We asked, you voted, the ballots have been counted and the results are in. Empire's 30 Greatest Superhero Movies are perhaps the most scientifically selected, hand-picked, pinpoint accurate barometer of the finest and most memorable caped crusaders, dark knights, shellheads and mutants to grace our screens down the years. They're all here, from the supremely powerful to the onerously-responsibility-ladden, not forgetting the green and livid. Such is the swelling diversity of superhero cinema these days, there's even a tree on the list. Here, in downward counting order, are your top picks.
30. HULK (2003)
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Nick Nolte, Josh Lucas
It’s a surprise to see you voting for this in significant numbers, but not an unpleasant one. Unfairly maligned at the time as not being smashing enough, hindsight has been kinder to Ang Lee’s ambitious attempt at an arthouse comic-book blockbuster. Sometimes a noble failure is preferable to a mediocre success. The Hulk himself, it must be said, is underwhelming, but Eric Bana makes an excellent Banner, and the extended desert and San Francisco set-pieces remain thrilling. That they’re grounded in a serious and smart screenplay – Nick Nolte’s gamma-poodles notwithstanding – is a significant bonus. Props too to the green-tinged cinematography and production design, and to the editing that frames the drama (and it is a drama) as a comic in itself.
MVP: Jennifer Connelly, bringing heart and soul to Betty Ross: far more than the often-thankless role of the hero’s love interest.
Standout moment: An emotional beat following the central set-piece Hulk-out. Betty – “You weren’t hard to find.” Bruce – “Yes, I was.”
29. SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006)
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Parker Posey
Ditching the X-Men franchise, Bryan Singer confounded expectations by delivering a Superman that was more nostalgic than modern. The John Williams theme gets an outing; Brandon Routh is explicitly playing Christopher Reeve as much as he’s playing Clark Kent; even Marlon Brando makes a posthumous appearance. There are big action sequences, of course, but the agenda is equally about romance: Clark’s love for Lois, and Singer’s for the films of his adolescence. The result is a cinematic valentine, refusing to sacrifice emotional heft for blockbuster thrills. Only really conceivable as a curious one-off, it was never going to serve as a credible basis for a new ongoing series. But on Singer’s own deeply personal terms, it remains a rousing success.
MVP: Composer John Ottman, by way of John Williams: spinning those famous themes into a score both respectful and original.
Standout moment: The famous sequence where Superman is shot in the eyeball and the bullet comes off worst.
28. THE ROCKETEER (1991)
Director: Joe Johnston
Cast: Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton
If Howard Hughes has been born a few decades later and decided to make a superhero movie, it might have locked a little like The Rocketeer, a joyous boys'-own adventure of a superhero flick. Hughes even gets a plot-sparking cameo as the inventor of a rocket pack the Nazis want to get their, ahem, Hans on, but it’s Cliff Secord (Campbell) who ends up socking it to Hitler as the stunt pilot who turns superhero when he lays hands on the doohickey. The superhero we’re dubbing 'Flight Lieutenant America' is all the more winning for being a little out of his depth in a world full of secret agents and Hitchcockian double crosses. Fizzier than a gallon of Tizer and more innocent than a scout company of Young Indys, The Rocketeer's spirit later fuelled its director’s other wartime superhero effort, Captain America: The First Avenger.
MVP: Composer James Horner lets rip with an old-fashioned, Steiner-and-Korngold-era score that gallops along in step with the action. It’s all the more impressive for being turned around in two and a half weeks.
Standout moment: Any of the bits involving Timothy Dalton’s Errol Flynn-like villain, particularly the Zeppelin dust-up.
27. MAN OF STEEL (2013)
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane
Drawing a line under the curious chimera that was Superman Returns, Zack Snyder speed-ramped Man Of Steel into a much more aggressive beast. There’s no aww-shucks alter ego here. Instead we’re given a brooding outcast: Superman as Heathcliff (the Bronte one; not the cat). Surprisingly intense, particularly in its later city-smashing stages that deliberately but uncomfortably recall 9/11, some felt that the tone was off, not least because Kal-El ends the movie with blood on his hands. But the point is that this is Superman Begins: the catastrophic events he endures – and causes – will presumably inform the force for ultimate good he’s yet to represent. Clark Kent arrives at the end, and with him the promise of a Superman we’re more familiar with. And no film that includes Russell Crowe riding a dragon can be called a failure.
