Ever since Christopher Reeve's Superman flew over Metropolis in his iconic red-and-blue suit with its standout cape, audiences have loved going to the cinema to watch superheroes.
For some, the draw of superhero movies is the escape from reality mixed with the never-ending battle between good versus evil. And while superhero movies have shifted from black-and-white towards greater moral complexity, deep down the genre is fundamentally the same.
We love watching the heroes from our childhoods and we love seeing the new takes, the new iterations, the new actors and actresses who step into the shoes of our beloved grand superheroes. It's why superhero movies are still raking in billions of dollars at the box office.
But which superheroes from throughout cinema history stand out above the rest? Here are our picks for the best movie superhero characters and why they remain beloved to this day.
8. Christian Bale's Batman
When Christopher Nolan brought his down-to-earth rendition of Batman to Warner Brothers, the style was unlike anything anybody had come up with before—and that meant Nolan needed an actor who could carry the weight of the character on his shoulders.
Christian Bale's version of Bruce Wayne and Batman has Christopher Nolan's fingerprints all over it, with a stark commitment to reality that makes it feel like this Batman could truly exist in the real world.
What did Christian Bale get right about Batman? Primarily, the physicality and ethos of Bruce Wayne's fight against crime in Gotham. Those are the two things that have made Bale's Batman so iconic.
Across three films, Bale understood the development that Bruce Wayne would undergo, and he made his Batman a realistic caped crusader who pushed himself to the edge to save his city from destruction.
What makes Bale's Batman timeless is that he doesn't feel like he's ripped from the pages of a comic book. For that reason, Bale's Batman is the definitive iteration for an entire generation of watchers.
7. Patrick Stewart's Charles Xavier
Charles Xavier is the mentor we all wish we could have on our own journeys of self-discovery. With Patrick Stewart's dulcet tone coming through on the big screen, we certainly feel the calming energy that radiates from Charles and into the other characters.
Across all the films where Patrick Stewart played Charles Xavier, he delivered a style of Xavier who stood in as a father figure to his students and as a wise sage for those who sought to understand mutants. He fought for peace while his rival Magneto fought for war.
Xavier is the man who guided many children—and the odd adult or two—on their paths to understanding. He taught them that violence is never the only answer, and he taught them how to connect with the people in their loves who might see them as monsters or demons.
6. Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man
Tobey Maguire's defining role as Spider-Man still stands out despite the two other actors who have given their own takes on Peter Parker. When Maguire appears in Spider-Man: No Way Home and reprises the role after 14 years, it was for him that the audience cheered the loudest.
For many, he is the one true Spider-Man. Maguire best understood the responsibility laid upon him by fate, and he's the foil to Tom Holland's Spider-Man—who attempts to kill the Green Goblin—when he reminds Holland's Peter that that's not who they are.
He also guides Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man to some degree, telling him not to give up in his search for love.
Maguire reminds us of the fun of Spider-Man. He shows us a young man burdened by purpose as well as a man who can light the way for the alternate versions of himself.
5. Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man
Looking back at Robert Downey Jr.'s tenure as Iron Man, his powers of entertainment value never diminished throughout his entire run. Downey's Tony Stark always felt as though he had a handle on a situation, even if it was borderline unwinnable—until he met Thanos.
The success of the MCU is largely rooted in the initial performance put in by RDJ, who successfully pulled in audiences with his unique sense of charm and brought an entire cinematic universe into focus. He paved the path for other Marvel properties to find success at the box office.
Throughout his life as Iron Man, Tony faces many moral and ethical conundrums while also finding room to grow as a person. It's a trait that has come to define him as a character through his relationships with his fellow Avengers, particularly Tom Holland's Spider-Man.
His final scenes in the role are heroic to a fault, as Tony sacrifices his own life to save the universe from extinction. It brings the Tony we first met in 2008's Iron Man full circle, from obnoxious billionaire to noble hero.
4. Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool
He's only had two of his own movies, so why is Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool so high up in this list? Simply because Deadpool represents a new way of looking at superheroes in cinema.
Deadpool is the R-rated, violent loudmouth who makes adult audiences feel as if this hero was solely built for their enjoyment—and Reynolds has become the defining superhero actor for this movement.
His Wade Wilson is un-recastable, which is why Disney had to promise that Deadpool 3 would remain R-rated even if it goes against their brand. Deadpool's audience simply loves him that much.
Nearly any other comic book character can be recasted and we would accept it, but Reynolds' Deadpool is unique. He may only have two movies to him name so far, but they're uniquely his. He's an actor who fully understands the character and why it works.
3. Michael Keaton's Batman
We previously praised Christian Bale's Batman earlier in this list, but fans always end up coming back to Michael Keaton.
Michael Keaton's Batman is neither the most defining nor the most realistic. Rather, Keaton's Batman is iconic for his portrayal of duality. Nobody has come close to giving both Bruce Wayne and Batman such different levels of psyche in the way that Keaton did.
Keaton understood that Wayne's mind is so splintered by trauma that his suit gives him another personality altogether. While Keaton's portrayal of Batman may not have been entirely accurate to the comic books, his development of Bruce's mind is unparalleled.
Most other actors have played Bruce Wayne as though he longed to fight crime as Batman, whereas Michael Keaton understood that Batman was a separate character entirely.
2. Christopher Reeve's Superman
Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent is the everyman. He doesn't want to be violent and he's always looking to get away from the fight—but when he pulls off his shirt to reveal the suit, he becomes the hero of all heroes.
Clark Kent is like us when it comes to being part of the world. He wants to find love, he wants to be normal, so much so that Clark Kent even had his powers removed in Superman 2 so he could live a human life.
But his responsibility to protect the innocent is stronger than his desire to fit in with humanity, and that's oddly one thing that makes Kal-El even more human than most people are.
Even though Adam West's 1966 film Batman came before it, Christopher Reeve's Superman was the first true example of superhero filmmaking. Reeve's Superman is who we still look to for inspiration: his message was always one of peace, and he remains the definitive Superman.
The weight of Christopher Reeve weighs heavily on those who have taken up the mantle of Superman since, and none of the latter Supermen have felt as wondrous as he did. Even after 40 years, if we really still believe that there is a Superman, it's Christopher Reeve.
1. Hugh Jackman's Wolverine
If we had to pick a "best" iteration of any comic book character on the big screen, it would have to be Hugh Jackman's Wolverine.
His long tenure as the character went through many variations—across messy timelines and varying degrees of critical success—but Jackman's faultless performance anchored it all from start to finish.
In fact, it's a bit problematic for Marvel because they need to replace him in the MCU but nobody will ever truly measure up to Jackman's legacy. There will be gripes and complaints about any recast, claiming that it will be a stain upon the character whom Jackman portrayed.
Hugh Jackman gave Logan a depth that most Shakespearean actors would struggle to emulate, and he did so in a role that started out as a Hollywood popcorn movie and ended as a gritty neo-Western adventure. Simply put, he boldly cut a path for all future actors to follow.