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The Best Superhero Movie of Each Year Since 1998

Critics and audiences come together to recommend 25 movies that defined the superhero genre!

by | June 12, 2023 | Comments

We’re celebrating 25 years of Rotten Tomatoes with a look back on the most celebrated genre movie of each year since 1998! Previously we took a stab at the horror genre, drew up an extensive guide to animation, hit light speed on science-fiction, and now we’re flying high with superheroes. To choose the best superhero film of each year, we’re applying our recommendation formula, a calculation based on the Tomatometer and Audience Score that prioritizes titles that stood out among critics and fans, combined with a pinch of curatorial love from our editors.

Superhero and comic book movies may have been among the dominant pop cultural force for nearly two decades, but don’t forget it was something of an uphill skate to reach this point. We begin with 1998’s Blade, which is just a sword’s edge away from being Fresh, but audiences sure sank their teeth into it for its R-rating and sharp Wesley Snipes casting as the Marvel icon. Quirky and sarcastic comedies Mystery Men and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV would prevail on the off-years of 1999 and 2001, but it was 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man that would prophesy the superhero supremacy to come. X-Men modernized the team with sleek outfits and millennial attitude, while Spider-Man stuck to its comic book roots with bright action and teenage emotions in a classic origin story. 2003’s X2 was a breathless, action-packed sequel, while 2004’s The Incredibles is one of the crown jewels from Pixar’s golden age, a high-stakes family drama and still the closest thing to a good Fantastic Four movie we’ve ever gotten.

DC Comics would swoop in with 2005 and 2006 chart-toppers Batman Begins and V for Vendetta, proffering a more mature and adult take on the genre, and certainly more appetizing than 2007’s Spider-Man 3. 2008, of course, was the big bang, with The Dark Knight becoming the new benchmark in action and superhero cinema and Iron Man properly establishing the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Watchmen was long considered nearly impossible to adapt, and hey, we got close enough in 2009. 2010’s Kick-Ass put the sass back in the genre, and 2011’s X-Men: First Class rebooted the series after the wayward X-Men: The Last Stand. With 2012’s The Avengers, we kick off peak MCU as one of their own would top each year (Iron Man 3, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Captain America: Civil War) through the record-breaking Infinty Saga-closer Avengers: Endgame. Even the years when an MCU wasn’t the favorite, there was still a Marvel movie in its place, with 2017’s Logan and 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

2020’s Birds of Prey was one of the last major movies before COVID lockdown, and it was Spider-Man: No Way Home in December 2021 when we felt truly back in theaters. Soon after, in March 2022, we returned again to a mature take on The Batman, which would narrowly edge out Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to be that year’s best superhero movie.

#1

Blade (1998)
59%

#1
Adjusted Score: 65653%
Critics Consensus: Though some may find the plot a bit lacking, Blade's action is fierce, plentiful, and appropriately stylish for a comic book adaptation.
Synopsis: A half-mortal, half-immortal is out to avenge his mother's death and rid the world of vampires. The modern-day technologically advanced... [More]
Directed By: Stephen Norrington

#2

Mystery Men (1999)
60%

#2
Adjusted Score: 64924%
Critics Consensus: Absurd characters and quirky gags are brought to life by a talented cast, providing this superhero spoof with lots of laughs.
Synopsis: Champion City already has a superhero, the appropriately named Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), but that doesn't deter the city's seven... [More]
Directed By: Kinka Usher

#3

X-Men (2000)
82%

#3
Adjusted Score: 88899%
Critics Consensus: Faithful to the comics and filled with action, X-Men brings a crowded slate of classic Marvel characters to the screen with a talented ensemble cast and surprisingly sharp narrative focus.
Synopsis: They are children of the atom, homo superior, the next link in the chain of evolution. Each was born with... [More]
Directed By: Bryan Singer

#4
Adjusted Score: 24614%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The mutant superhero (David Mattey) rises from the sludge to save a group of students held hostage in Tromaville.... [More]
Directed By: Lloyd Kaufman

