Superhero movies don’t have to be as dull as the recent crop of Marvel releases would have you believe. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which is out this week, reminds us that, at their best, superhero films can be wildly imaginative, thrilling celebrations of stories we’ve been telling each other for thousands of years. Here are some of the very best, from forgotten gems to modern fan favourites.
Directed by Tim Burton, 1992
Superhero films arguably peaked with Batman Returns. On top of the holy trinity of Michael Keaton as the caped crusader, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as a truly revolting Penguin, you have the Gothic fairy-tale spectacle of a snow-covered Gotham City at Christmas. It’s hard to imagine a studio these days handing over full creative control of a megabudget blockbuster to an oddball director like Tim Burton, so we should be grateful that Batman Returns exists at all.
Directed by Brad Bird, 2018
Being a superhero is hard, but it’s a doddle compared with being a parent. Made at a time when Pixar could do no wrong, this superior sequel sees Mr Incredible become a stay-at-home dad while Elastigirl goes back to being a full-time superhero. Filled with smart jokes, great characters and spectacular set pieces, it’s a perfect family film.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Directed by James Gunn, 2014
Even by 2014 Marvel fatigue was already setting in for a lot of people. With nine increasingly po-faced films released in the space of six years, it was becoming increasingly difficult to tell one film from another. Then along came Guardians of the Galaxy. Right from the opening credits – Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord dancing to Redbone’s 1970s classic Come and Get Your Love – it was clear James Gunn was going for a different vibe here, with a heavy emphasis on fun.
Directed by James Mangold, 2017
Superhero movies do not generally make effective character studies. Usually, a hero with superpowers bashes the bad guys and that’s that. But what happens after the dust settles? In Logan we see the psychological toll a lifetime of bashing bad guys can take on a fellah. Hugh Jackman has never been better as the grizzled, elderly Wolverine taking care of an even more elderly Professor X (Patrick Stewart).
Directed by Stephen Norrington, 1998
Man, superhero films used to be so cool. Blade had it all: Wesley Snipes as a leather-clad vampire hunter, incredible action, fountains of gore and underground vampire raves where blood sprays from sprinklers to drench the ecstatic revellers. (The Guillermo del Toro-directed follow-up is also excellent, but if you want a proper laugh check out Blade III – it’s one of the worst films ever made.)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Directed by Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman, 2018
Into the Spider-Verse came out of nowhere and, like a shot of adrenaline to Hollywood’s hardened heart, restored a lot of people’s faith in superhero movies. Using a fancy blend of CGI and traditional animation techniques, it looks incredible – as close to a comic book brought to life as it’s possible to get. It’s also a lot of fun: seeing various Spider-Men (and -Women) from different dimensions team up is as chaotic as you’d expect.
Directed by Ryan Coogler, 2018
Superhero films don’t always have to be forms of escape from the real world; sometimes they can be effective reflections of it. In many ways Black Panther was a revelation. Chadwick Boseman’s quietly powerful performance, the Oscar-winning costume design, the brilliant Kendrick Lamar-produced soundtrack: here was proof that, with enough thought and care, superhero movies could still mean something.
Directed by Sam Raimi, 2004
It’s hard to exaggerate what a huge impact Spider-Man 2 had when it was released. Fans lost their minds; it broke all sorts of box-office records; and it was widely considered to be the best comic-book movie of all time. It holds up remarkably well. From spectacular set pieces to Alfred Molina’s tragic Doc Ock, it’s all held together with the goofy charm of Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker and Sam Raimi’s assured direction.
Superman: The Movie
Directed by Richard Donner, 1978
Rewatching the original Superman film, you’re reminded why superheroes were created in the first place. The hope, the optimism and the unwavering belief that good will triumph over evil are here in all this movie’s old-fashioned, earnest glory. Everything about it adds up to the ultimate Sunday comfort film, from Christopher Reeve’s outrageously likable Clark Kent to Gene Hackman’s cackling Lex Luthor. Marlon Brando phoning it in is just a bonus.
