Since the turn of the 21st century, superhero movies have rapidly evolved into the most anticipated theatrical events year after year. By the 2010s there were multiple superhero movies being released in a calendar year, to the point where studios were pitting their own comic book universes against each other at the box office. Having always dominated the ticket sales, superhero movies have now become critically acclaimed pieces of filmmaking that frequent yearly top 10 lists. With costumed crime fighters now dominating Hollywood, let’s take a look at the films that are not only classics and/or masterpieces, but also hold the most influence in the superhero genre.
It is certainly fitting that Superman, the first superpowered crime-fighter, was the first to receive his own big-screen blockbuster (and subsequent franchise). At the tail end of one of the most influential decades in film, Superman had an ambitious vision in an age before superhero movies were sure-fire box office hits. It was the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release, with a $55 million budget that seems very modest by today’s standards. However, it grossed $300 million and was praised for its special effects and storyline that stayed faithful to the hero’s comic book roots, and was nominated for three Academy Awards. Superman was groundbreaking in every way and laid down the blueprint for its entire genre, but it took well over a decade for the superhero movie phenomenon to gain a firm hold on audiences.
By the turn of the millennium, Hollywood had finally begun to invest in several superhero movies; and though earlier releases were financial hits, they had struggled to maintain the critical appeal of the Superman franchise. Tim Burton’s Batman franchise started out strong but quickly became a laughable mess, and while Marvel entered the scene in the late ’90s with Blade, it was more of an action/horror hybrid than a straightforward superhero movie. But Blade’s success inspired the comic book giant to invest in their more well-known characters, and their famous team of mutants were the first to be brought to theatres in the year 2000. A critical and commercial hit, X-Men could easily be considered the first modern superhero movie and foreshadowed Marvel’s eventual dominance over the genre. Moreso, the movie and its sequels showcased the ability to center a storyline around an entire team of heroes, laying the groundwork for eventual crossovers like The Avengers and Justice League. It also established the importance of casting for superhero movies, with Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Patrick Stewart (Professor X), and Ian McKellen (Magneto) being perfect for their roles.
SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
The first half of the 2000s saw the beginning of superhero movies becoming a bonafide global phenomenon. While several quality pictures had been released, they were still not considered to be quite in the conversation of respectable cinema, despite widespread acclaim and awards for similar movies such as Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That all changed during the summer of 2004 when Spider-Man 2 took the box office and the critics by storm. Spider-Man 2 was the first superhero movie that you had to see. Not only did it deliver all the action-packed heroics for a summer blockbuster, but it is arguably the first modern movie in the genre to have an added focus on narrative, acting, and production quality. It captured all the drama of both Spidey and Peter Parker’s lives without feeling convoluted and demonstrated that the best superhero movies often let the villains steal the show. Even after a lackluster sequel and two-and-a-half reboots, Spider-Man 2 remains the most formidable of the wall-crawler’s outings.
THE INCREDIBLES (2004)
The year 2004 truly was a turning point for superhero movies. Four months after the release of the aforementioned Spider-Man 2, Disney and Pixar released what was and probably still stands as the most ambitious superhero film of all time: The Incredibles. Not only was it the first theatrically-released superhero movie to be a fully animated feature, but Pixar also abandoned the popular route of adapting famous comic book characters and opted to create their own entire superpowered universe for the film. Nonetheless, The Incredibles was heavily infused with comic book traditions and expanded the concept of a superpowered household juggling heroics with common family dilemmas. It created an entirely new avenue for the genre, which opened the door for movies like Big Hero 6 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, as well as its own sequel.
IRON MAN (2008)
If 2004 is the year that superhero movies cemented their position on the Hollywood scene, then 2008 was the beginning of their revolution over the entire industry. Said revolution was actually rather quiet and started with a hero who was far from a household name but quickly established himself as one of the most bankable characters in box office history. Marvel bet the house on a relative unknown with Iron Man but must have known that Tony Stark’s huge personality (thanks to Robert Downey Jr.’s career-reviving performance) would kickstart the most impressive cinematic franchise ever. Iron Man chose to reflect the evolving world by focusing on a hero who used advanced technology over supernatural wonders, which became an overarching theme for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony Stark’s lasting success also opened the door for other unsung characters in comics to get their chance at praise and recognition (e.g., Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Shazam, etc.).
