The best superhero movies of 2021

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2021 was a year that needed superheroes, and boy did it get them. After the delays of 2020 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year saw at least one Marvel character reach the screen every two months.

It was also the year of Jack ‘The King’ Kirby. The famed comic creator’s most spectacular universes appeared on film like never before. Zack Snyder’s Justice League appeared from nowhere to unleash its epic vision of Kirby’s Fourth World for the DC Extended Universe. Over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals adapted Kirby’s ambitious 1970s saga.

It was an interesting year for the MCU, which had more releases than ever before and received its broadest range of reviews yet. Having had to wait after closing off, Marvel launched its ambitious streaming series on Disney Plus, but by the end of 2021, it was Sony’s spider-shaped pocket of the universe that carried the weight of the MCU even more than Marvel’s Eternals

This was a year when the genre’s behind-the-scenes drama competed with its on-screen action. That included Zack Snyder’s unlikely return to the DCEU as HBO Max attempted to make its mark and Scarlett Johansson’s unfortunate head-to-head with Disney. 

But this list is all about what happened on screen. In a year when some franchises stumbled, others soared or took their very first steps. Here’s our ranking of the best movies in a year packed with superheroes.

10. Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins 

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This G.I. The Joe spin-off marked a new direction for the franchise. It explored the origins of its iconic characters, but unfortunately, this approach may have fallen on its sword from the start given its disappointing box office performance. 

Snake Eyes was an interesting first choice as a character to focus on in solo-film form. He’s a recognizable member of the G.I. Joe lineup, but mainly for his covered face and permanent silence. The similarities with a certain Merc with a Mouth are there, and Paramount learned from X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s mistakes. Even so, it couldn’t rustle up another Deadpool. The film’s story and character changes came in for criticism, but Snake Eyes’ main problem was bad luck. It came out just a month before Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings explored a similar web of crime syndicates, underground fight clubs, and ancient clans.

9. Eternals 

Chloé Zhao won the Academy Award for Best Director between filming and releasing this ensemble epic. It carries many of the director’s trademarks, but Eternals was a risky proposition for Marvel despite its impressive cast and crew. The source material ⏤ Jack Kirby’s incredible and imaginative universe building ⏤ could only be diluted in a live-action adaptation. It was more earnest than Guardians of the Galaxy but lacked the build-up of The Avengers.

Eternals’ disappointing response isn’t the only unwanted record it could set in the MCU. It’s vying with Black Widow to be the first film in the franchise not to earn a sequel since The Incredible Hulk, despite signposting how the shared universe can deepen and mature. 

8. Black Widow 

Black Widow’s solo film was bracketed by unfortunate events, the pandemic, and a falling out between star and studio. A prequel always felt like a strange move, but it presented Marvel with its chance to stage a James Bond film, including cold war intrigue and an extravagant, radar-defying base for its villain. Despite its functional plot, it’s packed with horrid ideas and sadistic moments that set a strange tone.

It’s the dysfunctional “family” at the heart of the film that saves the day. As we lose Black Widow in the MCU, it’s fitting that she’s left some brilliant family members to continue her work, including fan-favorite Yelena Belova.

7. Venom: Let There Be Carnage

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This was the second slice of Sony’s renewed Spider-Man Universe without a Spider-Man…so far. No adaptation of Carnage’s attachment to serial killer Cletus Kasady could compete with the original comic book’s epic scope, but the Venom sequel knew not to break the mold. It doubled up on its quick-paced comic horror and a strong cast led by Tom Hardy as both Eddie Brock and the hilarious symbiote that has glommed onto him. Given the film’s later events, it’s likely that Venom’s third outing will push the boundaries a bit more than its predecessors.

