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The Best Superhero Movie Of Every Year In The 21st-Century

The landscape of mainstream 21st-century blockbusters has been defined by superhero movies. While major superhero titles like "Batman" and "Superman" existed long before the year 2000 rolled around, projects like "Spider-Man," "The Dark Knight," and "Avengers: Endgame" have all taken the superhero feature to new heights in ubiquity and popularity. Across the deluge of superhero motion pictures chasing audience love and box office stardom, there have been plenty of duds reinforcing troubling and frustrating recurring shortcomings in this genre. However, there have also been several incredible entries into the superhero movie canon that have reaffirmed why people love superheroes so much in the first place.

Throughout each year of the 21st century, one superhero movie has managed to emerge as the best of the year. Occasionally, these titles earn that distinction only by the lack of other notable superhero titles in that year, but more often than not, the best superhero movie of a given year reflects something profound about the genre. Perhaps they encapsulate a unique way of approaching these stories or the dawning of a gifted filmmaker into this space of cinema. Whatever the reason, the best superhero movies of each year in the 21st century are well worth recognizing, if only because of how inescapably omnipresent these blockbusters have become in the modern world.

2000: Unbreakable

In the year 2000, "X-Men" built upon the impact and efforts of "Blade" to further normalize live-action adaptations of Marvel Comics characters as functional in the modern cinematic landscape. It was a commendable feat, but it was not enough to make "X-Men" the best superhero movie of 2000. Instead, that honor goes to "Unbreakable," a feature that functioned as writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's follow-up to "The Sixth Sense." "Unbreakable" occupies a more grounded vision of superheroes revolving around security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) gradually realizing that he's a superpowered human. Such abilities put him on the radar of comic book expert Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who encourages Dunn to become a crime-fighter in the real world.

We've had many gritty superhero movies in the years since "Unbreakable" hit theaters, but few of them feel as tangible as this. There's something so real about the nuanced worldviews Dunn and Price harbor while the refusal to ever blow up the scope of the story ensures that "Unbreakable" doesn't have the kind of erratic tone that plagued other stabs at "realistic" superhero movies, such as "Hancock." On top of all that, Willis and Jackson deliver some of the best work in their entire careers, with Jackson's delivery of his final lines in "Unbreakable" being downright unforgettable. With apologies to those merry mutants, "Unbreakable" stands heads and shoulders above every other superhero movie in the first year of the 21st century.

2001: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

2001 was a shockingly barren year for superhero movies. No new adaptations of either Marvel or DC characters lit up the silver screen while original superheroes and figures from third-party comics publishers were also M.I.A. In a pre-"Spider-Man" world, there was still a lot of risk in doing superhero cinema, and that resulted in a total absence of superhero movies in 2001 that would be unimaginable today. There was only one feature that qualifies as a superhero movie that was released in 2001: the video game adaptation "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider." An adventurer who travels the globe and hunts down ancient treasures, Lara Croft is a character that's constantly endured as a favorite in the world of gaming.

Her first feature film adaptation, though, was a forgettable exercise that, unsurprisingly, hasn't developed anywhere near the long-lasting fanbase of its video game source material. "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider's" biggest problem was simply being incredibly boring. Not even talented actors like Angelina Jolie or Daniel Craig (the former performer tackling the titular role of Lara Croft) would liven up this monotonous knock-off of "Indiana Jones" and "The Mummy." However, with no other new superhero films around, "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" gets to be the best superhero movie of 2001.

2002: Spider-Man

For the era of superhero movies, there is a time before and after the 2002 film "Spider-Man." It wasn't the first successful live-action comic book movie, but it was the one that solidified the qualities everyone loved about the comics that could be perfectly translated into modern motion pictures. The first major live-action incarnation of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), "Spider-Man" stands up as remarkable cinema decades later largely because of its sincere spirit. Director Sam Raimi is here to maintain the old-school sensibilities of Spider-Man, not subvert them. 

