Rolling Stone


From origin stories to end games, Caped Crusaders to Spider-Men — our picks for the greatest superhero films to grace the big screen


1 Black Panther 2018

Ryan Coogler’s tale of T’Challa — part-time Avenger, full-time regent of the fictional African empire known as Wakanda — is more than just the crown jewel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an old-school epic that combines widescreen thrills with a glorious, gorgeous Afro-futurist aesthetic and genuine moral gravitas; it proved that you could successful­ly fuse a filmmaker’s sensibilit­y into the MCU without compromisi­ng the corporate bottom line; and it gave us a Shakespear­ean tragedy in comicbook cosplay, complete with a conflicted hero (rest in peace and power, Chadwick Boseman) and a multilayer­ed villain (Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger). Most of all, it proved that superhero movies could be about something more than just entertainm­ent — they could reflect, refract, and represent the real world around us while still transporti­ng us to some other place entirely. They could be more than just a rollercoas­ter ride. They could, in fact, be cinema.

Wakanda forever.

2 SpiderMan 2 2004

Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man was going to feature both the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus; instead, he saved Doc Ock for this masterpiec­e of a sequel, where the filmmaker’s ultra-sincere approach to the material was firing on all cylinders — from Spidey’s crisis of confidence to Alfred Molina as

Peter Parker’s tragic, mecha-tentacled foe. The subway train fight (and its aftermath) remains one of the genre’s single most satisfying, emotional set pieces to date.

3. Logan 2017

In the 1980s, comicbook creators like Frank Miller helped define a mode of adult superhero storytelli­ng, with noir-ish, ultraviole­nt stories set in something like the real world. James Mangold's magnificen­t Logan managed to bring that same approach into the movies, complete with a gloomy, dystopian, decapitati­on-packed take on the last days of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Nodding to classic Westerns, it depicts a notaltoget­her-unfamiliar future world where superheroi­c and American dreams are dying out together. And Patrick Stewart's chilling performanc­e of the world’s most powerful mind addled by dementia should’ve gotten him award nomination­s.

4. Avengers: Endgame 2019

If you saw this final chapter to the “Infinity Stones” saga on opening weekend, odds are the audience response to the return of T'Challa, Spider-Man, and every other hero Thanos turned to dust was the loudest you’d ever heard in a movie theater. That’s the benefit of Avengers: Endgame acting as the equivalent of a season finale to a long, complicate­d, enormously entertaini­ng narrative over a decade in the making. It gathers a number of MCU OGs together for one last hurrah, and that epic final battle against Thanos is one chill-inducing story beat after another.

5. Superman 1978

Yes, it was the movie that made you believe a man could fly. Yet the greatest special effect in Richard Donner’s big-bang event for the genre simply involves Christophe­r Reeve removing his glasses, straighten­ing his posture, and letting audiences see how a clumsy nerd named Clark Kent transforms into the Man of Steel. Such is the magic of Reeve’s performanc­e in both halves of the role — not to mention Margot

Kidder’s pitch-perfect Lois Lane and Gene Hackman’s brilliant Lex Luthor. This is the superhero film that started it all.

6. SpiderMan: Into the Spider-Verse 2018

This animated addition to the Spider-Man universe — make that universes, plural — is bursting with color, imaginatio­n, and Spider-Men . . . and women...and a wall-crawling pig.

It’s complicate­d yet never hard to follow, as Afro-Puerto Rican graffiti artist Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) inherits the Spidey mantle. The teen soon meets his peers from across parallel realities, voiced by everyone from Jake Johnson to Hailee Steinfeld to, yes, Nicolas Cage. Together, they must cross their webstrands and save the multiverse. A dazzlingly new take on a very old story.

7 The Dark Knight 2008

“You either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” The second in Christophe­r Nolan’s game-changing Batman trilogy still centers around Christian Bale’s moody, brooding Caped Crusader. But it’s Heath Ledger’s Joker — played as a stabby late-period Tom Waits, both funny and nightmare-inducing — that truly elevates this into the superhero-movie canon. And scenes like Batman’s vertiginou­s Hong Kong building assault help achieve Nolan’s stated goal of beating the Bond franchise.

8. Thor: Ragnarok 2017

Director Taika Waititi pushed the MCU’s usual self-deprecatin­g humor to its limit and beyond, unlocking a comedic flair that Chris Hemsworth had never shown in his previous Thor films. It’s both a perfect addition to the series’ mythical tales of gods and monsters and a general skewering of the pomposity of the entire franchise — not to mention that Mr. Waititi was very much getting his money’s worth for the rights to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”

9 Wonder Woman 2017

Gal Gadot radiates benevolenc­e as the title character — an Amazonian princess armed with a lasso of truth and an unbreakabl­e moral compass — in a way that no actor had managed in a superhero movie since Christophe­r Reeve. And the World War I setting of Patty Jenkins’ film helps familiar tropes feel fresh, as does the simple fact that a female superhero was finally getting a great movie of her own. The no-man’sland battle scene, with Wonder Woman’s costume practicall­y glowing against the gray backdrop as she deflects bullets and pummels soldiers, is indelible.

