater—and transformed that obstacle into a marvelous strength, using the omnidirectional freedom of subterranean saltwater violence to make up for the “everyone is flying” bullshit of Zack Snyder’s wet dreams while never abandoning the unique physics (limitations) of all that wetness. A late film battle scene between Orm’s hordes and the aforementioned talking crustaceans is astounding: a feat of design and imagination for which James Wan should understand that this is most likely why he’s on this Earth. Aquaman, then, is the natural result of what Justice League hath wrought, Justice League itself a natural result of what Snyder hath wrought before it. Where Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were humorless, Justice League was “funny”; Aquaman is “funnier.” Where Snyder’s DCEU was a sepia wasteland of shadows, Aquaman is a neon wonderland, Aquaman’s Atlantean armor a shining bastion of bright gold and green. If Justice league was a self-aware course correction, then Aquaman is course correction as business model, a denial of much of what Snyder established, leaning hard into Momoa’s charm and Wan’s old-school fantasy proclivities. It would be ridiculous to assume that Wan wouldn’t introduce Aquaman through one-too-many cock-rocking electric guitar riffs, accompanied by Momoa mean-mugging the camera (which seems to be the DCEU’s sole through line); it would be ridiculous to expect a movie like this to denounce the corporate monoliths that both gave it $200M-plus to work with and gives our hero a reason to call them “jerks.” But if there’s anything we can expect out of our blockbuster movies anymore, it’s unmitigated ridiculousness. In 2018, that’s all we can really count on. May Martha bless us, everyone. (See full review.) —Dom Sinacola
An early lesson for the nascent superhero film genre—superpowers matters when it comes to villains. As enjoyable as the first film was for starved comic book fans, seeing General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran) go all yellow sun Kryptonian on the hapless Earthlings and present a real threat to the Man of Steel was a blast. Sure, Superman manifested random, non-canon powers at the drop of a hat—from an enveloping saran wrap costume “S” to the potent “memory wipe” kiss—and Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor continued to be mainly concerned with acquiring real estate, but nonetheless, watching Reeve’s Superman battle a trio of superpowered villains while actually successfully protecting the innocent feels truer to the source material than most of the efforts that followed. (Sidenote: between this film, The Empire Strikes Back and Aliens, the ’80s were a great time for sequels.) —Michael Burgin
In Ant-Man and the Wasp, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still under house arrest after the events of Captain America: Civil War but days away from release when he receives a message from Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), the mother of Hope/Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) and wife of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who has been trapped in the Quantum Realm for 30 years and needs him to gather her family so they can save her. Meanwhile, there’s a former colleague of Pym’s (Laurence Fishburne) who wants to help save the life of his adopted daughter, Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who is suffering from some sort of quantum displacement, and oh yeah there’s Walton Goggins as an evil entrepreneur who wants Pym’s technology and can you tell we’re in yet another wildly overplotted Marvel movie? Much of the fun of the Ant-Man franchise is playing with perspective, the idea that a superhero can have the strength of a full-sized superhero but be the size of, well, an ant. I still think Edgar Wright would have played around with this idea more than Peyton Reed does, but nonetheless, the movie does have its moments of inspired silliness. There’s when Scott waits for his usual insect to fly him off and away but keeps having his rides intercepted by hungry seagulls (“Murderers!”), and the big chase sequence that makes up the last half hour of the film that makes good use of San Francisco as a location, particularly the idea that its hills and turns, so glamorized in cinematic chase sequences of the past, take on an entirely different dimension when everyone’s sizes keep getting blown up and shrunken down. The movie’s ending has the jazzy, goofy rhythm that you want from a movie like this. (See full review.) —Will Leitch
In Teen Titans Go!, creators Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath pull off what we’ll call a “reverse-Hobbit,” showing how the characters from those 11-minute bursts of mayhem stand up just fine to the “rigor” of an 88-minute theatrical release. (Granted, they have more than 200 episodes to draw from and no dearth of tired tropes to target.) The premise of “Robin wants his own movie. What must he do to get one?” is all the framework directors Horvath and Peter Rida Michail need to support a sustained skewering of the current frenzy of superhero moviemaking. Not that Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is meant primarily to serve as some critical comeuppance to the genre—nah, its main goal is to be a fun, family-friendly movie, and in this it’s wildly successful. If you’re looking to convert a skeptic of the TV series—or even just looking to extract an admission it’s not all bad—this is your best bet. If you’re an older fan of the DC universe, the movie, like the series, possesses its share of deep cuts and obscure character references to chew on and enjoy. And if you really enjoy seeing the characters and conventions of a genre mocked and subverted, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies has you covered there, too. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
Though all continuity’s out with the baby and bathwater by this time, when Matthew Vaughn, Bryan Singer and company decided to go back in time to show the founding of the X-Men, something equally indulgent happened. Placing the mutants in the era from which they originated, Vaughn got to play with the popular cinema touchstones of the time: First Class incorporates a distinctly 007 vibe. Apart from a horribly miscast January Jones as Emma Frost, and the handful of Marvel characters nobody but the diehardiest of Marvel diehards could possibly could give a crap about, it’s an excellent jumping off point for extending a franchise. X-Men: Days of Future Past agrees. (See full review.) —S.W.
