Over the past decade, one genre of popular film has risen to prominence like a bird, plane, and Superman all rolled into one. We’re talking, of course, about the superhero film. Though the train truly left the station in 2008 with the releases of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, 2010-2019 saw the genre explode into one of the most popular and financially successful subgenres in Hollywood history. Then it hit an all-time high when Avengers: Endgame broke seemingly every box office record imaginable, including the highest-grossing film of all time.
Where things will go from here, no one knows, but we do know that of the dozens and dozens of superhero films released in the last 10 years, a few stand out above the rest. Here are our picks for the 10 best superhero films of the past decade.
After the campy and awful 1995 Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd film, comic fans probably thought they’d never see the cult character on the big screen again. However, almost two decades later, that’s exactly what happened and the result was basically everything the original film wasn’t.
Written by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) and directed by Pete Travis, the 2012 Dredd starring Karl Urban immediately became a fan favorite. (It also made very little money, all but dashing the chance we’d see the character on screen again for a good while.) In Dredd, Garland and Travis crafted a sci-fi, superhero action movie that felt like it belonged in the ‘80s, in the best possible ways. The action is impactful, violent, and artistic. The story is compact and focused. And the goals are as clear as crystal: Dredd and his partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) have to fight their way up through a mega-skyscraper to defeat the evil drug lord Ma-Ma, played by Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey. It’s like a video game on the big screen. Move up the levels, defeat the boss.
Unlike other superhero films of the era, Dredd isn’t worried about exposition. We don’t learn much about the world and even less about the character. That’s left for the comics. Instead, you just get a non-stop action movie filled with slow-motion insanity and enough loose ends to pave the way for a sequel that never came. Alas. At least we did get one of the best modern examples of taking a great character, putting him in a simple story, and letting that character do their thing.
Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn’s hilarious, gory film, is a perfect example of how things can change in a decade. When Kick-Ass was released in April 2010, it was a shocking hit. Audiences cheered seeing a then pre-teen Chloë Grace Moretz curse like a sailor and mow down bad guys with the greatest of ease. We applauded the title character for taking matters into his own hands and going out to fight crime without a care in the world. Ten years later, though, those things feel like they live on the edge of a razor. Would audiences today be okay with the character of Hit-Girl? Would Kick-Ass’s adoption of violence feel socially acceptable? Who knows?
What we do know is, questionable morals aside, Kick-Ass remains a surprising, exciting thrill ride. Sure it’s excessive, but that’s the point. Vaughn, along with co-writer Jane Goldman and creators Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., thought up this world to comment on the nature of comic books, superheroes, violence, and more. Kick-Ass is meant to entertain but it’s also meant to make us think. To consider superheroism from all sorts of different angles. Is it okay to use violence to stop violent people? Where is the line between hero and villain? Does it do harm to put these people on a pedestal? Is it actually possible in real life? Those questions and more would be on the audience’s mind over the next 10 years as we continued to see more and more superheroes like Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl on the big screen.
No, this is not a misprint. We’re choosing Infinity War instead of Endgame. Here’s why: It’s one thing to be the movie with a happy ending where everyone comes back; it’s another to be the movie that kills half of your main characters and rolls credits without a blink of an eye. While the original Avengers was audacious for its ambition, Infinity War takes it a step further. It’s as gutsy a mainstream movie that’s been released in years. You could say it has balls. Big, brass, Thanos-size balls.
Infinity War tells a propulsive, exciting story, balancing basically every single character in the Marvel universe while moving all its chess pieces into place, complete with phenomenal action set pieces, and then kills half the characters you know and love. Oh, did you like that new Black Panther movie? Well, he’s dead. That new Spider-Man is something, huh? Dead. It just wipes them out. Even now, knowing how Endgame solved it all, that shock and awe will always be impressive.
Think about that. A movie that made over $2 billion at the box office ends by killing half its main characters. And sure, we knew it was a comic book movie, and that most if not all of them would come back (which they did). But audiences had to sit with that for a year. As a result, so much fun discussion and debate was stirred about what would come next. Each of us became a would-be screenwriter, trying to imagine plausible ways this would all work out in the end. Movies don’t usually keep that kind of conversation going.
