Even the most die-hard, fanatical superhero fan will admit that the genre has fallen on hard times. Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse were hits, but they came amidst critical and financial failures like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Flash.
As disappointing as these recent movies may be, the superhero genre is much older and much more varied than the Marvel and DC shared universes. Going back to serials of the 40s and 50s, superheroes have been on screen for almost as long as they’ve been in comics, and their adventures have varied wildly in quality. To help put things in perspective, here’s a list of the worst superhero movies of all time, super-stinkers that the genre has weathered and overcome, continuing the neverending battle for great cinema.
The Specials (2000)
The Specials is written by James Gunn and directed by Craig Mazin, co-creator of The Last of Us. Sounds great, right? Sadly, it is not. Using a mockumentary format that The Office and Parks and Recreation will popularize, The Specials follows a group of self-interested superheroes who try to capitalize on their reputations and sometimes do good. Despite a cast that includes Rob Lowe, Paget Brewster, and Thomas Haden Church, The Specials goes for low-brow, cynical humor, making for an unpleasant and, even worse, unfunny watch.
Bulletproof Monk (2003)
Seann William Scott is easily the best thing about Bulletproof Monk. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (see the underrated hockey comedy Goon), but Scott should not be the major draw if you’re talking about a martial arts film starring Chow Yun-Fat. As the mysterious Monk with No Name, Chow plays a monk who enlists the excitable Scott in his mission to protect an ancient scroll, but the Hong Kong actor can’t seem bothered to do more than smirk and half-heartedly kick. One might argue that Paul Hunter’s excessive camera movements and frantic editing are necessities to work around Chow’s performance. Still, his use of the same style for nearly every shot suggests a misunderstanding of visual storytelling.
Batman & Robin (1997)
It’s easy to understand why some people have started to defend Batman & Robin in recent years. After all, the movie’s failure in 1997 led to the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy, kicking off decades of serious superhero movies. Those who like their caped crusader to be a bit more goofy may look back at Joel Schumacher’s second trip to Gotham with neon-tinted nostalgia goggles. But those who remove their nostalgia glasses and watch the film will find utterly checked-out performances amongst the vibrant set design, especially from a bored George Clooney as Batman and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who barely bothers delivering his nonsense puns as Mr. Freeze.
Today, the MCU has made Disney synonymous with superheroes, but that wasn’t the case when Condorman hit the screens. Accordingly, there’s a bit of hedging in director Charles Jarrott’s adaptation of the novel The Game of X by Robert Sheckley, which finds cartoonist Woody Wilkins (Michael Crawford) mistaken by Soviet spies for his superhero creation. The mistaken identity plot has been done better elsewhere, and Disney doesn’t manage to mix spy action with superhero hijinks, not like they will decades later with The Incredibles.
Hot off of the wild success of 2002’s Spider-Man, comic readers and civilians alike rushed to theaters for Daredevil. Instead of the same mix of melodrama and superhero action from Sam Raimi, moviegoers only received bland nu-metal and an overstuffed plot about a mopey hero. Some stick up for the director Mark Steven Johnson’s extended cut, but that longer version only forces you to spend more time with Ben Affleck’s wooden crimefighter and Jennifer Garner’s confused Elektra.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)
Born as a parody of 80s Daredevil comics, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a pop culture phenomenon by mixing gritty urban martial arts with goofy teenage jokes. So why did writer/director Stuart Gillard put them in an epic set in feudal Japan? Despite the occasional bits of comedy relief, mostly involving the over-qualified Elias Koteas as Casey Jones, TMNT III is too serious to appeal to kids and too bland to appeal to adults, leading to the end of Turtle Mania, at least for a while.
Dark Phoenix (2019)
Nowadays, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the X-Men franchise produced by 20th Century Fox. Despite their black leather costumes and deviations from the comics, the X-Men movies drew general audiences into the soap opera world of Marvel’s Merry Band of Mutants. But by 2019, everyone involved in the franchised appeared to be bored, with the concept not least of whom was writer/director Simon Kinberg and Fox, who turned the cosmic tragedy The Dark Phoenix saga into a grounded, boring fight among nondescript mutants in a junkyard.
Fantastic Four (2015)
The Marvel Universe of comics came to life with the Fantastic Four in 1961, which harnessed the optimism of the Kennedy era. For some, the cheery tone of the FF seems too hokey, but few would follow director Josh Trank in making a cynical body horror film out of Marvel’s first family. And even those who could accept the lovable Thing being turned into a creature of hatred were disappointed by the movie’s structure, which consists largely of two acts before suddenly stopping, banking on a sequel that (thankfully) never came.
Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975)
In the Street & Smith pulp novels from which he sprung, Doc Savage is a clear predecessor to Superman and Batman. He is a man who honed his abilities to perfection and relaxes in his arctic Fortress of Solitude, at least when not traveling the world and writing wrongs. But in the same way that Superman and Batman improved upon Savage in the comics, the movie Doc Savage: Man of Bronze feels like a trial run for the better Superman and Batman movies that would come out over the next 15 years. Simultaneously condescending to its subject matter and self-important, the movie fails to celebrate the silly fun of superheroes.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Created by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, the comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen assembles the heroes of Victorian Literature into a super team. The comic sometimes veers too nasty to be fun (much like most of Moore’s later work), but at least it has an adventurous heart and a handle on all its characters. The same cannot be said of the film adaptation from director Stephen Norrington, who fails to recapture the magic of his previous outing, Blade. So bad was LEX that it drove the great Sean Connery into retirement, something not even The Avengers (1998) or Never Say Never could do.
On the one hand, there’s something admirable about 20th Century Fox sticking to its guns and going ahead with Elektra, even after Daredevil met with abysmal reviews. After all, Daredevil was a hit, earning more than twice its budget. The same can not be said of the spin-off Elektra, which flopped with critics and audiences. Garner fails to find any sense of danger or pathos in her Greek assassin character, who gets lost in a meandering story about mystical ninjas and super-killers.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
For some people, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a complex exploration of the dark side of power, even when wielded by those who would be heroes. For others, director Zack Snyder’s follow-up to Man of Steel mistakes glowering for introspection, culminating in a self-important mess that shouts a lot of big words but doesn’t know what they mean. Snyder knows how to compose a striking image, something ignored by too many directors making films based on the visual medium of comics, but between a nonsense plot and Jesse Eisenberg’s grating performance as Lex Luthor, Batman v Superman is a battle with nothing but losers.
Thunder Force (2021)
Octavia Spencer and Melissa McCarthy have done excellent work, something that’s hard to remember while watching Thunder Force. Written and directed by McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone, Thunder Force does nothing well, not its broad slapstick gags, not its story of childhood friendship, and certainly not its superheroics. The premise seems slapped together from reading a couple of Wikipedia entries about superheroes, a lazy excuse for lazier gags, carried only by the natural appeal of Spencer and McCarthy.
Superman III (1983)
Christopher Reeve’s Superman may be the all-time greatest performance in any superhero movie, a miracle of posture and presence that makes you believe that Clark Kent and Superman are two separate people. Richard Pryor may be the funniest person who ever lived, a boundary-pushing comic who never forgot basic joke structure. And yet Superman III wastes them both, a lowest common denominator romp that holds its subjects and audience in contempt. The robot transformation scene may have disturbed some kids at the time, but nothing else in this dismal third feature is worth remembering.
Superhero Movie (2008)
Superhero Movie tells you precisely what to expect from this film from Craig Mazin of The Specials, not just because it's a movie about superheroes. Rather, the title Superhero Movie signals the amount of creativity in the film: absolutely none. Former Nickelodeon star Drake Bell plays Rick Riker, who becomes the powerful Dragonfly through a series of events taken from Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman Begins. Bell and his co-stars are likable enough, and there’s a more coherent plot than most spoof movies of the era, but Superhero Movie succeeds neither as a comedy nor as a superhero movie, despite what its title says.
Barb Wire (1996)
Since her introduction in 1993, Barb Wire has appeared in a handful of comics, never really catching on with readers. But her simple backstory (tough night club owner) and distinctive look (attractive woman in strips of leather) worked for model-turned-actress Pamela Anderson, who needed a vehicle. Anderson does about as well as you’d expect, but the B-movie greats Temuera Morrison, Xander Berkley, and Udo Kier handily pick up the slack. Even stranger, director David Hogan and screenwriters Chuck Pfarrer and Ilene Chaiken use Casablanca as a template for their story resulting in a movie that isn’t good, but is… interesting?
The opening to this article argued that modern superhero flops aren’t that bad in the grand scheme of things. Morbius is the exception that proves that rule. An utterly inessential movie, Morbius came to life not because anyone had a great story to tell about B-list Spider-Man villain Morbius the Living Vampire, but because Sony had the character’s film rights and superhero movies make money. Lazily following beats from superhero films from the 2000s, namely Batman Begins, Morbius stars a listless Jared Leto as a scientist who gains vampire powers after injecting himself with bat blood, a crazy premise that the movie never acknowledges. At least Matt Smith is on hand to be bonkers as the movie’s villains, providing rare and welcome moments of entertainment.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Every comic book fan will tell you that Wolverine is a short, hairy Canadian with a bad attitude. So it’s a testament to Hugh Jackman’s charisma and commitment to the part that even the most fussy comics reader has come to accept the tall, handsome actor as a quality Wolverine. So it’s no small thing to see that Jackman lazily plods around his first solo outing in his signature role. Even if one ignores the tendency of X-Men Origins: Wolverine to introduce new characters instead of telling a story, Jackman barely engages with his character, making Logan feel as weightless and fake as the CGI claws he unleashes.
