25 Greatest Comic Book Movies

Recently I decided to re-watch the newer Man of Steel movie (again) as well as the original Christopher Reeve-driven Superman movie froms the 70s. Afterwards, it got me thinking about the best comic book movie adaptations out there. Comic book/superhero movies are nearly impossible to escape these days. Seems like every few months, there’s a new one being churned out by some major motion picture company somewhere – for better or for worse. It seems to be a long withstanding trend in Hollywood, ever since the success of the first X-Men movie back in 2000. But clearly not all comic book movies are created equal, so I thought I’d explore a list of my favorite 25 movies based off of comic books (so far). Enjoy!

25. Watchmen (2009)

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Director: Zack Snyder

Cast: Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer, Stephen McHattie

Best moment: No question… the story of how Doctor Manhattan came to be, told in conjunction with his building of a palace on Mars, is just as jaw-dropping onscreen as it was portrayed in the book. Snyder did a great job bringing the book to life & making the imagery onscreen pop.

Why it made the list: Snyder’s film could be more coherent in terms of the overall story, especially for noobs to the Watchmen world. However, it’s still leaps and bounds beyond what anyone else was trying to do with the genre at the time. Definitely one of the most visually-stunning comic book adaptations to ever grace the silver screen. This one’s going to age well.

24. Blade (1998)

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Director: Steven Norrington

Cast: Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Steven Dorff, Donal Logue

Best moment: The final fight scene pitting Blade against Deacon Frost (Steven Dorff). Wesley Snipes’ background in martial arts is on full display here, with Steven Dorff actually managing to keep up with him as well. The end result is a fast-paced fight scene that includes a dude getting cut in half and just coming back from it – enough said!

Why it made the list: This is easily one of Snipes’ best roles. Even though, looking back, the film’s a bit dated and corny, but at the time, I remember never seeing anything like it. This, along with “The Crow” and Tim Burton’s “Batman,” helped set the stage for the 21st century superhero movies that exuded more dark and violent tones.

23. Dredd (2012)

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Director: Pete Travis

Cast: Karl Urban, Rachel Wood, Jason Cope, Lena Headey

Best moment: Dredd running through the apartment skyscraper trying to dodge Ma-Ma’s minigun as she mows down the columns of the skyscraper. One of the best minigun scenes around!

Why it made the list: Even though it has a bit of a B-movie feel, Dredd was a breath of fresh air after the 90s tongue-in-cheek driven vehicle of Sylvester Stallone’s “Judge Dredd.” This version of Dredd has more grit, determination and stubbornness that is pulled straight from the comic books. Plus, he never takes off his helmet, which pleased us fans of the comic book to no end – thanks Karl Urban!

22.V for Vendetta (2005)

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Director: James McTeigue

Cast: Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman, Rupert Graves, John Hurt, Steven Rea

Best moment: When ‘V’ and Evey (Natalie Portman) meet for the first time in the dark alleyway. The dialogue for this scene is witty, memorable, and above all else, we get a hint at what ‘V’s’ true motives are for the duration of the film.

Why it made the list: Besides the phenomenal acting all around, “V for Vendetta” sends you through a roller coaster of emotions from start to finish. It’s gripping, chilling, intense and heartbreaking – all at the same time. The Wachowski Brothers’ former protégé, James McTiegue, takes on the directing duties here and helms an enormously impressive first feature, using every trick in the book, in a manner reminiscent of his mentors’ breakout hit, “The Matrix”. But unlike “The Matrix”, McTiegue allows the story to be more of a focus than the main action, and as a result, the film is a tense and emotional thriller, with outbursts of spectacularly choreographed action.

21. Blade II (2002)

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Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Ron Perlman, Leonor Varela, Norman Reedus, Luke Goss

Best moment: Ron Perlman’s chacter has pretty much trashed Blade, but when he shoots Blade, he topples into a pool of blood. Perlman reckons that he’s through with Blade. Dude. You shot a half-vampire into A POOL OF BLOOD. Oh, there’s a reckoning coming. Blade is gonna reckon up a storm!