If you were making a list of comic book film adaptations that truly understood their source material, that accurately capture the tenor of the comic, then you’d have a hard time keeping both Hellboy and Hellboy 2 off the top of the list. Mike Mignola’s epic comic is one of the best sequential graphic stories of the ’90s and 2000s, and leaving its adaptation to the loving hands of Guillermo Del Toro turned out better than fans could have dared hope. Hellboy is by no means an easy story to commit to film, but it benefits hugely by the perfect casting of Ron Perlman in the role he was born to play—the irascible but goodhearted Anung un Rama, the demon “fated” to bring about the end of the world. Naturally, the perpetually stubborn Hellboy has some differing opinions on the nature of free will. What follows is a joyously vivid, fast-paced feature, full of Lovecraftian monsters but none of the author’s pomp and circumstance. Del Toro’s take on Hellboy crackles with the unabashed energy and enthusiasm of an old-time adventure serial—call him a devilish Indiana Jones, with only a shade less charm. —Jim Vorel
The second Avengers film was warmly received when it initially arrived, but then suffered a bit of immediate blowback, with many superhero genre geeks asserting themselves that although it was undeniably an entertaining film, it represented something of a step back from Joss Whedon’s record-smashing original. Even if it can’t quite match it, and occasionally feels like a bridge toward the next Avengers story, there’s still a whole lot to enjoy in this action-packed yarn. James Spader excels as the voice of the godlike Ultron—a wonderfully arrogant, immature AI character who is only undermined by plot, rather than performance. Ultimately, though, we may remember Age of Ultron more for the storyline fallout it helped generate in the MCU, as Tony Stark’s guilt at creating Ultron is instrumental in driving his position in the fabulous Civil War. Looking back on it in the wake of several other MCU films, its stature has somewhat grown as a result of what it has helped build. (See full review.) —J.V.
Of the three “origin tentpole” movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor—Kenneth Branagh’s film has come off the least critically valued of the three. (In box office, it comes in second.) But this initial installment in the adventures of everyone’s favorite Asgardian distinguishes itself from those of everyone’s favorite armor-suited industrialist and everyone’s favorite super soldier in what it portends about MCU world-building. While Thor spends plenty of time on Earth, Branagh and company make sure the out-of-this-world landscapes of Asgard and its nearby realms are presented with vigor. For comic book fans, this was particularly encouraging. A Thor film should be as different from an Iron Man film as the two comic book series are from one another. Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios’ willingness to trust their source material—a willingness that yielded Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange—was first and most evident here. This, added to Chris Hemsworth’s perfect portrayal of the beefy thunder god, Tom Hiddleston’s near-transcendent turn as Loki, and Branagh’s sure-handed direction (with Anthony Hopkins as Odin, no less), ensure Thor will remain firmly rooted in the top echelon of superhero films. And unlike a full 2/3rds of this list, which will slide down the rankings with virtually every new film, Thor may well rise as it ages. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
One thing Captain Marvel has going for it that Ant Man and the Wasp didn’t is that it gives us a lead character we can care about and (even more important) an actor (Brie Larson) who rises to the occasion. In many of these Marvel origin stories—and by my count, this is the eighth one since the original Iron Man—the movie goes through great pains to explain to us why we should care about this new character, why, with everything else we have to keep track of, we should readily agree to adding one more to the mix. Captain Marvel, like many MCU movies, sometimes labors under the weight of having to tell its own story while still connecting to the larger, ongoing saga, but it has no issues with justifying its main character: We see in her eyes, from the first second, what’s different about her. The movie has us on her side before she ever says a word.
The film is otherwise entertaining and exhausting in the equal measures we have come to expect from modern Marvel movies—if you’ve seen one bad guy bent on galaxy domination, you’ve seen them all. You know the music, so it’s all about how they play the notes. Larson gets valuable support from Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn, still reliably Ben Mendelsohn even under layers of alien makeup, and the ’90s backdrop is at least a welcome changeup from the usual formula. But this movie isn’t about the supporting characters, or the setting, or even how well its big action set pieces play out. It’s all about whether or not they can sell this Captain Marvel as someone who, later, even the mighty Avengers can call to someday help them save the world. In Larson, they have a star who is more than up for the task. You’ve seen this movie before. But you haven’t seen her. (See full review.) —Will Leitch
Considering that the character of Wonder Woman was the only one in Batman v. Superman that didn’t want to yank your eyeballs out of your head with a spork, it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that Wonder Woman is light-years better than anything else the newfangled DC cinematic universe has produced. It’s not quieter necessarily, but it is more measured, more comfortable in its own skin, less fanboy desperate to keep waving keys in front of your face—exploding keys—to make sure it has the full attention of all your assaulted senses. It feels almost old-fashioned in its themes of the goodness of humanity—and the debate alien outsiders have about whether or not humans are worthy of redemption—and the selflessness of one for a greater good. It still has too many skyscraper-sized god-monsters blowing up whole acres in hackneyed super slo-mo, and it doesn’t have much you haven’t seen before, but that it simply tells one story in linear order with logical progression … man, when it comes to these movies, it almost feels like a miracle.
