Geek Cinema: The Top Ten Greatest Superhero Movies of All Time!!
Oct 5, 2012 by     25 Comments    Posted In: Columns, Geek Cinema

Top 10Have you ever tried to make a Top Ten list? A real one, not one of those awesome jokey Dave Letterman ones. It’s hard. It’s really freaking hard. I bring this up in advance because, hey, I tried to do it here, and there are some films that I love that I just didn’t have room for on the list. I don’t regret leaving them off, because if I did regret it, they would have been on it. But ten’s the limit, and sacrifices had to be made. So instead of decrying what’s NOT on the list, I suggest we do the following: let us raise a glass and toast our collective fanbase. How lucky we are to live in a day and age where there are so many film adaptations of the characters we love! This list is not meant to be divisive; rather, it is a celebration of our united victory! A joyous dance of –

Ah, screw it. I don’t mean any of that. As I’m just begging to get flamed here, I might tell it like it is: this list is, as of September 27th 2012, the positive, without a doubt, top-ten-best-superhero-films-of-all-time-no-matter-WHAT-you-say list! Disagree? Let me hear it below, in the comments! I mean, you’re wrong, but let me hear it anyway!


10.) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

This movie really should have been terrible, as proved by most (all) of its sequels. And I’m going to allow it: Corey Haim (or was it Feldman?) as the voice of Donatello is an acquired taste. What’s amazing, though, is that even though the Turtles were the 80’s/90’s mega-franchise they were because of the cartoon show and toy line, this, their first big-screen extravaganza, had a lot more in common with the Mirage Studios comic than it did with the far more popular Saturday morning (and weekday afternoon) TV spin-off. The plot was lifted fairly directly from the first volume of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s black-and-white book, with a few of the more recognizable elements of the cartoon series (colored masks, reporter April, bloodless combat) mixed in for brand appeal. But the fighting is boss, as are the costumes (although as the Turtles are creations of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop this should surprise nobody), and the only word to describe it, really, is… cowabunga. (Heh heh heh. I made a funny.)

9.) X-Men: First Class (2011)

Of the five X-films, three are unqualified successes, and of those three, X-Men: First Class earns the highest grade. (See what I did there?) It’s an unlikely success: the franchise was coming off of the back-to-back disappointments of X3 and Origins, the film was named after a comic book to which it bore no resemblance, the cast was devoid of stars, and the hero and villain roster was devoid of big-name characters. This freedom, though, looks to have proven liberating for director Matthew Vaughn and company; First Class weaves a compelling story of the early friendship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, a friendship ultimately cleaved in two by the differing ideologies that drive them to take on the mantles of Professor X and Magneto, respectively. James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto elevate the material above the usual tired metaphors that drive the X-mythos, with healthy assists from Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw and future Hunger Games icon Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. Vaughn manages the rare achievement amongst comic book films: he claims a definitive moment in the mythology of a wildly popular franchise as his own. No comic to date has outdone this retelling of the Xavier/Magneto friendship, and at this point no comic should bother trying.

8.) Batman: The Movie (1966)

All right, hold on. Let’s not sweep Adam West and Burt Ward’s Batman under the Bat-carpet just yet. You know how comic book fans always want movies that are JUST LIKE their beloved comics? Well, lest we forget: the 60’s Batman TV show and film were an almost perfect tonal match to the Batman comic books of the day. You could argue, in fact, that team West was actually putting out a Bat-product better and smarter than any Batman comic on the newsstands in the mid-60’s. For all the shots Batman: The Movie takes from today’s legion of comic book snobs, this is a film that combines scenery-devouring performances by some of the day’s leading character actors with surprisingly biting satire of 1960’s social and political culture, in what was the first ever full-length motion picture based on published comic book characters. Hopefully we’ve all gotten over ourselves enough that we can all Batusi together and give Batman: The Movie its due.

7.) The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Crotch-chop, haters! ASM was the biz-omb!

6.) Watchmen (2009)

This one’s for you, J-Mart: Watchmen, while arguably an inferior product to its comic book source material (arguably), is one hell of a movie. Pitch-perfect casting? Check. Compelling direction by a remarkable visual stylist? Check. Loyal adherence in adaptation to one of the top 100 novels, graphic or otherwise, of all time? Check. A superior ending to its comic book counterpart? Hell, check. (Take that, squid lovers.) The Watchmen movie is a gritty deconstruction of superhero films in the aughts just as the Watchmen comic was a gritty deconstruction of superhero comics of the 1980’s; the use in the film’s initial promotional push of the Smashing Pumpkin’s juxtapositional B-side to “The End is the Beginning is the End” (their Grammy-winning anthem from 1997’s Batman and Robin) illustrated that as well as anything, showing comics fans that Warner Bros., or at least director Zack Snyder, “got it”. The final product bore this out: Watchmen is just as violent, divisive, poignant, and dystopian in cinematic form as it was in printed pulp, and though development hell threatened to swallow the spirit of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbon’s masterpiece, Watchmen arrived on-screen with its soul fully intact. Glowing blue space dongs and all.

