10. Iron Man 3

Shane Black's jagged-edged debut in the Marvel hotseat might easily have been a by-the-numbers "threequel", especially with star Robert Downey Jr out of contract and The Avengers' stupendous box office success a year earlier. Instead, the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director delivered the series' best instalment so far via a perfectly-pitched twist that comes about as close as the superhero genre will ever get to its very own Crying Game moment.

Ben Kingsley's nefarious Mandarin is a preposterous, shadowy Bin Laden clone with a big bushy beard and rhetoric drawn from the Acme guide to over-the-top comic book villainy, taunting Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man with lines like: "You'll never see me coming!" The problem is, he's right. We're contentedly caught up in another movie entirely (the enjoyment of which probably says some pretty shoddy things about our own prejudices) when the twist in the tale manifests, and the effect is instant. Black's movie slips slinkily from the predictability trap as we find ourselves blinking at the screen in disbelief, wondering if we are about to miss another deft sleight of hand. With the viewer (not to mention Iron Man himself) suddenly way outside the comfort zone, we find ourselves hurtling headlong towards the final credits with renewed vigour. Ben Child

9. Spider-Man

Spider-Man Photograph: Getty Photograph: Getty

When Stan Lee came up with the idea for Spider-Man in 1962, the wisecracking web-slinger was a revelation. Here was a callow teenage superhero with the same doubts and foibles as the audiences reading the comic, desperately trying to balance his duties to the people of Manhattan with his studies, chores and need to earn enough pocket money to take Mary Jane out on a Saturday night.

Fittingly, the incredibly successful 2002 film version saw director Sam Raimi transforming what had become a tired and directionless genre with a character-led approach that similarly invited viewers to identify and empathise with its wall-crawling, skyscraper-straddling hero. Suddenly, Batman and Superman felt like distant, statuesque figures representing vague concepts of fearless, epic valour.

As portrayed by goggle-eyed Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man/Peter Parker was defined by a likeable, everyman quality which made his romantic adventures just as tantalising as his battles with the bad guys. Speaking of which, has there ever been a better big screen super-villain that Willem Dafoe's sneering, leering, gurning Green Goblin? This was the movie which, more than any other, ushered in a new era of high-quality, visually spectacular comic book adaptations. BC

8. Blade


It's a measure of how far the Marvel movie has come that its first box-office hit was produced by New Line, a Hollywood-owned indie that specialised in high-end B-movie fare (Nightmare On Elm Street, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Though it foreshadows the later Marvel preoccupation with subplots and digressions – a simple tale of humans versus vampires suddenly drifts into a quest by the latter to raise a "Blood God" called La Magra – Blade is a much darker and violent (though by no means shorter) action thriller when compared to the more shinier, mainstream likes of Thor, Captain America and Iron Man.

Played by Wesley Snipes, immortal vampire hunter Blade channelled the kick-ass likes of Jim Brown (Slaughter) and Fred Williamson (Hammer), while a soundtrack featuring KRS-One, Mobb Deep and Mystikal played right to the urban demographic. Adding to the blaxploitation vibe, the film even has a vein of social comment, with the vampire elite preferring to stay in the shadows and rule by infiltrating the establishment rather than declare all-out war on the human masses.

At a time when superhero movies now attract A-list stars, the casting of Snipes, then taking a dip, now seems wilfully bizarre, especially putting him against a swan-diving Stephen Dorff and a doozy of a left-field choice in Kris Kristofferson as Blade's munitions man. But this, like casting camp Warhol legend Udo Kier as a vampire elder, is what gives the film its bite, a reminder of a not-so-distant time when comic-book stories were declassé and underground. Damon Wise

7. Kick-Ass

Matthew Vaughn's bombastic and ultra-violent 2010 paean to comic book culture may not have been the first movie to satirise the fanboy worship of superheroes. But in the potty-mouthed, pre-teen form of Chloe Moretz's Hit Girl, a lethal whirling dervish with the ability to slice and dice bad-guys like a butcher cutting up carcasses, the movie easily featured the most outlandish example of a masked vigilante ever seen on the big screen. It is also the film that opened the doors for The Avengers, Joss Whedon's more subtle take on the post-modern comic book caper, with its ability to simultaneously lampoon and celebrate the superhero phenomenon.

