In recent years, it has sometimes seemed like superheroes have taken over multiplexes. Although they have been found in cinemas off and on for many years, their extraordinary multi-platform popularity suggests a more enduring trend. Luckily, the genre is home to some of the most inventive, complex characters seen in blockbusters today. Whether rebooting the stories of characters long ingrained in the popular consciousness; lone-wolf anti-heroes; troubled adolescents; or dysfunctional families, it seems audiences cannot get enough of them. Their approach to characterisation, the themes explored and visual extravagance has become increasingly ambitious. However, other films are seemingly reacting against this, grounding their stories in something more human and relatable. Others still look to question why it is we are drawn to superheroes in the first place and what their function is in the "real world". Studios are sensibly mixing their content up where they can, to avoid audience fatigue, without tampering too much with a winning formula. While we love many of the heroes currently on screen, we also look forward to enjoying superhero films with more gender and racial diversity. Once that has been fully embraced, it may well be that the superhero film really is here to stay. In the meantime, here are some of our favourites.
Brilliantly entertaining 1970s movie version of the Superman story, starring Christopher Reeve.
For many, superhero films truly began – and may yet to be surpassed – with Christopher Reeve’s iconic take on the Man of Steel. As the tagline famously put it, “you’ll believe a man can fly”, but there is also something charming and human about this film, thanks largely to Reeve’s gently humorous performance, as well as nods to screwball comedy and Americana.
Colourful, fun caper in which superhero Batman battles villains intent on taking over the world using a device which dehydrates people instantly.
Supes was beaten to the big screen by the caped crusader in this adaptation of the cult 1960s television show. Bringing together a rogue’s gallery of all his greatest foes, this is unashamedly camp and gloriously silly. Infused with the spirit of the era, it’s a considerably lighter take on the character compared with what was to come.
Michael Keaton is Batman and Jack Nicholson is The Joker in this movie version that reclaimed Batman's brooding menace after the camp 60s TV show.
Batman was also at the front of the next cinematic revival of the genre, directed by Tim Burton. Anticipating the trend for “darker” films, but still rooted in a comic-book world, the film (alongside its sequel) borrows from gangster movies and film noir, emphasising mood and character over action. It is one of the most culturally significant blockbusters ever made.
Brilliant sequel to Batman Begins, as erstwhile Bruce Wayne must battle the manic Joker, whilst maintaining the support of the charismatic Harvey Dent
Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale had already successfully resurrected the character in Batman Begins, but in 2008 he truly became a phenomenon. Creating a world of danger, menace and corruption, the film balances spectacle with substance, and in Heath Ledger’s Joker has arguably the most chillingly memorable villain in all superhero films.
An edge-of-your-seat reboot of the Superman series, in which the caped crusader returns to Earth from Krypton to find much has changed.
Not all revivals of legendary characters are a success. Bryan Singer’s loving, reverent take on Superman failed to spawn a sequel, but its reputation is perhaps starting to grow. Full of bright primary colours and a warm-hearted innocence, the film stands in contrast to modern versions of the character, explicitly playing up the Christ allegory that has always followed him.
Action-packed, modern take on '30s hero Zorro, a legendary swordsman who thwarts villains and signs his handiwork with a trademark "Z".
Technically not a comic-book, this deliciously fun outing for the heroic swashbuckler contains many of the elements of a great superhero movie, leaving its audience desperate to emulate the man behind the mask. Action-packed, romantic, and witty, the film contains a gentle history lesson for anybody studying the founding of America.
Superhero drama in which a shy high-school student accidentally acquires the ability to climb and sense danger like a spider.
“With great power comes great responsibility”. The teenage web-slinger takes this famous mantra and runs (jumps, leaps and glides) with it in this origin tale, as responsible as any for the dazzling popularity of superhero films. Along with its brilliant sequel, this is wonderful candy-coloured fun, as well as a touching coming-of-age story and a great advert for science!
Low-budget, sci-fi tale about superpowers, using realistic found footage about three American teenagers developing superpowers.
An adolescent with superpowers is also at the centre of this altogether darker film. Turning its low-budget origins into an opportunity, the film uses the found-footage concept, intriguing psychology and a cast of upcoming stars to provide a genuinely fresh twist on the traditional origins tale.
Mr Incredible and Elastigirl are forced to give up their superhero lives and settle down with their family, but as danger looms, old habits die hard.