MVP: Kevin Costner, nobly embodying the truth, justice and American-way values that this Superman hasn’t yet arrived at.
Standout moment: The opening sequence, giving us something we haven’t quite seen before: Superman as space opera.
26. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
Director: Joe Johnston
Cast: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Samuel L. Jackson
The first true test of Kevin Feige’s mantra that not all superhero films need be cut from the same cloth, the first Captain America movie takes advantage of its hero’s unique origin and leaps back to World War II for a zippy romp that sees Steve Rogers - noble, true and about as physically threatening as a mole with mumps - become the scion of humanity. If Iron Man had given the MCU its brains, and Thor its courage, Cap gave it its heart.
MVP: When Cap is co-opted by the US Army for propaganda purposes and, out of nowhere, we get a musical number in the shape of Alan Menken’s insanely catchy and very George M. Cohan-esque 'Star Spangled Man'.
Standout moment: Chris Evans, who takes a character that could be ultra-bland and gives him energy, charm and an intriguing steeliness that has only intensified as the MCU has gone on.
25. CHRONICLE (2012)
Director: Josh Trank
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan
One heck of a calling card for its director Josh Trank, Chronicle took not one but two well-worn genres and merged them into something fresh. Even if you’d vowed that you’d seen your last found footage film, Chronicle delivered something innovative and chilling in its telekinetically-charged trio (Jordan, Russell and the stand-out DeHaan). “What would a typical high-schooler do if suddenly presented with superpowers?” it asked. Nothing good, came back the answer. Anakin-ing his way through the film’s darker hues, DeHaan’s sinister spiral into the dark side is perfectly played and more than a bit frightening, as he proves that, sometimes, with great power comes great irresponsibility. Forgive the usual logic lapses (who the heck is editing all this?) and enjoy the ride.
MVP: A two-way tie between Trank, since come somewhat unstuck with the ever-unwieldy Fantastic Four, and cinematographer Matt Jensen who's followed him to the Marvel reboot. The pair's innovative camerawork gives us high-altitude American football and some unusual car parking techniques.
Standout moment: Cover the eyes of any nearby arachnids, but the spider’s unnatural end is a movie magic trick par excellence.
24. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Kevin Bacon, Nicholas Hoult
Hard to imagine now, with approximately 839 X-movies on the way next year, but at the time Matthew Vaughn yelled ‘Action!’ on First Class, the X-Men franchise was practically dead in the water, tarnished by two terrible entries in X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Vaughn, his co-writer Jane Goldman, and producer Bryan Singer recognised that and reinvented the X-wheel here, spinning an 1962-set origin tale that simply bounces along, at times resembling a spy caper more than a superhero flick. Verve, pizzazz, a young, relatively unknown cast (Jennifer Lawrence before she became J-Law) hitting it out of the park - the revitalisation of the X-Men franchise can be traced back to here.
MVP: While Days Of Future Past was Charles Xavier’s film, First Class is very much the tale of tortured concentration camp survivor Erik Lehnsherr, now hellbent on revenge against the Nazis who killed his mother and tortured him relentlessly. And Michael Fassbender, moody and relentless in a polo neck long before he played Steve Jobs, is fantastic, swanning about with a cold-blooded swagger that suggests he was treating the whole thing as his audition tape for Bond.
Standout moment: Young Magneto walks into a bar…
23. THOR (2011)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg
Marvel’s big-screen version of their Norse God Of Thunder could have gone so terribly wrong it might have stopped the MCU before it had properly got going. But director Kenneth Branagh recognised that, skilfully teasing out the Shakespearean heft and keeping the lapses into Flash Gordon territory to a minimum. It still has flaws and cheese aplenty, but Branagh has a blast with the basic concept of a brash God thundering his way around a small American town.
MVP: The three Hs - Hemsworth, Hopkins, Hiddleston - are all excellent, with Hemsworth confirming the star potential evinced in his brief Star Trek cameo. But Hiddleston steals the show, crafting a Loki who’s tortured, capricious, scheming, tragic and all-too-human. In the process, he created a character that captured the public imagination in a way that we reckon not even Marvel were prepared for, hence some of the last-minute reshuffling in Thor: The Dark World that allowed Loki to stand front and centre as one of the MCU’s principal villains.