5.) Unbreakable (2000)

The greatest thing, I think, about initially seeing Unbreakable in the movie theatre was that it was M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to his wildly successful (and really, really good) The Sixth Sense, and therefore going into the film one expected a straight-up supernatural thriller, and not what ultimately unspooled in theatres across America: one of the best damn superhero origin stories ever written. Bruce Willis’ Unbreakable and Sam Jackson’s Mr. Glass go at it like a pulp-classic hero/villain pairing, without the audience or even Willis’ character realizing that’s exactly who they are and what they’re doing. Additionally, It’s the only superhero movie that pulls off the whole “Hey aren’t comic books AWESOME!” thing without making me want to punch myself in the nose. This is one superhero flick for which I think we’re all better off without a sequel, because the mystery of Unbreakable’s origin is far more interesting, I think, than would be the light-of-day square off between he and Mr. Glass. Also, every film Shyamalan’s done since belongs in a steaming pile of dog mess, so wishing that another had existed seems a fool’s errand.

4.) Iron Man (2008)

Sometimes a movie wins points just for sneaking up behind you and repulsor-beaming you in the tuchus. Such is the case with Iron Man, the best of Marvel Studio’s pre-Avengers prequels. Yes, it had beautiful armor design for both the Mark I and Mark II. Yes, it introduced the everyman agent we all know and love, Phil Coulson. Yes, all the Iron Man necessities are present and accounted for: war imprisonment, weapons manufacturing, a hard-partying billionaire turned superhero, Happy Hogan, Pepper Potts, Jarvis (or J.A.R.V.I.S., as it were)… but the thing tying it all together is the most inspired of Marvel Studio’s Avengers casting choices: the charismatic Robert Downy, Jr. as Tony Stark, Iron Man’s alter-ego, delivering a performance upon which all versions of the character since have been based, whether in animated or comic book form. If there has ever been a more obvious case of an actor grabbing hold of a comic book icon, huddling in the corner with it, and screaming “MINE! MINE!” at anyone who dared draw near (like those seagulls in Finding Nemo? They were awesome) I can’t think of it. In fact, I am willing to put American cash money on the following statement: without Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, the entire Avengers film franchise never gets off the ground. Okay, well, yes, maybe it would have. But it would have been far less sassy.

3.) The Incredibles (2004)

The Incredibles is the best Fantastic Four movie ever made. That’s not just a joke; no less than Stan Lee recognized the similarities between his iconic comic and this tale of a family of four superheroes made up of the stretchy one, the big strong one, the invisible girl (wow, they didn’t even TRY to hide that) and the hotheaded…. speedster. (Okay, three and a half out of four is still a lot of near-infringement. Oh, c’mon. Nobody ever counts Jack-Jack.) Which shows you what a good freaking movie The Incredibles must be to not ever get dismissed as just some FF knock-off. As with most Pixar films, The Incredibles is about so much more than what’s happening across its super-glossy surface: coping with the memory of glory days gone by, the strains of a marriage surrendered to reluctant complacency, the frustration of being gifted, the fear of being different, and the importance of family. Most animated films would have been happy tackling just that last one, but not an animated film helmed by Brad Bird, the man who gave us The Iron Giant. On top of all of that, The Incredibles is slick, exciting, funny, and flat-out fun, and there ain’t nothing wrong with any of that.

2.) The Dark Knight (2008)

Think of how many Batman stories there have been. Think of how many times he’s gone up against the Joker. Now think of this: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight must be in the conversation for the greatest Joker story every told. It must be in the conversation for the greatest Batman story ever told. That is how good this film is. One’s initial viewing of The Dark Knight is breathtaking, heart-thumping, edge-of-your-seat theatre from the moment the Joker drops a faux-Batman into the plate glass window of Gotham’s mayor. From then on we’re treated to a genuine auteur’s handling of Batman’s arch-nemesis, and Nolan’s take on the Clown Prince rests on this principle: the Joker is not a man. The Joker is a storm, a force of nature, chaos unleashed. There is no logic to his actions, nothing predictable to what he’ll do next, and so there is nothing predictable in the unfolding plot of the film’s plot. Nolan’s reality-bound Batman seems helpless at times against the near-supernatural force of the Joker, and as all great storytellers know, that’s when we most love our heroes: when they seem most likely to lose. The Dark Knight, ultimately, is the tale of good men who are thrown into relentless darkness, lose their way, lose their souls, and emerge with only a hollow victory to show for their troubles. And it is brilliant. And it is epic. And Batman has never seemed darker, or more of a knight.

