After selecting the best sci-fi movies of the last 25 years and the best comedies of the last 25 years, ScreenCrush decided the only logical way to wrap up the #CountdownToUltron and Avengers 2 was to choose the best superhero movies of the last 25 years as well. Initially, this was just supposed to be a brief essay. But on an innocent field trip to the world’s most advanced genetics lab, this blog post was bitten by a radioactive list and transformed into the gargantuan piece you see before you. On that day, we all learned a valuable lesson: That with great power must come great listicles.

This is one. Its ranking was determined through several rounds of voting. The editors at ComicsAlliance and the staff of ScreenCrush picked their personal 25 favorite superhero movies of the last quarter century. Those ballots were compiled, whereupon a second round of voting determined the final order you’re about to read. There was some disagreement about what exactly qualifies as a “superhero movie” (and a lot of disagreement over whether The Matrix was one or not). Ultimately we decided that a film didn’t have to be based on a comic book to qualify (because some of the best superhero movies ever made are original concepts designed for the silver screen), but beyond that we applied the smell test. Does this character look like a superhero? Do they have a secret identity? Do they wear some kind of costume? Do they have any special powers? Were their parents murdered in an alley in Gotham City? That sort of stuff.

The results ran the gamut from established heroes to brash newcomers; animated family films to dark, adults-only adventures. If you ask us, these 25 titles feel pretty definitive — at least until Age of Ultron opens later this week and necessitates a recount. With all that out of the way, let’s look up the sky and then dive in to our picks.

Warner Bros.

25. Watchmen (2009)
Directed by Zack Snyder

Adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ dense and complex comic-book masterpiece might have been a fool’s errand, but you’ve got to hand it to Zack Snyder: He certainly swung for the fences. Watchmen is too long, its tone is all over the place, and some of the casting doesn’t quite work. But movies (especially superhero movies) are rarely this ambitious and strange. Filled with political commentary, brutal action, and a giant blue naked guy whose powers have essentially transformed him into God, there has never been a movie quite like Watchmen. Snyder’s slick, stylish direction makes all of Moore and Gibbons’ brilliant oddness look great. This movie is too weird and too wonderful to ignore. — Jacob Hall


24. The Mask of Zorro (1998)
Directed by Martin Campbell

The masked vigilante Zorro predates superhero comics by almost 20 years, and his film appearances, like 1998’s The Mask of Zorro, would probably be categorized by most folks as swashbucklers. But Batman creator Bob Kane cited Zorro as a key inspiration for the Dark Knight, and if Batman — a guy with no powers, a black cape and mask, and a burning hunger to avenge a terrible murder  is a superhero, then so is Zorro. In this superb iteration of the character, Anthony Hopkins plays an aging Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega, who trains a vengeful thief (Antonio Banderas) to follow in his footsteps. The film, directed by a pre-Casino Royale Martin Campbell and written by a pre-Pirates of the Caribbean Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, is loaded with exciting swordplay, witty dialogue, and crackling chemistry between Banderas and a young Catherine Zeta-Jones. Just as Johnston McCulley’s pulp hero inspired the superheroes that followed, The Mask of Zorro played an important (but largely uncredited) role in today’s modern comic-book movie boom. It debuted in 1998 a month before Marvel’s Blade, providing a one-two punch of surprise superhero hits. That got the film industry’s attention, as if Zorro had carved a big “Z” into the Hollywood sign. — Matt Singer

Warner Bros.