Standout moment: The fish out of water comedy is relatively restrained, all things considered, but the moment when a bewildered Thor marches into a pet store and demands a horse is a belter.
22. SPIDER-MAN (2002)
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, J. K. Simmons
The first superhero film to truly hit it big in the modern era (and yes, that means we’re not considering Tim Burton’s Batman to be a modern film, which makes us all feel old), Sam Raimi’s flashy and earnest origin tale pits Tobey Maguire’s young wallcrawler against the perils of being a high schooler. Oh, and a maniacal masked menace called the Green Goblin. Fun, light and airy, this would be pretty much perfect if Raimi hadn’t made a late decision to have Willem Dafoe’s Goblin wear a terrible mask that makes him seem like a Kabuki theatre version of the Power Rangers.
MVP: Raimi. In our review, back in 2002, we called it the perfect marriage of subject and director and that still rings true. Raimi, a huge Spider-Man (and, perhaps equally as crucial, Peter Parker) fan, never thought himself above the material and, while there’s a definite suggestion that he was reining himself in stylistically (something he more than rectified with the sequel), his vertiginous camerawork and lunatic montages fit Spidey’s world like a glove.
Standout moment: The first big showdown between Spider-Man and the Goblin in Times Square doesn’t entirely hold up in the effects department, but it’s colourful and fun, and seemed to point towards the potential of superhero films for huge set-pieces. Also contains now de rigeur Stan Lee cameo.
21. BATMAN (1989)
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Michael Gough
If you weren’t around in 1989 - and we realise that may not be the case for some of you young ‘uns, and any time travellers who are just dropping by - it’s easy to underestimate the cultural impact of Tim Burton’s Batman. If you think Avengers: Age Of Ultron might be a bit invasive, you ain’t seen nothing, kids. Batman was everywhere in the summer of ’89, dominating the charts (with not one but two soundtracks), dominating schoolyard conversations, dominating the front pages, and destroying box office records. Amid all the hype, you could be forgiven for missing the fact that there was a film beneath it all - a very good film, as it happens, directed by a wunderkind who had virtually no interest in story but who delivered an achingly beautiful, singularly weird, very dark take on the Caped Crusader.
MVP: Jack Nicholson got all the plaudits as The Joker, while Michael Keaton’s quiet work as Wayne and Batman can now be acknowledged as one of the best versions of the character. But without Anton Furst, the late, great production designer who took over Pinewood Studios and turned it into a gorgeous Gotham, the film wouldn’t have had half the impact. His Gotham is a steam-covered, nightmarish melange of influences and styles that remains the greatest screen iteration of the city to date.
Standout moment: Burton was always more interested in Bruce Wayne than Batman, and in the moment when Bruce Wayne, confronted with The Joker at Vicki Vale’s apartment, goes nuts with a poker and essentially offers The Joker outside for a fight, is enthralling. It’s the first time, despite all the numerous clues, that the penny drops: Bruce Wayne is insane. Batshit insane.
20. BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman
Strange to recall that Tim Burton’s Batman was, at the time, hailed as a reclaiming of the Caped Crusader from the camp of the Adam West years. Compared to even Christopher Nolan’s opening salvo, it now looks like mummery. Retooling the Dark Knight as a military-teched comic-book Bond, Nolan smartly kept the freakery in check, doing nothing you’d consider obvious for a Batman movie, using secondary villains and even keeping The Scarecrow in a snappy suit. And while Begins weighs in at a bulky 140 minutes, it more than earns that length by successfully juggling its origin story with an actual plot: something few superhero movies have managed to pull off. Also, the Tumbler is a thing of magisterial beauty. ‘Reimagining’ is bandied about enough in Hollywood that it’s become a cause for sniffy contempt: viewed as a euphemism for ‘crap remake’. Batman Begins’ confident mic drop reminded us what that word can truly mean.
MVP: Special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, turning Batman's wonderful toys into believable tech.
Standout moment: The Batmobile unleashed on the streets of Gotham (and Alfred’s indignant response afterwards).
19. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway
Chris Nolan’s capper to his Dark Knight trilogy is overlong, often pompous and almost crushingly pleased with itself. But it’s also a brilliantly crafted epic that really swings for the fences in a way that most superhero films don’t even attempt, as Bruce Wayne and Gotham face their biggest challenge to date: trying to figure out just what the hell Tom Hardy is saying.
MVP: Flurty burty hurty Bane. Mumble umble dumble Tom Hardy. Something about a mask?
Standout moment: With Bruce Wayne being such a reclusive miserabilist, most of the really cool moments go to Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, or the Bat himself, with our vote going to the moment The Dark Knight makes his getaway on his first night back in action by climbing into his very own flying machine and zooming past a group of bewildered cops.
18. HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Jeffrey Tambor, Luke Goss, John Hurt
Another superhero sequel that surpasses the first instalment (see also: Spider-Man 2, X-2, The Dark Knight), Guillermo del Toro’s second Hellboy effort with creator Mike Mignola is a monster mash that mingles all the ornate fantasia of Pan’s Labyrinth with a Tolkien-esque yarn involving a magical army, Celtic legends, fairies and a former member of Bros. If it sounds like a heady brew, the creature designs, mechanical devices that callback to Chronos-era del Toro and chemistry between Ron Perlman, Selma Blair and Doug Jones make The Golden Army feel like an even more singular superhero film than Hellboy.
MVP: Ron Perlman’s ham-handed, horn-headed colossus is still the main attraction – growly, cigar-chomping but still somehow childlike and almost domesticated – but it’s del Toro who designs the magical playground through which he stomps.
Standout moment: Red and Abe Sapien getting beery and sing along to Barry Manilow's 'Can't Smile Without You’. This kind of thing definitely doesn’t happen in The Dark Knight Rises.
17. THE CROW (1994)
Director: Alex Proyas
Cast: Brandon Lee, Michael Wincott, Tony Todd, David Patrick Kelly
Alex Proyas’s adaptation of James O’Barr’s graphic novel deserves far more appreciation than the morbid notoriety it garnered from Brandon Lee’s tragic death on set. Ingeniously transposing High Plains Drifter to a dystopian urban Detroit, it’s the story of an unstoppable revenge-killer from beyond the grave who incredibly remains sympathetic thanks to Lee’s performance. And though it’s dark and violent in a way that comic-book movies are rarely allowed to be these days, it’s still leavened with a seam of grim humour. Arriving at the height of grunge it was also perfectly placed to ride the alt-rock wave, and did so without ever feeling like an embarrassing studio attempt to appeal to a yoot movement: The Crow rages to a soundtrack that still feels credible two decades later.
MVP: Wincott is superb, but it has to be Brandon Lee, by turns soulful and furiously angry; effortlessly charismatic and no slouch in the action sequences, without even breaking out the martial arts.
Standout moment: The extraordinary boardroom shootout, cut to My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult and, by its conclusion, lit only by strobes.
16. IRON MAN (2008)
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jon Favreau, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow
The one that set Marvel Studios on the path to having enough money to buy small countries and build laser death beams (not that they are, but they totally could), Iron Man is a fairly straight-laced, fun, origin pic enlivened entirely by one thing: Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Before this movie, Downey’s career had been sputtering along (you may have read one or two things about his run-ins with authority), but Favreau knew that he was perfect to play the glib, flip, brilliant, ever-so-slightly amoral billionaire genius playboy philanthropist, and fought hard to convince Marvel of the same. It is perfect casting, so much so that now Stark and Downey seem to have meshed into one amorphous blob with great hair.
MVP: Favreau established the template that set Marvel on the way to world domination, but it has to be Downey in the role he was born to play: himself.
Standout moment: Weirdly for a film called Iron Man, the bits involving an iron man are somewhat rote. Downey is the juice here, a rampaging ego crushing all before it, and never more so than in his flippant, throwaway decision to out himself as Iron Man at the film’s end. After all he’s been through, it’s the Marvel equivalent of Homer Simpson’s ‘Marge, my dear, I haven’t learned a thing’, and it’s absolutely, perfectly, in character.
