Who needs a crown and scepter when you’ve got capes, cowls and the occasional magic hammer?
For most of this century – and a couple pockets of the past one – Hollywood has been ruled by the kings and queens of superhero movies. From the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe where Captain America and Spider-Man hang out to the world of Superman, Batman and the rest of the DC contingent, guys and gals with cool powers and righteous attitudes – as well as their resident villains – have won over movie fans’ hearts and minds. They’ve also made made ridiculous amounts of money: Of the 10 highest-grossing films worldwide, four feature beloved comic-book heroes (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “The Avengers” and “Avengers: Infinity War”).
And with the MCU trucking along with movies scheduled until 2026 and DC plotting a reset, they’re probably not going anywhere anytime soon. With “Blue Beetle” the latest to arrive in theaters – featuring the first Latino superhero in DC movie history – we’re ranking the 50 best superhero movies of all time.
50. ‘Chronicle’ (2012)
While director Josh Trank’s “Fantastic Four” was a fiasco, this standout coming-of-age/found-footage thriller delved into why teenagers with superpowers is realistically not a great idea, with Michael B. Jordan, Dane DeHaan and Alex Russell as the immature youngsters given the gifts of gods and not treating them with care.
49. ‘The Last Dragon’ (1985)
A kitschy ’80s cult kung-fu movie with ninjas, martial artists who glow and DeBarge on the soundtrack is going to make the list, period. Taimak stars as the Bruce Lee fan who rescues a New York VJ (Vanity), takes on a bad dude named Sho’Nuff (Julius Carry), plus can dance and karate kick to the rhythm of the night.
48. ‘Blue Beetle’ (2023)
Karate kid Xolo Maridueña kicks fools in the face regularly on Netflix’s “Cobra Kai,” and his star heads to the next phase of the stratosphere as Jaime Reyes, a recent college grad (Gotham Law, baby!) who gets taken over by an alien scarab, gains superpowers but more importantly takes on baddies with his loving Mexican American family.
47. ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’ (2004)
It’s a crime this innovative steampunk throwback adventure was never a thing but it just was before its time. Alongside A-listers Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, Jude Law plays the heroic title pilot who has to save the world in a narrative with giant robots, flying zeppelins, a “Wizard of Oz” jones and digitized Laurence Olivier.
46. ‘Ant-Man’ (2015)
Marvel deserves a lot of credit for its big swings, like director Peyton Reed’s superhero heist film with a guy who can shrink and ride ants. The immortal Paul Rudd is the secret sauce, as the ex-con cat burglar given these crazy abilities − though instead of doing it for the attaboys and kudos, he just wants to be a good dad.
45. ‘Watchmen’ (2009)
Say what you will about Zack Snyder’s DC movies but this faithful adaptation of the seminal “Watchmen” source material is the best thing he’s done outside of “300.” His signature visual style – with slo-mos and hero shots aplenty – lend themselves well to the alt-history epic and the deconstruction of the caped do-gooder.
44. ‘Fast Color’ (2018)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw headlines the emotional and grounded take on the superhero genre as a former drug addict on the run from those trying to study her telekinetic abilities. The post-apocalyptic scenario adds some flavor, as does the narrative of generations of women mending what’s been shattered between them.
43. ‘X-Men: First Class’ (2011)
So many X-movies are just X-tremely bad. Not so this groovy 1960s-set adventure that doubles as an origin story for the team of superpowered mutants, putting them at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis and going deep on the relationship between frenemies Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
42. ‘Joker’ (2019)
What’s this doing here? Well, Batman’s a kid in it! And, yeah, Joaquin Phoenix is pretty good, too. He won a best actor Oscar for what’s essentially a supervillain origin story that is brutal and cynical and even toxic, though it takes some real chutzpah to ask an audience to have empathy for the devil.
41. ‘Shazam’! (2019)
Zachary Levi is a natural to inhabit the body of a teen boy in a souped-up body. Like “Big” meets “Superman,” the family-tinged fantasy tracks the wish-fulfillment high jinks of a kid trying (and often failing) to be a hero, leans into the importance of family and is the rare mainstream film that touches on the foster-care system in a tangible way.
40. ‘Dick Tracy’ (1990)
Al Pacino chewing scenery like a buffet. Madonna slinking around. Dustin Hoffman mumbling a lot. There’s so much to adore about the colorful gangland comic-book movie, and at the center of it is Warren Beatty as the hard-nosed detective with the radio watch, bright yellow overcoat and unshakable righteousness.
