September 2017 is SYFY's 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back.
Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains
What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!
25 years ago, if the brand-new Sci-Fi Channel wanted to show some comic book movies on broadcast, the pickings would have been extremely slim. But in the last decade and a half (with some forerunners coming before it), the comic book movie has exploded, covering many genres and bringing some of our favorite (and new favorite) superheroes to life.
Narrowing it down to just 25 is pretty tough. There are arguments to be made (and that were had by the SYFY staff) for at least a dozen more that could take the place of almost any item on this list. Blade was a trailblazer! Kingsman: The Secret Service is almost infinitely rewatchable! Captain America: The Winter Soldier is probably the best pure film in the MCU! These are all true statements, but hopefully once you read why we’ve included each film that did make the cut, you’ll understand. OK, on to the best of the best of the last 25 years!
Frank Miller didn’t work directly on this one like he did with Sin City, but Zack Snyder certainly took a similar approach at points. This movie is almost entirely about visuals. Whether it’s sex or violence, one-on-one or massive battles, it looked amazing. Whether that translated to critics, well, that’s highly debated. Fans seemed to love it though, and you just know you’ve said “THIS. IS. SPARTA!” at least once.
Marvel's The Avengers (2012)
This was the movie that made us realize just what the Marvel Cinematic Universe could be. Bringing together Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, and Hawkeye on screen as a full team, working together to stop an evil they couldn’t defeat on their own, made every moment up to that point in the other movies that much more impactful. When Tony gives Cap the reigns as field leader of the team – “Cap, you call it” – and we see them really go into action together for the first time, it holds up as one of, if not the greatest cinematic moments of superhero action of all time, and probably always will.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Arguably the best Batman movie period, not just the best animated movie featuring the character, Mask of the Phantasm took everything that made Batman: The Animated Series so awesome and expanded it into a feature film. There’s more emotion, love, intrigue, plot twists, than in any other, and just such a great take on Batman altogether. If we had to tell you you could only watch one Batman movie to learn everything you had to about the character, this would be the one.
Batman Returns (1992)
Perhaps the most underrated film on this list, Batman Returns gave us an all-out superhero adventure, having already established this world and version of Batman in Tim Burton and Michael Keaton’s first outing three years prior. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was sexy and intriguing, deadly and enticing (and by far still the best big screen Catwoman we’ve seen). Danny DeVito’s Penguin was over-the-top enough to fit in with the 1960s Batman but devious and conniving enough to work in the modern era of superheroes. The movie was dark, no doubt, and hope was hard to find in it, but this is a seminal Batman story that can be looked back upon as influencing Batman for decades to come. Meow.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
While The Winter Soldier is arguably a better “film” as far as analysis of the entire product goes, and The First Avenger is a fine period piece that gets more to the heart of the title character, the third film in the Captain America series gave us moral quandaries, actually changed the face of the MCU significantly and, of course, finally gave us Spider-Man alongside Iron Man and Captain America. If you weren’t bouncing up and down in your seat during that airport fight, with more superheroes on screen than ever before, Black Panther kicking Winter Soldier in the face and Spidey cracking jokes while using Empire Strikes Back logic to take down Giant-Man, well, we’d recommend you check your pulse.
The Crow (1994)
Long before Guardians of the Galaxy made a comic book movie driven forward by its fantastic soundtrack, The Crow had a lot of teenagers bumping its tunes for months on end. More than that, this film, while it had its share of cheesy moments, captured a feeling and a desire that kids didn’t know how to express. The fact that Brandon Lee died during the making of it was a tragedy that made fans all the more eager to see what he’d help create ... and love it all the more passionately.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Christian Bale was a fine, serviceable Batman. But what he needed was a truly great villain to put this film trilogy over the edge, and Heath Ledger’s Joker was more than up to the challenge. With nuance rarely seen in comic book films, Ledger took Joker to new, more disturbing (and disturbingly believable) extremes, which resulted in his posthumous Oscar for the role. We’ll never know what might have been had he been psychologically capable of sticking around and exploring the character more, but we’re so thankful to him and this film for giving us what we got.
