In the late 80s, comics powerhouse DC began printing their comics with a label stating ‘DC Comics Aren’t Just for Kids!’ And well they might, considering this decade saw the traditionally child-oriented realm of superheroes take a left-field turn into far darker, more mature storylines – a move which would soon be reflected in some notable big screen adaptations.
Today, superheroes are an even greater commodity than ever before, dominating the blockbuster market year after year. Still, while the majority of these films are of the broadly family-friendly PG-13/12A variety, there’s no shortage of superhero movies that are definitely just for grown-ups.
Take the following superhero movies, all of which were made expressly with adults in mind.
20. Birds of Prey
2016’s Suicide Squad may have pushed the line of family-friendly viewing (getting a PG-13 rating in the US, but a 15 in the UK), but Warner Bros/DC went all-out adults-only with Harley Quinn’s second big screen outing.
With its excessive violence, bad language and fourth-wall breaking humour, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) clearly owes a debt to the films of a certain red-suited Marvel character we’ll come back to later.
However, director Cathy Yan’s film is a hugely entertaining superhero flick in its own right, with a distinct personality and in-your-face attitude.
Margot Robbie’s Harley was one of the main highlights of Suicide Squad, and here she more than holds her own at centre stage, helped by considerably stronger writing than was afforded David Ayer’s movie.
Even so, this is no solo movie: Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ella Jay Basco help make up an unlikely but endearing super-team, against Ewan McGregor’s suitably despicable Roman ‘Black Mask’ Sionis.
Constantine, 2005’s first big screen outing for the character created by artist Stephen R Bissette and writer Alan Moore, left many fans a tad dissatisfied on release.
For starters, Francis Lawrence’s film gave the lead role to the dark-haired American Keanu Reeves, an actor pretty far removed from the blond-haired Englishman that John Constantine has always been in the comics.
Even so, taken on its own merits, Lawrence’s supernatural adventure is by no means without its entertainment value.
Reeves may be miscast to play the character as seen in the comics, but the star is watchable as ever as the world-weary occult investigator doing battle with demons.
Sticklers for comic book accuracy wound up more satisfied with the later Constantine TV series, which cast Matt Ryan in the lead, but there’s still much to like about the 2005 movie.
This 1990 Gothic fantasy thriller from writer-director Sam Raimi is a little different from many titles on this list, given that it was an original creation not adapted from a comic book.
Even so, Raimi (who went on to direct Sony’s original Spider-Man trilogy) was forthright in declaring Darkman to be heavily inspired by classic pulp-era superheroes like Batman and The Shadow – and it shows.
Liam Neeson is Peyton Westlake, a brilliant scientist almost killed in an attack by mobsters which leaves him hideously scarred and no longer able to feel pain, to say nothing of what it does for his temper.
Utilising his remarkable formula for artificial skin with which he can temporarily pose as anyone, Westlake becomes Darkman, and hits the streets for justice.
There’s an unmistakable comic book flavour to the R-rated thrills and spills – and, while the character may not have originated on the page, Darkman has since spawned a comic book series of his own, as well as two sequels.
Fans of long-running British comic book 2000 AD were for the most part outraged by the high camp absurdity of the 1995 Judge Dredd movie starring Sylvester Stallone.
Still, if that movie demonstrated how not to adapt a beloved comic book character to the big screen, 2012 reboot Dredd might very well be considered a masterclass in how to get it exactly right.
Directed by Pete Travis and written by lifelong Judge Dredd fan Alex Garland (who by all accounts was the film’s unofficial co-director), Dredd is a rough-and-ready rollercoaster ride of a movie.
Some critics accused Dredd of ripping off 2011 Indonesian action hit The Raid, but this dystopian sci-fi thriller is very much its own beast, following Mega City One’s toughest lawmaker as he takes psychic rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on a training day that proves to be a baptism by fire.
In the role of Dredd, Karl Urban completely obliterates any memory of Stallone’s performance as the hard-nosed, zero-tolerance future cop; it helps that Urban never removes the helmet, or the scowl.
Director Timur Bekmambetov’s 2008 adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic book takes a dark spin on the standard action-adventure set-up of a young, unwitting nobody suddenly thrust into a world of danger and excitement.
