Ranked: Every Superhero Movie (All 104!) from 2000-2019 - Part 4
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 25-1. Links to the rest are at the bottom.
So. Here. We. Go:
25. Avengers: Infinity War (dir. Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, 2018)
This movie is sweaty. Not only did I feel slightly hungover after my first viewing, just from the length and the amount of things crammed into this jumping around movie, but even after a decade and dozens of movies to set this up, it still feels like Marvel had to sprint the last few miles of the marathon to get us to The Snap. And getting there is well worth it. While it makes Endgame look positively elegant in comparison, the film accomplishes more than that film in terms of screentime with unlikely pairings and crossovers. Read my original review.
24. Big Hero 6 (dir. Don Hall, Chris Williams, 2014)
This film is ranked so highly because of one reason: Baymax (Scott Adsit). Not only is Baymax the most huggable robot in cinematic history, but also one of the most lovable. He exists for the purpose of caring for others, but because he is an automaton, he really exists to facilitate the self-care we all badly need and too often neglect. And beyond Baymax, the film is equal parts heartwarming (it is rare that a movie aimed at children deals with grief in such a head-on approach) and hilarious.
23. Spider-Man: Far From Home (dir. Jon Watts, 2019)
Excerpted from my original review:
Like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Far From Home is chiefly about Peter trying to balance his life between his civilian identity and what he feels are his responsibilities as Spider-Man. Many of the best Spider-Man stories are centered on this theme, with the idea that if things are going well for Peter, they probably aren’t going well for Spider-Man, and vice versa, so it doesn’t feel like a rehash. Fury represents the necessity of Spider-Man, and pressures Peter into feeling that his high school concerns are beneath him, and don’t really matter (Fury also represents adulthood in this film). Like Homecoming, Far From Home leans into being a high school movie, deploying tropes from those films deftly while keeping the relationships firmly grounded in 2019 social dynamics and humor.
Also like Homecoming, much of Peter’s problems in Far From Home are self-made. This Spider-Man frequently makes mistakes when it comes to modulating the power/responsibility dynamic, but his willingness to own up to his mistakes makes him heroic. By now, he has also learned the lesson from the previous film and knows that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, and he need not go it alone. How director Jon Watts is executing this growth arc for Peter isn’t all that different from any other superhero, but Holland is so earnest and fun that it is exciting to watch him learn and grow.
And Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio, my favorite Spider-Man villain, gives a great performance in a character nicely adapted from page to the MCU.
22. Glass (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2019)
I love this movie, and there’s a chance it will make my end of year list come December. While some may be disappointed with it, Shyamalan provides a perfect ending piece to his superhero trilogy. More than anything, Glass is about coming to believe that your identity is not a mistake. Shyamalan sets this search for identity against the backdrop of storytelling conventions from superhero comic books, but the struggles are emotional rather than physical. Glass uses these tropes as a model for us to deal with our own struggles in life. Each of us has our own struggles, whether they be with anxiety, depression, addiction, or something else. And each time we best these demons, we are super. Read more of my writing about Glass here.
21. Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, 2017)
The film borrows its structure heavily from Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman. By opening with Diana’s childhood, we understand what has shaped her unique perspective. The scenes set on Themyscira are just gorgeous, and the island feels like a real place with its own society, and brings enough of the fantastic due to the small details and the overwhelming natural beauty, with its lush colors and bright blues. The film switches color palettes immediately when we enter into the “real” world dominated by grays and overall desaturation. Probably the most obvious use of color since The Matrix. It begs to be noticed, and in this genre, that is entirely appropriate.
Additionally, the film chooses its time period well to maximize thematic resonance, as Wonder Woman uses the First World War to convey the horrors of modern warfare. The hopelessness of a continent ripped apart by siege and the notion of “acceptable losses” are front and center. By not glamorizing warfare, Wonder Woman only enhances the courage of the film’s heroes. The film’s few flaws are a lackluster third act showdown, and it wouldn’t be ranked this high if many of the other films on this list didn’t share that issue. Jenkins is in total command of both the characters and the action in this movie, and I am beyond excited for the sequel.
20. Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder, 2013)
I’ve really come around on this movie. It has taken over five viewings in the last six years since its release, but I think this is actually an underappreciated film on a few counts. While this is another superhero movie that focuses on My Two Dads (like Batman Begins), neither Jor-El (an excellent Russell Crowe) or Pa Kent (Kevin Costner, in Iowa cornfield mode) provide Clark/Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill) with the answers he needs. And that’s an interesting take. Man of Steel is a movie about self-identity and finding one’s place in the world. This Superman is a known outsider from the beginning, and much of the film requires him to choose in trusting his genetic (Kryptonian) heritage or his upbringing (human). And in deciding to be Superman, he sort of rejects both. While I don’t love this portrayal of Pa Kent, his distrust of humanity isn’t unjustified. And so Superman decides to find his own way, taking a leap of faith to try to bring out the good in people and earn their trust.
This is what makes this bold vision for Superman. The character should always be an inspiration above all else. Often, like young Clark, we might feel that the world is “too big.” As mere mortals, we may not be able to stop climate change, war, or any of these other major crises on our own. But we can do small things. We can work with others to accomplish bigger things. It starts by finding that center, grounding yourself in what is tangible, even if means shutting out the rest of the world for a little while to preserve your sense of sanity.
Sure, this movie’s final fight goes on far too long, and the plot is overly convoluted (a shagginess it also shares with Nolan’s trilogy), but it’s far more interesting film than Snyder gets credit for, and if we had gotten a true sequel that paid off the character set up in this film, I have no doubt both would be great examples of Superman stories. So yes, it feels incomplete, and what is here requires getting past a bunch of odd choices and logical gaps, but it is worth it.
19. Hellboy (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2003)
Both of Guillermo del Toro’s films are wonderfully tactile, using his fondness for creature effects and makeup to set a superhero story that mashes up monsters and mythology as well. It gives the movie a wonderful reality to tell a story that is equal parts paranormal investigation and romance. Ron Perlman embodies the title character perfectly, a great combination between world-weary bravado and lonely wistfulness. And he has great chemistry on screen with Selma Blair. Both of them, along with Abe Sapien (body by Doug Jones, voice by David Hyde Pierce) being outsiders, is reinforced here as Hellboy is a monster continually forced to reckon with what separates him from the monsters he fights on our behalf.
18. Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau, 2008)
All of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films deal with the idea of legacies and father figures in some way. Every single one of them. Iron Man starts that right out of the gate. At the core of Tony Stark’s character is that he lost his father, but he is the “prodigal son” who returned to take over his father’s company. His need to rebel against his heritage because he feels he can never live up to the expectations of his father can be traced through all of the Marvel films, and comes to a violent head in Civil War and a final resolution with his own father and fatherhood in Endgame. More so than magical rocks, Tony Stark is the through-line for the first 11 years of the MCU.
Looking back at the movie, what is most remarkable is how much fun it is to watch. Favreau’s improvisational style on set is perfectly balanced with his aptitude for playing with special effects, and of course Robert Downey, Jr. is note-perfect here. Iron Man feels like a true pivot point for the genre, where the mass audience was on board with the genre for film-to-film regardless of the individual character’s name recognition.
17. X2 (dir. Bryan Singer, 2003)
Bryan Singer’s tenure on the X-Men movies is long enough to make the top 20 of this list as well as the bottom 10. Think about that! Anyway, the opening of X2 is still incredible! Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming and his stuntmen) leaping and teleporting through the White House clearly shows that everyone had seen The Matrix. It is a great example of a sequence that is heavily influenced by the Wachowskis without using "Bullet Time" directly. And it is the most recent time Singer was truly pushing the comic book movie forward as a clever mix of film techniques and superpowers. Stryker’s men invading the school also remains one of the best action sequences in the series.
Beyond that, this is the first superhero film that feels like a superhero team all working together, since the first film introduced the core characters almost one by one. X2 is also clever about how it puts the X-Men on the defensive yet again, making the stakes feel more personal than the abstract stakes of the first film (neither choice is bad, but I like that this doesn’t feel like a repeat of the first film. Teaming up with Magneto and team is also one that pays off, and still feels fresh even with so many films coming after, because of the weight that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan bring to their roles. And since the characters are all established, with the exceptions of Nightcrawler and the antagonists, X2 is able to just let them bounce off each other and put them in new situations, which also adds to their characterizations, important in a franchise where every film is a team movie. However, while most of my criticisms of the film feel like nitpicks, having the X-Men (and Magneto) abandon Jason Stryker–an innocent–to the destruction at Alkali Lake seems like a big oversight by the filmmakers.
16. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2008)
This is the same as the first film, except better. Taking our heroes from the previous film from monster movies and moving them into a fairy tale, it doubles down on del Toro’s own instincts for storytelling. The clockwork visuals here are practically immaculate, with the design, action scenes, and other visual elements still the high water mark of del Toro’s career. Also carried forward are the character dynamics, with even more of a sort of Fantastic Four vibe of a loving family that enjoys teasing each other among the main cast. The film also has a rare kind of ending for this kind of film, focusing on smaller character moments rather than going for giant spectacle.
15. Logan (dir. James Mangold, 2017)
When this movie was released two years ago (although, thanks to the state of the world, it feels like a lifetime ago) I was not ready for it. Like many kids who grew up in the 90s, I've been an X-Men fan since the first animated series. But maybe more importantly, I’d been living with these versions of the characters for the last 17 years. I saw the first X-Men with my father the summer between 8th grade and high school. I watched this movie for the first time at 31 years old with Jill (my wife of nearly three years by then). I remember her turning to me both during and after the movie asking if I was okay, seeing me wipe my tears away multiple times using the hood from my sweatshirt. I didn’t realize what saying goodbye to these depictions of these characters would mean to me.
I wasn’t emotionally prepared to think about how this movie would affect me. The Marvel Cinematic Universe started right as I graduated college, so that experience is solely as an adult. And I have some powerful memories tied to my experiences seeing various Batman and Spider-Man films, but this truly spans a long chunk of my life. And because this movie is a raw, final goodbye to both Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier, it hit me right in my nostalgia centers with that mix of melancholy and joy that reflection can bring.
But one of the reasons the film had that effect is because it is so deeply rooted in character. The moments of goodbye are earned every step of the way. This is the best written X-Men by far, feeling like a smaller scale Western (there, I said it) rather than focusing on action. But the film isn’t just a prolonged bout with sadness. It is, in the end, hopeful, joyful movie, and so much of that comes from the use of Laura (Dafne Keen). She doesn’t really understand that long trajectory I mentioned, but yet Logan and Xavier treat her like family. She is their legacy, the hope they leave behind. I’m sure there’s a Yoda quote from The Last Jedi that captures that better than I could.
14. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (dirs. Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, 2014)
Unlike the other members of the Avengers, Captain America has only one member of the supporting characters from his first film still around in the present day, and Peggy Carter is very well advanced in age (Hayley Atwell reprises her role under CGI “makeup”). So a sequel leans on the participation of existing characters Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), as well as adding new supporting characters. But this film is also very much about Captain America (Chris Evans) figuring out his place in modern times. He may be aware of the internet, but who is Steve Rogers in 2014?
One of the best choices that MCU architects Markus and McFeely made was in leaning into Sam Wilson’s (Anthony Mackie) status as a veteran, and using that to build common ground with Captain America in a situation when Steve Rogers can’t trust anyone is a brilliant piece of writing. And it plays into the main theme of all three Captain America films: the people in power can’t be trusted to have our best interests at heart. Drone warfare, espionage, and tactical brinkmanship all play into the story here, and it’s veterans that protect us, not the armed forces as a whole.
Winter Soldier famously draws inspiration from 70s political thrillers. It’s a great choice, and the Russo brothers are wonderful mimics of the form. This film has a gritty, bluish look to it, and occasionally feels like it is being filmed in Washington, DC. The action mostly works, and the quick-cutting here feels more stylistic than it does in the Russo’s Civil War. The opening scene on the boat is probably the most genuinely thrilling in the film, but I might be biased because of how much I love Batroc the Leaper (they even put him in subtle purple and gold like his comics costume).
13. Unbreakable (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2014)
I adore this movie, and wrote about it for the release of Glass earlier this year:
There are many ways to define one’s identity, and over the course of the film, David struggles as a security guard, a father, and a husband, and later as a potential hero. Unbreakable teaches us that this struggle is valid, but wrapping ourselves in the bold panache of superheroes in order to escape one’s struggle is not the trait of a hero, but that of a villain who puts establishing his own identity not only above reality, but above human lives.
12. Avengers: Endgame (dirs. Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, 2019)
From my Avengers: Endgame review a few months back:
Endgame foregrounds the Marvel Cinematic Universe as one big crazy family. Every character in the film, from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), is motivated to protect or avenge their family, whether a traditional family like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) or their superhero as family, like Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) or Rocket (Bradley Cooper).
