Ranked: Every Superhero Movie (All 104!) from 2000-2019 - Part 3
With Joker being the last superhero film being released this decade, I thought it would be an interesting prospect to rank every single superhero film released starting with 2000’s X-Men, which is largely responsible for kicking off what many feel is a glut of superheroes at the cinema.
So I counted up every film that meets the following criteria:
Released in the year 2000 or later
Theatrical wide release in the United States (Fathom events and the like don’t count, neither do direct-to-home releases)
And that’s how I got to 104. Most of them are pretty obvious inclusions, but just a quick reminder that this is a superhero movies ranking, not a comics-to-movies adaptation list. So The Incredibles counts, but Ghost World doesn’t. The ranking methodology basically works on the idea of given the choice between two movies, which one would I rather watch right now, and moving up or down the list as needed.
Below are numbers 50-26. Links to the rest are at the bottom.
So. Here. We. Go:
50. Captain Marvel (dirs. Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, 2019)
One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s more frustrating efforts because it feels like being a part of the MCU both helps and hurts this film. The good of that is getting some fun backstory for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and some fun connections to Guardians of the Galaxy, but the bad is that the film feels like it was rushed to set up Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) in order to introduce her for Avengers: Endgame. All the pieces for a better film are here, but they aren’t put together in a way that feels like a showcase for the character. I do love the way the film brings in longtime Marvel baddies the Skrulls, however.
Also, I know Captain Marvel resonated with a lot of people, and I would never want to discount that. I wish I felt those things in watching it, but I was left wanting more. Here’s my review from earlier this year.
49. Venom (dir. Ruben Fleischer, 2018)
This is the better version of the movies that sit much lower down on this list, like Daredevil, and the Punisher films. It’s not that Venom is a good movie, or especially deep, but it is fun. Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock/Venom single-handedly wills this movie to be endlessly watchable, even at its most juvenile and stupid. But after sitting with the film almost a year, constantly thinking about the scene where Hardy climbs into a lobster tank at a fancy restaurant and eats a live lobster, what I’ve decided is that the film’s heart really helps to elevate it. Where Kick-Ass and Punisher try to embrace the harder edge, Venom spends just enough time demonstrating Brock’s compassion towards people who can’t protect themselves–especially the homeless–and this goes a long way to balance out the title’s gooey character trying to eat people. My original review from last year.
48. Doctor Strange (dir. Scott Derrickson, 2016)
While the story is rote, Cumberbatch’s performance suffers under the weight of unnecessary accent work, and the movie commits the cardinal sin of forgetting Rachel McAdams exists, this actually has some unique things going for it as far as MCU movies go. First, it was actually shot on location, which helps ground the film in reality. Second, the visuals are actually spectacular, especially the astral plane and Dark Dimension sequences, which are still some of the best stuff in the MCU. Third, this is the first Marvel score with more than one memorable music cue thanks to Michael Giacchino. Doctor Strange is a fun watch, even if the story lags.
47. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder, 2016)
This movie is probably misunderstood. It’s not that the people who hate it shouldn’t hate it, but this is not a film attempting to depict realistic human behavior. This is the equivalent of opera or high melodrama–which is why the moment where Batman and Superman both realize their moms have the same name is brilliant. This is another Snyder film where the director’s cut (called the Ultimate cut in this case) should have just been the theatrical cut. While both versions are all over the place, the editing of the Ultimate cut is much less choppy and random, as the theatrical version feels like it was really squeezed to fit into a tighter window. This is a film that views superheroes as a pantheon of gods, and the high intensity of everyone in this film reflects that depiction. Taken as a one-off, it actually becomes a fun, crazy viewing experience.
46. The Wolverine (dir. James Mangold, 2013)
This is a perfectly fine movie, with one especially great action sequence atop a high speed train. The rest of it does well to draw on aspects of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) set up in the other films, but doesn’t add too much. Like the only good part of X-Men Origins, it does the neat trick of opening in World War II because Wolverine is basically immortal. It lacks a memorable villain or a thrilling climax in order to stand out more on this list, but it is perfectly competent.