Committing to such an aesthetic makes for incredibly thrilling cinema. Even better, it inspires a story that you can get emotionally invested in rather than just be briefly reminded of things from the comics. It doesn't hurt that the actors on hand are doing impressive work bringing humanity to these larger-than-life creations. Willem Dafoe dazzles as the nefarious yet sporadically sympathetic Normon Osborne aka Green Goblin. Any scene where Dafoe's Osborne chats it up with his Green Goblin mask is a thing of tremendous beauty. Only some plastic-looking CGI dates "Spider-Man," which otherwise still exceeds many of today's stabs at superhero movie storytelling. No wonder this 2002 superhero film was such a game-changer for the genre back when it first opened.

2003: X2

In 2003, the annual number of superhero movies began to creep upward. The success of projects like "X-Men" and "Blade" had already inspired Hollywood to embrace more costumed crime fighters, while the preceding year's smash hit "Spider-Man" had only increased confidence in titles like "Daredevil" and "Hulk." Among 2003's entries into the superhero movie canon was "X2," a follow-up to "X-Men" — which emerged as the best superhero motion picture released in 2003. Most of the first film's mutants, including Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, were back for this adventure that saw these superpowered beings contend with a figure from Wolverine's past, General Stryker (Brian Cox).

With all the business of establishing mutants to general moviegoers out of the way in the initial "X-Men," "X2" could lean into all the possibilities of realizing these characters on the big screen from the get-go. This ensured that the movie delivered a steady stream of imaginative set pieces really leaning into unique mutant superpowers while this feature also expanded its emphasis on mutant powers as being an allegory for LGBTQIA+ individuals through a scene where Bobby Drake aka Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) "comes out" to this parents. The "X-Men" have had some impressive highs and incredibly tumultuous lows in their big-screen exploits. "X2" represented one of the franchise's earliest creative peaks and left other 2003 superhero fare like "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" in the dust.

2004: The Incredibles

Animation is an incredibly undervalued medium for telling superhero stories. While the emphasis in modern Hollywood has been translating superheroes into live-action domains (with plenty of digital effects enhancements), the limitless possibilities of animation are a much better fit for the equally imaginative domain of superhero storytelling. Case in point: the 2004 movie "The Incredibles." Even in a year that featured the masterpiece "Spider-Man 2," "The Incredibles" managed to resonate as the greatest superhero movie of that year. The inaugural merging of the talents of director Brad Bird and Pixar, "The Incredibles" delivered a story about a family of newly-created superheroes that mined both tropes of superhero narratives and hallmarks of familial dynamics for incredible storytelling.

Though a "realistic" approach to the world of superpowered beings, "The Incredibles" doesn't skimp on stylized spectacle. This title features sweeping action set-pieces, all of them making such creative use of abilities like super-speed, that put many modern live-action superhero films to shame. Simultaneously, Bird orients the story around believable human beings and isn't afraid to explore weighty material for a family film, such as potential infidelity. "The Incredibles" was an important movie in the history of Pixar, but it also proved equally momentous for the superhero movie genre as a whole. With "The Incredibles," the bar had been raised considerably for what kind of excitement and emotional resonance audiences could expect from these titles.

2005: Batman Begins

Much of the conversation around superhero movies in the early 2000s focused on adaptations of Marvel characters, such as "Spider-Man" or "X2." But DC Comics movies made a big return to form with "Batman Begins" in 2005. The first live-action movie starring Batman in eight years, "Batman Begins" was a radical reimagining of what the caped crusader could look like on the big screen. The expressionistic production design of the Tim Burton takes on the character or Joel Schumacher's maximalist camp sensibilities were both eschewed in favor of Nolan's stripped-down gritty realism. Though it's an approach that's been mimicked to death in the years since "Batman Begins" premiered, that vision still worked like gangbusters on this first installment with Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne aka Batman.

What especially worked here wasn't the muted color palette or dour tone, but rather the insistence on lending real gravitas to Bruce Wayne's struggles and exploring his psychology. The chilling approach to adversaries like Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow further solidified "Batman Begins" as something special in the pantheon of Batman movies. "Batman Begins" was a remarkable achievement that would've been a noteworthy superhero movie in any year. However, given that 2005 was populated by superhero titles like "Elektra" and "Fantastic Four," there's no question Christopher Nolan also delivered that year's greatest superhero feature with "Batman Begins."