By the end, Jenkins can’t help but give herself up to the DC world; she loses the touch so thoroughly in the last 10 minutes that it actually feels directed by Snyder. Jenkins is so effective at steadfastly making her own movie for most of the running time that it can’t help but be a bummer when she hands over their reins to the franchise down the stretch. But that she even made it as far as she did is a serious achievement. Wonder Woman won’t reinvent the superhero franchise, or the origin story. But it does show how compelling they can still be, when someone is allowed to do them right. (See full review.) —Will Leitch
Seventeen years was probably far too long after the fact to offer an apology to comic book fans for 1995’s abominable film adaptation of Judge Dredd. After that extended leave of absence, no one could blame American audiences for having long since stopped wondering why the hell John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s grim lawman endured as one of Britain’s most popular comic book anti-heroes. Still, 2012’s Dredd 3D wastes no time showing why—director Pete Travis’s film is a brutally efficient exercise in B-movie know-how. Karl Urban, who’s no stranger to tightly wound sci-fi fare, provides the scowl and chin of Judge Joseph Dredd, a total-law package professional who is clearly as disinterested in humoring his rookie partner (Olivia Thirlby) as the script is in coddling its audience. A few lines of raspy Man with No Name narration, coupled with a superbly bleak establishing shot from cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, are all the generosity afforded by the filmmakers toward understanding this world before it unleashes chase sequences and bursting heads. This is a film that respects its source’s established fan base, and cares little for casualties who can’t hang on through its grindhouse paces. Apology accepted. (See full review.) —Scott Wold
It’s simultaneously easy and impossible to forget that Spider-Man: Homecoming is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Easy, because unlike most every MCU film before it, with the partial exception of Doctor Strange, it manages to extricate its characters (and especially its scope) from the world-ending catastrophes faced by The Avengers to tell a story that is a little bit more “close to the ground,” to use Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) own words. Impossible because, well, Tony Stark is in this. Quite a bit, actually. Nevertheless, Homecoming manages to pull off the most difficult feat for just about any franchise installment: It justifies its own existence. Briskly paced and charming to a fault, it’s a Spider-Man movie that fully embraces both its source material and the perils of 21st century teenage life. (See full review.) —Jim Vorel
In addition to the meticulous construction of the cinematic recreation of their decades of comic book world building, if there’s one thing Marvel Studios is absolutely crushing it in, it’s the casting of its superhero leads. Chris Evans as one of Marvel’s most famous faces (and shield) could have been seen by other studios as a gamble; after all, it hadn’t been too long since Evans was shouting “Flame on!” as Johnny Storm in the (admittedly awful) film adaptation of the famous Marvel property, The Fantastic Four. But Marvel movie boss Kevin Feige clearly knew the perfect fit when he saw it—Evans’ turn as supersoldier Steve Rogers would quickly make audiences ask, “The Human Whatnow?” Period-perfect sets, costuming and turn-of-phrase from director Joe “The Rocketeer” Johnston and a killer supporting cast, including the likes of Tommy Lee Jones as the sardonic Colonel Phillips, and Hugo Weaving as the Nazi-riffic baddie Red Skull, add up to one of the more enjoyably vibrant superpowered movies in recent memory. (See full review.) —Scott Wold
What Logan is defies easy categorization. I struggle to even call it a “superhero movie,” or an “X-Men movie.” If it is one, then it’s quite easily the most uniquely disparate X-Men movie ever made, and it asks you to quickly cast away any expectations you might be harboring of how an X-Men movie might look, sound and feel. Yes, one might call it a “superhero movie” in the sense that it, you know, has superheroes in it, but it would be similar to describing Saving Private Ryan as “that movie where Tom Hanks plays an English teacher.” In short, this is quite the departure for Marvel’s first family of mutants, a film that occasionally feels aimed more squarely at the film critics sitting in preview screenings than the popcorn-munching multiplex crowd. Ultimately, Logan’s ambition is to present itself with a weight of gravitas that isn’t entirely earned, considering the history of the character. It will doubtlessly frustrate some of the Everyman cinema-goers who perceive its middle chapters as slow, or who criticize the 135-minute run-time, but I expect patient viewers will appreciate the way it allows its characters to breathe and wallow in moments of vulnerability. It’s not a film calculated to be a people-pleaser, but it is an appropriately intense end to a character defined by the tenacity and ferocity of a wolverine. (See full review.) —Jim Vorel
After Deadpool grossed nearly $800 million worldwide, you’d have to feel pretty stupid if you were one of the studio bigwigs who Ryan Reynolds fought tooth and nail to get the film made. Huge credit must go to Reynolds himself, who displayed superhuman resolve in continuously pushing for this film and for the chance to play the wisecracking Deadpool, who he sensed for years was a kindred spirit, but it still took a piece of leaked test footage going viral for Fox to greenlight it. Even after the abortive mess of the character’s pseudo-appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Reynolds and co. knew that the character of Deadpool was exactly what the now-rote superhero film genre desperately needed—someone who could step back from the conventions of the genre to critique (and lewdly skewer) it all. Deadpool overdelivers on crass, raunchy humor, providing exactly what paying audiences wanted to see. Perhaps its most significant accomplishment, though, was proving that a B-tier superhero (in terms of audience recognition) could be hugely marketable, given the right script and casting. The success of Deadpool is a seed that will hopefully bear fruit as studios take a gamble on new comics properties detached from the MCU or DCU. (See full review.) —Jim Vorel
The first-ever full-length theatrical film about the cherished toy bricks, The LEGO Movie follows the life of a pretty generic little guy, Emmet (Chris Pratt), who cheerfully follows his society’s rules to the letter until he is mistaken as “The Special,” a master-building savior of sorts prophesied to save the world. Though the themes of the story are familiar ones of nonconformity and believing in oneself, the directing and writing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, along with the animation and voice-work, keep this film fresh and delightful throughout. (See full review.) —Maryann Koopman Kelly
Leave it to gothic horror extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro to take our unstoppable vampire hunter and crank the style past 11 as he plays up the comic book craziness to the tilt. Arguably even more enjoyable than its predecessor, Blade II sees a fragile alliance between Blade (Wesley Snipes) and the Bloodpack—basically, the Dirty Dozen of vampires—as they face off against Reapers (super-vampires who enjoy them some tasty vampire blood). Not only are there great new characters in the ’pack, but as this is a del Toro joint, there’s 100% more Ron Perlman. Fang-tastic. —S.W.
