It’s become cliché to say we live in the “golden age” of superhero movies, but it’s true. Big budget superhero spectacles were sporadic from the time of Superman’s arrival in 1978 to Peter Parker’s infamous “emo jazz dance” routine in 2007’s Spider-Man 3, but, with the establishment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, we’ve been blessed with at least five or six superhero movies a year. There are so many superhero movies now, in fact, that we can classify them in different sub-genres, with varying tonality, styles, etc. There are team movies like X-Men and The Avengers, war movies like Captain America: The First Avenger and Wonder Woman, space operas like Guardians Of The Galaxy, political thrillers like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, darker, pseudo-philosophical deconstructions like Watchmen and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and even westerns like Logan.
Despite the success of sequels and the characters being placed in diverse categories, one tried-and-true superhero genre is still the most ubiquitous – the origin story. It only makes sense, right? Before we can go throwing these heroes into team ups, existential journeys, or big cosmic adventures, we have to get to know them first. Unfortunately for fans and critics, origin movies often get bogged down in clunky exposition, they can feel extremely formulaic, it often takes forever to see the heroes suit up, and when they do, the final conflicts are often rushed or lack stakes due to the aforementioned chunks of time eaten up by the explanations and standard “getting to know you” stuff. Of course, there are exceptions – interesting, exciting, and even mythic superhero origin stories that transcend the tropes to truly become something memorable. Here are the ten best examples!
10.) The Rocketeer (1991)
Before Disney bought Marvel Comics in 2009 and made history with their interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, they dipped their toe into the live action comic book waters with movies like Dick Tracy in 1990, and again the following year with The Rocketeer – both under their Touchstone Films banner. Directed by veteran Star Wars production designer/concept artist Joe Johnston and drenched in drenched in ’40s pulp goodness, The Rocketeer tells the story of young test pilot Cliff Secord (William Oliver Campbell), who discovers a prototype Jet Pack stolen from Howard Hughes. With the help of his mechanic mentor Peevy (Alan Arkin) and Betty Page-esque girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), Cliff becomes a masked, flying hero who quickly gets embroiled in a sinister plot involving Nazis, gangsters, and shady behind-the-scenes Hollywood power players.
The Rocketeer is a fun, old-fashioned pulp-style underdog origin tale that really deserved a better fate and should have spawned a bunch of sequels. Sadly, the lack of star power (back when having a marquee name as the lead was crucial), and having the Disney brand attached (back when that carried an even bigger “kiddie” stigma), sunk the film at the box office, wiping out any chance for a franchise. Still, the adaptation of Dave Stevens’ 1982 comic book series holds up remarkably well, and is a far better movie than many of its modern-day, CGI-laden descendants.
9.) Doctor Strange (2016)
By the time director Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange hit theaters in the Fall of 2016, the juggernaut Marvel Cinematic Universe had already trotted out four superhero origin movies (five if you want to count the ensemble Guardians Of The Galaxy). To say it risked audience fatigue to deliver another—one that featured the latest in a procession of D-list characters with a weird mystical power set and a personality/back story quite similar to Tony Stark’s—would be a massive understatement. Yet, as they have done so since 2008, Marvel Studios defied the odds with Doctor Strange, because it turned out to be a solid, though not spectacular origin film that cleaned house at the box office. Perhaps more importantly, the movie endeared audiences to a character Marvel is counting on to star in big ensemble Avengers movies like Infinity War and help carry the franchise when heavy hitters like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans call it quits.
Much of what makes Doctor Strange work can be directly attributed to the stellar performance of Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. Cumberbatch imbues Strange with just the right mix of arrogance, determination, charm, humility, and comedic spark – committing fully to the magical mumbo-jumbo he’s required to master. It also helps a great deal that he’s complimented by an incredible cast that includes the likes of Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Mads Mikkelsen. Doctor Strange also boasts some of the most impressive, mind-bending visual effects of the comic book movie genre, which transported audiences on a psychedelic trip into the bizarre world of astral projection, alternate realities, and introduced them to the magical side of the MCU.
