Critics assemble: our writers pick their favorite superhero films

Batman v Superman v Captain America v all of the X-Men. Which cape-wearing, civilian-saving adventures are worth cheering?

Given the repetitive influx of superhero films in recent years, you’d be forgiven for wanting very little to do with anything involving a cape, a mask and a post-credits teaser for a long time. But wait, the R-rated Wolverine sequel Logan hits cinemas this week and critics agree that it’s worth getting over yourself for.

Many are saying it will join the ranks of the all-time greats but what else should be on this list? Here are seven of the best from Guardian writers.

The Incredibles

The Incredibles

Was 2004 the superheroes’ annus mirabilis? That was when Marvel Studios initiated its ambitious plan to self-finance its movies, buy back the rights to characters such as Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk, and begin the 21st-century wave of superhero films, hugely popular with the public, but often patronised and dismissed the way westerns used to be.

But something else happened in 2004: the release of Pixar’s glorious animated superhero homage The Incredibles. That’s a film which doesn’t fit easily into the superhero fanbase-constituency, and is part of neither the Marvel nor DC tribe (unless you count the fact that Pixar, like Marvel, is part of Disney). And I’m conscious that in calling it a “homage” I may even now be denying it full superhero-film status. But a brilliant superhero film is what it is – riffing on the X-Men and Fantastic Four – with superb characters, a great supervillain, a terrific story and a sharp satiric theme on the subject of excellence, and the nature of risk, jeopardy and the state.

Mr Incredible (voiced by Craig T Nelson) is a lantern-jawed, barrel-chested superhero who plies his trade in the 1940s, the superheroes’ postwar first-generation comic book heyday. He is fighting alongside his fiancee, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). When a member of the public sues him for preventing his suicide, it triggers a legal nightmare forcing the government to outlaw superheroism and to relocate “supers” to other cities with new identities and bland normality. Twenty years later, he and Elastigirl have suburban lives and he works in insurance – a nightmarish perversion of his former calling. They have two kids whose superpowers they have to conceal at school. But then a new villain emerges with a secret connection to the Incredibles’ past, forcing them to reclaim their vocation – and their destiny.

It is rightly celebrated for the superhero costumière, Edna Mode, voiced by the director and writer, Brad Bird, who thinks that capes are a bad idea and is passionately committed to her contemporary vision: “I never look back, darling; it distracts from the now.” There is a wonderful passage on the phenomenon of supervillains “monologuing” – huge third-act set-piece speeches in which the villains talk about themselves and their awful vision.

Actually, in 2017, the non-talky streamlined all-action superhero film is pretty much against both capes and monologuing and also against Edna Mode’s injunction against looking back. Superhero films love origin myths, elaborate retro sequences from the past and all-around ancestor worship.

But as it happens, and incredible as it may sound, The Incredibles has a brilliant action sequence, as exciting as anything in any live-action superhero film or action film. Elastigirl and the two kids are flying in their plane to an island from which the errant Mr Incredible has sent a distress signal. Then she is attacked by rockets. The subsequent “chase” scene and midair explosion are absolutely nail-biting.

It is witty, smart, visually ravishing, and its generic insights are celebratory, not derisive. What a great superhero film. PB



I have to be honest: I am not the world’s biggest superhero movie fan. Put another way, when they took off in the late 80s, I thought they were a fad that would blow over in a few years; more fool me. In fact, the elevation to ever-prolonging ubiquity is one of the great mysteries of contemporary cinema: how this genre, that for years was considered only good for doltish teens, and treated with equivalent lack of respect, has steadily evolved into the mainstay of the global film industry. Be that as it may, I prefer the funny, candy-coloured type of superhero movie (Spider-Man, Thor, Deadpool) rather than the furrowed-brow earnestathons (Batman Begins, Captain America, Man of Steel) – I’ve never seen a superhero movie weighty or nuanced enough to justify the heavy-duty treatment.

But as films – as opposed to moving comic-books – superhero movies tend to fall down pretty hard. There are great sequences, brilliant set pieces, very nice shots – but they rarely hold together, still less allowing actual narrative subtlety to intrude on the scene-shifting. The first – and still, by my reckoning, only – time that a superhero movie seemed way ahead of everything else was the first Tim Burton Batman, from 1989. A tour de force of design, cinematography, and cinematic texture, it was light years ahead of (the nevertheless highly enjoyable) Superman films that had blazed the superhero trail in the 1970s and 80s. Burton’s brilliance was to make everything else look redundant – and in many ways, nothing has changed since. AP

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America

Here’s a conspiracy theory: someone at the Academy purposefully shuffled those envelopes to detract from the much bigger scandal earlier in the evening: the snubbing of Garry Shandling in this year’s Oscars In Memoriam montage. I hope my choice of the Marvel movie in which he cameos as a sinister Hydra disciple will go some way to righting this wrong.