23. Batman Begins (2005)
Directed by Christopher Nolan

When Batman Begins came out, just a few years after Batman & Robin, everyone was a little stunned at how good it was. Then The Dark Knight came out and everyone knocked Begins down a peg or two. Still, I find Begins the easier film to rewatch, not in the least because it’s not quite as dark and depressing as The Dark Knight. Christian Bale’s initial turn as Batman doesn’t have quite as much growling, terrible Bat-voice, and Gary Oldman is the still best Commissioner (or Lieutenant) Gordon ever. It’s a stark contrast from the earlier Batman films, with a tone that matched the modern comics. It’s exactly what the franchise needed. — Janelle Asselin


22. The Wolverine (2013)
Directed by James Mangold

Most superhero sequels feel the need to go bigger, to perpetually raise the stakes until the entire world is on the line. James Mangold’s The Wolverine is such a unique and refreshing beast because it goes in the exact opposite direction. This is the smallest of the X-Men movies, sending Hugh Jackman’s immortal mutant on a deeply personal quest filled with intrigue and surprisingly small action sequences. Yeah, it ends with Logan taking on a guy in a giant robot exoskeleton, but everything up to that point is thrilling in its intimacy. The fights are tough, brutal affairs and the people our hero meets are more than collateral damage and adamantium claw fodder. As the X-Men movies keep tripping over themselves to get bigger, the simple joys of The Wolverine only grow larger in our minds. — JH


21. Big Hero 6 (2014)
Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams

With Big Hero 6, Disney not only took a D-list superhero team that no one had any real affection for and managed to spin them into distinctive and appealing characters, it also did so in a way that celebrated diversity, ingenuity, and hugs. In giant squishy robo-nurse Baymax (Scott Adsit), the movie showcased a hero who didn’t need — or want — to punch people through buildings. If ever you find modern superheroes too cynical or bitter, Big Hero 6 is a welcome reminder of the positivity that these characters can bring to life. Sometimes the strongest hero is the one who gives you a shoulder to cry on. — Andrew Wheeler

New Line

20. Blade II (2002)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro

The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies get the credit for kicking off the current golden age of movie superheroes, but another guy was the first Marvel character to get his own film trilogy. In fact, the best of Wesley Snipes’ three Blade movies came out the same year as the first Spider-Man. The original Blade was a surprise hit, and the third one was ... well, it gave Ryan Reynolds his best comic book role thus far. But Blade II still holds up, and though it didn’t owe much to specific comics, its introduction of a team of entertainingly gimmicky vampires and virus-mutated bloodsuckers proved audiences could embrace the sort of colorful world-building that superhero comics excel at. — AW


19. The Rocketeer (1991)
Directed by Joe Johnston

Twenty years before Captain America: The First Avenger, director Joe Johnston proved his superhero bonafides with The Rocketeer, a charming adventure based on the comics by Dave Stevens and inspired by the serialized exploits of jetpack-wearing do-gooders like Rocket Man and Commando Cody. Billy Campbell stars as hotshot pilot Cliff Secord, whose test flight in a new airplane is interrupted by a chase between the FBI and the mob. Cliff’s plane gets totaled, but in the confusion he winds up with an wearable rocket, which he dons (along with one of the coolest leather jackets in film history) to become a flying hero. The movie is sweet and innocent enough for children, but the references to 1930s Hollywood are aimed straight at film buffs; Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) plays a key supporting role, and the film’s main antagonist, a carousing movie star named Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), is obviously inspired by Errol Flynn and the legends around his extracurricular exploits. The Rocketeer is the oldest title on our list, and its flying effects are admittedly a little hokey at times; they’ve long since been surpassed by Superman Returns, Iron Man, and others. But its blend of adventure, heart, and affectionate nods to movie history still has few equals. — MaS


18. Unbreakable (2000)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
One of the few films on this list that isn’t based on an existing comic book, Unbreakable is also one of the films that may not have been fully appreciated in its time. After the breakout success of The Sixth Sense (which made almost $300 million and was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture), everyone waited with bated breath for what wunderkind director M. Night Shyamalan would do next. A lifelong comic fan, Shyamalan decided to shoot a superhero origin story, but with a superhero (and supervillain) of his own creation. But, because the main point of interest of The Sixth Sense was the shocking twist at the end, the fact that it was a superhero origin story was kept a complete surprise. In the years since its release, Unbreakable has deservedly earned a cult following, with many claiming it’s Shyamalan’s best film (though considering his output of late, that may be damning with faint praise). As time has passed, the twisty conceit actually makes the film better. So many superhero origins are told and retold even though the audience knows all the details already (we’re looking at you, Spider-Man), but Unbreakable was a refreshing break from the norm; a superhero movie without the burden of being a superhero movie. — Mike Sampson


