For the longest time, comic books and the movies based on them were considered shlock for geeks and nerds. But then came the 2000s, when a slew of increasingly well-made superhero movies began to win significant critical acclaim and broadened the audience for the genre. The "X-Men" movies and Sam Raimi’s "Spider-Man" trilogy garnered widespread interest. Christopher Nolan’s "Dark Knight" trilogy legitimized comics and elevated the genre to literary, award-worthy status. The Marvel Cinematic Universe took the reigns from there, becoming an unstoppable box office juggernaut that has everyone else scrambling to keep up.
Along the way, we’ve gotten to know some pretty incredible characters, delivered to us by great performances and sharp scripts. That means the competition is quite stiff for the title of "best movie superhero." So who’s in the running? From Star-Lord to Batman, Deadpool to Wonder Woman, and everyone in between, we’ve assembled a list of the 21st century’s best-ever cinematic superheroes.
Obviously this super-family isn’t just one hero, but since the whole theme of these fan-favorite Disney-Pixar movies is family, we figured we’d include the whole Parr bunch. And honestly, they all deserve a mention. It’s hard enough saving the world on your own — Bob and Helen certainly do enough day-saving individually as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl before they get together — but doing it all and getting back in time to cook dinner and help the kids with their homework is something else entirely.
That’s doubly true when the kids have powers themselves. Violet can disappear and generate force fields. Dash is, as his name suggests, superhumanly fast. Jack-Jack, who’s still in diapers, can do just about anything (though he’s a bit of a late bloomer in the superpower department). Getting this lovable but dysfunctional family to cooperate long enough to take down a supervillain is no easy task. But when they pull it off, there aren’t many baddies in the world who can stand up to them.
No other superhero group on this list was as obscure as the Guardians of the Galaxy was — until the arrival of James Gunn’s 2014 superhero comedy of the same name. The movie was hysterical, zany, and full of unforgettable characters and a galaxy’s worth of heart, all anchored around Chris Pratt’s charming, buffoonish bad boy performance as Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord. After defeating Ronan the Accuser and capturing an Infinity Stone, Pratt’s Quill leads the Guardians on another adventure (this time battling his godlike, genocidal father) before joining up with the rest of the Avengers for "Infinity War" and "Endgame," in which he battles the mighty Thanos.
It’s kind of a wonder he manages to pull any of this off, given the fact that, like many of the other members of his team, he’s a bit of a doofus. But he’s also brave, good with those dual blasters, and armed with a heart of gold — especially when it concerns his alien love interest Gamora, another Guardian and the daughter of Thanos. Speaking of which, though: Quill’s outburst upon learning that the Mad Titan murdered Gamora to obtain the Soul Stone does dramatically undermine his own (nearly successful) plan to take down the big bad. We’ll have to knock him for that. But not too hard.
Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), also known as Black Widow, can’t fly. She has no mech suit, either, nor a super-soldier serum giving her unnatural strength or indestructible bones. But she is lethal with her hands and an assortment of firearms, and uses those to prove herself on the battlefield more than once. Most importantly, she has one of the most intriguing backstories of any comic hero, even though it took until 2021 for her to be seen as a main character rather than a supporting one.
Ever since we first met her in 2010’s "Iron Man," Nat’s been on a personal mission to erase the "red in her ledger," a reference to all the murder and mayhem she produced as one of the evil General Dreykov’s brainwashed female assassins. After becoming free, she’s made it her life’s mission to right those wrongs, both with revenge and with world-saving heroics that ultimately cost her her life. But she saves the universe in the process, and that easily earns her a spot on this list.
Henry Cavill’s Superman
It’s a shame the latest run of DC movies has been so underwhelming, because Henry Cavill has proven himself to be as worthy of the big red "S" as anyone who’s ever donned the iconic cape and tights. He’s got it all: The looks. The muscle. The chin. But handsome, shredded white dudes with jet-black hair are a dime a dozen in Hollywood: The most important quality Cavill brought to the table was that sense of boyish, selfless nobility.
Even when the films he starred in suffered due to lousy writing and often so-so visual effects, Cavill anchored them with his dedicated performance. It wasn’t enough to salvage the DCEU, which sank after riddling itself with self-inflicted wounds, but it was enough to secure Cavill a rank among the best live-action Supermen of all time. The good news? Although it looks like he’s done playing Clark Kent, the actor went out on a high note: Zack Snyder’s cut of "Justice League" received unexpected critical and audience acclaim. Before that, fans might not have loved every narrative decision DCEU writers made about Supes (or anyone else). But nobody can deny that Cavill sold the character well.
Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk
Like Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk has been portrayed multiple times over the years. Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno played Dr. Bruce Banner and the titular giant green rage monster, respectively, in the 1978 TV series "The Incredible Hulk." Then there was Eric Bana, who played Banner in the lukewarmly received "Hulk" (2003). Then, in what is technically an MCU movie, Edward Norton played Banner in 2008’s "The Incredible Hulk." The film was decent enough, but comparatively a disappointment after that year’s "Iron Man" established a high bar for the fledgling franchise. Following Norton, though, Mark Ruffalo has portrayed the character in every film since — and it’s safe to say we’ve found the right man.
