The Joel Schumacher years of nipple-clad Batsuits seem so long ago, as no decade proved superheroes to be a force in entertainment quite like the 2010s.
The Avengers assembled, combining separate movie franchises into a team-up event never before seen on film — and turning Marvel Studios into a Hollywood superpower in the process. Making hundreds of millions of dollars per movie went from a major achievement to an expected result: “Avengers: Endgame” became the highest-grossing movie of all time with $2.8 billion at the worldwide box office, and films such as “Black Panther” ($1.3 billion) and DC’s “Wonder Woman” ($821.8 million) broke barriers in terms of representation on the big screen.
On the small screen, the CW’s gritty vigilante series “Arrow” spawned multiple shows in a connected, DC Comics-inspired universe. Netflix built a streaming “street level” mini-Avengers team (the Defenders) out of four shows (“Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage” and “Iron Fist”).
It hasn’t been a perfect 3,650 days, though.
There was that first season of “Iron Fist,” of course. And, more notably, Warner Bros. and DC Comics hit several bumps in the road to 2010s success with several films that fell short of expectations, both critically and financially. In trying to mimic the success of “The Avengers” with their own group of heroes (including the iconic trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman), WB/DC missed the target with the bland and uninspiring “Justice League,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad.” But they rebounded once they stopped trying to keep everything connected like their film company rival, with hits such as “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman,” “Shazam!” and a Joker movie — with no Batman in sight — that made a billion dollars.
DC also gets the last word of this decade with Damon Lindelof’s brilliant reimagining of “Watchmen” on HBO, a show so fresh it makes you envision all the places superhero entertainment can take us in the next decade.
Here’s a list of the heroes (and the people who played them) who defined this past one.
Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.)
There is no Marvel Cinematic Universe without Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, who helped bring the franchise to life in the aughts with his first “Iron Man” film.
Downey redefined the live-action cinematic superhero in the years following. Secret identity? Maybe for your grandparents’ comic-book characters — “I am Iron Man” took care of that problem in the first of many memorable onscreen moments from the man in the iron mask.
Downey’s Stark evolution took him from a billionaire playboy without a care to the hero who ended up making the ultimate sacrifice in “Avengers: Endgame.” And while taking down tanks and racing against jets in the sky is about as heroic as it gets, Downey as Stark was always at his best when the uniform was off. His off-the-charts confidence and sarcasm were such that there was no doubt Tony Stark’s mind was the Avengers’ greatest superpower.
We love him 3000.
Batman (Christian Bale)
Overshadowed by the late Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008′s “The Dark Knight,” Christian Bale delivered his best performance as DC’s caped crusader in his 2012 comic swan song, “The Dark Knight Rises” — the only solo Batman film this decade. (Apologies to Ben Affleck, who had to share the screen with other heroes.)
Bale was always deceivingly charming enough as Bruce Wayne to convince us he couldn’t possibly be Batman, yet he was still believable when the cape and cowl were donned. One of the few divisive aspects of the role was Bale’s froggy Bat-voice — perhaps the reason Affleck used a voice modulator.
Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)
Gal Gadot’s starring turn as Wonder Woman in 2017 was a double achievement for WB/DC, proving they could create spectacular superhero films again while also getting their top female character to star in a solo movie before Marvel Studios. (“Captain Marvel” would not be released until nearly two years later.)
Gadot faced no easy task in replacing Lynda Carter, the last actress to play a live-action version of Diana. But Gadot did so with a dominating performance full of range, knocking down tanks and towers with her shoulders and defeating rogue Greek gods with unparalleled strength but also taking the time to marvel at the wonders of ice cream. Wonder Woman is currently DC’s most important film brand, even ahead of Superman and Batman. Both male superheroes are getting reboots while Gadot’s franchise marches on.
Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)
There is living up to the hype, and then there’s exceeding it, which Chadwick Boseman accomplished in a role that comic book fans of color waited multiple generations to see onscreen. This was the superhero film that finally cast black performers as the hero, the love interest and the villain — no longer just side characters to mark a check on a list.
Boseman’s performance was everything it needed to be: royal, heroic and groundbreaking, from his self-made Wakandan accent to the forearm-crossing dap seen at cookouts everywhere in summer 2018. “Wakanda Forever” is now a part of pop culture lore, and may we never forget Boseman’s “Saturday Night Live” performance as King T’Challa on a “Black Jeopardy” sketch, when he warned us all about the dangers of bland potato salad.
Captain America (Chris Evans)
Chris Evans’ biggest feat as Captain America? Being so good you almost don’t remember that he was the Human Torch in those forgettable “Fantastic Four” movies. Downey’s Iron Man may be the most popular hero in the MCU, but Evans led its best movie — 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” — and arguably its best trilogy.