6. The Matrix Resurrections

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At last, the belated Matrix sequel arrived and explored aging superheroes and the meaning of legacy like no other blockbuster. Resurrections corrected some criticisms leveled at earlier sequels but it wasn’t the Through the Looking-Glass to The Matrix’s Alice in Wonderland that many fans wanted. Still, it was a thrill to have these heroes back, even if the film’s meta-obsession blurred the lines between realities and didn’t leave them with much to do. While it compulsively reinterpreted bullet time, Resurrections is unlikely to influence the next 20 years of superhero films the way the original did.

5. Free Guy

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Ryan Reynolds’ sneaky return to super-heroics wisely broke before The Matrix returned. If you doubt that this is a superhero film, take a look at that first scene (and its sneaky cameo). The twist is that we’re the superheroes, or rather every video game player who witnesses the origin story of Guy’s hopelessly optimistic NPC. It plays like a combination of The Lego Movie, The Matrix, Tron, They Live, and The Truman Show. But somehow, if you overlook Tika Waititi’s over-the-top performance, this fun and humorous film also feels fresh ⏤ quite probably the start of a new Hollywood franchise.

4. Zack Snyder’s Justice League

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It’s still hard to believe that Zack Snyder’s Justice League exists. The background to this four-hour epic is well documented, as is the passionate (and still raging) campaign to bring Snyder’s interpretation of the DC Universe to the screen. That still looks unlikely to happen, but this massive improvement on 2017’s Justice League is a fine trilogy closer. 

It won’t pull in anyone not convinced by Man of Steel or Dawn of Justice, but it succeeds in showcasing the DCEU’s original ambitions and answers many of the franchise’s early criticisms. There’s subtle humor, incredible action sequences, and some of the greatest superhero myth-making ever caught on film. Each hero gets their time to shine, particularly the revelatory and pivotal role carved out for Ray Fisher’s Cyborg.

3. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten rings

Shang-Chi’s arrival in the MCU was a breath of fresh air. Like Black Widow, it drills into the darker side of its protagonist’s history, but the result is bold, colorful, and heartfelt. It’s confident, too ⏤ just look at the way it happily picks up plot strands left hanging since Iron Man 3. At its center is a charismatic turn from Simu Liu, proving to be one of the MCU’s most effortless casting choices in years. It’s what was needed to get the MCU’s Phase Four back on track. The Avengers will be in good hands.

2. The Suicide Squad

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James Gunn’s jump to the DCEU was messy, but it all worked out well for DC, Marvel, and most importantly, the fans in the end. The Suicide Squad was a triumph that finally fulfilled Task Force X’s potential. Its mix of action, comedy violence, jaw-dropping set pieces, and emotion makes it Gunn’s most complete superhero film to date. 

Some thought Harley Quinn’s side plots derailed the story, but she shone in the hands of one of her greatest screenwriters to date. Although the film’s performance was dented by its instant home release, the addition of that definitive article has set a new bar for the DCEU’s exciting R-rated future.

1. Spider-Man: No Way Home

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It took Sony eight live-action films to get here, but they finally produced the ultimate Spider-Man film about great power and even greater responsibility. No Way Home is the nostalgic Christmas gift that takes on 20 years of Spidey’s cinematic history and amends and reframes it. On the way, it delivers the biggest whoops, cheers, and sobs heard in movie theaters this year. Even a middle act dip manages to reinforce exactly what Spider-Man and his enemies stand for.

While Peter Parker shines, the film’s greatest success is in reasserting one of the best rogue galleries in comics. No good comic villain stays dead forever, and gliding to the top of that pack, No Way Home reasserts Spider-Man’s ultimate foe Green Goblin in devastating style. This most-hyped Spider-Man film of all time delivers, and Michael Giacchino’s score deserves particular praise for holding it all together. It’s a film that rewards devoted moviegoers, pleases fans, and opens a new chapter for the friendly neighborhood webslinger.

With an eye on the future as much as the past, the Spider-Man universe has never been so exciting. Sony is on solid form as it bursts into 2022, a year bookended by Morbius and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – Part One.