We’re beginning to wrap up the past decade, and to celebrate that, I have decided to make lists of the best films of the decade by genre. These ten genres will ticked-off the list one at a time, and we’ll see one article a month between now and December, each month celebrating the best films of the genre this decade. I do realize we have all the films of this year left, and so I’ve tried to plan these lists out in a way that new releases can be added to or dropped from the list as new films come out.
Our last list of the best films of the decade belongs to the one genre that rose to conquer all the others: the superhero genre. To view where this genre began and where it ended in the ten year gap of this decade is quite something. It went from an up and down sub-genre to the centerpiece of Hollywood.
Now everyone wants to know when the next Marvel or DC film is coming out, and fans are obsessed from the first announcement. And the historic rise of the genre came for good reason: there were a lot of entertaining, spectacle-filled movies to enjoy. We’ll start with some honorable mentions, then jump into the list.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Directors: Joe and Anthony Russo
This became a turning point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World had proved to be disappointing sequels after The Avengers, and Kevin Feige and co. had turned over their Cap sequel to the guys who directed a few episodes of Community. The results were an action-packed, political-thriller feeling superhero film that furthered the characters of Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff beyond cardboard cut-outs.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Directors: Joe and Anthony Russo
As epic as Avengers: Endgame was, I prefer Avengers: Infinity War. The Russos once again proved their might, and brought the most powerful, effective, and relatable villain yet to the MCU in Thanos. All the world-jumping is a lot of fun, and the film moves at a breakneck speed that holds its action in equal measure with its character interactions as the Infinity Saga starts to come to an end.
Shazam! (2019) Director: David F. Sandberg
I get the feeling that this movie may grow on me over time. The first viewing was already a blast, with Zachary Levi’s portrayal being a joyous one. The film could have gone even further with its satirical view of the genre, but as is it still overs a fun change of pace for DC.
Now for the top ten.
10. Logan (2017)
Director: James Mangold
Oops, I can already feel your judgement by my putting this so low on the list. Don’t get me wrong, Logan is a strong entry in the X-Men canon, and showcases the best performances Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have given as Wolverine and Professor X, respectively. However, it wasn’t quite as perfect as some would view it to be.
Personally, I thought the film didn’t need the X-24 character as the muscle big-bad. I was having plenty of fun with Boyd Holbrook as Pierce, and the whole cliche of a superhero having to fight a clone as a symbol of fighting himself has been around since Superman III, and I’m afraid Logan didn’t have much new to offer.
Everything else in the film, though, I found to be a big plus. Dafne Keen as Laura was fantastic, the action scenes are memorable and a little more sparse, making them more effective, and the western vibe is a welcome change. And as I mentioned before, Stewart and Jackman are at their very best here, delivering emotionally powerful performances. The end, I agree with everyone here, is a phenomenal send-off to one of our favorite superheroes.
9. Wonder Woman (2017)
Director: Patty Jenkins
The first big-budget female-led superhero film didn’t disappoint. Well, didn’t disappoint too much. Clearly a step above Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad, the DCEU landed their first big win with Wonder Woman, a heartfelt throwback to the 1978 Richard Donner Superman in its approach to telling the hero (in this case heroine) story from a place of love and story rather than bombastic action and depressing backdrops.
That isn’t to say the action scenes aren’t well done, and the famous “dark DC” tones aren’t felt. Jenkins does a nice job balancing that with the lighter fare, and Wonder Woman feels old-fashioned in the best way possible. While Gal Gadot wasn’t Oscar-worthy, she was better than she was in Batman v Superman, and the film really hits gold when the chemistry she shares with Chris Pine is allowed to shine.
The last act feels a bit mundane, and that kept it from being an all-time great for me, but some other highlights are the town square sequence where Diana basically obliterates the enemy forces in two minutes flat. And the preceding No Man’s Land sequence is also a wonderful moment, showing just how much Diana belongs in the DCEU, and how we as audience members should be as welcoming to female superheroes.
8. Kick-Ass (2010)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
The only non DC or Marvel-based film on the list, Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass is a superhero film that knows when to bring on the laughs, when to put on the earth-shattering action scenes, and also when to have some heartfelt moments with its talented cast. Kick-Ass may have a potty-mouth, and is very violent, but that helps it stand out as one of the best of the decade.
The cast deserves a lot of credit. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is pitch perfect as the whiny son of Mark Strong’s villain, who himself is just plain devilish, in the most charming way. Aaron Taylor-Johnson also proves to be a worthy protagonist. While his origin story is nothing we haven’t seen before, the character is one we’re happy to root for, and laugh at when his big “hero” moments are squandered by realism.
However, the highlights have to be Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit-Girl and Nicholas Cage as the high-strung Big Daddy. It proved to be Cage’s best performance in years, and helped launch Moretz’s career into the big time, and we’re all the better for it. Vaughn did a brilliant job bringing this beloved story to the big screen, and like the other entries on the list so far, it’s a brilliant example of a superhero film that isn’t reliant on big explosions and quippy humor in alternating scenes.
