There once was time when movie theaters around the world weren’t filled to the brim with masks, capes, and colorful spandex. Things changed after a couple of films exploded on to the scene, mesmerizing audiences worldwide, and becoming box-office monsters. Now, for the better part of the new millennium, superheroes have taken hold of pop culture’s center stage, with increasing numbers of these movies being made, marketed, and released year after year.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed sometimes when looking at the number of films that will constitute the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, and whatever Fox is trying to do. But keep calm. If our recent pop history has taught us anything, it’s that we’re in for some cool, fun, surprisingly deep stories in the next few years. Find comfort in knowing that the superhero phenomenon gave us these eight great films and that the genre is starting to try new things and explore uncharted territories.
Iron Man (2008) by Jon Favreau
It’s impossible to talk about the boom of the superhero film era without mentioning the one that lighted the fuse. It wasn’t the first movie to belong to the genre, but it was the one that incorporated all the traits that would come to define the Marvel Cinematic Universe that keeps steamrolling box-office records to this day, nine years after its release. Robert Downey Jr. oozed charisma as Tony Stark, billionaire, philanthropist, playboy, and armor-wearing badass, the epicenter around whom the Avengers would rally for years to come. Iron Man reminds us that superhero films can be fun and exciting at the same time.
The Dark Knight (2008) by Christopher Nolan
Unlike its Marvel counterpart, the DC film universe hadn’t quite found its footing until very recently due to the badly received films that have left fans unsatisfied. This came as a surprise after Christopher Nolan’s remarkable Batman trilogy, considered one of the best sagas in superhero film history. Unlike Marvel, Nolan’s Batman existed in a dark, realistic setting, where crime and corruption allowed the British director to explore philosophical themes of good and evil, as well as question our complex relationship with heroes. The Dark Knight stood out from the other two, as it gave us one of the greatest villains to ever grace the screen in Heath Ledger’s Joker, as well as a complex screenplay that delved into the darker side of the superhero genre.
Spider-Man 2 (2004) by Sam Raimi
Before Marvel and DC declared war on each other to conquer our ticket money, Sam Raimi had already realized the potential that existed in adapting comic books to the big screen. His Spider-Man trilogy, with Tobey Maguire as the title character, was a huge success with critics and audiences alike –that is, if you leave out Spider-Man 3, responsible for Raimi’s burnout and the demise of the franchise. The second installment, though, is a great film, with appealing characters, a fantastic villain in Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, and a solid script. It raised the bar in terms of quality storytelling and special effects for the superhero films that came after.
Unbreakable (2000) by M. Night Shyamalan
Here we take a turn from over-the-top action sequences and special effects to a slow-burning character exploration of superheroes. Nowadays, M. Night Shyamalan is Hollywood’s favorite lightning rod, a director ridiculed after a series of bad films destroyed his reputation as one of cinema’s most exciting young talents, but before this happened, he released Unbreakable, a small film unlike any other in the superhero genre. The protagonist, played by Bruce Willis, is a working class man going through a rough patch in his marriage, who discovers he possesses superhuman strength and invulnerability. Unlike the other entries in this list, whose stories feature a fight between good and evil, this film focuses on how obsession can corrupt people in extreme circumstances.
The Incredibles (2004) by Brad Bird
An animation studio responsible for manufacturing one of the greatest superhero films in history? Yes, it can and did happen. The Incredibles is an enchanting film, filled with complex and exciting action sequences, delightful characters, and an excellent villain. Yet what on the surface might seem like an action movie for kids, hides a deep, realistic exploration of mid-life crisis and family dynamics that will touch adults as much as it amuses children. You really gotta give it to Pixar.
Wonder Woman (2017) by Patty Jenkins
The DC Extended Universe was up in flames after two dumpster fires, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, threatened to turn them into the laughing stock of the superhero genre. That is until Wonder Woman single-handedly saved them from having to endure an eternity of justifying their mediocre films with Director’s Cuts hidden in their special edition Blu-rays. Patty Jenkins crafted a solid film, with interesting characters, a sense of humor that previous DCEU entries lacked, and the very much needed first female superhero, played by Gal Gadot. It arrived in just the right moment, when audiences pined for quality from Marvel’s biggest rival.
Deadpool (2016) by Tim Miller
Although making fun of how trite and repetitive superhero movies can be, while including every trite and repetitive cliché in your own movie, is not really that revolutionary, Ryan Reynolds is so enchanting and funny as the title character that it’s impossible not to love Tim Miller’s take on the superhero genre. Besides, deconstruction is the first step needed before experimentation. Deadpool is witty, hilarious, and filled with epic moments that have ushered a new era of R-rated superhero films, a needed fresh take that’s already being further developed after the limits of PG-13 were getting tiresome.
Logan (2017) by James Mangold
The film that reaped what Deadpool sowed, Logan is the first superhero movie that’s dared to explore adult themes through gut-wrenching violence and the heartbreaking deaths of major characters. In a genre where superheroes’ invincibility makes fights lose the risk factor needed to make them truly interesting, James Mangold refused to pull any punches and let us feel pain as our beloved characters suffered and fell before our very eyes for the first time in a major studio superhero film. It’s a hard watch, but it’s laid the groundwork needed for future films in this genre so they can dare to experiment and question the conventions that have defined it throughout its history.
If you enjoyed that, check out the superhero series that’s tackling issues of mental health and ten awesome graphic novels.