Superhero Hype’s 10 Best Superhero, Sci-fi and Fantasy Movies of 2021
Last year, thanks to unprecedented pandemic conditions, there were no Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and a Birds of Prey movie with terrible costumes and sets. 2021 tried to compensate and then some, with movies both new and delayed, and TV tie-ins to fill the gaps. DC delivered on a long-requested promise, but then barely stood by its implications. Studios didn’t have much room for original sci-fi and fantasy, and relied heavily on adaptation. In most cases, however, those adapting appeared to understand the source material. And that gave us more than enough to fill a Best Movies of 2021 list. (At least two of them are not based on any IP!)
We’ve included links to the original reviews where applicable, but take note: those reviews, by necessity of deadlines, are based on first impressions. With distance, repeat viewings, and comparisons to other films, opinions can evolve and change. So if a film seems lower or higher than before, it’s not a gotcha to point that out. This list also represents more than just one writer’s opinion.
First the honorable mentions, in no particular order:
How I Became a Superhero – This French cop-buddy movie set in a superhero world posits a villain who drains the blood of superheroes till they die, and repackages it as an addictive drug to teens. That’s quite the metaphor, although the movie doesn’t push it as far as it could.
Black Widow – Hampered by a certain amount of predictability, and a villain perhaps too close to real world bad guys, this prequel went seriously dark. And then Florence Pugh emerged to eat macaroni and cheese in Hawkeye.
Mortal Kombat – The R-rated action we always wanted, alongside a new hero we didn’t, and a complete lack of the actual tournament that’s integral to the story.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage – Purists may be outraged by the way Tom Hardy essentially turned Venom and Eddie Brock into a bickering romantic couple. Sure, it’s not comics canon, but it’s a lot of fun regardless, and the sequel leaning into it is hilarious.
Thunder Force – Humor can be thoroughly subjective, but Netflix’s superhero spoof that gave powers to Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer proved a blast for fans of the two.
The Matrix Resurrections – Lana Wachowski’s meta-commentary and universe-expanding storyline opened up some fun new directions. If only the original stunt team had tagged along.
Godzilla vs Kong – “Versus” movies frequently fail to satisfy audiences, but this monster mashup, made primarily because Legendary’s Thomas Tull wanted to see it, did right by fans of both Godzilla and King Kong. Yes, it’s basically special-effects WrestleMania, but it never claimed to be otherwise.
A Quiet Place Part II – Fewer annoying whispers, more monsters, and some intriguing additions to the mythology between all the jump-scares.
Raya and the Last Dragon – In any other year, it would have been the best epic action fantasy featuring dragons and Awkwafina as the sassy sidekick. Raya had to settle for second-best in 2021, but Disney literally has only itself to blame.
Ghostbusters Afterlife – Yes, it would be nice if these movies would move beyond Gozer. And remember that they’re ostensibly comedies. But McKenna Grace’s Phoebe Spengler is a marvelous new addition to the mythology, and she has a real chance to command whatever’s left of the franchise.
The Suicide Squad – In a world where The Boys and Invincible are streaming, The Suicide Squad is nowhere near as shockingly “adult” as it seems to think it is. But its best characters — Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Nanaue, Polka Dot Man, Ratcatcher II, and of course Harley — remain people worth spending time with.
And now, the 10 best genre movies of 2021:
The combination of Chloe Zhao’s long sunsets and Neil Gaiman-inspired lengthy conversations about mortality doesn’t work for everyone. It’s hard to pull out the expected Marvel surprises with characters we’ve never met, whose baseline behavior is all new. But give the movie one thing. It’s an installment of the most popular, ostensibly family friendly movie franchise in history, by Disney…and it flat-out says that the creator of the universe, i.e. God, is a liar who does not care about you. Remember it the next time someone tries to claim that Marvel always plays it safe.
This, at last, depicts Batman as many of us know him from the comics. An actual detective, with arch-villains who occasionally get ahead of him. A man who knows he will never be satisfied with the amount of crime he defeats, because more will always come. And yet he’s driven to keep going anyway, to be the light in the darkness no matter how low the visibility of hope gets. Though comics purists may disagree with changes to the text, it may just feature the best animated movie depiction of Bruce Wayne since Mask of the Phantasm.
8: Free Guy
Perhaps we’d like The Matrix Resurrections better if this more comedic take on similar subject matter hadn’t come first. Deadpool‘s Ryan Reynolds proved he could make guilelessness as funny as douchebaggery, but Jodie Comer really steals the show. As a shy English programmer and her badass American in-game avatar, she pulls off a duality that would make superheroes with secret identities proud. It’s the best live-action female performance of the year in a sci-fi film.
7: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
This animated comedy about a family road trip interrupted by robot apocalypse was produced and cowritten by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. And it lives up to the same standards set by other animated movies made under their aegis like The LEGO Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s more of a movie for older audiences that kids can still appreciate, with a cast including the likes of Danny McBride, Eric Andre, and Conan O’Brien. Told from the point of view of teen filmmaker Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson), and occasionally sporting flourishes that imply it’s directed by her as well, the movie mixes visual influences from Bob’s Burgers and Adventure Time to Bloom County, and isn’t afraid to go dark.