7. Black Panther (2018)
Director: Ryan Coogler
It says a lot for the quality of the rest of the films on this list that as good as Black Panther is, it has to settle for number seven on my list. For the MCU’s first black-led superhero film, Panther is remarkable in its action set-pieces, character work, and has the best solo-film villain the MCU has had yet in Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger.
The movie has a ton of memorable moments and actions that have burned their way into pop culture, from “Wakanda Forever” to Killmonger’s final monologue, and it’s all fantastic. The South Korea set chase sequence is a lot of fun, and the fight scenes are incredible. The CGI in the end sequence feels a little undercooked, but there’s a lot more to make up for it.
The only other complaints are with the main character of T’Challa sometimes feeling a little wooden, and his romantic relationship with Nakia is by-the-numbers. Though I have to give credit once again to Jordan’s portrayal of Killmonger, who is still a villain, but one we understand and sympathize with. If nothing else, it was one of the first times a villain overshadowed the hero in an MCU entry, and sometimes those make for the best villains and the best films, too.
6. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Director: Taika Waititi
Rarely is the third entry in a trilogy the best, and that’s especially true with superhero trilogies, but the pairing of Taika Waititi and the MCU led to the best Thor film, and one of the best MCU films, period. Ragnarok is comedically genius, filled with fascinating new characters and some new character arcs for the existing characters, offering some of their finest moments yet.
The design work also is worth noting here. The planet of Sakaar offers a fun new environment for Hulk and Thor to play in, and everything from the arena to the Grandmaster’s ship are fascinating to look at, with design nods to H.R. Giger and Dante in some of the earlier sequences.
I also appreciate how the film takes risks, from Thor’s hammer being destroyed to Odin’s death early on. Also the ending of the film takes risks, and it’s a nice turn on the traditional superhero ending. To close, as I mentioned before, the film is not light on humor, and it’s my personal opinion that Thor: Ragnarok is the funniest film in the MCU, and that is more than enough to land it a spot on the list.
5. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Directors: Joe and Anthony Russo
Of the four Russo Brothers films from the MCU, Captain America: Civil Wars still stands up as my favorite, and seems to be the perfect mix of mature superhero themes and also of old-school comic book fun. Case in point is the airport fight scene, which reminds me a lot of the fight scenes in Superman II, and in my opinion will go down as one of the classics in that regard.
Civil War also boasts up plenty of other memorable action scenes, like the Germany car chase, the opening battle against Crossbones, and the end fight, where Tony duels both Steve and Bucky. It’s not the most round conclusion for the Captain America trilogy, but it doesn’t lose sight of who its main character is.
We have to mention, too, how wonderful a job the film does at introducing arguably the two biggest superheroes today in the MCU, Black Panther and Spider-Man. They feel like key supporting players, not extras, and they never slide the two leads out of their spotlights. Civil War may sometimes feel a little beefy with its near 2 hour and 30 minute runtime, but it stands up as one of the best MCU films.
4. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Yeah, sue me, I love this movie. Not as much as The Dark Knight, sure, but that’s one aspect that I think people overlook. The question everyone had leading up to the film’s release seven years ago was how do you top The Dark Knight? The answer was, you don’t. You make something different.
Of course, that goes without saying you can drive dump trucks through a couple of the plot holes (famously how Bruce is back in Gotham so quick after being exiled by Bane), and some of the motivations feel thin, but I always respected the scale of the film, how it continuously builds throughout. After the opening plane heist scene, the movie starts small with Bruce’s recovery, then keeps rising higher creatively with Bane’s takeover of Gotham, and so on.
It’s also worth noting some of the performances. Michael Caine delivers his most emotionally resonant performance in decades this time around as Alfred, and Bale, in spite of his Cookie Monster voice, is all in as Bruce. Even Anne Hathaway, whom everyone thought would sink the film, turned out to be a pleasant surprise as Salina Kyle.
As someone who was never the biggest fan of Batman Begins, I wasn’t always interested in all the tie-ins Dark Knight Rises had with it, but a couple of those threads made me appreciate Begins more so on repeat viewings. As a conclusion to the most acclaimed superhero trilogy in recent memory, Nolan delivered on spectacle, world-building, performances, and action. For a superhero film, that’s about the best you can hope for.
3. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Director: Bryan Singer
While I’d always been a casual fan of the X-Men films up to the point of Days of Future Past’s release, this was the one that made me go back and watch those early works. Even without seeing the whole context of the series, I felt the epic scale Singer set up with his young class meets old veterans story.
X-Men: First Class became a textbook example of how to reboot a superhero franchise well, but Days of Future Past built on that with our favorites (Wolverine, Professor X, Storm, etc.) coming back and mixing in, sometimes, with the younger cast we grew to love in First Class. The scene where old Professor X meets with young Charles is the best example of this, and it is impactful not just for the story, but feels like a passing of the torch from Stewart to McAvoy.
