I'm Nevets: Nerd, cinephile, TV-junkie, bookworm, gamer, and slacker extraordinaire.
With a new blockbuster superhero movie hitting theaters every other weekend, it's clear that we're living in a boom time for the superhero genre. And, frankly, many of us are becoming a bit... jaded. Sure, we'll still flock by the millions to see each newly released title (it’s nerd law after all) but we pretty much know what to expect by now: the good guy will be unquestionably good (and good looking), the right thing will be fought for, the hero will win, and he/she will usually do so with flawless style, combat skills, and CGI-filled explosions. It’s a look, formula, and structure that, while fun, has been done to death.
Luckily for us, this type of cookie cutter story telling isn’t the only game in town. And today we’re going to discuss a handful of great (and a few not-so-great) films that took these superhero tales in new directions that were creative, innovative, and/or strived to make a stale old genre feel fresh again. While they may not all be well-known to the public, there’s a whole slew of these kinds of movies out there, and they come in an strikingly wide variety. In our list today we've included the likes of animated films, classics that date back to the silent era, musicals, parodies, satires, foreign films, movies made on shoestring budgets, and even a couple of mainstream blockbusters (that somehow managed to smuggle in some originality to the masses).
Whether you're looking for an antidote to the generic comic book superhero movie, or you're just looking for something unique to binge on, the following collection should meet your needs.
25.) Boy Wonder (2010)
Directed by Michael Morrissey
2010s Boy Wonder follows the story of a troubled and hostile teenager named Sean Donovan (Caleb Steinmeyer) who, as a young child, has his family attacked by a carjacker. This results in the death of Sean’s mother and his eventual drive to fight evil and bring to justice those who destroyed his family. To do this, Sean becomes one of the most realistic and terrifying ‘superheroes’ on our list.
Trained in boxing, wielding weapons, overcome with roid-rage, and with a tendency to beat criminals to their deaths, Sean doesn’t play around in his crime fighting. As with any good superhero, though, he keeps this night-time vigilantism a secret. As far as outsiders are concerned, he’s merely a quiet, anti-social teenager who studies hard but mostly keeps to himself. Most assume that Sean’s introversion is a result of the childhood trauma that he received after his moms murder. Which is why the police aren’t too suspicious about Sean’s regular visits to the precinct to browse through mugshot records, supposedly for the sole purpose of identifying his moms killer. And while Sean is traumatized and is looking for that killer, what the po-po don’t know is that he’s also using their records to hunt down all the bad guys that he can find who the justice system let slip through their fingers.
While Boy Wonder is far from a bad film, I’m keeping its placement on our list fairly low for the sheer fact that I’m not completely sure that I’m comfortable with classifying it as a superhero movie. I’m giving it a pass, however, because it is really good and the basic similarities to the genre do exist (a personal tragedy pushes him into becoming a vigilante, he wears disguises to secretly fight crime at night, he's abnormally skilled at kicking ass, yada yada). With that being said, if one were to turn on the film without seeing the obvious, superperson-esque title, it’s doubtful that many would make the superhero connection in this highly dark and dramatic film. It's just that subtle.
24.) American Hero (2015)
Directed by Nick Love
American Hero stars Stephen Dorff as Melvin: a slacker from New Orleans who spends an inordinate amount of time hanging around doing absolutely nothing. Nothing other than boozing, getting high and partying, at least. He has an ex-wife and a son (who his wife has rightfully taken full custody of), and his best friend is a black, wisecracking guy named Lucille (Eddie Griffin) who is confined to a wheelchair. In what is perhaps Melvin's one redeeming characteristic, he also has the inexplicable ability to move objects with the power of his mind. And while that is cool, it oddly doesn't appear to mean very much in this movies worldview. Most of the characters, for instance, seem to treat the power as if it were no big deal (merely a quirky trick that ol' Melvin just happens to do on occasion) and of the few times that we actually get to see Melvin's utilize the powers, it never comes off as especially impressive — such as when he uses them to perform street-side magic shows for drug money.
After establishing how much of a scumbag this guy is, the movies plot eventually begins to get moving (sort of) when Melvin almost dies after a hard night of partying. From that point on, he decides to finally clean up his act, get sober, and become a better man and a better father. This, essentially, becomes the entire plot of our story; and it's a pretty thin one, at that. Strangely, Melvin's superpowers seem secondary — bordering on having no importance at all — to this mans uninteresting attempts at quitting drugs and alcohol. Which leads the viewer to wonder: what the hell is the point of this guy having superpowers? We never delve too deeply into why they exist, we never get to see Melvin do anything especially cool or heroic with them, and when he finally does try to help his community (for about two seconds), his efforts hardly earn him the title of an "American Hero". I guess what I'm saying is, for a superhero flick, this has surprisingly little to do with anyone being either super or a hero. In fact, it has very little to do with anything.
In case you couldn't tell, I was not a big fan of this move. Which stinks, because the trailer had me really pumped for maybe a harder-edged Hancock type of picture. In the end, though, what we got was a lifeless, emotionless movie about a random lowlife (who isn't even that bad off) who is trying to get sober. The fact that he has special abilities appears to be just happenstance. Nevertheless, the movie is technically a superhero movie. And, for good or worse, it's one like you've never seen before.