Unbreakable is ultimately more of a drama than it is anything else, and a good one, if somewhat morose, while simultaneously deconstructing the roots of the concept of superheroes. It never gets the chance to fully explore the ideas of what Bruce Willis’ character is capable of, but the way it handles the slow realization of his “powers” is both unsettling and mesmerizing, as is the casting of Sam L. Jackson as the physically frail villain. It’s a type of pseudo-superhero film that no one had ever made before at the time, which earned M. Night Shyamalan points for having originality on his side—what would you do if you’d essentially drifted through your whole life, unaware of the depths of your potential? That’s the question Unbreakable asked, and it’s probably the only other “objectively good” film in Shyamalan’s filmography, outside of The Sixth Sense. One almost wishes he had revisited the concept at some point, rather than descending into the likes of The Happening. —J.V.
Some superheroes fight evil in the name of justice. Some fight for revenge. Baymax, the incomparably huggy automaton in Disney’s Big Hero 6, fights to help his young ward, teen genius Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), as he mourns a devastating personal tragedy. This makes Baymax an outlier of sorts in the last few years of big screen good guys, who tend to answer the call to action for the sake of something bigger than themselves; there are no armored space worms with whom he must tangle, no volcanic sleeper agents working for a megalomaniacal terrorist he must thwart. Instead, there’s just a sad, lonely kid who needs someone to lean on. Relying on the inherent power of this duo’s relationship, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have made an immensely entertaining picture—bright and smartly constructed on tropes that show themselves a bit too much in its peers. In Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man films, the confrontation of loss plays like a grinding chore instead of an essential part of the hero’s journey. In Big Hero 6, that component feels organic. It belongs. Thrilling, well-crafted set pieces are only one aspect of what makes blockbusters like this tick. The bond between a boy and his android makes up the rest. (See full review.) —A.C.
Though its titular hero spends 2/3rds of the film outside his armor, Iron Man 3 works. The film provides just the right mix of action (much of it explosive), chuckles (mostly via banter) and plot (fairly comprehensible). Some of that credit goes to director Shane Black, no stranger to the action genre as a screenwriter (Lethal Weapon, The Last Action Hero), nor to Robert Downey Jr. as a director (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). At a time when Whedon’s Avengers still loomed large in the rearview mirror (and provided much of the impetus for Tony Stark’s personal character arc in Iron Man 3), Black keeps the plot and pacing under much firmer control than Jon Favreau did in Iron Man 2.
But though Iron Man 3 is a better constructed film than its predecessor, ultimately it succeeds for the same reason the first two films did—Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Whereas most actors, no matter how adept the performance, play second fiddle to the character they portray, Downey Jr. has pretty much displaced Tony Stark, 50 years of comic book character development notwithstanding. In part, it’s because the character himself has never been as compelling as the armor he wore, but mainly, it’s because Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is just so damned much more enjoyable to be around than Stark Classic. It doesn’t matter that, in terms of hero profiles, Downey Jr.’s breezy, edgy quipping is pure Spider-Man. In fact, it’s telling that, in a realm pretty much defined by a fandom that will wail and gnash teeth about even the slightest deviation from canon, no one really cared.
It’s the primary reason why a superhero film where the protagonist spends most of his time out of his armor rather than in it is not just bearable, but downright fun. It’s why the neutering of an arch-villain—though still a troublesome precedent for the Marvel film universe as a whole—works fine within the framework of the film. It’s why, in the frivolous debates of the future, the question “Who was the best Iron Man?” will really be, “Who has done the best version of Robert Downey Jr.?” (See full review.) —M.B.
Batman Begins is a classic case of a superhero movie arriving at exactly the right time and place. It had been eight years since Batman & Robin, almost an unfathomable stretch of time by today’s franchise standards, but you can consider that to be a mourning and healing period. Rejecting the gaudy, cartoonish excesses of the ’90s Schumacher movies, and in a time before audiences had come to reflexively roll their eyes at the idea of a “dark and gritty reboot,” Begins was simply, exactly what the character of Batman needed in that moment. Hewing more closely to its comic source material, it gave us what will likely be the definitive portrait of Bruce Wayne’s training to become the Batman, a la the influential comic Year One, and it made the wise decision of making the film’s true villain one of Batman’s greatest but least-utilized rogues, Ra’s al Ghul. It’s a film that codifies what makes Batman, Batman—a psychological warrior unafraid of brutality but unwilling to go all the way to judgement and execution (see also: Dredd). It helps that it launched an impeccably cast trilogy of Nolan films as well, featuring iconic turns by Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson and of course Christian Bale as probably the best take on “millionaire playboy asshole” Bruce Wayne. With all that, you can overlook a little Katie Holmes in this one. —J.V.
