It’s a good time to be a superhero nerd.
We’re currently in the heyday of a superhero renaissance, with screen adaptations of beloved DC and Marvel characters exploding into theaters every other month, superhero TV shows dominating prime time, and even YA superhero novels being announced left and right. It used to be that the biggest actors of the day were too busy doing serious dramas or big-budget action blockbusters to be bothered with comic book adaptations, but it’s getting hard to name a superhero movie that’s come out within the past few years whose cast roster isn’t jam-packed with A-list stars and Oscar winners. While superheroes have never exactly been unpopular, now, they’re more ubiquitous than ever.
However, while I love many of the current franchise juggernauts and can happily discuss the MCU or Arrowverse for hours on end, I find that whenever I’m perusing lists of the best superhero movies of all time, it’s always the same titles over and over. And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy or Michael Keaton’s Batman or Christopher Reeve’s Superman — great movies all, and totally deserving of the praise they’ve received — it starts getting a little redundant when you know every list will have three Batmans, a Superman, a Spider-Man, a couple X-Men, and whichever three MCU movies the writer liked best.
What’s more, in the compiling of these lists, I feel like there are a lot of good films which tend to be overlooked because they are not part of big, flashy franchises. I’m not arguing that The Dark Knight isn’t great or that Avengers wasn’t a game-changer, but when the top 10 slots on every list are routinely dominated by the same titles, it begins to feel a little like preaching to the choir.
So with that in mind, I’ve put together my own list of the Top Ten Standalone Superhero Films. But before we get to my picks, a few notes:
- While last week I discussed what it means to be a superhero, and even made a quiz to help determine the likelihood of a character’s super-ness, this list is made up of movies that are commonly considered superhero movies, regardless of what category they would have hit on the quiz.
- I’ve gone back and forth on this, but have ultimately decided to keep anti-heroes off this list (my apologies to The Crow and V for Vendetta). I love a good anti-hero movie, but those just have an overall different feel to me. Maybe they’ll make up another list, another day.
- Some of these are originals, whereas others are adaptations of lesser-known comics, but none are part of a larger Cinematic Universe. And while, yes, a couple did eventually spawn sequels, all were originally written as standalones.
Without further ado, let’s get to the list! (Also, the MCU/DCverses have become so sprawling that nearly all of these movies feature someone who has also starred in a major superhero franchise. I’ll be calling those out for funsies.)
This delightful family film about a world in which the children of superheroes go to a secret floating high school in the sky may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but that doesn’t stop it from being highly enjoyable. An energetic romp from beginning to end, Sky High takes clear glee in turning common tropes on their heads, from secret identities to sidekicks to supervillains. Between its many lighthearted nods to more mainstream superhero films and its heartwarming themes of courage in the face of great odds and the triumphant powers of family and friendship, Sky High is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.
(Marvel/DC I Spy: Danielle Panabaker, who plays Caitlin Snow on CW’s The Flash, as protagonist Will’s plant-controlling BFF Layla.)
9. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)
I know, I know, I said no anti-heroes on this list and here I am putting a movie about a wannabe supervillain in the number 9 spot, but the thing is… this one feels more like a superhero movie than an anti-hero movie. The tone is light, the characters endearing, and it pays homage to far more hero tropes than anti-hero ones. Dr. Horrible follows the title character (an utterly charming Neil Patrick Harris) as he vlogs his attempts to do something dastardly enough to be allowed to join an elite league of supervillains, but along the way, he falls for kind-hearted activist Penny (Felicia Day), and is foiled at every turn by the narcissistic and dim-witted superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion). Filled with smart humor, a good helping of silliness, and some truly catchy tunes, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog is a tongue-in-cheek supervillain story that feels right at home among its more heroic counterparts.
(Marvel/DC I Spy: Nathan Fillion had a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy and voiced Green Lantern on Justice League. Also, Joss Whedon, who wrote Dr. Horrible, went on to direct both Avengers and Age of Ultron.)
8. Unbreakable (2000)
M. Night Shyamalan’s contribution to the superhero canon doesn’t follow the typical narrative. While Unbreakable is undeniably an origin story, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the movie’s protagonist, doesn’t get his powers during the course of the film, and in fact doesn’t even realize he has them until a good chunk of the way through the movie. There’s no action-packed showdown with the villain, no car chases or explosions. Rather, Unbreakable is a relatively quiet film about one man struggling with whether great power actually does come with great responsibility, and another struggling to come to terms with what David’s abilities mean for his own life. Characterized by Shyamalan’s signature introspective whisper-dialogue and layered twisty ending, Unbreakable is a tense, thoughtful examination of the lines between hero and villain.