15. KICK-ASS (2010)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Chloë Grace Moretz, Mark Strong, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Matthew Vaughn’s foul-mouthed, ultra-violent middle finger to the comic-book movie is a raucous blast, taking a simple origin story and pumping it full of crazy. It introduced Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz to the world, further confirming Vaughn’s eye for a new face, but it also established the Brit director as a serious action guy, orchestrating three or four gunfights (standout: Big Daddy’s single-shot warehouse assault) that wouldn’t look out of place on John Woo’s CV. The sequel stank - stay away from that. This remains a breath of fresh air.
MVP: Nic Cage. For too long he’d been plodding along on moon-faced autopilot, but something about Big Daddy brought out the guano in Nicky Coppola. With a biker ‘tache and an Adam West voice, this is the electric Cage that we all know and love. The movie misses him when he departs.
Standout moment: It gave the Daily Mail a heart attack. For that alone, the moment where Hit-Girl introduces herself to a gang of thugs with a breezy, ‘OK, you cunts… let’s see what you can do now’, before tearing them a new one gets our vote.
14. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult
Bryan Singer’s elaborate prequel/sequel/reboot is a joy, successfully folding the two separate arms of the X-Men franchise (the ‘classic’ gang - Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry et al, and the First Class cast of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult) into a melon-twisting time travel story that delivers big action scenes but also and admirably focuses almost entirely on character, in particular the confrontation between the wounded Xavier and Magneto. It may not have hit the Avengers-sized box office heights that Fox were hoping for, but it was successful enough to convince the studio to ramp up their plans for a shared universe, while deftly retconning the franchise so that X-Men: The Last Stand effectively never took place.
MVP: Simon Kinberg, who had the unenviable task of writing a screenplay that had approximately one million major speaking roles, had to give most of them arcs and significant stuff to do, and had to make a plot that took place simultaneously in 1973 and 2023 make sense. It’s a wonder he didn’t go insane.
Standout moment: Quicksilver in the Pentagon kitchen. Can Joss Whedon top that with Avengers: Age Of Ultron? Will he even try?
13. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Frank Grillo, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Jenny Agutter
If the fact that this was a massive superhero movie starring one of the Railway Children wasn’t enough to win hearts and minds, the Russos' conspiracy thriller has plenty else to recommend it. The ‘70s cinematic inflections (it’s a rare superhero movie that references Pakula and Pollack ahead of Nolan and Snyder) feel like a neat stopping-off point for the fast-adapting Cap (Evans) as he de-1940ifies: a throwback to an era when even Presidents got in on the supervillainy act. The shadowy forces at work within S.H.I.E.L.D. remain too spoilerific to mention by name, but their strategems offered the kind of pointed comment on the modern world that elevates huge popcorn fare into something enduring. And, yes, Jenny Agutter kicks ass.
MVP: It’s nice to see Black Widow (Johansson) and Nick Fury (Jackson) given some heavy lifting alongside the main man, but this one goes to co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for seeding this corner of the Marvelverse with peppery comment on the real world issue. And for that barbershop quartet line, obviously.
Standout moment: The elevator sequence, hands – and, for that matter, 11 armed goons – down.
12. BLADE (1998)
Director: Stephen Norrington
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson
There’s an argument to be made that Blade, and not Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or Bryan Singer’s X-Men, is the daddy of the modern day comic-book movie. After all, if it hadn’t done well, Hollywood might not have been emboldened enough to give other heroes a go. But that’s also missing one key thing about Stephen Norrington’s movie: it doesn’t look, feel or move like a superhero movie. It’s an action-horror, pure and simple, pitting Wesley Snipes’ half-man/half-vampire against a group of devilish bloodsuckers (led by Stephen Dorff) in a series of Hong Kong-influenced showdowns. Seriously stylish, violent and bloody, it was a great calling card for the reclusive Norrington (who never does interviews). Just five years later, though, he would make The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and hasn’t been near a director’s chair since. It’s hard not to watch Blade and feel that that’s a shame.
MVP: Snipes. He’s almost impossibly cool in this, lithe and athletic, growling his lines as if he had a personal beef with them. Roberto Benigni won the Best Actor Oscar in 1999 for Life Is Beautiful, one of the Academy’s most ridiculous decisions - for selling the pay-off line, "some motherfuckers are always trying to ice-skate uphill", Snipes deserved as many Oscars as he could carry. And a lifetime’s free pass from the IRS.
