Superheroes have been a part of cinema for decades. Hits like Superman: The Movie and Tim Burton’s Batman would pop up every now and again. Be that as it may, for the most part, Hollywood didn’t treat comic book movies all that seriously for much of existence. That all changed in the 2000s when X-Men and Spider-Man proved that the source material provided by the likes of Marvel and DC could lead to huge returns at the box office.
In the years since, superhero movies have explored, producing billion-dollar hit after billion-dollar hit. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the biggest brands on the planet and Warner Bros. is working hard to put DC on the same level. Over the last 20 years, superheroes, and even villains, have been the subjects of some of the biggest movies in history. And we are here to take a look at the 15 highest-grossing superhero movies ever, breaking down each entry along the way. Enjoy.
It is fair to say that time has not been kind to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. While the filmmaker’s first two Spider-Man movies helped cement the superhero genre as the modern blockbuster trend, the finale to his trilogy was widely-lamented by critics and fans alike. But that didn’t damage its earning potential. Tobey Maguire’s third go-around as Peter Parker earned $894.8 million globally, including a tremendous $151.1 million on its opening weekend domestically.
14The Dark Knight
Few movies ever attain both the level of acclaim and financial success that The Dark Knight has. Christopher Nolan’s landmark 2008 Batman movie, which followed in the footsteps of Batman Begins, is still widely considered to be one of the greatest comic book movies ever made, and perhaps one of the best movies of its decade. Riding a wave of praise and buzz over the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, the DC Comics adaptation has earned just over $1 billion at the global box office to date. Yes, other movies on this list made more money but few can endure in the way The Dark Knight has.
This is the only entry on this list that falls into kind of a grey area. Joker is not technically a superhero movie by some definitions. It is focused almost entirely on a villain and Bruce Wayne only appears for mere moments as a child. Be that as it may, it was close enough to include, given its DC Comics source material. In any event, this may be, by some measures, the most financially successful movie on the list. Directed by Todd Phillips, the guy best known for directing The Hangover movies, Joker is a dark, R-rated character study with Joaquin Phoenix playing the lead, a man named Arthur Fleck who becomes the famed criminal. Made for a reported budget of just $55 million, less than half of what the typical superhero flick costs, it earned a staggering $1.07 billion globally. Not only that but Phoenix went on to win the Best Actor Oscar for his work. Given its low budget, the profit margins were massive. All for a movie Warner Bros. seemed to have little faith in during its development.
12The Dark Knight Rises
After much anticipation and waiting, The Dark Knight Rises arrived in theaters in the summer of 2012, providing fans not only a sequel to The Dark Knight, but a conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. In the end, it couldn’t live up to its predecessor, critically speaking. It did, however, top it at the box office, taking in $1.07 billion globally. The world was eager to see how this would play out. How Christian Bale’s Caped Crusader would match up against Tom Hardy’s brooding Bane. It was, up until very recently, the highest-grossing DC movie in history. But a certain member of the Justice League managed to overtake it. We’ll get to that shortly.
Captain Marvel was many things for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was the first female-fronted solo title in the franchise. It marked Brie Larson’s debut as the iconic character. It was the first movie in the MCU to be co-directed by a woman, with Anna Boden at the helm alongside Ryan Fleck. It was also a tremendous success. The 90s-set superhero adventure earned a better-than-expected $1.12 billion at the global box office. That total includes a stellar $462.8 million domestically. That only served to help Avengers: Endgame further when it was released in 2019, as Larson also appeared in the massive team-up as Carol Danvers.
10Spider-Man: Far From Home
Not only is Spider-Man: Far From Home one of the highest-grossing superhero movies in history, it is Sony’s highest-grossing movie ever. Period. The studio’s previous best was Skyfall ($1.108 billion) but Tom Holland’s second solo outing as Peter Parker managed to best Daniel Craig’s third go-around as 007. Benefiting largely by being the first MCU movie to arrive after Avengers: Endgame, the sequel earned $1.13 billion globally. $390.5 million of that came from domestic theaters, with $741.3 coming overseas. It now stands as the biggest solo Spidey flick, though not the biggest to feature the character. We’ll get to that shortly.
For years, Aquaman was at the wrong end of many jokes. He was merely the goofy superhero who could talk to fish. But DC Comics worked on changing that image and when Jason Momoa was cast as the character in Justice League, it helped a great deal. So much so that when Momoa returned for his solo outing, directed by James Wan, it far exceeded expectations. Aquaman was a massive hit, taking in $1.14 billion worldwide. I had a huge showing overseas, taking in $813.4 million internationally, just over 70 percent of its total take. Not to spoil it for the rest of the list, but Aquaman now stands alone as the highest-grossing DC movie ever. At least for now.
