Superhero films have been around in one form or another for almost 80 years. The 21st century saw a massive explosion in the popularity (and profitability) of films featuring costumed crimefighters, so here is our list of five 21st century superhero films we think stand out as being the best.
Neil Gaiman once wrote that if you keep stories going for long enough they eventually end in death. This is what we see in 2017’s Logan, a film that shows us an aged Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) who ekes out a living working as a limousine driver. At this point in the character’s life the adamantium that was bonded to his skeleton by the Weapon X program is now killing him and Logan is contemplating suicide. The world still needs the Wolverine however, as a young female clone of Logan, Laura, (Dafne Keen) is thrust into his life asking for help. This film is an exceptionally clever allegory for aging, as seen through the eyes of both Wolverine and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) as they come to terms with their time on this planet drawing to a close. There is a brilliant moment when Logan, Laura and Charles are staying with a family on the heroes’ way to Eden (a safe place for mutant children) and Charles tells Logan that it’s not too late for him to have a family of his own and be happy. For the briefest moment James Howlett seems to consider this, but he knows on some level how things will end for him and tells Charles to get some sleep. We see some old school Wolverine heroics at the film’s climax, as Logan takes out a squad of soldiers hunting Laura and the other mutant children, but Logan’s age and illness ultimately catch up with him and he dies. Throughout this film we see James Howlett attempt to adjust to a world that has in a lot of ways moved on without him but in the end, he is who he is and he dies a hero’s death, saving the next generation of mutants from those who would have harmed them.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018)
This is hands down the best Spider-Man film. Spider-Verse follows young Brooklyn teen Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) through a typical week in his life. Things take a turn for the extraordinary when Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider whilst throwing up some art with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), and witnesses his universe’s Spider-Man be killed in action trying to stop Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) from activating a dimensional portal. In his dying moments Peter Parker makes Miles promise to prevent Kingpin from carrying out his plan and Miles ham fistedly begins his journey to becoming a superhero. At the core of this film is a bittersweet story of growing up and finding one’s own place in the world as seen through Miles’ eyes. There are some real emotional moments in this one, like when Miles sees his uncle Aaron be gunned down by Kingpin and the beautiful scene where Miles’ dad (Brian Tyree Henry) tells Miles that he will be amazing no matter what he chooses to do in life. As its name suggests, Spider-Verse features many different versions of the web slinger who come together to fight off the threat to all reality. A touching and also funny student/mentor relationship is formed between Miles and Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) as well as some cute ship tease between Miles and Gwen/Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld). There is plenty of swingin’ Spider-action throughout the entire film which is sure to keep kids and older fans entertained as well as a beautiful and humourous resolution to the storyline between Miles and his dad. If you watch no other superhero film watch this one, because it is one of the best the genre has to offer.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The second film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight weaves a complex story of human nature and fallibility as well as something more than heroism, as exemplified by Christian Bale’s Batman. Criminals in Gotham are running scared of Batman and his one man war on crime, and the appointing of a new district attorney in Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) appears to be a sign that the city is on its way to wiping out organised crime once and for all. Enter the Joker (Heath Ledger) a twisted criminal mastermind who revels in death and destruction for their own sake. The Joker revitalises Gotham’s criminal fraternity making it more dangerous than ever and embarks on nothing less than an all out war with Batman. The way this film portrays good and evil and the shades of grey in between is absolutely phenomenal. We see Harvey Dent lose the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and fully embrace the dark side, threatening Jim Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) family at the climax of the film. At the same time there is a powerful message that everyone has the capacity for goodness as seen through the actions of Tom Lister’s character, when he throws away the detonator for the bombs on the boat of civilians that the Joker had rigged to explode. This film shows Batman at his absolute cinematic best, as he accepts the mantle of murderer in the film’s closing moments to preserve Harvey Dent’s shattered reputation. It is shown here how a traditional hero in Dent can be twisted into a monster and how Batman in his role as outcast can do and be what Gotham needs to maintain order; sacrificing his humanity and reputation for the greater good. While I’m not familiar with other versions of Batman such as the Timmverse version I think that The Dark Knight displays both the light and dark aspects of the human condition through the lens of a superhero film and for that this film has earned its place on this list.
So much has been written about the legendary comic this film is based on that it’s hard to know what if anything I can add. Put simply Watchmen tells the story of what the consequences would be if superheroes existed in the real world. I say consequences because this is an incredibly gritty film that deals with the darkest sides of human nature. Narrated by Rorschach/Walter Kovacs, (Jackie Earle Haley) Watchmen begins in 1985 in a world gripped by the terror of a potential nuclear holocaust. An aging former crimefighter, the Comedian/Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered in his home, prompting Rorschach to search for his killer. Rorschach’s journey introduces us to other ex-superheroes who become embroiled in a grand conspiracy that is far larger than any of them could possibly imagine. It is revealed at the film’s climax that Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) masterminded a plan to murder millions of people in various cities across the globe to unite the world’s leaders in fear of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) a superhuman whom Ozymandias framed for the attacks. For the heroes to expose his plan would doom the world to nuclear Armageddon as the peace brought about by the successful execution of Adrian’s plan would fall apart. Against this backdrop of darkness and machinations is a gentle love story between Nite Owl II/Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II/Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) that also touches on the idealism and romance of superheroes and superhero comics. This is contrasted against the ultraviolent noir-esque world that Rorschach inhabits, but we see a touching friendship rekindled between him and Nite Owl throughout the film. The world is saved from itself by the end of the film but we as viewers are left to ponder the question; was it worth the cost?
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
This film was the culmination of 11 years of MCU films which began with 2008’s Iron Man. Avengers: Endgame begins with the remaining Avengers trying to adjust to life after Thanos wiped out half of the universe. Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) gets a great and very touching line of dialogue when he says “You jumped when you didn’t know where you would come down. That’s it. That’s those little brave baby steps we gotta take…” during a group therapy session. The return of Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) from the quantum realm prompts the heroes to imagine a way they can retrieve the Infinity Stones from the past and bring everyone that Thanos killed back. After initially resisting the call to arms, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) finds a way for the Avengers to travel through time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos gets them. What follows is a brilliantly written and acted fan-pleasing “time heist” that pays homage to the previous 11 years of MCU films. What Marvel has mostly got right with their big-screen outings is the combination of seriousness and humour which has endeared Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to fans the world over. We see each Avenger process their grief through conversations or encounters with those special to them which all leads to a cataclysmic showdown with Thanos and his army of darkness in the present. I have heard accounts that people screamed and cheered in the theatres when Captain America picked up Mjolnir and I can remember making my way past people in the theatre who were in tears as the credits for Endgame rolled. This emotional connection with the audience is key to a film or franchise’s success and when it is done right it creates a truly special experience.
–Black Panther (2018)
–Wonder Woman (2017)
–Spider-Man 2 (2004)
–X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
–Captain America: Civil War (2016)
-Avengers Assemble (2012)
Do you agree with this list? What 21st-century superhero films would you rank as the top five? Please leave a comment below and keep being awesome.
Special thanks to Stephen Fletcher and Benjamin Cassidy for helping me compile this list.