James McAvoy (taking his first superhero role prior to his casting as the young Professor X in 2011’s X-Men: First Class) stars as Wesley, a frustrated desk jockey who takes medication to combat panic attacks.
However, when he suddenly finds himself under attack by gunmen, Wesley learns his late father was a master assassin, and that his ‘panic attacks’ are in fact a special ability via which he can access high levels of adrenaline and achieve superhuman strength and speed.
With this knowledge, Wesley leaves his old life behind to learn the ways of the assassins alongside Angelina Jolie’s Fox, and under the tutelage of Morgan Freeman’s Sloan.
It’s a high octane shoot-’em-up adventure with plenty of twists and turns, but with a far harder edge than many films of its ilk.
Before writer-director James Gunn was given the reins to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, he gave us this considerably smaller, more grounded and disturbing take on superhero lore (and another of the few on our list not adapted from a pre-existing comic book).
Super casts Rainn Wilson as Frank Darbo, an under-achiever whose world falls apart when his drug-addicted wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) walks out on him.
Soon thereafter, Frank has a vision/psychotic episode that convinces him to become a real-life superhero and battle injustice on the streets – regardless of the fact that he has no idea how, nor any special abilities that might enable him to do so.
Naming himself The Crimson Bolt, Frank soon finds himself unwittingly partnered with comic book store clerk Libby (Ellen Page) – but the not-so dynamic duo quickly find they’re way out of their depth.
Often darkly funny and at times genuinely unsettling, Super is a strange and confrontational film that nevertheless manages to find hope in its bleak vision of the modern world.
As the story of an ordinary high schooler who dons a colourful costume to fight crime, Kick-Ass might initially seem like your standard childhood wish-fulfilment adventure.
However, director Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic book is one of the most hard-hitting films of its kind you’re likely to see.
Unflinching in its brutality, Kick-Ass might easily have wound up rather unpleasant were it not for a thick streak of dark humour.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson makes for a suitably awkward gangly teen-turned-green-suited vigilante, up against Mark Strong’s imposing mob boss.
While Chloë Grace Moretz may have been only 13 when she played miniature super-heroine Hit-Girl, the character’s behaviour and language are very far from anything that would ever be allowed in a kids’ movie.
13. Punisher: War Zone
Originally introduced as a villain in the Spider-Man comic books, The Punisher has always been one of the more controversial Marvel superheroes.
Indeed, his ‘superhero’ status has long been open to question, given his complete lack of superpowers, his reliance on firepower, and his shoot first, ask-questions-never approach to ‘justice.’
Nonetheless, The Punisher has long been a popular character with older fans, so it’s no surprise that every live action take on the character thus far has been completely unsuitable for children.
There’s plenty to be said in favour of the Netflix series with Jon Bernthal, but none of the three Punisher movies have come as close to nailing the character as 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, which casts Ray Stevenson as the hard-boiled Frank Castle.
Director Lexi Alexander’s film may be thoroughly cartoonish in tone, but the ludicrous wall-to-wall carnage makes it very much an adults-only affair.
Before 2009, a movie of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking 1987 graphic novel had been at some stage of development hell ever since the book was first published.
Directors including Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky gave it a go, but it wasn’t until 2009 that it finally made it to screens courtesy of director Zack Snyder.
Set in an alternate 1980s, the story considers how superheroes might fare if they existed in the real world – and for the most part, the results aren’t pretty.
The 2009 film has long been divisive, with some fans praising Snyder’s work and others feeling it misunderstands the comic.
Even so, Watchmen proved influential on subsequent screen adaptations of comic books, including the recent Watchmen TV series.
Director Josh Trank may have gained notoriety for how badly his 2015 Fantastic Four turned out – but his 2012 breakthrough movie, Chronicle, is one of the most intriguing and intense takes on the superhero genre in the past decade.
Shot in the ‘found footage’ style, Chronicle casts Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan as a trio of high schoolers who stumble across a mysterious crystal which somehow grants them supernatural powers.
Granted a more realistic atmosphere by the point-of-view camcorder approach, Chronicle ponders what real modern teenagers would likely do with such abilities – particularly if, as with DeHaan’s Andrew, they’re dealing with significant emotional issues.
