Comic book movies tend to inspire passionate responses from viewers, to put things mildly. This truth can show itself on a wide spectrum, from those who take their preferred entries (and corresponding canons) quite seriously, or perhaps that passion can be declared in terms of sheer (and uncomplicated) enthusiasm or hatred. Whatever your take on superheroes, supervillains, antiheroes, and everything that comes in between, it’s an unavoidable fact that there’ve been dozens of kickass entries into the genre over the past decade. Ranking the best of the crop isn’t an easy feat, so here was our methodology:
— Each of our pop culture experts fired off a personal top 10 list, and then we ranked each film that appeared on this list according to points. This was done using the same inverse system as our recent wonderful list of best TV shows. The more points, the higher the ranking for each qualifying movie. Simple? For the most part, yes.
— We didn’t limit this list to the most traditionally accepted form of comic book movie. In other words, this wasn’t simply a Marvel/DC Comics affair. If a film adapted from a relatively obscure title made by a Franco-Belgian publishing house called Casterman happened to score enough points from multiple individual lists (and it did), then that film made the list.
— Unavoidably, this list ended up containing some surprises, which is a great thing. We also aimed to avoid recency bias, although it might not appear that way because there were a lot of worthy titles over the past few years. We tried our hardest to be fair here, and hopefully, we succeeded.
15. Iron Man III (2013):
Tony Stark discovering that the Mandarin is actually a British actor named Trevor Slattery (played by Ben Kingsley), unaware that he’s been made the image of a supervillain, is probably the most interesting and genuinely funny moment in the entire Marvel Universe. It’s also a weirdly incisive comment on the times — that advertising and marketing would be the real enemy speaks to me on a deep level. That alone would warrant a spot on this list, but there’s also a scene in which one of the bad guys’ faceless henchmen, after seeing Iron Man kill scores of his colleagues, says “Hey, screw this” and books it out of there. Why doesn’t that happen in more comic book movies? At the heart of all mediocre movies is a failure to treat each character as a real person. Iron Man 3, as goofy as it got, never did that.
Marvel’s best movies bear the unmistakable imprint of their creator. Iron Man 3 has all the hallmarks of a Shane Black movie, right down to the possibly-alcoholic hero and a smart-alecky kid sidekick. For those of us who watch superhero movies to see what an interesting creator might do with the concept (rather than to see a faithful expression of a studio’s house style), Iron Man 3 is (along with Black Panther) the beau ideal. — Vince Mancini
14. Joker (2019):
I still don’t know exactly how to sum up Joker. It’s a comic book movie that scared me before I even walked into the theater for the bile it might unleash. A film that conjured a cloud of silence and reflection that hung overhead after I walked out of that theater.
Joker worship is, in and of itself, frightening for the fetishization of chaos. A symptom of our spreading emotional neuropathy. Yes, yes, villains are damaged and interesting. Worthy of celebration when portrayed with a nod toward the deep or a dash of flair. But the heroes are supposed to get the idolatry. The heroes are supposed to win. This film (like real life) doesn’t recognize that idea. It tells a very concerning story of a broken man and a broken world. The undercurrent of anger and how it can be channeled. How it can consume. It’s the first Batmanverse film to truly respect and portray how menacing and powerful Joker can be — not because of what he can do, but for what he can inspire (though, Christopher Nolan got close). This film is imperfect and fascinating, highly relevant, incredibly acted, and a modern masterpiece. Unsettling and thought-provoking. Everyone should see it once but maybe only once. I never want to see it again. I loved it. — Jason Tabrys
13. Snowpiercer (2013):
When director Bong Joon-ho adapted French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, he conjured up a deeply dark parable as well as an action film and an absolutely frigid take on class warfare and social uprisings. Yes, the story’s confined to a humanity-preserving train that circles the Earth while swirling through the icy terrain, but Joon-ho hurled globe-spanning philosophical questions toward his audience along with schlocky thrills. It’s everything that thinking nerds want to see while also being entertained. That’s why it stands out as one of the decade’s finest entries into a genre otherwise stuffed with flashy costumes, clashing displays of machismo, and so much CGI, all of which audiences must dig through in order to glean meaning behind the spectacle. In contrast, Joon-ho puts all ugliness on display, exposing us all to this story’s harsh lessons.
