25 best superhero movies

Obvious picks like The Avengers and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight films are probably some of the first releases that come to mind when you think about superhero movies, but the genre is really much bigger than that—and your pals at Looper are here to help point you toward some of the most entertaining examples. From animated super-flicks to some outside the box entries, we've put together a list of the best superhero movies you absolutely must see.

The Avengers

Marvel took a chance with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, and those movies laid the foundation for one of the biggest film franchises in Hollywood history. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) currently spans more than a dozen films and counting, but the pinnacle of the franchise was arguably established relatively early on, with the first ever team-up of Earth's Mightiest Heroes. The studio tapped geek demigod Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) to write and direct the project, and the result proved an unqualified critical and commercial hit.

It's one of the most successful films ever made, pulling in more than $1.5 billion worldwide, and it scored some of the best reviews earned by any of the year's wide releases. It's a comic book brought to life in the best possible way, and Whedon managed to blend a bevy of characters, geek-out fan service, and a compelling story into one perfect package.

The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy is widely considered one of the best Batman interpretations ever put to screen. It's been more than a decade since the trilogy launched, so it's easy to forget just how significant these movies were for the franchise—and The Dark Knight is the best of the bunch.

Remember, Batman was a major critical and commercial force in the early 1990s thanks to Tim Burton's first two Batman films, but the quality fell off a cliff when they hired director Joel Schumacher to tackle 1995's Batman Forever and 1997's Batman & Robin (we'll never forget the horror of the Bat-nipples). After that, Batman was shelved for close to a decade until Nolan rebooted (and resurrected) the franchise with Batman Begins.

Nolan proved the character was still viable with Batman Begins, and set up the greatest face-off yet between Batman and the Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight. The film was moody, smart, atmospheric, and boasted some of the best superhero action scenes ever put to film. Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker remains a singularly haunting example of the genre's dramatic potential.

Superman: The Movie

Though the big-screen Superman is dark and dreary these days, he got his start as a brilliant red-and-blue beacon of hope. Richard Donner's 1978 Superman starring Christopher Reeve was an instant classic, puling in an A-list cast (including Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder) and telling a classic story complete with a dastardly scheme from Lex Luthor. It was a perfect combination, from the cutting-edge special effects to the casting of then-unknown Reeve as Clark Kent (bigger stars, including Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Sylvester Stallone, James Brolin, and Christopher Walken were all considered at different points). Superman: The Movie set the template for the modern-day superhero movie genre, proving you could take these characters seriously and still have a whole lot of fun in the process.

Captain America: Civil War

This Captain America sequel has been described as Avengers 2.5, and for good reason. It featured as many heroes as the typical Avengers film, and told a politically charged story that set Earth's Mightiest Heroes against one another in one of the most eye-popping big-screen battle royales ever conceived. (The Giant-Man surprise is worth the price of admission alone.) Along with giving fans juicy, high-stakes heroes vs. heroes battles, Civil War also introduced Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther to mainstream audiences, and took a major step toward moving the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) forward by picking over some of the fallout from Avengers: Age of Ultron. But even if you're not up on all the Marvel lore—or jump in with little to no previous knowledge of these characters and their prior MCU adventures—it's still one heck of a fun thrill ride.

Spider-Man 2

Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films are some of the best superhero movies ever made, and he truly hit his zenith with 2004's Spider-Man 2 (let's all just pretend that Spider-Man 3 was ever a thing). With Spider-Man 2, Raimi had a chance to really play around in the sandbox he'd created after getting through the origin story in the first chapter, and told a story that followed Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker as he battled the classic Spidey dilemma of managing his personal life with his superhero duties, while facing off against an iconic villain from the comics (in this case, Dr. Otto "Doc Ock" Octavius, played by Alfred Molina). From top to bottom, it's an early standard-bearer for the genre.

Batman

With 1989's Batman, director Tim Burton managed to take a character best known for Adam West's "ZAPs!" and "POWs!" and turn him into a serious hero that comics fans could recognize. With the franchise's staying power fading fast in the late 1970s (a Batman in Outer Space film was even being floated, no pun intended), it took more than a decade to finally get a new adaptation mounted. Originally, Batman was supposed to focus on the origin of Batman and Robin, though Burton scrapped elements from that script when he was hired. Many fans flew into an uproar over Michael Keaton's casting in the title role (some things never change), but one look at the final film made all those worries melt away. Burton treated the canon seriously, and though he didn't follow it note for note, he paid tribute to it and built a living, breathing version of Gotham City.