Standout moment: The opening nightclub scene. Blood drips from ceiling sprinklers, New Order’s 'Confusion' (Pump Panel Recon Mix) fades away on the speakers, and a group of irate vampires turn to snarl at... the Daywalker, who proceeds to ruin their eternal night with some very slick swordplay.
11. THE INCREDIBLES (2004)
Director: Brad Bird
Cast: (Voices) Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Craig T. Nelson, Brad Bird, Jason Lee
It’s fun to imagine what The Incredibles' formula would look like applied to other superheroes. Could we imagine a world, for instance, in which Batman’s years of back breaks and heavy landings in alleyways have left him propped up in front of daytime telly, or Stark Industries employees have to figure out what the heck to get for Tony’s retirement? And what of the Silver Surfer when he becomes the Blue Rinse Surfer? All the more kudos, then, to Brad Bird for stitching together bits of domestic sitcom, spy flick and traditional superhero movie into a witty, Pixar-fied collage. The result is a superhero lead who’s more Al Bundy than Clark Kent, and all the funnier for it, especially when bickering with his wife (Hunter) and two superkids, all while fitting in the small matter of saving the world.
MVP: Writer/director Brad Bird takes the honours, with his hilarious voice work as Edith Head-like designer Edna Mode (“I never look back, dahling! It distracts from the now”) the cherry on the cake.
Standout moment: Mr. Incredible foils a carload of gunmen, rescues a cat, apprehends a bag-snatcher, flirts with Elastigirl, tackles supervillain Bomb Voyage and makes a sworn enemy of Buddy Pine, all in four breathless minutes. Beat that, Quicksilver.
10. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker
Technically speaking, not a superhero film, but we’ll allow it. Mainly because Marvel’s biggest gamble (yes, even bigger than The Avengers; at least people had heard of that team’s heroes) turned out to be a glorious bundle of joy. James Gunn’s inherent weirdness gave his characters, a collection of misfits and blow-hards, kinks, quirks and one heck of a cocky swagger. This wasn’t space opera - it’s space punk.
MVP: Dave Jordan, the movie’s music supervisor, who worked from Gunn’s meticulously-crafted playlist to clear all the '70s and '80s tunes that help make the film feel like so much more than just another riff on Star Wars. If you’ve managed to get 'The Pina Colada Song' out of your head over the last six months, please pass on your secret.
Standout moment: “We are Groot.” A CG raccoon pleads with a CG tree not to go full Spock-in-Wrath-Of-Khan. The CG tree responds with three simple words. The audience responds by wondering why it’s so goddamn dusty in here all of a sudden.
9. WATCHMEN (2009)
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino
The more hardcore fraternity among Moore’s hardly-temperate fan base were indignant that the director of 300 and Dawn Of The Dead has so much as picked up a copy of Alan Moore graphic novel, let alone set about adapting it. Others wondered vocally whether Moore’s ferocious exploration of the superhero id was even remotely film able. As it turned out, it was. No-one could accuse Snyder of taking the task lightly – if anything, his slavish cell-by-cell fealty to the source occasionally hampers the movie (especially those detours into the Comedian’s back story) – and the result surpassed all expectations. Sacrificing little of Moore’s satirical smarts and none of his violent flair, while adding his own visual wow, Snyder converted all but the most furious of naysayers.
MVP: Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach is one of the most unsettling creations to stalk the comic-book world, like Batman by way of Death Wish. A toxic concoction played with muffled fury by Haley, this is a superhero with precious little of the ‘hero’ part on display.
Standout moment: The super-stylised opening credits, set to a specially extended version of Dylan's ‘The Times They Are A-Changin'', are a dazzling route into the movie. A more wicked subversion of historical events you’ll struggle to find, even though we’re still not quite sure why The Comedian shot JFK.
8. UNBREAKABLE (2000)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright
Quite arguably the answer to the question, ‘What is the greatest comic book movie not actually based on a comic book?’, M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense shares many of that film’s stylistic impulses, and is therefore a slow sit for many. But if you give in to its deliberate pace and mood, this is a treat, and a wonderful deconstruction of superhero myth as Bruce Willis’ regular Joe slowly realises that he may be actually be a Superjoe. Deliberately downbeat and low-key (the big action beat is a wrestling match in a dimly-lit house), the relationship between Willis’ David Dunn and Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass is tantalising enough to make us constantly yearn for the sequels that never came.
