From Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) to The Dark Knight (2008), these are the best superhero movies of all time, ranked.
The word ‘superheroes’ was coined sometime in the late 1910s. They were usually perceived as folkloric heroes like Robin Hood, saving the proverbial ‘little guy’ in such distinctive clothing. The superhero became popular in the early 1930s, especially with the release of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. As decades went by, superheroes became popular figures, especially in literature. Hollywood, however, caught up on the superhero fad a little late. Portrayals of superheroes were mostly relegated to cartoons and TV shows up till the 1970s. Christopher Reeves’ Superman in 1978 changed the status quo, and superheroes gradually became a genre of their own.
To say that in 2023, the superhero genre has become an integral part of mainstream culture would be an understatement. We’ve come a long way from Superman back in 1978. Over the years, storylines have grown more mature and complex, especially since the 2010s. While the Avengers Phase IV fell short in terms of quality, the demand for quality superhero content is still on the rise. With Marvel and DCEU studios having a significant influence in the form of TV series on streaming services, audiences get a chance to explore multiple facets of the superheroes’ universe.
Quickly then, here’s counting down the best superhero movies of all time. This is a subjective list, of course, but I’ll take into account the critical consensus and cultural significance of the movies.
Greatest Superhero Movies, Ranked
15. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
At the time of release, the second installment in the Spider-Man trilogy (director Sam Raimi) was heralded as the best superhero movie ever made. We’ve come a long way since. Though it might sound a little cliched today, due to how much the genre has progressed, the movie still holds up its ranking and quality to this day. Spider-Man 2 sticks to the source material, well mostly. I feel that it’s one of the movies that epitomizes who Spider-Man is as a hero. Alfred Molina’s portrayal of Doctor Octopus is classic supervillain style, which he manages to pull off without looking stupid.
That whole train sequence with Spider-Man stopping a speeding train all by himself, as well as the passengers agreeing to keep his identity a secret, is still one of my favorite in any film, ever. In this scene, Sam Raimi epitomizes the character of Spider-Man and his principles.
14. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Bryan Singer’s Days of Future Past features a riveting time travel story as our beloved mutant heroes race against time to survive the onslaught of mutant-killing robots. The film opens in the distant dystopian future, where robots created through the Sentinel Program wipe out all the mutants. In this future, Charles Xavier and Magneto come together to use the powers of a mutant to transfer the consciousness of Logan/Wolverine to the year 1973. This is the year when a genius scientist named Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage) comprehends the mutants’ frailty and devises a robot’s early prototype to eradicate them.
However, the plan to stop Dr. Trask proves to be extremely complex and involves many of the younger, powerful mutants of the 1970s. What’s most enjoyable about Days of Future Past is the chemistry between the ensemble cast. While the action set pieces are sparse and less bombastic, the character moments make the film enjoyable.
13. Batman (1989)
Can you believe it’s been 30 years since Tim Burton’s classic Batman? Prior to Michael Keaton’s entry as the Caped Crusader, the most notable Batman portrayal was the campy Batman TV series played by the late Adam West. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Batman restored a great deal of respectability to the character at a time when comic books were also taking a dark turn with their narratives. Burton applied his very own house formula, turning Gotham city into a dark-Great Depression style city with Bruce Wayne, the anonymous playboy billionaire. Keaton’s dark portrayal of Batman was one of the highlights of the movie.
The reason I say ‘one of the highlights’ is because there was a certain actor by the name of Jack Nicholson, who played Batman‘s arch-nemesis, the Joker. Sure, the origin story got tweaked a little bit, but Nicholson went full-on psycho to channel Joker, adding a sort of gangster touch to the character. Batman was pure Burton-style cinema, and the character of Batman was treated with a lot more sophistication after this movie.
12. Superman (1978)
Before Batman, before Spider-Man, before the Avengers, it all started with this guy. Superman is THE OG superhero. Even before this, there were tons of portrayals of Supes stretching back to the 1940s. The character of Superman has grown over the decades, adding lots of political and social issues to his story, giving it a more mature twist. But the most iconic portrayal of the character, undoubtedly, goes to Christopher Reeves. Yes, today, it all seems so campy and too overly optimistic, compared to modern superhero movies, but you can’t help but succumb to those charms. Reeves’ dual portrayal of the Blue Boy Scout, as well as clumsy photographer Clark Kent, is brilliant to watch.
Margot Kidder plays feisty romantic interest, Lois Lane, Gene Hackman plays the bald arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, and to cap it all off, you got the man, the myth, the legend, Marlon frickin’ Brando playing Superman‘s father. And John Williams’ unforgettable score. Superman introduced the superhero genre to the world. Man of Steel was a brilliant take on the character, but Christopher Reeves will always be THE Superman.
11. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
The biggest-scale superhero movie made. Well, until Endgame is released, that is. Infinity War brought together all the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the first time and made up for a rollercoaster ride that lasted for 2 hours and 29 minutes. Each moment, each interaction, be it Dr. Strange and Tony Stark, was a callback to everything that had transpired in the MCU since 2008. It still manages to bring in elements of humor, despite the plot being about a Titan wanting to exterminate half of life in the known Universe.
To tell you the truth, it wasn’t more of Avengers: Infinity War than it was Thanos: Infinity War. The character of Thanos had so much depth that you couldn’t help but agree with the reasons why he did what he did. Josh Brolin did a fantastic job with the character.
Things don’t end well for our heroes in the end, as you all know. We know what happens by now, but the effect of that ending still remains every time we watch it, as it was so rife with emotion. Marvel had to pull something BIG out of the bag to top this one.
10. Black Panther (2018)
The first superhero film to be nominated for the Best Film Academy Award. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther could be perceived as a sort of art-superhero film, with its breathtaking visuals, cinematography, and depth. The musical score won an Oscar too. Coogler turned this not-so-popular comic book character into a vision of cinematic excellence in his own unique style. Taking a leaf out of Taika Waititi‘s book, Coogler brings a sort of auteurist style to the MCU that since hasn’t been replicated with the character of Black Panther in any of the other movies he’s featured in.
The film should also be praised for its diverse nature, as well as its boldness to tackle various social and political issues most films wouldn’t dare touch. Keep in mind, this is a superhero movie about a guy in a catsuit. There have been protests against Black Panther‘s nomination in the Best Film category, but that doesn’t bring down the quality of the movie in any way. If you ask me, it deserved the nomination for breaking down barriers in a truly unexpected manner.
9. Iron Man (2008)
The one that started it all. Iron Man is significant for many reasons. It was the first film in MCU’s planned Phase 1, and today, to us, it marked the dawn of one of the greatest cinematic universes ever made. The whole film boasted a great script and a plethora of renowned stars. But what took our breath away back in 2008 was how good Robert Downey Jr. was in the movie. To have a performance so utterly brilliant that even the source material decided to take inspiration from the portrayal!
Tony Stark did have all the alcohol abuse, heart trouble issues, and all that from the comics. But what Robert Downey Jr. did was add so much depth to the character that the brand name of Iron Man skyrocketed to the top of superhero royalty, standing amongst the already popular flagship stars like Spider-Man and Batman. With the success of Iron Man, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth followed with Captain America and Thor respectively, creating the Big 3 of Marvel’s Infinity Saga. But 11 years on, Iron Man still remains one of Marvel’s finest films.
8. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok offers an idiosyncratic and flawless portrayal of the hot-headed God of Thunder, Thor. Unlike the previous Thor movies or Marvel movies, Ragnarok contains an ample dose of eccentric humor and deft characterizations. The dysfunctionality of Thor’s family becomes a focal point in Ragnarok, who is imprisoned on a planet and stuck in a gladiator-style contest. The Mighty Thor comes across his former ally Hulk in the competition, and both survive together to fight against the all-powerful Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is hellbent on destroying Asgardian civilization.
While the film has many goofy character moments, the story carries enough emotional weight. Waititi’s direction transforms Thor’s one-dimensionality. There’s enough exploration of the titular character’s vulnerability and yearnings. Another brilliant addition to the movie and franchise was Tessa Thompson’s kickass female superhero Valkyrie. Overall, Thor: Ragnarok perfectly balances substance and action.
7. Logan (2017)
James Mangold’s Wolverine movie Logan withholds a ferocity and features a somber atmosphere, unlike any other recent superhero movie. The R-rated film offers a meaningful and moody farewell to Hugh Jackman’s iconic superhero character. Logan is set in the year 2029, where Wolverine lives a secluded life with an old and frail Charles Xavier. Wolverine’s healing powers don’t work quite well in this nearly mutant-less world. One day, the superhero has an unexpected visitor. A gifted mutant child named Laura Kinney (Dafne Keen).
Soon, Wolverine becomes the child’s guardian and embarks on a journey to save the child from the deadly villains. Jackman’s portrayal of the titular character is highly nuanced and maintains an air of melancholy. Despite the horrifying display of violence, Logan has several heartbreaking and compassionate moments. The dialogues, performances, and stunt sequences are nothing conventional like the many Marvel superhero flicks.
6. Robocop (1987)
Paul Verhoeven’s violent and darkly comic supercop film is one of the defining movies of the 1980s. Set in a futuristic Detroit City, the metropolis tries to introduce new robotized law enforcement to help the understaffed Detroit Police Department. However, two corporates fight over the control of robotic police projects. Eventually, a brutally slain policeman, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), is turned into a cyborg who is initially more machine than a man. But Alex, aka Robocop, doesn’t entirely become a slave of neoliberal fascists. He forges his own identity despite the initial confusion.
Robocop is best known for its graphic violence and multifaceted ruthless villains. Under Verhoeven’s slick direction, the film doubles up as a satire on modern capitalist structures. The remarkable visual design and riveting action sequences are other great strengths of the narrative. Weller elegantly plays the half-machine half-man role and has us empathizing with his plight.