Shandling’s 15-second appearance in this sequel to the first film featuring the weed who becomes the most fantastic hunk is one of my chief reasons for picking it; the other is it’s literally the only superhero movie I can ever really remember enjoying.

This is obviously a personal deficit, but perhaps it is, actually, a better superhero movie than most? There are terrific action sequences, for a start: that initial heist, fuelled with sexual tension between the Cap and the Black Widow, plus the most wonderful punch-up in a lift. Plus, vegetables to accompany all that meat and beef: a properly thought-provoking investigation of the morals of surveillance and the ethics of vigilantism in a democratically accountable society.

But perhaps what really clinched it for me as an Avengers movie I could get along with was the relative dearth of Robert Downey Jr. The more you can minimise this man, the more I shall like any movie. CS

Thor: The Dark World


Many are hailing Logan for stretching the boundaries of what a superhero movie can be. It’s dramatic, fervid, and realistic in its violence. But let’s not do away with what’s core to comics culture: deep, dank nerdery that ought not be allowed to see daylight.

I love comic books rich in lore and steeped in mythos, swirling in and out of realms with names impossible to spell. Thor: The Dark World stuffs two handfuls of delicious dorkiness into its maw, one rich in fantasy, the other in science fiction. Is the Asgardian bio-bed a quantum field generator or a “Soul Forge”? The answer, of course, is that it is both.

Thor: The Dark World has portals and Kronan Rock Men and invisible spaceships and a ray that can curl you up into a singularity and zap you into another dimension. A liquid totem called the Aether is almost in Malekith the Dark Elf’s nefarious grasp, just in time for the quinquennial cosmic event known as the Convergence. Oh, God, I need to stop typing and grab my asthma inhaler, this sort of talk gets me all worked up.

In the middle of all this, there’s the bickering romance between the sharp and sweet doctor played by Natalie Portman and her hunky blonde blue-eyed spaceman, Thor. When they reunite during a battle, the first thing she does is yell at him for never calling. When they visit Thor’s realm, Dr Foster quickly bonds with Thor’s mother. They may as well be eating intergalactic coffee cake. And there are still some who say mixed marriages can’t work?!?

Thor: The Dark World is a rush of Absolute Comics mainlined direct to my amygdala, with a profound purity that few other modern superhero movies allow themselves. It is Worthy. JH

The Dark Knight

Batman Begins

While Batman Begins was a refreshingly coherent, mature and dark-hued film about the Caped Crusader (a relief after the eye-punishing gaudy excess of Batman & Robin), it was far from a masterpiece.

There was a major villain problem (a somewhat gimmicky last act switcheroo that didn’t quite have the required impact) and a major Katie Holmes problem (needs no explanation) and as a result, it was a promising franchise-restarter but not the home run we might have hoped for. Three years later, Christopher Nolan returned, lessons learned and homework done, with a sequel that rose far above its generic peers and, despite the creation of the hero-packed DC and Marvel universes since, it easily remains unsurpassed.

The Dark Knight moves like a fiendish thriller, one that confidently pushes the boundaries of the superhero genre in a way that comic book fans may be familiar with but which for cinema-goers such as myself was a revelation. It’s a breathtakingly brutal film, packed with staggering PG-13 violence and a bleak worldview that’s unrelenting, grounding fantastical characters and situations in a world that, for once, is depressingly easy to relate to.

That villain problem? Easily fixed. The casting of Heath Ledger in the role of the Joker might have been initially unpopular with fans, who couldn’t envision his leading man looks buried under cartoonish makeup, but his performance was dynamite, an Oscar-winning fireball of anger and anarchy. That Katie Holmes problem? Replaced. Maggie Gyllenhaal added depth and a genuine emotional connection which led to the shocking finale carrying even greater weight. It’s one of the rare examples of a superhero film where each devastating act of violence or aggression has a lasting impact. In Nolan’s Gotham City, life and death both mean something.

It might be to blame for the dreary drudgery that’s bogged down many ensuing superhero adventures but it remains a ruthlessly entertaining example of just how daring and necessary the genre can be. BL



It may be difficult to credit given Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice recently picked up a gaggle of Razzies, but Zack Snyder was once seen as the coming man of comic book movies. His 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore’s sprawling graphic novel about an alternative 1980s in which Nixon remains in power and superheroes are real remains a high point of the film-maker’s career – and proof that given a decent script, he is capable of producing eye-popping cinema beyond that of most his contemporaries.

The bravura opening montage, set to the strains of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’, is unequalled in comic book movies. The casting is impeccable: Jackie Earl Haley has never been better than as the hardboiled, morally immovable vigilante Rorschach, a gurning, spitting man out of time whose psychological torment is written on his face whether wearing that famous mask or not. Patrick Wilson is wonderfully understated as the taciturn Nite Owl, a superhero who looks like an accountant with middle-aged spread, while Jeffrey Dean Morgan is perfect as the leering, sneering, cigar-smoking alpha male scumbag the Comedian, a role which surely won him the part of the villain Negan in The Walking Dead.

