Have you seen every movie based on a Marvel comic book? We have, and we’re astounded that, with the release of Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel has produced 64 live-action movies (and one theatrically released animated feature) without a little more fanfare about just how many films that is.
Then again, maybe not, because it all depends on what fans and critics agree are “real” Marvel movies. Live-action theatrical releases count, obviously, but what about films like Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, which were produced but never distributed? What about films like the 1977 version of The Amazing Spider-Man, which was only released theatrically overseas? What about a film like Doctor Mordrid, which was supposedly based on a Marvel comic book but had to change its name at the last minute due to legal issues?
We think those films ought to count, along with all the TV movies based on Captain America, The Incredible Hulk and Doctor Strange and a ton of other films that fans seem eager to forget have ever existed. So we’ve watched every single one of the live-action Marvel movies and ranked them from worst to best, to give you a broad overview of just how good these films get, and how bad, and how far the’ve come since 1977.
The following Marvel movies are ranked based on quality, but whether that means “objective quality” or “sheer entertainment value” is determined on a case-by-case basis. Some Marvel movies tried to be taken seriously and failed. Some were intended to be viewed as cheesy schlock, and they succeeded. If you disagree with our rankings, leave us a comment, but we hope you at least take the time to consider that there may be multiple ways of responding these movies, and that maybe some of them are better (or even worse) than you once thought.
[Note: This list is regularly updated, most recently to include Thor: Ragnarok.]
64. Captain America (1979)
Hey kids! Do like Captain America? Then you’re going to love watching him just drive around in his “mellow wheels” shaggin’ wagon for what feels like 50% of this boring-ass TV movie, which stars Reb Brown as Steve Rogers, the son of Captain America. (Yes, really.) Somehow, our hero manages to accidentally drive off a cliff two times before finally suiting up in the film’s last minutes, only to stop a neutron bomb by choking the villain on car exhaust. It’s the worst, and given some of the other films on this list, that’s not a ranking we give this version of Captain America lightly.
63. Generation X (1996)
Before the X-Men films there was Generation X, a TV movie that was intended to launch a teen-oriented mutant superhero series. Thank goodness it failed. The young cast does the best they can with their angsty, poorly written subplots, but the post-Batman Forever neon set dressing is an assault on the senses, and the adults all look like they’re embarrassed to be playing dress up at a kids party. Matt Frewer (Max Headroom) is overacting his head off as the villain, who plans to hypnotize kids into buying Virtua Fighter video games and, for some reason, help the mutant Skin (Agustin Rodriguez) seduce a vapid blonde teenybopper.
62. Dr. Strange (1978)
The first, failed attempt to bring Doctor Strange to live-action was this TV movie starring Peter Hooten (Orca) as a psychologist who finds out he’s destined to become the next Sorcerer Supreme. Jessica Walter (Arrested Development) is having fun as the villain Morgan LeFay, and there are some trippy inter-dimensional interludes that are almost worth the effort, but like Captain America this dismal Dr. Strange movie is chock full of boring padding, and relies on villains whose schemes don’t make any sense.
61. Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)
The sequel to the worst-ever Marvel superhero movie is admittedly better, with an improved costume and some fun action sequences, but then it proceeds to send Cap undercover to paint stray cats and make moon-eyes at single moms with deadly secrets. Christopher Lee plays the villain, “Miguel,” and he might have saved the movie if he didn’t spend almost all of it behind a desk chatting on the phone about his plan to rapidly age everyone in Portland. Captain America II: Death Too Soon does have a few neat stunts, but it’s not worth sitting through the rest of the film to see them.
60. Fantastic Four (2015)
The third attempt to jumpstart a Fantastic Four movie franchise is, unbelievably, the worst, despite a fantastic cast that includes Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell. It takes half the movie to give the heroes their powers, and that time is not well spent, with awful dialogue and awkward character development. Then the movie jumps ahead, skipping the most interesting plot points and shoving the characters into a dumb CG-laden climax that acts like “teamwork” is the sort of brilliant strategy only a team of super-scientists could have come up with. Fantastic Four was allegedly ruined in post-production, but there’s no evidence here that the film would have worked on any level, in any other version.
59. Captain America (1990)
Albert Pyun (Alien from L.A.) directed this well-intentioned but laughable early attempt to turn Captain America into a theatrical action movie. Matt Salinger, the son of reclusive author J.D. Salinger, stars as Steve Rogers, who gets frozen while saving the White House during World War II, and wakes up in Alaska to discover his old life gone. Scott Paulin plays The Red Skull, an Italian plastic surgery patient who killed JFK and kidnaps the new president (Ronny Cox) to stop him from cleaning up the environment. Lousy acting, a dopey plot and an unintentionally hilarious fish-out-of-water montage make this Captain America a total turkey.