2006: X-Men: The Last Stand

After various movies in 2004 and 2005 kept on finding new ways to push the boundaries of what superhero movies could look and sound like, 2006 was much more creatively inert for the genre. This was the year "Superman Returns" attempted to deliver a comeback for one of the most beloved superheroes of all time, but it failed to emerge from the shadows of classic "Superman" movies or have a compelling identity of its own. Meanwhile, original comedic superhero features like "My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and "Zoom" were among the worst movies of the entire year, with the former title delivering more misogynistic stereotypes than belly laughs.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Similarly, in a dismal year for superhero movies like 2006, "X-Men: The Last Stand" is somehow the best superhero film of the year. The fact that "Superman Returns" tragically wastes gifted performers like Parker Posey and Kal Penn is reason enough to put it below "X-Men." "The Last Stand" also has the good decency to feature Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen once again crushing the roles of Professor Xavier and Magneto, respectively, while the casting of Kelsey Grammer as Beast was downright inspired. Granted, the movie itself is still rushed and director Brett Ratner lends no sense of excitement or emotional depth to the proceedings. Still, "The Last Stand" was the best superhero cinema audiences could hope for in this dreadful year.

2007: Spider-Man 3

Much like 2006, 2007 wasn't a glorious moment for superhero cinema. In a year dominated by big blockbusters, boy wizards and alien robots were the primary focus of studios and big-budget filmmakers in this year. Those craving superhero cinema would have to settle for titles like "Ghost Rider" and "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," both of which featured derivative adaptations of vintage comic characters. In this year devoid of all-time masterpieces like "Spider-Man 2" or "The Incredibles," "Spider-Man 3" emerged as the high point of 2007's superhero movie output.

The conclusion to Sam Raimi's trilogy of "Spider-Man" movies, "Spider-Man 3" was a step down from its predecessors in terms of overall quality, but that didn't mean Spidey had entirely forgotten how to dish out memorable entertainment. This installment still had its fair share of exciting action sequences while Raimi's continued dedication to balancing out campy material (like "evil" Peter Parker delivering the line "Now dig on this!") with sincere attempts at pathos remains commendable. Unfortunately, "Spider-Man 3" is too jam-packed for its own good, with its overstuffed nature really coming home to roost in a climax that eschews the humanity of characters like Flint Marko aka Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) in favor of hollow spectacle. "Spider-Man 3" was an undeniable mess, but nothing in fellow 2007 superhero movies like "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" could hope to compete with its best moments.

2008: The Dark Knight

After a few dry years for superhero cinema, 2008 was a massive year for the genre. The first two entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe debuted this year, while Lexi Alexander's cult classic "Punisher: War Zone" dropped in the year's final weeks. We also saw the debut of "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," a delightful piece of fantasy filmmaking that still stands as one of director Guillermo del Toro's most fascinating accomplishments. But even with all these standout titles dropping in 2008, there's only one choice for what could be the greatest superhero movie of that year: "The Dark Knight."

Director Christopher Nolan's second Batman movie has been endlessly praised in the years since its release, it's no secret why this motion picture has become such a beloved masterpiece. Heath Ledger's unforgettable Oscar-winning Joker performance will forever linger over any future incarnations of the supervillain and the rest of the cast, including underrated turns from the likes of Aaron Eckhart, are also remarkable. Meanwhile, Nolan's bold storytelling tendencies are evident in everything from the most sprawling action sequences to the choice to set the finale of a massive summer blockbuster in a claustrophobic loft. The weighty ideas, bold performances, and thoughtful filmmaking of "The Dark Knight" have made it a superhero movie like no other in the genre. Needless to say, even in a crowded year for this genre, "The Dark Knight" reigned supreme.

2009: Watchmen

There's no better way to illustrate how vacant 2009 was for superhero movies than the fact that this would be the last year until 2020 (when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted all theatrical releases) when no new Marvel Cinematic Universe titles graced theaters. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other superhero movie franchises like the "Spider-Man" saga taking a breather, 2009 had slim options for those craving a fix of superhero mayhem. Among the scant few superhero titles released that year was the dreadful "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and 2009's best entry in the genre: "Watchmen."

