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The 20 best superhero movies of all time

Break out the spandex and superpowers for our definitive ranking of cinema's most popular heroes

By Joshua Rothkopf and Time Out contributors
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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.

20. Unbreakable (2000)

Movies

Dating from a happier time when its director, M. Night Shyamalan, was known for The Sixth Sense and nothing else, Unbreakable explores the psychology of alterego and nemesis so subtly, you might not even notice it. We won't ruin the surprise.

19. V for Vendetta (2006)

Movies

Based on Alan Moore and David Lloyd's furiously political 1988 graphic novel, this dark sci-fi action movie (scripted by the Wachowskis) turned that creepy Guy Fawkes mask into an icon. It's worn by "V" (Hugo Weaving), the mysterious revolutionary at the tale's anarchic heart.

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18. Blade II (2002)

Movies Horror

Brace yourself for many second chapters in this list—generally speaking, that's when stuff gets good. Wesley Snipes's human-vampire hybrid cuts an impressive figure, but the film's real star is rising director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth).

17. The Wolverine (2013)

Movies Action and adventure

Go with director James Mangold's extended cut, which runs an additional 12 minutes and does a better job detailing foes (and slice-and-dice kills). At the core here is Hugh Jackman's sideburned Logan, easily the most likable of the X-Men, not to mention the most tortured.

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16. Dredd (2012)

Movies

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.

15. Iron Man (2008)

Movies Action and adventure

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.

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14. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Movies Action and adventure

One of the delights of Chris Evans's supersquare Steve Rogers is how outspoken and political the actor has made the character, and this stand-alone sequel showcases him grappling with the consequences of absolute power. Robert Redford's villain adds conspiratorial cred.

13. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Movies Action and adventure

Superhero movies should be funny, and this massively entertaining success—based on Marvel's 1969 spinoff title—doubles down on the zaniness. A walking tree, a wisecracking raccoon, a green-skinned alien and Chris Pratt (don't underestimate him) make up the gang.

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12. X-Men 2 (2003)

Movies

Mutant assassins, plenty of Sturm und Drang and a world wheeling out of order color this impressively sophisticated sequel, which emphasizes a hunted community of outsiders. Their enemy: a U.S. colonel gone rogue (played by Brian Cox, born to be in as many superhero movies as possible).

11. Watchmen (2009)

Movies

Alan Moore's cynical 1986 graphic novel is often likened to high literature, so the movie version was bound to disappoint some. Kudos, then, to director Zack Snyder (300) for sticking to his guns and retaining much of the alt-future darkness that made the original concept fly.

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10. Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Movies Action and adventure

Maybe you know this one from the Beastie Boys' "Body Movin' " video, but Mario Bava's comics-based adventure deserves a proper spin. Starring John Phillip Law and the voluptuous Marisa Mell (most attractive couple in cinema?), this Italian export is loaded with style, flash and some psychedelic scoring by genius composer Ennio Morricone.

9. Batman Returns (1992)

Movies Action and adventure

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.

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8. The Incredibles (2004)

Movies Animation

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.

7. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Movies Action and adventure

A thrilling, emotional sequel to a tricky first installment, Sam Raimi's NYC adventure allows Tobey Maguire to give up the suit for a bit (a classic comedy sequence set to "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head"), while allowing the great Alfred Molina to embody one of the genre's most memorable villains, Doctor Octopus.

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6. Darkman (1990)

Movies Horror

And still, Sam Raimi's superheroic highpoint comes with this underrated melodrama, starring Liam Neeson as an experimental skin doctor horrifically burned and bent on revenge. The psychological undertones are Lon Chaney-esque, and the comic-panel pacing skews toward the adult.

5. Mystery Men (1999)

Movies Comedy

A commercial disaster, this antiheroic comedy wasn't responsible for inspiring Guardians of the Galaxy in any shape or form. Still, it demonstrated a way to be subversive, and the loserific cast seems to be having a tremendous time—especially Ben Stiller's touchy Mr. Furious.

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3. The Dark Knight (2008)

Movies Action and adventure

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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2. The Avengers (2012)

Movies Action and adventure

Here's where it all came together for the Marvel Cinematic Universe: All the groundwork laid for Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and the Hulk coalesced into a single, rousingly entertaining whole. Given this movie's one-and-a-half-billion-dollar haul, anyone could now sound like a comics expert.

1. Superman II (1980)

Movies Action and adventure

We could have gone with the first Superman (1978), a heartbreakingly perfect origin story blessed with perfect casting in Christopher Reeve and a vividly rendered Metropolis. But this sequel, largely shot at the same time, is slightly superior, launching Terence Stamp's immortal General Zod. More than any other movie, it captures the wonderment and unbound ability of superheroism. In short, it flies the highest.

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