Somehow, through the wonders of special effects, the movies made us believe Steve Rogers was a laughably scrawny kid from Brooklyn, while Evans made us believe in a man with a heart of gold and unshakable morals. Evans’s physicality as Captain America — grabbing escaping helicopters and ripping up chopped wood with his bare hands — was a wonder to behold but always felt second to the emotional performance. (Though when he commanded the power of Mjolnir, Thor’s mystical hammer, in the climactic battle of “Avengers: Endgame” ... that was pretty cool.)
Green Arrow (Stephen Amell)
Oliver Queen, the billionaire playboy turned vigilante archer on the CW’s “Arrow,” emphasized that superheroes could work well on television, too. When Stephen Amell donned the comics’ famous Green Arrow mask at the end of Season 2, it was a big bang of sorts for the DC Comics-inspired “Arrowverse”: The show got a little geekier, and the CW greenlit connected shows such as “The Flash” and “Legends of Tomorrow.” No other television network currently boasts such an expansive superhero lineup, and there’s no denying Amell is the godfather of what the CW has been able to accomplish with DC characters.
Amell’s man under the mask was haunted by family trauma, but far from a blond Bruce Wayne, Queen was much more lethal before settling into being a hero with a code. His salmon-ladder workouts were a clinic in how to frame the superhero physique, and he managed to use a catchphrase (“You have failed this city”) that was actually intimidating, not corny. And few big-time superhero actors have been as engaging with fans on social media.
Clearly, if you’re able to make the Green Arrow — not an A-list superhero by any means — work on television for eight seasons, you’re doing things right.
Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds)
For a while, Fox looked like it might not get a “Deadpool” movie off the ground because of how badly it mishandled the character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” But in 2014, someone (likely Reynolds) leaked some test footage of the character online, causing fans to say, “Why doesn’t Fox just make this?” So they did.
Reynolds’s Merc with a Mouth is the best superhero there is at being just as naughty as he is funny. His dirty humor and R-rated brand are stronger than ever. And even though Disney has taken the reins at Fox, don’t expect any major Mickey changes for the one X-Men-related brand that survived the big bang that is Marvel Studios.
Aquaman (Jason Momoa)
More impressive than making a billion dollars with the King of the Seven Seas? Jason Momoa making him cool.
Sure, Aquaman has had a rugged, longhair look in the comics before, but he’s usually been a pop culture punchline, what with his animated adventures on the classically boring “Super Friends” cartoon or the running joke about him on HBO’s “Entourage.” But Momoa’s Aquaman was dashing, daring and definitely different. He was the perfect casting for someone playing a hero from two differing worlds; Momoa was born in Hawaii to a native Hawaiian father and a white mother who would go on to raise him in Iowa. The tattoos, beer chugging and swashbuckling demeanor helped reimagine the template of what Aquaman could be. Momoa managed to be hulking and intimidating while also proving that the DC universe didn’t have to be universally dark anymore — there’s room to have fun and smile.
Spider-Man (Tom Holland)
Tom Holland helped save a Spider-Man brand that was headed toward irrelevance after the Andrew Garfield movies earlier in the decade. When the web-slinger finally arrived in the MCU in “Captain America: Civil War,” Holland’s youthful exuberance was a refreshing reset. For the first time ever in a movie, Spider-Man was a kid, something that always worked well in the comics but had eluded Hollywood.
The character’s geeky awe at being in the presence of other Avengers matched the feelings of fans just as excited to finally see such a reunion. And the '60s comics-style of Spidey’s eyes on his mask — smaller, with lenses that opened and closed to show emotions — were a master touch (thanks, Kevin Feige).
Spider-Man is now where he belongs (a part of Marvel Studios, which shares the rights to the character with Sony), and his presence onscreen has never been bigger.
Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)
Hugh Jackman helped get the superhero movie boom started in the new millennium with 2000′s “X-Men.” The first time you watched him order a beer and call someone “bub,” you knew he was on to something special with this role.
While solo Wolverine movies followed, it wasn’t until 2017’s “Logan” that the beloved character got the story he deserved. It never mattered that Jackman was too tall and too handsome to play someone as gritty and violent in the comics as Wolverine. He nailed down the mutant known as “the best he is at what he does” right from the jump, from the feral reactions to the trademark mutton chops.
Jackman could also go from caring to carnage in a snap. While he ably carried the dramatic moments on film, Jackman knew the fans wanted to see Wolverine go ballistic at times, and he never disappointed when it was time for the claws to pop out.
Sister Night (Regina King)
It is no easy task taking on an adaptation of a well-known and revered entity such as “Watchmen,” especially one that transforms the mythos of something many fans deem untouchable. But show creator Damon Lindelof’s vision is breathtakingly bold and one of the rare superhero productions not afraid to tackle race in a big way.
The face of the new HBO series is Regina King’s bone-breaking, no-time-for-your-mess vigilante, the character you didn’t know you needed in your superhero-loving life. King’s Angela Abar/Sister Knight will be just as big as Doctor Manhattan was when all is said and done. Her inspiring performance as a cop who has to put on a mask to uphold the law, while coming to grips with a legacy she never knew existed, makes sure superheroes remain a part of the entertainment conversation as this decade comes to a close.