MVP: Shyamalan, for a solid script, bold, confident direction (see how many scenes are played out in a single master shot), and another one of his trademark cameos. We miss this Night.
Standout moment: Beginning to harness his burgeoning powers, Willis goes to a busy train station and begins to ‘feel’ people’s emotional history, triggering a series of flashbacks where we see crimes being committed, or wrongs to be righted.
7. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken
Back in the ‘90s, this is what passed as a summer blockbuster and a superhero movie: a berserk gothic fairy tale set at Christmas in which Batman barely appears. Exhausted by the experience of his 1989 original, director Tim Burton was persuaded back on the promise that he could make the sequel as much about his own idiosyncratic thematic obsessions as he liked. Obviously, that meant a whimsical circus freakshow in the snow. You can write a list as long as your arm about what’s ‘wrong’ with the result: the plot makes no sense; there are too many villains; Catwoman has a supernatural origin; the Penguin rides a giant rubber duck and can fly using umbrella spokes. And yet somehow Batman Returns remains so completely mental that it’s endearing. People thought it was too grim at the time, but in the wake of the Nolanverse it now seems positively good fun.
MVP: Danny DeVito as the Penguin, transmogrified from the comics’ dapper little gangster into a mutant fish-man actually raised by penguins, sometimes in Dickensian threads and sometimes in a filthy onesie. It’s an eccentric performance.
Standout moment: Selina Kyle, licked from the dead by an army of stray cats into a surprising new persona.
6. SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, J.K. Simmons, James Franco
Not that Drew Goddard doesn’t already know, but if he’s looking for a template for his Spectacular Spider-Man, he need look no further than this. Pitting Tobey Maguire’s Spidey against Alfred Molina’s excellent Doctor Octopus, it is the most successful big-screen outing for your friendly neighbourhood thingummy by far, allying the classic Superman II story template to Sam Raimi’s stylistic flourishes, encouraged and enhanced by the success of the first film. It’s a rarity: a comic book movie that feels like it just burst out of the page.
MVP: The desire to praise Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker and Spider-Man caused, in some quarters, a revisionism about Tobey Maguire in the same role. And it’s true that in Spider-Man 3, he seemed bored by the role. But here, Maguire is just about perfect, both as a more quippy Spider-Man and as a doleful, likeable Peter, trying to make his way in the world.
Standout moment: The train fight - wildly inventive, brilliant. Even if it does overdo the Spider-Jesus stuff at the end.
5. SUPERMAN (1978)
Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty
Verisimilitude. It’s not just the name of one of Teenage Fanclub’s greatest tracks, but it’s the keyword for Richard Donner’s majestic big-screen realisation of the Man Of Steel. Even though it starts with a literal reminder of Supes’ comic book origins, and ends with a bit where our hero turns back time by flying around the Earth (an act that should have killed every living thing on the planet), Donner placed the emphasis on truth, on taking this legendary tale and planting it solely in the real world, so that audiences would believe a man can fly. And it works wonders - this Superman is, if you will, a marvel, by turns earnest and heartfelt, then warm and witty. It benefits, also, from Donner’s discovery of Christopher Reeve, who remains the greatest screen Kal-El to date.
MVP: Without John Williams’ incredible score, from the iconic main theme to the epic scale of 'The Planet Krypton', or the plaintive pluck of the 'Love Theme' (we could do without Margot Kidder’s insipid voiceover, mind), this simply would not work. He wrote it the year after completing Star Wars.
Standout moment: A chocker of a scene to rival the self-sacrifice of Costner's Jonathan Kent in Man Of Steel, the heartbreaking, dust-strewn demise of Lois Lane sparks a primal scream of emotion in Kal-El. Cue a super-solution that (literally) flies in the face of his father's instructions.