39. ‘Spider-Man’ (2002)
OK, so Tobey Maguire didn’t look like a teenager. The sight of the OG Spidey swinging around New York City in Sam Raimi’s origin story still holds up, as does J.K. Simmons’ newsman J. Jonah Jameson chomping cigars and an unhinged Willem Dafoe tearing up Manhattan as the superhero’s most dangerous enemy, the Green Goblin.
38. ‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’ (2008)
There is only one Hellboy, Ron Perlman, and the big horned guy with the Right Hand of Doom is a joy to behold in director Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy sequel. Del Toro loves his monsters and he unleashes all sorts, from nasty tooth fairies to goblin blacksmiths, as Hellboy is tasked with stopping an army of clockwork mechanical soldiers.
37. ‘Blade’ (1998)
Neither Spider-Man nor X-Men were Marvel’s first big success at the cinema. That honor goes to Wesley Snipes’ fanged vampire hunter, who took out gore-covered bloodsuckers and had all the swagger in a cult flick that boasted B-movie antics, ’90s style and set the stage for the heroes who came after.
36. ‘Robocop’ (1987)
In a futuristic and extremely crime-ridden Detroit, cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is killed in the line of duty and brought back as a cyborg warrior by a shady corporation. Director Paul Verhoeven’s violent ’80s action film is also a well-crafted social satire that tackles themes of capitalism and identity and only gets better with age.
35. ‘Iron Man’ (2008)
Robert Downey Jr. snagged a heck of a career revival playing Tony Stark, an arms manufacturer who gets a high-tech heart and a conscience – plus one really sweet suit of armor. Jon Favreau’s action-packed character study turned out to be a game-changer, kicking off what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
34. ‘Sky High’ (2005)
The Disney high school comedy still works as a superhero gateway for kids. Michael Angarano is the teen son of hero parents wondering if he’ll ever gets his powers in this clever take on young adolescence and family legacy, and Kurt Russell’s square jaw was born to play a dude named Steve Stronghold.
33. ‘Flash Gordon’ (1980)
New York Jets star quarterback rockets to a strange planet, tussles with a guy named Ming the Merciless, gets in a love triangle, and teams up with a bunch of hawkmen. (Follow that, Aaron Rodgers!) The campy space opera is lustier than you might expect from a comic-strip do-gooder, and that Queen soundtrack rocks as hard as it ever did.
32. ‘Deadpool 2’ (2018)
Ryan Reynolds’ masked “Merc with a Mouth” broke the fourth wall “Looney Tunes” style and blew up the genre with a bunch of Acme dynamite in the 2016 original. The zanier time-traveling meta sequel ups his hallmark lampooning game, while also methodically redefining how funny and completely messed up these flicks could be.
31. ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ (2017)
Tom Holland proved that having a young dude play teenage Peter Parker is definitely for the best. Instead of an origin story, Peter is thrown into the stressful situation of navigating high school life, being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and crushing on the daughter of Michael Keaton’s villainous Vulture.
30. ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ (2022)
In the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s death, Ryan Coogler’s sequel became a soulful and profound look at life, legacy and dealing with grief. It gave Wakanda a female-centered story to tell – with Letitia Wright’s Princess Shuri taking on the Panther mantle – and a standout Marvel antagonist in Tenoch Huerta Mejía’s charming Namor.
29. ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ (2017)
The joyously bonkers animated comedy tackled Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) in a fun new way, showing him as a complicated mess who can’t get out of his own way long enough for the greater good. The brick-built bro-dude Dark Knight shreds a mean guitar and also learns the importance of friendship.
28. ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ (2010)
Mixing video-game boss battles with coming-of-age tropes, Edgar Wright’s electrifying musical action comedy cast Michael Cera as the Canadian title slacker, who falls for enigmatic Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). To date her, he has to literally fight her seven evil exes and along the way earn the power of self-respect.
27. ‘Wonder Woman’ (2017)
Gal Gadot had already appeared as the Amazon warrior but she came into her own in this World War I adventure. Her relationship with a pilot (Chris Pine) opens her heart to humanity, and the sight of her bravely walking across the battlefield of “No Man’s Land” has become an emotional touchstone in the annals of comic-book movies.
26. ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ (2023)
How many Spider-people is too many? Trick question: There’s never enough. The snazzy animated sequel sends the Brooklyn teen (voiced by Shameik Moore) into the multiverse to grow up some more: He learns he’s part of a huge connected web of folks, yet puts all that in jeopardy to save a loved one.
25. ‘The Suicide Squad’ (2021)
James Gunn is now in charge of DC’s movie future, and this violently subversive retooling of the supergroup was a successful job interview. The director’s love for quirky characters and a dark sense of humor blended well with stars like Idris Elba, John Cena and Margot Robbie (whose Harley Quinn has never been more gloriously wacky.)
24. ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (2011)
Cap was punching Nazis in comic books way before Indiana Jones, and Chris Evans captured that appealing righteousness onscreen in the stirring World War II origin tale. When the super soldier puts up his dukes and says, “I can do this all day,” you believe him – and Evans did, for several more Marvel movies afterward.
23. ‘Superman II’ (1980)
The one where Supes gets beat up by a trucker. In order to be with his beloved Lois (Margot Kidder), Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel has his powers removed and that’s of course when General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his crew show up wanting to take over Earth and Gene Hackman’s top-notch Lex Luthor reappears as a pest.
22. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’ (2023)
James Gunn’s swan song with his motley crew of cosmic misfits couldn’t have been better, with Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Co. scrambling to save their raccoon buddy Rocket (Bradley Cooper) in a sprawling heartfelt adventure that, in its own profound way, tackled issues of animal cruelty and abuse.
21. ‘Batman Returns’ (1992)
If “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie, then so is the art deco Tim Burton sequel that pitted his Caped Crusader (Michael Keaton) against the ghoulish and freaky Penguin (a never-scarier Danny DeVito). The real gift in this holiday-tinged Bat-bonanza: Michelle Pfeiffer’s purr-fect Catwoman, a fierce and alluring vision in black leather.
20. ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ (2021)
“Spider-Verse” doesn’t have a monopoly on multiple web-slingers, and Tom Holland’s third Marvel solo film – and alternate-reality smorgasbord – teamed him with past screen Spideys Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. (The welcome return of Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Jamie Foxx’s improved Electro were awesome, too.)
19. ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (2018)
Be honest, who’s still catching their breath from half the Marvel heroes horrifically turning to ash? The Avengers and other good guys rally to try and keep Thanos (Josh Brolin) from collecting the all-powerful Infinity Stones. They fail, miserably, and the consequences lead to a cliffhanger not soon forgotten.
18. ‘Batman Begins’ (2005)
The British came to Gotham City and redefined the Dark Knight for a new generation of Bat-fans. Christian Bale nailed the delineations between rich guy Bruce Wayne and his vigilante alter ego, and director Christopher Nolan’s outstanding redo of the Caped Crusader’s origins was a twisty masterstroke.
17. ‘X-Men’ (2000)
Marvel’s mutant squad made an auspicious big-screen debut that paid tribute to the deep comic themes of them not being accepted by humanity and saving the world anyway. It was also a straight-up blast, especially with Halle Berry’s weather-manipulating Storm and Hugh Jackman’s mutton-chopped, clawed wonder Wolverine.
16. ‘The Batman’ (2022)
Robert Pattinson’s younger riff on the Dark Knight leans into the “World’s Greatest Detective” angle from the comics. Director Matt Reeves also populated a neo-noir Gotham with reinvented, realistic Bat-villains: serial-killing Riddler (Paul Dano), vengeful Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz) and power-hungry gangster Penguin (Colin Farrell).
15. ‘The Rocketeer’ (1991)
In the thrilling ode to the days of pulp serials, Billy Campbell threw on a jetpack and aerodynamic helmet as the 1930s title character, a stunt pilot whose airborne exploits put him on the radar of the FBI, Howard Hughes (!) and Nazi spies. And none of that’s helpful in mending fences with his beloved squeeze Jenny (Jennifer Connelly).
14. ‘Unbreakable’ (2000)
Yeah, it’s a bit of a somber affair, but woo boy, M. Night Shyamalan’s love letter to comics works exceedingly well with a pair of origin stories and a couple of Hollywood icons. Bruce Willis is the train-wreck survivor turned reluctant, quasi-immortal hero, while Samuel L. Jackson stuns as the totally breakable bad-guy mastermind.
13. ‘Logan’ (2017)
James Mangold’s Western-tinged adventure strips away the superhero trappings to get down and dirty with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in his twilight years. Even an old man Logan is still a brutal warrior, though rather than dustups, the drama focuses more on a surly X-Man realizing he needs loved ones in a thoughtful exploration of age and mortality.