If this was a list of the most influential or important superhero films, then Sam Raimi’s 2002 film would come in well ahead of its 2004 sequel—perhaps even top three. Though there had been a few Marvel movies before it (X-Men, Blade), Spider-Man showed how exhilarating it could be when a film strove to do the Marvel universe justice rather than apologizing for and obscuring the source material. Granted, a few decades and casting iterations from now, Tobey Maguire will likely not be considered the best Spider-Man ever, but he was good enough. (And J.K. Simmons’ turn as J. Jonah Jameson will likely never be touched.) More importantly, in the hands of Raimi, a Spider-Man fan with chops, Spider-Man carried with it the same species of wonder that Jurassic Park had—instead of “Wow, this is what it would be like to see real dinosaurs,” we got to see what it was like for a comic book to come to life. —M.B.
For every frenetic fight scene in Avengers: Infinity War—and there are plenty of them—there are myriad character interactions and emotional beats the audience has been prepped for by the previous films (okay, maybe not 2008’s The Incredible Hulk). As a result, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have ample room to riff and play as characters meet for the first time or see each other again. Some of the interactions are easy to anticipate (if no less enjoyable)—the immediate ego clash between Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange and Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, for example—but our familiarity with these characters adds resonance to nearly every scene and every line, as the vestiges and ripples of emotional arcs laid down in the last decade’s worth of movies bolster even the smallest moment. (It grounds such moments in ways that viewers unfamiliar with the bulk of the MCU will likely still recognize, as well.) It also generates a surprising amount of humor, especially for a two-hour-and-twenty-nine-minute film about a godlike being trying to exterminate half the population of the known universe. (It will forever bear repeating—when all is said and done, the casting of the MCU may go down as its most astounding achievement of all.)
For anyone familiar with the source material—or anyone who has been paying attention to the movies—it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say things don’t go well for our heroes. In fact, in the genre of fantasy-sci fi franchises, probably only The Empire Strikes Back can make a case for ending on as dire a note. That, too, is sort of exhilarating, especially for those of us who remember seeing Empire in the theaters. Sure, you knew deep down that Han would get out of that block of carbonite and the Empire eventually be thwarted in the next film, but somehow that didn’t make you feel any better in the meantime. (See full review.)—Michael Burgin
The Incredibles 2 starts right where the first film ended, with the costumed Family Parr reacting to the arrival of the Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Their scuffle with the villain gains the attention of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk)—or more precisely, allows Deavor and his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), to gain the attention of the Parrs. The siblings want to bring supers back into the light, using Winston’s salesmanship and Evelyn’s tech to sway public opinion back to the pro-super side. To do so, they want to enlist Elastigirl as the tip of the spear in their charm offensive, leaving Mr. Incredible on the sidelines for now. (She tends to fight crime in a manner that results in less property damage than her husband, after all.) This sets up a second act that’s firmly by the numbers in terms of story development—watch the husband try to succeed as a stay-at-home dad!—yet no less enjoyable. (The family interactions, one strength among many with the first film, remain a delight in the sequel.) Meanwhile, we get to watch Elastigirl in action, as she encounters, foils and matches wits with the film’s mysterious villain, Screenslaver. As in the first film, watching Helen Parr do the hero thing is also quite the delight—she’s resourceful, tough and, above all, a professional. Watching Elastigirl operate almost makes one feel sorry for the criminals.
This long-awaited The Incredibles 2 may be inescapably messier throughout—the villain and scheme are not quite as compelling, and the choreography of character and location is perceptibly sloppier. Nonetheless, it feels great to be back. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
Bryan Singer’s ambitious blockbuster clears the deck of questionable dramatic (not to mention fan-enraging) choices made in the inferior efforts following X2: X-Men United. It also functions as compelling evidence that Singer’s DNA may just house a special mutant power of its own. And it’s needed—given the sheer volume of both character and plot, Days of Future Past could easily have proved an incomprehensible slog even for Marvel True Believers. Happily, much as with prior Singer-helmed X-Men films, the director seems to instinctively know exactly when to pull back on the exhilarating action set pieces, and push in on his absurdly over-qualified actors as they espouse the film’s central themes of second chances and choosing to tread the more difficult path of righteousness as opposed to self-righteousness.
At 131 minutes, Days of Future Past is filled to near bursting as its enormous cast scrambles through the vagaries of its time travel paradox-rich design, and Singer threads the needle with such apparent effortlessness in stitching it all together, the seams are practically invisible. It may not be as showy as telekinesis or plasma-laser eyes, but his is an uncanny gift nevertheless. (See full review.) —S.W.