4. THE AVENGERS (2012)
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson
Now, with the world and its wife attempting to establish their own shared universe of interlocking franchises (the Adam Sandler Cinematic Universe, where Happy Gilmore rubs shoulders with Joe Dirt and Paul Blart, can only be months away), it seems daft to consider The Avengers as anything other than a sure thing. But it sure wasn’t. At the time, this was a huge gamble, taking Iron Man and three lesser movie franchises and bolting them together. It could - perhaps even should - have been a disaster, but it’s a delight from start to finish. Joss Whedon’s zippy script, which somehow manages not to get bogged down despite spending the entire second act in one place, does right by its ensemble cast, serves up plenty of action, and keeps the one-liners coming. It’s a joy, even when the Avengers aren’t avenging anything. We could pretty much watch an entire movie of them hanging out and bickering.
MVP: Whedon and Kevin Feige deserve huge props, of course, but we’re going with The Hulk. Make a list of your ten favourite moments from The Avengers, and chances are the green giant and Mark Ruffalo’s worthy-of-Bixby Bruce Banner will be in four or five of them. Not bad for a character that spends much of the movie not being in the movie.
Standout moment: It comes late in the day, but as Seamus McGarvey’s camera circles around the Avengers, assembled for the first time, it was as if someone had reached into your head, taken your childhood memories, and slapped them onto the big screen.
3. SUPERMAN II (1980)
Directors: Richard Lester/Richard Donner
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Terence Stamp
Given its tortured production history - original director Richard Donner was fired having completed around 80 per cent of the movie, with Richard Lester then brought on to finish the movie and reshoot quite a bit of material after stars Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman walked - it’s astonishing that Superman II is coherent, let alone beloved and consistently held up as a shining example of how to do a superhero sequel. Establishing the ever-popular ‘more villains/hero gets fed up and loses/gives away his powers’ plot mechanic, Lester just about gets away with upping the absurdity ante (a decision that would deeply wound Superman III), and manages to paper over the cracks adroitly (watch out for the number of times Hackman is seen from behind, or a Hackman sound-a-like bellows lines off-camera). It’s a hugely charming flick, with the Lois/Clark romance giving it a centre warm enough to allow General Zod and Lex Luthor the chance to run amok at its edges.
MVP: It has to be Terence Stamp, camping it up a treat as the ever-quotable General Zod, swanning around the place demanding that anyone and everyone he meets kneels before him. Interestingly, in Richard Donner’s restored version, Stamp’s take on Zod is much more sinister.
Standout moment: When ace reporter Lois Lane finally gets Clark to superman up and reveal his true identity, after he sticks his hand in the fire of their hotel suite to retrieve his glasses. The great Christopher Reeve is superb here, his body language racing through the Kübler-Ross model in about three seconds, before settling on acceptance. Masterful.
2. X2 (2003)
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen
After a fairly well-received but perhaps under-nourished opener, Bryan Singer’s X2 marked a true evolution for both director and franchise. From the opening sequence, where Nightcrawler teleports his way through a group of Secret Service agents, Singer proved he could handle action, it’s more thematically resonant than the first (Iceman’s ‘coming out’ scene is both slyly witty and impactful), and it’s a great ensemble piece, giving its fantastic cast moments to shine throughout. Except for James Marsden’s Cyclops, of course. That guy never could catch a break.
MVP: Ian McKellen’s Magneto, who gets 85 per cent of the best lines, particularly in the second half, when Singer and his writing team realised it would be much more fun to drop Magneto into the X-Men’s midst and have him bitch them all to death.
Standout moment: The early attack on the X-Mansion, which finally allowed Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine the chance to unleash his berserker rage, albeit in a fairly bloodless, PG-13 kinda way.
1. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine
The winner by a considerable wingspan, Chris Nolan’s sequel moved away from the Bond movie model of Batman Begins and dragged the genre into full-on Michael Mann territory. It’s a caped crime flick - effectively Super-Heat - whose propulsive energy and slick visuals more than make up for the fact that it’s probably about 20 minutes too long. And any time it boils down to Batman vs The Joker, it’s as good as superhero movies get.
MVP: To pick anyone other than Heath Ledger’s indelible take on The Joker would be so perverse, The Joker might actually appreciate it. But it has to be Ledger, who crafted a Joker so perfect we thought it would be at least a decade before anyone attempted to follow in his footsteps. Good luck, Jared Leto.
Standout moment: His Batmobile destroyed mid-chase, Christian Bale’s Dark Knight simply, calmly, readjusts and bursts out of the wreckage on an even cooler vehicle: the Batpod. Where does he get all those wonderful toys?