Over the past twenty years or so, comic book movies have become one of the hottest commodities in pop culture. While names like the MCU and DCEU have ushered in the most recent era of big-screen superheroes, the genre has slowly been picking up steam for more than 40 years.
Now, some might say that things have only gotten better on the CBM-front as the years pass, but that may not actually be the case. The box office numbers may be growing ever upwards for the genre (with the exception of the last couple of years due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic), but quantity does not always mean quality.
Just because those box office receipts climb higher and higher, it does not mean the quality of the movies audiences are getting is raising along with it.
So, The Direct staff has sought out to discover what are actually the best comic book movie years of all time with a little help from some math (Peter Parker would be proud)! Now to calculate this was no easy task. Like Thor forging Stormbreaker in order to bring down the mad titan Thanos, a new tool had to be created for such a lofty endeavor. And thus, the Direct Critical Index (DCI) was born!
In order to calculate our list of the Top 10 Comic Book Movie Years of all Time, the DCI was used as the guiding metric. Before getting into the meat and potatoes of the DCI, note that only theatrically released movies centered on a character originating from a comic book, were taken into account, so no Disney+ series were accounted for in this exercise.
The DCI is a weighted average of The Direct's staff rankings (40%), the average Rotten Tomatoes score for all comic movies released in a year (30%), and the average Metacritic of all comic movies released in a year (30%). This calculation spits out a number on a scale of 100 and from there these rankings were birthed.
So, without further ado, here are The Direct’s top 10 comic book movie years of all time!
Movies Released: Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fantastic Four, Kingsman: The Secret Service
Starting things off at #10 is 2015. This year saw four major comic book movies released into theatres with Avengers: Age of Ultron doing the best business financially by pulling in $1.43 billion USD worldwide.
Despite the genre’s continued dominance at the box office, 2015 was middling from a critical point of view. On Rotten Tomatoes, Paul Rudd’s MCU debut movie Ant-Man stood high above the other three comic movies released that year, currently sitting at 86% on the site.
Now, despite both Age of Ultron and the first Kingsman film both doing fairly well critically, it was the Fantastic Four reboot that tanked 2015’s average scores. The movie sits at a lowly 9% on Rotten Tomatoes and 27% on Metacritic. Without F4’s inclusion, 2015 would have fared much better in the rankings; however, this low rating had to be accounted for, which is why 2015 sits at 10 on the list.
Movies Released: Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, Doctor Strange, Suicide Squad, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, X-Men: Apocalypse
Coming in at #9 is the very next year in 2016. This brought another twelve months of MCU and DCEU dominance at movie theatres worldwide, but it's one that also comes with a couple of X-Men films and even an appearance by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
2016’s DCI was calculated to be 63.2 with Captain America: Civil War being the highest rated comic book movie of the seven released. The year had a couple of standouts with Deadpool and Doctor Strange both sitting in the mid to high 80’s on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes.
However, with critical bombs like Suicide Squad, X-Men: Apocalypse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, and Batman v Superman all coming out in 2016, it is not hard to see how its average score was brought down.
When ranked by The Direct staff, 2016 was actually a little higher sitting at #8 on those rankings, but its critical reception was what lowered it down to 9.
Movies Released: Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel, Dark Phoenix, Hellboy, Joker, Shazam!, Spider-Man: Far From Home
Shockingly at #8 comes 2019! One would think with one of the most beloved movies of all time in Avengers: Endgame on the list that this particular year would be ranked much higher. But it is another example of a year where more lackluster scores elsewhere bring one or two standouts down.
That is not to say 2019 didn’t have its bright spots. Aside from Avengers: Endgame, one of DC’s best-reviewed movies Shazam! came out that year. Pair that with Spider-Man: Far From Home’s 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s not hard for one to see why 2016 makes the top 10, doing so with some wiggle room even.
However, its middling reviews for films like Captain Marvel and Joker, along with the downright bad scores for Dark Pheonix and Hellboy, that stop 2019 from reaching any higher.