23.) Zebraman (2007)
Directed by Takashi Miike
If you're not familiar with Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, you probably should be. Having directed over ninety (seriously) feature films, the man would be legendary for being prolific even if all his movies stunk. Happily, though, a lot of his films are actually really amazing and innovative. Some, in fact, are considered by many as being modern classics; including Ichi the Killer, Audition, and Thirteen Assassins. Sadly, 2007s Zebraman isn't one of those masterpieces. Not in this mans opinion, at least (and who the hell am I, right?). Either way, regardless of your opinion on the film, there's no denying that it's still kinda interesting to see how the Japanese would take on the superhero genre — especially someone like Miike. Hell, if nothing else it's bound to be unique.
Typical of the kind of underdog stories you'll see much of on this list, this movie is about a nerdy school teacher named Shinichi Ichikawa who more or less loses at life. His son is being picked on because his dad is a teacher, his daughter doesn't like him, his wife cheats on him, and if all that wasn't pathetic enough, Shinichi is also strangely enamoured with a short-lived, corny TV series from the 1970s about a superhero who fights bad guys in the future. The show is calld Zebraman and our hero is so obsessed with it that he even has his own Zebraman costume that he dresses up in nightly; when he pretends that he's a crime fighter from the safety of his bedroom.
As it turns out, unbeknown to Shinichi, there's been an alien outbreak in his city and several people have been murdered around the school where he works. While wearing his costume out in the street one night (he wanted to show it off to a disabled student who's also obsessed with Zebraman), Shinichi comes in contact with one of these extraterrestrials (disguised as a criminal wearing a crab mask for some reason) and decides to use this opportunity to try and be a real hero for the first time. It's here, during his fight with Crab Man, that our nerdy protagonist is suddenly shocked to find out that he's capable of busting out some actual superhero moves; thus the superheroism begins.
The film eventually gives us a goofy B-movie reason for why this guy who dresses like Zebraman suddenly acquires TV Zebraman's actual powers; but who cares to try and explain it (it's probably a spoiler anyhow). While I didn't particularly enjoy the movie, it's unquestionably an original piece of superhero fiction that you won't see anything else like anywhere else. And, frankly, that's about the extent of the criteria it takes to granted a spot on the lower-portion of this list.
22.) The Crow (1994)
Directed by Alex Proyas
On the night before Halloween, the annual “Devil’s Night” (as it’s apparently known), a group of thugs walk into Eric Draven’s (D-Raven, get it?) apartment and rape his girlfriend and kill both her and him. Exactly one year later, a crow mysteriously taps on Draven’s tombstone and wakes him up from the dead (why? I dunno. It just does). Now, arisen from the grave with a face like the Joker and the combat moves of a murderous Batman (in a suspiciously Gotham-looking Detroit), Draven becomes a ghost on a deadly quest for vengeance.
Despite the fact that it has a paper thin plot, barely any character development, and is overloaded with unanswered questions, overly convenient occurrences, and is absurd in almost every way, The Crow has somehow managed to grow a massive cult following over the years (spawning multiple sequels) that continues, to this day, to attract fans from all over. Personally, I don’t see what all the hubbub is about, but a lot of people really do love this crap.
Perhaps the fact that the movies lead actor, Brandon Lee (son of everyone’s favorite kung fu fighter, Bruce Lee), was killed during filming has a lot to do with the films popularity. Admittedly, that alone does seem lend a level of depth to the picture that it otherwise would have been missing. Also, as silly as it is, it actually does look very cool too, with its dark, grungy, gothic atmosphere and some alright action sequences. Nevertheless, in the end, The Crow was certainly not my personal brand of fun. But it seemed unfair to knock it off the list simply because I didn’t get into it. Enough other people enjoyed to for me to safely assume someone somewhere will be all in for this movies crazy shenanigans. And even I have to admit: it was one of a kind.
21.) The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)
Directed by Philippe Mora
In The Return of Captain Invincible, a Superman-like hero from the 50s, named Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin), represents all that we could ever want from a classic American superhero. He's clean-cut, charismatic, patriotic, and a true role-model to our nations children. At least, up until McCarthyism hit the scene. Thanks to that low-point in history, our great hero was prematurely forced into hiding/retirement after the government accused him of being a nasty commie. Cut to the present day (the early 80s), after Invincible has been out of the public eye for 30 years, and he's now a drunk, grumpy low-life who hasn't fought evil in so long that he's forgotten how to properly use most of his powers. That's especially bad news for the citizens of Earth, considering that Invincible's old arch-rival, Mr. Midnight (Christopher Lee), has just re-emerged to reek his evil havoc on us all. As expected, the government comes to its senses and decides to call in its dirty old bum of a superhero to defeat this evil mastermind once and for all.
Invincible must now kick the bottle, clean up his act, and work diligently to whip back into shape and once again become the hero that his planet needs. If you're thinking this sounds a lot like a cheesy, 1980s version of Hancock, then you're actually not too far off the mark (assuming Hancock were a curmudgeon old Jew instead of a sassy black guy, at least). But The Return of Captain Invincible is also more than that. Not much more, mind you, but more. It's also a bizarre musical (yes, it's a musical) and a wacky, off-the-wall superhero spoof. Think Airplane! meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show (with a little of The Evil Dead's charmingly bad special effects thrown in for good measure) and you'll almost get the picture.
Is it good? Well, that's subjective. Some are under the impression that it's one of those "so bad it's good" movies (often likening it to being the Plan 9 of superhero movies). But not me. I like it. And I get the distinct feeling that the "bad" parts of The Return of Captain Invincible (aka The Legend in Leotards) are deliberate. Also, there's some genuine laughs and — here comes the best part — we get to hear both Alan Arkin and Christopher Lee showcase their, uh, unique musical abilities. Shouldn't that alone be enough to warrant it a view?