Naysayers argue that Watchmen is too close to its source material, bar a sensibly altered denouement. But Moore’s story is so epic in scale and splendid in its unexpectedly detailed rendering of the inner psyches of costumed crimefighters that Snyder was really only required to add visual flare. If there is a Citizen Kane of superhero movies, this is indisputably it. BC

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Days of Future Past

The best thing about this time traveling entry into the vast annals of X-Men history is the absolute disregard Bryan Singer had for newcomers. If you hadn’t been paying attention to his line of mutant entertainment over the last decade or so, you’d feel a bit like Kyle Reese being spat out into 1984 with no clothes and no idea what was happening. That slightly manic pace, which feels like it’s borrowed from a daytime soap opera, plus the period costume and references to Vietnam, Nixon and the height of 70s cold war paranoia made this a strangely daring superhero film.

Instead of something that tried to set out the basic idea of what the X-Men were and what they were all about – a concept most grandmothers could probably grasp by now – this just got straight into the internal machinations of a group that makes the EU look harmonious. Of course, the old themes of good and evil doing battle, and overcoming personal demons (in this case addiction for Professor X) are there, but it was delivered in a knowingly strange way. You could even argue the hectic feel and funny but slightly smug lines set the stage for the least superhero-y superhero of them all, Deadpool. Singer knew fans were au fait with the concept of time travel, and would love to see Magneto and Professor X as their younger selves, so he threw it all into a blender and Days of Future Past came out like a perfectly mixed bit of superhero bechamel. LB


Peter Bradshaw, Lanre Bakare, Catherine Shoard, Benjamin Lee, Jordan Hoffman, Ben Child and Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Auteurs assemble! What caused the superhero backlash?
They’ve conquered the box office. Now it’s payback time. As they are attacked by film-makers like Martin Scorsese, are TV and movie superheroes fighting a losing battle against reality?

Steve Rose

23, Oct, 2019 @4:03 PM

Article image
The Dark Knight at 10: how Christopher Nolan reshaped superhero cinema
The legacy of 2008’s dark Batman sequel has been clouded by a string of dour DC missteps and a wider misunderstanding of the film’s groundbreaking grimness

Charles Bramesco

18, Jul, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Loki-ing good: Disney launches new Avengers fashion line for women
The six-piece collection is inspired by Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow and Loki

Benjamin Lee

28, Apr, 2015 @8:42 AM

Article image
A Batman for the real world: is Casey Affleck's Villain the superhero we deserve?
Is the actor’s planned thriller Villain, about a vigilante superhero corrupted by power, a satire on brother Ben Affleck’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice?

Ben Child

01, Nov, 2016 @11:13 AM

Article image
Could Margot Robbie's all-female superhero movie be DC's trump card?
Harley Quinn-led followup to Suicide Squad would prove Warner’s slate of DC universe movies has upper hand over rival Marvel in terms of diversity

Ben Child

17, May, 2016 @5:16 PM

Article image
Where does Batman v Superman's mauling leave Warner's plan for a DC comics cinematic universe?
Zack Snyder hits every single target in Dawn of Justice’s ambitious gameplan, but can such a muddled movie really launch a new ream of superhero successes?

Ben Child

24, Mar, 2016 @6:07 PM

Article image
Thor 3 set to feature female superhero Valkyrie
Chris Hemsworth’s hammer-happy Marvel hero to team up with the figure from the original Avengers comics in forthcoming sequel

Benjamin Lee

15, Oct, 2015 @9:27 AM

Article image
2018 in comics: Wonder Woman, Poochytown and goodbye Alan Moore
For graphic novel fans, this year is full of treats: more Batman and Spider-Man, rumours of a Ta-Nehisi Coates take on Captain America, some fresh faces – and big farewells to some old ones

Sam Thielman

04, Jan, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Kapow! Our writers pick their favorite Batman movie
To celebrate the release of The Batman, Guardian writers have written about their all-time favorite Caped Crusader films from Adam West to Ben Affleck

Peter Bradshaw, Andrew Pulver, Radheyan Simonpillai, Janelle Zara, Lisa Wong Macabasco, Charles Bramesco, Simon Abrams, Luke Holland, Benjamin Lee, Toby Moses, Nicholas Barber and Ben Child

04, Mar, 2022 @7:22 AM

Article image
Batgirl directors respond to surprise axing of film: ‘We still can’t believe it’
Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have released a statement to express shock and sadness over the decision for their already shot film to be killed

Benjamin Lee

03, Aug, 2022 @6:24 PM