8.) Deadpool (2016)
Who could have imagined that a superhero movie with a minuscule budget by modern standards ($58 million), and a release date in the winter “cinematic dumping ground period,” about a hyper-violent mutant mercenary with a personality like Bugs Bunny on steroids would go on to become a worldwide box office sensation, racking up $783 million? Well, the diehard fans of the character certainly did, but general audiences were caught completely by surprise by the “merc with a mouth,” and how irreverent, funny, and fresh this dark horse film felt in the wake of gargantuan CGI spectacles like Avengers: Age Of Ultron.
Ryan Reynolds absolutely slays in a role he was born to play, imbuing Wade Wilson/Deadpool with the requisite amount of quips, zingers, jokes, sarcasm, and plenty of fourth-wall breakage to both delight the audience and drive the villains of the film to the brink of insanity. The ill-fated romance at the center of the narrative between Wade and Vanessa (a charming Monica Baccarin) also goes a long way to counter-balance the zaniness, as well as lend the film a much-needed emotional core beneath the ultra-violent mayhem. The small budget does rob the movie of some much-needed comic book oomph (a huge gun battle at the end was cut due to lack of money), but the heart, adult humor, hilarious supporting cast, and over-the-top carnage more than compensate for the lack of action spectacle.
7.) Unbreakable (2000)
M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense may not feature any bright superhero costumes, or show off any flashy superpowers, or bombard the audience with any end-of-the-world threat, but make no mistake – it is one of the best superhero origin stories ever. Filmed in somber grey tones, but with certain colors popping out to signify a good or evil alliance, Unbreakable tells the story of an ordinary man named David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who walks away—without a single scratch—from a horrific train crash that kills all 131 of the other passengers. On the other end of the spectrum is Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who has spent his life suffering from a rare genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, which makes bones extremely fragile and susceptible to painful fractures. Via lifetime of comic book reading, Elijah believes David is his true polar opposite; an “unbreakable” person, and repeatedly attempts to convince him to become a real-life superhero. What follows is slow-paced, but intense series of events as David starts to test Elijah’s theories and begins to believe that his special abilities really could help people.
Sparse, relentlessly compelling, and complimented by a haunting James Newton Howard score, Shyamalan’s Unbreakable examines what it would be like if a real, everyday person had super powers, and all the existential problems that would come along with it. Unbreakable should have been the launching point for a series of films pitting Willis’s hooded hero against the brilliant, but twisted mind of Jackson’s Mr. Glass, but a lukewarm critical reception and a slightly underwhelming box office performance derailed those plans. However, thanks to the success of Split, we will get to see Dunn don the poncho once more in 2019.
6.) Wonder Woman (2017)
It’s absolutely ludicrous that it took until 2017 for the most iconic female superhero of all time to get her own big budget blockbuster solo film, but the buildup and the excruciating wait turned out to be worth it, because Wonder Woman is instantly one of the best superhero origin movies ever. It certainly features one of the all-time greatest “superhero reveals themselves to the world and inspires mankind” sequences, as Gal Gadot’s Amazon princess climbs a ladder out of the trenches and marches defiantly across a WWI battlefield in her gleaming, colorful armor, deflecting bombs and machine gun fire as the Allied forces rally behind her to cross the front, eventually liberating a small town.
Though director Patty Jenkins was saddled with some Zack Snyder-esque slow-motion, speed-ramping, and some dodgy CGI stand-ins from the pre-viz department, she was able to overcome it with her storytelling ability, and by injecting the movie with humor, heart and hope – elements the bleak preceding chapters in the DCEU lacked. Gal Gadot shines in the title role and has terrific chemistry with Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor. She radiates kindness and wide-eyed innocence, but also fierce determination and burning fury to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. At the core of the film is a parable about the horrors of war, but Wonder Woman also shows us that humanity does, innately, have evil within, but it can be overcome by love.