Vaughn and Jane Goldman's fiercely contemporary script, chock full of now-dated references to MySpace, gives us protagonists who are at best idiots, at worst brainwashed children. It recognises that attempting to be a "real-life" costumed vigilante is a recipe for rib-cracking, lip-busting disaster. But it is also savvy enough not to completely undermine the genre's most beloved tropes.

Kick-Ass may be an ersatz version of Spider-Man, with a rubbish moniker and a costume based on a wetsuit bought from eBay, but he achieves final victory in just as explosive a manner as his genuinely-superpowered forebears. It turns out you don't need laser-vision or super-strength to take down the bad guys after all - just a giant bazooka and balls of steel. BC

6. The Avengers

While the likes of Batman and Superman, even Spider-Man, tried to go dark and existential and serious, what Joss Whedon seems to be saying with the Avengers is: "Hey folks, it's a comic book movie!" Why take pains to establish the mechanical functionality of, say, a Batmobile? Here's a flying aircraft carrier!

Given the absurdly high stakes of this movie, Marvel were taking a gamble handing it to a renegade like Whedon. It's the climax of possibly the most ambitious multi-movie masterplan ever attempted (after Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, etc). And Whedon's career had been chequered with big hits (Buffy) and prematurely cancelled misses (Firefly). Weighed down with this colossal baggage and expectation, though, Whedon's approach is more like, "let's see what this baby can do." Whedon's masterstroke was to turn the movie's greatest weakness into its strength. Namely, here are a bunch of supremely powerful egotists, how can they possibly work together? That's the problem, and that's the movie, too.

Despite all the CGI bangs and crashes going on around, the real joy of the Avengers is seeing characters we know and love learning to get along (seeing them not get along turns out to be rather fun, too). For some, Mark Ruffalo's Hulk steals the show with his softly, softly, then VERY LOUDLY approach, Tom Hiddleston's Loki is a delectably atypical supervillain. Robert Downey Jr is Hollywood's preeminent deliverer of wisecracks. The list goes on.

The Avengers is so jokily irreverent at times, the movie threatens to capsize entirely, and the plot is so nonsensically crowded it could easily disappear up its own Tesseract. Somehow, though, Whedon keeps it all under control, telling this bloated story with wit, clarity and genuine excitement. It's a mark of great movie-making that you can happily enjoy The Avengers without having seen the previous movies, or caring a jot about the silly names or the Top Trumps superpowers.

In retrospect, you could also read the movie's teamwork premise as a metaphor for Whedon's own career-long problem with Hollywood: how to achieve a lasting result when everything threatens to be watered down by committee decision-making? Here, at last, he finally cracked it. Steve Rose

5. Superman: The Movie

Christopher Reeve as Superman
Christopher Reeve as Superman: it could happen sooner than you think. Photograph: Cinetext Photograph: Cinetext

As Quentin Tarantino put it in Kill Bill Vol 2: "Superman stands alone… When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent." It's arguably this reversal of the superhero formula that made this 1978 blockbuster a Christmas hit – although there have been two big-budget attempts to reboot the franchise, with a far greater special effects capability, neither captured the world's imagination quite like Richard Donner's original. Key to this is the casting of an unknown, Christopher Reeve, who beat Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford and James Caan for the part, bringing with him a sensitive, doe-eyed, matinee idol quality borrowed from Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby.

Interestingly, the first Superman also added something missing from almost every superhero movie since: not simply a love story but a strong female presence in the form of Margot Kidder's reporter Lois Lane, a sharp-tongued Rosalind Russell type who works with Kent at the Daily Planet. It might not be stretching to say that their relationship is the core of the movie; Superman by himself did not keep the series alive, and within ten years (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) he was a spent force. Here, though, the chemistry is terrific, with a little bit of screwball farce to keep us guessing as to whether the sophisticated city girl, comically star-struck by Superman, will see through the "mild-mannered" Kent's facade.