Why it made the list: Guillermo del Toro can make a good superhero movie. “Blade II” is the most interesting of del Toro’s comic book movies because of all of the ways he took Stephen Norrington’s original formula and made it weirder, grosser and more del Toro-y – while also keeping the great set-pieces and slick visual style.

20. 300 (2006)

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Director: Zack Synder

Cast: Gerald Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Domonic West, Michael Fassbender

Best moment: “This is Sparta!” Gerald Butler kicks a dude into a giant pit in slo-mo, essentially “kicking” off the battle that’s soon to follow – see what I did there?

Why it made the list: Historical accuracy aside, this movie is visceral, exciting and just amazing to behold. The fight scenes are epic, the music is perfect and the CGI is superb.

19. Thor (2011)

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Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins

Best moment: The fight in Asgard between Thor and his brother Loki, culminating in the destruction of the Bifrost Bridge.

Why it made the list: This is just a fun popcorn movie that provides plenty of wit, humor and drama – what more could you want from a dude who just swings around a hammer for 2 hours? On a more serious note though, since Branagh (Director) is a Shakespearean actor himself, he concerns himself more with performance and character than most comic-movie directors, and it pays off here – the conflicted brotherly relationship between Thor and Loki is compelling, and the chemistry between Hemsworth and Portman is tremendous.

18. Men in Black (1997)

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Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rip Torn, Linda Fiorentino

Best moment: In one of the more toned down scenes that has close to zero dialogue, Will Smith’s character is applying to be, along with numerous other recruits, part of this “secret” military-like government project. Will Smith’s comedic timing really shines here as he tries and muster his way through a series of tests as he fails and somehow succeeds miserably at all of them.

Why it made the list: Unlike most movies on my list, this is not a film about superheroes, but the adventures of a couple of hard-working G-men whose assignment is to keep tabs on the sizable alien population of the United States. For that reason, in a weird way, you sympathize with these characters and want them to succeed. The acting and overall tone of this movie is tongue-in-cheek, but they know that, and run with it.

17. The Crow (1994)

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Director: Alex Proyas

Cast: Brandon Lee, Michael Wincott, Rochelle Davis

Best Moment: With one word “Gentlemen…”, Lee’s Eric Draven trots up to a table seated with every brand of evil crony. After he’s shot a bajillion times, he pops back up and downs his adversaries one by one with the most industrial 1990s musical score on record. Lee’s jilted yet flawless and emotional execution of his character was amazing. If you’ve ever wondered where inspiration for Heath Ledger’s Joker came from, look no further.

Why it made the list: Because every decent comic book movie should have a melodramatic guitar interlude that takes place on a bleak city rooftop. Honestly though, if the dark mood and slick cinematography aren’t enough to satisfy your comic book movie craving, Brandon Lee’s performance alone should merit at least a viewing.

16. Sin City (2005)

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Director: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Powers Boothe, Benicio Del Toro, Britany Murphy, Elijah Wood, Nick Stahl

Best Moment: It’s a bit graphic, but the scene stands out: the one where Bruce Willis’ character, Hardigan, rips out the testicles of Junior (Nick Stahl) to ensure that he’s never able to use his “weapon” ever again. Or has Hardigan (Willis) so eloquently puts it right before he beats Junior to a yellow, bloody pulp, “I take away his weapon….both of them!”

Why it made the list: This isn’t just an adaptation of a comic book, it’s like the comic book was brought to life and pumped with steroids. The movie is not about narrative but really about style. It internalizes the world that Frank Miller created in the “Sin City” comic books and processes it through computer effects, grotesque makeup, lurid costumes and dialogue that screams noir. You really have to see it to believe it.

15. Superman II (1980)

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Director: Richard Lester or Richard Donner, depending on the moment

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Terrence Stamp, Jack O’Halloran and Sarah Douglas.