20.) Darkman (1990)
Directed by Sam Rami
A card-carrying, comic book-reading nerd since before either comic books or nerds were cool, Evil Dead director Sam Raimi had his heart set on making a comic book superhero movie for years. Upon learning that he was unable to secure the rights to either The Shadow or Batman, however, the filmmaker decided upon a new approach to realizing his dreams — by creating his own superhero. Enter: Darkman.
Like most superheroes who came before him, Darkman was once simply normal man. His name was Peyton Westlake and, wouldn’t ya know it, he was a scientist. His path toward becoming a superhero began due to his lawyer girlfriend and her own fight for justice against the mob. When those baddies went looking for her (and her "incriminating documents") in Peyton’s laboratory, things went bad quick when they killed Peyton’s assistant then beat Peyton, burnt his hands, and permanently disfigured his face after dipping it in acid. The transformation from man to super-man was complete once Peyton's left-for-dead body was found and brought to a hospital where they performed experimental treatments to get rid of his pain — inadvertently transforming him into an adrenalin loaded badass with super strength and a hair temper in the process. From there, he becomes a man out for revenge.
Whether you like the movie or not, Darkman’s bandaged face, fedora hat, and long coat were a smash hit with superhero fans all over. It spawned a Marvel Comic adaptation, a video game, and several direct-to-video sequels (which I recommend to absolutely no one). And if it weren’t enough that Sam Raimi managed to create a successful superhero out of thin air, he also finally did get the opportunity to direct an adaptation of a more well-known comic book hero with Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), and, you guessed it, Spider-Man 3 (2007).
19.) Super (2011)
Directed by James Gunn
Staring both post-Juno Ellen Page and Dwight from The Office, the 2011 film, Super, may look like your average happy-go-lucky comedy. But, in reality, this is one dark, brutally violent picture, that more than likely will disturb you. Its story follows a dorky, out-of-shape fan of Christian superheroes, named Frank (Rainn Wilson), who loses what’s left of his already half-gone sanity when his wife leaves him for a drug dealer played by Kevin Bacon. After this — and a few bizarre, hallucinatory visions — Frank is inspired to dawn an unflatteringly tight homemade costume and begin patrolling the streets, waging a war on crime as the superhero The Crimson Bolt.
Using such crude weaponry as monkey wrenches and cinder blocks, The Crimson Bolt proceeds to brutally assault and murder anyone that he deems as a bad guy. While these evildoers often consist of such legit baddies as drug dealers, pedophiles, and purse thieves, Frank’s not too averse to severely beating people who innocently butt ahead in lines either. And if Frank’s own merciless violence wasn’t enough to strike terror into the hearts of the city, along his journey he also befriends a young comic book-loving girl (played by Ellen Page) who may be even more demented and deranged than he is. Unsurprisingly, she soon becomes his enthusiastic kid sidekick, Bolty, and together the two cause one helluva lot carnage.
If you think this all sounds pretty cool, you're only partially right. The violence is kinda fun to watch (if you're as morbid as I am, at least) but, on the whole, this is an unfortunately mediocre film (and a poor substitute for the kinda similar, non-super hero movie, God Bless America, which was released during the same year). It is original, at least, and if you’re looking for a brutal, somewhat shocking goodtime, this may be right up your alley.
18.) Mystery Men (1999)
Directed by Kinka Usher
Mystery Men is a 1998 comedy about an imaginary place called Champion City, where Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is always there to save the day. He’s so popular that his costume is embroidered with NASCAR-like decals from companies like Pepsi that sponsor his heroics. Lately, however, it appears that Captain Amazing is doing too well at this job. He’s running out of evil villains to battle and thus losing valuable sponsors because of it (in the words of Chris Rock: The money isn't in the cure, it's in the medicine). To solve this dilemma, Captain Amazing decides to put in a good word for the early release of a past archenemy, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), who’s been locked up at the local, Arkham-esque mental institution for 20 years. The goal was to make his city need him again. What he didn’t foresee, however, was that his nemesis would end up getting the best of him.
But this isn’t the story of Captain Amazing; we don’t deal with stereotypical heroes on this list. Mystery Men tells the tale of a small group of three, low-level wannabe superheroes from Champion City who decide to step up and save the day (or try, at least) in Captain Amazing’s absence. There’s Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), who can throw cutlery with great accuracy; The Shoveler (William H. Macy), who carries around a shovel and hits people with it; and Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), who has the power of getting very, very angry (and that's about it). While each is passionately dedicated to their goals of crime fighting, none of our protagonists is especially skilled at their chosen professions — and their superpowers are just as lame as they sound. Which is why the trio recruit The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), who wields a magically destructive crystal bowling ball; Invisible Boy (played by Kel Mitchell, of Kenan & Kel fame), who has the ability to become invisible (but only when no one is watching); and The Spleen (Paul “Peewee Herman” Rubens), who can deploy farts strong enough to make grown men faint.
While Mystery Men was a box office failure at the time of its release, the passage of time has happily been kinder to it as it's since gone on to grow a small cult following among viewers who've grown to appreciate what this odd and quirky film was offering. It's far from a classic, but it's definitely a fun watch and has a who's who cast of actors who we all know and love.
