Every summer brings us a new superhero movie, muscular and flexing for your wallet. But before you flinch, drop that attitude: Several of these blockbusters have been excellent action movies, redeeming Hollywood's most profitable genre as opportunities for sophistication, sarcasm and panache. We love the best superhero movies because they help us to dream big. Here are the 20 best examples—tie on your cape and dive in.
The 20 best superhero movies of all time
Break out the spandex and superpowers for our definitive ranking of cinema's most popular heroes
Years after Sylvester Stallone mucked the waters with 1995's gawdawful Judge Dredd, director Pete Travis returned to the iconic British comic with more successful results—particularly in the casting of Karl Urban as a futuristic judge, jury and executioner. The cult around this film is huge.
The massive Marvel Cinematic Universe starts here—and let's be thankful, because if Thor had come first, we'd have fewer movies to talk about. Robert Downey's obnoxious Tony Stark, a billionaire racked by conscience, represents some of the best acting to grace the genre.
Tim Burton's impact on the superhero genre can't be understated. After turning 1989's Batman into a blockbuster, the director's follow-up proved even darker: It involves penguin warfare on Gotham City, Michael Pfeiffer's slinky, vengeful Catwoman and the nefarious scheming of Christopher Walken.
Built on a sturdy structure of dazzling animated sequences and serious handwringing over "specialness," Brad Bird's euphoric family comedy represents everything we should expect from our superhero movies. Subtly, fans saw themselves in the characters' humorous middle-age spread.
Pan's Labyrinth won him his Oscars, but geeks know this film to be Guillermo del Toro's true masterpiece: a triumph of unchecked visual imagination, Ron Perlman's sulky yet huggable central character, and an unusual emphasis placed on the heroism that goes into becoming a dad.
Is Heath Ledger's seething, cavorting Joker the finest performance to grace a superhero movie? Undoubtedly. The movie itself represents the voguish "why so serious?" approach to the genre, turned into a brand by director Christopher Nolan.
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