We’ve arrived at The Top 10 Greatest Comic Book Movies of All Time! These are the films that have left a permanent impression on me and create amazing pieces of cinema from a wide array of comic books. Some of these are tried and true classics. Others are new entries into the cannon that are sure to create fans year after year. And maybe a couple are films you’ve never seen or fully appreciated!\
All in all, my love for these films have been fully cemented and no matter how many awesome movies based on comics arrive in the coming decades, these will always be near the top of the pile. Whether you are a devoted fan of the books these have interpreted for cinema or a newbie to the genre, you can find so much to love in these 10 movies.
10. The Adventures of Tin Tin
From start to finish, The Adventures of Tin Tin is a fun, buoyant, and visually spectacular treat. By taking the spirit of Herge’s comic book series and adding in dizzying action sequences, Tin Tin is the closest a film is going to get to an Indiana Jones movie while still feeling like its own thing. This is also the only time I’ve ever seen a fully animated motion capture film truly work. The characters are just cartoonish enough to avoid the death knell of the uncanny valley to feel both real and animated at the same time. It also gives director Steven Spielberg the chance to throw together action scenes that are visually bombastic and spectacular in ways that are impossible in the real world. By combining the stories of “The Crab with the Golden Claws,” “The Secret of the Unicorn,” and “Red Rackham’s Treasure,” the film manages to pay respect to some of Herge’s best stories, while still being surprising. Plus, it perfectly captures the dynamic between the adventurous Tin Tin and the drunken Captain Haddock. Plus, Snowy is fantastic.
Best Moment: Hot on the trail of three pieces of parchment that reveal the location of long-lost pirate treasure, Tin Tin, Haddock, and Snowy simultaneously escape from the villains and chase after the treasure in one long uncut sequence featuring motorcycles, tanks, explosions, and fisticuffs.
Few superhero movies are as iconic and impactful as Richard Donner’s Superman. Think about. The main theme song, Christopher Reeve as Superman, the classic origin story of the character – comic book movies have been trying to match up for decades! This is a super hero movie that has lived on for decades and its sequels, continuations, and reboots have all failed to take its place in cinema history. Reeve is the quintessential Superman – classy, upstanding, charming, and powerful. Gene Hackman is wonderful as the cackling and smarmy Lex Luthor. Margot Kidder is lovely as the spunky and tenacious Lois Lane. Combined with a timeless filmmaking approach and a unique three-part take on the story of Superman (Krypton, Smallville, and Metropolis each have their own act structures), and this goes down as the ultimate approach to the classic superhero story.
Best Moment: After questioning his entire life, Clark is given one final piece of wisdom from Pa Kent. “You were brought here for a reason.” Sadly, Pa dies moments later from a heart attack. Cue John Williams’ stirring score, beautiful cinematography, and a defining moment for Superman – his inability to save his father, despite his enormous powers.
8. Captain America: The First Avenger
While still sticking to the Marvel Cinema formula, Captain America: The First Avenger is quite the change-up from most superhero movies. Director Joe Johnston made a film that is equal parts throwback to vintage war films from the 1940s and ‘50s while also keeping the spirit of fun and action-packed modern superhero movies alive. This is the perfect way to not only keep the unique origin of Captain America intact, but also introduce this morally upstanding character into the modern world. Combining World War II visuals with outlandish comic book heroics creates several very original action sequences. At the center of it all is Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, a sickly young man who is given the chance to transform into peak physical condition and fight for what’s right as Captain America. He’s sympathetic, fun, and ultimately incredibly heroic. Surrounding him with fantastic supporting characters who make the most of their limited screen time and a classic villain in the Red Skull makes Captain America one of Marvel’s best, most enjoyable films yet.
Best Moment: Steve is subjected to Dr. Abraham Erskine’s super soldier formula. Gutting out the painful transformation, he’s turned into the peak of human condition, only to see his friend gunned down by a Nazi mole. Steve chases down the foe on foot, instinctively embracing his newfound abilities and exacting a measure of vengeance.