17.) Griff the Invisible (2010)
Directed by Leon Ford
Griff the Invisible stars Ryan Kwanten (probably best remembered as Jason on HBO’s True Blood) as Griff, in this low budget superhero movie from Australia. Typical of the other real-life superheroes on our list, Griff is a very sad, lonely and naive individual who spends his days working a dead-end job where he’s commonly picked on by co-workers and shown respect by no one. He’s awkward, strange, and, as we quickly learn, spends his nights patrolling the streets as a superhero. Other than his concerned brother, who tries his best to look out for him, Griff has no social life to speak of. It’s not until his brothers oddball girlfriend, Melody (Maeve Dermody), takes in interest in him that Griff begins to find a partner — in more ways than one.
What really makes Griff the Invisible stick out is that it’s actually more of an eccentric rom-com than a movie about someone who tries to become a real-life masked vigilante. As in the style of Punch-Drunk Love or Benny and Joon, this is the tale of two mentally unstable people who meet, fall in love, and find happiness while in indulging in each other’s craziness. Or, at least, what outsiders think is crazy.
Whether or not our two quirky love-birds actually are out of their gourd is one the central themes of the movie (along with the question of what really is “crazy” anyway?). There are a few twists and turns here that will have the viewer going back and forth on what they think the answer is. And while that’s fun, the real enjoyment of the movie is the chemistry we see develop between Griff and Melody. In the end, the film is hardly essential viewing for fans of superheroes or rom-coms, but it’s a cute and original little tale that, if nothing else, at least beats most romantic comedies you'll come across.
16 - 15.) The Mark of Zorro (1920 and remake in 1940)
Directed by Fred Niblo (1920) and Rouben Mamoulian (1940)
Here he is, the original masked hero. Before Marvel, before DC, before Superman, Batman, or Iron Man, there was the daring and dashing Zorro.
A swashbuckling vigilante who dressed in all black, Zorro was the very first superhero ever put on screen. Hell, he was arguably the first superhero ever (if you don't count Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, or The Scarlet Pimpernel, at least). On this particular section of our list I had some trouble deciding whether or not to add the original 1920s silent film, The Mark of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks, or its 1940 remake of the same name, starring Tyron Power (who pretty much owned the role). So, in the end, I figured I’d just make this a twofer (I’d cheat) and throw both of ‘em in; the former being the pioneer, the latter being the classic that most remember.
My personal favorite factoid about this suave, debonair adventurer was that not only did he help define the superhero genre in general, but he was also a direct influence to the creators of the soon-to-come quintessential caped crusader: Batman. In fact, Batman co-creator, Bill Finger, has personally stated that he was inspired by the 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro. Among the similarities are Batman’s costume, the Batcave (Zorro’s cave), and the unexpected secret identities in which both heroes are wealthy, outgoing playboys. In the DC comics continuity, it’s also established that The Mark of Zorro is the film playing at the theater where little Bruce Waynes parents were gunned down (although it’s unclear which version of The Mark of Zorro that Bruce and his parents were watching).
While Zorro isn’t quite as well-known nowadays, back in his time he was a smash hit with movie goers. The Zorro franchise was so popular that it managed to go on to spawn over ten films and a Walt Disney produced live-action TV series that ran for two years.
14.) The Meteor Man (1993)
Directed by Robert Townsend
One of my childhood favorites, The Meteor Man is one of those fun, sorta-goofy, comedy movies starring an almost entirely African American cast that were all the rage back in the 90’s (you know the types: House Party, Class Act, anything having to do with The Wayans Brothers). For this one, we follow the tale of a mild mannered school teacher named Jefferson Reed (Robert Townsend) who is suddenly and inexplicably struck by a glowing green meteorite one night after narrowly escaping an attack by local hoods who've been terrorizing his city.
After this chance incident, Reed finds himself endowed with superpowers that amaze and delight all of his friends and family (not to mention everyone in his neighborhood, who are all informed of his secret identity by his blabbermouth mother). Among other things, he can fly (although he’s afraid of hights), he can absorb all of the knowledge of any book he touches (but only for 30 seconds), he can have conversations with his dog, he can see through walls (and clothes), and he can (and does) perform such miraculous acts as frying eggs with his “laser eyes”.
Although reluctant at first, through the insistence of his excited parents and community — and his own frustration by the crimes being committed in his area — Reed eventually follows the usual superhero protocol. He grabs himself a costume (sewn together by his mother), adopts a cool name (“Meteor Man”), and begins to wreak havoc on crime. He stops robberies, shuts down crack houses, brings peace between the police and the Crips and the Bloods, and he even plants a giant garden in the middle of the ghetto. But his biggest foes are a gang of vicious, blonde haired drug dealers (and their troop of baby gangbangers) named the Golden Lords.
The co-stars and guest stars in this movie are sort of astounding. Pre-known-rapist Bill Cosby, pre-critically acclaimed actor Don Cheadle, Eddie Griffin, James Earl Jones, George Jefferson’s maid (whatever her name is), and even Sinbad can be found. There's also cameos by Naughty by Nature, Cypress Hill, Biz Markie, and Luther Vandross.
While the special effects are laughable and corniness abounds, this is nevertheless a fun movie with a lot of good laughs and some genuinely heartfelt moments. Also, the final fight scene (the dance-off in particular) rivals almost anything Marvel has ever offered.
13.) Special (2006)
Directed by Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore
Unhappy with his pathetic existence, a sad, working class comic book fan and parking enforcement officer named Les (played by Michael Rapaport) signs up to be a test subject for an experimental new antidepressant, designed to make him happier and boost his self-confidence. Following days of taking the medication without any results, Les eventually begins to notice some interesting symptoms. The first of which being levitation, then mind reading, then the ability to walk through walls. Think you’ve heard this old superhero origin before? Well, stop being so presumptuous. You haven’t. This isn’t Captain America and Les isn’t experiencing a life-changing transformation into a super human. He’s just having a very dangerous hallucinatory side effect from some poorly-tested chemicals. The worst part? He refuses to accept that they aren’t real.
