Avengers: Infinity War comes out in three days. I’ll say it again. Avengers: Infinity War comes out in three days. It’s a remarkable time to be alive, to see the culmination of a full decade of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies – one could argue the culmination of thousands of years of human civilization. It’s a perfect time for The Sun’s Arts and Entertainment section to count down our list of the top 10 superhero movies of all time in advance of what is surely the most highly anticipated comic book movie ever.
– Lev Akabas
10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Winter Soldier traded out the campy war dynamic of its predecessor for a gritty espionage thriller ambience. After seeing Cap successfully fend off an alien invasion with his teammates in The Avengers, the temptation can be to follow up his solo outing with something equally if not more ludicrous. The Russo brothers wisely instead strip Cap of everything he knows and tell a tightly-knit political thriller that asks pressing questions about technological surveillance and freedom all the while providing some of the MCU’s most brutal hand-to-hand fight sequences. Chris Evans portrays the super soldier with much more nuance, transforming the character from a star-spangled poster child to an introspective and weary vigilante who wrestles between saving the world and abandoning it. The film was such a critical and financial success that Marvel had the brothers direct the sequel, Civil War. As Infinity War nears, audiences are wondering whether lightning can strike a third time.
— Zachary Lee
9. Batman Begins
After a series of campy, underwhelming Batman films in the 1990s, DC brought in director Christopher Nolan, who delivered one of the first realistic, sophisticated portrayals of any superhero. Nolan uses his signature non-chronological narrative style to brilliantly intersperse Bruce Wayne’s training period and his earlier childhood, allowing the audience to understand both the “how” and the “why” of becoming Batman. The movie’s complex screenplay includes multiple compelling villains with clear motivations, one of whom is instrumental in defining Bruce’s past.
All of this makes Batman Begins the only cinematic superhero origin story that actually makes you believe that a guy would dress up in a costume and fight crime. In addition to that impressive feat, Liam Neeson brings gravitas to the role of Ra’s al Ghul, Michael Caine is in peak “not pronouncing his Rs” form as Bruce’s loyal butler and Morgan Freeman plays Morgan Freeman to round out the stellar cast. Begins changed the game for superhero movies and is a superb film in its own right.
— Lev Akabas
8. Spider-man: Homecoming
After the Amazing Spider-Man’s two unnecessary films rebooted the Sam Raimi trilogy, it was hard not to be nervous about the MCU’s swing at the webslinger, but Kevin Feige and company nailed it. Homecoming is one of the better coming of age stories in recent memory. It really emphasizes that Peter Parker is a high school student — he doesn’t have this whole superhero-ing thing down yet. He’s still discovering who he’s going to be in the suit and in doing so, he’s finding out more about who he is without it.
Tom Holland’s casting as the MCU’s Spider is really what brings it all together. He’s awkward and relatable and closer to the comic book Peter Parker than any to take the name onscreen before him. Homecoming is chock-full of compelling character arcs, the most compelling of which culminates in easily one of the MCU’s most tense sequences to date wherein Michael Keaton’s Vulture realizes his daughter’s homecoming date is the hero he’s been fighting all along.
— Nick Smith
7. Captain America: Civil War
From the introduction of Black Panther to the airport fight scene to the perfectly framed shot of Iron Man’s blaster rebounding off Captain America’s shield, this movie is filled with comic book fun. But it also boasts an impressively non-cartoonish plot, addressing whether or not potentially dangerous superheroes should be regulated. And because Marvel actually took a dozen movies to set up its heroes, unlike DC, which tried to do it in the first 30 minutes of Batman v. Superman, we understand where different characters are coming from. Captain America’s distrust in the government is set up in Winter Soldier and Iron Man’s desire for checks and balances is established because his mistakes accidentally created the villain Ultron. Throw in that they’re both dealing with personal relationship issues and their fight is totally believable. The Russo Brothers knocked this out of the park, and their clear ability to handle a massive cast gets me even more pumped for Infinity War.
— Lev Akabas
6. Black Panther
There are few superhero films that become “event” films: cinematic experiences that have to be seen in the theater and do more than just deliver on the genre conventions of dynamic fight scenes and quippy humor. Such films are the kinds of movies that leave you thinking long after the credits roll, make you want to come back for multiple viewings and makes you regret selling your comic book collection when you were younger. Black Panther is one of those film; wrapped up in impressive fight sequences, stunning visuals an an all-star (and amazingly all-black) cast, director Ryan Coogler is able to tackle themes of race, ethnicity, colonization and isolationism with thoughtfulness. However, Coogler is never preachy or black and white about is presentation of the themes. He instead accurately an compellingly frames ideological clashes through realistic characters an lets the audience decide who is right. By doing so he grants the MCU with an amazing and memorable villain in the form of Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. Ultimately, Black Panther made innovation and experimentation a norm of superhero movies; superhero movies should not be devoid of asking deep questions and exploring them should not have to feel tedious either. Recently it was announced that it dethroned Titanic to be the third highest-grossing film of all time — it’s not hard to see why.