58. Blade: Trinity (2004)
David Goyer stepped behind the camera for the third Blade movie, after writing the screenplays for the first two infinitely better installments. This time, Blade (Wesley Snipes, doing his best) teams up with a band of human vampire slayers to do battle with Dracula (a hopelessly miscast Dominic Purcell), who spends most of his time wreaking havoc at Hot Topic and running away from our hero like a total wuss. Good ideas (like a vampire “final solution”) get sidelined in favor of bad ideas (just about everything else), but future Deadpool Ryan Reynolds almost makes this limp threequel amusing as Blade’s quippy, shirtless sidekick. Almost.
57. Ghost Rider (2007)
The nifty image of a leather-clad biker with a flaming skull for a head is the only selling point for Mark Steven Johnson’s hammy, overacted and underdeveloped Ghost Rider. Nicolas Cage is predictably eccentric as the cursed stunt performer Johnny Blaze, who fights demon elementals and endures awkward dating scenarios with Eva Mendes, who couldn’t look more lost if she tried. Some of the effects are decent, and Sam Elliott steals some scenes as Ghost Rider’s mentor, but then he gets a little tired and walks out of the film completely, just minutes before the confusing and disappointing climax.
56. Daredevil (2003)
The rumors are true: the director’s cut of Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil is better than the theatrical release, reinstating a subplot that gives Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau) something to do and that also ties all the loose ends together. Unfortunately, the problems with the Daredevil movie run much, much deeper. Daredevil obviously begs to be taken seriously, but the thin storyline and overblown emotional beats make it impossible to oblige. It’s ugly and insipid, but Michael Clarke Duncan is a decent kingpin, and Colin Farrell does at least appear to be having fun (albeit way too much) as Daredevil’s arch-nemesis, Bullseye.
55. The Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990)
The third – and final – TV movie follow-up to the hit Incredible Hulk TV series is definitely the worst, with a plot that would have made a decent episode of the show, but just wasn’t nearly big enough to justify a feature-length presentation. David Banner (Bill Bixby, who also directed) is on the verge of curing himself, but Russian spies get in the way. So he goes on the lam, seduces an enemy agent and talks an old friend out of a coma by calling him “Stinky.” Elizabeth Gracen is memorable as a Black Widow-like espionage expert, but the actual death of the Incredible Hulk – a plot point already spoiled by the title – is anti-climactic at best.
54. Fantastic Four (2005)
The first theatrically-released Fantastic Four movie gets only two things right: Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis, who turned out to be lively and memorable versions of The Human Torch and The Thing. Unfortunately, Tim Story miscast all the other characters, and focused too much on dumb jokes and not enough on the plot, which finds the Fantastic Four basically just hanging out until Doctor Doom decides to fight them at the end. What’s worse, that last fight is pretty terrible, and in no way worth the trouble it takes to get there.
53. The Amazing Spider-Man (1977)
Released theatrically overseas, the TV movie pilot for the short-lived Amazing Spider-Man live-action series deserves credit for racing through the hero’s origin and getting to the good stuff early, but also loses points for leaving out Uncle Ben, or any sort of defining tragedy. Pete Hammond is appropriately dorky as a college-age Peter Parker, and the special effects waffle between “pretty cool” and “amusingly cheesy.” But the real problem is the villains, a gaggle of self-help samurai hypnotists who almost trick Spidey into killing himself until a flimsy fashion accessory gets in the way. This Amazing Spider-Man is mostly forgettable, but the super groovy 1970s soundtrack is definitely worth a listen.
52. Man-Thing (2005)
This straight-to-video horror movie was shelved for years before debuting on the SyFy Channel, but Man-Thing isn’t QUITE as bad as you’d expect. The story – about a swamp monster protecting sacred land from overzealous developers – is pretty bland, and so are the characters, but Brett Leonard’s film is actually one of the best-looking Marvel movies, with luscious cinematography and memorably creepy production design. It’s for completists only, but those who do watch Man-Thing will be pleasantly surprised that it doesn’t completely suck.
51. Kick-Ass 2 (2013)
Jeff Wadlow’s sequel to Kick-Ass, much like the original, coasts by on violent action, subversive humor and cast members who are eager to go along with the crazy. But the action is nowhere near as exciting this time, the humor is mostly just gross, and so the cast doesn’t have much to work with. Kick-Ass and Hit Girl are trying to stay away from the superhero game, but the vigilantes they’ve inspired and the family members of the criminals they killed the first time won’t let them. There’s just not much going on in Kick-Ass 2. Unlike many of the more famously awful superhero movies it’s not even very memorable, which is why it ranks below some notorious misfires.
