Every Comic-Based Superhero Movie, Ranked
Look, we’re gonna fight. It’s inevitable. Because that’s what comic fans do. Especially when some schmuck decides to rank our favorite movies in honor of Ant-Man. So, before we get into it, let’s go over the rules.
The 84 movies on this list -- all of which I have seen at least once -- are based on comic-book superheroes only, which explains the absence of great films like The Incredibles. No comic strip-only ones either. Said heroes have to have powers that enhance their ability to be violent, be they telepathy, super-suits, or being really good at murder. None of the powers include talking to demons (Constantine) or being an unbearable hipster (Ghost World). They are all American, feature-length films that played on a big screen, so with respect to Hasselhoff, no Nick Fury direct-to-video action. Oh, and they’re all based on my biased opinion. So they’re all right.
C'mon. You know what a superhero is. And a comic book. So let’s fight.
84. The Spirit (2008)
After Sin City, they let Frank Miller do whatever he wanted. What he wanted to do was make the same movie, but with a Nazi-clad Sam Jackson screaming about eggs and a nerdlinger hero that made Clark Kent seem like James Dean. Scarlett Johansson dons various cleavy outfits, including sexy nurse. Not even that helps.
83. Son of the Mask (2005)
Hey, you know who should replace Jim Carrey in a sequel to The Mask? Literally anyone except Jamie Kennedy.
82. Steel (1997)
Shaq as one of Superman’s successors. Why they didn’t cast Christian Laettner as the Kid From Tomorrow is a mystery to this day.
81. The Punisher (1989)
How hard is it to make a great Punisher movie? Just hire John Woo to remake any of his movies, but with a dude who wears a skull shirt. Dolph Lundgren fighting dudes on rollerskates isn’t gonna cut it.
80. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
This movie forced Sean Connery into retirement. Suck it all, LXG.
79. Judge Dredd (1995)
Rob Schneider + Stallone + Armand Assante = instant irritable bowel syndrome.
78. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)
In this movie, Astoria, OR fills in for feudal Japan. It’s also where they shot Short Circuit, which is a far better movie. Watch that instead.
77. Catwoman (2004)
They had Halle Berry in a leather S&M outfit that would make the Wachowskis blush. What could go wrong? Everything, apparently. But let’s start with replacing one of the most beautiful women in the world with a CGI version of herself that looks like a Playstation 1 cutscene for most of the movie.
76. Batman & Robin (1997)
Cool party. Let’s kick some ice. Here’s my favorite pun from Batman & Robin: go fuck yourself, Joel Schumacher.
75. Spawn (1997)
John Leguizamo looked cool as the Clown. The rest of the movie looked like an old-school screensaver on a goth kid’s IBM. And whoever thought it was a good idea to take one of the most gruesome comic books ever and make it a PG-13 flick: go to hell -- a hell that looks considerably better than this, preferably.
74. The Crow: City of Angels (1996)
Iggy Pop is in this, and it still sucks. This movie caused at least 100 Hot Topic employees to weep. Like, more than they were already planning to weep.
73. Barb Wire (1996)
When 12-year-old me can’t even get into a movie about Pam Anderson and her two sidekicks strapping on some leather and killing a bunch of people, something is seriously wrong with the universe.
72. Supergirl (1984)
Everybody's got a cousin who's nice and all, but just kind of sucks. Superman's fights a witch, for whatever reason.
71. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
“Here’s the pitch,” said the studio executive. “Let’s make a Wolverine movie that’s basically a remake of all the Weapon X flashbacks in X2, but filtered through the movie Commando. But it'll be PG-13 and contain a scene where you punch a helicopter to death.”
“Crikey, that sounds like a real corker of a film. But there’s something missing,” said Hugh Jackman, finishing up his 34th rep of the morning.
“Well, Will.i.am is going to be in it!”
“Aye, I’ll do it!”
70. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
For those who loved Fantastic Four, but wished it could be just a little shittier.
69. Green Lantern (2011)
That’s strike two, Van Wilder. If Deadpool sucks, you’re officially deported back to Canada.
68. Elektra (2005)
The least compelling part of Daredevil -- which is really saying something -- gets a two-hour flick so boring, not even Jennifer Garner going Alias in red leather made it memorable.
67. Howard the Duck (1986)
Between trying to bang her teenage son in Back to the Future and actually humping a duck in this one, the ‘80s were a very sexy and confusing time for Lea Thompson.
66. Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
Superman -- played by George Reeves, who looks like Cary Grant’s older uncle -- takes on his greatest threat: a bunch of dwarves with George Costanza haircuts. Superman hates bald men. And he proves it in his campy, first non-serialized big-screen adventure.
65. Kick-Ass 2 (2013)
It’s everything you loved about Kick-Ass, except for Nicolas Cage, a super-profane preteen killing machine, and witty commentary about superhero culture. So, um, nothing you loved about Kick-Ass.
64. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
A movie so bad, they made another one featuring time travel just to undo all the bullshit Brett Ratner unleashed on fans. But nothing could undo the damage of hearing Vinnie Jones snarl “Oim the Jugganaught, bitch!”
63. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Superman takes on what appears to be a guy who wandered in off the set of Flash Gordon. Nothing good can come from that.
62. Blade: Trinity (2004)
Blade fights Dracula. Seriously. Was this penned by the laziest person ever to take a screenwriting class? Wait, it’s the writer of The Dark Knight? Jesus. Dude came a long way in four years.
61. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)
Nic Cage as a daredevil from hell with a flaming skull in a film directed by the hyperactive lunatics who made the Crank movies is really something I’d pay to see. In fact, I did. And I’m pissed.
60. Ghost Rider (2007)
See above. But less crappy by maybe 1/8.
59. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
No ninja, no ninja, no ninja, no!
58. Fantastic Four (2005)
How can this summer's new Fantastic Four top the original, which made an inspired choice by casting The Commish as The Thing? Step one, make it absolutely nothing like this ultra-square throwback piece of donkey shit. Step two? Maybe bring The Commish back instead of Billy Elliot.
57. The Return of Swamp Thing (1989)
A gigantic humanoid bog monster saves Heather Locklear from becoming a gigantic humanoid bog monster. Schwing?
56. Jonah Hex (2010)
Josh Brolin basically playing a scarred up Josh Brolin in a cowboy hat. Only somehow more incoherent.
55. Superman III (1983)
Don’t ever put Richard Pryor in a PG movie.
54. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
“Let’s reboot TMNT. But instead of just a bunch of balls-out ninja action, let’s make it about April’s quest to figure out what the turtles are. And everyone wants to bone her! Even Mikey! Also, have some Pizza Hut. It’s free! As much as you want!”
-- Michael Bay
53. Daredevil (2003)
There’s a darker, grittier director’s cut of this movie that’s actually pretty good. But it still doesn’t make up for the fact that the movie includes Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner in a highly choreographed seduction fight on a see-saw.
52. Batman (1966)
Yeah, it’s intentionally campy, but that doesn’t really make it tolerable after age 10. Unless you’ve been hitting the Bat Mini-Bar.
51. The Punisher (2004)
Seriously. Just put some guns in his hands and let him murder the shit out of everybody. I don’t care about his backstory. I don’t care about his relationship with his misfit neighbors. And I sure as shit don’t care about John Travolta. Ever. You can commit a lot of sins with a movie about a brooding dude whose primary superpower is being really good at maiming and torturing. Being boring is unforgivable.
50. Batman Forever (1995)
Is it as bad as we remember? No. It’s kind of worse. But it did give us “Kiss from a Rose,” so all isn’t lost.
49. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
OK, maybe you can’t just put a some guns in his hands and let him murder the shit out of everybody. But at least his neighbors are gone now.
48. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
When they rebooted Spider-Man less than five years after Tobey Maguire went emo, the intent was that they’d learn from the mistakes of the past. Instead, we get three villains, a set-up for a movie with six villains, and more teenage angst than a drama kid’s diary. Basically, this movie is Batman Forever, but with zero “Kiss from a Rose."
47. Man of Steel (2013)
A movie that starts off with Russell Crowe flying on an intergalactic space dragon and ends with the most horrific chiropractic adjustment ever has no right to be this boring or dour.
46. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
So... it’s the same as the first Spider-Man? Except Peter’s less “gee-whiz” dweeby and more “I’m sort of a prick, which explains why my classmates don’t like me.” And instead of Willem Dafoe in a Power Rangers mask, it’s a big CGI lizard. And instead of good it’s... well, it’s this.
45. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Look, Spider-Man 3 isn’t quite as bad as we remember. The Sandman story’s pretty cool. Venom’s the kid from That '70s Show. James Franco rides a space snowboard. Tobey Maguire gets two extended dance numbers. Wait. Yes, it’s as bad as we remember.