Though superhero movie ideas usually require superhero-sized budgets, some filmmakers this decade boiled the genre down and explored it through the smaller lens of independent cinema. Films like Sleight, Upgrade, or Super come to mind, among others. But the best of the bunch is, without a doubt, Julia Hart’s Fast Color. It’s the intimate, moving story of a woman named Ruth, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who escapes captivity and cautiously reunites with a family she left years ago. Ruth and her family members all have superpowers, as it turns out—and they are maybe the only people with powers in an eerily possible near-future.
Fast Color works on so many levels. In the film, the only people with powers are black women. So you could read it as saying all black women are superheroes, powers or no powers. There’s a strong, dramatic story about the relationships between mothers and daughters and intricate, mysterious world-building, as Ruth and her family try to figure out what their powers are, why they have them, and whether they can help the world.
From top to bottom the performances are excellent (by Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, David Strathairn, and others), and though the pacing and scale reflect Hart’s limited budget at times, the third act brings everything together in a scene worthy of something out of the X-Men franchise. Fast Color wasn’t a big hit initially—but now, Amazon is making it into a series, evidence that a good story may win out in the end. Plus, if it doesn’t, at least we have this movie, a shining example of how malleable and beautiful the superhero genre can be.
Over the course of 20-plus movies, Marvel Studios has taken some big swings. And while there would be bolder ones in the years to come, in 2014, none felt as shocking as Guardians of the Galaxy. Sure, Thor had taken place on another planet. And yeah, The Avengers fought aliens. But here was a movie based on a comic book virtually none of the general movie-going audience had heard of, with a vibrant, humorous tone, featuring a soundtrack full of ‘70s and ‘80s pop hits, starring that chubby guy from Parks and Recreation, a digital raccoon, and a talking tree. Yeah. Sure. That’ll work.
But it did work. It worked incredibly well. Somehow co-writer and director James Gunn’s tonal balancing act was pitch-perfect in every way, to the tune of almost $800 million worldwide; it was also the third highest-grossing film of the year domestically. From there it was off to the races. Chris Pratt was an action hero. We were all Groot. The soundtrack took off and went to the top of the charts. A sequel went into development and the Guardians instantly became one of the main events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Guardians of the Galaxy was proof that a movie can pull off a truly weird concept if it’s good enough.
Before Robert Downey Jr. was Iron Man or Christian Bale was Batman, Hugh Jackman was Wolverine. Starting in 2000, Jackman played the role in nine films over 17 years, culminating in Logan, which was unlike any of the films before it. Under the eye of director James Mangold, Logan told a completely different Wolverine story. The character was older. Beaten down. Nearly defeated by life. The movie didn’t really need to explain why. We’d see all the other movies. And just when it seemed like Logan was ready to give up, he met someone like him, X-23 (Dafne Keen), and the mutant finally had a reason to keep going. Until, of course, he didn’t.
A movie like Joker partially exists because Logan was so powerful. It was arguably the film that said you could take superhero characters and put them in any situation—including gritty, realistic, unappealing ones—and their personalities would still shine through and draw an audience. Jackman is a marvel, pun intended, in the film, as he slowly says goodbye not just to the characters in the movie, but the character itself. And while the odds are we’ll see a new cinematic Wolverine sooner rather than later, there’s no way he’ll ever get the powerful, graceful goodbye Jackman did. We’re all better film fans for it.
It will always be a travesty that it took almost 10 years after the superhero movie boom really took off for a woman to lead a film. In the pantheon of women superheroes, though, one certainly deserved the right to be first—and thanks to director Patty Jenkins, the wait was more than worth it.
In 2017, Wonder Woman hit the big screen and instantly it felt like things were changing. The scene of her slowly jumping out of a trench and taking on an entire army felt like not just a cool action scene but something bigger. Something a bit more real, as if Wonder Woman was finally here to take on all of the shitty executives who may have held a Wonder Woman movie back. The film went on to gross $103 million on its opening weekend, and it became the highest-grossing film of the summer and third highest-grossing film of the year.
All of that success was absolutely warranted. Diana’s arc, from growing up on the wonderful, unique island of Themyscira and then morphing into this hilarious, but not-too-much, fish-out-of-water World War I story, blended tones beautifully. Chris Pine was magic as the heroic love interest who rightfully took a back seat. And while the ending maybe got a little too CG heavy for some tastes, the film had such high stakes that a climax of that magnitude felt like the only way for everything to pay off.