And with this aim in mind, MCU architects–screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely–have mined the existing tapestry of films for ways to pull these threads together in a way that will delight longtime fans. Which they should. This is the film to pay off all of the groundwork laid by the previous 22 films. If Endgame doesn’t lead to dramatic payoffs on a grand scale, then what is even the point of having a franchise that exists like this?
But this is also where the film surprised me. Typically these Marvel films barely have room to breathe, each scene punctuated with an action beat or a quippy line to carry us through to a new scene. This is rarely true of Endgame, the first time that you could call one of these crossover films an actor’s movie. The film gives ample time to all of the core cast. Each of them has been put through the ringer, trying to deal with their sense of loss and failure, and each is allowed to deal with it in their own way while giving what might be their best performances in the entire series. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) moved on. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Natasha do not. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) isolates himself and self-medicates. We get even deeper glimpses into the psyche of these characters than we’ve ever gotten before.
11. Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn, 2014)
The speed and confidence with which Guardians of the Galaxy moves the action forward, while introducing five main characters (plus Karen Gillen’s Nebula) and give each of them their own distinct personalities, motivations, and arc is incredible! The performances help sell it of course (who knew Dave Bautista would be so funny?), but the bones of it are in the script. I just love this band of self-described “losers” (because they have all suffered great loss) all seeking an emotional connection while remaining resentful of the universe that created them. They’re all so incredibly damaged, but they end up doing heroic things because their experience shows that they can’t trust anyone else to do it.
At the center of it all is Rocket Raccoon. He is the character that typifies the film, clearly showing how much he cares about others while vehemently denying it. He is a great looking CGI character (the only time Marvel rivals the newer Planet of the Apes films) and Bradley Cooper gives the performance of his career in bringing this trash panda to life. Rocket’s scenes on Knowhere are the true heart of the film, bringing the maximum amount of depth and humanity to this talking raccoon.
10. The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008)
This piece that Garrett wrote last year for our countdown of the best Summer Blockbusters of the past 25 years really hits the nail on the head concerning my own feelings on The Dark Knight:
In Nolan’s construction of Gotham, chaos is ever-present. The Joker never arrives in Gotham; in the opening shots of the movie we find that he’s already there. And the Joker never leaves Gotham; the last time we see The Joker, he’s hanging upside down outside of a building, defeated only temporarily. Chaos doesn’t just surround Gotham, it lives inside it, forever embroiling the citizens in fear. Nolan uses a classic Hollywood set-up to investigate potential solutions to this chaos - he gives us three men with distinctly different philosophies who have to work together to try and solve the same problem. In Gordon we have the pragmatist, a man willing to fake his own death and traumatize his family to gain footing over The Joker. Early in the movie he tells Dent that he doesn’t have the luxury of ideals, he has to work with what he’s got. Whereas in Dent we do have the idealist, who truly believes in his cause and the lawful means he uses, but also idolizes Batman for being able to fight dirty, something he’s comfortable with as long as it lines up with his ideals. And in Batman we have a man bound by a code of ethics that he believes justify his means - as long as he sticks to his code, any action he takes is justifiable. And it’s interesting to note that he idolizes Dent, a man able to do the work he’s doing by the books, and without a mask. That is actually Batman’s ideal, but one that was taken from him as a viable solution with his parents.
In re-watching The Dark Knight, I was surprised to find that Nolan seems to have criticisms of each of these philosophies. It’s Dent’s idealism that makes him vulnerable. The fact that he is willing to work with Batman means his idealism knows no bounds and can be used against him, to corrupt him. It’s Gordon’s pragmatism that keeps him two steps behind The Joker at every turn. By its very definition, there is no way to outwit chaos, especially if you’re only looking at what’s directly in front of you, rather than the bigger picture and the consequences that will come with your actions. And while you could argue that Batman’s code, which prevents him from forcefully removing chaos and creating order, is thusly a bad thing, it’s actually his belief that anything else he does is justifiable, including surveillance of the entire population of Gotham, that makes him just as dangerous as The Joker. His code ultimately makes him corruptible, as it’s the only thing holding him back from becoming a different form of chaos - order by rule of fear.