There are, of course, other key factors in the film's success. It was the first film outside the Irwin Allen disaster-movie cycle to use event casting as a promotional tool, making great play of Marlon Brando's $14m payday for ten minutes of screen time as Superman's father. The supporting cast, too – Gene Hackman, Terence Stamp, Valerie Perrine, Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Trevor Howard – was superbly chosen for a wide age-range of audience. Mostly, though, there is John Williams' perfect, anthemic score, still a musical milestone in Hollywood, fantasy film or not. DW

4. X-Men

X-MEN, Hugh Jackman, James Marsden, Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, 2000
No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Courtesy Everett Collection/REX (2076060a) X-MEN, Hugh Jackman, James Marsden, Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, 2000 X-MEN, Hugh Jackman, James Marsden, Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, 2000 X MEN HUGH JACKMAN JAMES MARSDEN PATRICK STEWART HALLE BERRY FAMKE JANSSEN 2000 MOVIES 2000S FUTURISTIC HORROR FANTASY LAB M JULY00 UNDERGROUND Film Stills Actor Personality 15766158 Photograph: Courtesy Everett Collection/REX Photograph: Courtesy Everett Collection/REX

The first and best X-Men movie begins at the gates of a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. If we're talking signs that this is not your average superhero film, that one is nigh-on definitive. But with a director as wily and provocative as Bryan Singer, best known at that time for The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie, who contributed some uncredited work to the X-Men screenplay), this was never going to play entirely by the rules of the genre. Partly that's down to the adventurous Marvel comics source material. But Singer's interpretation functions brilliantly as a psychological character study of the various disenfranchised souls who comprise the X-Men, a metaphor for society's suspicion of outsiders of any stripe, and a thrilling old-school action movie characterised by dazzling special-effects and action set-pieces.

It helps that the film has a smart and idiosyncratic ensemble cast. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is as intense as the post-Batman fad for introspective superheroes demands, but he's not without wit: deriding the idea of superhero nicknames when he finds himself at the X-Mansion school for mutants, Wolverine turns to Professor X (Patrick Stewart), who is in a wheelchair, and snorts: "What do they call you? 'Wheels'?" Ian McKellen is elegantly dry as X's sinister opposite number, Magneto, while Anna Paquin is poignant as Rogue, whose merest touch can be hazardous. Plenty of other superhero films have tried for the mix of seriousness and excitement, but few aside from X-Men quite have the ability to please as many of the people for as much of the time. Ryan Gilbey

3. Batman

01 Jan 1989 --- Still from the FILM 'BATMAN' BY TIM BURTON --- Image by CLOSE MURRAY/CORBIS SYGMA Michael Keaton Photograph: CLOSE MURRAY/CORBIS SYGMA Photograph: CLOSE MURRAY/CORBIS SYGMA

The modern superhero film as we know it today — sombre, gritty, light on Spandex but heavy on psychology — began in 1989 with Tim Burton's Batman. Burton, with only two much smaller-scale pictures to his name (Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice) had the mother of all makeover jobs on his hands, a reboot in the days before that word was in common usage. The character of Batman had previously been associated with all things camp and kitsch, thanks to the splendid but indelible 1960s TV series. But the success of Frank Miller's graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns proved that there was an audience for a harsher Batman. If Burton's film looks light now compared to Christopher Nolan's miserabilist take on the franchise, it should not be forgotten that it was vital in paving the way for that later incarnation. Similarly, Michael Keaton's subtle, even sexy, portrayal of Batman/ Bruce Wayne as a tentative loner laid the groundwork for Christian Bale's hushed interpretation.