Unlike the other anti-superhero films on this list, where normal guys go nuts, dawn capes, and end up saving the day even if they’re just deluding themselves into thinking they’re heroes, 2006’s Special isn’t here to show us a story about an underdog who breaks bad and kicks the asses of some bad guys. Nor are there any big, flashy effects, no cool one-liners, or any cheap thrills. Les isn’t going to save the day in the end and we’re not all going to cheer at his conquering of any evil doers. I know, I know, it sounds boring as all hell. But it’s not. This is a small film, shot on a shoestring budget, about a sad man suffering through drug-induced delusion. Our thrills aren’t derived from seeing Les save the day but rather from our constant worry that all of his running into walls, jumping in front of cars, and picking fights with tough guys is going to end up causing him to get himself killed before the film is over with.
12.) Megamind (2010)
Directed by Tom McGrath
What if the superheroes arch nemesis actually won? What evil deeds would he commit? Now that he’s taken over the world, how would he run it? What villainous horrors would he inflict on his helpless citizens? And, more importantly, how would he spend his free time now that he has no superhero to pester him during his every waking moment? After all, what’s the fun in being evil when there’s no good guy to battle against?
These are a few of the questions asked in this 2010 animated film by DreamWorks about a blue skinned, big brained super villain, named Megamind (Will Ferrell), who unexpectedly succeeds in vanquishing his cities beloved, Superman-esque hero, Metroman (Brad Pitt). After this shocking defeat (by way of incineration, via the sun) Megamind is forced to face the grim reality of life without a hero counterpart to foil all of his evil schemes. He’d been battling it out with his nemesis for all of his life, but to actually beat him? That, he wasn’t prepared for. Finding life without his vanquished adversary too boring, Megamind sets out to create a new superhero to take Metroman’s place. (Cue family-friendly cartoon antics.)
While not quite as good as the Pixar animated superhero movie on this list, The Incredibles (hell, few cartoons, regardless of how great they are, will ever live up to the awesomeness of that one), which took a peek at what happens to superheroes when they hit middle age, this animated film was still very good and extremely clever in its own right when it took a look at things from the villains perspective. And with an all-star cast including Brad Pitt, Will Ferrell, David Cross, Tina Fey, Ben Stiller, J. K. Simmons, and Jonah Hill, Megamind’s got some major talents to back up its unique story.
11.) Blankman (1994)
Directed by Mike Binder
In this 1994 slapsticky comedy starring Damon Wayans and David Allen Grier, Wayans plays a socially inept nerd and amateur inventor, named Darryl, who grew up loving the 1960s Batman television series and is currently residing with his grandma and brother (Grier) in an apartment located in an inner city neighborhood. Darryl is, in many ways, kind of a black, pre-Big Bang Theory (the TV series, not the cosmic explosion) version of the character Sheldon Cooper. Despite the fact that he has a genius IQ and is highly skilled at coming up with a large array of homemade inventions, Darryl remains naïve, with a child-like innocence when it comes to almost all other aspects of adult life.
As always, it’s when our soon-to-be-heroes loved-one is killed by mobsters that he inevitably begins to dress like a nutjob and take on a new, superhero persona. Being the inventive man-child he is, Darryl cobbles together his costume using whatever items he can find laying around his house (in this case, a pair of PJ’s, an old bathrobe, and a sock with eyeholes being the three major components). From there, be becomes Blankman, and the film essentially becomes a buddy comedy about two brothers: one who thinks he’s a superhero and the other, more levelheaded of the two, who thinks his brother is acting a fool and is going to end up getting himself killed.
And that’s about as far as the important plot points go for this particular movie. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you. Truth be told, if you’re going just for laughs, having a story about a guy in the ghetto dressing up like a superhero is plenty enough comic fodder to work from. And Blankman works very well.
10.) Hancock (2008)
Directed by Peter Berg
Despite what comic book culture has drilled into our brains over the years, just because someone happens to be blessed with superhuman powers doesn’t mean that this same person is also going to be a squeaky clean, pretty-boy good guy. That’s a lesson we can plainly learn from 2008s Hancock, a non-comic book superhero movie about a dirty, hard drinking, womanizing man named Hanckock (played by Will Smith) who has superman-like powers and always saves the day — but not always in the most clean or moral fashion. When it was released, many called Hancock the Bad Santa of superheroes; which isn't too far off the mark. Aside from being a drunk, Hancock is also often seen picking on small children, pinching the backsides of women, and causing the city one helluva lot of property damage with his reckless methods of apprehending criminals.
While the film begins like a straight-up comedy, not un-similar in tone to the aforementioned Bad Santa, it soon becomes evident that this movie takes itself a bit more seriously than that. After Hancock saves a public relations spokesman (played by Jason Bateman) from being killed by an incoming train (Hancock derails the train in the process), the PR man decides to repay our hero by giving him a complete superhero makeover to improve his public image. From here, we watch Hancock try to become a better man — or better superman, at least — by doing away with his hobo clothes and donning a sleek new superhero outfit, going to jail to pay his dues to the city, laying off the bottle, and generally attempting to become more, well... polite.