50. Red Sonja (1985)
The Conan the Barbarian movies were based on the works of Robert E. Howard, but Red Sonja – as we have come to know the character, at least – is a creation of Marvel Comics. Richard Fleischer (Conan the Destroyer) returns to direct the story of a female warrior who teams up with a bratty prince, an oafish bodyguard, and a guy played by Arnold Schwarzenegger who isn’t technically Conan (but he totally is) to stop an evil queen who murdered her family. Red Sonja is typical sword-and-sorcery cheese from the 1980s, with bad acting and cheesy special effects tossed in with decent costumes and some memorable set pieces. Brigitte Nielsen plays Red Sonja and she’s not a very good actor, but at least she can convincingly swing a sword.
49. The Fantastic Four (1994)
Produced by Roger Corman, the first live-action Fantastic Four movie has never been officially released, and it’s easy to see why: it’s cheap as hell. But it’s so cheap and so cheesy that it actually turns out to be a little bit charming, and for whatever it’s worth, this film’s version of Doctor Doom (played by Joseph Culp) is the closest any live-action film has come to getting Marvel’s greatest supervillain right. Yes, it’s bad. In fact, it’s REALLY bad. But it’s enjoyably bad, which is more than any of the previous films on this list can say for themselves.
48. Howard the Duck (1986)
Anyone who calls Howard the Duck “one of the worst movies ever made” hasn’t seen a lot of movies, but it’s still completely baffling that George Lucas spent an ungodly amount of money trying to turn this joke character into a major blockbuster. Howard the Duck accidentally finds himself on Earth after a scientific experiment gone wrong, but after some strange but amusing sequences that poke fun at American xenophobia, the film settles into a limp action romp about stopping “The Dark Overlords of the Universe” from invading the planet. Some of the visual effects are eye-popping, some of the jokes actually land, and Lea Thompson is genuinely charming and sexy as Howard’s girlfriend Beverly, leading Howard the Duck to eventually become a minor cult favorite in the decades after it bombed. But it’s undeniably a dumb, silly misfire.
47. The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
The first TV movie follow-up to the Incredible Hulk series is a mighty Marvel team-up with Thor, played by the rambunctious Eric Allan Kramer, who spends half the film bonding with David Banner’s dorky former student, Donald Blake (Steve Levitt). In this version, Thor and Blake don’t share a body, so they act more like mismatched college roommates, which is a little more entertaining than you might expect. The Incredible Hulk Returns suffers from slow pacing for half of the movie, but once Thor appears it picks up quite a bit, ultimately giving fans an amusing, albeit low-rent crossover.
46. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are both fantastic as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, but otherwise, Marc Webb’s unnecessary remake seems dead set on missing the whole point of Spider-Man. The Amazing Spider-Man marginalizes Uncle Ben, shows our science nerd hero plagiarizing his father’s work and abandoning his solemn vow to a deceased hero the second he deems it inconvenient. The film also drops multiple subplots halfway through the movie and climaxes with a ridiculous sky crane sequence that solves a problem the hero never had. The two stars really are good, but the rest of The Amazing Spider-Man prevents them from really shining.
45. The Punisher (2004)
The worst Punisher movie isn’t a complete wash, but it’s not worth seeking out either. Thomas Jane plays Frank Castle, whose entire family line gets wiped out after an undercover sting accidentally results in the death of a mafioso’s son. Castle heads off on a mostly unremarkable mission of revenge, occasionally punctuated by quirky mercenaries like the musician Harry Heck (Mark Collie) and “The Russian” (Kevin Nash). But John Travolta doesn’t have nearly enough to work with as Castle’s target, a generic mafia don with a crime syndicate that is all too easy to tear apart. The unofficial short film sequel The Punisher: Dirty Laundry was a significant improvement in every way.
44. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
The third X-Men movie is (barely) the worst, thanks to a rushed development process and workmanlike direction from Brett Ratner which saps this threequel of subtext and personality. Jean Grey is back from the dead and killing major characters off camera, but she disappears in the second half of the film so X-Men: The Last Stand can focus on a “mutant cure” subplot that the film ultimately reveals to be totally pointless. Multiple characters died for absolutely nothing, leaving this franchise so broken that future sequels practically ignored the events of The Last Stand until Days of Future Past officially retconned this whole movie out of existence. Good riddance.
43. X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Alas, we still have to deal with X-Men: Apocalypse, a film that took the newly retconned continuity from X-Men: Days of Future Past and completely quashed it, creating new plot holes so big you could fit a planet in them. And why? So they could introduce Apocalypse, a villain whose motivation from the comics has been reduced to standard world-conquering nonsense, who spends most of the film making fancy costumes for his minions before a young cast of X-persons defeat him with brainless CG-energy beams and the power of friendship. The biggest insult: the eighth film in the franchise ends with the promise that NEXT TIME fans will get the film they wanted in the first place, 16 years ago, which is the same ending this franchise gave us four times already and never followed through on.
42. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Charismatic villains and an atypical detective story structure make X-Men Origins: Wolverine a little bit better than most people remember, but Gavin Hood’s prequel gets so much wrong that it’s hard to focus on the handful of elements that it does right. Wolverine is out for revenge after the death of his sweetheart, so he gets a body full of adamantium and sets out to take down a covert mutant strike force headlined by his brother, played by an excellent Liev Schreiber, and Deadpool, played perfectly by Ryan Reynolds until the movie literally sews the Merc with a Mouth’s mouth shut and turns him into a completely different character. Oh, and the reason for Wolverine’s amnesia? The big mystery that was driving the character all along? We find out what it is, and it makes no sense. At all.
41. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is so overstuffed and rushed that none of the supposedly big plot points or character moments can make an impact. Spider-Man’s relationship with Harry Osborn is established over just two scenes before a poorly justified betrayal sets in motion what should have been the biggest battle of his life, culminating in a great tragedy that he gets over in just a couple of scenes like it’s no big deal. But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 still features some great chemistry between the romantic leads, and unlike the previous film it also features several great moments that capture the wit, whimsy and heroism of Spider-Man like no other film before it. None of this is enough to make Amazing Spider-Man 2 a good film, but at least it’s a little better than the last one.
40. Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (1998)
David Hasselhoff plays the title character in this unapologetically cheesy spy film, in which Col. Nick Fury comes out of retirement to stop Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker’s daughter from releasing a deadly virus in Manhattan. Sandra Hess is having the time of her life as the sexy, psychotic villain, and Hasselhoff chews his fair share of scenery as well. It’s impossible to take this TV movie seriously, so just don’t. It’s more fun that way.
39. Elektra (2005)
Competently produced but devoid of personality, the Daredevil spin-off Elektra feels more like a generic Luc Besson movie than a proper Marvel superhero flick. Jennifer Garner plays the title character, an assassin who can’t bring herself to murder a child and winds up running with her would-be victim from supernatural assassins working for The Hand. Some of the action sequences are cool, particularly in the director’s cut, but the movie falls apart when you realize that although The Hand’s henchmen are stopped, the actual plot is never resolved. Not even a little. Elektra is better than the word-of-mouth would have you believe, but it’s more “mediocre” than “good.”
38. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Tim Story’s second Fantastic Four movie is still saddled with all the stuff that didn’t work in the first movie, particularly the miscast Reed Richards, Sue Storm and Victor Von Doom. It also ends with the mother of all anticlimaxes, and there’s just no forgiving that. But at least the heroes are finally acting more like The Fantastic Four, uncovering the secrets of the cosmos, making first contact with alien life, and getting in kick-ass high speed mid-air chases with the Silver Surfer, whose presence heralds the death of humanity. There’s some good stuff here – yes, really – but it’s too easy to get distracted by all the junk.
37. Doctor Mordrid (1992)
Allegedly, Full Moon Features had the rights to Doctor Strange, but when they lost those rights at the last minute they just shot the movie anyway, and changed the hero’s name to Doctor Mordrid. So maybe this film isn’t an official Marvel movie, but since it was supposed to be, and since it’s actually pretty good, we’re going to let that slide. Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) plays the dapper title character, who defends Earth from an evil wizard (Brian Thompson) while romancing a plucky police investigator (Yvette Nipar). It’s cheap, but Doctor Mordrid has plenty of pulpy charm, and the climactic stop-motion fight between skeletonized dinosaurs is a hoot.
36. The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)
The Hulk barely matters in the second TV movie sequel to the hit TV series, and believe it or not that’s actually a good thing. The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is a Daredevil movie first and foremost, with Matt Murdock (Rex Smith) defending David Banner from an assault charge that eventually uncovers a criminal plot by the Kingpin (John Rhys-Davies). As a late-80s Daredevil movie, it’s not bad at all, although it’s obviously mired in the conventions its time. Better than the Daredevil movie, but not nearly as good as the Daredevil TV series, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is an enjoyable curio that deserves to be rediscovered.
35. Iron Man 2 (2010)
The most haphazard of the official Marvel Studios movies, Iron Man 2 somehow muddles through its wonky plot through the sheer force of its personality. Tony Stark is on a downward spiral, living large because his clock is ticking, resulting in a great confrontation with War Machine (Don Cheadle). Meanwhile, Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) have evil plans that can only be foiled by beating up tons of faceless robots. The cast is great, and the story might have even worked if it didn’t seem so rushed, or if it didn’t rely on an idiotic scavenger hunt solved by daddy issues.
34. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
When the sequel to Thor focuses on the characters we already care about – Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Jane (Natalie Portman) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) – it’s a corker, thrusting familiar heroes and villains into unexpected and fun situations. But when Thor: The Dark World tries to do anything new it falls fairly flat, with generic villains in a generic plot to destroy the world who can only be stopped by punching them a lot. The main plot barely registers, but the ongoing saga of the three leads is interesting enough to make Thor: The Dark World worth watching regardless.
33. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
While everyone else was complaining that there wasn’t enough Venom, or that they just don’t like musical numbers, the rest of us were watching Spider-Man 3 for what it was: a flawed but emotionally powerful continuation of Sam Raimi’s blockbuster saga, which pushed both our hero and the series’ real villain – Harry Osborn – to their limits. Spider-Man 3 has problems, but watch all three original Spidey films back-to-back and you’ll find it’s rather satisfying, and that most of the criticisms lobbed at this unwieldy film are pretty superficial.
32. X-Men (2000)
Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie works more as a proof-of-concept than a well-rounded feature film, but it set the stage for some incredible sequels by establishing the ideas and the characters of the X-Men efficiently and plausibly, and turning Magneto, Mystique and Wolverine into breakout movie characters who would go on to drive the whole franchise. Some of the cast gets left out in the cold, and Magneto’s whole plan is a little too “mad science” to take seriously, but when X-Men works it still works pretty danged well.
31. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Ray Stevenson was the best live-action Punisher we’d ever had, until Jon Bernthal came along. He’s a seriously engaging presence in a seriously goofy movie that bombed in its original release but has since earned a loyal cult following. Lexi Alexander’s film is dripping with viscera and violence, and goes gleefully over the top, but that smirking tone does no favors to the storyline, which could have challenged Frank Castle’s convictions (since his mission of revenge ends with the death of an undercover cop) but instead results in a little bit of moping, followed immediately by more of the same destruction. Punisher: War Zone is very, very fun, but it’s not great.
30. Kick-Ass (2010)
A teenager decides to become a superhero, even though they don’t exist and he doesn’t have any powers, just for the hell of it. In theory that should have been the inciting incident that changed the world but even though he’s the title character, “Kick-Ass” doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the plot of Kick-Ass. Before long Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) have hijacked the whole film, which is as it should be, because they’re the ones who are genuinely kick-ass. The plot is shabby and the focus is way off, but the film’s gleefully mean-spirited sense of humor shines, and the cast is rock solid.
29. The Punisher (1989)
The best Punisher movie? Absolutely, even though Marvel wouldn’t let the filmmakers use the iconic skull shirt for some reason. Enormously violent (91 on-camera deaths total!) and pretty darned dramatic despite a few comic interludes, The Punisher puts Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) in an unlikely situation and watches him murder his way out of it. At the beginning of the film, The Punisher has weakened the New York mob just enough for the Yakuza to swoop in and kidnap all the mafiosos’ children. Will Frank be able to save the kids, knowing full well that he’s just going to kill all of their fathers right afterwards anyway? The conclusion plays fair with that moral quandary, and the movie that precedes it is WAY better than its reputation would have you believe.
28. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Joss Whedon’s follow-up to The Avengers proves that you really can have too much of a good thing. Age of Ultron is so overstuffed with cool stuff that it never seems to have time to deal with the consequences its main storyline – about an insane robot intent of exterminating humanity – has on the characters or on the rest of the world. But the cast is perfect, the action is awesome and the little moments – like the whole team trying to lift Thor’s hammer, and the introduction of The Vision – border on sublime.
27. Blade (1998)
The first Marvel movie that audiences took seriously was a straight-up 1990s action thriller that just happened to have vampires in it. It was also a pretty danged good straight-up 1990s action thriller that just happened to have vampires in it. Wesley Snipes is all macho posturing as a hero who decimates the nosferatu population, who are themselves struggling to find a new way to live in a modern world. (The blood-drenched raves were a particularly neat idea.) Solid action and a slick sense of cool make the original Blade a fun – and unusually historically significant – superhero horror flick.
26. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Thor is back in his funniest motion picture to date, and that sounds like more of a compliment than it really is. Taika Waititi takes over the epic series and proceeds to speed through all the major storylines that have been set up for years, strand Thor on an alien gladiator planet and force him to team up with the Hulk to escape and save Asgard from the evil Hela (Cate Blanchett). Unfortunately, Waititi plays Thor: Ragnarok like a lighthearted buddy comedy, even during all the big emotional moments that should be anchoring the movie in real, human emotions. Characters die and it’s brushed off with a joke. Lives are permanently altered and it’s brushed off with a joke. Bad guys are supposed to be threatening but instead they’re brushed off with a joke. They’re all funny jokes – and Thor: Ragnarok is certainly a very watchable, diverting piece of escapist entertainment – but this material could have been used to make one of the most epic, involving and meaningful Marvel movies ever. Instead… well, it’s just a joke.