17. X-Men: First Class (2011)
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
It shouldn’t have worked. A soft reboot of the X-Men franchise, set in the 1960s with younger versions of classic characters? The idea itself seemed like an obvious cash grab by Fox, who was looking to restart their flagship superhero franchise without having to recast Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Yet, somehow this vintage X-Men movie not only completely worked, it did exactly what Fox wanted it to do: It launched a new era of the franchise. Director Matthew Vaughn delivered exactly the burst of youthfulness the then-stale franchise needed. He also assembled a fantastic group of actors with great chemistry. Just having Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence in your X-Men movie is enough of a coup, but add to that James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones (okay, let’s forget about January Jones). It’s hard to imagine any onscreen pair topping the chemistry of Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, whose work together as Magneto and Professor X almost single-handedly saved the first X-Men, but Fassbender and McAvoy are so great together, you instantly wanted to watch these two iconic characters grow together (and grow apart). And, in a moment where creativity and commerce intersected, that’s exactly what both the studio and audiences wanted. — MiS


16. Chronicle (2012)
Directed by Josh Trank

The found footage gimmick may have been novel in The Blair Witch Project (when many people actually believed the film was found footage), but lately it’s just an excuse to make a cheap movie with excusably cheap visuals. (“It’s just these kids shooting on their camcorder!”). Few people had high hopes for Chronicle, a found-footage superhero movie from a then-unknown director named Josh Trank (who has since moved on to much bigger superheroes with Fantastic Four). Yes, the film had many of the trappings of the usual found-footage movies — Why is that person still holding the camera? — but it was also smart enough to tackle some of those cliches head on. The film follows a group of teens who stumble on a large hole in the woods and suddenly find themselves gifted with strange powers. In today’s youth culture, of course a bunch of kids learning to fly and move objects with their minds are going to tape it. It also helped that Trank cast actual actors, instead of CW rejects; Dane DeHaan and Michael B. Jordan are fantastic as two of the teens struggling with the burden their new powers bring. Chronicle feels like a Sundance drama crammed in a blender with a sci-fi superhero movie, and the result is completely refreshing. — MiS

Warner Bros. 

15. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm

Mask of the Phantasm is one of the most critically acclaimed Batman movies, and for good reason. But given the deep love geek culture has for Batman: The Animated Series, it’s no surprise that a movie by the same directors, producers, writers, and animators would be similarly beloved. Not to mention the fact that it’s just a good Batman film — it has mood and depth and quality voice acting. Kevin Conroy’s Batman is always fantastic no matter the venue, and of course Dana Delaney’s voice is a delight as well. Much of Mask of the Phantasm’s early praise was part of the wave of Batman hype post-1989’s Tim Burton movie, but it remains an enjoyable, strong film to this day. — JA


14. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

A huge tonal departure from other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier wears its ’70s-inspired paranoia on its sleeve, sending Cap spiraling into a conspiracy that feels eerily relevant yet still appropriately comic book-y (and involves ’70s paranoia icon Robert Redford in a supporting role). Tough, funny, and unafraid to tear down the foundations of the MCU, this is what all superhero movie sequels should aspire to be. It’s incredible entertainment, and it takes full advantage of its “shared universe” while refusing to bow to formula. At the heart of it all is Chris Evans, whose take on Captain America has elevated the stodgiest Avenger into the upper echelon of modern action heroes. — JH


13. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro

The first Hellboy is fantastic; Hellboy II is even more fantastic and del Toro-esque than the first. The characters that were established in the first movie feel particularly well-rounded and fascinating. Ron Perlman is a great, gruff, blustery star, and the supporting cast — particularly Selma Blair and Doug Jones — are also wonderful. The plot is pretty complex (don’t believe me? Check out the spoilerific synopsis on Wikipedia) but it’s enormously engrossing, and somehow it all makes sense onscreen. Plus, del Toro’s visuals are gorgeous and intensely interesting. — JA