45. Split (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2017)
Spoiler alert! If it wasn’t for the final moment of this movie, it probably wouldn’t have even made this list! Shyamalan’s Unbreakable universe is the only original movie franchise on this list, and that alone is worth celebrating. While this is the weakest of the three films, there’s still a lot to enjoy here. James McAvoy's performance is mesmerizing, especially the amount of physicality her bestows on each of the personalities. Both Anya Taylor-Joy and Haley Lu Richardson give great performances, even if their characters don’t get too much to do. Taylor-Joy's performance as Casey relies on the flashback for narrative weight, and I just wish there was a bit more for her to flesh out before the finale. There’s also a ton of fun foreshadowing there is about where the girls are being kept, with lots of little clues, which makes it a great rewatch.
44. Spider-Man: Homecoming (dir. Jon Watts, 2017)
This film is kind of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I love the high school parts of this movie. Peter’s (Tom Holland) worries about dating and friendship and everything with Ned (Jacob Batalon) are pure gold, as is the interpretation of classic bully character Flash Thompson played by Tony “Lobby Boy” Revolori. But I don’t love most of the Spider-Man stuff. Spidey as Iron Man’s ward just doesn’t sit well for me, even if this film uses both Robert Downey Jr. and John Favreau to great effect. The final action scene is also pretty lackluster, even among Marvel films. However, the scene with the Vulture (Michael Keaton) figuring out Peter’s secret on the way to the big school dance is sublime. But I wish the rest of the movie was that well executed.
43. X-Men: Days of Future Past (dir. Bryan Singer, 2014)
The fourth best film in this franchise, Days of Future Past works best as a send-off for the original cast (other than Patrick Stewart’s Xavier and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine). It falters in giving the First Class actors a lot to do, despite the majority of the film taking place in the past. I appreciate its ambition in trying to bring all of the previous films together, but it is clear Singer has little enthusiasm for the new kids, robbing the story of much of its impact.
42. Aquaman (dir. James Wan, 2018)
While I could take or leave Jason Momoa’s take on Aquaman, I love the sincerity that the entire cast brought to this film under the direction of James Wan. This movie works so much better employing earnestness than any ironic/self-aware Aquaman could ever manage. I particularly love Amber Heard as Mera, and she brings a ton of energy and fun to this movie that it would otherwise lack. Wan also clearly understands the potential of her powers far better than almost all of the comics I’ve read with her in it. And this has the best worldbuilding of any DCEU movie to date. The Brine Kingdom! The Trench! I can’t wait to go back for round two.
41. Dredd (dir. Pete Traivs, 2012)
Karl Urban–one of the most versatile actors working today–stars in the second adaptation of the character Judge Dredd from the British comic book anthology 2000 AD. I haven’t seen Sly’s version, so rather than compare the two, all you need to know is that this movie involves Dredd ascending an apartment block where the drug of choice changes everything into slow motion. The violence is extremely fun, and the tone is winkingly self-serious. May be the best movie on this list in terms of purely being an action movie first and a superhero film second.
40. Thor: Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)
The highs of Thor: Ragnarok are very high. If this movie was just Thor and Loki on Sakaar, trying to get out from under the thumb of The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), it would fare much higher on the list. The Asgard stuff, including much of the things involving Hela (Cate Blanchett), just doesn’t mesh with Waititi’s tone. The things that should be played dramatically, including Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) death, are underwhelming at best and almost disrespectful at worst. I know I am in the minority when it comes to the first two Thor films, but I think even without that bias, Ragnarok’s flaws are easy to spot. This movie is trying to be a hilarious superhero adventure, but the wraparound story is basically Thor’s Empire Strikes Back. He fails over and over, and doesn’t even feel like himself again until Avengers: Endgame. So that tonal mismatch just never feels like it gets reconciled. My original review.
39. Ant Man and the Wasp (dir. Peyton Reed, 2018)
A big improvement over the first film, Reed nails down the takes on these characters and then sets them loose on a chase within a chase within a chase within a chase. There’s no villain with a master plan here, just people who are shades of gray all competing towards the same goal. The comedy works better here having been tailored to the characters, and it just zips along. But it’s a shame the movie doesn’t have more Michelle Pfeiffer.
