With the global domination of movies based on Marvel and DC properties, it’s often easy to forget that there are indeed superhero flicks that hail from neither of these industry giants. And yet, for every Spider-Man or Batman movie, there’s generally a Captain Underpants or Sharkboy or Super Ex-Girlfriend hovering somewhere around the margins.
Depending on your definition of a superhero movie — and it is indeed a mutable definition — the earliest films in this genre appeared even before Marvel and DC came into existence. Those would be the silent Zorro films from the 1920s – swashbuckling adventures featuring a masked man who may not have had any superpowers but sure knew how to vanquish villains with his trusty sword.
Even as Marvel and DC slowly began making their respective marks on the printed page, filmmakers preferred to bring to the screen the exploits of more established print heroes. Iconic champions such as The Shadow, The Green Hornet, and Captain Marvel (who wouldn’t fall under the DC banner until 1972) all appeared in their own movie serials, and it wasn’t until 1943’s Batman serial and 1944’s Captain America serial that characters created by the new kids on the block made the leap to the silver screen.
Of course, the situation is reversed today, although alternative superhero yarns still continue to be produced. Here, then, are The 10 Best (And 10 Worst) Superhero Movies Not Made By Marvel Or DC.
20. WORST: SPAWN
Those who favor style over substance will at least appreciate 1997’s Spawn for its visual effects, since they suit the comic-book milieu perfectly. All others, though, should steer clear of this disappointing adaptation of Todd McFarlane’s celebrated series.
Bland Michael Jai White stars as Al Simmons, a professional assassin who’s fatally betrayed by his megalomaniacal employer (Martin Sheen). A deal with a Satanic emissary allows Simmons to return to Earth as the supernatural Spawn, but he soon finds his evil intentions getting sideswiped by his innate decency.
Whatever its merits on the printed page, the screen version of Spawn is unrelentingly dour and dull. In an effort to lighten the mood, John Leguizamo appears as a demonic clown (no, not Pennywise) who’s obsessed with flatulence, but his sophomoric antics only prove to be yet another detriment.
19. BEST: HELLBOY
Another demonic do-gooder can be found in 2004’s Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro’s take on the Dark Horse Comics character created by Mike Mignola.
The success of this movie starts with the casting of Ron Perlman as the red-hued hero, who’s working under the auspices of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. The perpetually wisecracking Hellboy keeps busy battling former Nazis and demon dogs, although he does find time to woo fellow agent Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a troubled woman with pyrokinetic abilities. Indeed, for all of del Toro’s visual razzle dazzle, it’s the misfit romance between Hellboy and Liz that gives the movie its center.
18. WORST: ZOOM
Even if the thematically similar Sky High hadn’t debuted one year earlier, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting enthused over something as trite as 2006’s Zoom.
Tim Allen delivers a typically drowsy performance as Jack Shepard, a former superhero known as Captain Zoom. Having long ago lost his powers, he’s now asked to serve as an instructor to four kids being groomed to serve as the next generation of crime fighters. Jack takes no pleasure in his assignment, which disappoints the other adults (Courteney Cox and Chevy Chase) involved in the project.
That Jack will eventually accept responsibility and come to regard the kids as his family was a surprise to absolutely no one. It’s this sort of rote plotting — to say nothing of the underwhelming visual effects — that turns Zoom into a slog.
17. BEST: UNBREAKABLE
A superhero film that can be enjoyed by people who don’t particularly like superhero films, 2000’s Unbreakable was writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s first movie following the incredible success of the previous year’s The Sixth Sense.
Bruce Willis is excellent as David Dunn, a stadium security guard who’s the sole survivor of a train wreck that kills over 100 people. Further confused by the fact that he didn’t break a single bone or even get a scratch in the accident, David eventually becomes intrigued by the theories espoused by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a physically fragile man who believes that all the answers can be found in the world of comic books.
Like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable is an intelligent drama that ensnares viewers with its understated approach and lingering sense of dread. The quasi-sequel, this year’s Split, functioned more as a standard horror flick, so here’s hoping 2019’s Glass brings the trilogy back to its unconventional roots.
16. WORST: THE PHANTOM
Two literary pulp heroes created in the 1930s found themselves out of their element in the mid-1990s, as new movies based on their exploits tanked with both critics and audiences. Of the pair, 1994’s The Shadow, starring Alec Baldwin as the title crime fighter, is easier to stomach than 1996’s The Phantom.
