The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Universe have been pop culture powerhouses for years, but some superhero franchises peaked in their first installments. While conceptually, superheroes have been around for nearly a century, live-action movies based on Marvel and DC’s iconic characters have only become a major success in recent decades. Initially, superhero films were something of a curiosity in Hollywood, with successes like Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman films not necessarily owing their achievements to their respective comic source materials. Later films like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and the MCU’s The Avengers, however, proved the marketability of comic accuracy and superhero franchises in and of themselves.
From the early days of Marvel and DC adaptations to recent years, there have been a multitude of franchises based on the publishers’ superheroes. While many are highly successful, both critically, and commercially, not all saw the same success in their later installments as they did in their first ones. In some cases, an argument could be made that some franchises peaked in their first installments despite later films performing better at the box office and among viewers. Of Marvel and DC’s superhero film franchises, here are 8 whose first movies represented their peak, either by cultural impact, critical and commercial success, or simply faithfulness to their respective source materials.
8 Richard Donner’s Superman
The first major success in the realm of superhero films is Richard Donner’s Superman from 1978. Starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Gene Hackman, Superman helped lay the groundwork for modern superhero movies with its heartfelt script and performances, groundbreaking special effects, and broad appeal. The Richard Donner Superman franchise had three sequels, with Superman II also considered a classic, while Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace had far more negative receptions. While Superman II was produced concurrently with Superman, the original film had a far greater impact on Superman movies in general and the superhero genre writ large, making it the greatest installment in Donner’s franchise.
7 Tim Burton’s Batman
Featuring a gargantuan marketing campaign and the unexpected combination of Tim Burton’s direction and Michael Keaton as the titular hero, 1989’s Batman became one of the superhero genre’s most influential films of all time. Like Richard Donner’s Superman franchise, the original Batman anthology series continued with three more installments. Batman Returns was the subject of controversy due to its violence and sexual content, and Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin were criticized for their lighter and more cartoonish tones. To this day, all Batman movies try to mimic the success of 1989’s Batman, making it the franchise’s best installment.
6 DC Animated Films
WB has produced a plethora of animated films based on DC Comics characters for decades, and while many are popular among die-hard DC Comics readers, the most successful DC Animated film is 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Set in the DC Animated Universe continuity (and taking place concurrently with Batman: The Animated Series), Mask of the Phantasm retells elements of Batman’s origin story, delving into the melancholic mission that Bruce Wayne has devoted himself to while exploring a would-be romance that ended in tragedy. The film, unfortunately, did not turn a profit in its theatrical run, but it was well-received, with many commending its understanding of Batman’s characterization.
5 Iron Man
2008’s Iron Man is the first installment in Marvel Studios’ Iron Man franchise and the MCU writ large. With a charismatic performance by Robert Downey Jr. and a story that pleased casual viewers and hardcore Iron Man readers, the film launched what would soon become a pop culture-dominating franchise. Iron Man’s sequel, Iron Man 2, lacked its predecessor’s warm reception due to its overabundance of characters and time spent setting up The Avengers. Iron Man 3 was, unfortunately, a somewhat divisive installment, largely due to its twist involving The Mandarin. While none of the Iron Man films could be considered failures, the first movie will always be the franchise’s best.
Objectively speaking, the most critically and commercially successful film in the MCU’s Thor franchise is 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, but a case can be made that the franchise’s high point was 2011’s Thor. The general consensus for the Thor franchise is that the second film, Thor: Dark World, was underwhelming while Ragnarok’s tongue-in-cheek humor made it a breath of fresh air, only for Thor: Love and Thunder to take Taika Waititi’s humor too far. 2011’s Thor was well-received, however, and while it lacks the success of Ragnarok, it is a far more earnest film that delves into the Thor comic mythos rather than repeatedly poking fun at it.
The third and fourth Avengers films are in many ways the best installments in the franchise, yet both lack the pop culture impact of 2012’s The Avengers. The first Avengers movie was a massive critical and commercial success, but its impact goes beyond simply being a good movie. 2012’s The Avengers popularized shared universe storytelling, which was commonplace in superhero comics themselves but not particularly common in the realm of Hollywood at first. Movie studios now attempt to replicate the MCU’s model of building a film franchise to varying degrees of success. This alone makes the first Avengers movie the peak of its franchise.
2 Guardians of the Galaxy
While all three of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films have been major critical and commercial successes, none have quite the same impact on pop culture as the franchise’s first installment. The Guardians of the Galaxy comics were among Marvel’s most obscure properties initially, and while Gunn took many liberties with the source material, his films gave the team mainstream appeal overnight. Like The Avengers, the first Guardians film had a significant impact on both the MCU and the superhero genre itself, making it even better than its two sequels.
1 Sony’s Spider-Man Universe
Following the abrupt ending of Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man film franchise, the studio opted to share the film rights to Spider-Man with Marvel Studios, allowing him to join the MCU. While Tom Holland became the next iteration of Spider-Man, Sony began their own film universe, using Spider-Man characters but not Spider-Man himself. Their first film, Venom, had a mixed critical reception but a strong following among viewers and a successful box office performance. Its sequel, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, was similarly a financial success though its reception was far poorer and Morbius is considered a flop on all fronts, making Venom the best film in Sony’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.