38. Thor: The Dark World (dir. Alan Taylor, 2013)
I acknowledge that there are major problems with Thor: The Dark World. But this movie actually kind of rules. The interplay between Odin (Hopkins), Thor (Hemsworth), Loki (Hiddleston), Jane (Portman), and Frigga (Russo) is great, with lots of passive-aggressive sniping. It’s played for comedy, but also has enough weight to show the characters changing and evolving. It’s great stuff, and highly entertaining.
The film has a longer exposition than is maybe needed (sort of like part 1 of a Doctor Who story), but from the Asgard escape onward, it really comes together as a fantastical action-adventure with characters that are great to spend time with. The back-and-forth between Thor, Loki, and Jane is enough to make up for the blandness of Malekith (Eccleston). And the finale that involves interplanetary portals is really fun, with great comedy and character moments as well as action.
37. Hulk (dir. Ang Lee, 2003)
Far stranger and more psychologically forward than maybe any other superhero film since, it stands out even more looking back in the 16 years of superhero cinema since this film. Split personalities, repression, father/son weirdness and more are all tossed into the Marvel iconography by Lee, and it becomes quite the literal and figural tempest.
The sense of tragedy that underlines the entire film is palpable, and this movie is basically a blend of a fair number of Universal monsters, namely Frankenstein, Werewolf, and Jekyll/Hyde. It’s a monster movie before it is a superhero film, and while Lee’s sometimes plodding pace makes the film feel longer than it is, it stands out even more compared to where the genre has been going since. There’s also more action than you remember, and it’s quite good.
36. Constantine (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2005)
Keanu Reeves as a supernatural detective alongside Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, and Tilda Swinton (playing an androngyous take on the archangel Gabriel) in what is basically a theological noir? Yes please! This movie is an underappreciated gem. While barely faithful to the comic version of John Constantine (even down to the name pronunciation), Reeves brings the jaded loner vibe to life with an incredible sense of calm. You really buy that Constantine has seen it all before, which helps sets the stakes for this film. The visuals here are also stunning, the demons are scary, and Hell is basically just a perpetually-on-fire Los Angeles. Lawrence also has some fun with the cinematography, but doesn’t go overboard. Like Constnatine, it walks that line, uncertain of which side it should be on.
35. Iron Man Three (dir. Shane Black, 2013)
I want to love Iron Man Three more than I do. While I love Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.) dealing with the emotional fallout of The Avengers, the Mandarin, and the last action sequence with all the Iron Man suits, there’s a few things that drag it down for me.
Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) was added to the story because Ike Pealmutter thought they couldn’t sell toys of a female villain as easily (Where are my Obadiah Stane and Justin Hammer action figures, Ike? Hmmm?), but is a total waste. And then it dives into cringe terrority when he goes shirtless, reveals a giant dragon chest tattoo and calls himself the real Mandarin. And his underlings range from blandly evil to innocent victim. I think. The whole point of the Extremis idea is that it was going to heal military veterans and other amputees, making them whole again or even super soldiers, but imperfections turned them into human bombs. But the film never articulates if everyone in this program (or in the AIM thinktank) was evil to begin with, or a rube that was manipulated (which means we should feel bad when they get exploded).
And then there is the way this film treats Pepper Potts. Yes, she is still in charge of the company, but she’s reduced to damsel-in-distress in the third act. Yes, having Killian literally want her as a trophy (but also murder her with Extremis injections?) makes him more of a slimeball, but this is already a dude who has a giant dragon chest tattoo. So redundant at best. Ditto for both Iron Man sequels having Rhodey’s suit being hijacked by the villains. So close and yet so far.
34. Shazam! (dir. David F. Sandberg, 2019)
As nice-forward as Paddington, but with enough humor to appeal to people of all ages, Shazam! is relatively simple at its core. Rather than trying to ground anything in reality, it embraces the idea of magic to explain everything. It’s refreshing. Only pedantic nerds care about how Aquaman can talk underwater, and the same principal is found here. Shazam! is more concerned about moral lessons and brightly colored spectacle than it is trying to create a sense of realism. It’s closer to Power Rangers than The Dark Knight. And that’s refreshing. There’s room for all kinds of tone and style in this genre and having Shazam! on the most earnest side of the spectrum feels perfect.