Best moment: Superman and General Zod brawl in the streets of Metropolis. That scene may look a bit campy now, but at the time it was groundbreaking and it’s still at least enjoyable to watch today.

Why it made the list: Superman gives up his powers, tries to live as a normal person, but realizes that the world still needs him – that plotline has been done many times on the big and small screen, but this is probably the best treatment of that narrative. To this day, watching Clark get his butt kicked by a trucker named Rocky still hurts. Though, what really holds “Superman II” together is the combination of Reeve’s perfectly captured boy scout Clark/Superman, and the glam-rock menace of Terence Stamp’s Zod. Stamp’s performance is one of the best villainous turns in the annals of superhero movies as far as I’m concerned.

14. Batman Begins (2005)

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Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, Morgan Freeman

Best moment: Training sequence with Liam Neeson (Ra’s al Ghul)- beautiful location shooting and it was interesting to see that take on how Batman honed his skills – which we really hadn’t seen on the big screen up to that point for Batman.

Why it made the list: It set the tone for and represented how comic book movies COULD be – dark, brooding and most of all – real. It made you believe that there were characters like this in the real world, because Batman was always just a man, the tone and story of Batman Begins was a perfect compliment of that. It was released during a time when the genre was already starting to tip towards the silly (i.e. Catwoman, Hellboy, Blade: Trinity, etc.), and it helped to set up an interesting challenge for other filmmakers looking to work in this admittedly populist form: to take the source material seriously. Not every film should be told with this sort of somber tone, but it certainly works here.

13. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

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Director: Bryan Singer

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender

Best moment: Quicksilver, in the pentagon sequence. Not just one of the best uses of extreme slow-mo/bullet-time tricks I’ve seen in a long time, and definitively the best use of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” but it also works as a solid build up gag scene by the end of it.

Why it made the list: Folks were nervous about Bryan Singer returning to the helm of the X-Men franchise, especially after his mediocre take on the comic book movies Superman Returns and X-Men Origins: Wolverine – because, let’s face it, the guy’s track record hasn’t exactly been flawless in recent years. But I’m happy to say that not only did Singer not botch up this X-Men go around, he created one of the best X-Men of the entire series, and as a genre piece, he proved to audiences that superhero time travel plot devices don’t have to be confusing and insulting to the audience (I’m looking at you, climax scene in 1978’s Superman).

12. Spider-Man 2

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Director: Sam Raimi

Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy, Dylan Baker, Bill Nunn, Willem Dafoe

Best moment: Doc Ock Vs. Spider-Man on the out of control subway train – exciting, well-executed and entertaining.

Why it made the list: Raimi had several warm-ups on superhero movies by the time he created Spider-Man 2, so he really pulled it all together with this one. His cast all clicks well together the second time out, and he does a great job of balancing the miseries of daily life with the calling to ‘do something better’ that has always defined Peter Parker in his dual life as Spider-Man & an average joe. Doctor Octopus is a great villain, beautifully realized here, and Alfred Molina gives the Doc Ock character a soul with a purpose.

11. X-Men (2000)

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Director: Bryan Singer

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin

Best moment: The opening sequence when a young Magento’s powers manifest on the way to a Nazi concentration camp. In three minutes the audience learns everything the need to know about what motivates his future decisions.

Why it made the list: The problem with making an X-Men movie is that there are just so many characters in them. It’s easy to get lost in the numerous mutants that you’re supposed to care about. Singer managed to crack that code on how to do an ensemble movie where every character is a main character (although Joss Whedon did it better on “The Avengers,” but more on that later). Glossing over individual origin stories to root the film, Singer discarded the trend of ‘cartoony’ superhero flicks for a darker, more realistic metaphor on fear and prejudice, which, at the time, had never really been done from a comic book adaptation before.

10. The Wolverine (2013)

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Director: James Mangold

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Famke Janssen

Best moment: I have a lot of favorites with this one, but the opening WWII scene where Wolverine saves a young Yashida from a nuclear fallout is both intense and gripping, all with little to no dialogue.