25. Ant-Man (2015)
Marvel Studios movies had been getting bigger and bigger by the time Ant-Man came along, and this kooky heist comedy was the perfect excuse to scale the franchise back down a bit. Paul Rudd makes an entertaining ex-con who dons a costume that shrinks him down to the size of an ant, and the clever screenplay puts that power to good use as he and his super-scientist mentor, played by Michael Douglas, scheme to steal that same technology away from a company that would sell it to the highest, presumably evil bidder. There are plot holes here, and maybe the dialogue is “wackier” than it needs to be, but Ant-Man is a refreshing change of pace for the modern superhero genre with innovative action sequences and a great cast.
24. Hulk (2003)
Gorgeous and innovative visual design abounds in Ang Lee’s Hulk, a film which was a little too thoughtful to appease comic book fans who wanted more destruction, or to get away with its many silly contrivances like Hulk Poodles. But there is nothing else like it in the modern cinematic superhero genre, using multi-panel storytelling throughout the entire running time, to surreal effect. Hulk is a bold experiment that dazzles when it works, and merely baffles when it doesn’t.
23. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
James Gunn gave his brash, hilarious, 1970s rock-fueled Guardians of the Galaxy a chill pill for the second installment, taking all the crazy characters we came to love and forcing them to sit down and think about their feelings for most of the movie. As a result, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 works pretty well if you only care about the characters, and if you don’t mind that the film isn’t propelled by much, or that it doesn’t really “pick up” in any conventional way until the ludicrous, and impressively emotional finale. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an odd experiment in stripping away conventional superhero storytelling storylines and replacing them with lots and lots of subplots. It might not always work, but it earns a few bonus points for being unusual.
22. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Spider-Man finally joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Spider-Man: Homecoming, a cheerful motion picture about a teenaged superhero trying to grow up too fast, and coming to terms with his limitations. The hero’s personal journey doesn’t have the impressive dramatic heft of the Sam Raimi films, but it’s sensitively told, with a fantastic ensemble cast, a great sense of humor and some thrilling action sequences. What’s more, filmmaker Jon Watts seems to revel in exploring Spider-Man’s role against this new backdrop, rich with references and cameos by other superheroes, and juxtaposing a working class hero – and an impressive working class villain, The Vulture, played by Michael Keaton – against the glitzy, godlike, world-changing stories the MCU has told before. It may be breezy, but it’s refreshing.
21. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)
Cinema daredevils Neveldine/Taylor brought their unique blend of adolescent energy to this Ghost Rider sequel, giving audiences a sequel that doesn’t make sense, but still entertains like mad. Nicolas Cage’s performance has evolved here from eccentric to dangerously psychotic, and for the first time he also performs the motion-capture for “The Rider,” a demon finally seems like a creature straight out of your nightmares. The action is cool as hell, and the juvenile tone reminds us not to take this dunderheaded story too seriously. Just watch a small child barf hellfire into Nicolas Cage’s mouth, and enjoy.
20. Blade II (2002)
Guillermo Del Toro upped the ante in Blade II, introducing a whole new race of vampires that feeds on other vampires, forcing Blade to team up with his old enemies to take down the new ones. The action has never been better in this franchise, and the macho posturing never more macho, thanks to an ongoing competitive streak between Blade and an a-hole vamp played by Ron Perlman. And the design of the Reapers is a disgusting, unforgettable treat.
19. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Although not as innovative as Ang Lee’s version, Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk ultimately proves more consistently effective, especially as blockbuster entertainment. Imagine The Fugitive if Dr. Richard Kimble was also a were-King Kong and you’re on the right track. The Incredible Hulk focuses more on action and suspense than on character development, making it stand out from the rest of the films in Marvel Studios’ official franchise (and some would argue that’s not a good thing), but that action definitely kicks ass and the cast members all turn in genuine, involving performances.
18. Doctor Strange (2016)
Doctor Strange is in many ways the best of both worlds, a conventionally engaging superhero origin story but with outlandish imagery and action set pieces that no other superhero could possibly give us. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a narcissistic surgeon who loses his ability to heal, and winds up expanding his spiritual horizons instead, learning magic and defending the world from a villain whose hubris rivals his own, and might just end the world. The film boasts dazzling visual effects and a conclusion unlike any other in superhero movie history, and those qualities amplify the otherwise straightforward plot into something that feels special.
17. The Wolverine (2013)
Wolverine’s past comes back to haunt him (again), when he’s dragged to Japan to receive an unusual offer from an old friend. But when that friend dies under mysterious circumstances, and Wolverine’s healing factor starts to fail, it sets him off on an exciting journey that challenges the hero in new and surprisingly violent ways. A smart story and memorable action sequences make The Wolverine one of the best X-Men movies, although it’s still kinda confusing. Doesn’t the whole plot of this movie rely on memories of World War II that Wolverine isn’t even supposed to have?