But just as any superhero's biggest threat comes from a megalomaniac villain, so a leading man in a superhero movie is lucky not to be upstaged by his on-screen adversary. And for all Keaton's velvety sadness and Kim Basinger's vitality as the reporter Vicki Vale, Batman belongs to Jack Nicholson as the Joker as surely as The Dark Knight would later be stolen by Heath Ledger in the same part. Nicholson is wayward, indulgent and bags of fun; something of his devilish spirit is mirrored in the specially-composed Prince songs that vie for space on the soundtrack with Danny Elfman's brooding score. Perhaps the only thing Nicholson can't overshadow is the imposing, Gothic, Oscar-winning production design by the late Anton Furst. RG

2. The Incredibles

The Incredibles

A superhero family – why did nobody think of this before? Maybe they did (Spy Kids?) but nobody found a way to make it work. The Incredibles has the advantage of animation, of course, which you could call cheating when it comes to the rendering of superhuman action. But it's also a deeper exploration of superheroism than most live-action movies.

The story harks back to that pulpy golden age of comic books – with its 1950s-ish suburban setting and space-age stylings. The traditional superheroes of the era (the ones they're still making films out of today) were invariably young, single males, but what happens, The Incredibles asks, when they become parents? Or when they're children? Or if they've been outlawed and are forced to hide their powers? Being "special", and having to conceal that specialness – at school, at work, on the streets – is one of the forces that rips this nuclear family apart. The other is an insane tyrant in a volcano with a fiendishly destructive plan, of course.

These are heavy themes: conformity, mediocrity, exceptionalism – the stuff of Ayn Rand novels. But, like Mr Incredible juggling small vehicles, the movie handles them effortlessly. The story fizzes with sight-gags and snappy lines, riffing on both family and superhero cliches – which come together beautifully in scenes such as the super-powered dinner-table squabble, which suddenly freezes when the front doorbell rings. And it still delivers on the action front too, with a climax that's suitably awesome without feeling bloated (live-action movies could learn a trick or two there).

None of this would be possible without a deep love of the genre, and few can doubt The Incredibles' knowledge and commitment. It's a movie crammed with details and references, that points out the rules even as it plays by them. Its mischievous identification of "monologuing", for example, cast a retrospective shadow over many a prior movie, and after hearing Edna Mode's lecture on costumes, you'll never look at a superhero in a cape the same way again. SR

1. The Dark Knight

It may not have the subtlety of Christopher Nolan's earlier pictures, but the director brought a massive, even grandiloquent authority to the Batman legend. This movie (the best of Nolan's three Batman films) was widely gasped-at in Imax cinemas; it descended on us with a deafening clang like a piece of giant industrial machinery designed and built by extra-terrestrials. Nolan's Batman wrenched the franchise away from the self-aware comedy and campery with which it had been associated by virtue of the Adam West 60s TV show and the Joel Schumacher movies with George Clooney and Val Kilmer as the Caped Crusader. Without so much as a backward glance at those interpretations, Christopher Nolan put the Batman narrative unapologetically into a vein of almost Wagnerian seriousness.
There is a fascinating kind of sleek digital brutalism in the hardware and the action sequences themselves: the chase sequence between a truck and Batman's motorbike has muscular power, and so does the strange, nightmarish "heist" scene at the beginninig which appears to be carried out by dozens of clones of the Joker. Which brings us to the source of the film's power: the faceoff itself, and the confrontation between two of the most formidable performances in the modern superhero canon. Christian Bale is disturbing and sinister as the ambiguous "Bat man" and his performance clearly owes a great deal to the creepily potent serial killer Patrick Bateman he portrayed in American Psycho. Of course, Batman fans have long savoured the subtextual mythic link between Batman and Dracula: the charismatic batlike creatures of the night, but it was only when I was confronted with Bale and his uniquely menacing performance that I put that together for myself. As the Joker, Heath Ledger has to be best supervillain of all: genuinely scary, satanically ingenious and bizarrely tricked out in sweatily smudged clown makeup that makes him look like a Pagliacci from hell. Somehow, the Joker has huge logistical resources at his disposal, despite apparently being a lone figure — equal to those deployed by the army, the police or the billionaire Bruce Wayne. How is he doing it? The mystery makes him even more evil. It is a sensational performance from the late Heath Ledger, something to be considered alongside his work on Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain or Neil Armfield's underrated Candy.
Nolan's Dark Knight, in all its sepulchral darkness and madness, is a superhero movie with super power. Peter Bradshaw

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