25. X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)
2000’s X-Men created the superhero genre as it would continue to exist until Marvel Studios came along, but it was X2: X-Men United that showed the true potential of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creations as an allegory for misunderstood teens, while bringing Brian Cox into the mix as the slimy Dr. Frankenstein behind the tragic Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) backstory.
24. DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG (2008)
Sure, the hero in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is actually the villain and the movie’s runtime technically makes it more of a short film than a feature, but the sheer brilliance of Joss Whedon’s musical take on an aspiring supervillain (Neil Patrick Harris) vying against the heroic Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) for the affections of the quiet Penny (Felicia Day) elevates the sum beyond its parts. It’s funny, it’s stunningly well-written, and it’s the biggest reason Whedon was hired to direct The Avengers two years later.
23. SUPERMAN II (1980)
You’ll notice a theme with this list: lots of sequels. While sequels tend to be bad in other genres, superhero movies are anomalous; typically, the effort required to build a strong origin story leaves the first movie bogged down, leaving the second able to hit the ground running. Superman II was the first example of that, improving on the 1978 original in every conceivable way. Richard Donner’s Director’s Cut is actually even better, if you have the option of watching it.
22. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012)
Tobey Maguire’s original outing as the friendly neighbourhood webslinger has aged worse and worse as the years have spun on, as so much of the hype was just around the sheer existence of there finally being a Spider-Man movie (and a not-terrible one, at that). The 2012 reboot was somewhat lambasted for its sheer existence (as many saw a reset just five years after Spider-Man 3 unnecessary), but time as proven The Amazing Spider-Man to be everything Spider-Man should have been. Andrew Garfield perfectly captures the charming smart-assery of Peter Parker and Emma Stone has off-the-charts chemistry with him (due in no small part to their courting at the time). Garfield’s run as Spidey came to an end one movie later, but The Amazing Spider-Man remains a wonderful artefact of a franchise reboot that never quite come to be.
21. HANCOCK (2008)
One of the best superhero movies forgotten to time already is Peter Weir’s satire of the superhero genre, Hancock. An examination of the consequences of superheroics long before Captain America: Civil War, an unabashedly vulgar comedy long before Deadpool, and a morally corrupt super-“hero” played by Will Smith long before his turn Suicide Squad, Hancock manages the tricky task of juggling belly laugh moments with quite dark turns of the plot in the third act. It’s only gotten better with time.
20. THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998)
Many forget that Zorro’s a superhero. His literary origins may be as more of a Spanish Robin Hood, but as his serial tales grew and spread into cinema, he became a superhero in every way save for powers. (Fun fact: Zorro was Bob Kane’s inspiration for Batman.) Of the dozen or so Zorro movies, the 1998 actioner director by Martin Campbell — the man responsible for both GoldenEye and Casino Royale — took the already-popular Antonio Banderas and pushed him to superstardom, with a performance he still hasn’t topped. Catharine Zeta-Jones practically singes the screen in her scenes with Banderas.
19. THE LEGO MOVIE (2014)
Superheroes don’t always have superpowers. (And I don’t just mean Batman or Iron Man.) Sometimes, they have “super-destinies” instead. After all, a “Chosen One” can’t die (or, if they can, they can come back to life). The Chosen-One plot device had been used countless times in the century prior to The LEGO Movie, but never to such a powerful comedic effect. Thanks to above-par voice acting from Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, and Morgan Freeman, as well as incredibly clever writing and directing from Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, The LEGO Movie flies at a faster clip than most superhero movies but builds a stronger superhero movie than most any other animated film.
18. UNBREAKABLE (2000)
Regardless of the effect the upcoming Unbreakable/Split umbrella sequel will have on the larger story, the origin of David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) remains one of the greatest realistic looks at what it would be like to discover, as an adult in the real world, that you were incapable of dying. As it’s an M. Night Shyamalan movie — his immediate successor to The Sixth Sense, in point of fact — there’s of course a twist, but it’s one of the most subtle of his career. Instead of focussing too much on the ending, Shyalaman spreads his skill over a well-defined three-act structure by caring most about the characters, which makes all the difference.