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Call me crazy, but no matter how captivating or innovative they are, it seems that every newly released superhero movie is still chasing The Dark Knight. Vastly improving on the already-stellar Batman Begins, no superhero movie raised the bar higher for the rest of the genre more than Christopher Nolan’s second Batman feature. Powered by an unrelenting narrative and legendary performances, The Dark Knight is as close to cinematic perfection as it gets. Batman and his gallery of rogues were a flawless vehicle for Nolan’s vision, and his emphasis on intense realism changed the way audiences perceived superhero movies as societal commentary. Most importantly, The Dark Knight was the first superhero movie since Superman to be widely recognized in the awards circuit and was nominated for an unprecedented eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film won two Oscars for Best Sound Editing and a posthumous Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker.
Two of the biggest critiques that fall upon superhero movies are that they often take themselves too seriously and must hinder the maturity of their content to the PG-13 landscape. Enter the long-overdue Deadpool, which was the first film starring a major superhero to get the R-rated treatment. An instant smash with comic book geeks and casual fans alike, the movie managed to balance a nonsequential narrative with comedy, action, and romance, something that had led many previous superhero movies to fall flat on their face. There is perhaps no superhero movie truer to the comics than Deadpool, as every raunchy, self-aware aspect of Merc with the Mouth is brought to life in his film adaptation. He breaks the fourth wall, he makes pop culture references that may not even exist in his universe, and he leaves his enemies with blade and bullet wounds instead of at the steps of the police station. You would have to do some strong convincing to suggest to me that Ryan Reynolds isn’t actually Deadpool. Perhaps the film’s biggest triumph is that it proved an R-rated superhero movie could be a critical and commercial success. And as he himself so eloquently put it in the sequel, Wade Wilson is why we got the Wolverine movie we always deserved (not to mention Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker).
WONDER WOMAN (2017)
It’s rather astounding that it took so long for the industry’s leading lady to get her own movie. One of the oldest characters in all of comics (she debuted way back in 1941, twenty years before Spider-Man and the X-Men), Wonder Woman finally got her well-deserved shine in easily the best movie of the DC Extended Universe. It was the first superhero movie with a female lead since the critically panned Catwoman and Elektra movies from the early 2000s, and the first to feature a female director. Wonder Woman finds Princess Diana of Themyscira intervening in WWII where she shows that a feminine touch can make all the difference in battle, and examines the greater theme of a woman’s place in a world run by men. The action scenes are some of the best in any superhero movie, and it looks as if Gal Gadot is going to be the face of the DC movie empire for the foreseeable future. It also pushed the initiative for Marvel and other comic companies to start prioritizing their female characters in movies, as evidenced by Captain Marvel and the upcoming Black Widow. The sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, has faced a series of delays but is currently slated for October 2nd, 2020.
BLACK PANTHER (2018)
Arguably the most culturally relevant superhero movie ever, Black Panther exceeded its own high expectations and arrived with an impact like no other in 2018. After being introduced in Captain America: Civil War, King T’Challa of Wakanda took center stage in his own movie, which has a strong case for the best in the MCU in terms of pure filmmaking. Many people forget that Blade and Spawn, two black superheroes, both had movies in the late ’90s, so Black Panther sort of represents the modern age of the genre coming full circle. Featuring an established black cast with an acclaimed black director, the film showcases its themes of black power and excellence without letting them become the film’s sole identity; it’s not a black superhero movie, it’s a superhero movie with black characters. Its political messages meshed perfectly with the story, and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is considered by many to be the best villain in the MCU. Black Panther made history in a number of ways, including being the first Marvel movie to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR/ENDGAME (2018/2019)
It may be cheating to put both Infinity War and Endgame under the same entry, but I really consider them two parts to one giant picture. Over a decade of interwoven storylines and intricate worldbuilding came to an epic culmination with a pair of movies that featured nearly every character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and saw the stakes climb higher than ever. Infinity War is especially noteworthy because it is the first superhero movie to feature the villain as the main character and driving force behind the story. Thanos grew from lurking in the shadows of The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy into becoming the most powerful and infamous villain in cinema. While Infinity War might be the superior picture, Endgame provided the greatest experience for the fans that had followed the Infinity Saga since the summer of 2008. The cheer that erupted from the midnight showing I attended during that famous final scene expressed the pure joy of hundreds of fans who had waited their whole lives for this moment, and it didn’t disappoint. And with the departure of some of the names that made the MCU the powerhouse that it is, here’s hoping that the next ten years will bring some familiar faces back into the fold.