Wonder Woman ended up paying off in different ways though, too. When Justice League came out a few months later, guess who was front and center in the narrative? That’s right, Wonder Woman. And what filmmaker held out to get more money for the sequel because she knew she’d earned it? That’s right, Patty Jenkins. And, if it wasn’t for a few release date delays, its upcoming sequel could have been out before Marvel Studios even got one woman above the marquee on the big screen. In the battle of DC versus Marvel, Wonder Woman is one place there’s no question of who the winner is.
It seemed like a pipe dream. Could a movie studio really make five films, all introducing different characters, telling one overarching story, which would then culminate in a sixth film tying all of those stories together, starring all of those characters? Never. It made no sense. But it’s exactly what happened and, at the time, The Avengers became one of the most successful films ever.
Almost eight years later, with three other Avengers films, Justice League, and other team-up films filed away in movie history, it’s easy to forget just how radical The Avengers was. Sure, we’d seen multiple superheroes on screen at once (thank you X-Men), but this was different. This was a mega-crossover. More like the comic books it was based on than ever before. And it was epic. So much bigger in scope and scale than the films it was building off of. Plus it had heart, incredible action, and huge laughs. It was everything you could want out of a movie and more.
Then, on top of all that, it ended with a glimpse at Thanos, a character so out there, so powerful and cosmic, it seemed like a sick joke. How the hell would those characters battle that guy? Well, we found out years and years later, and it was all based on the success of this film.
Black Panther made $700 million at the domestic box office—and at the time, it was only the third film to ever do that. That’s unreal and just one reminder of how completely and fully Ryan Coogler’s amazing film permeated culture at every single level.
A $700 million movie isn’t just a movie kids are talking about at school, or fans are raving about on Twitter. It’s a movie athletes are referencing at their games. A movie whose quotes and jokes burst through to the local news and late-night talk shows. It’s a movie that doesn’t just entertain audiences with its spectacle, storytelling, and compelling characters—it changes the way things are done. Other studios start to take notice. Try to make similar movies. The actors in this movie become instant stars. I could go on and on.
You forget that, for the longest time, Black Panther seemed like a movie Marvel Studios didn’t really want to do. He was just some niche character that the company would get to eventually. But, like Iron Man before him, Black Panther overcame all that and became one of the leaders of the superhero genre—an example to the world that superheroes are here, they are here to stay, and if those movies take themselves seriously, the sky is the limit.
Oh, right. Black Panther was also one of the first studio movies in ages with an almost all-black cast and a mostly black crew, and that brought all audiences of every race and gender to the theaters to see something fresh and new unfold. As a result of all that passion and success, Black Panther gave Marvel Studios its first-ever Best Picture Oscar nomination. No, it didn’t win (though it took home several other Oscars that night), but that’s just another of those reminders of how completely and fully T’Challa and the nation of Wakanda took over the world.
When film historians look back at the cumulative superhero films of this decade, one film will ultimately stand above the rest. No, not the one which was an actual culmination of the decade, but the one whose ambition, awareness, and pure joy of the genre almost certainly couldn’t have happened without the films before it. We’re talking, of course, about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Think about it. Can you imagine general film audiences 10 years ago even fathoming what a movie starring six different Spider-people, with a black man as the center, incorporating different animation techniques, eras of comics, that potentially linked every single Spider-Man movie into one, would look like? Of course not. But at the end of 2018, everything lined up perfectly for Spider-Verse, which also became the first comic book superhero movie to win a top Oscar in its genre.
Spider-Verse is a movie that speaks across generations, across fandoms, across age, race, and everything else to tell the universal story of the hero inside all of us. And it does so with such a confident swagger you can’t take your eyes off the screen. It’s a film so filled with detail and nuance that on each viewing, from two to 200, you’ll see something new every single time.
The film also proved that while superheroes were live-action box office success, that success doesn’t just have to be limited to live-action. Audiences were ready for something more. Something outside the box. Something that was truly and utterly magical. All that, and a bag of bagels, is why Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is our pick for best superhero film of the decade.
Honorable mentions: X-Men: First Class, Chronicle, The Dark Knight Rises, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies.
This article was tweaked after publication to clarify some facts.
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