Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen or at least heard of a few superhero movies. Right now is the perfect time to re-watch The Avengers or experience Wonder Woman for the first (or second) time.
Even the biggest movie fans don’t have the time to watch dozens of movies back-to-back, but if you’re looking to catch the best of the superhero genre, here’s where you should start.
While 2000’s X-Men launched the movie franchise for Marvel’s outcast mutant heroes, it wasn’t until the 2003 follow-up X2: X-Men United that Charles Xavier’s gifted students started to feel like their comic book counterparts. While he seems a little neutered in the earlier film, in X2 we finally see the brutality Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is capable of when he tears through a black ops team invading Xavier’s school. Opening with a perfectly shot assassination attempt in the White House courtesy of a mind-controlled Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), X2 is an early example of how wonderfully cinematic superpowers could manifest with a little help from CGI. It also highlights how socially poignant the creations of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could be, particularly in a brilliantly conceived scene in which Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore) tells his family he’s a mutant and the dialogue unfolds as if he were coming out as gay.
Tim Burton’s Batman is not a perfect film, but there’s a reason why some fans — in spite of decades of other live-action and animated realizations of the Dark Knight — still defer to Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson as the “real” Batman and Joker. Keaton was a surprising casting choice at the time, as he was largely known for comedic roles like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice, though he proves the perfect choice for Burton’s fusion of darker Batman comic book fare and the campy 1960s Batman TV show. These days, Nicholson’s Joker is unkindly judged against grittier interpretations, and those comparisons forget his Clown Prince of Crime was meant to be over-the-top. It’s a role Nicholson seems born for, as he gives us a Joker who revels so thoroughly in his villainy that you’re almost mad at Batman for beating him in the end.
For a generation, Christopher Reeve’s version of the Man of Steel defined Superman. His unyielding determination, his humility, his love for no-nonsense reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and the painstaking care with which he wields his godlike power come through effortlessly under Reeve’s care. Gene Hackman remains one of the most devilishly ideal actors for the part of Superman’s genius arch-nemesis Lex Luthor and Kidder fully owns the role of the award-winning journalist who won’t give an inch before she has the story, but still can’t spell worth a damn. With an iconic score by John Williams and flawless casting, 1978’s Superman lay the foundation for all the best superhero films that would follow in subsequent decades.
With Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi took one of Marvel’s flagging film franchises and turned it into one of its most successful. Ragnarok yanks Thor (Chris Hemsworth) out of his mythological comfort zone and puts him in the more sci-fi flavored setting of Sakaar where the hilarious tyrant Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) runs a deadly gladiator contest. While the Marvel Studios flicks were already known for not taking themselves too seriously, Waititi infuses his own improvisational brand of humor in Ragnarok and proves just how much of a laugh riot Hemsworth can be, especially when paired with Mark Ruffalo as either the monosyllabic Hulk or the more wordy and neurotic Bruce Banner. If there’s any weakness to Ragnarok, it’s that it occasionally sacrifices characterization for humor, but you’re usually laughing too much to notice or care.
Perhaps the most important part of the formula of Spider-Man’s popularity is that he doesn’t have a mansion or a secret Arctic fortress. He’s a socially awkward nerd who, once he eventually leaves his aunt’s house, can’t pay his bills. Director Sam Raimi gave us this more fallible superhero in 2002’s Spider-Man, and his potent humanity proves just as likable as it was when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced the character in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy No. 15. While Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker doesn’t have the arsenal of quips his comic book counterpart uses, the movie reflects webhead’s humor. Purists may still bemoan the absence of Spidey’s mechanical webshooters in favor of making the webs part of the hero’s powers, but the commitment to the spirit of the source material shines through regardless.
There’s a reason why Joe and Anthony Russo took over as the story architects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Joss Whedon, and that reason is 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Contrasting sharply with 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Joe and Anthony Russo’s follow-up finds Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) up to his neck in a decades-old conspiracy involving the Nazi off-shoot organization Hydra and Cap’s new home SHIELD. The Winter Soldier is a suspenseful action-espionage thriller with some of the most flawlessly executed action sequences you’ll find in any superhero film, particularly in the famous scene where Cap takes on around 10 Hydra agents in a glass elevator.
A bright spot among a lot of disappointments from Warner’s DC Extended Universe installments, 2017’s Wonder Woman finally and triumphantly gives Princess Diana of Themyscrira (Gal Gadot) a chance to shine on the big screen. Gadot wonderfully embodies Wonder Woman’s identity as both a driven warrior and a woman with genuine concern for the world beyond her island home. Director Patty Jenkins mixes the starkly different Greco-Roman mythology of Wonder Woman with the wartime setting of 1918’s Europe. With humor and stunning action sequences, Wonder Woman takes what some thought would be one of DC Comics’ unadaptable franchises and turns it into one of its best.