Hulk is thunderously entertaining in Marvel’s "The Avengers" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (although many of us could’ve done without that out-of-place love thing between him and Black Widow in the latter film). He also has a lot to do, and plenty of funny lines to deliver, in "Thor: Ragnarok," "Infinity War," and "Endgame." Like Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Ruffalo’s Banner-slash-Hulk contains a wealth of comedic potential that the franchise is only just tapping into: Consider iterations like the Smart Hulk in "Endgame," created when Banner combined his brains with Hulk’s brawn. Still, no matter how charming or funny he is, we wouldn’t want to get in a fight with the dude. And that’s the most important trait of all for any version of the formidable character.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has an uncanny ability to turn obscure comic book heroes into household names. That’s doubly true for Black Panther, who, in pre-MCU days, only comic fans would occasionally mention as a Batman-type hero buried deep in Marvel lore. Then the character appeared in 2016’s "Captain America: Civil War," and Chadwick Boseman’s performance as the African warrior-king was extremely well-received (although arguably overshadowed by Spider-Man’s first MCU appearance in the same film).
But then came his 2018 standalone film. Moviegoers flocked to theaters to explore Wakanda and see T’Challa take on Killmonger in what is, according to Rotten Tomatoes, the greatest MCU film ever made. And that’s saying something: Fans saw him again just weeks later in that same year’s "Infinity War," in which the character is dusted by Thanos alongside half the people on the planet. We didn’t realize it at the time, but that moment, despite being reversed in "Avengers: Endgame," was tragically prophetic: Chadwick Boseman died of cancer in August 2020, shocking the world and devastating fans of his incredible performance. It’s easy to heap excessive praise on the performances of late actors, but a re-watch of "Black Panther" should convince you that Boseman truly earned every bit of it.
Thor’s journey in the MCU was a bumpy one with a happy ending. Few people doubted Chris Hemsworth’s ability to bring the God of Thunder to life, but that’s mainly because nobody cared. Neither the actor nor the character were nearly as notable at the time as they would come to be, and while the first "Thor" movie in 2011 certainly brought attention to both, it paled in comparison to other MCU films coming out at the time.
The character definitely has a big role to play in 2012’s "The Avengers," since his adopted brother Loki is the film’s big bad, but he arguably isn’t close to the best part of the movie. He makes other appearances in "Thor: The Dark World" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron," but neither of them rank highly on most people’s list of favorite MCU movies.
But then came "Thor: Ragnarok," when new director Taika Waititi stopped running away from Thor’s inherent ridiculousness (essentially a medieval warrior who’s perplexed by the subtleties of modern society) and embraced it. Waititi turned the movie and every subsequent appearance of the character into a hilarious party anchored by Chris Hemsworth’s seasoned, delightful performance. After spending the opening salvos of the MCU as nobody’s favorite character, the Asgardian is now a highly anticipated presence in upcoming movies like "Thor: Love and Thunder" and "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3."
Since he was created in the ’40s, Captain America has essentially served as Marvel’s Superman, and that’s not necessarily a compliment: He’s a morally and physically flawless, nearly unkillable man who fights for honor and justice and has no real sense of humor to speak of. In other words, he’s boring.
But then came Chris Evans, who first played the Star-Spangled Avenger in 2011’s "Captain America: The First Avenger." Evans turned him from yet another sleep-inducing comic book hunk into a genuinely charming character while remaining true to his roots. And once his take on the increasingly popular superhero took hold, his movies just got better and better.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is as good a political thriller as any Bourne movie you’ve ever seen. "Captain America: Civil War" was a landmark MCU release (even if it was more of a soft third Avengers film rather than a purely Captain America endeavor). His appearances in all four Avengers movies were consistently excellent. Not many people cared about him one way or the other in 2011. But when he picked up Thor’s hammer in "Avengers: Endgame," it brought the house down. It’s proof that Evans’ Steve Rogers made being a good guy cool again, even without a bad boy streak.
Spider-Man has been rebooted a lot. Too much, if you ask some folks (although the same can be said for several superheroes). But look on the bright side: We got three worthy performances in three different franchises. In Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy, Tobey Maguire aced the charming nerdiness of Peter Parker, even if he was a bit too old to be a high school student. Yes, Spider-Man 3 really was as bad as you remember, but the first two movies hold up as well as almost anything that’s come out since, and that’s saying a lot.
Andrew Garfield’s subsequent Spider-Man rarely gets the love he deserves. The appearance did feel rushed and unnecessary, especially since the MCU, which he was not part of, was just taking off when "The Amazing Spider-Man" hit theaters. And even though that film’s sequel was a letdown, Garfield was a worthy Spidey (although his skateboarding made him too cool to sell the famously dorky Peter Parker).
Then came Tom Holland, who first donned the wallcrawler’s mantle in 2016’s "Captain America: Civil War." All eye-rolling comments about how unnecessary it was to reboot the character again evaporated overnight. Fans realized Holland combined the best of both previous worlds, nailing both Tobey Maguire’s awkward nerdiness and Andrew Garfield’s sarcastic cool, in a way we didn’t even realize we needed until he pulled it off.