Much like Scott Pilgrim elsewhere on this list, Deadpool combined humor, action, and a high suspension of disbelief. Unlike Scott Pilgrim, it also took the violence to R-rated levels, routinely broke the fourth wall and managed to go just a step less than too far more often than not. Deadpool was completely unafraid of making a movie that featured the comic book character in all his glory (um, literally during one fiery scene), and has us aching for more, which Ryan Reynolds seems ready to deliver.
Death Note (2006)
A lot of people were very confused why a Death Note live-action movie needed to be made for American audiences, especially those who had seen the original adaptation from Japan. Based on the manga and anime of the same name, it had real stakes, great suspense, and a cast that accurately reflected the source material. The movie was so successful in its native country that it had three sequels! And an American adaptation we’ll skip over.
Doctor Strange (2016)
Just as Guardians set out to open up the cosmic corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so Doctor Strange looked to add magic to it, and oh, boy, did it. With hosts of sorcerers, an ancient history to mysticism, and even multiple dimensions opened up, the MCU left Doctor Strange a completely changed place. The fact that the final battle was fought not with blasts of energy but with pure wits (and a little help from an Infinity Stone) sets this one apart, as well.
With respect to Sly, the first film version of Judge Dredd was … not very close to the comic (and a bit of a mess on its own as a film). Thankfully, we got another go at the beloved UK sci-fi property, as Pete Travis teamed up with actor Karl Urban for an adaptation longtime fans and newbies who just loved good action and drama could both love. Dredd’s climb through the 200-story Peach Trees slum tower was the perfect way to isolate the character, letting us learn just how he viewed the law and what limits he’d fight through to protect and uphold it. The only thing bad about Dredd is we never got a sequel, though Urban has said he’s at least had conversations about being in an upcoming TV series.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
The first animated film based on the manga by Masamune Shirow, the 1995 Ghost in the Shell also adapted the material better than many others would achieve. This movie was a landmark moment for science fiction and anime; it showed the world that anime could be not just for adults but also serious filmmaking. With long establishing shots and as much time spent on philosophy and internal humanity (maybe more) as action, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t just fit in with other sci-fi epics, it’s been largely cited as inspiration for filmmakers since. The Matrix? Not possible without this movie coming first.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Take a little-known Marvel Comics property, revamped less than a decade ago, and make the best Marvel movie yet out of it? Sure, that’s what James Gunn set out to do and somehow it’s exactly what he did. OK, so they might be kinda the “Space Avengers,” but the irreverence, the fun, the space battles, and the music -- oh, that amazing soundtrack -- all added up to an incredible film. Don’t worry, we still tear up when we hear “We are Groot,” too.
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)
After bringing the beast with the right hand of doom to the big screen successfully once, Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman pulled off what many sequels can’t: doing it again. With Hellboy 2, we got to see more of the fantasy and “out-there” side of Mike Mignola’s prized property, and in not taking itself too seriously, made it an even more poignant tale. It has a sense of wonder and magic matched only by a sense of humor; it’s no wonder fans clamored for a (sadly now dead) sequel for years after.
Iron Man (2008)
The film that basically started the modern superhero movie era and launched a universe of cinema (and really the very concept of the Cinematic Universe in a major way), Iron Man is notable for those things. It’s notable because the post-credits scene opened up a world of possibility that wouldn’t be fully realized until years later. But it’s on this list because it’s a just plain good movie.
Sure, others have taken on the idea of superheroes “in the real world,” but no one did it with quite as much irreverence as Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass. This movie put Millar on the map in a major way, leading to more films based on his comics and a recently-announced Netflix deal that will see even more adaptations. While Kick-Ass himself, with the ability to feel pain literally beaten out of him, was great, Hit-Girl is what everyone really remembers – that first scene of her in action is another all-time great in comic movie history.
One of the most recent films on this list, Logan set out to end the story of Wolverine, and Hugh Jackman’s place in it, after more than a decade and a half of sharing a journey. While the story it was loosely inspired by, Old Man Logan, was already a fan favorite, the end result far outstripped anything anyone could imagine. It had tense situations, gritty visuals and a flare that simply wouldn’t have fit outside an R-rating, though the most surprising aspect of Logan was how emotional it was. Well, that and how freaking awesome it was to see X-23, a little female clone of Wolverine, in action.