#5

Spider-Man (2002)
90%

#5
Adjusted Score: 98589%
Critics Consensus: Not only does Spider-Man provide a good dose of web-swinging fun, it also has a heart, thanks to the combined charms of director Sam Raimi and star Tobey Maguire.
Synopsis: "Spider-Man" centers on student Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) who, after being bitten by a genetically-altered spider, gains superhuman strength and... [More]
Directed By: Sam Raimi

#6

X2 (2003)
85%

#6
Adjusted Score: 93814%
Critics Consensus: Tightly scripted, solidly acted, and impressively ambitious, X2: X-Men United is bigger and better than its predecessor -- and a benchmark for comic sequels in general.
Synopsis: Stryker (Brian Cox), a villianous former Army commander, holds the key to Wolverine's (Hugh Jackman) past and the future of... [More]
Directed By: Bryan Singer

#7

The Incredibles (2004)
97%

#7
Adjusted Score: 105438%
Critics Consensus: Bringing loads of wit and tons of fun to the animated superhero genre, The Incredibles easily lives up to its name.
Synopsis: In this lauded Pixar animated film, married superheroes Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) are forced to... [More]
Directed By: Brad Bird

#8

Batman Begins (2005)
85%

#8
Adjusted Score: 96117%
Critics Consensus: Brooding and dark, but also exciting and smart, Batman Begins is a film that understands the essence of one of the definitive superheroes.
Synopsis: A young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) travels to the Far East, where he's trained in the martial arts by Henri... [More]
Directed By: Christopher Nolan

#9

V for Vendetta (2006)
73%

#9
Adjusted Score: 83707%
Critics Consensus: Visually stunning and thought-provoking, V For Vendetta's political pronouncements may rile some, but its story and impressive set pieces will nevertheless entertain.
Synopsis: Following world war, London is a police state occupied by a fascist government, and a vigilante known only as V... [More]
Directed By: James McTeigue

#10

Spider-Man 3 (2007)
63%

#10
Adjusted Score: 73609%
Critics Consensus: Though there are more characters and plotlines, and the action sequences still dazzle, Spider-Man 3 nonetheless isn't quite as refined as the first two.
Synopsis: Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and M.J. (Kirsten Dunst) seem to finally be on the right track in their complicated relationship,... [More]
Directed By: Sam Raimi

#11

The Dark Knight (2008)
94%

#11
Adjusted Score: 108496%
Critics Consensus: Dark, complex, and unforgettable, The Dark Knight succeeds not just as an entertaining comic book film, but as a richly thrilling crime saga.
Synopsis: With the help of allies Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Batman (Christian Bale) has... [More]
Directed By: Christopher Nolan

#12

Watchmen (2009)
65%

#12
Adjusted Score: 77731%
Critics Consensus: Gritty and visually striking, Watchmen is a faithful adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel, but its complex narrative structure may make it difficult for it to appeal to viewers not already familiar with the source material.
Synopsis: In an alternate 1985 America, costumed superheroes are part of everyday life. When one of his former comrades is murdered,... [More]
Directed By: Zack Snyder

#13

Kick-Ass (2010)
77%

#13
Adjusted Score: 87953%
Critics Consensus: Not for the faint of heart, Kick-Ass takes the comic adaptation genre to new levels of visual style, bloody violence, and gleeful profanity.
Synopsis: Using his love for comics as inspiration, teenager Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) decides to reinvent himself as a superhero --... [More]
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn

#14
#14
Adjusted Score: 98158%
Critics Consensus: With a strong script, stylish direction, and powerful performances from its well-rounded cast, X-Men: First Class is a welcome return to form for the franchise.
Synopsis: In the early 1960s, during the height of the Cold War, a mutant named Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) meets a... [More]
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn

#15
#15
Adjusted Score: 108890%
Critics Consensus: Thanks to a script that emphasizes its heroes' humanity and a wealth of superpowered set pieces, The Avengers lives up to its hype and raises the bar for Marvel at the movies.
Synopsis: When Thor's evil brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), gains access to the unlimited power of the energy cube called the Tesseract,... [More]
Directed By: Joss Whedon

#16

Iron Man 3 (2013)
79%

#16
Adjusted Score: 94591%
Critics Consensus: With the help of its charismatic lead, some impressive action sequences, and even a few surprises, Iron Man 3 is a witty, entertaining adventure and a strong addition to the Marvel canon.
Synopsis: Plagued with worry and insomnia since saving New York from destruction, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), now, is more dependent... [More]
Directed By: Shane Black

#17
#17
Adjusted Score: 108393%
Critics Consensus: Guardians of the Galaxy is just as irreverent as fans of the frequently zany Marvel comic would expect -- as well as funny, thrilling, full of heart, and packed with visual splendor.
Synopsis: Brash space adventurer Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finds himself the quarry of relentless bounty hunters after he steals an orb... [More]
Directed By: James Gunn

#18

Ant-Man (2015)
83%

#18
Adjusted Score: 99791%
Critics Consensus: Led by a charming performance from Paul Rudd, Ant-Man offers Marvel thrills on an appropriately smaller scale -- albeit not as smoothly as its most successful predecessors.
Synopsis: Forced out of his own company by former protégé Darren Cross, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) recruits the talents of... [More]
Directed By: Peyton Reed

#19
Adjusted Score: 111030%
Critics Consensus: Captain America: Civil War begins the next wave of Marvel movies with an action-packed superhero blockbuster boasting a decidedly non-cartoonish plot and the courage to explore thought-provoking themes.
Synopsis: Political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability when the actions of the Avengers lead to collateral damage. The... [More]
Directed By: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

#20

Logan (2017)
93%

#20
Adjusted Score: 117089%
Critics Consensus: Hugh Jackman makes the most of his final outing as Wolverine with a gritty, nuanced performance in a violent but surprisingly thoughtful superhero action film that defies genre conventions.
Synopsis: In the near future, a weary Logan (Hugh Jackman) cares for an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart) at a remote... [More]
Directed By: James Mangold

#21
Adjusted Score: 119454%
Critics Consensus: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse matches bold storytelling with striking animation for a purely enjoyable adventure with heart, humor, and plenty of superhero action.
Synopsis: Bitten by a radioactive spider in the subway, Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales suddenly develops mysterious powers that transform him into... [More]

#22
#22
Adjusted Score: 123888%
Critics Consensus: Exciting, entertaining, and emotionally impactful, Avengers: Endgame does whatever it takes to deliver a satisfying finale to Marvel's epic Infinity Saga.
Synopsis: Adrift in space with no food or water, Tony Stark sends a message to Pepper Potts as his oxygen supply... [More]
Directed By: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

#23
Adjusted Score: 105193%
Critics Consensus: With a fresh perspective, some new friends, and loads of fast-paced action, Birds of Prey captures the colorfully anarchic spirit of Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn.
Synopsis: It's open season on Harley Quinn when her explosive breakup with the Joker puts a big fat target on her... [More]
Directed By: Cathy Yan

#24
#24
Adjusted Score: 115156%
Critics Consensus: A bigger, bolder Spider-Man sequel, No Way Home expands the franchise's scope and stakes without losing sight of its humor and heart.
Synopsis: For the first time in the cinematic history of Spider-Man, our friendly neighborhood hero's identity is revealed, bringing his Super... [More]
Directed By: Jon Watts

#25

The Batman (2022)
85%

#25
Adjusted Score: 114216%
Critics Consensus: A grim, gritty, and gripping super-noir, The Batman ranks among the Dark Knight's bleakest -- and most thrillingly ambitious -- live-action outings.
Synopsis: Batman ventures into Gotham City's underworld when a sadistic killer leaves behind a trail of cryptic clues. As the evidence... [More]
Directed By: Matt Reeves