12. ‘Spider-Man 2’ (2004)
Not that Sam Raimi’s first Spidey outing was shabby by any stretch, but the sequel set a high bar for superhero movies for a good while. Tobey Maguire’s hero wrestles with personal problems in a more emotional story line and Alfred Molina shined as an entertaining Doctor Octopus with plenty of metal tentacles and gravitas.
11. ‘The Incredibles’ (2004)
The best Fantastic Four movie – even considering there were three actual “Fantastic Four” movies. Director Brad Bird’s animated Pixar gem took the family of superheroes theme to new heights, with strong main characters appealing to a wide base of filmgoers. (The MVP: Craig T. Nelson’s relatable and embattled dad Mr. Incredible.)
10. ‘Black Panther’ (2018)
Ryan Coogler’s first journey to Wakanda became a phenomenon for Black culture, with kids doing “Wakanda Forever” salutes and Chadwick Boseman turning in a performance befitting a king. His death has given new weight to all his roles, none more than the dignity, grace and quiet power he brought to T’Challa.
9. ‘The Avengers’ (2012)
Let’s face it, we’ve been spoiled by all the superteam blockbusters during the past decade. But even after “Justice League” and its ilk, the OG “Avengers” still holds up as a banger. Marvel’s shawarma-chomping A-listers have to put differences aside to stave off an alien attack on Manhattan. Until it all falls apart again in …
8. ‘Captain America: Civil War’ (2016)
Cap vs. Iron Man is the main event, of course, and the heroes-batting-each-other airport showdown is an all-timer. What makes this one special is how it deals with the real-world ramifications of superpowered beings among us, and the watchable messiness of good guys divided down political and personal lines.
7. ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ (2018)
Spidey is often the superhero that little kids connect with first. And wielding eye-popping animation and a coming-of-age narrative, the daring first “Spider-Verse” embraced that universality with Shameik Moore’s Miles Morales, a multicultural Brooklyn kid navigating self-confidence and identity issues with entertaining moxie.
6. ‘Batman’ (1989)
Do we want to get nuts? Yes, Michael Keaton, we would like to get nuts. In Tim Burton’s striking and gonzo Bat-flick, Keaton was a slightly crazy Bruce Wayne who you’d believe was a nighttime vigilante – and the right guy to be taking on a Joker that oozes Jack Nicholson’s signature kooky charisma.
5. ‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2019)
After the events of “Infinity War,” Earth’s mightiest survivors go on a spiffy time-travel heist in order to bring back their friends and the rest of the galaxy that got whisked away. That, and the numerous MCU movies prior, was merely prelude to a monumental brawl against Thanos for all the marbles that may never be surpassed in sheer epicness.
4. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (2014)
Always remember, James Gunn made the world fall in love with an alien tree and a talking raccoon. As much as the first “Guardians” is full of big stakes and save-the-universe derring-do, it’s the themes of family and friendship, and little oddities like a convo about how “Footloose” is the most heroic movie in the cosmos, that make it sparkle.
3. ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (2014)
It’s not just a great superhero movie, it’s just a great movie. An ace political thriller, the flick taps into timely themes of privacy concerns, an enemy growing from within, and military might used in ethically questionable ways. And if that timeliness doesn’t impress you, maybe Cap wrecking a bunch of heavies in an elevator will.
2. ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)
The late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as a chaotic, unpredictable Joker completely hijacks Christopher Nolan’s breathtaking Bat-sequel, and will likely never be matched. Dealing with this colorful psychopath, Christian Bale’s hero wrestles with personal choices and his gig as Gotham’s resident protector in a white-knuckle affair about the fine line between good and evil.
1. ‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978)
Richard Donner’s masterpiece covers the action-packed bases, from an exploding Krypton to disastrous quakes on Earth – you know, a job for Superman. What sets it apart from all the rest of the superhero pack is Christopher Reeve’s magnificent showing as the ultimate Man of Steel. This alien is nurtured to be the best of us, embracing humanity and falling in love (see: Supes and Margot Kidder’s Lois going on a stellar first-date flight). Reeve brings so much heart to a role where, with just little shifts in posture and mannerisms, he effortlessly switches from bespectacled Clark Kent to the legendary boy scout. Simply put, Reeve was super, man.