Add to that incredible action filmmaking, and this movie is truly a cinematic force, and deserves its reputation, even if it pushes against the notion of what a superhero movie is (in a good way).
9. X-Men: First Class (dir. Matthew Vaugn, 2011)
Vaughn’s film is one of the best prequels ever for a few reasons, chief among them is making this film a period piece. While Tim Burton’s Batman was a pastiche of time periods and stylistic influences, First Class was the first superhero movie to anchor its story in a specific time and place (beating a movie even higher up on this list by a couple months). Vaughn sets the film in 1962, and uses this to inform the feel of the film, including the music, uniforms that pop with yellow and blue, and some of the best jackets this side of Star Wars.
None of this would work if First Class didn't also have perfect casting. Michael Fassbender as a Nazi-hunting Magneto remains one of the best casting choices in a superhero movie ever, and proves once and for all that the Master of Magnetism is by far the franchise's most interesting character. Fassbender is the best part of each X-film that he shows up in, but he has by far the most to do in this first outing. James McAvoy as a cocky, yet self-doubting Xavier is a much more interesting choice than we might have gotten in a lesser film, since Xavier is usually depicted in the films as pretty saintly. McAvoy has the chops to pull off the complexities of the character and also not make the telepathy look silly. And building the film around these two as friends makes their eventual disagreement that much more powerful.
And while the connections to other civil rights struggles aren’t as pronounced as they are in later films (the public that hates and fears them don’t know mutants exist yet), it was well poised to take that on in a follow up film if Singer hadn’t pushed his way back in. The only other flaw with this film is that it doesn’t do great justice to its female characters besides Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), and Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert feels especially wasted looking back now.
8. Spider-Man 2 (dir. Sam Raimi, 2004)
For a long time, this movie would have sat at the top of this list for me, and neck and neck and neck with Donner’s Superman and the next movie on this list for the all-time top spot. But one of the benefits of having so many entries in the genre as of late is that this isn’t even the highest-ranked Spider-Man movie on this list! That’s not a slight against this film at all, which I will always love.
Everything present in the first Raimi Spider-Man is done even better in the second. The melodrama is even more heightened, and Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship is really put through the ringer. All in the name of trying to answer if there is room for both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Coupled with this is the threat of Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), perhaps the most sympathetic villain in any film. He seems like a good person: loving marriage, successful scientist, able to make a joke, and give life advice. But a combination of ego, hubris, and a faulty ‘inhibitor chip’ turn him into someone willing to burn everything down just to prove that he’s right. Spider-Man 2 is a cautionary tale with no easy answers, merely urging us to give as much as we can without destroying ourselves. That’s not an easy thing to convey, but Raimi and writer Alvin Sargent manage to do so in the context of delivering some of the most incredible action the genre has to offer. .
As in his first Spider-effort, Raimi shows us a New York as it should be, and fills it with superheroics, horror-style camerawork, and an abundance of love. This is a filmmaker working at the top of his game and bringing a timeless version of a beloved character to life.
7. The Incredibles (dir. Bad Bird, 2004)
I revisited this film for the first time in a number of years ahead of last year’s sequel:
The Incredibles is the kind of film where familiarity with it masks all the weird things about it. This film–ostensibly aimed at children–cribs from Watchmen and James Bond, and spends most of its screen time on following the dynamics of a marriage. So weird. Yes, the film boasts a vibrant color palette and a precocious child superhero, as well as some moments of great physical comedy, but the majority is more concerned with midlife crisis, insurance companies, and how superheroes affect the world.
Director Brad Bird sets his sights on fitting these characters into their world. Not only do the action scenes perfectly show the geography of the environment, but animation requires that everything be designed. There is no option to film on location. And so Bird and team put a lot of effort into designing the perfect mid-century modern world. The Parr home is a work of art, as is Syndrome’s (Jason Lee) Bond island (heavily inspired by Ken Adam’s work on James Bond and Dr. Strangelove). Leaning into the designed world, as well as the huge variety of character shapes makes The Incredibles also an excellent example of world building.
The Incredibles is the kind of film where every choice seems to be the correct one. It bursts with creative spirit, clever ideas, and honest engagement with ideas. And surprisingly for mainstream entertainment, doesn’t prescribe a solution, either. It wants to make you think while dazzling you with spectacle.