Why it made the list: “The Wolverine” dips into the kind of psychological territory that once might have seemed too heavy for a summer blockbuster, but now it has become a common approach for deconstructing our superheroes like Batman, Spider-Man and Superman. That’s not to say that “The Wolverine” is too serious though, far from it: Mangold pieced together some breathtakingly suspenseful action sequences, fantastic production and costume design with colorful characters. But what sets “The Wolverine” apart from others on this list is that it has such a strong aesthetic about it, it’s almost as if “The Wolverine” functions as its own stand-alone film, rather than as a piece of the X-Men mythos.

9. Iron Man (2008)

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Director: Jon Favreau

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltow, Terrence Howard

Best moment: Tony building the Mark II and taking it out for her first test run. It’s always interesting to see our “superheroes” go through growing pains as they discover the sheer power as well as the limitations of their new found powers. As Tony Stark puts it, “Sometimes you have to run before you can walk.”

Why it made the list: It’s the movie that started a billion dollar franchise. Iron Man proved that audiences will flock to a superhero story even if the character isn’t really a household name, as long as it’s sharp entertainment. I mean honestly, unless you were into the comic books, did anybody really know any of the back story of Tony Stark and his Iron Man suit before this movie? Using Downey was a risk — at the time he was considered uninsurable — but his charisma and complete embodiment of Tony Stark blew it out of the park and set the new standard to which all superhero genre films are held.

8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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Director: Joe and Anthony Russo

Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan

Best moment: The fight scene wherein Captain America, stuck in an elevator full of men who want to take him out, calmly asks, “Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?” No one takes him up on the offer, because apparently they prefer to choose pain over common sense.

Why it made the list: It mashes up the best elements of paranoid political thrillers of the ’70s (complete with Robert Redford in a big role) and modern-day superhero epics – two genres that shouldn’t go together nearly as well as they do here. The sincere and decent ’40s relic Captain America also serves as a great contrast to all the morally ambiguous characters around him. The Russo brothers make marvelous (get it..? ‘marvel’-ous) use of physical space for the action sequences, and Captain America’s partnership with both Black Widow and the Falcon turn it into an “Avengers” film in mini without ever feeling overstuffed the way so many superhero sequel films do.

7. X-Men: First Class (2011)

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Director: Matthew Vaughn

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Zoe Kravitz, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Till

Best moment: Magneto, two Nazis, and a knife – very memorable scene.

Why it made the list: Matthew Vaughn had absolutely impeccable timing when he cast Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence as the young versions of Magneto and Mystique, and the decision to take the characters back to the swinging ’60s gave Vaughn permission to have huge fun with rebooting the series. I could watch an entire movie of Magneto terrorizing Nazis, and Lawrence finally gave Mystique the bruised soul that has always been hinted at by the films and comic books alike.

6. Man of Steel (2013)

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Director: Zack Synder

Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Lawrence Fishburne

Best moment: The climax of the fight scene between General Zod and Superman. For those who haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil it, but it’s emotional, heavy and amazing.

Why it made the list: Simply put, this movie is action-packed, briskly-paced and features a stellar cast. “Man of Steel” is the best Superman film since the 1978 original – period. Even though this is not the same Superman that was depicted in the late 70s and 80s by the late, great Christopher Reeve, it’s still an amazing adaptation nonetheless. Gone are the sweet and funny tones from those previous Superman outings, which have been replaced with a modern superhero, dealing with prolific and profound moral dilemmas.

5. Spider-Man (2002)

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Director: Sam Raimi

Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, Bruce Campbell

Best moment: Spider-Man and the Green Goblin’s epic fight scene. It’s actually still a pretty brutal fight sequence, even by today’s comic book movie standards.

