Skeptic, cinephile, bookworm, gamer, history buff, armchair scientist, occasional YouTuber, habitual cringe inducer, reluctant realist.
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.