Despite the doomsayers going on about the eminent end of the superhero film genre, this year produced a robust collection of movies which pushed the genre in new directions. The traditional origin story took a year off, though it will be back in 2019, with Black Panther and Aquaman dispensing with the tried-and-true format thanks to both characters debuting in earlier team movies. But even the team movie underwent a metamorphosis this year as it introduced loss into the mix. And with these evolution in mind, take a look at our top five superhero films of 2018.
1. Black Panther
It is no accident that Black Panther is seen as a legit awards contender despite its early debut. Ryan Coogler’s realization of Wakanda wowed audiences of every stripe and gave film critics the chance to discuss Afro-futurism. In fact, it is still surprising to think this film sits inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe for all its heady themes of isolationism, interventionism and the ability of good people to lead. Meanwhile, it contains one of the best car chases in years and some excellent action sequences. To say nothing of the superb cast of scene-stealers like Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, and Angel Bassett or MVP Michael B. Jordan as a meme-defining Erik Killmonger.
It even managed to convert the questionable image of Man-Ape into a worthy addition to its world thanks making M’Baku a bigger personality than his costume and casting Winston Duke as a person surprisingly worthy to sit the throne. Well, at least until he and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) come to blows in a subsequent Black Panther film.
2. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Visually stunning, surprisingly complex and gleeful in its mix of artistic styles, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse generated a compelling reason for Sony to continue its attempt at a cinematic universe. It served as a perfect introduction to Miles Morales; eschewing a more traditional origin tale in favor of presenting him as part of a Spider-people continuum. It also suggests Spider-Man is better served inside animation, where wilder ideas about multiverses can shine.
Beyond Miles, the film also proved characters like Spider-Gwen – er, “Ghost Spider” – and Spider-Ham have a place in the popular culture with superb vocal performances from Hailee Steinfeld and John Mulaney. Even Nicolas Cages’ Spider-Man Noir could have a future in his own animated feature.
Which is hopefully the lesson Sony will take from this film: characters need to have a strong appeal if you intend to spin them off.
Make no mistake, Venom is still a cheesy movie. But sometimes a superhero movie just needs to embrace that and few have as successfully. Entirely anchored by the surprisingly effective double act of star Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock and Venom, the film is funnier than its cynical production history would suggest and better produced than it has any right to be. Sure, it is a throwback to the isolated superhero worlds of Blade or the Tim Burton Batman cycle, but it justifies its existence by taking that mad late 1990’s energy on board.
As Eddie, Hardy comes off more like a Jay Baruchel character while Venom becomes an appealing, if silly, id monster. When they are finally paired after a painfully slow first act, the film pops to life. The world around them becomes a little more cartoonish and outsized performances suddenly make sense. In fact, Venom’s biggest fault is the time it takes to embrace its own wackiness.
4. Ant-Man and the Wasp
Proving once again that superhero movies can also be caper movies, Ant-Man and the Wasp stands apart from other films in the genre – and even the Marvel Studios pictures – by making them charming family movies. The stakes are small, but not every superhero story need revolve around reality-ending threats. In Ant-Man and the Wasp, things are so slight, it requires three antagonistic forces to gang up on Scott (Paul Rudd) and the Pym family as they attempt to extract Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm. But really, the threats are only there to give the film some shape as its characters shine with snappy dialogue.
It also gives the filmmakers the impetus for some wonderful action scenes and car chases. The miniaturization power would seem like one of the least cinematic superhero abilities, but Ant-Man and the Wasp proves it to be a lot of filmic fun.
5. Avengers: Infinity War
Avengers: Infinity War edges out Aquaman on the list thanks to one reason: characters. Both are visual feasts and surprising achievements as they both give some of comics’ silliest ideas tentpole movie gravitas. But where Aquaman often falters in its character interactions, it is one of the best aspects of Infinity War. It is a film in which Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) live in the same reality and generate a lot of laughs thanks to the subtle tonal differences between them. It is a movie in which Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) become the pair of characters you want to see carrying their own movie. It is also a movie which truly proves Mark Ruffalo is the best Bruce Banner.
And then all the fun and lightness it imports from the early scenes of a crossover event comic book turns to darkness as Thanos (Josh Brolin) finally wins. While not surprising to those who have read The Infinity Gauntlet or crossovers like Crisis on Infinite Earths, allowing the film to end on a sense of loss is a new concept for the MCU. Sure, it might be entirely reversed in Avengers: Endgame, but for the moment, the stunned silences of audiences following The Snap proved just how invested viewers had become in the Marvel heroes.