1.) Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Since my initial review of Marvel’s The Avengers, I’ve seen the movie two more times. Guess what: it was just as good each of those two times as it was the first go-around. The Avengers is the epitome of what we’ve been waiting for in our comic book films; as I said in my earlier review, it does absolutely nothing (NOTHING) wrong, and is the most like watching a really, really good Marvel superhero comic unfold onscreen as anything we could have possibly hoped for. You just want the actors, all wonderfully cast, to be frozen in time like their pen-and-ink counterparts and trotted out every three years or so over the next fifty years to share in adventure after adventure this good and this grand. Will the subsequent Avengers sequels (as well as the sequels for team’s individual members) be able to top this culminating installment? That’s a tall order. It’s rare that so many things go so well in a project that just should not work, but Joss Whedon and crew pulled it off, bringing us big-screen superheroics the likes of which we had never seen before, and may never see again. Assemble, indeed.

Tom Hoefner
(@TomHoefner on Twitter) is a playwright, theatre director, college professor, and would-be novelist living in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. Tom’s next article will be the one that must be written: his explanation as to why Superman: The Movie was left off this list.

Check out “From the Casefiles of Race and Cookie McCloud”, a blog of super-short stories chronicling the adventures of Race McCloud, Private Eye, and his 15-year old former-secret-agent-in-training niece Cookie:

0.) Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)

No cinematic release means ROTJ didn’t make the list proper (though I’m not sure I would have ranked it higher than eleven, anyway) but it deserve props for a couple of reasons: 1.) Mark Hamill 2.) Kevin Conroy 3.) It made Batman Beyond more awesome than it had any right to be. 4.) Most importantly, it puts a dark but wonderful cap on the mythology of the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series mythos. I’ll soon have an article up on how B:TAS defined Batman for an entire generation of Bat-fans, but until that time this is a fitting hat tip to the successful melding (and closing) of two franchises in one, a colorful, lively story that brings together the best of modern-day Gotham City, and beyond.


25 Comments Add Comment

  • Tyray October 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    The Dark knight Rises best superhero movie ever.
    vote here
    Dark knight vs Dark knight Rises

  • Shawn October 6, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    Nice to see TMNT (90), Unbreakable, The Incredibles & Watchmen on here. Haven’t seen the ASM, but I’m not sure you could put over Raimi’s original. Love it or hate it, it’s primarily responsible for the super hero film boom of the past ten years. Personally I would have put X2 over First Class, but they’re both so great it’s a toss up. Looking forward to the Superman The Movie article, as I was shocked at its omission.

  • Danny D October 6, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    This entire list is a travesty! A travesty I tell you! Grr! Down with the proletariat! This is a mockery of justice! This… oh, it’s just a movie list? Never mind.

    Most of the entries here are pretty good. Some odd inclusions, like “Batman: The Movie”, but I’m not really arguing it’s placement here. “First Class” is the best X-Men movie ever, and The Avengers certainly deserved a place in the top 2. I wholeheartedly agree with TMNT, as I think it was a great blending of the cartoon and the Mirage books, and it’s a movie I still enjoy to this day. I do have a problem with Watchmen though. I really disliked this glorified book on tape, which REREAD THE ENTIRE GRAPHIC NOVEL TO ME AT $12/TICKET ($19.99 on BluRay/DVD). With such a faithful adaptation, I feel like the movie’s just going through the motions to get from one story beat to the other, because that’s how the book does it. I feel like it lacks soul (although, as Messer Hoefner pointed out, so does the book). Anyway, I’m not a fan of the frame for frame graphic novel recreation that is Snyder’s Watchmen.

    Also, although as an origin, “Amazing Spider-Man” is a better movie overall than Raimi’s original, I still feel “Spider-Man 2″ is a superior movie. Tom just hates Kirsten Dunst THAT much. Also, I wonder if Nolan’s Batman movies should have been included as one whole trilogy, as that’s basically what it is… one long ass movie.

    I’m actually not too shocked about the omission of “Superman: The Movie” from this list, mostly because I know of the author’s disdain for that movie’s effects (they were great in 1978, okay, Hoefner? OKAY?!). I look forward to arguing his entire article as to why this movie was excluded, as I consider it one of the best superhero movies of all time (and one of my favorite movies of all time).