While Chronicle (another one not based on a comic) was initially passed as a PG-13/12A in cinemas, cuts were required for this – and the subsequent uncut version released to home entertainment gets a bit nastier.
Still, even in its original censored cut, Chronicle is a very grim look at how troubled teens granted unprecedented power might vent their frustration against the world around them.
10. The Dark Knight
The second entry in director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies may have been granted a family-friendly rating, but it’s readily apparent that it’s aimed squarely at the older viewers in the audience.
Continuing in the same spirit as 2005’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight gives us the most grounded and realistic take on DC’s iconic crimefighter yet – and, along with it, a far less cartoonish representation of his world or his enemies.
Many fans were initially aghast at Heath Ledger’s casting as Batman’s most iconic adversary, the Joker – but once audiences saw Ledger’s terrifying performance, no one could ever see the character in the same light again.
As with Brandon Lee’s The Crow, Ledger’s untimely death added a haunting quality to his Joker, but even if the actor had lived it still would have been one of the most unnerving bad guy performances in recent memory.
While the violence never gets too graphic, the threatening nature of Ledger’s performance is so intense that many viewers and critics questioned whether the classifiers had been too lenient in allowing younger children to see The Dark Knight.
M. Night Shyamalan’s unconventional 2000 take on superheroes was granted a kid-friendly rating, but for the most part Unbreakable plays out as a drama intended for adults.
Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, a middle-aged security guard who comes to the startling realisation that he has superpowers, after emerging completely unscathed from a train wreck.
Made hot on the heels of Shyamalan and Willis’ 1999 smash hit The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable approaches comic book heroics in much the same way the earlier film handled ghosts; it’s a sombre, grittily realistic contemplation of how ordinary people might react to such extraordinary phenomena.
Unbreakable is also a significant film in that it cast Samuel L. Jackson in his first superhero-related role, eight years before the actor helped launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Nick Fury in Iron Man.
Widely held up as one of Shyamalan’s best, the filmmaker would go on to revisit the Unbreakable universe in his later films Split and Glass.
Blade, the 1998 superhero film from director Stephen Norrington, was a major turning point for the film industry even if no one seemed to realise it at the time.
Legendary comic publishers Marvel (who were then on the brink of bankruptcy) took their first steps into producing their own films with this live-action take on their streetwise vampire hunter.
Introduced in horror comic The Tomb of Dracula in 1973, Blade wasn’t a well-known character until the movie series made him one.
As befits a vampire movie, Blade and its two sequels are gory and violent affairs, but it’s Wesley Snipes’ super-cool portrayal of the unshakable ‘daywalker’ that really makes the movies work.
Mahershala Ali may be a double-Oscar winner, but he still has his work cut following on from Snipes in Marvel’s planned Blade reboot.
7. The Crow
This revenge fantasy from director Alex Proyas will always have a dark shadow cast over it by the tragic death of its leading man Brandon Lee, who was fatally wounded on-set in a firearms accident.
Despite this, The Crow still proved massively successful, and was one of the first comic book adaptations to fully cast aside camp and present a gritty take on the source material.
Brandon, son of martial arts legend Bruce, proved pitch-perfect casting as Eric Draven, rock guitarist-turned-undead avenger who returns from the grave to punish the criminals who murdered him and his fiancé.
Lee’s impassioned performance can’t help but carry a distinct poignancy, but the actor still left us one of the most iconic comic book movie heroes ever.
Whilst Eric Draven might be a very dark hero, we’d say he definitely qualifies as super thanks to his invulnerability, psychic abilities and healing powers.
Director Roger Vadim’s 1968 camp classic is among the first major movie adaptations of a comic book, but it almost certainly isn’t one you’d sit down to watch with the entire family.
Jane Fonda took what proved to be one of her signature roles as Jean-Claude Forest’s interstellar heroine, sent on a mission to save the universe.
The adults-only vibe is apparent from the opening credits, which see Fonda’s Barbarella strip out of her spacesuit in zero gravity.
From there, our amorous adventurer sets out to locate the missing scientist Durand-Durand (and yes, that’s where the 80s pop legends Duran Duran got their name).