There are plenty of important moments in the development of the superhero film (all of them covered on this list, we hope), but the first Iron Man film boasts a few: It’s the first entry in Phase 1 of the MCU, and thus the easy-to-define dawn of the Marvel Age. But more interestingly, it showed that an actor could so overshadow the hero he portrays that he supplants that character, and it be a good. Before Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Iron Man was a great suit of armor with a pretty boring alter ego. Stark’s personal story arcs involved heart trouble, alcohol abuse and intellectual property disputes. Downey Jr. brought the quips and the irreverence, and made Tony Stark on film much more fascinating than he had ever been in the comics. And comic book fan and neophyte alike loved the result. On a more basic level, the casting of Downey Jr. represented what would be a triumphant trio of casting moves—Downey Jr., Evans’ Captain America, and Hemsworth’s Thor—that would set the tone for the entire MCU. While Evans and Hemsworth are their respective characters, Tony Stark is Robert Downey Jr.
As for the film itself, Iron Man had what all the initial MCU brand launches have had thus far: a first-time-on-film freshness as an invigorating expression of the core character that had 40+ years under its belt yet not one good film to show for it. Add the increasing ability of CGI to handle the “super” of it all, and it’s pretty easy to overlook some of the film’s weaker plot points (e.g., the rushed “Wait, how does Jeff Bridges know how to operate that armor?” ending). As a result, even as we’re raging through an already strong Phase 3, the debut of the Downey Jr. show still ranks among the MCU’s most solid efforts. —M.B.
When Guardians of the Galaxy was added to Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) lineup, much was made of how risky a move it was—the first of the MCU properties that didn’t feature a major Marvel character. Surprise, surprise, when you make the most enjoyable space opera romp since The Fifth Element, name recognition just not seem to matter.
Director (and co-writer) James Gunn takes the somewhat obscure (to non-comic book fans) team and keeps the source material’s tone, attitude and bombastic settings intact. As the self-named Star-Lord, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) presents viewers with a pretty irresistible amalgam of Han Solo, Mal Reynolds and Captain Kirk. (Pratt owns this role.) The scene-stealing duo of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) also provides the latest reminder of how convincing mo-cap-aided CGI has become. (Within moments after being introduced to them, I was yearning for a Rocket and Groot buddy picture.) Frankly, it’s hard to compete with Quill, Rocket and Groot, but Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) don’t need to shine as brightly—unlike The Avengers, one doesn’t get the sense each team member’s time center stage is being meticulously measured. Not everything fits together perfectly—there’s a mining pod sequence that felt like it was put there for the videogame tie-in, and at times the “Let me tell you about me!” exposition strikes one more as an effort to allay studio exec nerves than to meet actual audience needs—but ultimately Guardians is too fun to be much weighed down by it flaws. The film’s final position on this list is also recognition of the heavy lifting it did, reassuring studio execs that 2nd and 3rd tier characters—like Ant-Man or Deadpool, for example—were worth the risk. (See full review.) —M.B.
One can count on one hand the number of superhero films potentially superior to Bryan Singer’s 2003 sequel to his 2000’s X-Men, and still end up with fingers left over. From its incomparably stunning opening sequence, demonstrating the full power of the best reasons for humans to fear mutants, to its ending grace note of bittersweet victory, X2 represented a full step forward to legitimizing comic books as a valid source of drama and excitement on the silver screen. The returning cast, including Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen and—of course—Hugh Jackman’s iconic portrayal of Marvel favorite, Wolverine, are complemented beautifully by Alan Cumming’s haunted Catholic teleporter, Nightcrawler, and Brian Cox’s brilliantly villainous turn as the mutant-hating military scientist, Col. Stryker. Even with so many beloved characters to juggle, Singer never loses focus on which one works in any given scene to propel the thrills and emotional center of the story. It’s an awesome ensemble action movie. It’s a movie about a marginalized but powerful population of people struggling to take the high road in the face of bigotry. It’s both, and it rocks. —Scott Wold
The Russo brothers’ second film in the Captain America trilogy, and their last before tackling the upcoming two-part Avengers: Infinity War films, Civil War maintains the same balance of action and significant (if brief) character development/interaction that made Winter Soldier so enjoyable. The fight and chase scenes are frenetic without being confusing, while the comic relief, mostly supplied by our bug-themed heroes, provides a Whedon-flavored lightening of the otherwise dark proceedings. Even more impressive, the film introduces two additional MCU Phase Three stars—one brand new to filmgoers and the other oh-so familiar—and both generate a real sense of “Man, I can’t wait to see his solo film!” All this is achieved without once veering too far from the core plot of the film.
If one thinks of the each MCU film as a juggling act—and each hero’s origin, “flavor” and power set as its own subset of items that must be kept in motion and in proper relation with each other—then as a series both Avengers films and Captain America: Civil War can be seen as an escalation of the routine that’s as impressive as it is necessary. After all, with each additional hero added, with each additional demand placed on the script in both action and dialogue, Kevin Feige and company are building toward Infinity. (See full review.) —M.B.
