Mainstream audiences like their superhero flicks and comic book adaptations presented to them in specific ways– the grungy, goth dark stylings of films like The Dark Knight and every similar grit-pumped adaptation it inspired, for one. Or we tend to gravitate towards lighthearted, action-packed comedic sarcasm-filled superhero films like Deadpool or Kick-Ass.
There’s nothing wrong with these kinds of films, of course. However, it’s kind of a bummer that superhero or comic book movies that don’t quite fit that mold don’t do well at the box office or with critics. And if they do well, they fade away from pop culture entirely into forgotten oblivion, rarely afforded the label of “cult favorite”.
We haven’t forgotten about those underrated gems that deserve a viewing or two or three. These films either bombed at the box office, were forgotten about by most, or simply didn’t get the recognition they deserve for being so outside the box. Some are old, some are fairly new, some of them you probably haven’t even heard of.
Some spoilers lie ahead for those who haven’t had the pleasure of watching these underrated superhero pictures.
Here are the 15 Most Underrated Superhero Movies Ever, Ranked.
Who knew Liam Neeson had once played a shapeshifting superhero?
Director Sam Raimi, who would eventually helm the Toby Maguire Spider-Man, had humble beginnings with the very underrated superhero film Darkman. Darkman is definitely a bit rough, as it was Raimi’s first attempt at the superhero genre, but it is nonetheless memorable.
Darkman follows Neeson’s Peyton Westlake after he witnesses the death of his family. The scientist, badly burned after an attack and wrapped in iconic bandages, a la The Invisible Man, becomes a vigilante who can take on the appearance of anyone for a short amount of time with the use of revolutionary synthetic skin technology.
14. Batman Forever
Come on, you gotta admit this film was entertaining back in the day. Jim Carrey as the Riddler was a legendary choice in casting, the vibrant cyber-goth tone and visuals of the film were nothing less than stunning, the one-liners were as cringe-worthy as they were amazing. The bat suit even had nipples! I mean, come on!
The 1995 Joel Schumacher/Tim Burton work did wonderfully at the box office, grossing nearly $53 million in its opening weekend– beating Jurassic Park‘s highest opening weekend gross. The movie’s about 22 years old now and has faded from many fans’ memory in favor of the more memorable (read: “memorable”, not “Academy Award-worthy”) Batman & Robin, which also featured an all-star cast. And more nipple suits. And worse one-liners.
The 2000 thriller Unbreakable was M. Night Shyamalan’s attempt at a superhero flick. Say what you will about many of Shyamalan’s other works, but he actually did the sort-of realistic modern superhero homage well. Starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, Unbreakable follows the typical three-part comic book narrative structure intentionally. Willis’ David Dunn is the lone survivor of a horrific train accident without a scratch on him. The mysterious wheelchair-bound Elijah Price (Jackson) offers an answer to why Dunn survived, and the twists and turns ensue in the dark action film.
While Unbreakable made a pretty nice chunk of change at the box office, it fell into obscurity under M. Night Shyamalan’s works that followed. The 2017 film Split is part of the same universe as Unbreakable, and will hopefully introduce a younger generation to this underrated gem.
Who could forget the 1998 action-thriller film Blade? Arguably Wesley Snipes’ most memorable role, Blade is an adaptation of the Marvel comic book series about a half-human, half-vampire on a mission to avenge the death of his mother. The vampires in this universe need Blade’s blood to summon an evil being that will effectively wipe out the human race.
Blade was great because it took the typical vampire narrative and changed it up with some technological advancements. A little bit mythological, a little bit cheesy, and little bit cyberpunk, Blade was a thoroughly entertaining fantasy thriller for its time.
What do you get when you mix Rainn Wilson, Kevin Bacon, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, and Nathan Fillion into a superhero film? Super, of course! This 2010 dark comedy followed the story of Frank Darbo (Wilson), a young fry cook who becomes a superhero– even though he has zero superhuman ability. Throughout the film, he prepares to rescue his wife Sarah (Tyler) from some greasy drug dealers under his new identity, Crimson Bolt. Page plays his trusty sidekick.
Super was great because it took the “average joe becomes a superhero” trope and made it genuinely entertaining. Super did terribly at the box office, despite its all-star cast, awesome direction, stellar acting, and excellent humor. It’s a true shame– Super is definitely worth enjoying at least once.
10. The Punisher
The 2004 adaptation of the Punisher series of Marvel comics starred John Travolta as kingpin Howard Saint and Thomas Jane (The Mist, Dreamcatcher) as the eponymous anti-hero, who becomes a vigilante after the brutal murder of his family.
The Punisher is your typical “dirty underbelly of the city” revenge story, but that doesn’t mean it’s terrible. The film itself was pretty great. However, Punisher fans were hungry for something grittier and dirtier than what director Jonathan Hensleigh gave them. The Punisher doesn’t quite deliver that vibe of the comics, and many blame the casting of Travolta, while others blame the fact that the film is based on only two Punisher comic books.
No, we’re not talking about Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 self-destructive hardware show Judge Dredd. The 2012 adaptation Dredd exceeded expectations and kicked that mid-90s dumpster fire even further to the curb.