The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan, 2008
For a lot of superhero film fans, this is their Citizen Kane. By far the best of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it is elevated by diving deep into the moral ambiguity at the core of Batman’s character – and with the whole of Gotham City on the verge of chaos, there’s a real sense of jeopardy throughout. By essentially making Michael Mann’s Heat with Batman in it, Nolan was always on to a winner, but a superhero film is only as good as its villain, and in Heath Ledger’s Joker we have one of the all-time greats. A twitching, unpredictable, wet-lipped psychopath, he burns up the screen every second he’s on it.
Directed by Pete Travis, 2012
The elevator pitch for Dredd must have gone something like this: “What if we took the 2011 Indonesian action film The Raid and just ... put Judge Dredd in it?” It’s a concept that works amazingly well. Karl Urban is great in the lead role, but it is Lena Headey as the psychotic drug lord Ma-Ma who steals the show. Not one for family film night, though: it is outrageously, gloriously violent.
Directed by M Night Shyamalan, 2000
After Bruce Willis survives a horrific train crash without a scratch, he meets mysterious stranger Samuel L Jackson, who has a crazy theory about how it happened. Unbreakable came out just a year after The Sixth Sense, so nobody was used to the whole “Shyamalan twist” thing yet, making this a surprising (at the time) and intriguing superhero origin story.
Directed by Patty Jenkins, 2017
For decades people had just one Wonder Woman in their minds: Lynda Carter. They were one and the same: Carter simply was Wonder Woman. There’s no way anyone could possibly compare. Why would they even bother? Who could possibly ... Wait a second. Is that Gal Gadot? Dear God, she’s perfect. In this enjoyable reboot, Diana, princess of the Amazons, helps American pilot Chris Pine bash some bad guys in the first World War.
Directed by Sam Raimi, 1990
The second Sam Raimi film on this list (and by far the sillier of the two), Darkman stars Liam Neeson as a disfigured scientist out for revenge against the mobsters who left him for dead. In retrospect it’s easy to see how much of a template this was for Raimi’s Spider-Man films, a decade later, but at the time this movie was appreciated by a small audience for its pulpy, horror-tinged tone and kinetic energy.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven, 1987
Is Robocop really a superhero? That could be debated either way, but Paul Verhoeven’s ultraviolent cyberpunk classic is most definitely a superhero film. In dystopian Detroit an evil megacorporation privatises the police force and turns the corpse of street cop Alex Murphy into a lethal, crime-fighting cyborg. But Murphy turns on his scummy bosses, resulting in carnage that works both as a satisfying splatterfest and as sharp social satire.
Directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, 1999
Like Unbreakable (released a year later), it becomes obvious only at the end of The Matrix that you’ve been watching a superhero film the whole time. Keanu Reeves stars as a regular joe working a dead-end corporate job who discovers that the world is a simulation and that we’re all just meat batteries for our robotic overlords in a postapocalyptic future. The power of this knowledge allows him to bend the fabric of reality to his will, using only his mind. No wonder the Wachowskis’ film is so misunderstood.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn, 2010
What would happen if a regular teenage kid decided to dress up as a superhero and become a crime-fighting vigilante? You might think it wouldn’t go very well – and you’d be right. Matthew Vaughn’s stylish and bone-crunchingly violent action film has a lot going for it, not least the father-daughter duo of Chloë Grace Moretz, as the foul-mouthed Hit Girl, and Nic Cage (doing his best Adam West impression), as Big Daddy.
Directed by Kinka Usher, 1999
Here’s a mystery for you: why are there so few superhero comedies? Let’s face it, there’s an inherent ridiculousness to dressing up in weird outfits to fight villains who have also decided to dress up in weird outfits. Mystery Men understands this and takes things a step further: what if these superheroes were terrible at their jobs and had just plain unhelpful superpowers? Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo and Greg Kinnear star.
Directed by Ang Lee, 2003
Really, though. What did people expect with Ang Lee directing a summer blockbuster about a big green monster? More concerned with character and consequence than bashy-bashy action scenes (although there are a few), Lee wants us to see violence as abhorrent, not something to be glorified and celebrated. So of course this film has a 29 per cent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, with more than 250,000 scores submitted. Further proof that you should never pay attention to audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes.