Every summer brings us a new superhero movie, muscular and flexing for your wallet. But before you flinch, drop that attitude: several of these blockbusters have been excellent action movies, redeeming Hollywood’s most profitable genre as opportunities for sophistication, sarcasm and panache. We love the best superhero movies because they help us to dream big. Here are the ten best examples – tie on your cape and dive in.
1. Superman II (1980)
We could have gone with the first Superman (1978), a heartbreakingly perfect origin story blessed with perfect casting in Christopher Reeve and a vividly rendered Metropolis. But this sequel, largely shot at the same time, is slightly superior, launching Terence Stamp’s immortal General Zod. More than any other movie, it captures the wonderment and unbound ability of superheroism. In short, it flies the highest.
2. The Avengers (2012)
Here’s where it all came together for the Marvel Cinematic Universe: all the groundwork laid for Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and the Hulk coalesced into a single, rousingly entertaining whole. Given this movie’s one-and-a-half-billion-dollar haul, anyone could now sound like a
3. The Dark Knight (2008)
Is Heath Ledger’s seething, cavorting Joker the finest performance to grace a superhero movie? Undoubtedly. The movie itself represents the voguish ‘why so serious?’ approach to the genre, turned into a brand by director Christopher Nolan.
4. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)
Pan’s Labyrinth won him Oscars, but geeks know this film to be Guillermo del Toro’s true masterpiece: a triumph of unchecked visual imagination, Ron Perlman’s sulky yet huggable central character, and an unusual emphasis on the heroism that goes into becoming a dad.
5. Mystery Men (1999)
A commercial disaster, this antiheroic comedy wasn’t responsible for inspiring Guardians of the Galaxy in any shape or form. Still, it demonstrated a way to be subversive, and the loserific cast seem to be having a tremendous time – especially Ben Stiller’s touchy Mr. Furious.
6. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
A thrilling, emotional sequel to a tricky first instalment, Sam Raimi’s NYC adventure allows Tobey Maguire to give up the suit for a bit (a classic comedy sequence set to ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’), while allowing the great Alfred Molina to embody one of the genre’s most memorable villains, Doctor Octopus.
7. Darkman (1990)
And still, Sam Raimi’s superheroic high point comes with this underrated melodrama starring Liam Neeson as an experimental skin doctor horrifically burned and bent on revenge. The psychological undertones are Lon Chaney-esque and the comic-panel pacing skews toward the adult.
8. The Incredibles (2004)
Built on a sturdy structure of dazzling animated sequences and serious handwringing over “specialness,” Brad Bird’s euphoric family comedy represents everything we should expect from our superhero movies. Subtly, fans saw themselves in the character’s humorous middle-age spread.
9. Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton’s impact on the superhero genre can’t be understated. After turning 1989’s Batman into a blockbuster, the director’s follow-up proved even darker: It involves penguin warfare on Gotham City, Michelle Pfeiffer’s slinky, vengeful Catwoman and the nefarious scheming of Christopher Walken.
10. Danger: Diabolik (1968)
Maybe you know this one from the Beastie Boys’ ‘Body Movin’ video, but Mario Bava’s comics-based adventures deserve a proper spin. Starring John Phillip Law and Marisa Bell, this Italian export is loaded with style and some psychedelic scoring by genius composer Ennio Morricone.