To a large extent, GotG Vol. 2 follows the playbook from the first film, though now, with the entire cast familiar faces to the audience, Gunn skips introductions and goes right to the funny. In this case, that means an opening credits sequence featuring the entire team and what amounts to a highlight reel of character traits meant to amuse: rapid banter from Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), humorous ’roid-rage from Drax (Dave Bautista), quiet bad-assitude from Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and an extended cute-Groot frolic. During this sequence and throughout the movie, the comic elements of this particular space opera feel as if they have been ratcheted up. But though he doesn’t seem to want the audience to have too much time between laughs, Gunn also seems determined to match the increased comic volume with more heart. Daddy issues, sibling rivalry, friendship struggles and questions of what makes a family, all themes present in the first film, are even more evident in the sequel. That’s not to say they are subtly or deeply explored—this is space opera, after all—but they give the proceedings a bit more oomph than if it were all quips and pratfalls. By the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the audience is unlikely to feel they’ve seen anything that different from Vol. 1, but it’s clear that Gunn and company knew exactly what qualities made the first film so enjoyable, and what they needed to do to make sure this particular sequel was worth the wait. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
Like the GotG films, the closest non-Thor cousins in tone and spirit to Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi’s film opens with a lively prologue/set piece involving its protagonist Thor-ing like a boss accompanied by a rockin’ tune. In a nod to all the comic book fans jonesin’ to see Mjolnir put through its paces, Thor just all-out wrecks all who oppose him. From there, Waititi keeps the pace swift, resolving a few plot cliffhangers, throwing down an extended cameo from the Master of the Mystic Arts, introducing this film’s big bad in Hela (a dependably enjoyable Cate Blanchett), propelling Thor (and Loki) to their next stop on the “it’s a big universe” express, meeting new faces (Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie foremost among them), and reuniting with everyone’s favorite green-thewed god-pummeler before bringing it all back for the big finale in Asgard. The result? One of those two-hour-plus films that you’ll swear was just an hour-forty.
Granted, there are times when Waititi’s signature deadpan conversational levity doesn’t quite work—when the achieved effect is “distracting awkward” instead of “funny awkward”—but that’s an unavoidable by-product of prolonged comic riffs and, more importantly, the audience is not given much time to ponder before the next joke (or gorgeous action shot) is upon them. By now, it’s not saying anything new to appreciate how well Chris Hemsworth occupies the role of the God of Thunder. Or even, after his turn in the Ghostbusters reboot, to marvel at his comic chops. Nonetheless, Waititi seems to delight in exploring the interplay between Hemsworth’s physical and comic presence. It yields a version of Thor that might annoy some comic book purists (but certainly didn’t this one), but it’s an undeniable asset for the franchise. Some years and a few Avengers films remain before we’ll know what’s next for Thor (and whether it will involve Hemsworth), but after seeing Thor: Ragnarok, I’m suddenly eager to find out. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
Directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up post Avengers with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) in the modern day trying to be that quaint relic from his earlier life during World War Two—the good soldier. But the black-and-white ethical landscape of that time has been displaced by countless shades of gray. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and S.H.I.E.L.D. itself are all embodiments of a more complex present than that to which Cap is accustomed. To their credit, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely suggest early and often that no matter how much simpler the age from which Captain America has sprung, he’s not stupid. They also suggest—and this is something Captain America has had in common with Superman almost from the beginning—that one of Cap’s unofficial and less showy superpowers may just be a keen, correct sense of what’s right and wrong.
But no worries, Captain America: The Winter Soldier consists of more than moral quandaries and Steve Rogers sending discerning or suspicious looks in the direction of those around him—the brothers Russo have made, first and foremost, a thrilling action film. Starting with a perfectly paced rescue mission nicely leavened with relationship banter between Evans and Johansson’s characters, the film has little down time. This is especially true once the titular bad guy (Sebastian Stan) enters the picture (in an effort to erase Fury from it), but in truth, the movie is filled with enjoyable moments, both quiet and action-packed. That, along with the pitch-perfect casting of Evans as Cap makes The Winter Soldier a worthy addition to the ranks of “flat-out fantastic sequels.” (See full review.) —M.B.
Sam Raimi’s second turn at the franchise helm yielded what at the time was arguably the best superhero film ever, and one that, as its ranking on this list shows, holds up well a decade later. Spider-Man 2 relies on the same formula which made the first so well-received—non-intrusive fan service/call backs to the classic comics coupled with a faithful-enough rendition of a classic Spider-Man villain. Though his origin drifts a bit from the comics, Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus is a delight, giving the film an emotional resonance on both sides of the classic hero/villain dichotomy even as it provides the wall crawler with an intelligent, deadly foe. The film also features one of the best fight scenes in the history of comic book films, made even better by the emotional punch of its conclusion, as an unconscious Spidey is supported and protected by the New Yorkers he has saved. Sadly, this effort would prove the apex of the Raimi/Maguire/Sony collaboration—and the best of the Spider-Man films thus far—though with the webslinger’s inclusion in the MCU, there’s hope. —M.B.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) deserves the collective sigh of relief it received in resuscitating the Caped Crusader’s cinematic reputation following Joel Schumacher’s 1997 neon-disco nightmare on ice that was Batman & Robin. And if Batman Begins represents the character’s tonal course correction, The Dark Knight provided an equally important act of rehabilitation—that of Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker. (Let’s face it, though not a crime of Schumacherian dimensions, Jack Nicholson’s Joker fell short of setting a standard for the character.) Though ostensibly part of the superhero stable, The Dark Knight is, at its center, a proper crime saga—just as was its source, spawning from the pages of Detective Comics. Nolan’s take on Gotham’s cowled vigilante is less Spider-Man than it is Heat, in rather dramatic costume. Significantly trading up in the villain department this round, Heath Ledger’s performance as the Clown Prince of Crime is a force of nature—brilliantly written as a crime boss who wants no less than Gotham’s very soul. Ledger’s Joker is as chilling as he is darkly funny, and the most bracing reminder to date of why he’s the most renowned foe of the World’s Greatest Detective. It’s also the reason the film ranks as high as it does on our list. —S.W.