5.) Spider-Man (2002)
Once the Christopher Reeve Superman series limped to the finish line in the mid ’80s, dark heroes like Batman, Blade, and the X-men clad in black leather or rubber suits dominated the superhero cinematic landscape. But just as fans were beginning to wonder if idealism and bright costumes would ever return to the screen, Sam Raimi—the madman behind the Evil Dead films—delivered a Spider-Man movie dripping with the fun, color, whimsy, teenage heartache, and the bravura comic spirit of the classic Lee/Ditko/Romita tales that taught us all “with great power comes great responsibility!”
Though the film is showing its age (some of the CGI is rubbery and crude, the Green Goblin’s costume is Power Rangers-esque, Macy Gray, etc.), and Raimi took some liberties with the comic book details (organic web-shooters; skipping Gwen Stacy and Liz Allen and inserting Mary Jane as the object of Peter’s high school affections), it still captures everything essential to the Spider-Man character. It was exhilarating to see modern movie effects bring things like Peter learning to crawl up walls or swinging gleefully through the steel canyons of New York on his webbing to life on the big screen for the first time. And when you pepper in instantly iconic moments like Mary Jane giving peter the upside-down kiss and the New Yorkers banding together on the bridge to help Spidey save the cable car loaded with kids from the Green Goblin in a cathartic, post-911 act of solidarity – you’ve got an all-timer origin movie. In addition, Sam Raimi made the single greatest casting choice in the history of comic book movies – J.K. Simmons as gruff Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson! ‘Nuff said!
4.) Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The fledgling Marvel Studios struck gold in 2008 with Iron Man – a thoroughly modern take on the character rife with irony, sarcasm, and moral ambiguity. But, in order for their unprecedented interconnected world to work, they’d have to address a big question: would the same audience embrace a hero on the complete opposite end of the spectrum; an unapologetically earnest hero who was just a good, courageous, patriotic man who stood up for what was right without a trace of irony? The answer was unequivocably yes, thanks to a combination of the note-perfect casting of Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, the retro sensibilities of Rocketeer director Joe Johnston, an outstanding supporting cast including Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper, Hugo Weaving, and the luminous Hayley Atwell, and of course, plenty of Marvel-y comic book escapism.
Unlike Wonder Woman, which dropped the Amazon right into the front and portrayed the horrors of war (soldiers missing limbs, etc.) directly, The First Avenger takes a more pulpy, adventurous approach – removing Cap from the conflict between the Allied forces and the Nazis and pitting him against the Red Skull and the Nazi’s “secret science division,” HYDRA in a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style tale. While it’s certainly rousing, this second and third-act stuff isn’t as compelling as the first, where we spend time getting to know the selfless, heroic man trapped in a sickly thin body. All Steve wants to do is help people and fulfill his duty to his country, and the best thing about The First Avenger is watching him trying to literally will himself past his physical limitations, like when he jumps on a grenade to protect his fellow soldiers without a second’s hesitation. Throw in a great take on the Cap costume with the iconic shield, Steve’s bond with best friend Bucky, the star-crossed love story between he and Agent Peggy Carter, and you have a movie that remains one of the most enjoyable, straightforward superhero origin stories ever produced.
3.) Batman Begins (2005)
In the aftermath of Joel Schumacher’s campy nightmare Batman & Robin, many wondered if Batman could ever be a viable movie character again. To hardcore Bat-fans, it seemed like all the hard work put in by the likes of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Tim Burton to “legitimize” the character and have the mainstream audience take him “seriously,” rather than view him in the light of the satirical ’60s TV show, was destroyed in a two-hour ride to hell paid for by the Bat-credit card. A series of failed attempts to bring the caped crusader back to the big screen finally culminated in Warner Brothers’ decision to tap up-and-coming director Christopher Nolan to take Batman back his roots and flesh out his origins. Nolan immediately took a blowtorch to the giant homoerotic deco statues, neon-drenched sets, and rubber-nippled costumes, and introduced an entirely new aesthetic: reality. Nolan presented a Batman movie that explored what it would really be like if Batman existed. He also delved into two powerful thematic elements: how we experience, fight, face, and eventually conquer our fears; and how men can transcend themselves if they become symbols and devote themselves to ideals.