7. Spider-Man 2
A film sequel should take all the elements that made the first film a success, refine them, and add in new challenges that up the ante in unexpected ways. Spider-Man 2 is that and so much more! Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus is a exponential improvement from the first film’s Green Goblin. He’s both a terrifying nemesis and a deeply sympathetic character. Few superhero films have matched his quality. Tobey Maguire is even better as Spider-Man this time, facing serious physical challenges, emotional obstacles, and deep doubts, all of which this classic hero should face in his stories. The romance with Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane brings great emotional heft and is really the film’s true story arc. Toss in fantastic battles, improved visual effects, and a better balance between drama and comedy, and Spider-Man 2 hits every note right.
Best Moment: Spider-Man and Doc Ock fight on top of a subway train in what is still one off the best fights in any comic book movie to date. Lashing tentacles, citizens in danger, and spectacular acrobatics make this everything a Spider-Man battle should be.
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
As of the publishing of this list, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still in theaters. And there are so many reasons why this film easily makes the top 10. Let’s start with the star himself. Chris Evans really feels like Captain America – a superpowered man displaced out of his time and with moral convictions that seem out of place in the morally murky modern world. He’s strong, fast, morally upright, and immediately iconic. But he’s also human and a dynamic character. Around him? The Falcon, who perfectly fits into the story and steals the show in his scenes. Black Widow, better than ever and constantly intriguing. The Winter Soldier, a Terminator-like foe with deep emotional ties to Cap’s past. Add in a thrilling political plot with socially relevant issues and a resolution that will shake the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe and you have a film that is both amazing on its own and a stellar piece of a larger puzzle. Finally, The Winter Soldier has some of the most jaw-dropping, chair arm-gripping, fist-pumping action scenes ever committed to film anywhere. Click here for my review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Best Moment: On the streets of Washington, D.C., Captain America, Black Widow, and The Falcon are ambushed by The Winter Soldier and his squad. What follows is an explosive battle included gattling guns, knife fights, and a brutal hand-to-hand battle between Cap and The Winter Soldier that leads to a life-altering revelation.
5. Iron Man
If it wasn’t for Iron Man, the Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t exist. Or at least, it wouldn’t be as strong as it is today. That’s because it’s a film that is eminently enjoyable on many many levels, each resting on the back of the perfectly cast Robert Downey, Jr., who encapsulates everything great about Tony Stark and his armored alter ego, while still making the character very much his own. The idea of a capitalist having an extreme change of heart and trying to do good in the world makes Stark a compelling character while still allowing him to be larger than life thanks to Downey’s already iconic performance. While the climactic battle against Iron Monger isn’t one of the best on screen superhero fights, it is the thrill of discovery and invention that propels much of Iron Man. Combined with great style and lots of laughs, Marvel Studios’ first creation is still one of its best.
Best Moment: After embracing the technology that saved his life, Tony debuts the Mark II armor. Originally just a systems test, the newly created Iron Man decides to take it for a last minute flight. “Sometimes you have to run before you can walk.”
4. The Dark Knight
Director Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is the film that changed both the perception and the execution of the comic book movie. It also hasn’t been replicated since by other directors or by Nolan himself. While the movie stars a man in a bat costume fighting a guy in clown makeup, The Dark Knight feels like a crime thriller akin to Michael Mann’s Heat. Mix in allegories about the war on terror and it feels like so much more than a fun superhero adventure. Of course, no discussion of The Dark Knight can leave out Heath Ledger’s The Joker. His anarchic, animalistic take on the classic villain helped redefine him and burn his performance in the memories of every moviegoer forever. The film’s mix of heroics, tragedy, and moral dilemma make it a very heady, very mature take on a superhero story. It’s a potent blend that has made the film a classic both in and out of the superhero genre. For more on what makes The Dark Knight so great, read my “Successes of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Part 1.”