12. Spider-Man (2002)
Directed by Sam Raimi

Even as the modern superhero boom began in the late ’90s and early ’00s, there was a push in Hollywood to keep these characters from looking particularly superheroic. Comic-book heroes were expected to be “realistic”; that meant lots of dark suits and black leather instead of bright spandex or capes. Without Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which bucked that trend to deliver a faithfully colorful Spidey, we might never have gotten to where we are now. With earnest, lovable performances from Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, great action, and some truly astounding special effects for its time, the first Spider-Man redefined the superhero movie for a new century. The Amazing Spider-Man reboot tried to create a “timely” Spidey (He skateboards! And uses Bing! Just like every American teenager!) and it sputtered out after just two movies. Raimi’s Spider-Man will endure. It’s timeless. — MaS


11. Thor: The Dark World (2012)
Directed by Alan Taylor

The first Thor did an impressive job of introducing two powerfully charismatic members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. But the sequel, Thor: The Dark World, is the movie that earns our love for the way it revels in the playground of its ideas. Sure, Malekith is as two-dimensional as any of Marvel’s many villains, but the real draw isn’t hero-versus-villain, it’s brother-versus-brother, as Thor and Loki are thrown back together and forced to try to play nice. The chemistry between these performers, and the fun they have in making their fantasy world seem real, is where this movie crackles. — AW 


10. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Directed by Shane Black

Although Marvel Studios has garnered a reputation for not always playing nice with auteurs, there is something truly special about Iron Man 3: It is wholly and unmistakably a Shane Black film. It may pick up after the events of The Avengers and it may play into the ongoing continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Black managed to squeeze these familiar characters into a tale that is entirely his own. From the holiday setting to the twisting mysteries of the central plot to the hilarious evisceration of “The Mandarin,” Iron Man 3 is a superhero sequel that feels fresh because a new voice was given the chance to run wild. As expanded universes gain prominence, studios should look to this film to see how unique directors can play in the studio sandbox and still create something personal. — JH


9. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Directed by Joe Johnston

I’ve always found Captain America a little boring. I like my superheroes to have a little more darkness in them, and Cap, like Superman, is just such a Boy Scout. I did not have high expectations going into Captain America: The First Avenger, but I enjoyed it a great deal. Of the other Marvel Studios films that came out at the time, many folks prefer Thor, but the Cap movie is beautiful and compelling — and certainly Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) felt more integral and nuanced than Thor’s Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). After all, the most praised Marvel TV show, Agent Carter, spun off from the events in Captain America. I found the second Cap a little lacking, but seeing the character in his original element in the 1940s had all the thrills I wanted. — JA

Warner Bros.

8. Batman Returns (1992)
Directed by Tim Burton

The Dark Knight may have come back for this 1992 sequel, but the guy whose return was really important here was Tim Burton, who turned a massive piece of corporate entertainment into an intensely personal and admirably off-putting story about slimy weirdos and feline outcasts doing battle in the sewers and shadows of Gotham City. Pushing Batman (Michael Keaton) to the background of his own movie, Burton focused on his two nemeses: The Penguin (a disturbed, drooling Danny DeVito), who, as a hideously deformed child of privilege abandoned by his wealthy parents, is a kind of dark, funhouse mirror image of Bruce Wayne, and Catwoman (a feisty, ferocious Michelle Pfeiffer), a mousy, abused working girl resurrected as an pugnacious, independent woman. The storyline is unbelievably dark for an ostensible family film, and Burton and Pfeiffer’s interpretation of Catwoman as a wounded, angry, sexy, troubled, and defiant figure is still (somewhat sadly) the best female character in any superhero movie of the last 25 years. That we got Halle Berry’s Catwoman instead of a Pfeiffer Catwoman solo movie is one of the great Hollywood travesties of the last 25 years. — Matt Singer