This might sound controversial, but as the years go by, The Dark Knight ages worse while the first in the Nolan Bat trilogy only seems to improve with time. The non-linear narrative continually complimented by flashback sequences to Bruce’s world travels and training was a unique storytelling device for a comic book movie in 2005. Christian Bale wasn’t widely known at the time, so he was able to disappear into the Bruce Wayne/Batman part effectively. Nolan also wisely avoided the more colorful and over-exposed villains in Batman’s Rogues Gallery like The Joker or Penguin, focusing instead on a trio of more grounded but intimidating characters: Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), Scarecrow (Cilian Murphy), and Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson). A shaky third act involving a nonsensical McGuffin in the microwave emitter and a questionable moral decision by Batman are the only real blemishes on this otherwise excellent origin re-telling that incorporates many of Frank Miller’s plot beats from his Year One comic series.
2.) Iron Man (2008)
Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man – these are mythic figures that can inspire great origin films regardless of who’s wearing their raiments, but it takes a special kind of talent to transform a C-list superhero into an iconic movie character and the foundation of a multi-billion dollar interconnected cinematic universe. That impressive feat is exactly what Robert Downey Jr. accomplished in Iron Man, fueling arms dealer / “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” Tony Stark with super-charged levels of charisma, humor, arrogance, intelligence, and sex appeal that exploded off the screen to the surprise and delight of millions. The Tony Stark role not only kicked off a superhero movie empire, it also saved Robert Downey Jr.’ s career and his life from the depths of drug and alcohol addiction.
Iron Man famously headed into principal photography with an unfinished screenplay, which required director Jon Favreau to consult with a handful of other creators (like JJ Abrams) in order to lock down scenes and do a ton of on-set improvising with Downey. Normally that would spell disaster for a movie, but it gave Iron Man a refreshing, playful quality, especially when Downey volleyed dialogue off of Terence Howard’s Rhodey and Gewneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. The film’s signature sequence, where Tony is captured by terrorists and makes a crude prototype Iron Man armor in order to make a desperate escape from his cave prison, is an all-timer – perfectly encapsulating the “selfish man taken down by his own hubris learns humility and course corrects his life” theme. Iron Man changed the game for superhero films on a fundamental level; it was a paradigm shift that sent shockwaves through Hollywood and sent every studio scrambling to construct their own cinematic universe. For that reason alone, it deserves a spot near the very top of this list.
1.) Superman: The Movie (1978)
The first big screen origin of the greatest superhero of all time is still the best; and remains one of the finest comic book movies in history. Never before had a four-color character been given the big-budget, epic film treatment, but that all changed in 1978 when the Salkind brothers teamed with director Richard Donner to finally do the Man of Steel justice. Donner combined elements from the Superman comic books, the 1950’s George Reeves TV series (particularly in the depictions of Perry White and Jimmy Olsen), and the Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s to craft a Superman origin film that soars and inspires.
Every aspect of Superman: The Movie was unique and stunning for the time, from John Barry’s vision of a crystalline Krypton, to the bucolic Kansas farmlands of Clark’s adolescence, to the gritty hustle and bustle of Metropolis. Christopher Reeve, with his jet-black hair, piercing blue eyes, cleft chin, and impressive stature remains the single greatest superhero casting of all time; the man simply IS Superman. He projects a warmth, kindness, and strength that modern incarnations just can’t touch. The supporting cast, including Oscar-winners Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor and Marlon Brando as Jor-el is top-notch. John William’s majestic score is irrefutably the greatest superhero film music of all time, and one could even argue the “Main Theme” ranks among the top pieces of music for a film of any genre. Sure, the clothing, rear-projection effects, miniatures, and other optical elements are very dated, but the heart of this film beats pure. It captures the true essence of the Last Son of Krypton and made the world believe a man could fly.