6. Captain America: The First Avenger (dir. Joe Johnston, 2011)
Joe Johnston was absolutely the correct choice to direct this first Captain America film. Not only was he the art director for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he also directed The Rocketeer, which was a 1930s period action film with a key fantastical element. All three of these films share a dieselpunk aesthetic–featuring science fiction machines that resemble the creations of history–as well as a strong sense of pulp adventure that drops cynicism from the equation in order to balance the inherent darkness of World War II. This extends to the casting choices, as Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers perfectly embodies this contrast, while also not seeming too naive. Rogers chooses to fight because of how important it is, rather than personal glory. Sure, he’s a wide-eyed kid from Brooklyn, but it is his moral and ethical code that requires him to go to war, not personal glory. Of course, that is what makes him a hero, even before he gets the super-soldier serum.
Johnston and Marvel put a lot of care into making sure this movie worked. First Avenger is arguably one of the riskiest films in this whole series given the period setting and the concern that general audiences would be bored by Captain America’s lack of complexity. So Marvel went and got the big guns for supporting roles. The first act of this film relies heavily on Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones to deliver a huge amount of exposition, but also ground a film that has to move quickly in order to hit all of the story being covered. Both are restrained (even with Tucci’s thick German accent), and Jones manages to get just enough out of the strock ‘army commander who doesn’t have the patience for bull’ to ground the more outlandish elements of the film in the realistic war scenario. He’s like a crabby uncle that doesn’t have time for this nonsense, but he still clearly cares for those around him. He’s also a great foil for Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, even if they never share a scene (it comes out best when he tears into a steak in front of Toby Jones’ Arnim Zola in the way they view war and power).
Each of these supporting characters has their own story, but Peggy Carter is the most interesting of them all. Hayley Atwell is a great choice, and is able to show a few different aspects to the character over the course of the film. Yes, she develops romantic feelings for Steve Rogers, but she also demonstrates her frustration with how women are treated in this time period, as well as an unflappable confidence. It keeps her character from feeling like she is there as the love interest, and again, allows the story to develop this idea, until we get to the heartbreaking moments at the end of the film, which left such an impression on the fans that it drove where Cap’s story ended in Endgame.
This film sets out to accomplish so much, and the fact that it succeeds as well as it does is impressive even 7 years later. This includes the effect of pre-transformation Steve, which still looks great. The rushed pacing results in a bit of overusing montage, but it is hard to argue against having such a long first act, especially given it is establishing a character that needs to carry across so many films. So my biggest complaint is that the movie should have been longer. Or more movies.
5. The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2012)
This is my favorite film in Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The more I think about it, the more certain I am of this opinion. And not just because I have an extreme soft spot for Anne Hathaway and she plays Selina Kyle/Catwoman. In part, it is because superheroes never get an ending in comics, except in “imaginary stories” (as they were known in the 1950s). My favorite of these types of stories in the comics is from writer Alan Moore and classic Superman artist Curt Swan called “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” It tells the final story of this version of Superman before DC rebooted its entire line with Crisis on Infinite Earths and had John Byrne reintroduce Superman for the modern era of 1986. While the story runs the gamut from heart-wrenching to heartwarming, it does find a way to give Clark Kent a happy ending, even if Superman doesn’t get one.
The Dark Knight Rises performs a similar task for Bruce Wayne. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” brings in a parade of allies and villains for a final goodbye, as does this movie. It brings back the League of Shadows from Begins with Talia (Marion Cotillard) and Bane (Tom Hardy) to challenge Batman’s effectiveness by doubling down on the institutional attacks by the Joker in the previous film. Here, Bane is cast as a wannabe dictator masquerading as a populist revolutionary (in addition to being a physical threat for a broken Batman). Beyond these “imaginary” ending stories, Nolan drew on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as well as some of the most famous modern Batman comics, including The Dark Knight Returns, “Knightfall,” and “No Man’s Land.” The Dickens influence shapes the thematic elements of the film, with Talia and Bane enacting a “reign of terror” upon Gotham under the guise of speaking for the people. In reality, of course, they are just as thuggish as the elites they have replaced.
Meanwhile, Selina Kyle seeks a “clean slate” computer program that will erase a person’s digital trail, the name of which unsubtly points to the philosophical Tabula Rasa, positing that people are born with a blank moral code that is filled in by experience. Not only does the clean slate offer an escape for both Kyle and Wayne, but also ties back to Dickens’ novel, which wrestles with the question of people being able to make a clean break with their past. Not the vengeful feminist from Burton’s version, this Catwoman is equal parts Hedy Lamarr femme fatale and promise of that blank slate for Bruce Wayne.