I won’t spoil the later twist in the film, but let’s just say we eventually get to delve quite a bit more into Hancock’s history and mythology (thus opening us up to some future sequels). This three-prong approach of making the film a comedy about a slovenly superhero, an uplifting tale of a guy who works to improve himself, and the eventual (and very clever) Marvel-esque superhero origins story we get near the end all add up to make Hancock an original superhero movie that’s appealing to a wide array of audiences.
9.) Kick-Ass (2010)
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Before Deadpool came along in 2016, 2010s Kickass was undoubtedly the most raunchy, foul-mouthed superhero movie we had.
The story is about an ordinary teenager named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) who orders a skin-tight costume off from Ebay to become a real-life superhero named Kick-Ass. Unlike many heroes who came before him (and plenty on this list) Dave never had a big “ah-ha!” moment to motivate him to fight crime. His parents aren’t murdered, he’s not crazy, he isn’t an alien, and he wasn’t struck by a magical meteorite. He’s simply a normal kid who thinks it would be cool if superheroes actually existed in the world. Thus, he becomes one — a very bad one. Being far from athletic, completely incapable of fighting, he manages to get himself stabbed and run down by a car during his first outing.
After recovering, Dave encounters a stroke of luck after finding out that his injuries resulted in a gained ability to endure pain. As Kick-Ass, Dave quickly puts this new “power” to use when he intervenes in a gang attack that is filmed and put on Youtube, causing him to become a national sensation, acquiring him fans from all around the world. Among these new fans are a father and daughter pair of highly skilled masked vigilantes who call themselves Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), who wind up taking Kick-Ass under their wing.
A few years after its release, Kick-Ass spawned one sequel that failed miserably in capturing the originals magic. But that in no way took away from how great this first film was. Many will always hate it for the excessive violence and the “disturbing” image of an 11 year old girl who swears like a sailor with Tourette syndrome. But for those of us lacking a stick up our ass, this remains to be a fun and hilarious film that acts as the Superbad of superhero movies.
8.) Deadpool (2016)
Directed by Tim Miller
I’m sure that by now everyone is fully aware of Deadpool. He began his life as the wise-cracking Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a former special forces operative who went on to become a freelancing, ass-kicking mercenary in New York City. It was a splendid life (for Wade, at least) that only got better once he met the woman of his dreams. Sadly, this dream life took a turn for the worse when Wade was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Upon receiving this unfortunate news, Wade proceeds to leave his girlfriend (not wanting her to see him slowly waste away) and slink away somewhere as he awaits his inevitable demise. That’s when he’s approached by a mysterious, “Agent Smith” type of man who promises Wade superpowers and a cure for cancer if he agrees to participate in an experimental procedure. Skeptically and reluctantly, Wade agrees.
Then some stuff happens, there are experiments, there’s an explosion, Wades face is disfigured into a Freddy Krueger-esque abomination, and he crawls out from a pile of rubbage finding himself endowed with super strength, an ability to heal from any wound, and capable of growing back missing limbs. He eventually dons a costume (colored red, in order to hide the blood stains) and adopts the title of Deadpool. Voila: A blockbuster superhero has arisen!
It’s not the story of Deadpool that makes it different from all the other super’s out there, though. It’s the execution of that story that makes the film so original. By parodying the superhero genre, not being afraid to break the fourth wall and make fun of itself, and doing all of this while still remaining true and believable as a superhero movie in its own right, Deadpool managed to do something very rare in movies. Like Shaun of the Dead did with the zombie picture and Scream did with the slasher film, Deadpool showed a clever self-awareness of its genre without merely becoming a brainless spoof of it.
7.) The Incredibles (2004)
Directed by Brad Bird
After such amazing movies as UP, Wall-E, Finding Nemo, and Toy Story, by now everyone should already be fully aware that Pixar tends to deliver the goods — and not just for the kids, either. Because of this, the success and critical praise of The Incredibles didn't come as much of a surprise. And for the nerdiest among us, it continues to be the crème de la crème of what that beloved studio can offer.
Staring Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, and Samuel L. Jackson, The Incredibles starts off in traditional 1950s superhero fashion. In an opening flashback (reminiscent of the opening of the previously mentioned Captain Invincible) we see the dashing, athletic, paradigm of morality, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), along with his super cohorts Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), as they run around the city catching bad guys. Unfortunately, the city isn’t quite as grateful for its “supers” as you’d assume and eventually starts slapping its heroes with one lawsuit after another, causing them to ditch their costumes and go into retirement.
Cut to several years in the future where we find Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl now married, middle aged, out of shape and living together with their two kids. They go by the names Bob and Helen Parr, these days, and their lives have become incredibly… boring. Helen has become a stay-at-home mom and Bob squeezes his giant torso into a cubicle every day, slaving away at a low-paying job. Not content with this unexciting lifestyle, Bob begins to sneak away at nights to relive his glory days by fighting crime on the down-low. Before long, a secret organization catches wind of Bobs actions and offers him a job combating a robot on a remote island. Seeing a chance to shimmy back into his old costume and get back into action, Mr. Incredible jumps at the opportunity. One thing leads to another and Mr. Incredible eventually finds himself captured by bad guys and his wife, kids, and old pal Frozone have to band together to save the day.
While there may not be many family friendly super tales on this list, this one by far tops them all. Like any good Pixar original, it has all of the laughs, heart, and likeable characters you could ask for. And it's great viewing with or without the kiddos present.