(Marvel/DC I Spy: The MCU’s own Nick Fury, Samuel L. Jackson, as Elijah Price, who sadly never even mentions the Avengers Initiative.)
7. The Mask of Zorro (1998)
This swashbuckling adventure about the legendary masked swordsman Zorro contains nearly every superhero trope in the book — the passing-of-the-torch from the former hero to the next generation, a training montage, a costumed vigilante with a mysterious alias, a beautiful love interest with secret skills of her own, an over-the-top villain, a personal vendetta, hordes of innocent civilians in peril — yet, for some reason, is rarely remembered when discussing superhero movies. Antonio Banderas stars as the most recent incarnation of the title character, and is joined by Anthony Hopkins (as the former Zorro) and Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose fiery Elena steals every scene she’s in. If you’re itching for a superhero film that feels a little different from the typical fare, you can’t go wrong with The Mask of Zorro. Packed with thrilling action, lush visuals, a gorgeous soundtrack, and even a dance sequence, this historical tale brilliantly stands the test of time.
(Marvel/DC I Spy: Anthony Hopkins, who would eventually go on to star as Thor’s father Odin in the MCU, as Don Diego de la Vega.)
6. Kick-Ass (2010)
If you like your superheroes a little less…well, super, Kick-Ass is the movie for you. Its protagonist (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a teenage boy who, despite his lack of skills, training, or powers, decides to become a superhero, and quickly finds himself in way over his head. The movie really hits its stride when he teams up with two actual superheroes: the prepubescent-but-deadly Hit Girl (an 11-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz) and her father, Big Daddy (Nic Cage, in an obvious nod to Batman). This entry into the superhero canon is far more bloody and foul-mouthed than most other superhero outings (think more Deadpool and less Captain America) but is packed with humor, action, and a surprising amount of heart. (Quick note: while this is a movie about teenagers, this is absolutely not a movie for kids. It earns its R-rating several times over.)
(Marvel/DC I Spy: Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the title role, who would go on to star as Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron.)
5. Chronicle (2012)
If you find yourself hunting for superhero films that are heavy on character development and lighter on brawling, look no further than Chronicle, a found-footage film about three teenage boys who accidentally acquire superpowers. Although the movie is relatively short, at only 84 minutes, it takes its time establishing the characters and letting them explore their powers before, inevitably, everything goes wrong. Its three main characters (played to perfection by Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, and Alex Russell) seem entirely real, each with their own quirks and strengths and insecurities, and while their powers are definitely a major plot point, they’re also a lens through which the movie examines themes of friendship, bullying, popularity, and domestic abuse. This film takes its time in deciding if it wants to be a superhero or a supervillain origin story, and the found-footage gimmick sometimes requires a hefty suspension of disbelief (yes, even more than the superpowers), but ultimately all its strange, disparate elements come together for a wholly unique and utterly compelling film.
(Marvel/DC I Spy: Dane DeHaan played Harry Osborn in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Michael B. Jordan played Johnny Storm in 2015’s Fantastic Four reboot.)
4. Big Hero 6 (2014)
Adapted from one of Marvel’s lesser-known comics (but not considered part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, hence my justification in including it), Disney’s animated Big Hero 6 follows teenage robotics genius Hiro, who, when the micro-bots he invents for a science fair fall into the wrong hands, decides he is the only one who can get them back. Backed up by a lovable, inflatable nursing robot named Baymax, and a group of university robotics students who science their way to their own super-suits, Hiro’s journey is plenty thrilling and often funny, but the real triumph of Big Hero 6 is in its themes of family, friendship, grief, and sacrifice.
(Marvel/DC I Spy: James Cromwell, the voice of Robert Callaghan, also played Captain Stacy in the awful Spider-Man 3. Also Alan Tudyk, voice of Alistair Krei, provided the voice for Oliver Queen on the Young Justice TV show.)