44. Superman Returns (2006)
Do you honestly remember anything about this movie aside from that cool shot of a bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye? Didn’t think so. Even worse, Bryan Singer passed on the third X-Men movie for this mash note to a man in tights. So we have Superman Returns to blame for the whole Juggernaut fiasco.
43. Wanted (2008)
Say what you will about the curved bullets and scantily clad Jolie. This is a movie in which the heroes take orders from a magical sewing machine called The Loom of Fate.
42. Hulk (2003)
Hulk smash! Hulk brood existentially about the greater meaning of gamma rays and the duality of existence. Hulk downer.
41. Swamp Thing (1982)
Laura Palmer’s dad turns into a marauding, sentient plant monster after catching fire in a lab. I mean, this might be cheesy, but between this and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven’s got that whole “guy on fire” thing on lock.
40. TMNT (2007)
It’s the Ninja Turtles, as cartoons. So basically the Michael Bay version, but honest about what it is. And, you know, tolerable.
39. The Mask (1994)
It’s not as good are you remember it being when you saw it at age 12 with Jason Dake in Clio, MI (we all did that, right?). But turning Jim Carrey into a literal personification of a cartoon is probably the best casting of the actor to this day. Except for the time he played an anti-vaxxing lunatic in real life.
38. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
There’s some seriously cool shit going on in the Thor movies, which look like they exploded out of a 1970s teenagers notebooks after a night of Deep Purple and doobage. But until the final, admittedly awesome, wormhole-jumping battle in London, this one lacks the sense of humor you need to really pull off this whole intergalactic Norse gods nonsense.
37. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Mickey Rourke plays a bird-loving Russian terrorist who looks like he just stepped out of Burning Man with a laser whip, and this movie still somehow manages to be dull. Not horrible by any means, but a story in which Tony Stark plays mid-party Duck Hunt with Champagne bottles should really be better.
36. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Hulk smash! Hulk don’t do much else. Hulk not good at carrying own franchise.
35. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
This would be way higher if Danny wasn’t such a little tool.
34. Kick-Ass (2010)
This is a movie that is designed to be a take down of superhero culture, desensitization to violence, and societal ills. Instead it’s a celebration of all those things. This is a good thing!
33. The Rocketeer (1991)
The dude who directed this also did The First Avenger, and it really shows. It feels like an old-school serial, a combination of Iron Man and Indiana Jones that doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Also, that helmet’s the bomb, and there's a ton of Nazi-punching, which always elevates things.
32. The Crow (1994)
Yeah, Eric Draven’s a stretch as a superhero, but he’s essentially Wolverine if Wolverine was a roadie for The Smiths. Goths need superheroes too, you know?
31. X-Men (2000)
Give credit where credit’s due: this was pretty instrumental in launching the new superhero era on the big screen. It’s also kind of boring as hell... seriously, name a big action scene in this one that didn’t involve the statue of liberty (and even that one’s pretty meh). Also, you’ll never guess what happens when a toad gets hit by lightning!
30. Watchmen (2009)
Usually, comic-book fans complain when a movie strays too much from the source material. This time, they complained that it didn’t stray enough. What the hell, guys? Watchmen’s a damn fine book. The movie’s complicated but coherent. And sometimes it’s downright gorgeous. Still, without all the slow motion, it’d probably be about 80 minutes long.
29. Thor (2011)
People get down on Thor. Because people apparently hate it when a Lisa Frank folder mates with your dad’s old prog-rock vinyls. Me, I’m all in.
28. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
There are a lot of great things going for the final Christopher Nolan Batman, chief among them, Tom Hardy. But there's just so... much... ham-fisted... allegory. And more plot holes than a box of Better Swiss. Also, because of this movie, when I threw my back out I thought it was a good idea to have my buddy slug me in the spine as hard as he could, because that’s how Batman healed a broken back. It didn’t work. Fuck you, Dark Knight Rises.
27. Big Hero 6 (2014)
The Michelin Man’s actually pretty badass!
26. X-Men: First Class (2011)
X-Men babies! Changing the course of history! But not quite as cool as that sounds!
25. The Wolverine (2013)
Until the last 30 minutes, it’s just a berserker barrage of Logan fighting ninjas and yakuza. That is exactly as cool as it sounds.