The Incredibles

Ironically enough, one of the best superhero movies ever made wasn't even based on a comic book. Oh, and it's also rated PG. Brad Bird's 2004 animated masterpiece was basically a spin on the classic Fantastic Four story, but with so much more. It built a fascinating world and seamlessly grappled with questions of adulthood and responsibility in ways kids and grown-ups could follow and appreciate. It's also crazy fun and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Who doesn't love Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Dash and Violet? It's taken almost 15 years, but a sequel is finally in the works with a release date set for 2019. It's always a little scary to mess with a classic, but having Brad Bird back in the saddle helps ease our fears.

Iron Man

This film is the granddaddy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and just as good today as it was when it blew our socks off in 2008. With heavy hitters like the X-Men and Spider-Man already sold off to larger studios, Marvel had to pull heroes from the bench to launch its shared universe. Iron Man was one of the best of the rest, so they gave director Jon Favreau a lot of freedom and banked on the charisma of Robert Downey, Jr. The gamble worked, and this movie managed to tell an extremely fun story while setting the tone for the dozen or so movies to follow. It's also a textbook example of how to get a superhero origin story right on film.

Deadpool

It's an absolute miracle this blood-soaked, F-bomb drenched film ever made it out of development hell, but aren't we all glad it did? A Deadpool movie kicked around in script form for years, but it took the leak of a concept reel to finally jumpstart momentum to get it made. The results are quick, filthy and fun—and Ryan Reynolds was arguably born to play the part. The Merc With A Mouth now holds the record for the highest-grossing X-Men film (though it's barely part of the franchise from a creative standpoint, ironically enough) and the highest-grossing R-rated film in history. Not bad for a B-list comic character with a foul mouth. Not surprisingly, a sequel has been fast-tracked.

Hellboy

We're going to delve outside the typical Marvel and DC fare here and give creator Mike Mignola and director Guillermo del Toro their due. This 2004 film is loosely based on the Dark Horse comic of the same name and follows the titular demon (memorably played by Ron Perlman) as he helps humanity take on all sorts of supernatural threats. Del Toro's visual style was perfectly suited to this story (there's a reason fans are still clamoring for a third film to close out the franchise). The story follows Hellboy as he faces the most human of trials: trying to figure out what type of man he is (while also battling all sorts of baddies along the way, too). The film is great, and just leaves you wanting to see so much more from the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). Yes, the second film, The Golden Army, was also great. But we want more.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Combining the worlds of the original X-Men trilogy with the prequel-sequel series X-Men: First Class was a tall order, but Bryan Singer pulled it off in spades with his return to the franchise after taking a break for two films. It managed to deftly weave together a story spanning decades, with two separate casts (with many playing the same characters at different ages), and still keep all those narrative threads tight enough so even someone who's never seen an X-Men film can still follow along. It also stealthily retconned out the atrocious X-Men: The Last Stand, making all things right within the cinematic X-universe. Not bad, right?

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 marks the turning point where Disney out-Pixared Pixar. This loose adaptation of a quirky, Z-list Marvel comic was one of the best films to see wide release in 2014—animated, superhero, or otherwise. It follows a kid whose brother is tragically killed in a fire, and how he moves on from that loss by making friends with his brother's robot and the friends he left behind. When they realize there might've been more to the fire than it seemed, they suit up as superheroes to get justice—but not even the film's villain is as cut and dried as it might appear. The visuals are great, the tone is pitch perfect, and there's even a Stan Lee cameo.

Kick-Ass

This R-rated 2010 film based on Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.'s comics series of the same name is not your typical superhero story—and that's exactly what makes it so great. It's bone-cracking and profane, with over-the-top action and a ton of heart—the story of a kid who really has no business being a hero, but does it anyway. Kick-Ass proved to be a breakout project for young Aaron Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz, and even gave veteran action star Nicolas Cage an opportunity to play a superhero role that made up for Ghost Rider (though admittedly, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance hit the screen two years after Kick-Ass, so the lesson here is that Nic Cage will never learn).

X2: X-Men United

A magnificent allegorical conflict between Sir Patrick Stewart's Professor X and Sir Ian McKellan's Magneto, Bryan Singer's 2003 movie X2: X-Men United is considered by many to be the best of the PG-13 X-Men movies. Electrified by post-9/11 righteousness—damn right, we're united!X2 couldn't be made today. That energy, that fierceness, for better or for worse, has dispersed from popular imagination, replaced by the comic pessimism of Deadpool and the grim, unbridled rage of Logan. Doing justice to its source material, Chris Claremont's 1982 masterpiece X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, this film is required viewing.