6.) Defendor (2009)
Directed by Peter Stebbings
Just like the previously listed Super (2011), Special (2006), and Blankman (1994), here’s yet another story about a guy with a screw loose who suddenly thinks he’s a superhero. It’s called Defendor and it’s perhaps the best out of that particular bunch. It stars Woody Harrelson as Arthur Poppington, a slow but kind-hearted man (not too different from his character in Cheers, if you can remember that far back) who, as a child, was abandoned by his prostitute mother and raised by his war veteran grandfather. Arthur’s delusions of being a crime fighter began at that same young age, when his curmudgeon granddad informed him that “captains of industry” (drug pushers) were the cause of his mother leaving and not coming back. In Arthurs head, this “Captain Industry” must be a really bad guy. When he grows up, he’ll make sure to become the hero who defeats him.
The hero Arthur eventually becomes is called Defendor. His cheaply thrown together, homemade costume includes an all-black outfit, a helmet, a shoe polish mask and a large emblem of a “D” (made of duct tape) that he keeps pasted to his chest. Arthur’s arsenal of weaponry isn’t that much fancier, with only slingshots, jars of wasps, lime juice, his grandfather’s WWI trench club and whole mess of marbles to fend off the bad guys with. Equipped with these mostly non-lethal weapons, Defendor patrols the streets every night, searching for the ever-elusive Captain Industry and intervening in whatever petty crimes he comes across in the process.
Although it’s technically a dark comedy, out of all the films on our list, this is probably the one most likely to bring a tear to your eye (it did mine). Arthur is just so damn sweet and endearing and, most of all, human, that you can't help but care for him. And while he’s a rather inept hero, his efforts are always good intentioned and it’s hard not to both root for him as an underdog and fear for his life as he gets himself deeper and deeper in danger.
5.) Superheroes (2011)
Directed by Mike Barnett
The 2011 documentary Superheroes is about the little-known world of real-life superheroes. That’s right, you read correctly: actual, living, breathing, real-life masked crusaders. These aren’t the supers you find in the movies, though. No, this is a collection of average (and sometimes below average) people, from various areas around the USA, who regularly dress up in homemade costumes and do their best to fight crime and help out their communities in whatever ways they can. Are they crazy or are they heroes? That's what this film sets to find out.
Among the superheroes featured in the film are Zimmer, who leads a team of other costumed crime fighters in Brooklyn, where they conduct late-night “bait patrols”; Mr. Xtreme, a paunchy San Diego security guard who camps in his van dressed in a helmet, cape and goggles; the aging, beer guzzling (“in moderation”) Master Legend in Florida; Thanatos, a 62-year-old from Vancouver; and tons of others. Included in the mix are homosexuals, devout Christians, teachers, security guards, martial arts instructors, EMT's, tattoo artists, couples and parents, and many others. Almost all of which are gentle, law abiding people with normal day jobs.
While it's easy to initially write everyone here off as just being insane, as we delve deeper into each heroes story and see more about their personalities and the kind of work they do, don't be surprised if you find your opinion quickly being swayed. As they patrol the streets, put up flyers to catch criminals, give out toys to children who can't afford them, hand out food and toiletries to the homeless, rat out local drug dealers and offer assistance to anyone in need, they not only begin to look less psychotic, but they begin to appear genuinely selfless and amazing human beings.
Interspersed with comic book styled animations and interviews from psychiatrists, members of the police force, comic book legend Stan Lee and several people the heroes have helped out, this is an extremely funny, stylish, heartfelt, original and surprisingly inspiring documentary that’s nowhere near the freak show you’d expect.
4.) Chronicle (2012)
Directed by Josh Trank
Before director Josh Trank almost ruined his career with his universally despised Fantastic Four reboot, he made a million-times-better superhero movie in 2012, entitled Chronicle. This is a serious, stylish and original found-footage movie about three teenage boys who come across a mysterious object in the woods that gives each of them superpowers (telekinesis and the ability of flight) after coming in contact with it.
As familiar as this may all sound to comic book fans, none of it actually plays out like a regular superhero film. No one dons a costume, for example, and no one even entertains the idea of using their powers to protect and serve their community. Most of the time we see our three young heroes acting out the way most any other teenager would if they were suddenly blessed with the ability to fly around and move objects with their minds: they play practical jokes on unsuspecting strangers, they try to make themselves more popular at school, they get even with bullies, and are always finding new and unique ways to screw around and act like jackasses.
As you’d expect, these good times don’t last. Eventually problems must arise, people push things too far, a super villain must evolve and all hell breaking loose is an unavoidable inevitability. By the end of the film this leads to the kind of big, city-wide, epic super fight that everyone loves to watch (and Chronicle does it better and more realistically than most). But the best part of Chronicles story doesn’t come from its action, it comes from its down time. The heart of this movie, and what makes it work so well, is rise and fall of the relationship between three unlikely friends (the popular one, the smart one, and the nerdy one who’s consistently abused by both his peers and his father) who develop a bond made by their shared secret.
3.) The Dark Knight Returns (2012 and 2013)
Directed by Jay Oliva
Before Zack Snyder, before Christopher Noland, and even before Tim Burton, it was comic book writer Frank Miller who first came along in 1986 and completely changed how we view Batman. In his immortal graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, we got our first true glimpse at the kind of dark and gritty Batman that we've all now come to love and expect. And it's here, in this two-part animated movie, that we get to see that groundbreaking comic brought to life for the very first time. As luck would have it, it turned out amazingly well.