Movies Released: Superman
Now at #7 is the year that some would say started it all. It is 1978. ‘78 was the very first year that was actually used in the data for this exercise and only had one film accounting for that data - Richard Donner’s Superman.
Superman: The Movie was ground-breaking for its time, and while it may not be talked about the same way movies like 1989’s Batman or 2008’s Iron Man are, it should be.
Superman broke the glass ceiling in the comic book genre, showing that a movie focused on these characters could be taken seriously and could be more than the serial superhero TV shows of the time. Superman was a big deal and that’s why its release year makes it on this list.
Funnily enough, in research for this piece, 1978 was #1 before factoring in The Direct staff’s personal rankings. With only the one film being put out that year, and that one movie's Rotten Tomatoes score being one of the highest on this list (currently at a 94%), that is why the average was so high.
But because it came in tenth on the personal rankings of Direct staff, that is why it falls down to the seventh spot.
Movies Released: The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Dredd, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengence
Sitting as the sixth-best comic book movie year of all time is 2012. Ten years ago, fans saw not only the presumed end of the world pass by, but it was also a pretty stellar year for people who were looking to see their favorite comic characters take the big screen.
Looking at the list of 2012 films here, it is not hard to see that the biggest standout is Marvel Studios' The Avengers (currently at 91% on RT). The MCU’s first true team-up blew the comic book movie genre open and had Marvel’s competitors racing to catch up.
Aside from Avengers, 2012 was just an all-around solid year. The only real critical bomb was Ghost Rider, while everything else was liked to varying degrees.
Of course, 2012 also saw the ending of the critically-acclaimed Nolan Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises and the beginning of a new Spidey saga with The Amazing Spider-Man. The Dark Knight Rises, Spider-Man, and Dredd all sit above 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, with TDKR being the top among that trio at 87%.
2012 has the benefit of just being overly good. While things like Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises hit that great mark, there is nothing here to bring down its DCI in any major way. If someone was seeing a comic book movie in 2012, they were very likely going to have at least a decent time.
Movies Released: The Snyder Cut, Black Widow, The Suicide Squad, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home
Firmly holding the fifth-place spot on the list is 2021. With a DCI of 73.0, 2021 is another example of a lot of good to very good movies coming out all at once.
Maybe it was that there was an abundance of projects finally coming out after months of pushbacks because of the COVID-19 pandemic, or it just so happened so many fantastic films came out within the same calendar year. Either way, comic book fans ate well in 2021.
The biggest stand out of the year was Spider-Man: No Way Home, which holds a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and - at the time of writing - a 98% audience score on the same site. Now, audience score was not a factor in any of these calculations (although, the rankings of The Direct staff may show a similar metric), but it does go to show just how big Tom Holland’s Spidey threequel is.
Besides No Way Home, both The Suicide Squad and Shang-Chi sit in the low 90’s on most review aggregate sites. Pairing that with mostly positive sentiment towards Black Widow, Eternals, and The Snyder Cut, and it makes sense why 2021 appears so high.
The one thing holding 2021 back is Venom: Let There Be Carnage. While it performed fairly well at the box office, the Venom sequel has been lauded by fans and critics alike. The film currently averages 53% between its scores on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, so that is the only major movie stopping 2021 from appearing even higher on this list.
Movies Released: The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Incredible Hulk, Wanted
If 1978 was where comic book movies started, 2008 is where the current iteration of the genre first appeared.
Coming in at #4 on the list, 2008 had two big standouts when it comes to the movies that were released. These came with Iron Man, which kicked-started the MCU (one of the biggest entertainment franchises ever) and The Dark Knight (arguably the best comic book movie of all time). Looking back now it seems pretty remarkable that within months of each other these two monoliths of the genre both saw the light of day.
Getting into the nitty-gritty, The Dark Knight and Iron Man tied for the highest-rated films of the year (both with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 94%). From a critical standpoint, 2008 was second on the list behind only 1978 and was the highest-ranked year to have more than one comic book movie used in the data.