Best Moment: District Attorney Harvey Dent decides to lure The Joker into the open, leading to a massive chase across the streets of Gotham involving Joker’s semi truck and the outgunned police departments SWAT vehicles. But Batman’s timely intervention and sacrifice of the tumbler lead to the awesome debut of the Batpod, the truck flip, and a game of chicken with a psychopath.
3. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s Batman: The Animated Series is possibly the greatest, most complete version of The Caped Crusader in any medium. So the first movie to spring from the series has all of these wonderful qualities, plus the cinematic scope only offered by the big screen. By pairing the mystery of a deadly costumed vigilante with flashbacks detailing Bruce’s last chance at love and his beginnings as the Batman, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is almost more of a tragedy than an adventure. Like the series, Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker are two of the best incarnations of the characters ever. Add in Dana Delany’s heartbreaking portrayal as Bruce’s long-lost love Andrea, and you have a compelling mystery that is anchored by incredibly strong characters. For a full article about the greatness that is Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, CLICK HERE!
Best Moment: A young Bruce has fallen in love with Andrea, but his newfound purpose in life puts him at direct odds with the vow he took after the murder of his parents. In the middle of a stormy night, Bruce achingly pleads with the graves of his mother and father, “I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy.”
2. The Avengers
Simply put, The Avengers is everything that a long-time comic book fan dreamed of for years. And for decades, the idea of teaming up major superheroes, after starring in their own movies no less, for one giant movie seemed impossible. But director Joss Whedon pulled it off, creating a bright, fun, and energetic adventure that makes the most of comic books’ fun sensibilities. One of the joys of The Avengers is seeing team-ups and clashes that fans had discussed and wanted for years. Each characters brings his or her own strengths and some, (The Hulk and Black Widow) are done completely right for the first time on screen. Seeing each unique personality bounce off one another is one of the movie’s real strengths. Those who have seen each character’s previous films will enjoy it even more. The Avengers isn’t just a game-changing movie (who knows how many will fail trying to replicate its team-up focus), it’s thrilling and filled with far too many wish fulfillment moments to count.
Best Moment: Following Bruce’s timely transformation into The Hulk and brutal beatdown of a flying space beast (“I’m always angry”), our disparate heroes finally form as a team in one 360 degree, nerd wish fulfillment shot. Avengers Assemble!
1. Batman Begins
If you’re looking for the perfect comic book movie origin story and a film that hits an unmatched balance between cinema sensibilities and comic book ideas, look no further than Batman Begins. While some may say that The Dark Knight is the superior movie, director Christopher Nolan’s first outing with The Caped Crusader falls perfectly in line with what I want in a superhero movie. This is by far the strongest interpretation of Batman ever seen on screen and the mix of origin and adventure through the use of flashbacks make this unlike other comic book origin stories. Plus, Batman Begins delves into psychological and emotional issues, adding further weight along with the film’s focus on remaining grounded in reality. Christian Bale is easily the best live action Batman of all time, with his work here wonderfully portraying the many sides of Bruce Wayne and his transformation into The Dark Knight. Liam Neeson is a charismatic and fearsome Ra’s al Ghul, while Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman each turn in exceptional performances that are easily the best film versions of Alfred Pennyworth, Lucius Fox, and James Gordon, respectively. The film is also a treat to simply look at thanks to cinematographer Wally Pfister, who makes Gotham come alive in both cold daylight and foggy nighttime. Altogether, this is what comic book films should strive to be. More about what makes Batman Begins so wonderful can be found at “The Successes of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Part 2!”
Best Moment: After saving Gotham together, Gordon and Batman meet by the newly christened Bat Signal for a discussion on escalation and a new player in town. Someone called The Joker. Preparing to start his nightly patrol, Gordon stops the Caped Crusader to tell him, “I never said thank you.” Batman responds, “And you’ll never have to.” A perfect origin for the character is capped off just right. Cue titles and the true beginning of Batman.
And that’s the end! What did you think of my Top 10? Of my 30 as a whole? Let me know in the comments below and give me your personal favorites as well.