While she’s not averse to the odd space battle, Barbarella is considerably more comfortable settling matters peacefully by means of free love; it was the 60s, after all.
5. V for Vendetta
Two years before Watchmen came another adaptation of an Alan Moore graphic novel that sparked its share of controversy.
Director James McTeigue’s 2006 big screen take on 1988’s V for Vendetta – written and co-produced by the Wachowskis – is a grim vision of a dystopian future given a spark of hope by a ‘hero’ who may himself be a complete madman.
Hugo Weaving portrays V, the verbose vigilante in a Guy Fawkes mask, who plots to bring down the corrupt powers that be with the (initially unwilling) assistance of Natalie Portman’s Evey Hammond.
The movie irked some fans – and Alan Moore himself – by toning down the psychotic V of the comic into more of a romantic character: producer Joel Silver described V as a “superhero – a masked avenger who pretty much saves the world.”
This take may wash over the more ambiguous tone of the source material, but McTeigue’s V for Vendetta still gives us a compelling and distinctly grown-up take on the caped crusader archetype.
4. The Toxic Avenger
Despite their popularity, superheroes are never going to be everyone’s cup of tea – but if we’re talking acquired tastes, few superhero movies are likely to be quite so selective in their appeal as 1984’s The Toxic Avenger.
Produced by notorious low budget indie film company Troma, The Toxic Avenger centres on an average New Jersey boy named Melvin, who turns into a hulking superhuman when he accidentally falls into some toxic waste.
Melvin soon decides to use his new-found powers to fight violence and corruption in his home town of Tromaville – and he comes to take something of a zero-tolerance attitude toward crime.
While it’s far too cheap and campy to take seriously, The Toxic Avenger still gets pretty over-the-top with its violence and distasteful content, and is pretty much guaranteed to offend viewers of a delicate sensibility.
All of which makes it all the more surprising that this original superhero story spawned a long-running franchise which included several sequels, a Marvel comic book, 90s kids cartoon The Toxic Crusaders and even a stage musical.
When one of Marvel’s most idiosyncratic characters finally got his own movie in 2016 after several years in development hell, no one was prepared for the success story it would become.
Defying conventional wisdom, Deadpool’s satirical, fourth-wall-breaking take on the superhero genre became a smash hit, proving that grown-ups were more than happy to leave the kids with the babysitter and flock out to see a movie about a super-powered man in tights.
Ryan Reynolds reprised the role he first played in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine – but unlike that earlier film, here the character actually looks and behaves just like he does in the comics.
Thanks in no small part to the central performance of the constantly-wisecracking Reynolds, Deadpool and its 2019 sequel are bursting at the seams with tongue-in-cheek humour, but both are still hard-edged movies that pack a serious punch.
It remains to be seen how much of that edge will remain now that the character is under the wing of the generally family-oriented Disney/Marvel Studios – but thus far, reports indicate any future Deadpool movies will remain R-rated.
Having first played Wolverine in 2000’s X-Men, Hugh Jackman has been the longest-serving comic book movie actor ever (to date, at least).
It’s only fitting, then, that the actor was allowed to go out in a blaze of glory with 2017’s Logan.
Plus, given that the character is a hairy beast with metal claws and a tendency for violent bursts of rage, it was also entirely appropriate that Wolverine finally be allowed to fully let loose in an R-rated movie.
Jackman, Patrick Stewart and director James Mangold confidently close the chapter on the initial X-Men saga with a film that is startling in its savagery.
Even so, Logan also proves to be surprisingly reflective and melancholic, displaying a true maturity that is comparatively rare in modern blockbusters.
We’re admittedly stretching the ‘superhero’ label pretty far at this point, given there’s neither anything super nor heroic about Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck.
Even so, it seems impossible to talk about superhero movies for adults without bringing up director Todd Philips’ ground-breaking 2019 take on iconic Batman villain the Joker.
With its Oscar-winning turn from Phoenix, Joker pushes the boundaries of comic book movies about as far as they could conceivably go.
Almost entirely disregarding the comics and the movies that came before it, Joker has attracted acclaim and outrage in roughly equal measure.
However, those who love it and those who hate it can surely agree on at least one thing: Joker is most definitely not a film for children.