While The Dark Knight is a great exploration of ideology and institutions, Rises is Nolan’s comic book epic. It is one of the few films in this genre that captures the feeling of a longrunning, epic story told over many issues of a comic with all the twists and turns that implies. And I love that this makes it unique within Nolan’s trilogy as well.
4. Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018)
I’m pretty sure I could just write “Wakanda Forever!” here with the right number of exclamation points and everyone would understand why this movie is ranked so high. But regardless, here is where I argued it should have won Best Picture at the Oscars:
As a newly crowned king, T’Challa wrestles with what Wakanda’s role in the world should be. The country has been isolationist in the extreme as a way to protect itself from colonialism, but at the cost of not helping others around the world. Is this an abdication of leadership? Wrapped up in this is the comparative upbringing between the two men. T’Challa grew up a prince in a country that has hoverbikes and supersuits. Killmonger grew up in Oakland, entering military service and performing unspeakable deeds as his way of lashing out against his oppressors while still working for them. With his final line, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage,” Killmonger wraps himself in this righteous anger at the nearly half-century of exploitation black people have suffered in America. His ideology is twisted by his personal vendetta, but nonetheless it represents a challenge to T’Challa. The entire movie has been our title character trying to figure out what kind of king he will be, especially since following in his father’s footsteps no longer feels like a viable option. He may not solve everything, but by the end of the film he has made a first step.
I would have felt well justified in placing any of films in this top four in the top slot of this list. And the more times I watch Black Panther, the more I am impressed with the way Coogler brings together the MCU planks laid down in Civil War (before he was hired), his undeniable command of blockbuster filmmaking and writing, and his own perspective. Casting the story of the struggle over the kingship of a fictional never-colonized African country through an African-American lens via the villain’s point of view remains a masterstroke.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (dir. James Gunn, 2017)
While the first Guardians of the Galaxy film sets up the family dynamic, this second one takes it even further. First, we have Peter (Chris Pratt) having to meet his father, a Celestial named Ego (Kurt Russell) and reconcile his resentment toward his absenteeism as well as confront even darker truths about his own heritage. It’s a huge step forward for Peter becoming his own person, confronting his past, and accepting more about who he truly is. And rejecting Ego is only the first layer of that. The second layer is his reconciliation with Yondu (Michael Rooker), his surrogate father from the time he was a small child taken from Earth. But before we get to that, we get to spend a lot more time with Yondu, the other Ravagers, and Rocket (Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel).
It’s important to remember that Yondu’s characterization doesn’t change from the previous film, but it is deepened here, showing a caring man broken by the only environment in which he was successful. Peter (and so a lesser extent, Kraglin, also played by Sean Gunn) is his only real success story, and both are vital to him finding his own redemption before dying a hero’s death. Rocket, the heart of this series (and rivaling Thor or Captain America for the beating heart of the entire MCU), plays a wonderful foil to Yondu, with the latter showing him that pushing people away only ends in loneliness. This is also reflected in the evolving relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillen), who come to a mutual respect and understanding. The way that Gunn teases out all of this information over the course of the film, criss-crossing among the storylines, letting the audience piece it together just at the right moments, is masterful.
Add to that Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha, the leader of a gold-skinned race of people who wage war via remote drones that sound like video games, and action even more choreographed to music (I wanted to call out a single example and couldn’t decide between the “Mr. Blue Sky,” “The Chain,” and “Come a Little Bit Closer” sequences, though the Fleetwood Mac song is used twice and lampshades a lot of the film’s themes.
2. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (dirs. Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, Rodney Rothman, 2018)
“Anyone can wear the mask.”
With that core message, this is the Ratatouille of Spider-Man movies, because it is all about Spider-Man as an idea, a mantle to be taken on because we are all called to do good in our communities, whether or not it involves web-slinging. Through the course of this story, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) overcomes a lot of his fears, confronts his complex family dynamics, and gains confidence. In his case, putting on the mask is a way for him to accept his own identity, self-actualizing, even while following in the path of the previous Peter Parker (Chris Pine). One detail about Miles I love is that he is the son of a cop (Brian Tyree Henry) and a nurse (Luna Lauren Velez). He doesn’t need to see an Uncle Ben figure die in order to understand the “great power and great responsibility” credo, because both of his parents are already vocational helpers. As Spider-Man, Miles is following not only in Peter Parker’s footsteps, but also his parents’.