— Zachary Lee
Maybe it’s because I’m not all that smart, but before Logan I’d given up hope that I’d ever be able to keep track of the all the X-Men timelines. Thankfully, the franchise’s newest addition didn’t make me worry about that nonsense. Logan’s a tightly focused, well-directed story that avoids many of the tropes that have made X-Men films before it fall flat. The film is as perfect a swansong for Hugh Jackman’s run as the Wolverine as we could’ve asked for. It’s shockingly gritty and delightfully brutal, taking a hard look at a bleak dystopian future while still giving the audience a couple breathtaking action scenes.
What really brings Logan together is a surprisingly affecting performance from Jackman in conjunction with an incredibly entertaining showing from 13-year-old Dafne Keen, playing Jackman’s pseudo-daughter character Laura. The gradually softening relationship between the two captures the hearts of the audience and elevates the film as a whole from good to great.
— Nick Smith
4. Thor: Ragnarok
As funny as it is colorful, Ragnarok served as a much needed breath of fresh air for the Thor franchise after its whole fish out of water thing grew stale in The Dark World. The film benefits from crackling chemistry between leads Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson and Mark Ruffalo (whose Hulk alter-ego is at his best). The big green guy is a hilarious scene-stealer, and for the first time I could really see Ruffalo under the CGI.
Where the Marvel higher-ups couldn’t mesh with Edgar Wright during the production of Ant-Man, it’s pretty clear they relaxed a little and gave Taika Waititi greater grip on the reigns here, and it paid off! Waititi excelled at both the tiny details we’ve come to expect from more independent filmmakers and the larger action set pieces more often associated with high-budget blockbusters. Ragnarok, the MCU’s 17th film, served as a pivotal swing for the Thor character and demonstrated that superhero movies can still be innovative and exciting after a decade of action.
— Nick Smith
3. The Avengers (2012)
While Iron Man may have helped superhero movies get through the front door to audiences hearts, The Avengers is what helped the MCU take a seat at the table. Before Joss Whedon’s film, there was simply no notion of a cinematic universe in Hollywood; at best franchises would churn out sequel after sequel, each one of lesser quality than the previous. Connecting four separate franchises while introducing even more new characters should have been impossible, but Whedon made it look effortless. From Iron Man and Bruce Banner geeking out over science to Hulk giving the stiff-arm to Thor after a successful battle, all the characters fed off of each other’s energy and the various tones and personalities harmonized beautifully. The Avengers is a proof that testament to the patience and willingness of Marvel to let their worlds develop organically.
— Zachary Lee
2. The Incredibles
One thing you don’t get with most superhero movies is a sense that the heroes are real people. Sometimes that’s the idea – to be awed by characters who are superior to us — but it can also make the characters unrelatable. What does Thor do in his free time? What does Batman like to eat for dinner? Does Falcon get along with his parents?
The Incredibles is different. It shows not just how people with superpowers would fight villains, but how they would behave in an office, how they would raise kids and how they would have trouble fitting into a car. Pixar could have told a generic superhero story and it almost certainly would have been great (because . . . Pixar), but they had the balls to make one in which the main hero is out of shape, a baby has powers and the biggest struggle of all for the protagonists is getting along as a family. And because of this, they created a fun, funny, heartwarming, accessible, action-packed superhero movie that speaks to people of all ages.
— Lev Akabas
1. The Dark Knight
Thematically compelling, well-acted and brilliantly directed, The Dark Knight isn’t just the best comic book movie ever, it’s one of the better films of all time. Christopher Nolan wasn’t making a “comic book movie” as we think of them today when he put together his second Batman film — in 2008 there wasn’t a formula; Marvel wasn’t yet churning out movies with the efficiency of a car manufacturer. Nolan used the Batman lore as a vehicle to make one of the greatest metropolitan crime dramas we’ve ever seen.
It’s been said for years that these types of movies are only as good as their villain and, simply put, The Dark Knight has the greatest bad guy not just of any comic book movie, but of any movie ever. Heath Ledger’s Joker portrayal is one of the best acting performances of all-time and his chaotic, unstoppable force exists in perfect compliment Christian Bale’s resolute immovable object. The characters are intertwined in such a manner that they begin to define each other, and we haven’t seen such a strong dynamic between hero and villain since. The Dark Knight is the greatest of all-time, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that its success laid the groundwork for the age of comic book movies we currently find ourselves in.
— Nick Smith