An adaptation of the seminal Alan Moore graphic novel by director Zack Snyder, "Watchmen" is a strange creation. It's slavishly devoted to its source material, yet also misinterprets key aspects of the original "Watchmen" text (namely in how the movie glorifies rather than underlines the horrors of violence). It's unwieldy and Snyder's long-running difficulty with making emotionally-engaging characters means that the extensive runtime of "Watchmen" can become a slog. But the sequences that work here, like Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) recalling his origin, are beautifully realized and actors like Jackie Earle Haley give 110% in their respective performances. As an adaptation, "Watchmen" doesn't really work. As a standalone endeavor, "Watchmen" is still heavily flawed and never quite as subversive as it wants to be. However, its ambitious impulses and well-executed elements make it an incredibly audacious and admirable part of the superhero movie canon.

2010: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

In terms of sheer box office might, the most impactful superhero movie of 2010 was easily "Iron Man 2." Not only was it a massively lucrative sequel, but it also had minimal competition given the dearth of other superhero movies released in 2010. Of course "Iron Man 2" attracted more moviegoers than "Jonah Hex" among fellow 2010 superhero fare. But "Iron Man 2" wasn't the best superhero film from 2010 in terms of overall quality, not even close. That honor goes to Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," which tipped its hat to not only superhero storytelling, but also video games, rock music, and "Seinfeld." 

A jam-packed love letter to a wide array of corners of pop culture, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" offered moviegoers plenty of bang for their buck. This was especially true when it came to the vividly-alive filmmaking of the feature, which pulsated with energy and creativity. Conceptually simple gags like Scott Pilgrim waking up in a sweat in the middle of the night were taken to the next level of hilariousness thanks to well-timed blocking and editing. On top of all that, the ways "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" reimagined everyday personalities, namely the various members of the League of Evil Exes, through larger-than-life visual elements like extravagant costumes were inspired. There had never been a superhero film quite like "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," and over a decade since its release, it hasn't been duplicated.

2011: X-Men: First Class

2011 was a crowded year for superhero fare. In addition to indie films like "Super" making their general release debuts, the summer of 2011 saw a quartet of massive superhero blockbusters premiering over just 12 weeks. Among this crop of superhero features was the legendary dud "Green Lantern" and a pair of Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger." The inaugural "Captain America" installment was a terrific film, but it wasn't quite the best superhero movie to drop in 2011. That honor goes to "X-Men: First Class," which managed to revive a superhero saga that seemed to be circling the drain.

Shifting the action back to the 1960s and handing the reins to filmmaker Matthew Vaughn, ended up giving "First Class" an extra pep in its step. It didn't hurt that the film was anchored by a murderer's row of young talent, including star-making turns from the likes of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Plus, this particular "X-Men" installment functioned much more like an ensemble effort than preceding "X-Men" adventures while the decision to lean into more ridiculous visuals and concepts, namely those yellow super-suits, was delightful. "X-Men: First Class" still succumbed to certain problems that plague both many Vaughn directorial efforts and "X-Men" films (namely women and non-white characters getting little of substance to do) but it was still a rollicking ride that stood out even in the crowded superhero movie landscape of 2011.

2012: The Avengers

Much like "Spider-Man" did in 2002, "The Avengers" changed the game for superhero fare in 2012. While preceding Marvel Cinematic Universe titles had delivered connections to other entries in this franchise, "The Avengers" was the culmination of all the efforts to unite various Marvel superheroes on the silver screen. It had all the potential in the world to crumble into dust, but instead, "The Avengers" soared. Even years removed from all the hype surrounding its very existence, "The Avengers" still stands as a great piece of blockbuster filmmaking. The gags are hilarious no matter how many times you watch it, while the character dynamics between the various colorful crime fighters crackle even more than the action sequences.

Even the big climactic duel in New York City still thrills and dances circles around many modern superhero movies that try to replicate the expansive finale of "The Avengers." Best of all, though, the pleasures in "The Avengers" are contained within this movie, the cinematic joys here are not all reliant on callbacks to earlier Marvel Studios productions. "The Avengers" premiered in a year that had its fair share of notable superhero movies, including "The Dark Knight Rises." But there's no question that the cream of the crop for this year was "The Avengers," a trailblazing movie that, even divorced from its historical context, is still one of Earth's mightiest blockbusters.

