If you had mentioned that superhero films would be the next era of Hollywood’s Golden Age nearly thirty years ago, many people would have probably laughed at you. And then they turned around by the year 2020 and said, “Holy crap, superhero films are Hollywood’s bread and butter now!” In the last few years, several superhero films have amassed billions that several sit as the highest-grossing films of all time.
James Cameron once had a firm grip as king of the box office with Avatar and Titanic. Now, he is probably praying Marvel or DC does not come to unseat him soon (or again). And the reason why many of us watch superhero films in today’s time is that the people with remarkable powers on screen represent vigilantism and exceptionalism. Many of us humans that walk the planet are bystanders, beings that stand destined to stay flawed and do not have access to some unknown alien powers. Not to forget, the film’s superheroes become presented in are more than intergalactic action with quippy lines (most of the time). They represent a new generation thanks to computer-generated imagery and special effects and the willingness to explore new measures of storytelling within the mayhem that unfolds.
I mean, if a superhero film has everything one could ever want (such as action, comedy, and drama), then why bother watching any other movies? This article details every superhero film that was the best of each year dating back from 2000 to 2005. Yes, many other legendary superhero films such as Tim Burton’s Batman and 1978’s Superman: The Movie, came to fruition in a different era. What unfolds from the beginning of the 21st century is an intriguing journey of how we got to unthinkable dream movies with heroes we never thought would command the screen.
The first X-Men film, which launched the franchise to respectable success for nearly two decades, got off to a great start in pushing the Golden Age of Cinema for Hollywood. Faithful to the comics and full of splendid action, the feature did not back down with its balance of exposition, characters, or special effects. And Hugh Jackman, the guy who stood destined to play Wolverine for years to come, put on a stellar performance alongside Rebecca Romijn and Patrick Stewart. The themes of bigotry and family came into play, and it was all gratifying. Maybe not the best of all time, but one that catapulted the next wave of superhero films for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately, there was not a standout superhero film in 2001. Thankfully, next year’s triumph makes up for it…
Sam Raimi and Co. captured lightning in a bottle with the first outing of Spider-Man on the live-action screen in 2002, pushing the hero as one of the favorites alongside Batman and Superman. Raimi produces a strong origin story with Tobey Maguire at the helm, as his character struggles with the sudden passing of his Uncle Ben, the love triangle involving his best friend and crush, and the impending threat of the Green Goblin. The growing pains of a teenager relate to many, and the enemy being one who wishes to harm those closest to Spidey makes it all more compelling. It also has one of the most famous lines in cinema history, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Spider-Man and the rest of us will never forget it, Uncle Ben.
The film paved the way for many future summer blockbusters and spawned two sequels (that we’ll get into in a moment.)
Not even one-fourth through this entire list, and we are already mentioning a sequel? That’s incredible. X2 does what a sequel is supposed to: become bigger and better than its predecessor. Hugh Jackman once again stands out amidst the mayhem that unfolds, and it is a smartly written story that ends with a solid cliffhanger. The final battle sequel between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike is Bourne Identity style, with brutal fighting culminating in tragedy. It’s a sequel that ties together its emotional stakes nicely and stays often overlooked, but rest assured, this stands as the highlight of 2003’s superhero tales.
2004: Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles
Oh man, this one was tough to settle on. Somehow, we got two visual treats in the form of Tobey Maguire’s second run with Spidey and Pixar’s excellent family superhero film in the form of The Incredibles. Both are easily two of the best in the superhero genre, with the former being considered one of the best superhero films (and sequels) of all time. Both contain great villains, fun action, some genuine laughs, and an excellent depth into what it means to be a superhero in difficult times. There isn’t much more to say except to witness them yourself at the earliest convenience.
2005: Batman Begins
Oh yes. Batman Begins is arguably the best Batman origin story. It has a dose of everything that draws many to the character of Batman. The emotional level, where Bruce Wayne seeks out a fatherly figure after his parents were tragically killed, to his dark and incredible work as the caped crusader makes for a great movie. Christian Bale nails the character, bringing a level of complexity similar to Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi’s Spidey films, and Christopher Nolan takes his time easing into the action. It resonates better, as dressing up as the bat procures a traumatic feeling for Bruce as he fights his demons. All around a superb work and followed up by two fantastic sequels.