16. Thor (2011)
Marvel had the right idea when they hired Kenneth Branagh to direct Thor. Although the fish out of water gags are cute – what with the Norse God of Thunder (or his alien equivalent) finding himself trapped in the world of men – the best part of Thor is the nigh-Shakespearean power struggles in Asgard. Tom Hiddleston turns the confused, emotional and manipulative Loki into one of the best villains of the 21st Century, in a ripping adventure yarn that also features a charming, appropriately oafish leading man performance from Chris Hemsworth.
15. Big Hero 6 (2014)
It’s hard to believe that Disney has all the rights to the Marvel comics pantheon but they’ve only made one theatrical feature film based on any of those properties, but at least the one we have is an imaginative, funny tearjerker. Big Hero 6 is the story of a boy genius whose brother dies and leaves behind a benevolent robot who, it turns out, has the makings of a superhero. A dynamic cast of characters, a lot of heart and an unexpected eagerness to explore the darker side of the grieving process make Big Hero 6 one of the very best Marvel superhero movies, and earned this film an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
14. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Bryan Singer transforms a sprawling and complicated time travel saga into an involving character piece in X-Men: Days of Future Past, which sends Wolverine back in time from an apocalyptic future to reunite Professor X and Magneto in the 1970s, when they couldn’t have hated each other more. It does not go as planned. Days of Future Past is full of cool action sequences – a centerpiece with Quicksilver is the highlight – but it only works because the heroes and villains are clearly defined, and because they are at odds for legitimate and important reasons. It’s dramatic as hell even though, like most X-Men movies, it doesn’t always make sense. (How DID Professor X get his original body back, anyway?)
13. Iron Man (2008)
The spot-on casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark – and a smart re-imagining of Iron Man’s origins, set against the backdrop of contemporary conflicts in the Middle East – made the first Iron Man movie both engaging and extremely relevant. The irony of a 1% corporate tycoon who made his millions off of the suffering of others suddenly seeing the error of his ways and fighting to redeem himself makes for great drama, and Downey’s playful smugness prevents that drama from ever getting too somber to enjoy. Only a tacked on climax prevents the first Iron Man from being one of the greatest superhero movies ever.
12. Spider-Man (2002)
The superhero movie that proved the genre was about more than great action sequences, Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man may seem naive and clunky today, but it captures the inner struggle of its protagonist beautifully. Tobey Maguire is the right kind of nerd as Peter Parker – a shy outsider, not a cool kid in disguise – and Cliff Robertson is perfectly tragic as his doomed Uncle Ben. Yes, the Green Goblin’s costume is lame, but by reimagining the character as Spider-Man’s ideological opposite, the filmmakers infuse their conflict with impressive drama, setting the stage for a tragic ongoing saga between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn (James Franco) that will carry us through this whole franchise, and repeatedly break our hearts.
11. X-Men: First Class (2011)
Dripping with style and centered on great characters, X-Men: First Class re-established the whole X-Men franchise as a potent force in superhero cinema after the one-two punch of The Last Stand and X-Men Origins nearly knocked it out completely. Matthew Vaughn’s storytelling is clean but full of personality, and the new, younger cast brings a welcome vitality to a series that had never made proper use of its ensemble before. (Except for January Jones, who spends most of the film looking bored out of her mind.) The stakes are high, and the ending – set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis – is as “real” as the X-Men movies ever got. First Class really is a first class movie.
10. X2: X-Men United (2003)
It may seem small compared to the history-shattering events of First Class or Days of Future Past, but the second X-Men movie is still the best film in the principle X-Men franchise because of its laser focus on the persecution of its characters, both good and evil. The prejudice against mutants feels more personal in this installment, with the villain (a vile Brian Cox) exacting personal revenge against the X-Men with a first-strike mentality that feels all-too prescient in post-9/11 America. And the inclusion of Bobby Drake’s incredulous family, who handle his “coming out” in exactly the wrong way, sends a firm message that the X-Men are outsider heroes who will always be socially relevant. Add in some great action and a plot that, unlike most of the rest of the films in this franchise, actually makes perfect sense and you’ve got the best “proper” X-Men movie so far.
9. The Avengers (2012)
The first-ever all-star superhero team-up movie is one of the most entertaining blockbusters ever made, with a stellar cast of characters who are given ample time to interact and evolve before they set out on their mission to punch an alien invasion to death. The plot is simple, but that’s a necessary evil: it gives our heroes a reason to team up, and challenges to overcome, and then gets the hell out of the way because what we really came for was the heretofore unprecedented chance to see these titans interact on camera and kick butt together. The Avengers doesn’t amount to anything more than popcorn entertainment, but director Joss Whedon completely nails it.
8. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel Studios may be spending most of their time redefining superheroes for the 21st century, but that didn’t stop them from also producing one of the best nostalgic action movies ever with Captain America: The First Avenger. Joe Johnston’s World War II adventure perfectly captures the sentimentality of its idealistic hero, played just right by Chris Evans, while pitting him against the classically threatening Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Marvel would go on to challenge the very concept of Captain America in the sequels, but first they wisely captured why the hero worked so well in the first place with this rollicking, involving and thrilling throwback.
7. Iron Man Three (2013)
Tony Stark sets out on his most unpredictable adventure in Iron Man Three, which forces the hero to spend most of the film without his trademark suit of armor, and to discover the limits of his own ego. Sir Ben Kingsley is threatening and then… he’s something else as The Mandarin, whose portrayal in Iron Man Three proved divisive to hardcore comic book fans. But in a genre defined by faithful adaptations, this clever reworking of familiar characters and these unexpected turns of events make Iron Man Three stand out. It’s a thoughtful, funny, exciting and unusual superhero movie that works on every level… unless you’re religiously devoted to the original version of The Mandarin for some reason.
6. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The consequences of unleashing superheroes into the world lead to a spectacular confrontation in Captain America: Civil War, which finds (most of) the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe duking it out over moral principles. Is it right for The Avengers to be an autonomous collective of all-powerful lawmen, or do they owe the world their servitude, even though that would open the door to potentially egregious conflicts of interest and corruption? The plot is too convoluted for its own good, but that’s okay because it maneuvers all of these great characters into the single most spectacular superhero fight in movie history, and introduces great new characters like Black Panther and a note-perfect, rebooted interpretation of Spider-Man.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
By the time Guardians of the Galaxy came out, astute members of the audience had already started to notice that Marvel Studios had a formula for its superhero movies. Character-driven action movies with big MacGuffin storylines and plenty of quips. It ain’t broke, but Guardians of the Galaxy fixed it anyway, proving that a great filmmaker like James Gunn (Slither) can work within the confines of that genre and produce something that feels unique anyway. The strange cast of characters – which includes a raccoon and a tree – are all selfish a-holes, living in a far out space opera set to a soundtrack of kickin’ 1970s pop tunes that becomes its own character in the movie. The eccentricities add character, the exceptional cast adds heart, and the audience loves every minute of it.
4. Deadpool (2016)
It took long enough, but 20th Century Fox finally gave Deadpool another chance after completely ruining the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And thanks heavens they did. The new Deadpool is a sly satire of superhero movie conventions, tucked tidily into a plot that works just as well as any of its serious comic book brethren. Ryan Reynolds is a wisecracking mercenary who volunteers for an experimental cancer treatment that gives him superpowers but destroys his life, and he sets out for revenge, dragging two subpar X-Men along for the ride (the good ones were too expensive) and breaking the fourth wall every other minute. Hilarious, knowing, and subversive, Deadpool is popular for a reason. It’s just that good.
3. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The whole point of Spider-Man, the character, was to flip the superhero power fantasy on its head, and prove that having abilities far beyond those of normal men would basically suck. Spider-Man 2 captures that suck so perfectly that it’s easy to ignore the film’s minor flaws – like the generic mad scientist plot – and focus on Peter Parker’s emotionally devastating journey. Spidey isn’t a hero because it comes naturally, he’s a hero because his overwhelming sense of guilt won’t let him be anything else. Director Sam Raimi loves torturing this hero, and we love watching it because it makes him stronger and gives the rest of us hope. Life is hard, our victories are few and far between, and everyone feels unappreciated, but sometimes you also get a little slice of cake, and that’s reward enough.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The second best Marvel superhero movie takes Captain America, a hero from a simpler time, and thrusts him into a complex contemporary setting. And to think, it could have been fish-out-of-water nonsense, but instead Captain America: The Winter Soldier challenges the very concept of heroism. When confronted with political corruption, Cap’s finely honed sense of right and wrong forces him to do the right thing, even while common sense dictates it’s wrong. The Winter Soldier dares to say that America has lost its way, declaring the core politics of the 21st century to be the work of bogeymen and forcing the audience to decide once and for all what really matters: what’s right, or what’s safe. Heroes stand by their principles, no matter what the cost, and thanks to a great cast, a sharp screenplay and slick direction by The Russo Bros., it makes for ecstatic cinema.
1. Logan (2017)
Hugh Jackman’s (supposedly) last film as Wolverine is gloomy, angry, and exquisite. The R-rated drama depicts a dying Logan and a dying Professor X trying one last time to make a difference, by protecting a girl who could very well be the world’s last mutant from a despicable group of scientists and mercenaries. The filmmakers were given the freedom to let Logan play out like the last X-Men story, or at least the last Wolverine story, and that gives the film more consequence than any other superhero film. They’re not holding anything back, so the characters use the last ounce of their strength to lay everything on the line, emotionally and physically. The effect is remarkable. Logan is one of the best superhero films. Period.
Top Photo: Sony Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.