6. ”X2: X-Men United” (2003)
The high watermark of the ‘X-Men’ franchise to date (a position sadly not even mildly in danger of being usurped by this week’s “X-Men: Apocalypse“) Bryan Singer‘s sequel to his own game-changingly successful ‘X-Men‘ is really everything the ensemble superhero pic should be. The big names are key, with the Magneto vs Xavier love/hate relationship getting a good brainwashy workout here, but a film goes from good to great when the supporting cast is given a chance to shine. Packed but not overloaded, characters like Nightcrawler, Pyro and of course Mystique have their moments in the sun, while the Wolverine/Cyclops/Jean Grey love triangle reaches its tragic apex, and the villainry provided by Brian Cox‘s William Stryker is probably the best the series has ever yielded. And ‘X2’ also contains the one single scene that provides the simplest rebuke to anyone claiming superhero films can have no bearing on real issues: Bobby/Iceman’s admission that he is a mutant to his parents has obvious parallels to a gay teenager coming out, but even more broadly it rewires that very prevalent young-adult feeling of weirdness to a source of strength and pride in uniqueness, and that is what makes ‘X-Men’ such an eternally popular property.
5. ”Captain America: Civil War” (2016)
A film so absorbingly entertaining we’d probably like it even if Marvel weren’t paying us to, Joe and Anthony Russo‘s ‘Civil War’ was a refreshing surprise at the start of an overcrowded summer of tentpoles and blockbusters and big-budget sequels. Wisely plotting the opposite course from so many of the more rote entries in the genre, what makes ‘Civil War’ stand out is the way it roots its conflicts in the characters of the heroes we already know, and doesn’t introduce some universe-threatening Big Bad to unite them by the end. It’s a subtler approach to the formula, but not one that holds back on the thrills, as the airport fight is already marked in as one of the classic blockbuster action sequences, despite the fact it doesn’t even have particularly high stakes (the world is not going to end; no one is going in there with the intent to kill anyone). Also unafraid to leave relationships unmended at the closing credits, ‘Civil War’ is more or less exactly what we needed to convince us that there might be stories worth telling in a kind of internecine battle between ostensible good guys (as opposed to a certain other 2016 blockbuster), even when it features characters who are as familiar to us as family by now, and who might have seemed to have no surprises left.
4. ”The Dark Knight” (2008)
That all three of Christopher Nolan‘s Batman films have made it onto this list is proof either that the superhero genre provides fairly slim pickings in terms of diversity, or that Nolan is an unqualified genius magician who spins straw into gold at every juncture. Or maybe the truth, like “The Dark Knight,” is in the middle. Less as a fantasy than a hard-nosed crime epic, the film’s secret weapon is its villain, with Heath Ledger’s Joker quite possibly the greatest superhero adversary ever — a gold-standard of perversity yet believability, built out of the same fear that terrorists and psychopaths thrive on in our real, non-super world. Maybe the single performance that encapsulates better than any other just what Nolan was trying to do with the genre, Ledger’s Joker is so powerful (and individual scenes of his, from the heist to “making the pencil disappear,” so memorable) that he does mask the film’s weaknesses (a comparatively bland Batman for one thing). But with Aaron Eckhart also doing standout work as Harvey Dent, and Gary Oldman typically great as Lt Gordon, not to mention some terrific set pieces, “The Dark Knight” is more than just a single performance showcase, though arguably even if that’s all it was, it would still rank just as highly.
3. “The Avengers” (2012)
The math shouldn’t have added up: films are all too rarely the sum of their parts, and it shouldn’t have held that the movie with the most superheroes — the one that combined four existing franchises into one mega-franchise — would be the best. But somehow, against all expectations, Joss Whedon (only a second-time feature director, let’s not forget) pulled it off. But then, anyone who knows his work wouldn’t have been that surprised: Whedon carried over his strengths — real stakes, disarming humor, a deep abiding love for his characters, an ability to surprise — over to the film. He can’t take all the credit — the casting in the previous films really starts to pay off as the stars, joined by an excellent Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, butt heads — but Whedon certainly deserves the lion’s share, which is why the studio paid through the nose to have him return for the sequel (to decidedly lesser effect, unfortunately). With huge laughs, real drama and proper comic book action (one of the few comic book action movies that feels like it has), everyone involved pretty much nailed it, and though the competition has been fierce since, this might still be the high point of the MCU to date.
2. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)
Sam Raimi made huge strides in the superhero movie world with his first “Spider-Man” film, but he perfected the formula with its sequel two years later, setting a high watermark that his third film and the Andrew Garfield franchise never came close to, and which next year’s “Homecoming” will have a hard time reaching. Pitting Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his alter-ego against former mentor turned robo-armed bank thief Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina), it manages the tricky balance of keeping the focus on its hero while also giving him a villain (importantly, one villain) worth fighting (and saving) and a girl worth nearly dying for. Maguire’s at his most winning in this installment, even when Peter’s being a bit of a dick (the balance then tipping over in the third film), James Franco‘s a useful foil without his subplot taking over the movie, Kirsten Dunst is charming, and Molina brings rare pathos to Doc Ock. Perhaps more importantly, the film lets Raimi off the leash: the famous tentacle sequence is the director through-and-through, while the other action sequences are consistently satisfying (the train sequence being maybe the finest single superhero moment ever on screen).
1. “The Incredibles” (2004)
In our eyes, the greatest superhero movie ever is one that wasn’t based on pre-existing comic book characters. And perhaps it’s that that helps make it so great: freed from the shackles of a particular source material, of the expectations of fans, Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles” is able to homage, gently parody and steal from the entire genre, while also crystallizing the best of it. Bird’s first Pixar feature, and the company’s sixth film is set in a world where superheroes were once prevalent, but have since been banned due to health and safety considerations, and Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is unhappily in retirement. But as other former heroes go missing, he’s tempted to put his now-ill-fitting suit back on, and his family (Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox) soon end up joining him. Perhaps one of the reasons the “Fantastic Four” has been done so badly consistently on screen is that Bird already made the perfect film about a superheroic family here. In true Pixar fashion, however spectacular the action is (and it is consistently spectacular and inventive), character is still at the heart. The dynamics of a marriage and parenting, of teen bravado and insularity, are as important here as in any Sundance family drama, they’re just played out among the gorgeous Ken Adams-ish locations, and with some of the best jokes that Pixar has ever deployed. It’s close to flawless, and nearly a decade on, still the high water mark that everyone should be aiming for.
The above obviously marks a fair old chunk of all films in the genre, but there have been a few others worth mentioning. Of franchises already in the list, “X-Men,” “Spider-Man,” “Hellboy,” “Blade” and “Batman” all have strong first instalments. We came fairly close to including “Constantine,” “Super,” “Sky High,” “The Mask,” “Thor,” “Big Hero 6,” “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” “Deadpool” and “The Specials” on the list. And “Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Deadpool,” “Watchmen,” “Ant-Man” and “The Wolverine” all have their fans, though they’re not to be found on The Playlist’s staff. Anything else you’d want to include in your own ranking? Let us know in the comments.
– With Jessica Kiang