Dredd used the 3D medium rather than letting the 3D medium use it, and the team behind the film put the technology to good, inventive use. Unlike similar action films that use the medium because, well, they’re action films and they can, Dredd took it to another level. Not to mention the awesome cast (Karl Urban killed it), great writing, and definite reachability.
8. The Rocketeer
Disney didn’t do too badly with the 1991 adaptation of comic book artist Dave Stevens’ most well-known work. Perhaps getting Joe Johnston, director of Captain America: The First Avenger, to helm the project was a good choice.
In all honesty, the film is far from extraordinary when it comes to effects and action, but it is at the very least an endearing story with classic visuals. A true homage to antique superhero comic books, The Rocketeer is family friendly enough for children and well-written enough for adults to enjoy all the same– it’s a shame that it bombed so hard at the box office.
It’s only a matter of time before The Rocketeer is remade, and we don’t think an updated version will quite match the early ’90s camp of the original.
7. Daredevil (Director’s Cut)
A lot of viewers, particularly fans of the Daredevil series of comic books from Marvel, weren’t happy with the 2003 film adaptation. We certainly don’t blame them. The theatrical version of the film is pretty hard to love, or even like, or even tolerate. What was going on with that playground fight, anyway?
While the director’s cut of the film doesn’t solve all of Daredevil’s problems– the Party City costume and poor casting is still there– it does do a mighty service to the film. It’s rare that a theatrical cut could fall so far away from the director’s cut, but in this case it really did. With an additional half-hour run time and considerably more grit, this particular cut of the film is absolutely worth watching.
6. Mystery Men
The 1999 adaptation of Bob Burden’s series Flaming Carrot Comics, Mystery Men, had an all-star cast that felt pretty unexpected. Ben Stiller and Tom Waits? Who saw that coming?
It seems like very few people remember this film, and it makes sense. Mystery Men was a total box office bomb (it made less than 50% of its overall budget) and that’s pretty disappointing considering the quality of the work itself. Whether it was because of the dead era of superhero movies (we can blame those bat suit nipples for that!) or just because of generally poor marketing, Mystery Men didn’t deserve the blow.
5. Spider-Man 3
Does Spider-Man 3 really need as much hate as it gets? To follow up Sam Raimi’s original, often considered one of the best superhero films of all time, is a hard task to take on. Perhaps if it didn’t have some serious shoes to fill, it would be more well-liked.
The third installment of the film franchise wasn’t a polished, perfect film– but it did have a certain taboo likable quality to it. Come on, all the jazz scenes, the interesting directions and decisions throughout the film, emo Tobey Maguire… it’s an enjoyable film for its camp value.
It went outside the box from what we typically expect from a superhero movie, and just because it wasn’t as great as the first film (are sequels usually kept to that standard?) doesn’t mean it’s awful.
4. Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm
It’s tough out there for an animated film, even today. Batman – Mask of the Phantasm was more than just cartoony kids’ stuff and it is widely considered by fans and critics alike to be the first Batman film that really got the Batman narrative right.
It’s hard to top Christopher Nolan’s work, but the 1993 Bruce Timm/Eric Radomski epic was pretty amazing. Mark Hamill’s voice work as the Joker was nothing less than memorable (and terrifying), and the 1940s mood and setting of the film was on point.
Mask of the Phantasm surely deserves a little more credit and is likely the first decent Batman adaptation that kids who are now in their 20s and 30s got to absorb. Plus, it’s still very watchable and enjoyable today.
This 2009 superhero thriller drama is an adaptation of the limited series from DC Comics. Unlike the typical superhero film, Watchmen had a darkness and realism (to a degree) to it that appealed to fans of the comics and newcomers alike.
While Watchmen made a pretty decent amount of money (it boasts the highest-earning opening weekend of any Alan Moore adaptation), the reception of the film can only be described as polarizing. It’s one of those “love it or downright despise it” controversial films and that’s unfortunate.
When it comes down to it, Zack Snyder took on a superhero adaptation that was considered to be unadaptable– and he killed it. If you can handle the ultimate cut of the film, it’s around three and a half hours.
2. Ultraman: The Next
This 2004 Japanese tokusatsu superhero science fiction film was a seriously grand reworking of the decades old Ultraman franchise. There’s something about this film that is more appealing to a wider audience– perhaps it’s the humanizing effect of Shunichi Maki’s family man character.
In Ultraman: The Next, Maki is a pilot who flies through an alien light in the heavens and crashes. Upon reviving, he finds he can receive otherworldly communications from an alien being. This film is definitely a little more than just another giant monster action film.
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Before Sarah Michelle Gellar began kicking butt as Buffy Summers in 1997, Kristy Swanson (and Luke Perry and Hilary Swank, of course) graced the big screen with the 1992 supernatural superhero film Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Many hardcore Joss Whedon fans have shamed the film for its Clueless-like vibe, but that’s what is so likable about this cheeseball film– it takes the Buffy story and makes it even more laughable and it’s completely self-aware of the fact. Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s honestly a great watch for anybody who finds themselves burnt out on ultra-dark and ultra-dramatic superhero films.
When it comes down to it, the film is great fun and a sunny nostalgic walk through the early nineties.
What other superhero movies don’t get the love they deserve? Let us know in the comments!