Wonder Woman has arrived. After numerous failed attempts to bring the iconic DC Comics character to the big screen, and following a recent aborted TV series revival, the folks over at Warners/DC finally strike pay dirt with a picture that is glorious, colorful, and infectiously fun—everything that their Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad were not.
In celebration of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman’s splashy cinematic debut, let’s recap the ten best superhero movies. Some are sunny, funny, and optimistic; others are dark, grim, and pessimistic; and a precious few straddle the line between both styles.
Collectively, they represent the greatest examples of the seemingly endless capes-and-tights genre.
#1) Superman: The Movie (1978)
Nearly 40 years after its launch, Richard Donner’s original Superman movie is still the very best of the superhero genre and remains the gold standard for all optimistic comic book adaptations. It’s bright and cheerful; full of adventure, emotion, and witty comedy; jam-packed with a staggering all-star cast; and boasts a luxurious production design, luminous cinematography, impressive visual effects, and one of moviedom’s most enthralling and immediately recognizable orchestral scores.
The dour Man of Steel reboot would have us believe the notion of Superman as the ultimate Boy Scout is obsolete, but four decades later, Superman: The Movie still makes us believe a man can fly.
#2) The Dark Knight (2008)
This second installment in Christopher Nolan’s reboot trilogy is the gold standard for all serious and gritty superhero adaptations. The tone is solemn (though there are some well-calibrated moments of levity); the violence is shocking, brutal, and has severe emotional consequences (the PG-13 movie toes the line of an “R” rating); and the plot’s themes of split identity, honor, sacrifice, and revenge are definitely not your usual superhero movie trappings.
Cumulatively this all adds up to one of the genre’s most mature and adult-oriented offerings, and the movie remains the indisputable crown jewel of all “dark” capes-and-tights flicks.
#3) Logan (2017)
James Mangold’s elegiac farewell to the Wolverine fits very comfortably into the X-Men universe while simultaneously flipping it—and, consequently, the entire comic-book movie genre—upside down. The bloody “R”-rated violence is both crucial and excruciating, and the somber tone is a fierce rebuke to the jokey, juvenile, samey-samey feel of most mass-appeal Hollywood blockbusters designed by committee. Logan elevates the superhero genre to such great heights it’s hard to imagine where Marvel (and, in turn, DC) can go from here.
#4) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Having established the history and dynamics of its characters with the WWII-set adventure Captain America: The First Avenger, the modern-day-set fish-out-of-water sequel ups the ante with a taut and twisty super-heroic spin on the classic conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. Herein lie the first hints that the makers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe aren’t afraid to shake up their own style by shifting tonal gears and tackling mature contemporary issues such as national security, allegiance, and military readiness. It’s also a rare superhero picture that has all the stylized violence and emotional gravitas of the “dark and gritty” pictures while simultaneously reminding us of the bright and colorful comic book panels from whence Cap sprang.
#5) Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The first Spider-Man movie did a lot of the heavy lifting in establishing the world of Peter Parker/Spider-Man and explaining all-important character back-stories and relationships. For the superior follow-up, director Sam Raimi gets to play in the sandbox he helped to build in the first film, and goes for broke with the purest and most ticklishly entertaining comic book sequel we’ve yet seen. It’s second only to the first Superman movie as a shining example of the “bright and cheerful” capes-and-tights genre.
#6) Iron Man (2008)
Jon Favreau’s rip-roaring adaptation of one of Marvel’s so-called “lower-tier” comic book heroes diligently follows the template of the “bright, cheerful” superhero picture, and kicked-off the fledgling Marvel Cinematic Universe in high-flying style. Nearly ten years on, it’s not hard to see why it remains one of the genre’s very best: the cast is superb; the technical merits are astonishing; and the screenplay astutely blends emotional gravitas and character enrichment with flippant comedy and eye-popping action.
#7) X2: X-Men United (2003)
The second X-Men adaptation has a lot in common with the second Spider-Man flick for how deftly it expands the universe established in the first movie and how much deeper it bores into the hearts and minds of its heroes and villains. Not as overtly dark as, say, The Dark Knight or Logan, it’s definitely not a cheery, sunny, happy-happy-joy-joy type of comic book flick.
#8) Batman Begins (2005)
After four wildly different Batman films from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, director Christopher Nolan successfully reboots the series by exploring Batman/Bruce Wayne’s untold origin story and by keeping things serious and relatively grounded—well, as grounded as things can be for a movie about an orphaned billionaire vigilante who gets dressed up as a bat at night to secretly fight crime.
#9) Superman II (1981)
Though the more outrageously comical aspects of Superman II keep it from equaling the majesty of the first movie, it remains one of the most upbeat and relentlessly entertaining superhero movies ever made. For its slam-bang climactic battle royal over the skyscrapers of Metropolis, many fans consider this sequel to be a truer “comic book” picture than its predecessor. Alas, the movie’s awkward tonal seesawing—the result of an editorial juggling act that uses footage filmed by director Richard Donner before he was fired and mixes those scenes with the lighter and decidedly campier material directed by substitute Richard Lester—results in a picture that looks and feels somehow less timeless than its predecessor.
#10) Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton’s cold and kinky follow-up to his super-sized 1989 blockbuster Batman is perhaps the director’s purest vision, undiluted by the studio pressures and mandates that made the first film feel like a mere product, and starring the best cinematic Bruce Wayne/Batman: Michael Keaton. Admittedly too dark and macabre for the Happy Meal set, but more in the spirit of the celebrated Dark Knight graphic novels by Frank Miller. After this heavy noir picture frightened kids, mortified parents, and stupefied film critics, the studio rejiggered the series and transformed it into a gaudy and campy freak show. When Joel Schumacher’s subsequent two risible sequels killed fan goodwill, the studio changed gears yet again, and Christopher Nolan’s resulting Dark Knight trilogy re-wrote the book on serious comic book movie adaptations. Hard to say if Nolan’s trilogy would have been as widely regarded or felt as revolutionary had Schumacher’s two Bat-flicks not stunk so horrendously, but it’s safe to say Burton’s Batman Returns blazed the trail.