The character of The Phantom was created by Lee Falk in 1936, and the purple-clad hero subsequently appeared in newspapers, comic books, and a vintage movie serial. Yet even with this rich history, the 1996 film felt less like a throwback to these old-school exploits and more like another half-baked rehash of the Indiana Jones adventures.
A general listlessness plagues the entire production, with Billy Zane (as The Phantom), Kristy Swanson (as his spunky girlfriend), and Treat Williams (as the villainous Xander Drax) failing to flesh out their cardboard characters.
15. BEST: THE MASK
One of Jim Carrey’s first big hits, 1994’s The Mask casts the actor as Stanley Ipkiss, a timid bank clerk who turns into a manic superhero of sorts whenever he dons a magically imbued mask. The application of this facial ornament results in his innermost desires (namely, to be a confident he-man around the ladies) rising to the surface, and he finds himself transformed into a green goblin with an endless array of party tricks at his disposal.
This adaptation of the Dark Horse Comics title is enlivened by inventive staging, spectacular visual effects, and engaging performances by Carrey, Cameron Diaz (in her film debut), and “Max” as Carrey’s canine sidekick Milo. Special credit also goes to multi-Oscar winner Greg Cannom (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mrs. Doubtfire), who designed the unique makeup that allows Carrey to break out his patented shtick.
14. WORST: SON OF THE MASK
Since The Mask was a sizable smash for Jim Carrey, a sequel seemed like a foregone conclusion. But once Carrey made it clear he would not be returning to play Stanley Ipkiss and his whirlwind alter ego, the project hit a brick wall. It took eleven years before Son of the Mask hit theaters, but with no Carrey and no lingering audience interest in this franchise, the 2005 sequel proved to be a massive critical and commercial bomb.
In place of Carrey, Son of the Mask offers Jamie Kennedy as Tim, a struggling cartoonist who comes into contact with the same mask from the first film. The Norse god Loki (Alan Cumming) wants his mask back, but before he can acquire it, he must contend with Tim, Tim’s baby boy, and the family dog — all of whom end up donning the mask during the course of this frantic and unfunny feature.
13. BEST: THE CROW
The Crow, a 1994 adaptation of James O’Barr’s comic book, often plays like Death Wish for the MTV generation. Brandon Lee, tragically killed on-set while making this movie, stars as Eric Draven, a musician who returns from the grave to take his revenge on the punks responsible for his murder, as well as the rape and murder of his fiancée (Sofia Shinas).
A former helmer of music videos, director Alex Proyas infuses The Crow with slick visuals, edgy atmospherics, and a superb, chart-topping soundtrack that includes tunes from the likes of The Cure, Rage Against the Machine, and Nine Inch Nails.
Yet despite the film’s hardcore demeanor, The Crow also possesses a surprisingly sensitive streak, as Eric’s foremost emotion is not hatred for his killers but love for his slain girlfriend. This provides a haunting melancholy underscored by the delicate, almost balletic quality Lee brings to his otherwise steely performance.
12. WORST: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS
It’s easy to understand the appeal of 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, to a lesser degree, its two immediate sequels. The enterprise’s cheesiness wasn’t just relegated to the pizzas wolfed down by the heroes in a half-shell, and the turtle costumes, designed by the good folks at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, allowed for greater empathy for the saga’s youthful misfits.
Alas, no similar measure of goodwill can be directed at the pair of TMNT live-action efforts produced by Michael Bay. The 2014 reboot Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is painful enough, but even worse is 2016’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. This headache-inducing inanity finds Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael again joining forces with reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) to combat arch-nemesis Shredder (Brian Tee) and a new villain known as Krang (Brad Garrett).
11. BEST: DARKMAN
The story goes that Sam Raimi wanted to make a movie built around an established superhero, with Batman and The Shadow among his top preferences. When no rights became available for any of his choices, he decided to create his own version of a caped crusader. Thus, Darkman was born.
With Liam Neeson cast in the title role, 1990’s Darkman centers on a brilliant scientist whose work on synthetic skin is interrupted when a gang of hoodlums blows up his lab. Although he survives the blast, he’s left horribly scarred, meaning he has to don various masks as he sets about exacting his revenge.