When it comes to an actor redeeming himself in the eyes of comic book fans, few are as fortunate as Ryan Reynolds who starred in not one, not two, but three of the most hated superhero movies — 2004’s Blade: Trinity, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and 2011’s Green Lantern. Finally, Reynolds strikes gold with 2016’s Deadpool, where he plays a superpowered mercenary with a healing factor that makes Wolverine’s look like a pack of Band-Aids, and a mouth that would make a drunken sailor blush. Set in Fox’s pre-Disney buyout X-Men universe, Deadpool lampoons superhero tropes while cutting a gory trail through the bad guys, and X-Men resident boy scout Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and his young charge Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) pop up occasionally to play straight man to the Merc with a Mouth.
Sam Raimi followed up the success of 2002’s Spider-Man with a bigger, more exciting, and more human story in 2004’s Spider-Man 2. Living on his own, Peter Parker struggles to make ends meet while freelancing for the Daily Bugle and trying to earn a college degree. His challenges both in and out of costume eventually lead to a psychosomatic loss of his powers. Compared to Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin from the first film, Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus proves a more sympathetic and redeemable antagonist. If there’s anything regrettable about Spider-Man 2, it’s the promise and potential it builds up that was lost on the deeply flawed Spider-Man 3.
Two years after Superman came the follow-up Superman II which saw the return of most of the original’s principal cast, including Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. This time, though, it was time for villains that posed a physical challenge to the Man of Steel, and so enters Ursa (Sarah Douglas), Non (Jack O’Halloran), and Zod (Terence Stamp) — three Kryptonian convicts who are each as powerful as Kal-El. Their arrival is at just the wrong time, as Kal-El decides to renounce his powers in favor of living a mortal life with Lois Lane. Epic in scope with all the humor and heroism of the original, Superman II was sadly the last truly satisfying entry in Reeve’s time as the Man of Steel.
Deadpool 2 came out in a crowded superhero movie year alongside huge hits like Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, and Aquaman. But Wade Wilson’s second solo flick stands out with a unique blend of absolutely merciless carnage, relentless humor, and surprising emotional resonance. Everything about the first flick is dialed up past 11, with Deadpool chopping up Yakuza while Dolly Parton croons in the background, a whole bunch of short-lived superheroes learning the dangers of sky-diving during high wind advisories, and post-credits scenes wreaking havoc all over the history of superhero movies. Josh Brolin plays the time-traveling cyborg Cable and Zazie Beetz stars as the luck-powered Domino, while Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead return to lend a hand.
After the resounding success of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, it’s almost easy to forget how impressive its predecessor was. Avengers: Infinity War pulls together major and minor characters from over a half-dozen disparate franchises, gives them all time to shine and somehow forges an epic and emotionally powerful story. We get explosive super fights in New York City and Edinburgh, we follow the Guardians and Thor all over the cosmos, and we return to Wakanda for a battle that would make Peter Jackson jealous. Infinity War does it all while keeping Josh Brolin’s Thanos as the true protagonist. The digital realization of Brolin’s performance is stunning, making you wonder where Thanos begins and Brolin ends.
If you were to watch Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight without knowing anything beforehand about the cast or the plot, you would not recognize Heath Ledger as the Joker. His transformation into Batman’s clown-faced nemesis is just that good. He was so committed to the role he insisted co-star Christian Bale hit him for real in their amazing interrogation room scene, and it’s that commitment and Ledger’s talent that makes him the best reason to watch The Dark Knight. He’s so good that Aaron Eckhart’s equally dark transformation from hero District Attorney Harvey Dent into the monstrous Two-Face is often forgotten in discussions of what is unquestionably the best of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
If Superman shows you a man can fly, 2008’s Iron Man tells you how. The first entry into what would later become Marvel’s impressive money-making library of superhero movies, Iron Man succeeds by focusing less on the iron and more on the man. Robert Downey Jr. proves himself born to the role of billionaire industrialist Tony Stark whose brush with death forces him to use his genius to help the world rather than profit off its woes. With Jon Favreau’s direction coupled with Downey’s performance, Iron Man not only lay the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it forced Hollywood to take superhero movies seriously and helped attract top-tier talent to the world of capes and masks.
With Logan, director James Mangold created a powerful and surprisingly singular conclusion to the story of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Logan is set in the not-too-distant future when the adamantium lacing Logan’s bones is killing him, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is slowly losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, and most of the other mutants are dead. Things change for the former heroes when Laura (Dafne Keen) — Logan’s lab-conceived daughter — shows up needing to escape to Canada. Divorced from Fox’s X-Men continuity, Logan goes to emotional places few big-budget superhero films could follow. Stewart’s portrayal of a gracelessly aging Professor X is funny and heartbreaking, and Jackman has never been better as the ruthless hero who made him famous. Logan is sad, often bleak, and utterly beautiful.