33. Thor (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2011)
The first Thor film is my exact weak spot. Not only is Thor my favorite Marvel comics character, but the grandiose Shakespearean family drama tempered by fish-out-of-water comedy just works for me. While Tom Hiddleston’s Loki gets a lot of the attention here, Chris Hemsworth’s presence and comedic timing is so good it often goes unnoticed. There’s a sense of casualness that helps to demonstrate his sense of power as well as contrast his Asgardian speaking style.
Natalie Portman as Jane Foster (updated from the comics’ nurse to an astrophysicist) is the kind of earnest scientist we rarely get to see portrayed by a woman on screen. And her performance is the key to selling Hemsworth’s Thor. The way that she reacts to him, even just the way she looks at him, that simple sense of awe, makes him appear that much more majestic. Jane sees him the same way she would a nebula, but tall and with killer abs. Sadly, after Thor, no other Marvel franchise would introduce romance as anything other than a third-tier subplot until 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. It is a staple of the superhero genre, and it’s seriously lacking from the Marvel films.
But we do need to talk about Loki. Branagh told Hiddleston to study Peter O’Toole for the kind of raw emotional intensity he wanted from the performance. And it comes across, which allows the film to highlight the similarities and differences between the two brothers. Thor is impulsive and quick to react with his hammer, while Loki is often seen as a schemer, planning moves ahead. In reality, much of Loki’s plan in this film feels improvised. And his raw, seething anger at Odin (as well as some opportunity with some too-convenient Odinsleep) is what propels a merry prank into near-regicide. I love Loki as opportunist rather than long-term schemer.
32. Watchmen (dir. Zack Snyder, 2009)
Long thought to be impossible to adapt, this is as close to a perfect Watchmen film that I can even imagine, considering so much of what makes Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work special is the way they employ the form of comic books as a medium to further the story and artistic deconstruction of the superhero genre. And so Zack Snyder’s version exists as an exceedingly faithful (with one major change) translation of the comic to the screen. As an adaptation of the main storylines of Watchmen, it brings those to film very successfully. Note, this is also the “Director’s Cut” and not the “Ultimate Edition” which includes ancillary material not overseen by Snyder.
From the death of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) through the flashbacks showing the history of masked heroes in this world and beyond, the first half of this movie is masterfully done. Controlled without being rigid, it feels like the Snyder’s more bombastic tendencies are reigned in, allowing the highlighting of character moments and iconography alike. All the way up through Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, in a chilling performance) getting arrested, this movie is deftly assembled, and most of the bombast occurs in flashbacks (all of the Vietnam stuff is kind of insane that it is even in this movie). The back half gets looser and more sloppy, and the main plot almost runs out of steam before we get to the actual climax, but part of the point of Watchmen is that the ending is so big that it almost feels anticlimactic and apocalyptic all at the same time. The main story change tries to make it more about character moments, which works, but the film as a whole feels like it slides across the line rather than getting to the top of the mountain when it should.
Watching it a decade later, I was struck by the feeling–given the brutal violence (some of it directly from the source material and some of it not), the harsh look at Cold War America, and the non-heroic actions of the hero characters–that it is difficult to imagine this movie coming out in 2019. It’s a bold movie, and mostly succeeds at being as provocative as the source material when examining our own culture.
31. Captain America: Civil War (dir. Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, 2016)
Weirdly, this might be the movie I’ve written the most words about (maybe not so weird, actually). What I love about this interpretation of the Civil War comic book is that it places the story firmly on the relationships between Iron Man, Captain America, and Bucky, while the other superheroes weave in and out of the film. I touch on more of this in a piece I wrote here when the film came out if you’d like to dive deeper into this dichotomy.
But I also need to talk about the Vision (Paul Bettany). Secretly, he is the best Avenger because he is a pink and green robot man who wears preppy sweaters and prints out recipes from the internet. Why does he need to print out the recipes? He’s a robot! The same reason he wears sweaters: he wants to be one of us.
30. Batman Begins (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2005)
I think the thing that Chris Nolan and writer David S. Goyer don’t get enough credit for with this trilogy is the worldbuilding. While it doesn’t suggest a broader DC universe, this Gotham City–an amalgamation of Chicago and some locations in London and elsewhere–feels like a city with a real history. The impact of Bruce Wayne’s family on the city at large is evident throughout the film, and helps to tell the grounded-in-reality version of Batman that is being told here.