Nestled amongst the gaudy box office numbers ($1.55 billion) of Joss Whedon’s blockbuster is a much simpler achievement. Yes, The Avengers should evoke a deserved appreciation of Whedon’s directorial skills. And yes, the film’s release and reception make for a natural “And that’s when it was official” moment that the MCU took over Hollywood. But for comic book fans especially, The Avengers represents the first instance of the superhero team dynamic truly captured and sustained on film. Even though the X-Men (four times) and the Fantastic Four (twice) had received big screen treatment, those films were all still pretty static. The interaction between both heroes and villains were slow, separate vignettes rather than two-way, three-way or more-way battles. If Raimi’s Spider-Man showed why comic book superheroes are fun, The Avengers showed why superhero teams are. (The X-Men franchise fared much better at this with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot, not so much.) (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
Black Panther might be the first MCU film that could claim to most clearly be an expression of a particular director’s voice. We shouldn’t go so far as to call it auteurist, because it’s still a Disney movie and (perhaps ironically) a part of that monopolizing Empire—i.e., eat the rich—but Black Panther’s action scenes, especially, feel one with Coogler’s oeuvre. Look only to an early scene in a South Korean casino, in which T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurire) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) plan to intercept a deal between Klaue and everyone’s favorite CIA milquetoast, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, lovable) for a vibranium-filled artifact which Klaue stole from some colonizer-run museum with Killmonger’s help. We’re introduced to Klaue through the surprising spryness of his violence—Andy Serkis, too, freed from mocap, is still an amazing presence, even as a gangster shitbag—and Coogler gets on his wavelength, carving out the geography of the casino in long tracking shots, much like he convinced us to love stained, shitty-seeming Philadelphia gyms in Creed by helping us to comprehend the many crevices and corners of each hole in the wall. When the casino brawl breaks out into the streets, morphing into a death-defying car chase (slow motion thankfully kept to a minimum), we feel as if we know exactly what these characters—and this wonderful director—are capable of. Cue magnificent Vince Staples track. (See full review.) —Dom Sinacola
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is that rare film where ingredients, execution and imagination all come together in a manner that’s engaging, surprising and, most of all, fun. Directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey, writer-director Rodney Rothman, and writer Phil Lord have made a film that lives up to all the adjectives one associates with Marvel’s iconic wallcrawler. Amazing. Spectacular. Superior. (Even “Friendly” and “Neighborhood” fit.)
Into the Spider-Verse shoulders the immense Spider-Man mythos like it’s a half-empty backpack on its way to providing Miles Morales with one of the most textured, loving origin stories in the superhero genre. It also provides simultaneous master classes in genre filmmaking. Have you been wondering how best to intersperse humor into a storyline crowded with action and heavy emotional arcs? Start here. Do you need to bring together a diverse collection of characters, nimbly move them (together and separately) from setting to setting and band them together in a way that the audience doesn’t question? Take notes. Do you have an outlandish, fantastical concept that you need to communicate to the viewers (and characters) without bogging down the rest of the story? This is one way to do it. Would you like to make an instant contemporary animated classic? Look (and listen).
Ultimately, this particular intensely collaborative endeavor clicks on all cylinders in a manner even the MCU could learn from. As a result, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse vaults into consideration not only as one the best Spider-Man films ever, but as one of the best superhero films yet made. (See full review.)—Michael Burgin
With all the leaps and bounds taken in the genre in the last ten years alone, it should not be possible that the best superhero film ever is an animated film that came about separately from Marvel, DC or any of the companies in the business of making comics. Yet, here we are. Twelve years after Bob (Craig T. Nelson), Helen (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Spencer Fox) dealt with some rather serious Buddy (Jason Lee) issues, The Incredibles remains the gold standard—a deft balance of heart, humor and superheroics. The Pixar film is suffused with wit and wonder, with the oh-so-familiar family dynamic of the Family Parr being just as crucial to the final product as Syndrome’s Bond-worthy supervillain hideout and dastardly plan. In hindsight, The Incredibles deserves an additional accolade—Brad Bird’s film shows just how one can include dark themes in a superhero film yet not jettison all the other things that make the genre fun and awe-inspiring. The Incredibles takes place in a world where superheroes have been banned by the government. Syndrome’s plan has already claimed the lives of at least 15 supers by the time Mr. Incredible becomes involved. (And there’s that little aside from Edna Mode regarding capes and the crusaders undone by them.) And yet, this is still a world where the danger and darkness, as well as the all-too-human traits of our protagonists, can exist side by side with the wonder inherent in a reality where people have super frickin’ powers. Take note, Warner Bros., and anyone else driven by the need to inject a comic book property with “grit” and “realism.” (Please.) —M.B.