If there’s one element to this movie that nobody, and I mean nobody hated, it’s the Quicksilver stuff. Evan Peters’ portrayal was incredibly funny, likeable, and made for some of the most fun to watch moments in any superhero film. It became a fun tradition to see what Quicksilver would do in the follow-ups, Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, and those scenes stole both movies.
However, I like to pinpoint the mainstay in the X-Men universe: the battle, both physical and mental, between Charles and Erik. That’s really epitomized by the scene directly after Quicksilver’s big moment, when Charles, Erik, Logan, and Hank are flying in the Blackbird and Erik is all upset about their lost teammates. It’s both a tense scene with Erik controlling the ship, and a moment to showcase the two different ideologies that will seemingly always be at war. That’s what the best X-Men movies were all about.
2. The Avengers (2012)
Director: Joss Whedon
Seeing this film on the big screen almost gives me the feeling of what I perceive seeing Star Wars on the big screen would have been like. It was advertised as the most epic team-up of all time, all the solo Marvel characters coming together, all these individual movies paying off in one big adventure. If Avengers had failed in this regard, the superhero film landscape would not be where it is today.
As much fun as it is to see the seemingly hundreds of characters crossover in the later sequels, there’s always something about the first time it’s done well with a tighter, well-knit group. It gives the audience, the cast, and the filmmakers more time to become engrossed in the characters, and less time worrying about where the dozens of other characters are (ie Avengers: Infinity War).
That’s great and all, but another element The Avengers really hit home on was the humor. The first couple of scenes where Tony and Steve became a trend-setter for their on-again, off-again friendship, and Tony’s quipps always crawling under Steve’s skin. Who can forget classic lines like “Doth mother know you weareth her drapes”, or “Bad call, he loves his hammer”? Whedon deserves a lot of credit for reshaping a few of these characters as they play into the team dynamic.
As much fun as it is to see all the characters interacting, small-talking, and poking at each other, the action scenes don’t disappoint, with the Battle of New York still being one of the more memorable final set pieces in the MCU. The fight on the helicarrier is also well done, and gave us our first big moments with Mark Ruffalo’s new version of Hulk.
Then again, my favorite scene is right before that, when all the heroes argue with who has the higher moral ground in the fight for the scepter, and who will find the tesseract. Again, very quippy, but also a fantastic mirror of the real life situation of this movie: all these big characters and egos on screen shouldn’t work. The same idea is bandied about in the comics from time to time, how so many heroes together can only fail. Yet in both the movie world and in real life, this became a winning formula. One that many have sought after, yet none have fully duplicated.
1. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Director: Jon Watts
2017 was a phenomenal year for superhero films, but at the top of the heap is one of the more unlikely contenders: Spider-Man: Homecoming. I, like many at the time, really appreciated the work done by Tom Holland in Captain America: Civil War, yet I had that unnerving feeling walking into the movie theater of “do we really need another Spider-Man movie?” The answer was hell yes.
The Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy is a nice harkening back to the first generation of superhero films with nods to the Christopher Reeve Superman and the Michael Keaton Batman films, and the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man films were fun while they lasted with their updated styles, but there’s something about a John Hughes style take on Spider-Man, set in the MCU, that captured the feeling of this character better than ever.
Some of the highlights for me are all the laughs the movie has. Peter’s interactions with Ned are priceless. Peter’s dynamic with his classmates, and even the dynamic between his classmates without him, are terrific. The take of Spider-Man being a cocky, high school kid when facing threats also builds up a big heart for this movie, where we genuinely want Peter to not get hurt, even as he’s being sort of a dick to some small time crooks.
I also love the action scenes, with the Washington Monument rescue being an all-time high for Spidey. The scene is tense, but also funny. In spite of the laughs, however, we do feel the weight on Spidey’s shoulders, as some of his friends might not make it out alive. All of Tony’s interactions with Peter are also laugh-out-loud, and sometimes emotional and touching. Some complain about the lack of an Uncle Ben with these movies, but since we’ve already seen it twice before, I’m okay with breaking some rules here.
I have to end on the old adage of action movies: they’re only as strong as their villain. Thanos, Killmonger, and Loki may be the big bads of the MCU, but one of my favorite smaller villains is Vulture, played perfectly by Michael Keaton. He’s the right mix of threatening, funny, relatable, and powerful. I also love how his suit actually attacks like a vulture. I know that sounds corny, but there’s a way to do something like that right and a way to make it look silly, and Watts and co pulled it off.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is not just the Spidey film we always wanted, it was the one we didn’t know we needed as badly as we did. Sure, it doesn’t have the team-ups of The Avengers, or the character work of Black Panther, or even the humorous heights of Thor: Ragnarok, but as a self-contained story that fully utilizes the sandbox that is the MCU, Homecoming takes my vote for the best Kevin Feige and his crew have ever done.
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