Additionally, the film taps into both Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and Alfred (Michael Caine) as surrogate fathers for Bruce as well as Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) as a mirror for Batman. The film’s other major theme is overcoming fear, especially in regards to one’s own identity and place in the world. All of these weave together with Nolan’s love for taking something apart (in this case, Batman and his wonderful toys) and putting them back together to make a satisfying reboot.
29. The Lego Batman Movie (dir. Chris McKay, 2017)
Batman of all characters is well-suited to star in a movie that tells its story through toys because Batman exists fundamentally as the fantasy of a child. No rational adult even within superhero comics, upon seeing their parents murdered, would vow that they are declaring war on crime by putting on a bat-themed costume and punching crime in the face. Especially when they could just use their billions of dollars to try and solve the problem. But because Bruce Wayne made a promise to his parents as a small child, this revenge fantasy shapes every single Batman story ever told. It isn’t always this pronounced (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm deals with this most directly), but it is the core to understanding what motivates Batman.
With a full understanding of this, The Lego Batman Movie puts front and center Batman overcoming his fear of being part of a family again via the accidental adoption of Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). This emotional story is backed by a ton of wonderful gags and tributes to virtually every interpretation of Batman and his rogues gallery. The sheer amount of Batman references and silliness this throws out is amazing, but the single reason this is ranked so high might be the parent-petulant child relationship this movie shows between Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) and Batman (Will Arnett).
28. Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir. Joss Whedon, 2015)
It would be easy to say that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a bad movie. There’s too much plot, too many new characters, a villian whose motivation seems to change randomly throughout, too many connections to other films, and pacing that is scattershot at best. All of these criticisms are true and valid, and it makes some of the other films in this franchise look positively elegant by comparison. But honestly, these flaws are part of why I love it.
Because more than any other film that Marvel has released so far, Age of Ultron feels like a modern comic book story. Major comic storylines are often dreamed up by creators and then added onto by editorial in order to tie in with other series, often interrupting those stories or spinning out new series to try to drive sales. But sometimes, there’s magic in them, which is why fans like me keep coming back over and over again. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m grading on a curve here, because I really enjoy comics, and this is far messier and try hard than we usually get from summer blockbusters these days.
27. The Incredibles 2 (dir. Brad Bird, 2018)
When compared to the original film, The Incredibles 2 is a bit more relaxed, the emotional stakes are lower, and it is ultimately a more fun film to watch. The original is a better film for the risks it takes and how it succeeds from taking those risks, but there’s room for both kinds of movies, and the sequel is exactly what it should be: new problems to solve while building on what came before.
It also takes the original film’s “what it means to be a person gifted with super abilities” question and moves it forward. Now that they’ve decided to do good, what happens when doing good requires breaking the law? And what if the only way to break the law is to change it? This question is as old as political philosophy itself, of course, but it is something that many other superhero films take for granted, and The Incredibles 2 adds the additional question of how to handle setting an example for children in this regard. It’s a complicated question, and Bird does a fantastic job having the characters live their interpretation of it.
The other major thing The Incredibles 2 does that sets it apart from so many other superhero films we’ve gotten recently is how much the heroes in the film enjoy being superheroes. I am mostly thinking of the main family and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) here, but they all feel a pride in their superheroics in a way that we only usually get from Spider-Man. My favorite scene in the film is after Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) stops the runaway train and she calls Bob (Craig T. Nelson) on the phone. The scene is played for comedy, as Mr. Incredible is jealous that his wife is earning media coverage and praise from her work while he is a stay-at-home dad, but her enthusiasm and pride in her accomplishment is infectious.
26. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (dir. Aaron Horvath, Peter Rida Michail, 2018)
The funniest movie on this list! Yes, there is body humor aimed squarely at the juvenile demographic, but there is also whip-smart meta-humor about the state of superhero cinema and deep cut DC characters I am still shocked made it into the film (Challengers of the Unknown, what?). Loving parody that runs through the film, from great Aquaman jokes to sending up Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it is all in good fun.
And of course it tells a heartwarming story about accepting yourself, but it gets there via time travel to save Batman and Superman’s parents, and a musical number literally titled “Upbeat Inspirational Song About Life” sung by Michael Bolton.