Logan

Hugh Jackman is Wolverine—and taking cues from the unanticipated mega-success of Deadpool, the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, 2017's Logan finally allowed Jackman's spirit animal to spill copious amounts of blood, sever limbs, and make full use of the colorful vocabulary he's long enjoyed in the comics. Pitched as "a really bloody Little Miss Sunshine with superheroes," Logan is a movie that X-Men fans, woefully accustomed to enduring watered-down versions of their favorite heroes on the big screen, never expected to actually happen.

Inspired by the classic Western Shane and loosely—and we mean loosely—based on Mark Millar's Old Man Logan comics, Logan trades in that story's blind Hawkeye and inbred Hulk gang for a senile Professor X and a thoroughly reimagined version of Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook in a breakout performance). Jackman makes Wolverine interesting again as a broken man with a failing healing factor. The brilliant Richard E. Grant menaces as ruthless eugenicist Dr. Rice. Sir Patrick Stewart gives one of the best performances of his storied career, but it's Dafne Keen's star-making performance as the merciless X-23 that elevates a would-be grim character study into must-see neo-Western murder-pageant.

Dredd

If you've seen 2012's Dredd starring Karl Urban as Dredd and Olivia Thirlby as psychic Judge-in-training Cassandra Anderson, you know that behind the stone cold demeanor and deadpan delivery, Judge Dredd is a morally complex character. As Urban explained in 2010, Dredd is "this authoritarian, staunch, hardass representative of the law… this enigmatic, iconic character, and infused him with just an indomitable attitude and these witty one-liners."

In 2009, Preacher creator Garth Ennis called part 22 of Apocalypse War "the greatest moment in comics history," in which Dredd presses the button and nukes half a billion people out of existence without a moment's hesitation. "Even now, I don't know if Dredd was right or wrong," wrote Ennis in 2009. "It was the only way… to avoid the further slaughter and enslavement of his own people—but it was genocide." Ennis summed up Dredd's predicament with the rhetorical question, "[What] are you prepared to do when there isn't any easy way out?" The movie stays true to this sentiment. Lena Headey plays the devilish crime boss Madeline Madrigal, a.k.a. Ma-Ma. "She embraces the thought of death… and she's frightened of nothing, which makes her scarier," Headey told SciFiNow. Gotta love a villain with nothing to lose.

Darkman

Nowadays, Liam Neeson is a superhero in his own right—but before he exacted bloody vengeance upon human traffickers, wolves, in-flight texting terrorists, rival gangsters, and LEGO lawbreakers, he was Darkman. Notable for its bad-trippy rage sequences, clever practical effects, and campy tone, Neeson gets the character, playing the scientist-turned-scarred monster-turned reluctant superhero Peyton Westlake with a maniacal glint in his eye. Beneath layers of creepy monster makeup and gauze, Neeson strikes the perfect balance of madness, righteous anger, and pathos. Sam Raimi's 1990 antiheroic superhero flick is a showcase for the director's offbeat style and its star's charisma. See it.

Chronicle

Director Josh Trank's Chronicle gives the superhero genre the Blair Witch Project /Cloverfield found footage treatment, telling the story of three teenagers who stumble upon a mysterious extraterrestrial object that grants them seemingly limitless superpowers. A surprise hit, the movie resonated with critics and fans alike; as Empire put it, "[It's a] stunning superhero/sci-fi that has appeared out of nowhere to demand your immediate attention." Screenwriter Max Landis later wrote the underrated, though (admittedly) uneven, action-comedy American Ultra, itself a close contender for a spot on this list.

Ant-Man

In Ant-Man, Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a good-natured thief who just wants to see his daughter grow up. He doesn't rob—he burgles. (But mostly he charms.) Michael Douglas co-stars as a mellowed-out, toned-down, all-too-likable Dr. Hank Pym. Evangeline Lilly is fierce as Hope Van Dyne, whom comics fan know better as the Red Queen. (In the MCU's continuity, Hope becomes the new Wasp in 2018's Ant-Man and the Wasp.) Supporting actor Michael Peña impressed critics as the lovably stuttering Luis, whose knack for detail-oriented, montage-accompanied storytelling is one reason to give this one a look. The exhilarating special effects are another.

The Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy earns its spot by being a galactic joy to behold. Chris Pratt's Star-Lord proves '70s arena rock songs belong in outer space—and so do Marvel superheroes. Zoe Saldana enchants as a green-skinned reimagining of Gamora. Bradley Cooper shows his impressive range as the voice of Rocket Raccoon, and Vin Diesel's Groot makes three words speak volumes. Dave Batista's Drax the Destroyer steals every scene with his inability to grasp idiomatic expressions.

Sure, Adam Warlock's absence can be maddening. The Collector is underutilized. Thanos's powers seem limited to interdimensional conference calls and brooding in his floating space chair, and Ronan the Accuser's actions defy common understanding of the Infinity Stones. But none of these discrepancies matter, because it's just so much fun to watch.