There’s also one hell of a cast here, elevating what might otherwise be considered a filthy, frightening little film to grand effect. My god, Tilda Swinton (with an assist from those scenery-chewing chompers) one-upped her usual bizarre spins on roles here. Everyone knew she was capable of such charades, but the bigger surprise here was Chris Evans sending up a more textured (and dare I say “gritty”) performance than his Captain America reputation could ever suggest. Even the “babies taste best” scene didn’t take people out of this movie, which is saying a lot about this at-times fanciful film. Snowpiercer was not only a chilling take on the atrocities that humans are capable of committing while aiming toward survival, but it successfully brought together action glory and art-house ideals in a grand romance. — Kimberly Ricci
12. Captain Marvel (2019):
We were forced to wait quite a while for Marvel to deliver a solo female superhero flick, but the wait was worth it for Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel. A punk feminist icon drenched in ’90s nostalgia, sporting a take-no-prisoners attitude and grunge band tees, Larson’s Carol Danvers is afforded an origin story that does more than most, plotting out a hero’s beginning by beginning at her end. Danvers is a Kree warrior when we first meet her, struggling to keep her burgeoning powers and violent emotions in check. A mission to rescue an undercover operative within the Skrull resistance -– the Kree’s mortal enemies –- leads to her crash landing on Earth, where she’s plagued by memories of her past and tangible reminders of who she used to be. Danvers ultimately gets to define her own origin story, facing off against mentors, allying with supposed foes, and forging a new path as Captain Marvel, and Larson brings a sarcastic bite and stone-faced resolve that feels like a character young women would be proud to look up to. – Jessica Toomer
11. Wonder Woman (2017):
Unlike Marvel’s Captain Marvel, Warner Bros. and DC’s Wonder Woman didn’t break the $1 billion mark at the global box office. But assessing these films purely on their financial returns isn’t the only consideration, let alone a consideration at all, for determining which films deserve to be listed as the decade’s best. Which is why Wonder Woman most assuredly deserves a place here, because not only did it still make a pretty penny, but director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot successfully emboldened a character whose debut had been diminished by a significantly lackluster Zack Snyder property. Between generating an exciting and engaging plot, fleshing out believable and endearing characters, and giving Gadot’s Diana the space to be empowered and to empower herself, Wonder Woman set the tone for Captain Marvel and, frankly, all other comic book films to follow. — Andrew Husband
10. The Lego Batman Movie (2017):
For years, I was one of those people who would say, “Mask of the Phantasm is the best Batman movie,” even though I didn’t necessarily believe it. I just wanted to be different, because I was (am) an idiot. Oops! But I am one hundred percent serious when I say: Will Arnett is the best Batman. In a decade filled with self-serious comic book movies like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and The Dark Knight Rises, The Lego Batman Movie, starring a gravelly-voiced Arnett as the Dark Knight and Zach Galifianakis as the Joker, was a breath of fresh lobster thermidor. It’s not only extremely funny, it’s also the Batman movie that best understands the character, from his existential loneliness to his deep-down desire to feel needed. Even when he’s made out of the things your parents would yell at you to pick up after they step on them. — Josh Kurp
9. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014):
The thing about Guardians of the Galaxy is that it was really just a tremendous amount of fun. The whole way through, too, with songs and jokes and belligerent raccoons with a passion for heavy artillery and a soft spot in their heart for a human tree voiced by Vin Diesel. Some of the movies in the Marvel universe were heavier and, as things all progressed to the endgame in Endgame, some of them got a little dark in places. That’s fine, there’s room for that in any story. But it’s also nice to watch a movie about a team of mismatched space rascals from broken homes come together and become a family as they battle multicolored villains of the cosmos. It’s a movie that is heartwarming and exciting and … I’m really just circling around the word “fun” again in an attempt to not overuse it. But that’s the simplest and most accurate word for it. Guardians of the Galaxy was a blast on first viewing and remains a blast many Saturday afternoon viewings later. I have no higher compliment to give.