10. Iron Man 2008

Tony Stark and his customized metallic suit may have been around since the beginning of Marvel’s heyday, but outside of the comics, you could say he was a bit of a pop-culture nobody. The only reason he was given his own movie was because Marvel had sold away the rights to Spider-Man and the X-Men. Not to mention that Robert Downey Jr.’s career had seen better days. But the wisecracki­ng combinatio­n of actor and role turned out to be perfect blockbuste­r alchemy, paving the way for the MCU to establish the dominant movie franchise of modern times. Not to mention the jaw-dropping post-credits appearance of Nick Fury, which suggested we’d only just scratched this cinematic universe’s surface.

11 The Incredible­s 2004

Brad Bird’s first Pixar movie is a dual homage to the Ozzie and Harriet- style sitcoms of the Fifties and the sleek, cool spy movies of the Sixties — not to mention that it’s a great addition to superhero toons, with its sly, funny riff on a Fantastic Four-style group as a near-dysfunctio­nal nuclear family. The retro look and primo action sequences add to the fun, but it’s the voice work — Holly Hunter and Craig T. Nelson as Ma and Pa Incredible; Samuel L. Jackson as fellow crime fighter Frozone (“Honey! Where’s my supersuit!?!”); Bird himself as the Anna Wintour avatar/world’s greatest costume designer Edna Mode; and Jason Lee as a megalomani­acal supervilla­in nursing a long-held grudge — that really makes this shine.

12. Spider-Man: Homecoming 2017

Tom Holland’s cameo as your friendly neighborho­od Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War (2016) suggested he’d bring something fresh to the Marvel icon; his first solo joint as the webslinger confirmed it. This next-gen Spidey updates the character for the MCU-crossover age, solidifiyi­ng the Sony-Disney deal that allowed him to become a major part of the MCU while channeling the Peter Parker from Stan

Lee’s origin run — all teen angst and great-responsibi­lity hand-wringing. Throw in a father-figure Iron Man and Michael Keaton’s menacing, mecha-Vulture, and you have one truly amazing superhero movie.

13. X-Men: Days of Future Past 2014

Fox’s X-Men franchise did its universe-spanning, time-traveling version of Infinity War/ Endgame well before the MCU, and Days of Future Past’s wild ambitions pay off with an epic that feels as much like a massive comic-book crossover series as any movie ever made. The film manages to effectivel­y jam together the original and youthfulre­boot versions of the X-universe characters, and even pulls off a gambit to push Mystique, played by thenwildly-in-demand Jennifer Lawrence, to the center of the story without feeling contrived.

14. Spider-Man 2002

The web-swinging scenes alone — which showed how CGI could finally let filmmakers replicate comic-book visuals onscreen for real, opening the door to an entire era — would earn this classic its spot. But even more important, Sam

Raimi understood the soap-operatic core of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation, digging in hard on the film’s central love story between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and literal girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). In the process, he gave the world an upside-down kiss that will live forever.

15 Guardians of the Galaxy 2014

Who’d have guessed a hodgepodge group of supporting characters who sprouted from an obscure decades-old sci-fi comic would become a saving grace of the Marvel universe? James Gunn brought goofy, giddy fun to this story of interstell­ar outlaws whizzing across the cosmos, led by Chris Pratt’s rakish thief Peter Quill and featuring the snarkiest raccoon ever to wield a blaster. It’s a blast, from the vintage AM radio soundtrack to banter between Pratt and a green-hued Zoe Saldana. We are all Groot.

16. Avengers: Infinity War 2018

Critics exasperate­d with the MCU’s dominance tend to overlook the uniqueness of its intertwine­d storytelli­ng — by

2018 it was already the most elaborate shared universe in cinematic history.

Yet all those hints of things to come pay off handsomely with this first part of the Russo brothers’ one-two punch, which is full of delightful

fan-service pairings (Captain America and Groot, Thor and Star-Lord, Dr. Strange and SpiderMan), humongous action sequences

(that battle in Wakanda), and genuine pathos as it becomes clear that Thanos will annihilate millions of people with a snap of his fingers. You get the sense that, for once, the bad guy

is going to win.

17. X2 2003

“Have you found them? Have you found all the mutants?" The follow-up to 2000’s X-Men features a genuinely unsettling moment in which a malevolent

Homo superior tricks Patrick Stewart’s Professor X into hunting down innocents — and that’s only one of the many masterful set pieces in this film. From the opening White House assault to the straightfr­om-the-comics sequence of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine single-handedly fighting off an armed battalion, this helped set the bar for how to do superhero sequels and potent mutant metaphors (see the “coming out” exchange) just right.

18. Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2014

The first of the Captain America sequels distinguis­hed itself by modeling its story after paranoid Seventies thrillers like Three Days of the Condor (it even cast Robert Redford as a S.H.I.E.L.D. official with some shady ulterior motives) and forcing the patriotic hero to fight against his own government — not to mention a fellow supersoldi­er straight out of his own past. (Welcome back, Bucky Barnes.) Winter Soldier proved that the MCU could fit a far wider style of stories into its big-picture sagas than just your typical good-vs.-evil parables. It also gives more screen time to some major supporting players (Black Widow, Falcon) and features some of the greatest fight scenes — dig that Cap-vs.-goons elevator melee — in any Marvel film, too.

Serious Bat-nerds view Batman: The Animated Series as the truest screen adaptation of the character, and this film spinoff makes a seriously strong case for deserving pride of place. It takes the bottomless grief of its Bruce Wayne (voiced by Kevin Conroy) seriously without making his Batman insufferab­ly grim and gritty. It has Mark Hamill — yes, that Mark Hamill — earning chilling laughs as the Joker. The era-spanning design of its Gotham City looks gorgeous on the big screen. And the introducti­on of Dana Delany as a woman from Bruce’s past sets up one of the most tragic conclusion­s to any Bat story.

20. Superman II 1980

Look, even the Man of Steel needs a break sometimes! Richard Lester’s sequel to the original finds our planet’s guardian wanting to retire to enjoy the normal life he’s earned with Lois Lane. Unfortunat­ely, he decides to call it a day right as three Kryptonian supervilla­ins break out of the Phantom Zone and try to conquer Earth. The Christophe­r Reeve-Margot KidderGene Hackman core makes it all sing, as does the focus on the relationsh­ip between Superman and the woman he loves. Also: Kneel before Zod!

21 Doctor Strange 2016

Meet Stephen Strange, former surgeon turned Master of the Mystic Arts. Benedict Cumberbatc­h lends just the right amount of wounded pride and tongue-incheek humor to the inaugural big-screen adventure of the Sorcerer Supreme, while director Scott Derrickson makes you feel like you’re watching those surreal, hallucinog­enic Steve Ditko panels from the original comics come to life. That M.C. Escher-style chase scene remains an

MCU highlight. And the character was so popular he’d end up becoming the go-to supernatur­al guest star in virtually every other Marvel movie that came after.

22. Robocop 1987

Paul Verhoeven’s merciless skewering of America’s obsession with law and order is one helluva social satire — but it’s also a superhero movie (or maybe a super-antihero movie), and a really great one at that. After Peter

Weller’s police officer in future-dystopia Detroit is murdered, he’s assembled into a cyborg that’s marketed as the cutting-edge of crime fighting. Soon, this robotic law officer begins suspecting there’s something shady going on with his corporate masters. The violence is so over-thetop that it plays like a parody of mightmakes-right comic-book morality stories, which is part of the point. We’d still buy this for a dollar!

23. Deadpool 2016

Moviegoers met

Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson way back in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Fans thought this early version of the Merc with the Mouth felt too tame, so when director Tim Miller brought the character back for his own stand-alone movie, we got to see a much more violent, way more vulgar version of the cult comic character. Ryan Reynolds inherently got why this wiseass assassin-for-hire was such a fan favorite: He’s extremely good at killing people, and he never shuts up. It leans into Wade Wilson’s obnoxious, snark-heavy bad behavior and doesn’t flinch when it comes to taking the genre into NSFW gross-out comedy territory. The result made those other “edgy” superhero movies feel like Disney cartoons by comparison.

24 Batman Returns 1992

Tim Burton’s original 1989 Batman is the more historical­ly important film, but his aggressive­ly weird sequel — including Danny DeVito as a grotesque mutant Penguin and Christophe­r Walken as a Trump-ish politician — is ultimately the more memorable movie, in particular thanks to Michelle Pfeiffer’s wonderfull­y perverse purr-formance as Catwoman. It also feels more like a Burton film than its predecesso­r, from its melancholy tone to the hints of mall-goth kink, and the weird friction between his style and the traditiona­l good-vs.-evil comic-book story helps make this stand out as a superior Caped Crusader movie.

25. The Rocketeer 1991

The bulk of the post- Batman wave of throwback pulp-hero adaptation­s ( The Shadow, The Phan

tom) were forgettabl­e, but Joe Johnston’s tale of a World War IIera pilot with a jetpack battling gangsters and Nazis is a retro delight. Has there ever been a more photogenic superhero couple than Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly? Years later, Johnston would apply a similar gee-whiz tone to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. But this tribute to the oldfashion­ed derring-do of 1930s serials, i.e., the original superhero movies, got there first.

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Bale and Ledger (from top)
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Incredible­s, assemble!
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Bautista Dave
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Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan
Elizabeth Olsen, Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan
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Conroy Reynolds
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