2013: Iron Man 3

The various superhero movies of 2013 each inspired plenty of conversation in the years following their respective theatrical runs. "Thor: The Dark World," for one, has become a go-to when describing the nadir of MCU storytelling, while "Man of Steel" garnered lots of controversy for its dark reimagining of Superman. As for "Iron Man 3," countless aspects of the production, including the radical reinterpretation of the comic book villain The Mandarin, ended up being immensely divisive. Years after its release, "Iron Man 3" is without a doubt a flawed movie, particularly with its weirdly awkward handling of the supporting character Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall).

However, it's also an "Iron Man" adventure buoyed by incredibly sharp dialogue from writer-director Shane Black, the gold-plated Iron Man armor looked great, while the decision to take Tony Stark out of the super-suit and into surprising locations like Oklahoma was ingenious. Plus, Ben Kingsley's Trevor Slattery was an incredibly amusing creation that took the concept of "The Mandarin" into exciting and unexpected places. Compare all of that to "Man of Steel," a movie with a great Hans Zimmer score and Michael Shannon performance but sags way too much in its elongated runtime, or "Thor: The Dark World," which was just littered with dreary shortcomings. None of 2013's superhero movies were perfect or total crowdpleasers, but among these films, "Iron Man 3" took the biggest swings and scored the most entertaining wins.

2014: Guardians of the Galaxy

2014 was a fantastic year for superhero movies at the box office, with six different entries in the genre grossing over $190 million domestically. Among this crop of lucrative superhero titles were entries in this genre that were downright terrible ("The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles") and others that provided fresh reimaginings of familiar superheroes ("Captain America: The Winter Soldier.") Then there was "Guardians of the Galaxy," which took obscure sci-fi Marvel Comics characters and gave them their own massive action blockbuster. This risky move on the part of Marvel Studios resulted in a feature that managed to stand out in a year crammed to the gills with superhero fare.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" has a lot of elements that make it such a joy to watch, including its vibrant visual aesthetic and a shockingly well-realized vocal performance from Bradley Cooper as Rocket. Best of all, though, is a tone that swerves between irreverent and heartfelt without ever feeling like it's straining itself. The wacky characters at the center of "Guardians of the Galaxy" are just as capable of making you titter as they are at wringing tears out of your eyes. It's an impressive feat rooted in the terrific character work present throughout writer-director James Gunn's script (co-written by Nicole Perlman). "Guardians of the Galaxy" was not an ordinary Marvel movie and that's why it registered as 2014's greatest contribution to superhero cinema.

2015: Ant-Man

After the crowded superhero movie field of 2014, 2015 was a much quieter time for the genre. With the still-brewing DC Extended Universe preparing to launch its first post-"Man of Steel" titles in 2016, 2015 was dominated by Marvel adaptations, including the cursed "FANT4STIC" feature from director Josh Trank. Given the dismal reputation of that boondoggle, that leaves the title of best superhero movie of 2014 as a competition between two Marvel Cinematic Universe projects: "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and "Ant-Man." Each of these titles represents a very specific brand of Marvel Studios filmmaking. "Age of Ultron" is Marvel doing big spectacle cinema, while "Ant-Man" is more in line with the low-key comedic antics of something like "Spider-Man: Homecoming."

Between the two titles, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" has the best overall moments, many of them coming from the various Avengers taking a detour to Clint Barton's (Jeremy Renner) farmhouse. However, it's also a film plagued by an overstuffed narrative and seriously ill-conceived moments, nearly all of them revolving around Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). "Ant-Man" isn't as audacious as "Age of Ultron," and suffers from some of that movie's gender-based issues, but it's the best superhero movie of 2015 simply by being largely agreeable. Letting actors like Paul Rudd and Michael Pena be likable and funny goes a long way to mitigating other issues in your movie. Though not an all-time classic, "Ant-Man" was a pleasant bright spot in an otherwise disposable year for superhero cinema. 