Now that we know for sure part 2 is coming, the lingering doubts about Dune are gone. Unlike David Lynch in 1984, Denis Villeneuve near-literally treats Frank Herbert’s space Christ epic as a holy text. Every set resembles a giant alien cathedral; every soundtrack note an otherworldly hymn. It’s still possible the director could whiff the ending, but so far he has clarified what the prior adaptation could not. Like why the villains are an actual threat, and the fact that the Messiah prophecy is a self-fulfilling one seeded by insidious nuns. The best sci-fi is about ideas, and Dune balances palace intrigue, Middle East political allegory, organized religion critique, ecology, and terrorism vs. imperialism. All while remembering that it’s fundamentally a story about a reluctant and possibly fraudulent savior.
5: The Show
Alan Moore’s version of Twin Peaks, set in his native Northampton, comes as fully loaded with literary callbacks (high and low) as his readers would expect. Burned by Hollywood, and mocked for being weird, the Watchmen creator embraces both with his first script and feature acting role. He jokes that they may also be his last of both, but hopefully not. His hair combed into a large crescent moon and his face painted metallic, Moore presides as a mad deity over a cabaret club that burned down in the ’70s, but still exists out of time. A newcomer to town comes in search of a missing necklace, and kickstarts an adventure down an agreeably weird rabbit hole that dares the viewer to keep up. It deserved more than a single day in theaters via Fathom Events. Do yourself a favor and seek out the Blu-ray, if you dare.
Simu Liu practically willed himself into the title role once he found out it was available. Fortunately for everyone, he nailed it. Whipping himself into excellent shape to convincingly play a master of kung fu, he also utilized well-honed sitcom skills to nail the all-important MCU comedic timing. And he held his own against Awkwafina comedically, and Tony Leung dramatically. Michelle Yeoh and Ben Kingsley add gravitas, while dragons provide the CG fodder for the big climax. But it would all be for naught if the martial arts scenes failed. Thankfully, they excel.
As Superhero Hype editor Blair Marnell wrote:
“I enjoyed both of the previous MCU Spider-Man films, but I’ve never been more excited about Spidey’s next Marvel Studios adventure than I am now. I haven’t felt like this since the original Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. This was by far the best live-action Spider-Man movie since 2004…this movie was everything I hoped for and needed from a Spider-Man film. It was Amazing, Spectacular, and Sensational.”
Fans worldwide agreed, to the tune of a billion dollars and counting. And no doubt Sony salivated at the retroactive retconning of all their previous Spider-Man movies into the MCU Multiverse. Everyone wins.
2: The Green Knight
The best R-rated Arthurian legend movie since Excalibur, and that’s no small feat. Most King Arthur movies try to attempt contemporary interpretations, whether through a new lens on history or an attempt to make modern comparisons. Director David Lowery instead went back to the earliest written accounts. And he used a mixture of authentic-looking locations and surreal effects to maximize production values a la Terry Gilliam.
Dev Patel may feel like very current casting, but everything else smacks of unvarnished mythology for adults. Lowery even manages a revisionist take on the ending while still allowing for the classical version as one possible interpretation. With some of the year’s best cinematography and creative editing, as well as the creepiest severed heads, The Green Knight is a fantasy film for the ages. Just not for the whole family.
The film that the fans demanded delivered an epic with everything a reasonable DCEU fan could want. Well, save for two more sequels that frankly will not happen. (The Ayer Cut of Suicide Squad could, though. Please do that.) Nonetheless, this four-hour magnum opus concludes Zack Snyder’s impromptu DC trilogy in a manner that satisfies key character arcs. Even if it leaves new villains and allies looming in the background as dangling threads.
It all kicks in when the Icelandic choir starts singing a farewell song to Aquaman. At that point, you the viewer will quickly figure out if you’re onboard or not. Will you gladly linger in this story with all its tangential details, or must the plot points progress faster? If you choose the former, welcome to an immersive cinematic world of gods and monsters, a grand operatic tale of powerful beings seeking connection and validation. Consider it a metaphor for isolationism versus global cooperation, perhaps. Or just the adventure of a Frank Miller-style Batman redeeming himself to become the more classic version. Like any good comic book, it sweeps fans into its reality, a place where you’ll believe multiple men can fly. And it even comes with a black and white variant!
We at Superhero Hype do not condone harassing those who disagree, as too many online fans do. We’re merely glad to see an idiosyncratic director pursue his vision — which combines the lyrical pace and observant eye of a Terrence Malick with grand-scale action more akin to Michael Bay — to its most fully realized, unconstrained conclusion. Joss Whedon’s cut felt like a rushed, direct-to-video DC animated movie in live action. Snyder’s revised original feels like a Russian novel from Earth-2 come alive.
Now you tell us: what are your picks for the best genre movie of the year? Talk back in comments below.
Recommended Reading: Justice League of America by Brad Meltzer: The Deluxe Edition
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