It seems like there are more and more superhero movies coming to theaters every year – since the X-Men first hit our screens sixteen years ago, the genre has been growing at an incredible rate. Even before the current comic book renaissance, though, superheroes have appeared in live-action films for decades. It’s not just the big guns who have made it into theaters, either – plenty of heroes who don’t hang their hat within the Marvel and DC universes have had their own films. While some of these movies gained classic status, others languish in obscurity, forgotten about as audiences clamor for newer, brighter heroes. In many cases, obscurity is nothing more than these caped heroes deserve (*cough* Steel), but others merit a little more appreciation than they often receive. Here are 15 of the superhero movies that should be dusted off and re-watched, because they are actually pretty darn fantastic.
15. Wanted (2008)
Just barely clinging on to superhero status, Wanted would be more accurately described as a super-anti-hero movie. James McAvoy stars as bored office-worker Wesley, sick of his life, his job, his cheating girlfriend and lying “best” friend. He’s about to discover that he is descended from a super-powered assassin who can “bend” bullets. The movie is often unnecessarily complex, centered on corruption within a league of assassins who murder according to the whims of “fate”, revenge plots within revenge plots, and some gratuitous shots of Angelina Jolie getting out of the bath. However, it’s a phenomenally fun film – wish fulfillment for dissatisfied cubicle workers packed with stunning action sequences layered on top of each other. Add a little fourth-wall breakage, a massively destructive final battle, and a great twist ending, and you have a fabulous action movie with a star-studded cast. Although many fans were upset that the film deviated from the comics as much as it did, as a stand-alone movie it’s massively underrated.
14. The Phantom (1996)
One of the oldest superheroes (in terms of publication history) is The Phantom, a seemingly immortal crime fighter in a purple suit. Although The Phantom has a long history in published form, he’s never made it into the mainstream consciousness in the same way that, say, Superman has – but he did make it onto the big screen twenty years ago in The Phantom. Played by Billy Zane in a purple onesie, The Phantom/Kit Walker is the most recent in a long line of heroes to hold the title, and now he must thwart an evil industrialist’s plans to take over the world with the help of three mystic skulls. This fun film lies somewhere in between Indiana Jones and Adam West’s Batman, with plenty of jungle-based action and campy costumed fun. Although it’s not primarily a comedy, the film features plenty of humor – reminding us that superheroes can smile and fight crime at the same time. While not the best example of the ‘90s superhero genre out there, The Phantom definitely deserves a little more credit than it gets.
13. Blankman (1994)
A cult classic that many consider to be a perfect example of a movie so bad, it’s good, Blankman is a superhero satire from the Wayans brothers, starring Damon Wayans as Blankman. A low-budget superhero without any actual superpowers, Blankman is well-intentioned but bumbling, and his only real ability is thanks to his bullet-proof suit and crime-fighting junk robots. Light and silly, the film parodies some of the earliest live-action superheroes with an ill-fitting suit, no muscle tone, and cheesy effects (à la Adam West’s Batman). It’s certainly not cerebral and lacks any real action-movie intensity, but it’s not intended to stand up to the best of the superhero genre, just to poke fun at it. This lighthearted comedy is built around the classic superhero structure – with a mild-mannered type saving the day and getting the girl through his crime-fighting activities, and a mobster bad guy aiming to take our simple superhero down. It’s one to watch if you are a fan of the Wayans brothers, or of silly spoofs in general.
12. The Specials (2000)
Another super-comedy that failed to launch, and another pre-Guardians of the Galaxy offering from James Gunn, The Specials is one of the few superhero movies to focus on what heroes do when they aren’t busy saving the day or getting the girl. Living in a world full of superheroes, this motley crew of supers is only the seventh best team in the world, dealing with low-level crime and little publicity. Rather than pitting these misfit heroes against a big bad, the movie looks at their relationships and romances on a day off, with the superpowered aspects secondary to their quirky personalities. Starring Rob Lowe, Judy Greer, and Paget Brewster, the cast carries the comedy – and Rob Lowe is more than watchable as the masked hero Weevil. R-rated and lacking the good vs evil action sequences that audiences expect from superhero movies, The Specials didn’t connect with audiences when it was first released, but is a surprisingly funny dysfunctional family story that shouldn’t be forgotten.