Both Hellboy II and Wanted were well-liked at the time and hold up even to this day.
On the other side of things though, 2008 had one pretty major flop. The Incredible Hulk still stands as one of the lowest-ranked MCU movies to date, serving as a test for a very different kind of movie within the newly-formed MCU.
But Hulk could only lower the average so much. In a data set that features two bonafide classics and a pair of fairly good comic book fare, one sour grape will not sully the bunch.
Movies Released: Atomic Blonde, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Justice League, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Lego Batman Movie, Logan, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder Woman
2017 sits in the third overall place spot on this list, and it also featured the most data points factoring into the DCI. 2017 saw nine comic book movies released and most were some of the highest-rated so far on this list.
The DCI of 81.9 should do all the talking it needs to here. 2017 featured plenty of great with not a lot of meh or bad. Logan, The Lego Batman Movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, and Thor: Ragnarok all sport Rotten Tomatoes scores above 90%. And James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not far behind with a score of 85%.
There is a lot to love about 2017’s comic book movie output. The biggest losers here are Justice League (one of the most lauded films of all time) and Kingsman: The Golden Circle (a sequel that just did not live up to its predecessor). Both those films sit right around the 50% mark, hence why 2017 is not higher up on the list.
But it’s the stars that buoy this year, and boy are they some stars. 2017 is the third-best comic book movie year of all time.
Movies Released: 300: Rise of an Empire, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Big Hero 6, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men: Days of Future Past
As was the case with 2017, 2014 is an example of a year whose highs way outweigh its lows. Nabbing a DCI of 82.1 2014 saw the release of beloved films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but also came with some misses like The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Looking at the good first, there was some pure gold in 2014. Guardians of the Galaxy leads this pack with a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, with X-Men: Days of Future Past, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Big Hero 6 all tied for second with 90%.
The worst the genre had in 2014 was in Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot. The Megan Fox-starring venture did terribly from a critical point of view and boasts a lowly 21% on RT.
Other than that, even when the year stumbled, it was not all that bad. 300: Rise of an Empire may be the only other definitively bad movie on the release calendar, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has found a bit of a cult following despite initially being ripped to shred by critics.
2014 was a pretty fantastic comic book year, but it just misses the mark of being the best.
Movies Released: Ant-Man and the Wasp, Aquaman, Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, Deadpool 2, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Venom
And the best comic book movie year of all time goes to… 2018! By a margin of only 0.1%, 2018 just skates in and takes the throne, but looking at the output from that year, it is hard to argue that it could get any better.
2018 features not just the highest-rated movie on this list but the second and third highest as well. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is currently the top-reviewed comic book movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes with a rating of 97%, Black Panther comes in at second with a 95%, and Avengers: Infinity War is tied for third with a few others (like The Dark Knight) at 94%. Just look at those numbers!
That trio of movies is what makes 2018 special. While there were other films that came out in those same twelve months, those three sit atop the mountain as not just some of the best of the year, but some of the best ever.
Looking at the other movies that saw a 2018 release, the only one to really lower the score here is Venom. Even Aquaman and Ant-Man and the Wasp did well critically.
1978 may have been the year comic book movies started, and 2008 may have been the year comic book movies were legitimized, but 2018 holds the crown as the great comic book movie year ever, and it’s hard to argue.
What's the Best Year of Comic Book Movies?
The comic book movie genre has seen plenty of variations in its nearly 50-year history. Whether it was Superman’s first flight in 1978, Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man swinging through Manhattan in 2002, or the entire MCU emerging through portals to take on Thanos in 2019, the high of seeing a favorite superhero on the big screen is one that has yet to have any parallel.
This genre has grown and so has its audiences. One can argue over what the best comic book movie year is or spend hours upon hours doing arbitrary math in order to “find out” which one is. But one thing is for certain, there has never been a better time to be a fan of these types of films.