5. The Incredibles (2004)
The only superhero film on this list that isn’t a part of Marvel or DC. Simply put, The Incredibles was a breath of fresh air. It was everything we loved about the superhero genre put together in a family-friendly yet incredibly mature animated movie by Pixar. It takes a lot of political plot points in the movie, like the use of government action to ban superheroes, without losing that ‘superhero’ feeling. It’s been nearly two decades since the movie was released, but no matter how often I watch it, I never get tired.
Brad Bird proved that you could include gritty plots in a story whilst still keeping it entertaining. The Incredibles won the well-deserved Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. Should’ve given it a Best Film nomination, too, if you ask me.
4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
I’ve been reading comic books ever since I was a little kid, especially Spider-Man comics. Up till 2018, there were never really any films that captured the essence of Spider-Man. Not Peter Parker. Spider-Man. The closest movie that lived up to those standards was Spider-Man 2. That was, until Sony released Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
There have been numerous descriptors used for the various Spider-Man issues written by Marvel Comics. Amazing, spectacular, sensational, superlative, ultimate, and so on. All these adjectives could be used to describe this comic book movie. Directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey, writer-director Rodney Rothman, and writer Phil Lord gave us the perfect Spider-Man movie, replete with fantastic writing, comic book callbacks, and a kickass soundtrack. And if that wasn’t enough, Sony managed to bring together a bunch of diverse characters with completely outlandish character settings and managed to band them together with fantastic chemistry.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has managed to become the definitive Spider-Man movie, and ultimately one of the best comic book movies ever made.
3. Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse (2023)
The gorgeous, dynamic comic-book-style animation of Into the Spiderverse (2018) took everyone by surprise and perfectly realized the animation medium’s capabilities to tell a complex superhero story. Now Sony Pictures’ sequel, Across the Spiderverse, expands the tale of animated Spiderman Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who learns that the multiversal threat isn’t over yet. Miles’ friend and spider-woman Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), shows up to fight a dangerous reality-warping supervillain named Spot (Jason Schwartzman).
In order to take down Spot, Miles, and Gwen seek the help of Spider-Society, situated across the multiverse. Across the Spiderverse is an emotionally and thematically complex film that tracks down teenager Miles’ desire to belong with like-minded people and reaffirm his beliefs. In terms of animation, too, the film proves its brilliance as it incorporates a massive variety of styles to portray various Spider-Man characters. Overall, the film transcends the superhero genre and can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages.
2. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Endgame is one of the finest addition to this list. It marked the end of an era of a decade of Marvel films, which was recently given the title The Infinity Saga. For all those ardent, faithful fans who watched the MCU right from Iron Man, it was as perfect as could be.
Avengers: Endgame provided closure to Marvel fans after the unforeseen chaos that was Infinity War. The film is three hours of pure fan service. A mix of nostalgia, shock, euphoria, and finally, an ending that couldn’t be bettered if anyone else tried. It wasn’t the macho-heroism or the superhuman abilities that defined these heroes. It’s what they were willing to give up for the greater good that mattered. That’s what 10 years of world-building by Marvel told us time and time again.
The conclusion is probably the most perfect part of the film. This is the end of an era. But it is also the beginning of a bright new future with endless possibilities. It was a privilege to watch the evolution of this universe.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Was there ever any doubt? After Tim Burton’s Batman, which brought back the dark-toned theme that Batman deserved, that progress was almost brought to a halt with Joel Schumacher’s abysmal Batman and Robin, starring George Clooney as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Thankfully, visionary director Christopher Nolan decided to reinvent the character of Batman in his own realistic perspective when he released Batman Begins in 2005.
But as good as Batman Begins was, it doesn’t hold a candle to the cultural significance, technical brilliance, and cinematic excellence that was The Dark Knight. And you can’t mention The Dark Knight without mentioning Heath Ledger’s legendary performance as The Joker. If Jack Nicholson brought out the Joker‘s gangster persona, Ledger assumed the persona of an anarchist. His tragic demise weeks after the movie’s release seemed to make him a cinema legend, as he received a posthumous Oscar for his role.
Mere words cannot describe the impact the movie had on world cinema. Never has a movie seemed to inspire such intelligent conversation, especially regarding the ideals of The Joker. Perhaps the movie is more of a crime thriller than a superhero drama.
Nevertheless, The Dark Knight ranks top of our list, and probably will for the foreseeable future. Not only is it the best superhero movie ever made, but also one of the best films made in the last 20 years.
There we are! That’s my pick of the best superhero movies ever made. Over to you now! What are your favorite superhero movies?
Additional writing by Arun Kumar
I'm an engineering graduate trying to make the most out of what life throws at me. Currently working as a Brand Strategist at Mitsogo Inc, Chennai. Outside work, you can find me on a football pitch, a basketball court, or in front of a tea stall - still trying to make the most out of what I get.