3. The Rocketeer (1991)
There are few movies from the early ’90s that hold up as well as The Rocketeer. The story follows young pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), who stumbles upon a backpack rocket designed by Howard Hughes for use in World War II. Cliff never sets out to be a superhero, but when he keeps using the rocket to save people, including his aspiring actress girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly, channeling every bit of elegance from the ballroom scene in Labyrinth), that’s exactly what he becomes. Unfortunately for Cliff and Jenny, there are many who want the rocket for their own nefarious purposes, and they soon find themselves up against both the mob and undercover Nazi spies. With a supporting cast that includes Timothy Dalton, Terry O’Quinn, and Alan Arkin, The Rocketeer is an uplifting family-friendly adventure full of daring heroics, romance, intrigue, and enough patriotism to make Steve Rogers proud.
(Marvel/DC I Spy: Jennifer Connelly starred as Betty Ross in the unfortunate 2003 Hulk film.)
2. Mystery Men (1999)
I’ll be honest — some will probably feel I have this movie ranked too high, but if I wasn’t forcing myself to be at least a little bit objective, Mystery Men would be sitting proudly at the #1 spot on this list. That is how much I love it. Centered around a group of wannabe superheroes who live in a town that is already so well protected by a real superhero (Captain Amazing, played by Greg Kinnear) that the only villains left are robbing senior citizens for their fake teeth, the story takes a turn when all the supervillains (led by a ridiculous Geoffrey Rush) escape and take Captain Amazing prisoner. Suddenly, the Mystery Men (with barely-powers such as shoveling, throwing silverware, and being really angry) are the only ones left standing between Champion City and total annihilation. Featuring a brilliant ensemble cast of actors you never thought you’d see in a superhero movie (headed by Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, and Janeane Garofalo), Mystery Men is both a hilarious riff on the superhero genre and a solid entry in its own right.
(Marvel/DC I Spy: Shockingly enough, no one. I wasn’t kidding when I said you’d never expect to see these people in a superhero movie.)
1. The Incredibles (2004)
Leave it to Pixar to give us as close to a perfect original superhero movie as we’re probably ever going to get. In a world where “Supers” have gone into witness protection after the public got upset about the collateral damage caused by their heroics, The Incredibles follows the Parr family: Bob and Helen, formerly better known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, who are now trying to make a go of it as an insurance salesman and a stay-at-home-mom, and their three kids, who also have powers but have been instructed to hide them. When Bob gets pulled back into action to defeat a giant destructive robot, he soon realizes he’s up against more than he bargained for, and it falls to his Super family to help save the day. The Incredibles is pretty much a master class in the superhero genre, juggling archetypes and tropes — sometimes paying homage, sometimes inverting them — with unparalleled skill. But more than that, it’s simply a fantastic movie about heroism, responsibility, and the power of family.
(Marvel/DC I Spy: Samuel L. Jackson again! He provided the voice of Frozone. Also Holly Hunter, who voiced Elastigirl, went on to play Senator Finch in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.)
Bonus! While they’re not films, and therefore not included on this list, I’d like to give a shout-out to a couple original superhero TV shows.
The first is Heroes, a show about previously ordinary people who discover they have extraordinary powers, who slowly come together to save the world. Its first season is riveting, with good use of effects, strong, layered characters with dynamic relationships, and a tightly plotted story line that builds to a breathless, satisfying conclusion. Sadly, the following seasons took a nosedive in quality, but that first season is as close to a perfect season of television as they come.
The second is Misfits, which is kind of like Heroes if Heroes was a dark comedy instead of a drama and the characters were British juvenile delinquents. Misfits follows a group of teenage miscreants who accidentally gain superpowers while performing government-mandated community service. It’s a fascinating and often hilarious look at what happens when great power winds up in the hands of people who absolutely should not be trusted with great responsibility. Irreverent and full of British slang and off-color humor, Misfits is definitely not for the squeamish or easily offended. But if your taste veers more Kick-Ass than The Avengers, it’s worth a watch. (Full disclosure: Though this show ran for 5 seasons, I only watched through the end of season 3, at which point the 3-season arc is fully concluded and the entire cast switches over. I’ve heard the final two seasons aren’t as good, but the first 3 work as a complete series if you don’t want to keep going.)
So there you have it, my list of the best standalone superhero movies (and two bonus TV shows). What do you think? Agree with my picks, or did I leave a deserving movie off the list? Let us know in the comments!