8Captain America: Civil War
It is easy to take for granted now, given everything that has happened in the MCU since, but Captain America: Civil War as a massive deal at the time of its release in 2016. Not only was it tackling a classic Marvel Comics storyline, pitting The Avengers against one another, but it represented the most superheroes we had ever seen together in one movie. Not to mention that it served as the introduction of Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther and Tom Holland as our new Spider-Man. It was a winning formula. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo delivered a monster, crowd-pleasing blockbuster that, in total, earned $1.15 billion. That includes a staggering $179.1 million domestic opening weekend.
7Iron Man 3
A mere five years after Robert Downey Jr. made his debut as Tony Stark in 2008’s Iron Man, his trilogy came to a close in 2013’s Iron Man 3. RDJ’s days in the MCU were far from numbered but this would represent the peak of his character’s solo outings. Riding high off of the success of The Avengers, released a year earlier, director Shane Black’s entry in the franchise was a gigantic hit. Divisive though it may be all these years later, it is undeniably a financial success, to the tune of $1.21 billion at the box office. Phase 2 of the MCU kicked off with a bang, signaling the string of successes that were to come in the years that followed.
Though not ripped from the pages of Marvel or DC, Pixar beautifully captured the spirit of superheroes with 2004’s The Incredibles. After years of waiting, director Brad Bird returned with Incredibles 2 in 2018. The wait proved to be worth it for Disney and Pixar as it paid off handsomely. Riding a wave of critical praise, the sequel sailed to $1.24 billion at the box office. That makes it one of the highest-grossing animated movies in history and, right up there with some of Marvel’s finest, one of the highest-grossing superhero movies ever.
It would have been difficult for anyone to predict just how big of a deal Black Panther was going to be. Chadwick Boseman made quite the entrance as T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War. Even so, the success that was achieved by the character’s first solo outing was, to say the very least, astounding. Black Panther earned $1.34 billion at the box office. It stands alone as the biggest solo superhero movie in history. It also was the first superhero movie to earn a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. More than that, it became a pop culture phenomenon that was a behemoth, even by MCU standards. Sadly, Boseman passed away after a battle with cancer. However, the legacy he left behind will endure for years to come.
4Avengers: Age of Ultron
In 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron had the unenviable task of following up 2012’s The Avengers. To what degree it succeeded, from a story standpoint, can be debated from now until eternity. But from a financial point of view, this was another huge win for Disney and Marvel Studios. The second massive superhero team-up started its run with a huge $191.2 million domestic opening weekend, on its way to a $459 million domestic total. Coupled with its huge $943.8 million overseas haul, the movie took in $1.4 billion. That puts it just outside the top ten all time, sitting at number eleven behind Frozen II ($1.45 billion).
It is hard to overstate the importance of 2012’s The Avengers. Nothing like this had ever been attempted before. Crossing over characters from multiple, individual franchises into one mega-event movie. It was a huge risk, to say the least. Would it work? Could it even be done? It was done and it did work. Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man all teamed up to the delight of audiences across the world. In total, Marvel’s grand experiment took home $1.51 billion globally. Its $207.4 million opening weekend still ranks as one of the biggest in history, and it sits at number on the all-time worldwide chart. In a word, huge.
2Avengers: Infinity War
If The Avengers proved what was possible in the realm of superhero movies, 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War tested the limits. After debuting in a post-credits scene years earlier, Thanos finally arrived to wreak havoc on the MCU. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, having previously helmed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, were tasked with weaving together multiple storylines, characters, franchises and upping the stakes in a big way. It worked. The Russo brothers pulled it off and Infinity War became a must-see event for audiences the world over who had followed the MCU, even casually. It became, at the time, just the fourth movie ever to take in more than $2 billion at the box office, earning $2.04 billion in total. One might have thought it couldn’t get any bigger. But the cliffhanger audiences were left with provided fuel for its sequel to soar beyond what anyone thought was possible.
The MCU feels like a never-ending thing. There may never be a definitive conclusion. But Avengers: Endgame, in 2019, offered fans perhaps the closest thing to an ending that we will ever get in this universe. Picking up where Infinity War left off, the movie served as an end to the journey for many of the MCU heroes we had been following for more than a decade. It was the end of Thanos as the big bad of this universe. It was insanely ambitious in scope, length, story and just about every other way a big-scale blockbuster can be ambitious. Amazing as it may seem, this felt like a bigger event than even Star Wars: The Force Awakens did in 2015. And the numbers speak to that. When all was said and done, Avengers: Endgame earned $2.797 billion worldwide. That was just enough to overtake James Cameron’s Avatar ($2.79 billion) as the biggest movie in history. Something few thought was possible. Yes, the Russo brothers delivered not just the highest-grossing superhero movie ever, but the highest-grossing movie of any kind. Period.