24. Dredd (2012)
No Rob Schneider. Bonus! This movie is basically a dude in a helmet shredding junkies in slow motion the whole time. And it’s incredible. Sure, it’s the same as The Raid. And The Raid is better. But The Raid doesn’t feature Cersei Lannister as a scarred-up kingpin.
23. Blade (1998)
The best thing about Blade is how Wesley Snipes seems to have wandered in from another movie. Everybody else thinks they’re in some super-serious Eurotrash drama, spouting off about blood gods and ancient runes and shit. Then Wesley Snipes busts in, beats the crap out of everyone, and says stuff like “some muthafucka’s always trying to ice skate uphill.” What does that even mean? I don’t know. I just know that Wesley Snipes should be in more serious movies, but as Wesley Snipes.
22. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Remember all the fun you had with the first Avengers? Well, cut it by about 1/3, then add 30 more characters and subplots. It’s still a ton of fun, but if you’re not waist-deep in Marvel lore, you’re going to find yourself simultaneously confused by the references and annoyed by the sounds of nerds snickering and high-fiving in the back of the theater.
21. Hellboy (2004)
Ron Perlman as a giant, red, Ron Perlman-esque demon who beats the shit out of demons and Rasputin with his giant fist? More please.
20. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
If you just take it for what it is -- an intro to Cap and an extended Avengers commercial -- there's a lot to love about this. Because it’s basically an Indiana Jones-style Nazi beat-em-up, but with a dude in a stupid costume instead of a cool hat, and extremely violent Ultimate Frisbee instead of whips.
19. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Why they didn’t make more animated (theatrical) Batman movies is beyond me, because this movie’s incredible, taking the whole aesthetic of The Animated Series and upping the style and flow with a story that includes a villain that’s a cross between a ninja and Scarecrow, plus Luke Skywalker as The Joker. It was overlooked on its release, and deserves a revisit.
18. Blade II (2002)
Blade II: The Bladening dials back the cheesy one-liners, but doubles down on the mayhem, tossing Daryl Dixon and Hellboy into the mix, unleashing a horde of mandible-sprouting monsters, and amping up the crazy thanks to a world that could only have been designed by Guillermo del Toro. The uphill ice-skating is missed, but the movie itself was twice as good as its predecessor.
17. Superman (1978)
Sure, it looks pretty square these days, but Superman nonetheless showed us that comic-book movies could actually be pretty damned spectacular, even if they did suggest that reversing the Earth’s rotation could turn back time. Because that’s just unfeasible, unlike the idea of a man who can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes.
16. Ant-Man (2015)
(Editor's Note: The author watched this movie a mere hour before ranking it... the ranking may change as a result of reduced endorphins or reactions to the new Wet Hot American Summer series)
Easily the breeziest of the Marvel flicks, Ant-Man had all the makings of a disaster. But, against all odds, it succeeds simply by fully embracing the inherent silliness of a jacked Paul Rudd who can shrink in size and control an army of ants. Oh, and it’s basically just a heist movie full of wisecracks and a little dash of Drunk History for good measure. Also, Paul Rudd rides a flying ant that he calls Antony. It’s funny every single time.
15. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Time travel can do a lot of things. It can lead to Skynet. It can result in your teenage mother trying to bone you at the sock hop. Here, though, it resulted in the events of The Last Stand being erased from history. The movie’s great. But it’s that humanitarian achievement that sets it apart.
14. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Hellboy II is difficult to watch. Not because it’s bad. In fact, it’s incredible. The Troll Market is the coolest monster gathering since Mos Isley. Hellboy and Abe Sapien drinking beers and singing is hilarious. Death is terrifying. Everything in this movie rules. And then you realize you might never get to see a third chapter, and it breaks your heart.
13. Iron Man 3 (2013)
So what if it’s basically a Tony Stark movie, not an Iron Man one? Shane Black’s superhero opus is basically a cousin to Lethal Weapon, but with a dude who shoots missiles out of his shoulders. The Mandarin twist is pitch perfect in its hilarity and fanboy baiting, and the banter here sees Downey Jr. at his snarkiest since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
12. Batman Begins (2005)
The reinvention of the Bat was necessary after George Clooney’s nipples, and Christopher Nolan’s first outing, though flawed, establishes the darker tone and the broodiness without going over the deep end. Plus, Batman vs. ninjas will never get old.