Why it made the list: Raimi possessed the ideal skill set to finally bring the wallcrawler to the big screen after several noted directors — including James Cameron and David Fincher — had been attached to the property. I’m not the biggest fan of Tobey Maguire, but at the time, Maguire’s wide-eyed, gee-whiz take on Peter Parker’s character is similar to how I imagined, as a comic book reading child, Peter Parker would be in real life – so it works. Raimi crafted the perfect tonal balance for the saga, which really took off in the 2004 sequel…but collapsed under its own weight and fatigue by the third film (seriously, don’t even waste your time on the third film, unless you enjoy seeing an emo Maguire giving out beyond creepy stalker vibes:

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yikes!)

4. Batman (1989)

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Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Michael Gough, Billy Dee Williams, Pat Hingle, Jack Palance

Best moment: With a cache full of the Joker’s gas-expelling balloons, the Dark Knight takes to the skies in the Batwing. After releasing them away from the city, he ascends past the cloud cover to make a pretty sweet Batman logo with the Batwing against a full moon – one of the most memorable scenes of the movie.

Why it made the list: The announcement of Batman rubbed many fans the wrong way at the time for initially casting funny man comedian Michael Keaton in the lead, but we all know how it turned out, so critics were quickly silenced on that front. Also, this is the movie that finally brought the Batman of film and TV to a darker side, where it should have been all along, similar to the comic books.

3. The Avengers (2012)

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Director: Joss Whedon

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston

Best moment: The climatic battle scene in New York City. Whedon did a great job in allowing the audience to enjoy and follow the action here rather than being consumed by it.

Why it made the list An ensemble movie that actually works. It’s one thing for Marvel to crank out a film franchise for every major character in their stable. It’s entirely another to weave those plots together into a single movie, then release them back to their own franchises like a complex dance. Add in fan favorite Joss Whedon’s memorable one-liners and subtly making Black Widow the lynch pin that saves the day, while the boys bicker and destroy everything in sight, and suddenly there’s something for everyone with this movie.

2. Superman (1978)

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Director: Richard Donner

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford

Best moment: Superman makes his public debut by saving Lois Lane as she is tumbling out of a falling helicopter. Definitely a well put together scene and a great introduction for Superman’s character.

Why it made the list: Christopher Reeve’s performance remains the gold standard for all superhero movie leads. He was able to find what’s compelling about the corny do-gooder from Krypton and made you believe no one would look at Clark Kent and recognize his other identity as the Man of Steel. Donner structures the film in three distinct movements or acts: sci-fi epic for the destruction of Krypton, Norman Rockwell Americana for Clark’s childhood in Kansas, and screwball comedy for his adventures in Metropolis / sparring with Gene Hackman’s smug Luthor — and all of them flow perfectly together. Although Donner should have at least taken out Kidder’s spoken word “poem” performance scene where Superman and Lois’ fly hand-in-hand altogether over Metropolis (“Can you read my mind?”), then you would have the perfect superhero origin film.

1. The Dark Knight

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Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Chin Han, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts

Best moment: The introduction to Heath Ledger’s Joker is maybe the best overall scene that Nolan’s ever directed (except maybe some scenes from “Inception,” but I’ll save that for another time). By the time the Joker’s been revealed, we not only know just how methodical he is, but also just how dangerous, and the stakes are established for Batman’s greatest on-screen challenge.

Why it made the list: It’s not just a perfect version of what Nolan was trying to do with Batman, it’s also probably the best example of any filmmaker creating a world that feels real but that also feels like a place where superheroes could actually exist. Nolan took what he touched on in Batman Begins and what Burton’s Batman started, the dark realism and deep traumas and misgivings of Batman/Bruce Wayne, and turned it up a few notches. It’s an incredibly tricky tone to get right, and even Nolan himself couldn’t quite reproduce it in The Dark Knight Returns, after he did it so right here.

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One thought on “25 Greatest Comic Book Movies

  1. Wow, what an terrific overview! I’ve seen fewer than half of these films, so I’ll add some of your recommendations to my Netflix queue. Thanks, Todd.

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