Men in Black (1997)
“Here come the Men in Black *clap clap* Galaxy defenders!” While we could easily just fill this entry with Will Smith’s insanely catchy theme song, this is one of those comic book movies many may not realize was based on a comic. Men In Black did for alien invasions what Ghostbusters did for the supernatural; it put it into context of a fun, adventurous film that left you wanting more. Hilarious one-liners, an odd-couple-style pairing you couldn’t help but cheer for and, yes, an insanely catchy song all made for a winning combination with Men in Black. Now, let me see you just bounce with me.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
There might not be a better “created by, directed by, starring” combination on this list than Scott Pilgrim. The translation from graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley to film by Edgar Wright starring Michael Cera was pretty darn close to flawless. It took video game culture, humor, action, and a suspension of disbelief about ten times farther than most, and it rocked the whole way around. Bonus: it featured both a former Superman and a future Captain America in the movie. We still kinda wish the fake ending made for early screenings, where Scott wound up with Knives, was the real one, though.
Sin City (2005)
Frank Miller’s masterpiece stands on its own as a fantastic comic book series. Bringing it to life as a neo-Noir film sounded almost impossible until Miller himself was involved in every step of the process. The result is something we’d never seen before; a CGI-set bonanza of action, insanity, love and dark detective work that perfectly brought the printed page to the big screen. We’re not sure we’ll ever see a mastery of translation, use of color and respect for the source material quite like this again.
Chris Evans is officially the king of this list – he’s been in four of the films here, in three different roles! Bong Joon-ho’s adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige is not what you’d expect from your typical comic book movie, but it’s no less compelling than the best of the bunch. With a clear directorial vision, A-level performances from Tilda Swinton and Evans and a story that all too easily could come from our reality, Snowpiercer challenged what people would think about these adaptations.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
While other Spider-Man films since and after have been a lot of fun, nothing quite hit the right balance of nostalgia, movie magic and Spidey spectacle likeSpider-Man 2. From the sometime mustache-twirling but often relatable villain of Doc Ock to Peter, (as determined as Spider-Man’s ever been) stopping the train with a couple of webs and sheer force of will, this was the best of Sam Raimi’s offerings and set a high mark no reboot has yet to reach.
V for Vendetta (2006)
While Alan Moore may not love movies made from his comic books, we often do. With V for Vendetta, we got a look at the themes of the book applied to the world of today through the lens of visionary filmmakers the Wachowskis (and director James McTeigue). That’s a pretty good mix, and it made for a pretty great movie. While certainly more polarizing than some other films on this list, its fearlessness to explore topics many other films in sci-fi and genre shy away from earns its spot here.
Wonder Woman (2017)
Let’s say it, all together now: “FINALLY!” Yes, Wonder Woman finally made her big-screen solo debut in 2017, and the wait was oh so very much worth it. Gal Gadot is a vision on the screen, projecting power, grace, strength, beauty, love, and will. The vision of Patty Jenkins brings those things to life in a DCEU that needed them all. The first solo titled female superhero film of the modern era also featured the first major female superhero – perfect – and it did so with what looked like a comfortable ease. From the small smiles on Gadot’s face to protecting her crew (while also subverting gender norms), every step was taken with perfection. The No Man’s Land scene will go down in history as one of the most emotional, truth-to-power scenes in superhero films, too.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
While the X-Men film franchise has admittedly been hit or miss, the time-travel adventure of Days of Future Past is an absolute blast. Based on one of the best comic book stories ever, it has Wolverine take the place of Kitty Pryde from the original, traveling through time to prevent a devastating future from coming to pass. The movie had bombastic superhero action and emotional stakes and finally gave us Sentinels while bridging the gap between two embodiments of the X-franchise on screen. Plus, there’s that Quicksilver scene.
Those were OUR choices. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which comic book adaptations of the last 25 years you’d put on your list! And check out more of our "25 Greatest" lists here!