Raimi wisely tempers his technical prowess to allow his leading man to shine, and Neeson responds with a strong performance that nicely mixes sincerity, anguish, and rage. Frances McDormand is another high draw as his attorney girlfriend, while Larry Drake exudes menace as a sadistic gangster. And because this is a Sam Raimi production, expect to see Bruce Campbell pop up in a small but important role.
10. WORST: JUDGE DREDD
An adaptation of the popular British comic strip, the notorious 1995 flop Judge Dredd stars Sylvester Stallone as the title figure, a 22nd century crime fighter who shows no emotion — and offers no leniency — as he carries out the letter of the law. For convoluted reasons, he’s framed for murder, thus requiring him to spend the rest of the film’s running time trying to nail the real villains (Armand Assante and Jurgen Prochnow).
Slick production values and some talent in the supporting ranks (including Max von Sydow and Diane Lane) can’t obscure the wooden direction by Danny Cannon and a clunky screenplay that reportedly was extensively reshaped by Stallone to better suit his ego.
9. BEST: DREDD
It was horrifying to many Judge Dredd fans when Sylvester Stallone managed to turn the character’s iconic “I am the law!” into a hammy punchline in the 1995 camp version. Fortunately, Karl Urban reclaimed that line for the faithful. When the character utters the phrase in 2012’s Dredd, it’s grim enough to give viewers — and villains — pause.
Dredd, the futuristic lawman who’s sanctioned to serve as judge, jury, and executioner whenever the need arises, is tough and taciturn; a direct counterpoint to the tentative and empathic rookie (Olivia Thirlby) he’s assigned to supervise. But when they find themselves trapped in a high-rise overseen by a vicious drug lord (Lena Headey), he discovers that his partner can easily hold her own.
Dredd benefits from the stylish direction by Pete Travis and a streamlined script by future Ex Machina auteur Alex Garland. Together, the pair construct a movie defined by its beautifully framed scenes and driven by two worthy protagonists who manage to play off each other’s differences.
8. WORST: MAX STEEL
Here’s a superhero movies that’s based not on a comic book – but on a line of action figures. That seems apropos, since 2016’s Max Steel is as plastic and as rigid as the toys that inspired it.
Max McGrath (Ben Winchell) is a fatherless teenage boy while Steel (voiced by Josh Brener) is a diminutive extra-terrestrial with a lame retort for every situation. When they combine their powers, they transform into Max Steel, a turbo-charged superhero.
Both risible and insufferable, Max Steel wasn’t screened for critics before its theatrical launch. Those who did see it displayed solidarity in their disdain, as it presently holds a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences were just as unforgiving — despite opening on over 2,000 screens, the film couldn’t even crack the $4 million mark at the domestic box office.
7. BEST: THE ROCKETEER
Perhaps the most retro superhero movie ever made, 1991’s The Rocketeer qualifies as a blast for anyone not too jaded to appreciate its black-and-white narrative and no-frills approach.
Set in 1938 Los Angeles, this adaptation of the graphic novel recounts the adventures of Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), a pilot who discovers a rocket pack that gives him the ability to fly. Invented by no less than Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn), the device is being sought by the FBI, some local mobsters, and those nasty Nazis.
Directed by Captain America: The First Avenger helmer Joe Johnston, The Rocketeer soars on the strength of its exciting action sequences and its fine assemblage of actors (Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton). Alas, its soft box office take resulted in the cancellation of a planned trilogy.
6. WORST: SUPERHERO MOVIE
Given that title and the general kitchen-sink approach to comedy, it’s reasonable to assume that 2008’s Superhero Movie sprang from the minds of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the writer-director team behind Disaster Movie, Epic Movie and Date Movie. Instead, it’s the brainchild of Craig Mazin, the scribe behind Identity Thief and the two Hangover sequels.
Superhero Movie primarily plays as a feeble spoof of Spider-Man, as high school student Rick Riker (Drake Bell) gets bitten by a radioactive dragonfly and develops superpowers. He acquires an archenemy in Hourglass (Christopher McDonald) and receives some friendly advice from Professor Xavier (Tracy Morgan).
Pamela Anderson turns up as The Invisible Woman, Leslie Nielsen yuks it up as Rick’s Uncle Albert, and random potshots are taken at Tom Cruise, Barry Bonds, and Stephen Hawking.