Also, Vin Diesel showed up to the premiere on stilts while wearing an “I AM GROOT” t-shirt. Name one other movie that can claim that. I’ll happily wait. — Brian Grubb
8. Avengers: Endgame (2019):
Some franchises struggle to deliver a satisfying, surprising conclusion to beloved stories and the characters that play within them, but that’s not the case with Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame. The Russo brothers managed two wrap up a decade of storytelling, plot out dozens of character arcs, and tie in multiple universes with their epic conclusion to Phase Three of the comic book universe’s multi-phase roll-out, and they did it without sacrificing integral storytelling or their own stylized vision. Major characters die. Others chart unexpected new paths. Villains are slain, heroes retired, and a new generation of superheroes rises up to take their place, all to the backdrop of time-traveling adventures and panoramic action sequences and quieter, bittersweet sendoffs that wring out surprising amounts of emotion and heart. — Jessica Toomer
7. Shazam (2019):
It’s offensive that Avengers: Endgame would launch a For Your Consideration campaign the same year in which Shazam! was released. How dare they. If you haven’t seen Shazam! yet, stop reading this right now and go watch it on HBO Go. I know that promo picture plastered everywhere, of Shazam blowing a big bubble, was kind of obnoxious and probably gave you a skewed idea of what the movie was about (if it gave you any idea at all), but the actual movie was about as good as superhero movies get.
Whereas most superhero movies are about the internecine struggle of some space monarchy, Shazam! is a story about a foster kid. No, he doesn’t find out that he’s secretly the heir to some thousand-year-old dynasty that bequeathed him magical powers — in fact, his teenage mother deliberately lost him at a carnival when he was a boy. He’s just a kid, trying to do the right thing, who never has to destroy a portal. How relatable is that? The most conventional thing about Shazam! is that it’s about a 14-year-old boy who discovers he has superpowers. What makes it great is its pitch-perfect depiction of what a 14-year-old boy having superpowers might actually look like (and Zachary Levi is uniquely wonderful at acting like a teen). Of course, he tries to buy beer (which they immediately spit out because it tastes gross) and goes to a strip club. Shazam! finds the wonder and mischief that’s so often lacking from the format. It’s the rare superhero movie told at human scale. Thanks to the genuine care with which it treats its characters, the movie’s ideas about love and responsibility come off as more than just platitudes (it doesn’t pretend to be anti-war while mindlessly murdering scores of faceless German teens like Wonder Woman, for instance). That it ends with a Ramones song playing over the credits felt like confirmation that this was a superhero movie made specifically for me. – Vince Mancini
6. Thor: Ragnarok (2017):
Thor: Ragnarok is a hilarious movie. It’s also a surprisingly thoughtful one, as sprinkled throughout its far-ranging, intergalactic narrative is a not-so-subtle anti-colonialism theme that could only have come from a filmmaker with Taika Waititi‘s background and writing chops. That the head honchos over at Marvel not only let him indulge in those messages but also take big swings like destroying Thor’s signature weapon and chopping those golden locks in the movie’s first third shows how far they’re willing to push the envelope, undercutting the prevailing wisdom that says the box office superpower won’t let directors take risks. Ragnarok, with its outright weird villain played by Jeff Goldblum and commitment to making Thor, Loki, and Hulk its new Three Stooges, takes plenty of those and shows just how well they can pay off in the right hands. Ragnarok is, for my money, the best MCU film of Phase Three because it loves its source material but also understands what makes it truly silly and leans into that silliness just enough to make both sides work. Also, it has freaky circles. Always a plus for this Pac-Man fanatic. — Aaron Williams
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014):
Compared to The Avengers — which landed a few years earlier as the MCU’s first major ensemble movie, uniting the principal superheroes against the invading Chitauri in a display that was almost pure spectacle — this Cap sequel practically felt unassuming in comparison. Not that it was a quieter little film, mind you, but it did contain very little CGI and played (in the beginning) like a buddy comedy between Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff. This was the Russo Brothers’ first entry in the MCU, and in doing so, they essentially reinvented Cap to give him a personality beyond the shield, while still letting him be pure and heroic and everything the fandom needs him to be.