2006: Superman Returns
The sixth and last installment in the original Superman series, Superman Returns, serves as a fine capper for the first two while ignoring the other three sequels (it is the Terminator franchise in disguise). Once again, it serves up a glorious spectacle with the cinematography and story. The big cons of this feature are the tiring runtime and lack of action that many have become accustomed to. Well, at least Man of Steel did it better (wait…). All in all, a film that is most likely forgotten in the fog of memory, even if it is not the worst ending of a fantastic franchise…
2007: Spider-Man 3
And I spoke too soon, sigh. I know many will probably lambast me for putting this one on the list, but in all honesty, 2006 and 2007 were such bad years for the superhero genre. X-Men: The Last Stand, Zoom (2006), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and many others were atrocious and horrendously damaging to this genre. And somehow, even when many still scorn it in today’s time, this is still probably the best of the genre in 2007 (although that is not saying much). It failed due to too many villains, plotlines, tiring techniques, and a clumsy structure. The only saving graces are the cast and some action sequences, but Raimi became forced to put Venom in the film, which screwed nearly everything up. Also, Emo Peter is equally contagious and cringeworthy.
As I recommended when discussing this franchise’s finale last year, this film should have wrapped up the story with Peter and Harry’s friendship and had the other new characters in minor roles (to set up future installments). Sometimes, it begs the question of whether a director or studio is at fault for mishandling a feature, and in this case, it is the latter.
Nevertheless, Spider-Man 3 is a disappointing title to be leading the year in 2007, especially after its predecessors were so freaking good. Had it not been for another few great sparks in the superhero genre the following years, this era may have ended in a catastrophe right then and there.
2008: The Dark Knight (Honorable Mention – Iron Man)
Holy s***, what a comeback. No one would have thought that 2008 had two superhero films that would launch both DC and Marvel to historic heights, and no one expected them to become as phenomenal as they are in today’s time. Both films rock and set the bar high, with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight inching out Jon Favreau’s Iron Man because of the incredible themes explored and Heath Ledger’s legendary performance as The Joker. Ledger’s performance set the benchmark for many future villain performances, with even Michael B. Jordan becoming influenced for his incredible role as Killmonger in Black Panther. That said, thanks to Robert Downey Jr. and his star-making performance, it paved the way for the Avengers franchise to become a reality one day and land Marvel/Disney billions of dollars and supporters.
May Ledger rest in peace and Downey be praised forever in kickstarting the unparalleled success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It is a surprising choice, but after much consideration, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen stands as the best superhero film of 2009 (no, not his Batman vs. Superman atrocity in 2016). Additionally, it probably stands as the best of his collection (with maybe the exception of Dawn of the Dead). Snyder revamps the story written by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and turns the narrative in another direction. The cast and images combine in an intriguing experience that feels reminiscent of a graphic novel, and not many can do the same. The 1980s setting does feel like an oddity at times, and some work in front of the camera acts as a version of CliffNotes. A lot of parts are incredibly divisive, particularly the off-putting sex scene.
But tackling this source material is cumbersome, and Snyder took a bold position in pursuing his gritty direction with an unknown cast and list of heroes. It’s not an S-tier movie but having him come this far in producing this (which could even become compared to other divisive works like The Passion of the Christ or Fight Club) is one hell of a consolation prize.
Now, if you want to talk about another film that is highly gritty and polarizing in the superhero genre, look no further than 2010’s Kick-Ass. It is everything you would want out of an accurate, coming-of-age superhero tale of a young fellow but amped up by some gruesome imagery and extreme profanity. Like many of Quentin Tarantino’s works (with Reservoir Dogs and Inglourious Basterds coming to mind), it is a relentlessly violent film. It is a different take on the superhero genre thanks to its satire and violence, and it succeeds due to its authenticity and genuineness. Matthew Vaughn, who reportedly had to sell his house to fund this project, captures a realness with the characters and storytelling.
The controversy stems from having a young girl, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, participate in these ruthless killings and foul-mouthed language. It is not something to recommend to young ones.
The film operates as a fantasy of sorts, elevated by some strong performances in Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. It is a generational film, and it stood out as the best of the superhero genre at the beginning of the 2010s. (Its sequel three years later, though, lands as a jumble and limps along without the heart of the first.)
2011: X-Men: First Class
Kicking off this list is one of the better X-Men films in the series under Fox, First Class. Matthew Vaughn brings back the comic creation freshness he established in Kick-Ass and crafted a work powered by a youthful presence and an enjoyable story. The prime word to describe this film is swift, which is not generally bestowed on many hero films these days. The mood of the 1960s stays captured nicely, and Vaughn takes a less severe direction compared to Bryan Singer. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are remarkable as Charles Xavier and Magneto, respectively. Their bonds/break up becomes intriguing and gets carried over to the future X-Men films (even if some are lackadaisical).