7. Iron Man (2008)
Directed by Jon Favreau

What’s left to say about the original Iron Man that hasn’t already been said? The 2008 movie was a huge gamble for Marvel. It was the first movie they financed on their own and if it didn’t succeed, they could’ve lost the rights to the entire Avengers franchise. They cast an actor in Robert Downey Jr. that no other Hollywood blockbuster would touch with a ten-foot pole. They hired a director, Jon Favreau, who was best known for his work as an actor. And, let’s face it, Iron Man wasn’t exactly high in the public consciousness. But, in some magical way, all those crazy parts came together on a film that defied all the odds and became the template for an entire industry. The movie isn’t perfect — they famously made much of the script up as they went along — but there’s so much that it does right, so effortlessly. Iron Man came out the same year as The Dark Knight and provided almost a complete counterpoint. Whereas Nolan’s Batman film was dark, brooding, and serious, Favreau’s Iron Man was bright, funny and exciting. It set the tone for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe and, in doing so, the course of blockbuster filmmaking for the near future. — MiS


6. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Directed by Sam Raimi

It’s odd that Marvel has kind of forgotten how important the role of the villain is in rounding out a great superhero movie, because that case was made and settled when Alfred Molina brought Dr. Otto Octavius to gleeful and hubristic life in the second of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. This was the Spidey flick that got just about everything right: Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker feels both the weight of his responsibility and the joy of being Spider-Man, and the movie really digs into the character’s key relationships with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), and New York City itself. Heck, the picture even boasts a good old fashioned bank vault robbery. The Spider-Man franchise has now suffered a few stops and starts, but this movie still holds up as the best example of what this series can be. — AW


5. X2 (2003)
Directed by Bryan Singer

It’s kinda amazing to think that X2 (saddled with the still-clunky subtitle X-Men United, because Fox was afraid of releasing an X-Men movie without “X-Men” in the title) was released in 2003. For a movie that predates much of the contemporary superhero era, it feels remarkably modern. Maybe it’s because Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellan are still playing these characters over ten years later; maybe it’s because it popularized end-of-movie teases to set up future sequels (in this case, the Dark Phoenix storyline from X-Men: The Last Stand).

No one will argue that the first X-Men was some great masterpiece. It was important in its time, but also features lines like, "Do you know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning?" X2 ups the ante considerably with three fantastic sequences: Nightcrawler breaking into the White House to open the movie, the raid on the X-Mansion, and the final battle between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike. If Hugh Jackman really was the star of the X-Men universe — and considering his screen presence and the popularity of Wolverine, he definitely is — returning director Bryan Singer needed to give him a chance to break out and showcase the character’s famous “berserker rage.” As Col. William Stryker (Brian Cox) sends his military men to raid Charles Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters, Wolverine immediately sniffs them out, and in an unusual sequence for a studio blockbuster, kills ever last one of them. It’s an intense, suspenseful, and brutal way to kickstart the movie and announce that not all superheroes have to be lovable. It may not get the respect of The Avengers or The Dark Knight, but X2 was the first great superhero movie of the new millenium. — MiS

Warner Bros.

4. The Dark Knight (2008)
Directed by Christopher Nolan

The Dark Knight announces its key theme in its very first scene, when the manager of a bank under siege from the Joker’s gang says. “Criminals in this town used to believe in things. Honor! Respect!” Like Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the lynchpin of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is two-faced. It’s a superhero movie, but it’s also a 150-minute meditation on belief. Batman is 75 years old. His values — refusing to take a life, never using guns — come from a totally different era. Do they still mean something now? Do we need Batman in the 2000s? What do we believe in?

Heath Ledger’s Joker doesn’t believe in anything or anyone, and his only goal in life is to sow enough chaos to convince others to stop believing too. Tim Burton’s Batman was more of an origin story for the Joker than it was for its title character; he followed Jack Nicholson’s Jack Napier from right-hand man to an aging gangster to chemically scarred madman. Ledger’s Joker, in contrast, has no origin at all. He has no real name, no backstory, no larger motivation. He offers explanations for the jagged red scars that turn his mouth into a hideous grin, but each one is different and all are probably lies. It’s the difference between a man who’s been turned into a living, breathing playing-card character and a genuine psychopath who’s simply decided to dress like a joker because he recognizes something of himself in the figure of a wild card.