Son of the Mask (2005)
In the early 1990s, producers took a violent independent comic called The Mask and turned it into a vehicle for Jim Carrey to play a living cartoon. The belated sequel Son of the Mask strays even further from the source material and further from the quality of the original by replacing Carrey with the far less talented Jamie Kennedy. Son of the Mask gets a little slack for being more of a kid’s movie than the original, but that’s not enough to forgive the unending sugar-induced headache that is this obnoxious and joyless film.
Suicide Squad (2016)
Few people who enjoy Suicide Squad actually cite the movie that hit theaters. Even the biggest supporter admits that the movie we currently have is a flashy, unfunny mess, filled with obvious pop songs and narrative culs-de-sac, the result of studio Warner Bros. taking the film from director David Ayer and giving a movie trailer company final edit. Those fans insist a never-before-seen “Ayer Cut” preserves the original intention of the movie, a dark team film about bad guys such as Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and Will Smith’s Deadshot. That may be true; The Ayer Cut may be a good movie. But since no one has seen the Ayer Cut, we have to judge Suicide Squad for what it is, one of the worst superhero movies ever made.
Based on a little-known indie comic about a super assassin fighting his way toward retirement, the Netflix film Polar features a remarkable Mads Mikkelsen performance as the aging killer, the Black Kaiser. Mikkelsen plays both the full weight of a man who has spent his life doing evil for money, only to have that money taken from him. So why is Polar so low on this list? Because surrounding Mikkelsen is a trite and crass comedy with loud scenes indulging in flashy violence and offensive jokes. Every scene exists only to impress the viewer with its irreverent humor, constantly failing to be funny, impressive, or even shocking.
When Spawn debuted in 1992, he signaled a new era of comics in which people like artist Todd McFarlane had complete control over their creations, not subject to the whims of companies like Marvel and DC. While Spawn’s first publisher, Image, has become a home to interesting, creator-owned stories, it tended to publish a juvenile mishmash of concepts done better in other books, all of which is on display in the 1997 film Spawn. Despite a committed performance by the furious Michael Jai White in the lead, Spawn relies on unnecessarily complicated lore and John Leguizamo at his most annoying as the villain Clown. By the time the movie climaxes, Spawn effectively argued for editorial control and against the individual vision.
The product of early comics of the 1930s, Sheena carried with it some retrograde views about Africa and its relationship to Europe. Screenwriters Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Newman seem aware of those problems, but instead of working to give their African characters depth, they make Sheena an environmental hero, fighting to save her fictional country Tigora from Indigenous peoples. Even worse, star Tanya Roberts is completely unfit to carry the movie, as demonstrated by every wooden delivery she gives. Sheena does feature amazing nature photography shot on location in Kenya, but the imagery hardly justifies the terrible movie surrounding it.
The Spirit (2008)
Artist and writer Will Eisner is one of comics’ first innovators, a storytelling genius who used the central conceit of a masked hero called the Spirit to tell inventive tales with human compassion. Decades later, artist and writer Frank Miller drew from samurai movies and hard-boiled fiction to give superhero comics a blast of energy, bringing moral complexity to Batman and Daredevil. But in his sole directorial effort, The Spirit, Miller forgets forgoes all creativity for a dense, visually nauseating mess. Using the CG techniques used during the film adaptation of his comic Sin City, Miller constructs fake-looking worlds in which the Spirit (Gabriel Macht) battles the supercriminal, the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson).
Never mind that Catwoman abandons the well-established story from the comics. Never mind that Catwoman ignores Michelle Pfeiffer’s scene-stealing turn in Batman Begins. Never mind that Catwoman dresses Halle Berry in the most ridiculous outfit in superhero history. Catwoman fails solely because of the terrible direction from French visual effects supervisor Pitof. Instead of using his camera to tell a story, even one as simple as Catwoman, Pitof sweeps around characters and frantically cuts from one sequence to another, with no sense of visual coherence. Instead of giving the movie kinetic energy, these choices render the movie unwatchable, killing whatever small chance of success Catwoman may have had.