2016: Captain America: Civil War

In retrospect, 2016 wasn't the best year for superhero movies. These 12 months of cinema were crammed with titles headlined by crime fighters of all shapes and sizes, but it was hard to be excited about that ubiquity given that the year's slate included films like "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," "Suicide Squad," and "X-Men: Apocalypse." Still, there were bright spots in the year, like the MCU's big superhero battle royale "Captain America: Civil War." Given how many modern entries in this franchise are criticized for being overstuffed, it's impressive in hindsight to see how well "Civil War" functions at juggling so many superheroes in one movie.

It helps that "Civil War" is simply tons of fun to watch, with figures like Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) leaping off the screen with vivid personalities in their debut appearances. While the big blow-out between members of The Avengers is an impressive sight to behold, where "Civil War" really works is in a climax that's willing to shrink down the scope to just three people. This emotionally-charged finale benefits mightily from "Civil War's" willingness to eschew the expansive conclusions of earlier Marvel Studios features like "Avengers: Age of Ultron." Not every superhero movie released in 2016 was a winner, but it's hard to look down on a year that delivered a movie as enthralling as "Captain America: Civil War."

2017: Wonder Woman

If one were to pinpoint the single best year of the 21st century for superhero movies, 2017 would have to be a strong contender for that honor. This year's slate of superhero cinema kicked off with "The LEGO Batman Movie," a high note that set the tone for the kind of audacious and superb movies that were to follow. For the rest of the year, features like "Logan," "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," and "Thor: Ragnarok" all dominated movie theaters. There was such a wide difference in tone and thematic ambitions across these projects, with this overarching level of creativity even ensuring the umpteenth big-screen take on Spider-Man, "Spider-Man: Homecoming," was a delight rather than a slog.

Across this crop of terrific superhero films, it's difficult to pick just one. However, the champion among them all has to be "Wonder Woman." Though not without some narrative hiccups, "Wonder Woman" managed to deliver a story with a real heart that didn't feel like anything else in the crowded superhero movie landscape. From the choice to set the title in World War I to its welcome willingness to stand on its own in the DC Extended Universe, "Wonder Woman" was brimming with admirable creative choices while director Patty Jenkins executed the story with polished filmmaking. Just that stirring No Man's Land sequence alone would ensure that "Wonder Woman" was the best among 2017's impressive crop of superhero features.

2018: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

It would normally feel like a bold claim to declare one particular film the greatest entry in a specific genre in the entire 21st century so far. However, it feels fairly uncontroversial to deem "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" not just the best superhero movie of 2018, but also the best superhero movie released since 2000. On visuals alone, there's just no other entry in this genre that compares to the vibrant and lively filmmaking style of "Spider-Verse." A wildly varying animation aesthetic combined with delightful hallmarks of comic books (like thought bubbles revealing the inner thoughts of characters) made "Into the Spider-Verse" at once in touch with the art of the past yet undeniably its own exciting standalone accomplishment.

The gags in "Spider-Verse" are constantly hysterical, especially lines from supporting players like Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), but there's also infinitely more heart between these characters solely realized on a computer than there is in any superhero movie anchored by flesh-and-blood humans. That "What's Up Danger" sequence alone packs an incredible emotional wallop while even throwaway lines like Spider-Man Noir's "I love you...all" inspire a lump in your throat. Such is the power of well-written characters and unabashedly embracing pathos. This year had its fair share of notable superhero movies, including the modern classic "Black Panther." But none of them could hope to compare to the artistic majesty of "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse."

2019: Avengers: Endgame

Seven years after the original "Avengers," "Avengers: Endgame" entered a world where multiple superheroes crossing over into one movie was no longer something super special or unique. This fourth entry in the "Avengers" series couldn't just rely on the sight of Thor and Captain America fighting side-by-side to carry the day. Thus, "Endgame," building directly off the ending of "Avengers: Infinity War," opted for a strange paradox: a massive epic that, thanks to time travel, spanned multiple Marvel movies but also emphasized the intimate emotional experiences of the few surviving Avengers. Trying to pull off such a tricky mixture ended up working out fantastically, especially since "Endgame" uncovered interesting new avenues to explore characters like Tony Stark. Even after a decade of these figures looming large over pop culture, a good feature like "Endgame" could still take them to new and exciting places.