Retired now for over 10 years — after the death of his sidekick Robin — a burly, old and grumpy Bruce Wayne decides to shimmy’s his wrinkled ass back into the Bat suite for one last hurrah. During his adventure he’ll beat the living hell out of anyone who stands in his way, including the Joker, Two Face, skin heads, and even The Man of Steel himself. Batman is a lot older these days, though, and his body isn’t what it used to be. Plagued with aches and pains from his younger days, and a little thicker around the middle than he once was, this last crusade won’t be an easy one. But this isn’t your daddy’s Batman (well, it was made in 1986 so technically it may be now). He’s violent, out for blood, slightly insane and surly as all hell. He can take whatever comes.
Believed by many to be the ultimate Batman tale, its Frank Miller’s creation that we see played out here in this almost perfect adaptation to his classic story. A story which later went on to inspire Tim Burton’s, Christopher Noland’s, and Zack Snyder’s Batman movies that followed. Bar none the one Bat-adventure that fans have been clamoring for the most to see in movie form, it’s now here for all to enjoy. And while it isn't live-action, that doesn't quite matter. DC has always shelled out great animated movies and this is by far the best of the bunch; managing not only to be the greatest Batman cartoon, but perhaps even the greatest Batman movie to ever roll off the assembly line.
(For added enjoyment, try checking it out with the Kevin Smith commentary, to watch the Fatman on Batman weep in joy as he watches his favorite comic book come to life.)
2.) Unbreakable (2000)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Many people tend to forget that there was a time when M. Night Shyamalan was one of the most unique and promising filmmakers in the business. And while that time appears to have passed, in the year 2000 he was still running strong with the release of Unbreakable. The strange, slowly paced story of a security guard named David Dunn (Bruce Willis) who miraculously survives a massive, devastating train accident in which everyone else was killed. David, however, made it out without a scratch.
The movie isn’t just about David, though. There’s also a parallel story which plays out, intertwining with David’s, about a strange man named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). Elijah is nicknamed Mr. Glass because of a rare disease he was born with which results in him being especially prone to illnesses and that causes his bones to break as easily as, well, glass. He seeks out David because he’s been on a long look out for an elusive "unbreakable man" and, after hearing of David's sole survivor of a catastrophic train wreck, he comes to the conclusion that he is that man. Price’s reasoning for this hunt boils down to a simple idea: “If there’s someone like me in the world, shouldn’t there be someone at the other end of the spectrum?”
If you’re aware of Mr. Shyamalan’s previous work, then you’ve probably already guessed that there’s going to be a Twilight Zone-like twist at the end of this. I’d warn you ahead of time that I’m going to spoil it, but, unfortunately, Unbreakable’s very inclusion on this very list is the spoiler. That’s because the big reveal at the end is the very fact that the intriguing mystery movie we've been watching has actually been nothing more than superhero origins story all along. Luckily, even with the twist spoiled this is still a great watch. Trust me, I’ve seen it plenty. It's original, intriguing, and, as far as my money goes, the best twisty-idea that M. Night Shyamalan has ever come up with. And I'm not alone in that. Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino even went as far as to call it one of his favorite films of the 2000s.
1.) Watchmen (2009)
Directed by Zack Snyder
Being a big blockbuster superhero movie based on a well-known comic book, you’re probably wondering why Watchmen should make this list at all. This isn't any ordinary mainstream comic book movie, though, because it wasn't any ordinary comic book that it was adapted from. In terms of originality, intelligence, and its no-holds-barred way of telling a super tale, it's in a league all of its own. And most impressively of all, its plot was as thought-provoking as a great science fiction story. If you're one of the many who actually thought The Dark Knight was deep in its 'good versus evil' themes, prepare to drown in the complex depths that Watchmen delivers.
The plot takes place in an alternate version of 1985 America — with flashbacks going as far back as the 1930s, when masked crusaders first began to appear — where the existence of superheroes has vastly effected history. The god-like Doctor Manhattan, for instance, has helped the US win the war in Vietnam; the legality of superheroism has become a talking point in politics; and Nixon is still president by 1985 (now serving his fifth term). While the popularity of superheroes began high, soon public opinion of them began to sway (with people asking such questions as “WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?”) and before long their acts of vigilantism becomes outlawed. It’s not until one of the Watchmen, The Comedian, is mysteriously murdered that the superheroes suit back up and come out of hiding to find out who killed one of their own, and why.
Watchmen depicts its superheroes as real people who must confront ethical and personal issues, and who struggle with neuroses and failings (by the beginning of the film, the superheroes who haven't died or retired have been locked up in mental institutions). These aren’t the untouchable, highly moral, and unrealistic god-like beings that other big-budget comic movies have led us to believe in; and what they do isn’t as pure and noble as we wished it was. When a bad guys gets slugged in the face and a crime is solved, there’s no “WHAM!” followed by a happily ever after conclusion. In the true-to-reality world of Watchmen, there’s blood, missing teeth, hospitalization and sometimes death. And, in the end, we’re never even sure that the right thing was even done.
Nathan Kiehn on October 07, 2017:
I'm surprised I haven't seen more of these. Guess I'm just too entrenched in the Marvel/DC worlds.
I love Unbreakable, one of my favorite movies ever, and I definitely enjoyed Mystery Men, Hancock, and The Incredibles. I'd love to see Boy Wonder, and the summary you give makes me wants to watch it even more.
It's really cool that you focused on such an intriguing topic. I never really thought of some of these films playing with the characteristic genre tropes of a superhero film, so it's awesome you were able to make a compilation of so many films.
Ryan from Louisiana, USA on June 14, 2017:
I love the Crow, Kick-ass and Deadpool. Some of these on the list I have never even heard of, but I am definitely going to check out. This is a great list. Thank you for sharing. I cannot wait to read more of your hubs.