There’s no doubt about it — we live in a world that loves superheroes.
I mean, just look at last year’s top box office earners, or the number of views on the first Avengers: Endgame trailer, or the fact that Black Panther received an Oscar nom for best picture this year. Men and (finally, sometimes) women in super suits are harnessing their powers and fighting bad guys all over the big screen.
And while there’s no shortage of superhero flicks, some are arguably better than others. The Pop Insider team took on the difficult task of choosing our favorite superhero movies of all time. Our picks span three decades, cover multiple genres, and range from box office juggernauts to TV movies made for kids. We even fell on both sides of the Marvel versus DC line, and survived to tell the tale.
Whether you’re a die-hard comic book reader or someone who’s intentionally avoided the superhero craze, there’s something on this list you’ll love.
Marissa DiBartolo: The Dark Knight (2008)
The sequel to Batman Begins is the gold standard for superhero movies. Cool hero, city in peril, and an absolutely stunning villain. Heath Ledger’s Joker was a show-stopping performance. No DC movie has come close to this gem. The Dark Knight made Batman cool again after years of tragic missteps, including George Clooney’s infamous nipple suit.
I really, really love superhero movies, so this was a tough choice for me, and I feel like I need to tell you that close seconds for me include Spider-Man (with Tobey Maguire, don’t @ me), The Incredibles, Unbreakable, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Kick-Ass.
Ali Mierzejewski: Mystery Men (1999)
“We’re not your classic heroes. We’re the other guys.” Oh, hello, it’s me: a sucker for a movie about a band of misfits. This comedy about a group of amateur superheroes striving to save Champion City was ridiculous in all the best ways. Truthfully, I can’t even remember if it’s a good movie, or if it’s just near and dear to my heart. After their resident superhero Captain Amazing gets captured by villain Casanova Frankenstein, it’s up to a bunch of regular citizens who are superhero wannabes to save the day. These include the spoon-flinging Blue Rajah, the shovel-wielding Shoveler, the possessed bowling ball-hurling Bowler, the flatulent Spleen, the only-when-nobody’s-looking Invisible Boy, the mysterious Sphinx, and the perpetually-angry Mr. Furious. Kel Mitchell and Ben Stiller are in it. It’s madness.
James Zahn: Batman (1989)
In a world currently dominated by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s important to share some credit where credit is due — DC and Warner Bros. paved the way for superhero blockbusters, and it was Tim Burton’s Batman that threw the doors wide open. The summer of ’89 was a magical time — a pre-internet era in which you couldn’t turn around without seeing a golden Bat-symbol against a plain black background. Whether on outdoor billboards or at the local grocery store adorning the covers of Starlog and Comic Scene magazines, Batman was everywhere! I distinctly remember my mom dropping me off at Western Heights Theater in Chicago Heights, Illinois to see the film… probably the first time I was ever left to see a movie on my own.
Any controversy about “the guy from Mr. Mom” playing Batman was quickly erased by the darkest big-screen superhero film that audiences had ever witnessed. Dropping viewers right into the action and telling the origins primarily in flashback, the stage-built Gotham City was a throwback to the grand movies from Hollywood’s past, as Michael Keaton proved that all actors deserve the opportunity to show their range. Pair that with an epic score from Danny Elfman, an avant-garde soundtrack by Prince, and a now-classic redesign of the Batmobile by Anton Furst, and Batman was cemented as a benchmark for countless films to follow.
While Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight has perhaps since become the definitive cinematic depiction of the complicated relationship between Bats and The Joker, ’89 is pure, rubber-suited comfort food.
Maddie Michalik: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
I would pick this movie just for the magical moments when Hela (Cate Blanchett) runs her hands through her hair to transform her dark locks into a thorny crown. This is peak badassery and I kind of hundo p want to be her. She is also one of my favorite MCU villains, and you can totally @ me about this. Thor: Ragnarok succeeded because it it doesn’t take itself too seriously for a heavy plot. Thor channeling his inner God of Thunder was a moment and didn’t even prepare me for what was to come in Avengers: Infinity War. Other highlights include the play scene with Matt Damon and Luke Hemsworth, cameos from Doctor Strange and the Hulk, and, of course, Tessa Thompson absolutely crushing it as Valkyrie. Catch me rewatching this again on Netflix before it gets taken down. Honorable mentions include Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (because, duh, and it was already taken) and Incredibles 2.
Jackie Cucco: The Powerpuff Girls Movie (2002)
Who needs macho men in masks and capes when three adorable cartoon girls can get the job done in half the time? The Powerpuff Girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice but they can still kick some serious butt even though they’re only 5 years old. Everyone loves an origin story, and there’s no origin quite as riveting as the birth of Buttercup, Bubbles, and Blossom. Mojo Jojo is no match for these girls, and let’s be real, they can take him down without being such a grouchy old bat like Batman always is.