To further explore the idea that anyone can wear the mask, the film brings in other versions of Spider-Man from other dimensions: Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), dishevelled, cynical Spider-Man, Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), who easily seems like the most competent Spider-Person, but doesn’t want to get close to anyone, Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), who is from a black and white universe, Peni Parker (Kamiko Glenn), who has a psychic bond with her robot SP//dr, and Spider-Ham, aka Peter Porker (John Mulaney), who is from a Looney Toons-style world. They don’t show up until nearly the second half of the film, giving us plenty of time with Miles, but they act as both a challenge for him to look up to as well as an inspiration.
But for a middle-aged white guy viewer, I connected strongly with Peter B. Parker. He’s made a lot of mistakes long his way, and the heartbreak of finding himself in a world where another version of him did everything right–and also ended up dead, leaving Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz) a widow here as well as his ex back home–is palpable. This is the kind of story (like Shazam!) that shows that darker elements can find their way into these stories without taking over the film’s tone. Every story choice in this film is crisp and bolsters the other choices.
All of that earns it this spot, but the film is also a visual...marvel, combining art styles from comic books, street art, and several different kinds of animation into a unique experience. The colors are vibrant, the action is exceptionally well shown, and it just captures the feeling of life through animation.
1. The Avengers (dir. Joss Whedon, 2012)
The reason this film reigns supreme is because this film simultaneously tells an accessible, well-constructed story while also demonstrating the benefits one of the genre’s major contributions (for better or worse) to modern blockbuster filmmaking: the shared universe. It captures the comic book inspiration for attempting to bring all of these characters together while also remaining a single film.
How it pulls that off is that The Avengers is essentially a long first act of exposition followed by one of the greatest action sequences ever committed to film. We open with a prologue that establishes the villain (Loki), and the scale of the threat (the Tesseract can rip open holes in space, regular humans barely escape with their lives). Then we move onto getting the team together while establishing the relationships between our heroes. Whedon’s skill is seen in getting the distilling nature of these relationships down perfectly.
Even as a comics fan, the relationship between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo) was a revelation, and is a reminder that one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s strengths is to use the comics to inform the characterizations of the films, but not as a bible. While many of Marvel’s superheroes are the byproduct of science-based accidents, Stark seeing them each as people who carry a burden but handle them differently is a brilliant insight. And with or without Loki’s influence, Steve and Tony’s relationship is the core of these films from this point forward. They have opposing points of view in this film, and by the time of Civil War, have reversed positions entirely in a way that feels believable, with Cap even more cynical about government power, and Tony feeling even more helpless in the face of what he sees as a huge responsibility. While one could dismiss much of Whedon’s dialogue as overly quippy, all of the verbal jabs are grounded in each character and their own perspective.
And then there’s that action sequence in New York. It is still the best superhero action sequence in any film, with an excellent sense of geography and a perfect mix of thrills and character moments. Seeing the team come together before our eyes remains extremely satisfying. And while Whedon’s script gives them all a personal grudge against Loki, their priority remains saving civilians from threats that regular people can’t contend with. It’s an aspect of the genre too often forgotten (even in Marvel’s own films) when trying to manage the finale’s emotional stakes for the heroes.
The entire film was shot in 1.85:1–as decided by Whedon cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement)–which results in a taller, but less wide picture, but helps capture everyone from the Hulk to Scarlett Johansson within the same frame. And it also keeps the literal height of the battlefield in scope as the camera zips around midtown Manhattan. From the streets up to the rooftops, those pans where we move from Hawkeye to Hulk, to Iron Man, to Captain America, the aspect ratio is easy to reference where everyone is in relation to each other. It’s a perfect filmmaking choice that echoes the needs of the story and action.
Even revisiting parts of this film earlier this year in Endgame only reinforced not only how far the MCU has come from this movie, but that this is the moment that distinguished this project from every film in the genre before it, and has shaped every superhero movie after it. As a comics fan, I still hate that they made us wait 7 more years to let Chris Evans say “Avengers...Assemble!” But as a film fan, this is the movie that shows how cinematic this genre can be.