  • Mike V October 6, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    I love that the Ninja Turtles made the list Kingston would have a problem though since they weren’t number one. I’m on the same level with Danny about Watchmen I had to scroll up 3 times to even remember the name of that monstrosity. 2 Batmans on there and not the one from 1989 with Jack Nicholson I dunno about that. The Avengers are a good look at #1 though and you have my support for that.

  • Jason Martin October 7, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Dark Knight Rises over TDK. TDK is boring….

    Love TMNT being on the list. It’s just dark enough that it’s entertaining to adults, and has enough comedy kids are entertained.

    Some notable movies you left off.

    Hellboy: great, great film with top notch acting. (including Hellboy 2 which had Del Toro directing, so of course it was awesome.)

    V for Vendetta: another movie with superior acting.

  • Tim Morse October 8, 2012 at 8:28 am

    For the top 10 greatest superhero movies of all time, you almost have to include Superman: The Movie. That movie showed that not only could it be about a comic book and not suck, but it could also be a serious movie too, and not suck. From being a kid watching this movie, up to today, it makes me proud to see Superman fly on screen.

    Another one that should have been on this list (and I’ll probably lose my geek cred for this), Ang Lee’s Hulk. It is not a terrible movie, and in the sense of Superman being more of a love story than a bang ‘em up superhero flick, Hulk was a tragic love story, and it was done very well. Whatever anyone’s feelings aside, I cherish it as an unsung comic movie that didn’t add up to hardcore fanboy’s expectations. You may start slinging stones now.

    Spider-Man 2 is a must also. ;)

  • TomH October 8, 2012 at 10:58 am

    One thing that I have to point out, and it came up in a conversation I had with @DannyD pre-list, is that this is not a list of the most INFLUENTIAL superhero movies of all time. So “inspiring” other movies or being the impetus for the production of other movies was not going to get a film on this list. I just picked the films I thought were the best, most entertaining straight-up superhero stories ever committed to film

    I’ll offer more specifics in a later post. I just wanted to point that out at the moment.

  • Shawn Tracy October 8, 2012 at 11:53 am

    @Tom, I see what you’re saying about influential movies vs movies that you thought were the best, but movies that are influential are usually great films counted among the best of their genre.

  • Danny D October 8, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    @Shawn – I agree with what you’re saying too, that influence on others might have an affect on a movie’s ranking on “Greatest of all time”. But let’s be fair here: “X-Men” by Bryan Singer in 2000 is important in the current rise of superhero comic book films because it took characters that weren’t already international icons and made a profitable movie that people enjoyed, but I’d be hard pressed content-wise to include it on my “greatest of all time” list. It’s an enjoyable movie, and I certainly thought it was great at the time, but 12 years later, my sensibilities have changed, as well as my expectations on what we’d be able to see in a superhero flick. So “X-Men” went from “that’s cool!” to “eh, it’s okay”. But there’s absolutely no denying it’s influence on the current state of superhero movies. Without “X-Men”, we’d probably not have all the comic book flicks, good or bad, that we have today. So its influence is there, but I don’t know a lot of people who’d put it on the “greatest” list.

  • Jason Newcomb October 8, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    “Super” starting Raine Wilson and Ellen Page is better than all of these.

    So, there.

    Also, The Watchmen GN has no soul? What the hell?! Did you read it while high on valium and airplane glue?!

  • Richard October 8, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    I think my list would be
    v for vendetta
    road to perdition
    iron man
    amazing spider-man
    x-men first class
    the dark knight

  • TomH October 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    Couple of things:

    @Richard – Not a bad list. I’d take off “V for Vendetta” and “Road to Perdition”, because I don’t consider them superhero movies.

    @Newcomb – Haven’t seen “Super”, so I’ll plead the fifth.

    @Timmy – I don’t like “Hulk”, and rightfully so. And “Superman” doesn’t earn a spot on this list because it’s the first serious approach to on-film superheroes… but I’ll get to that later in the week. And I’ve soured on just about the whole Raimi “Spider-Man” trilogy, to be honest.

    @JMart – Thought about “Hellboy”. I don’t like it as much as I like any of those I included, though I do like it a lot. As stated below, “V for Vendetta” isn’t a supehero movie. It’s a movie about terrorism and fascism (although I suppose you could argue all superhero movies are about that on some metaphorical level.) And I think “The Dark Knight Rises” is a GREAT film. Much like “Batman Begins”. I’ve only used one film from a series as representative of the entire series, but truthfully I wouldn’t put those two films above any of the ten on this list. And when you call “The Dark Knight” boring, you sound like you’re just trying to be different. Not your favorite? Okay. Boring? You’re on crack.