Some critics called The Dark Knight fascist; others claimed it endorsed extreme invasions of privacy in the War on Terror (or at least in Batman’s war on Joker). At times, it does come perilously close to validating those arguments. But Nolan always pulls back, finding that even in the darkest of nights, there are still reasons to believe in the core decency of humanity. When the chips are down, people tend to become the best versions of themselves — the versions we need, not the ones we deserve. — MaS


3. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Directed by James Gunn

Sometimes it feels like superhero movies must be either 100 percent goofy or 100 percent grim. The middle ground of fun but not fluffy often gets lost in the shuffle. Guardians of the Galaxy found that ideal middle ground between lightness and darkness.

Seeing Guardians will forever be burned into my memory, as I went in expecting something really silly. By the end, my friend, who had recently lost her father, was crying on my shoulder. It was a surprisingly emotional movie about talking raccoons in space, and it certainly hit some people’s buttons in really sensitive ways. There’s something fascinating about a movie that can take all the usual superhero tropes, an unknown team of heroes, and a sci-fi setting, and give it a lot of quirky heart amidst all the action. Plus, Guardians is also visually interesting, with a lot of creative character designs and dynamic locations. It’s not necessarily the kind of movie that will live on in eternity for its risk taking or creative storytelling, but it is a movie that stays with you. — JA


2. The Avengers (2012)
Directed by Joss Whedon

This was a movie that should never have worked, and a project so experimental that it seems insane. This unprecedented undertaking brought together the leads of four different franchises with their own distinct identities – Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk – and combined them in a coherent story that served all the characters, made space for half a dozen other recurring characters, and set the stage for a second phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe-building that changed blockbusters forever.

But in addition to all of those achievements, it’s also worth noting that The Avengers is really, really good. It’s not merely competent in its execution of all its disparate elements, nor merely convincing in its pandering to the nerd inside all of us. It’s also a really effective piece of cinema that delivers equally on story and spectacle. Writer/director Joss Whedon can be an acquired taste, and he had never been tested on a project like this before (but then, there had never been a project like this before). He delivered with more flair and style than anyone imagined he could. The experiment was a success. Now do it again, Joss. — AW


1. The Incredibles (2004)
Directed by Brad Bird

Brad Bird’s The Incredibles isn’t based on a specific comic book, but it steals from all of the best. The tale of the super-powered Parr family has all of the usual Pixar charms — it’s sweet and funny and filled relatable characters — but it’s powered by an inner core of pure, nerdy magic. Without the limitations of a beloved source material, Bird was free to make the ultimate superhero movie, cramming wonderful details into each and every frame, emulating everything from Silver Age superhero comics (a French villain named Bomb Voyage!) to old school James Bond adventures (Michael Giacchino’s score is nothing if not a loving John Barry homage).

While it’s possible to watch and enjoy The Incredibles as a two-fisted (but family-friendly) adventure, it endures as an impeccably crafted piece of entertainment because the messages under its hood are so damn complicated. Is The Incredibles of a celebration of Objectivism or is it just a loving tribute to talented people? Bring up The Incredibles to a kid and you’ll chat about a great superhero movie. Bring it up to a cineaste and you’ll get a genuine philosophical debate.

Politics aside, The Incredibles is the kind of movie that understands the pleasures of Samuel L. Jackson voicing an ice-powered superhero named Frozone. It understands the appeal of a character like Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), a superhero turned mom whose maternal instincts are far more powerful than her stretching abilities. It understands that the best superhero stories are about families, whether those families are bound by genetics or friendships. The Incredibles are as fully realized, lovable, and complicated as the X-Men and the Avengers. They may only live inside of a single movie, but that movie and its world inspire the imagination like nothing else. — JH