Of course, once the third act arrives, "Avengers: Endgame" delivers a sprawling set-piece for the ages crammed with every conceivable Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero under the sun. It's a joyous sight made all the more exciting by how hard the movies worked up to this point to get us to care about these people and their struggles. In 2019, the likes of "Shazam!" and "Spider-Man: Far From Home" delivered lots of excitement and fun, but when it comes to picking a champion of the year ... the only choice was ever going to be "Avengers: Endgame."

2020: Birds of Prey

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down movie theaters, the original planned slate of superhero movies for 2020 never panned out. Nearly all of these titles ended up getting delayed to 2021, which whittled down the year's offerings tremendously. Even with these larger problems, the year 2020 still delivered some all-time duds in the superhero movie domain, including "Bloodshot," "The New Mutants," and the incredibly disappointing "Wonder Woman 1984." However, there was one gem of a superhero movie that dropped in this year an entire month before the pandemic changed everything. That title was none other than "Birds of Prey," a spin-off movie in the DCEU anchored by Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn.

"Birds of Prey" is a messy movie in several respects, including in a narrative that's too overstuffed for its own good. However, it's also an incredibly fun movie to watch thanks to its zippy tone built on bright colors and anarchic vibes. The performances are also a hoot, especially a hysterical supporting turn from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as The Huntress. Plus, few other modern superhero movies have delivered costumes as delightful as the ones showcased throughout "Birds of Prey." Harley Quinn's wardrobe alone makes the movie a must-see. Though not without its shortcomings (like the lack of overt on-screen depictions of queerness), "Birds of Prey" helped to inject some much-needed fun into a dreary year.

2021: The Suicide Squad

While Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn got off to an incredibly rocky start in her existence thanks to that dreadful 2016 "Suicide Squad" movie, this incarnation of the character has had much better luck in her cinematic exploits in recent years. For proof of this, just look at how Robbie's Quinn has headlined two of the best superhero movies of the last few years, including the 2021 motion picture "The Suicide Squad." Arriving in a year when the superhero movie made a major comeback to movie theaters, "The Suicide Squad" exploded past the rest largely thanks to its sheer sense of wild fun. Opening with the grisly demise of countless supervillains, "The Suicide Squad" quickly establishes an "anything goes" aura that's reinforced through a well-executed non-linear narrative and steady doses of graphic violence.

These qualities are paired with delightfully goofy and faithful interpretations of characters like King Shark or Starro, while new takes on obscure DC Comics staples like Ratcatcher and Polka-Dot Man show real creativity on the part of writer-director James Gunn. Committing to a third-act twist that implicates the American government as the real baddie behind everything that goes awry in "The Suicide Squad" only further cements this movie as something special in the modern superhero movie landscape. Plus, audiences got to experience more delightful antics from Robbie's Quinn, which is never ever a bad thing.

2022: The Batman

DC Comics movie adaptations had a rough time in the 2010s, thanks to projects like "Green Lantern" and "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice." Thankfully, this corner of the superhero movie realm has had a much better go of things in the 2020s. For crystal-clear proof of this phenomenon, just look at "The Batman," which managed to make the umpteenth live-action incarnation of Gotham City's favorite crime-fighter feel fresh and exciting. The first time Robert Pattinson took on the role of Batman, this new take on the beloved superhero opted to keep the action close to the ground, taking more cues from "Zodiac" than "The Avengers."

That approach turned out to be a stroke of genius in the hands of writer-director Matt Reeves, who really commits to a compelling mystery that drives the central plot as well as a moody atmosphere that actually feels ominous and evocative. It's also commendable that Reeves accomplished these elements while also embracing the more bombastic qualities of classic Batman baddies like Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin or even in this movie's unique interpretation of The Riddler. This was a year where superhero movies like "Morbius, "Thor: Love and Thunder," and "Black Adam" all felt like they were straining way too hard to figure out what audiences might like. By contrast, "The Batman" exhibited lots of confidence in its distinctive atmosphere. No wonder this film continued DC's recent cinematic hot streak to become the best superhero film of 2022.