It is in many ways frustrating that as superhero films have become increasingly dark, the younger audiences idolising these characters seem to have been forgotten. Thankfully, Pixar can always be relied upon to deliver gold-standard entertainment in this brilliantly inventive story of a family of superheroes. A film of real heart and substance.
Action packed Disney animation with a lovable robot and a cool teenage scientist.
Based on a little known Marvel comic, this Disney animation proves that sensitive issues can be explored through the most crowd-pleasing entertainment. Hiro, is a young robotics genius, grieving for his recently deceased brother, who teams up with a group of his friends - all with very diverse but equally important talents - to form a band of high-tech and very modern heroes.
A sick boy with mysterious powers aids a police officer and journalist to prevent dastardly supervillain The Face from destroying New York City.
This delightful French animation – steeped in film history - also centres around a young hero going through a difficult period, in this case as a result of serious illness. Whilst in hospital, Leo is able to transport out of his body and float around the city, powers he puts to great use when a dastardly new villain emerges on the scene.
Millionaire arms dealer Tony Stark becomes a victim of his own industry, using his skills to become the Iron Man, and right the wrongs he has created.
After a couple of false starts, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was properly launched with the unlikely hero of a vain, billionaire playboy and inventor. Thanks in large part to Robert Downey Jnr’s charismatic performance, Tony Stark was established as the anchor figure for the whole franchise and the centre of his own successful series of films.
Bruce Banner makes it to a screen large enough to house him in this comic-book blockbuster following the disgruntled green superhero.
Sensitive auteur Ang Lee seemed an unlikely choice to direct a film about the legendary green monster, a point seemingly borne out by disappointing critical and commercial performance. However, it remains an underrated gem, with far more on its mind than most other films in the genre. Audiences might just like it now – even when it’s angry.
Visually rich super hero adventure about a baby demon who grows up to be one of the good guys.
Another iconic director drawn to the genre is Mexican genius Guillermo Del Toro. This story blends monsters pulverising each other with an unlikely love story and typically dazzling visuals, including many stunts achieved through practical stunt work rather than the ubiquitous green-screen.
Smash hit superhero sequel, where Captain America is called back into action when a SHIELD colleague is attacked in mysterious circumstances.
The Marvel brand has become known for the distinctive look and appearance of each of their films, most readily apparent in the Captain America franchise. Taking its cue from the Cold War paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, this is a complex, thoughtful character piece, with plenty to say about our relationship with technology.
The full contingent of Marvel superheroes unite against the villainous plotting of Loki and his cronies in this climactic showdown.
Strange as it may seem now, the idea of merging characters from a series of different films into an all-encompassing adventure was a risky one. Joss Whedon’s epic manages the task with ease, blending spectacle with his trademark low-key wit and unique ear for dialogue, giving everybody their moment in the sun.
In this follow-up to the original hit superhero movie, there's a new generation of mutants eager to cause trouble.
One of the strengths of the X-Men series is its resonance with ongoing social issues and prejudice. The second film expresses this better than any other, amongst many things an allegory for the process of coming out it remains for many the greatest superhero film ever made. It is also a spectacular adventure and showcase for a diverse, eccentric group of heroes and anti-heroes.
Superhero bonanza featuring a disparate group of misfits who come together to form the Guardians of the Galaxy and save the world.
Other superhero films are content to simply give the audience a rollicking good time. Blending a collection of obscure characters and seemingly reacting against the genre’s obsession with increasingly “dark” material, Guardians was content to have brilliant fun, harking back to old-fashioned serial adventures and delivering characters we come to unexpectedly care for.
Hilarious comedy about a group of useless superheroes that are called upon to help when a crazed evil genius captures the real superhero.
Equally light, but warm hearted, this superhero spoof playfully sends up much of the genre’s clichés and tropes. Placing a collection of some of the world’s most usual superheroes together in a deliberately absurd plot, this is very silly, but affectionate and tremendous fun.
Superhero movie exploring the idea that seemingly ordinary people have the potential to be heroic.
Few films have interrogated the roots and psychology of the comic-book phenomenon as thoughtfully as this thriller. Dark, disturbing and remarkably intelligent, it is the film on this list that is most interested in why we look to superheroes at all, and has its roots in a world we can all recognise.
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