But we must remember, this X-Men film made a huge rebound for the franchise’s success and carried the themes, settings, and chemistry over to future installments (like Days of Future Past and Apocalypse). Without it, the X-Men franchise may have slowly died off in previous years.
2012: The Avengers (Honorable Mention – The Dark Knight Rises)
I’ll be d***ed, another year where two superhero films battled it out for a first place. It was exciting because one of them concluded one of the greatest franchises in modern history, while the other kickstarted one of the most beloved (and monumental) franchises in history. No disrespect Christopher Nolan, but Joss Whedon and Co. made more of a (slighter) mark when it came to the highly anticipated, dream team-up movie, The Avengers.
And it is nothing against The Dark Knight Rises since it’s a beautifully directed film, with a great story, serious tone, and excellent cap off to Christian Bale’s time as the caped crusader. In some ways, one can make a case that it was better than the MCU’s offering. But I believe the small thing that got to it was that its predecessor, The Dark Knight, set the bar unbelievably high thanks to Heath Ledger’s scene-stealing performance and its courage to explore the world’s politics in a much more immersive manner. Rises did its job and then some but had to follow something extraordinarily delivered four years in advance (whereas The Avengers had five films to build it up before its release).
The Avengers film is nothing like anything anyone had seen before; it was in unprecedented territory. Everything about it screams the word “blockbuster.” Big cast stars joining together for the first time, most notably Mark Ruffalo’s astonishing portrayal as the Hulk, excellent sequences, and a well-written story full of flawed heroes and an adored villain. It blew expectations and became instrumental in the rise of other superb MCU tales. The rotating shot of all six main Avengers standing on the street of New York City, ready to fight the alien army, is indeed unforgettable. It can also be believable that the very stillness of human nature was shaking at that exact moment.
2013: Iron Man 3 (Honorable Mention – Man of Steel)
2013 for superheroes is like watching a professional wrestling match before that blew up the venue, and then the crowd became dead, and everything now is fine. And this year had a lot of convoluted stories and set pieces that blew many minds. Without a doubt, Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel take the crowns. Many will praise them while others will pan them. Finding a middle ground for these films is nigh on cumbersome.
Iron Man 3 takes the edge because Robert Downey Jr. is still fantastic as the genius, billionaire, dickish philanthropist in his metal outfit. He handled his character’s PTSD from the Battle of New York well, and Shane Black did an admirable job with his directorial duties. The biggest hindrances were the controversial Mandarin twists and several forced developments on Iron Man’s character (and the script). It’s one of those films that became an oddity in the MCU because no one talks about it, and it doesn’t serve much of a purpose in the grand scheme of the MCU (well, maybe Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings can help it out). And looking back on it in today’s time, it doesn’t carry the same impact the other threequels in the MCU have. Captain America: Civil War, Thor Ragnarök, and Avengers: Infinity War had potent ambitions and consequences, whereas Iron Man 3 is there.
Man of Steel is a Superman tale many are not used to because it’s part Superman, part Michael Bay, part Robocop (?), and whatever else Zack Snyder attempted to do. It highlights a gloomy atmosphere for the main character, played by Henry Cavill, and doesn’t feel like a superhero film. It tries to go for a big spectacle amidst a sometimes-dull direction. And having the film end with Superman killing one guy to save the planet stands in direct opposition to the comic book counterparts. Like, didn’t he destroy most of the buildings and probably kill hundreds of more innocents during the final battle? It’s very frustrating to think about after witnessing. Your viewing will probably be more different than the next person’s. Still, Hans Zimmer’s score, the freshness of Superman’s utilization, and exploration of complexities with his character make it much better than some of us recall.
2014: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Honorable Mentions – Guardians of the Galaxy & X-Men: Days of Future Past)
2014 was another great year for superhero films (minus The Amazing Spider-Man 2). Three films battled it out for the top spot, and each of them was highly engaging. Days of Future Past utilized time travel to fix past mistakes between the 1973 and present timelines. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine remains as the focal star between the two time periods. The cast, action, visuals, and breakout performance by Evan Peters as Quicksilver all make for one of the better X-Men offerings.
Meanwhile, thanks to James Gunn and the cast, Guardians of the Galaxy was a fun, zany experience that became bolstered by creativity and ingenuity. Like no-one would have thought Chris Pratt’s Andy (from Parks & Recreation), Dave Bautista (a former WWE professional wrestler), or Vin Diesel’s and Bradley Cooper’s voices/portrayals as Groot and Rocket would become so captivating. It has everything a comic book nerd adores, from the 60s and 70s tunes to intergalactic atmospheres to hilarious moments. Marvel took the most considerable risk, and it paid off tremendously.