11. The Toxic Avenger (1984)
The oldest film on this list, this cult classic is a fantastic horror comedy and the ultimate superhero B-movie. A nerd revenge fantasy film, our hero starts out as “90lb weakling” Melvin Junko (Mark Torgl), bullied by the popular and attractive members of the health club where he works. Tossed out a window, Melvin lands in a vat of green goo (which everybody knows will give you some kind of superpower!), and emerges as the hideously deformed, but super-strong Toxic Avenger (Mitch Cohen). Despite his hideous appearance, his vigilante ways endear him to the people of the town, and they embrace their “Monster Hero”. After a couple of minor twists and turns, the Toxic Avenger beats the bad guys, gets the girl, and lives happily ever after. Of course, there’s plenty of sex, violence, bad language, and campy action sequences along the way, which is what makes The Toxic Avenger stand out, even among similar B-movie madness.
10. Darkman (1990)
Sam Raimi is better known in the superhero genre for his work on Spider-Man 3, but before he took on Peter Parker, Raimi created his own superhero for the 1990 movie Darkman. Starring Liam Neeson, the movie is an homage to the horror films of the ‘30s with a superhero twist. Neeson is Peyton Westlake, a scientist working on synthetic skin when he gets accidentally involved in the investigation of a psychotic developer. Left for dead and horribly disfigured after his lab is blown up with him inside, he uses his synthetic skin to become a superhero able to disguise himself as anyone, and goes out to seek revenge on those who tried to kill him. Darkman is definitely a film that has started to feel dated (especially when it comes to visual effects), but that remains a fantastically watchable mashup of action, horror, and dark comedy. Although Darkman has long been forgotten by most superhero fans, it was originally successful enough for a direct-to-video sequel: Darkman II: The Return of Durant, and a final film: Darkman III: Die Darkman Die.
9. Mystery Men (1999)
This superhero spoof is a perfect example of the right movie at the wrong time – poking fun at a subgenre before it really got rolling. However, it’s a phenomenally funny oddball comedy with a great cast of comedians to give it heart. Starring Ben Stiller as Mr. Furious, the film follows a group of bumbling superhero wannabes as they attempt to save the real hero of the city, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). Lighthearted and supremely silly, Mystery Men is a fantastic parody full of quotable one-liners. While it’s not of the same caliber as many of Stiller’s other offerings, the simple humor and non-stop zany action are thoroughly enjoyable (if not particularly groundbreaking stuff). Fun, colorful, and easy to watch, Mystery Men is a perfect antidote to dark and gritty superheroes and intense villains. The CGI may be awkwardly outdated at times, but luckily this isn’t a film that takes itself seriously, so the effects that don’t age well just add to its B-movie charm.
8. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
One of many attempts at a live-action Punisher over the years, Punisher: War Zone is probably the most divisive of Frank Castle’s big screen outings, with most critics eviscerating the movie, but with a vocal minority praising it to the high heavens. Terrible marketing or Punisher-fatigue also meant that a vast majority of fans didn’t even see it, which is a crying shame, as this is a glorious testament to the ultra-violence and unforgiving aggression of the comics. Ray Stevenson’s take on Frank Castle is merciless and brutal in the best possible way. The film as a whole attempts to do very little beyond gleefully showcase vigilante violence, bringing the Punisher to life as a gloriously colorful badass fighting an over-the-top villain. One for the fans, Punisher: War Zone doesn’t even attempt to do more than necessary. Instead, it glories in shoot-’em-up simplicity. As a box office failure, this reboot was never going to turn into a franchise, but it is definitely cult-classic material just waiting to be remembered.
7. Super (2011)
Before James Gunn became part of the Marvel family with Guardians of the Galaxy, he put together a hyper-violent, hilariously dark superhero movie titled simply Super. Starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, and Kevin Bacon, this dark comedy has its roots in wish-fulfillment for the average schlub looking for justice. Frank (Wilson) is a boring man, whose wife leaves him for a drug dealer. Broken hearted, he turns to crime fighting as a way to seek justice. With a homemade suit and a red wrench, he becomes the Crimson Bolt – a hero with a purpose (and a tendency to more violence than his comic book counterparts). Throw in sidekick Boltie (Page), a bored comic book store employee who helps him develop his persona, and the cops who want to bring him in as a vigilante, and you have a hilarious black comedy with some real heart. Super is must-watch for fans of Kick-Ass – a similar story of homemade superheroes (albeit a far more successful one).
6. Unbreakable (2000)
M. Night Shyamalan’s superhero thriller brings us a fantastic variation on the traditional hero/villain dynamic, with an incredible cast to bring it to life. Bruce Willis stars as the “unbreakable” David Dunn, an ordinary man who discovers that he may just be a real-life superhero. Approached by the mysterious Elijah (Samuel L Jackson), he discovers that he isn’t just strong and healthy, but supernaturally strong and incapable of being hurt. His intuition isn’t simply well-developed, but borderline inhuman, allowing him to know when someone has done (or is about to do) something wrong. His journey to superhero status is suspenseful and grounded firmly in reality, with a twist ending that we knew was coming, but still couldn’t quite predict. Willis and Jackson are spectacular, and although this is an action film, Unbreakable is one of the most contemplative superhero films to grace our screens, and will leave viewers feeling deeply uncomfortable and captivated at the same time.