11. Superman II (1980)
The original director’s cut is vastly superior, but watching Superman and Zod duke it out decades before Zack Snyder got his hands on the franchise remains a highlight of the genre. Plus, in this one, Zod doesn't have a Lloyd Christmas haircut.
10. Spider-Man (2002)
Say what you will about Tobey Maguire’s infinitely punchable cry-face and the stupid Goblin mask. Few other comic movies have nailed the tone of their source material so perfectly. It’s a rare instance where it seems the comic jumped right off the page.
9. Batman Returns (1992)
Is Batman Returns a good adaptation? Hell no. It’s almost like Tim Burton just looked at the names of Catwoman and the Penguin and tried to make them as literal as possible. But mother of God is this movie twisted. The entire thing revolves around Danny DeVito trying to drown babies with a gang of circus nightmares. Michelle Pfeiffer looks like she was stitched together from a series of acid-fueled, Marilyn Manson-soundtracked wet dreams. Christopher Walken is... Christopher Walken. This movie is horrifying, weird, disturbing, and, at times, pretty damn brilliant.
8. The Avengers (2012)
A five-movie setup for The Avengers was quite a gamble, and it’s a miracle that Joss Whedon’s superhero version of the Traveling Wilburys even makes sense. Even more miraculous is how much bloody fun it is, from the witty banter to the bickering to the decimation of puny gods. Unlike Ultron, nobody really gets lost in the shuffle as the team rampages from set piece to set piece. Everything just kind of clicks. Even the shawarma.
7. X2 (2003)
With the first X-Men taking care of the exposition, this one just lets it rip, setting the bar incredibly high for all the superhero antics that follow. It’s the movie that finally let Wolverine go Berserker, taking X-Men to the dark side, where it thrives. Hell, if we were judging this by the opening Nightcrawler melee, it would still rank high. Fortunately, two hours of greatness follow.
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Something of a superhero take on ‘70s paranoid thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, The Winter Soldier managed to de-dorkify Cap, while also serving up some of the best action of the genre... much of it done using practical effects. Bring on Civil War.
5. Batman (1989)
When Prince is the weakest thing about your movie, you know you’re doing something right. This is the one that changed everything, turning comic movies into all-out media and marketing blitzkriegs courtesy of a director who decided it was a good idea to pit a sociopath in a cape against Jack Nicholson in clown makeup, with a gothic cityscape as the backdrop. The world had never seen anything like it. That we’ve now seen a million things trying to be like it is a testament to its staying power.
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
Look, I’m not trolling Nolan fans. There are moments of pure brilliance sprinkled throughout The Dark Knight. The skyscraper bat-gliding scene in China. Every second of Heath Ledger, who manages to make the clown from It seem like Bozo. The opening heist. Great stuff. It’s basically the superhero version of Heat. If the movie was 100 minutes long, it would rank among my favorite films of all time, period. Trouble is, it’s 152 minutes long, and the great parts simply make the weak spots (*cough,* Two-Face) stick out like a pencil to the eye.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
GOTG gets infinitely closer to Star Wars than all three entries of the prequel trilogy combined, peppering it with a little Buckaroo Banzai, a little Ice Pirates, and a whole lot of Chris Pratt acting like Han Solo’s doofus brother. It gets better with each viewing, too.
2. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Simplicity, friends. One well-drawn hero, conflicted about his responsibility to society and his desire to be a normal dude. One extremely well-drawn villain, who manages sympathy and menace. Great effects. The right amount of humor (this is, after all, a film that opens mid-pizza delivery) and more than a little of the cheese that defines Peter Parker. Oh, and incredible action sequences spaced out just enough for each one to feel like it matters, rather than a constant barrage of in-your-face spectacle. It’s damn near perfect.
1. Iron Man (2008)
Looking back from a post-Avengers time, Iron Man seems like a no-brainer. Back in 2008, not so much. The hero’s kind of a scrub. The star was a has-been who had become a punchline. Nobody expected much here. And then: zang! Here was a movie that seethed charisma, with seamless effects highlighting a human story punctuated by a Wile E. Coyote vibe throughout. It had something to say about war, but it didn’t beat you over the head with it. Most importantly, it managed to be something that superhero movies far too often forget: fun from start to finish.
Iron Man changed the game. It made Downey the biggest star in the world. It started the whole “shared universe” thing that Superman is still struggling to achieve. But even if it hadn’t changed a damn thing, it still might be the best, most pure superhero movie so far.