    @Mike – I like “Batman Returns” more than the Nicholson “Batman”, actually…

    @Danny – … well, we’ve already talked at length.

    @Shawn – “X2″ vs. “First Class” was indeed a coin flip. It’s the one thing I wonder if I got wrong. I go back and forth on it. Both are great movies.

    @Tyray – Thanks for spamming!

    One more thing: I didn’t put “Superman Returns” on the list, I realized after the fact. Which is okay, because it sucks. Hard.

  • RHComics October 9, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    this is a dangerous game

  • Chip Reece October 9, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    X2 is much better than First Class. First Class was fun and silly, but the extremely cheesy Beast almost ruined it for me. I will give that it probably revived a dying franchise.

    I’m not ready to give “best of” status to ASM until I see it again. I was left underwhelmed after one viewing.

    Good call on Unbreakable and Incredibles. Love both of those, and I don’t think they get near enough credit!

  • Tom Hoefner October 9, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    @Chip – What seals “First Class” for me is that it takes that Magneto/Charles story and makes it its own. It defines a pivotal moment in “X-Men” lore, moreso than any comic ever did. “X2″ is fantastic… but it’s a fantastic adaptation of stuff that we saw done just as well in the comic book, IMO.

    And I LOOOOOVED “The Amazing Spider-Man”. My opinion is a lonely one. Haters gon’ hate.

  • Tom Hoefner October 9, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    @RHComics – Hockey stick.

  • Jason Martin October 10, 2012 at 9:41 am

    @Tom – I’m not “trying to be different” about TDK. I find the last 30 minutes or so, boring. They could have cut out all the Two-Face sub-plot and had a far superior movie.

  • Chip Reece October 10, 2012 at 11:58 am

    @Tom: I see what you’re saying. Yes, the Magneto/Charles story was quite an excellent part of that movie.

  • JohnRofls October 10, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Bump for Super! That movie was shocking, had a great comic book feel to it, and most importantly couldn’t have worked in any other medium than film. What better qualification for judging a super hero movie than by the fact that the story HAD to be told on film. Several of these movies were BETTER in comic book format.

    Also, HOW is TMNT better than TMNT 2: Secret of the Ooze? I know the critics favored the first one, but I really feel that TMNT 2 was seriously underrated. (And on that note everyone on here is inspired to have a TMNT movie marathon.

  • Tim Morse October 10, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    I’m gonna bust out my TMNT VHS tapes! Yeeeeeaaahhhh!!!

  • TomH October 10, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    @JohnRofls – Because in TMNT 2, the Turtles beat Super Shredder by standing around and doing nothing while he dropped a pier on himself. Also, Vanilla Ice. And Vanilla Ice. Plus, don’t forget about Vanilla Ice.

  • Chip Reece October 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Ninja, Ninja, Rap!

    I think I may have a TMNT marathon!

  • James Archer October 13, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Not a bad list at all. For me it would probably be:

    The Avengers
    Iron Man
    Amazing Spider-Man
    The Dark Knight
    Iron Man 2
    Captain America: The First Avenger
    Spider-Man 2

    Yep, I like the Avenger movies :P I definitely agree about putting Dark Knight above Rises as I found that film incredibly boring in comparison.

    I think Hugh Jackman does an awesome Wolverine, but none of the X-Men movies stand out to me as being spectacular – X2 was the one I enjoyed the most, with it’s inclusion of Nightcrawler, and my favourite overall plot. I really enjoyed Origins: Wolverine, but that was when I was new to actual comic books, and it wasn’t until I realised how wrong they’d gotten Deadpool that I understood the hate.

    Spider-Man 2 was the peak of Raimi’s saga for me, but Spider-Man 3 retrospectively spoiled the whole trilogy for me. Regardless, I found Garfield’s Spider-Man to be much closer to the comics, and much more enjoyable in general. Can’t wait to get it on DVD next month.

  • Neil October 18, 2012 at 10:35 am

    Cool list! About Superman (Reeves of course) I caught the first hour of that movie the other day and it still draws me in. Its not about the effects for me so much as Ma and Pa Kent and how Brando says Krypton (Kryptin lol). It is really tough to make a movie list and I for one thought it was great to see the Adam West batman on here. Loved it growing up. T-U-R-T-L-E POWER!

  • Michael May 2, 2013 at 12:28 am

    No Blade movies? I also loved Amazing Spider-Man, a real enjoyable movie.
    Now that Iron Man 3 is out, where would you rank that? I’d have to say it was one of the best super hero movies I’ve seen.