5. Hellboy (2004)
One of the more recent movies on this list, Hellboy somehow never got the level of attention that it deserved. Unlike many other superhero movies coming out in the early ‘00s, Hellboy wasn’t a big name in pop culture, and despite a star-studded cast, the film (and its 2008 follow-up) was quickly forgotten as the MCU dominated the superhero genre. However, Hellboy is definitely worth re-watching, not least for the incredible Ron Perlman as the spawn of Satan in a trenchcoat. The truly unique demon-as- superhero basis of the film sets us off on an action-packed adventure brimming with magic, supernatural beings, anti-super-heroes, and more Nazis (a graphic novel staple). Doug Jones and Selma Blair round out Hellboy’s central trio, and while the film is often bordering on the truly ridiculous, it comes together perfectly. A third film is often hoped for by fans of the franchise, but is increasingly unlikely to see the light of day, though a new Hellboy graphic novel was announced earlier this month.
4. The Rocketeer (1991)
The Rocketeer has actually been getting quite a bit of attention this month, as it was announced that a reboot/sequel is in the works at Disney. While that is sure to be a fantastic new take on a cult favorite, the original Rocketeer shouldn’t be forgotten. A superhero period piece, the film blends Nazis, gangsters, and Hollywood glamor as a man finds a jet pack and uses it to become flying hero The Rocketeer. A lighter, more charming adventure than most of the superhero films of the ‘90s, The Rocketeer brings together many of the elements that have led to big-budget success in recent years – consider it a blend of Captain America: The First Avenger and Guardians of the Galaxy, and you know that you are onto a winner. While the FX and the humor aren’t up to the same standards that we expect today, this is a solid superhero outing with a pulp-matinee feel that more than deserves a second look.
3. The Crow (1994)
Top of the watch list for every goth kid in the ‘90s, The Crow sits on the fringes of the superhero genre. A supernatural revenge story, its dark and brooding tone is vastly different from the brightly-colored comic characters that superhero fans are used to. Despite the forbidding feel and casual violence, the film has a love story at its heart – which balances out the movie beautifully. Often compared to the other dark superhero films of the ‘90s, The Crow didn’t achieve the kind of mainstream recognition that Tim Burton’s Batman movies did, but it gained a devoted cult following instead. The tragic death of star Brendon Lee sadly overshadows the actual content of the film at times, but The Crow is a wonderfully gothic adventure in its own right. A remake has been discussed many times in the years since the original release, but has yet to come to pass (and many feel that it would be unnecessary and disrespectful). The most recent rumors have put Jason Momoa in the titular role for a remake, although this is currently unconfirmed.
2. The Mask (1994)
The incomparable Jim Carrey stars as everyman Stanley Ipkiss – a doormat in brown pajamas who struggles to assert himself and hates his life as a result. He comes to life, though, when he discovers a mask containing a trickster spirit. When he puts it on, he becomes a green-faced caricature of the kind of person he secretly wants to be – confident, charming, able to get away with anything. It’s a fantastic take on the typical hero/villain conflict, with a realistic gangster bad-guy up against the larger-than-life Mask, and Cameron Diaz as the blonde bombshell. The heart and soul of the movie lies in Carrey’s incredible performance, where his rubber-face abilities are shown off to an amazing degree. Brightly colored and over-the-top, The Mask is full of phenomenal one-liners and deeply satisfying wish fulfillment. A huge hit of the ‘90s, this is one that definitely didn’t deserve to fade into obscurity.
1. Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)
A cult classic that perfectly blends animation and live-action to bring comic book style to life, Scott Pilgrim vs The World is a gloriously off-beat action comedy. Starring Michael Cena as Scott Pilgrim, the film follows our titular “hero” as he attempts to win over his latest crush Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) by defeating her seven evil exes in a series of video-game-style battles. At the same time, he’s trying to find the courage to dump his current girlfriend and get over his own ex, all while attempting to make it as a musician. Brightly colored and absolutely charming, this is a visually gorgeous movie with an incredibly simple core premise – and although much of the appeal of the film lies in the flashy approach, the quirky characters are what really bring it home. Fast-paced and consistently funny, it’s a film that appeals to those looking for an alternative take on a comic book adaptation, with a refreshingly new approach to the genre.