5. BEST: THE TOXIC AVENGER
Troma Entertainment has long been known for its catalog of slick exploitation fare, with the outfit earning sustained notoriety for such efforts as Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. and Class of Nuke ‘Em High. No Troma title, though, can match the popularity of 1984’s The Toxic Avenger, which not only sired three sequels and an animated TV series but also found its titular character eventually serving as the company’s official mascot.
Released with the tagline, “The First Superhero From New Jersey,” The Toxic Avenger follows the usual template of an ordinary guy being transformed into a formidable hero through unusual means. In this case, it’s wimpy janitor Melvin (Mark Torgl) who falls into a vat of toxic waste and emerges as the hideously deformed — but unnaturally strong — Toxic Avenger. Known as “Toxie” by his legion of admirers, the former nerd sets about ridding his Tromaville hometown of all evildoers.
4. WORST: BARB WIRE
An apolitical loner who runs a popular nightclub during wartime reluctantly helps an old flame (and the old flame’s new love) escape the city, thus thwarting not only the fascistic pursuers but also the corrupt police chief whose heart is ultimately in the right place. Certainly, that’s the familiar plot of the immortal Casablanca, but it’s also the storyline that drives 1996’s Barb Wire. All comparisons end there.
In 1996, Pamela Anderson was still a regular on TV’s Baywatch and attempting to make the leap to movie stardom. Her career ascension was stopped dead by Barb Wire, a dreadful comic book adaptation that tried to make a brainy action heroine out of a character who seemingly couldn’t spell I.Q. even with the “Q” spotted. As Ms. Wire, Anderson is terrible, making even the late Anna Nicole Smith look like Meryl Streep by comparison.
3. BEST: THE INCREDIBLES
On the surface, 2004’s The Incredibles appears to be just a kid-friendly superhero saga, as it centers on Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and other colorfully costumed characters. But writer-director Brad Bird panders to no demographic, meaning that this Pixar production — an Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature — is simultaneously adult-oriented in its approach to its characters and the issues that affect their lives.
While the bulk of the comic relief comes from costume designer Edna Mode, an Edith Head caricature voiced by Bird himself, the drama comes from the Incredibles themselves, presented as the modern American family that’s expected to conform to the societal status quo (i.e. blend with the bland) rather than champion its own uniqueness. The domestic conflicts triggered by their suburban ennui give way to an acceptance of their individuality and, consequently, an ability to pool their resources as both crime fighters and family members.
2. WORST: THE SPIRIT
Will Eisner’s seminal comic strip deserved far better than this wretched camp outing – a film in which every jokey, self-aware remark lands with the force of an atomic bomb laying waste to a sand castle.
The plot of this 2008 atrocity finds The Spirit (a dull Gabriel Macht) facing off against his perennial nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), a madman who’s intent on acquiring a potion that will render him immortal. Jackson’s performance might be the worst of his career, with writer-director Frank Miller further accommodating him via some horrendous dialogue and situations.
As an example, the first battle finds The Octopus smashing a toilet over The Spirit’s head and laughing maniacally while declaring, “Toilets are always funny!” Jackson even gets to dress up like a Nazi officer in one scene — why? We couldn’t tell you.
1. BEST: ROBOCOP
Admittedly, there are those who wouldn’t even classify 1987’s RoboCop as a superhero movie, despite the presence of a physically enhanced human who fights crime while decked out in a colorful outfit. But why quibble? The right director, script, cast, and effects crew all came together to create what endures as a modern classic of sci-fi cinema — and not even two dismal sequels and a desultory remake have diminished its impact or appeal.
Excessively violent yet also refreshingly satirical, RoboCop stars Peter Weller as Alex Murphy, a police officer in futuristic Detroit who almost meets a grisly end at the hands of a vicious street gang. Instead, what’s left of Murphy is incorporated into RoboCop, an unstoppable lawman who’s mostly machine.
Director Paul Verhoeven offers an old-fashioned revenge flick with high-tech trappings, punctuating the action with comical commercials and news bulletins that, if anything, seem less absurd with each passing year. Yet what really makes the film soar is its assemblage of vibrant villains, with Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, and Ronny Cox particularly memorable.
What’s your favorite non Marvel or DC superhero movie? Let us know in the comments!
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