Instrumental to bringing out a more fleshed-out Cap would be Bucky Barnes in his programmed-for-HYDRA-incarnation. The Winter Solder appeared as a mysterious assassin and an unstoppable force, who launched many political metaphors but also made for some engrossing displays of character. All of this, of course, confused the heck out of Steve’s moral compass and came together in a climactic battle that impressed both action fans and tugged at the heartstrings of those who ‘shipped the Steve-Bucky relationship. Oh, the tortured eye-flashes from comic book pages fully sprang to life from behind Bucky’s mask, and as a bonus, Natasha was able to fight like hell without being a romantic interest for anyone. In an age of enormous superhero blockbusters and overprogrammed cinematic universes, this not-so-standalone Cap movie managed to feel organic. Although Bucky has since (arguably) been done dirty, this film put characters first, something that remains a rarity in blockbuster-land. — Kimberly Ricci
4. Black Panther (2018):
It’s important to remember the war rhinos. It’s important to remember more than that from Black Panther, too, of course. There was Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Kilmonger and Letitia Wright’s star-making turn as Shuri and Daniel Kaluuya’s menacing performance and Winston Duke stealing huge chunks of the movie without even talking much. There was a traditionally white genre getting upended a little with a mostly black cast and crew scoring critical and commercial acclaim in staggering amounts. There was Marvel doing a cool thing by handing the keys to a big franchise property to a visionary filmmaker like Ryan Coogler and getting rewarded for doing that cool thing with a fun and powerful take on the whole thing. Remember it all for as long as your brain will let you and then start writing it down to jog your memory.
But please, please, do not forget the war rhinos that came charging into the decisive battle at the end. I had somehow forgotten about them until a recent rewatch and then I saw them burst into the screen and I immediately howled “WAR RHINOSSSS” in shock and glee and disappointment in myself for letting something so profound slip away from me. More movies should introduce armor-plates battle beasts into the action in the third act out of the clear blue. It’s a real treat. Something to work on for the next decade. – Brian Grubb
3. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010):
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World failed as a commercial endeavor, but that doesn’t mean that the film, itself, is a failure. Quite the contrary, the film still stands tall for what it did deliver, this after a near-decades worth of evolution in the comic movie space. Singular director Edgar Wright took on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s imaginative stab at relatable concepts (the thunderstruck power of love and the challenge we all face to conquer our bullsh*t hangups and wicked past) and made a movie for people with very specific sensibilities. It’s clever, creative, and in love with the culture of comic books, indie music, and video games. But not so in love that it doesn’t have some fun with a few conventions. It is impeccably cast. And, not insignificantly, it rolls with Howard The Duck, Flash Gordon, and Batman 89′ in the pantheon of great comic book movie soundtracks.
What I love most, however, is its scale. The action, with a couple of awesome exceptions, focuses purely on Scott and his battles with the Evil Exes. Buildings don’t need to crumble, only Jason Schwartzman’s sneering slimeball record producer. The world isn’t in jeopardy here, only Scott’s heart … and when you’re in your twenties and in love, isn’t that bigger than the world? While Wright and company surely wanted this film to make money and spark sequels, it wasn’t explicitly engineered to do those things. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World wasn’t made to be everyone’s favorite movie for a weekend or two, it was made to be some people’s forever favorite. — Jason Tabrys
2. Logan (2017):
It’s every athlete’s dream to go out on top, to win, in the case of football players, the Super Bowl in your final game. In that sense, Hugh Jackman is the John Elway of the comic book movie universe. Logan was his 10th and final time playing Wolverine, and it’s the best movie in the franchise. It’s not even close, really, because while X2 and X-Men: First Class are fun to watch while cleaning the apartment on a lazy Sunday afternoon, Logan is a real piece of (s/o to Martin Scorsese) cinema. It has a distinct, dirty visual style; a refreshing lack of gooey CGI; a poignant standalone ending; and, unlike most comic book movies, you feel the weight of every punch. Jackman didn’t win the Lombardi Trophy, like Super Bowl MVP Elway before he retired, but he was also voted MVP: Mutant Valuable Player (sorry). — Josh Kurp
1. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018):
Spider-Man: Enter The Spider-Verse is an important movie, yes, but what keeps bringing viewers back to it isn’t just the importance of representation or its “anyone can wear the mask” message. It’s also a technical achievement, developing an innovative and dynamic look all its own. It’s also funny, with John Mulaney and Nicolas Cage turning in memorable, laugh-out-loud performances and little flourishes like “Bagel!” giving it any number of Easter eggs for fans to review for. It’s heartwarming, both in its all-too-human portrayals of Miles and his family’s relationship and paralleling it with his growing fondness for schlubby Peter Parker. But yeah, mostly, the thing that struck me — and I swear this is 100% a true story — was hearing a child in my first showing of the film exclaim “that’s me!” upon seeing Miles Morales and realizing that there’s a generation coming who will know what it’s like to see themselves as the hero. Oh, and the soundtrack BANGS. — Aaron Williams