But, Guardians and Days of Future Past were beaten out that year by the undisputed king within Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Who would have thought that projecting a superhero film in the form of a high-stakes political thriller could be considered an excellent film? It is one of those rare sequels that transcended its predecessor like The Godfather Part 2, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Empire Strikes Back. From the performances to action to direction to comedy to themes, everything about it makes it one of the MCU’s most inventive films. Hell, the Russo brothers even corrected most of the MCU’s issues and still managed to tell one of its most absorbing stories. Before Civil War, Ragnarok, Black Panther, Infinity War, and Endgame exploded around the world (or universe), The Winter Soldier left an emphatic mark that it was the MCU film to top. Many of us are thankful that it became a reality and how it pushed Marvel forward post-Avengers.
2015: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Honorable Mentions – Ant-Man and Turbo Kid)
Oh boy. 2015 was another one of those years for this genre. Remember the Fantastic Four reboot that year? Yeah, I don’t want anyone to remember either. Thankfully, we got some enjoyable ones this year with two MCU outings and a surprising contender from a minor feature distributed by Epic Pictures Group. Turbo Kid was an entertaining fun film set in a post-apocalyptic society and a stunning return for independent filmmaking.
Ant-Man with Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, and Michael Douglas was also light, heartwarming, and funny. It is a heist movie at its core, and at its best, a fine solo outing for one of the MCU’s “smallest” heroes. Michael Pena’s Luis is also a scene-stealer. The film does have the usual Marvel gripes with a weak villain and some undeveloped moments, but its smaller-stakes atmosphere becomes refreshing after the continuous “end-of-the-world” plots. Still, the winner this year, from a financial (and long-term storytelling) standpoint, goes to Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Yes, it is not the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is undoubtedly the weakest of the Avengers films. It becomes overstuffed and disjointed at times with all the tricks and techniques Joss Whedon introduces. So MANY quips become utilized. But, as I wrote a while ago on this movie’s underrated importance, it should not be overlooked. This blockbuster stands as the backbone for the majority of the MCU’s Phase 3 films. Every development or reference in this film becomes employed, and many should praise Whedon for constructing this. It is also a good sequel with some solid action and new characters added into the mix. Despite it not being everyone’s cup of tea, Age of Ultron contains purpose, and its contribution assisted in the constant rise of the next era of MCU films.
2016: Captain America: Civil War and Deadpool
2016 was quite the story for superheroes. We had six major ones that ruled the box office in some capacity, and each brought something to the table. Doctor Strange was all about incredible visual spectacle with a familiar origin story (which still worked), X-Men: Apocalypse floundered with some odd tactics despite having all the ingredients (and an extended cameo from Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine) to succeed, and Suicide Squad is the embodiment of a messy, uncoordinated team effort even when led by supervillains (written on a script in less than two months).
And then Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice broke critics, audiences, Batman and Superman diehards, Rotten Tomatoes, Warner Brothers, Zack Snyder, and the future of the Justice League. I think the real culprit is the marketing, but what can I say? (Clear throat, that Martha twist is the equivalent of egregious.)
So that leaves us with Ryan Reynolds and Avengers 2.5. And thankfully, both delivered and then some. Deadpool is some ******* bloody good fun, thanks to Ryan Reynold’s charm and the script continually breaking the fourth (or sixteenth) wall and bringing about some of the best meta-jokes. It fits the characters, the audiences ate it up, and it was released on Valentine’s Day (as Mr. Reynolds said it, “this is a love story”). It hits all the marks minus a few plot-related things, but it’s an astonishing triumph that solidifies Reynolds is destined to play this character forever. Kudos to Marvel for doing this. Now that Deadpool has joined the MCU, we’re excited for all the possibilities with his character.
Captain America: Civil War is also the other triumph of the year. Somehow, the Russos continued their hot streak from Winter Soldier by folding in several Avengers, introducing Black Panther and Spider-Man, continuing the Captain America/Bucky Barnes arc, and giving us a villain who had a legitimate beef with the team for their actions in Sokovia. It is an impressive film with some genuine sprawling and intimate moments. The battle at the airport was tremendous, but the final battle between Iron Man, Cap, and Barnes is raw, brutal, and heartbreaking. And the impact of this film carries on over for future MCU films, notably Infinity War and Endgame. Even if some deem it as Avengers 2.5, it is one of the best MCU films of all time.