The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

More explosive, more affecting, and funnier than the first, The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is another snarky space epic powered by a slammin' and soulful classic rock soundtrack and state-of-the-art visuals. The Guardians of the Galaxy hooked you on a feeling. Vol. 2 capitalizes on that neurochemical dependency.

This time around, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Baby Groot (Vin Diesel as Marvel's pint-sized answer to The Force Awakens' BB-8), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista and his hearty laugh) square off against their toughest foes yet. With the uptight bravado of a put-upon villain, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), high priestess of an advanced civilization called The Sovereign, is a formidable enemy. The Sovereign fights its wars from the safety and comfort of a big, golden video arcade for drone combat pilots.

The dynamite supporting cast includes Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Karen Gillan as Gamora's mercurial sister Nebula, and the great Michael Rooker as blue-faced Yondu (everyone's favorite rough-around-the-edges bounty hunter not named Solo or Fett). Memorable performances from Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell also make this sequel a must-see. Critics who quibbled with Vol. 2's hyperactive style and one too many emotional moments missed the galaxy's beauty for its uninhabitable pockmarked planets.

Batman Returns

Batman Returns demands to be seen, though the title is misleading. It's actually a movie about an "enchantingly mixed-up Catwoman," as The New York Times described Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle. It happens to feature Michael Keaton as Batman and Danny DeVito as a hideous version of the Penguin, a part screenwriter Daniel Waters wrote "for DeVito." (His army of heavily armed sewer-dwelling penguins is as awesome as it is implausible.) The Penguin's frightening appearance sparked a controversy over its McDonald's Happy Meal toy tie-ins.

Before Halle Berry walked into a bar and ordered some milk, before Anne Hathaway broke into Wayne Manor, Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt brought Catwoman to life in the 1960s—but never like this. With Pfeiffer in the catsuit, Tim Burton at the height of his directorial powers, Christopher Walken in the role of crooked billionaire Max Schreck, and Keaton's willingness to let his smug yet charming Bruce Wayne share the spotlight with two formidable foes, this sequel earned praise from critics and became a box office hit.

The Dark Knight Rises

Heath Ledger's tragic death may or may not have affected the trajectory of Christopher Nolan's Batman series. With Tom Hardy as Bane, Anne Hathaway as everyone's favorite catburglar Selina Kyle, Liam Neeson reprising his role as Ra's Al-Ghul, and Marion Cotillard as mysterious businesswoman Miranda Tate, 2012's The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to Christian Bale's run as "the Batman." Activate the subtitles to get the most out of Hardy's performance.

The Lego Batman Movie

For movie audiences, 2017's Lego Batman Movie affirmed the versatility and family-friendly excellence gamers have come to expect from Lego superhero game franchises. Yet for diehard fans of Bill Finger and Bob Kane's Dynamic Duo, it also gets as close to the heart of the Caped Crusader's mystique as Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton ever did.

Will Arnett's Dark Knight is even better here than he was in The Lego Movie, and that's saying something. Lego Bruce Wayne is the battiest cinematic Batman—dapper, kooky, a self-aggrandizing loner who keeps his loneliness a secret even from himself, a hyperactive hoarder of his own crimefighting memorabilia. As Bruce Wayne's anarchy-attracting nemesis, Zach Galifianakis taps into the obsessive side of the Joker, portraying him as hopelessly devoted to rekindling their mutual hatred. Michael Cera gives the film its emotional core and insurmountable optimism as Batman-idolizing orphan (and future Robin) Dick Grayson. Rosario Dawson's Batgirl is great. And Billy Dee Williams plays Harvey Dent!

Still, the real star is the Lego brand, with its multitudes of licenses old and new. As Empire put it, "Gremlins, Daleks, The Matrix's Agent Smith, Dracula, Godzilla, Sauron, Lord Voldemort and more are all unleashed without any issue. Just occasionally more is more, and so it proves here."

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

When Bucky Barnes—a fan favorite since his debut in Captain America #1—faced off with HYDRA in the comics, it was never like this. In 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Barnes (Sebastian Stan) steps out from Cap's shadow, but the real treat is finally seeing Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) inflict some long-overdue serious damage on HYDRA henchmen.

The plot is the good kind of bananas. HYDRA secretly infiltrates S.H.I.E.L.D. and brings it down from within. It's up to Captain America, Falcon, Black Widow, and—eventually—Barnes, a.k.a. the brainwashed Winter Soldier, to stop HYDRA by any means necessary. By MCU standards, the smallish cast of superheroes works well, and the action moves with the speed and style that were missing from Captain America: The First Avenger. You'll look right past the movie's handful of flaws.