But the best news? There’s a chance we’ll all see all three Spider-Men together in 2021’s "Spider-Man: No Way Home." Here’s hoping.
While Marvel was turning even the most obscure franchises like "Guardians of the Galaxy" into blockbuster gold, Warner Bros. was struggling to get even household names off the ground. By the time 2017’s "Wonder Woman" was released, the DCEU had become notable mainly for eating Marvel’s dust: "Batman vs. Superman," where Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman made her first appearance, was widely panned by critics and lukewarmly received by audiences.
But when Wonder Woman finally got her first standalone feature, Gal Gadot was simply electric in the starring role. She brings truckloads of humor and heart to her performance as the Amazonian super-warrior, who is thrown into the madness of World War I with no knowledge of modern human society and a naïve belief that she can save us from ourselves by setting a better example. In a franchise known for dark themes and what often amounts to a pessimistic, joyless outlook, this was a refreshing, sorely needed approach. Gadot’s Diana Prince has been in a few movies since, and some are better than others. But she’s always the best thing in them.
Christian Bale’s Batman
All due respect to Supes and Spidey, who’ve been cinematically rebooted an almost comical number of times, but the World’s Greatest Detective has been portrayed onscreen by more actors than just about any other hero. Some adaptations are better than others, but it’s near-universally accepted that Christopher Nolan’s take on the rich lore of Gotham stands head and shoulders above the rest. The trilogy isn’t flawless, but it is imaginative, unforgettable, filled with award-worthy performances, and peerlessly written.
And at the heart of it all is Christian Bale, who wears many hats in the starring role. Bruce Wayne is charming, brooding, smart, and mysterious. Batman is frightening and brutal. Bale is all of these things because he has to be. Countless words have been written about everything from Heath Ledger’s terrifying Joker to how the series legitimized comic book movies by treating the source material as literature rather than childish diversion. But it is Bale’s performance that anchors it all and forms the foundation on which one of film history’s greatest trilogies still stands.
It’s understandable that 20th Century Fox was hesitant to greenlight Ryan Reynolds’ "Deadpool," given that it would be the first R-rated superhero film. But it’s a good thing they gave in, even if they waited until after never-before-seen-footage from the unproduced film, which showed Reynolds in the titular role as the unkillable, loudmouth mercenary taking out a truck full of baddies, was leaked online. Fan response was electric, and all ill-will towards Reynolds for his initial, loathed take on the character (as seen in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine") evaporated overnight.
Reynolds has only appeared as this version of the character in two films and a handful of fourth-wall-breaking cameos and commercials, but he left an enormous mark on 2016’s pop culture and beyond. The best part? Reynolds kind of just gets to be himself — sarcastic, funny, and lovably dorky — all while flipping SUVs, firing submachine guns with arms akimbo, and lopping off bad guy limbs with bladed weapons. Every appearance is a fan-pleasing, hyperviolent, riotously funny good time: Nobody familiar with the comics should expect any less. Thank goodness the character will be joining the MCU.
Wolverine is a nearly immortal, tough-as-nails, ex-military killing machine with a powerful healing factor, retractable claws, and bones dipped in indestructible adamantium. Hugh Jackman, who’s played him ever since 2000’s "X-Men," was first — let us check our notes here — a singing, dancing Broadway star. Huh. On paper, Jackman seems like the kind of bub that Wolverine would eat for lunch.
On the screen, though, he’s casting magic. Jackman, who became increasingly buff as the years dragged on, fully and epically embodies the tortured, sneering, cigar-smoking mutant. Even in movies that aren’t very good (looking at you, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," "Dark Phoenix," and, well, almost half of the entire franchise), his dependably excellent performance is always a stand-out gem.
Sadly, Jackman appears to have hung up the claws for good, just as Disney bought the rights to the X-Men franchise and opened up the possibility that he could make an appearance in the MCU. We’re still holding out hope that they can use this new multiverse storyline to make it happen. But even if it doesn’t, Jackman’s Wolverine has given us plenty of classic comic book movie moments over the years. And he went out on top with "Logan," which will always be remembered as not just a great comic book movie, but an incredible film, period.
When the MCU kicked off with 2008’s "Iron Man," leading man Robert Downey Jr. was a has-been, and the titular character, a genius billionaire in a crime-fighting mech suit, was a B-list comic book hero at best. A decade later, he was among the most acclaimed, highest-paid actors in Hollywood. His take on Tony Stark-slash-Iron Man had become the heart and driving force behind a behemoth blockbuster franchise that thrilled global audiences and raked in seemingly impossible amounts of money.
How did this happen? It’s simple. As sprawling and fantastical as the MCU eventually became, Robert Downey Jr. — and the powers-that-be behind Disney’s Marvel Universe — never lost sight of the small human elements that make this character work. The snarky quips. The awesome tech. The peerless brain. The heart of gold. Remove or fail to properly capture any one of these attributes and it’s unlikely the MCU would’ve made it longer than a few years. As it stands, we could watch Downey Jr.’s Stark all day long and it’d never get old. In fact, we think it’s just about time for a re-watch.