2017: Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarök, and Logan (Honorable Mentions – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and The Lego Batman Movie)
What a year. What a moment for the superhero genre.
This is exactly what we come to the movies for. Fun, creative delights, and historical moments all became a part of 2017’s plate of superhero films. We got the first female-led superhero movie (with a female director). Hugh Jackman said one last goodbye as Wolverine after playing it for two decades. Spider-Man got rebooted a second time on camera, finally in the MCU. Taika Waititi reinvigorated the entire Thor franchise and character in one single movie. The Guardians of the Galaxy got a sequel that is better than most out there. And animated Batman and Co. blew kids and families away.
There is no possible way to say that one is definitively better than the other. The quality and variety paid off unequivocally. Watch them all and become captivated (except Justice League, obviously).
2018: Black Panther (Honorable Mentions – Avengers: Infinity War, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, Deadpool 2, and Incredibles 2)
2018 was another giant, ambitious year for superhero films. Several notable titles and sequels were released this year, and most of them delivered spectacularly. Infinity War was epic, audacious, and the cliffhanger broke pop culture. The Incredibles family finally got a sequel after 14 years. Venom and Aquaman got solo bouts, Ant-Man got a sequel with the Wasp, and Deadpool got his fourth wall-breaking sequel. The animated Spider-Man film barely stole the victory here because of the comic book perfection it encapsulated.
Black Panther is the winner of the 2018 superhero films. And it’s not because of the reception, money made, or how it kickstarted 2018 magnificently. It is a statement of the diversity many have wished to see for years, thanks to a predominantly black cast and an undeniably actual direction. It recognizes the positions and history of black folks and incorporates it beautifully in a script that still is part of the Marvel canon. In addition, it tells one of the MCU’s most engrossing stories, introduces some of its most developed characters, and has one of the best villains of all time, thanks to Michael B. Jordan. The women are also presented way more than sidekicks here, giving us more empowering moments and the anticipation for an all-female-lead team film in the future. Ryan Coogler makes everything land astonishingly, and this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime films you must watch to commemorate its influence. Wakanda Forever!
Rest In Peace, Chadwick Boseman; you will be sorely missed by us all.
2019: Avengers: Endgame (Honorable Mention – Shazam!)
Before we get into how Endgame became king, it’s worth noting that Shazam! is a light-hearted, fun film that brings freshness to the DC canon. It strikes an excellent balance between coming-of-age comedy, family, and dark supernatural thingamabobs. Zachary Levi makes it entertaining, and David F. Sandberg’s direction is light and fun. Even if it didn’t make big bucks at the box office, this was a solid contender for the superhero film of 2019. Moving on…
Avengers: Endgame did the unthinkable as the best superhero film of 2019. It broke records, the box-office, and blew the universe away. As the follow-up to Infinity War, Endgame took a quieter route (until the third act) to produce a much more deftly focused tale on the heroes after they lost, and half the universe became wiped from existence. The storytelling, direction, music, cast, and final act pay off the conclusion of the Infinity Saga monumentally. The three-hour blockbuster never lost sight of its intentions or purpose and rewarded fans who followed the franchise from its inception with Iron Man. And with so many moments that made us laugh, cry, scream and jump from our seats upon viewing it, Avengers: Endgame proved itself as a box-office king and the ultimate movie experience.
It was that good. We love it 3000.
2020: Birds of Prey and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
For a year that became sadly beaten down by the COVID-19 pandemic, the only film of the year that wins (and came out before movie theaters started shutting down for several months) is Birds of Prey. Margot Robbie, the true scene-stealer in the terrible Suicide Squad, returns with some wacky friends and fun activities. It isn’t a film without flaws, such as the story not working at times or the uneven direction, but it’s a fine addition in the DC Universe. It is probably best for a one-off showing since it doesn’t bring much to the table (other than a female cast at the center of the movie), but it stands out much better than the other films released in the year including Wonder Woman 1984 and The New Mutants.
So, who will take the crown this year?
Zack Snyder released his ultimate version of Justice League, a much better (and cohesive) version than the one in 2017. Black Widow FINALLY got her solo film, even if it’s a good MCU outing. The Suicide Squad, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home will be releasing before the year ends. Only time will tell which one reigns supreme in 2021.
In summary, each year since 2000, a superhero film (or multiple) has become a box-office sensation and integrated into our pop culture. It will be mighty intriguing to see where this genre lands in the next decade, for better or worse.