17. WATCHMEN (2009)
A polarizing movie, to be sure, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the most critically acclaimed graphic novel of all time found itself trying to appeal to three audiences at once: fanboys willing to accept Snyder’s changes, fanboys with a slavish devotion to the source material who wanted a cinematic carbon, and those who knew nothing or little of the source material. Which group you fell into largely determined what you thought of the picture, but one thing Snyder can’t be deprived of is how visually sumptuous Watchmen is. It’s one of the few superhero movies that feels like a live-action comic. And assuming you don’t mind a different ending from the book — as well as an awkwardly way-too-long sex scene — it’s an experience unlike any other superhero movie.
16. HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008)
The first Hellboy was good, but like many origin stories, its sequel took all its predecessor’s best parts and blew them up in the best ways. Recent Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro has always loved bringing monsters to life, and nothing he’s done before or since did so on such a massive scale nor with such precise aplomb. Ron Perlman steals the movie as the titular demon finding himself working on a secret government task force, but even he can’t distract from all the other wonders on screen. Sure, the story could use a little tightening and the villain could be more interesting, but with visuals this mind-blowing, who cares?
15. THE MASK (1994)
Only three or four actors have ever had three massive hits in the same year, but Jim Carrey got his hat trick in 1994. Preceding showings of his watershed Ace Ventura: Pet Detective were trailers for what would be the biggest comedy that summer, The Mask. How do you take the insanely twisted Dark Horse comic books and turn it into a PG-13 comedy without making it come off watered down? You cast the manic Carrey. In the emergence of CGI, Carrey waltzed with the film’s effects artists in perfect harmony. Extra credit also has to go to the script, which isn’t afraid to get pretty dark when it does need to, and a strong supporting cast including Richard Jeni, Ben Stein, and a debuting ingénue named Cameron Diaz.
14. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)
It’s easy to give credit for X-Men: Days of Future Past‘s success to its recruitment of “the old generation” into the younger, ’70s-based cast of X-Men: First Class. As much as the teaming up of the two casts served as great marketing for the 2014 picture, though, it succeeds like so many other great superhero movies because it’s a direct sequel to an origin story. Having introduced Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) as teens in First Class, they get to interact with their older selves in a story that serves utmost as the brilliant bridge between the quite good X-Men: First Class and whatever you want to call X-Men: Apocalypse. Plus, come on, time travel.
12. (tie) THE AVENGERS (2012) & AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)
Okay, I know this is where I’ll get the most blow-back. I’ve said for three years that I believe Age of Ultron is superior to 2012’s The Avengers in more areas than it’s weaker. Whether you agree or disagree, that’s not to take anything away from the first Avengers, which was a monumental achievement in so many ways. Both movies show the power of a true supergroup (no pun intended) when coordinated by a skilled conductor. Joss Whedon went from the macrocosmic Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to a movie so large it would ultimately overtake Titanic‘s 1997 record-setting box office gross. With Ultron, he brought the most intimidating and dangerous enemy the MCU has yet encountered into the so-far 18-deep franchise. (How do you defeat an enemy with no permanent body and wireless capabilities?) As well, having already established the interpersonal relationshpis in his first Avengers, Whedon afforded himself more enjoyable and complex character dynamics the second time around. Both were ultimately set-ups for larger arcs in Marvel’s sprawling, galactic tale, but neither settled for being only that.
11. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
How do you follow a movie as big as The Dark Knight? After Christopher Nolan took one of his personal sojourns with Inception, he returned for his Gotham swan song by doubling down on every stake and daring to hypothesize that Spider-Man 3‘s problem wasn’t a surfeit of plotlines but simply a director not up the task of juggling them. Somehow, despite a bloated runtime, a huge cast, and the looming shadow of its game-changing predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises is still one of the strongest movies to come out of the DC stable — thanks entirely to a director up to the task.