Joe Ibraham: Logan (2017)
Logan is the closest thing to a perfect superhero movie. From start to finish, the film displays a thrilling plot, a thoughtful script, and an ensemble cast including Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Dafne Keen. Just writing about it makes me want to watch it again. I’ll be right back.
Madeleine Buckley: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
This movie is a game changer, and I literally cannot think of one bad thing to say about it. Not only is it visually groundbreaking (a comic book brought to life), but it also puts the spotlight on diverse heroes, features the perfect voice cast, and has a fantastic soundtrack. The “leap of faith” scene gives you chills, the Stan Lee cameo makes you feel all the feels, and the plot leaves you contemplating the complexities of the universe and what it means to be a hero. I’ve always been an MCU gal, but this animated Marvel venture was top-notch. It took home a well-deserved Best Animated Feature Oscar last weekend but, IMHO, it
could should have been a Best Picture contender.
Miranda Siwak: Sky High (2005)
Beginning high school was rough for all of us. I could only imagine if I had to start freshman year as an aspiring hero, just coming into my powers. In the youth-oriented 2005 comedy, we follow the sidekick class as they learn to hone their powers and eventually defeat the villains (aka the popular kids). Starring Michael Angarano (currently playing Jack’s little brother on This is Us), The Flash’s Danielle Panabaker, Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston, and Wonder Woman herself Lynda Carter, Sky High taught valuable lessons about friendship, family, and working together for a greater cause. It was certainly the high school experience many of us wish we had. I mean, a flying school bus certainly beats the ordinary one I had to ride.
Victoria Rosenthal: Deadpool (2016)
Deadpool is a standout for me. I already love Ryan Reynolds’ humor, but bringing it into this superhero role made the movie and the character more enjoyable. I was pleasantly surprised I had the same rollercoaster of emotions I usually get from my favorite movies, which is rare when I watch a superhero one. Seeing Deadpool scared to face his girlfriend after his face and body are deformed hit me real hard. If you heard crying in the theater, that was most likely from me. However, his friendship with Blind Al along with all the fun he pokes at the superhero movie genre brought in all the comedic relief I needed. It was also refreshing to watch the story of a different Marvel and X-Men character unfold on-screen. Thank you, Marvel, for the short break from Wolverine and the Avengers!
Sierra McCleary-Harris: Black Panther (2018)
Not to go full Issa Rae circa the 2017 Emmy Awards, buttttttt, actually, nope. I’m doing it. Call me lame, but I’m not super into superhero movies. My geek flag waves more for hipster-esq activities and British period dramas that your grandmother is likely to love. But like almost every other person of color of a certain age (read: millennial), I love love love Black Panther. Come for the amazing production value (congrats on those Oscars, Hannah & Ruth!) and stay for the cultural significance. I won’t waste words telling you, for what’s likely the millionth time, why Black Panther matters so much. Because while I can celebrate what a marvel this film has become (ba-dum-cha! Sue me, I’m corny), let’s be honest: the real reason I’ve seen it so many times can be summed up with one proper noun — Michael B. Jordan (OK, fine; his abs, too).
Jackie Breyer: Iron Man (2008)
Nobody is cooler than Tony Stark—the problem is, he knows it. Tony Stark is easy to like. But he’s also really easy to dislike. And he doesn’t want to be a part of your boy band (second film, so sue me). What I love most about Iron Man is Tony Stark’s integrity and punk rock attitude. This guy is stunningly brilliant, and doesn’t really care about what you think, or for anyone else’s opinion. Respect. He created J.A.R.V.I.S., the coolest robot servant, long before Amazon introduced us to Alexa. And, most importantly, he is sarcastic as hell. You think you’re as cool as Tony Stark? Call me when you build a flying robotic suit made from incredibly strong fictional materials bolstered by a force field.
Bill Reese: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
In the earlier film versions starring Tobey Maguire and later Andrew Garfield, Peter Parker was never portrayed as he is in the comics—a kid. He’s not simply young, he’s also naïve, irrationally confident, and impulsive. Peter’s barely figured out how to harness his fledgling super-powers, let alone how to operate in the adult world—one populated by an increasing number of superheroes and super-villains. This separates Homecoming from the earlier Spidey flicks. Like all MCU movies, its substance is in its subtext. It centers around responsibility, mainly, how young people—especially young people from fractured family situations like Peter’s—feel compelled take on more than they can handle. Bonus points for reimagining Peter’s high school friends to reflect the diversity of growing up in New York City.