These days it seems like whether you turn on the TV or venture out to the theatre, there is going to be a comic book superhero being brought to life to entertain audiences and make tons and tons (and tons) of money. Modern technology has made it possible for the super powered folks who were relegated to comic book pages to now be shown in all their glory doing all sorts of amazing feats (though I wish they would still turn the camera sideways to show a character climb a wall. That was movie magic!).
However, not all superheroes come from the funny books, some were written specifically for the big screen. Here’s a list of some of the highlights. All movies on this list are ranked in chronological order.
1. Mr. Freedom (1969)
William Klein’s avant garde (now why isn’t there a superhero called “The Avant Guard”?) superhero flick casts John Abbey as the titular character, an American, right-wing superhero who fights, murders and cheats to uphold (and force unto others) the good ole American way. This is Captain America with a Starship Troopers mentality.
Abbey is great as the cowboy hat wearing, stars and stripes clad, psychopathic hero. When he hears that France has fallen under communist influence (I think he puts it much differently), he goes over there to save them, even if it means destroying them altogether.
Mr. Freedom is far ahead of it’s time and would appeal to lots of folks who look at American politics with a critical eye. Also, it’s pop art aesthetic is very fun and inventive to this day. Granted, some might say it’s a one note film, but as Mr. Freedom might say, they probably can’t be trusted anyway.
2. Return of Captain Invincible (1983)
What the world needs now is a shining hero!
This superhero, comedy, musical is obviously inspired by “ready-made” cult films such as Rocky Horror Picture Show. Directed by Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf helmer, Philippe Mora, this is the story of a washed up superhero (think Hancock played by Alan Arkin. Awesome, huh?) who has to sober up long enough to save the world from the evil Mr. Midnight, while singing songs and clearing his name which was slandered in a McCarthy like trial years back.
Unfortunately, Mora does not bring much to the table in terms of style and intriguing storytelling (this from the director of Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills? How is it possible!?). However, this movie remains endearing and entertaining due to it’s catchy, great music and wonderful performances from Alan Arkin as Captain Invincible and Christopher Lee as Mr. Midnight.
When Lee belts out a tune in full baritone tempting Captain Invincible to return to the bottle, chanting “Drink! Drink!” while his monster sidekick and sexy ladies dance along, it is really something to behold. This is a really fun flick and I defy anyone not to be singing the Bullshit song in their head after the credits roll.
3. Toxic Avenger (1984)
Well, it takes a special someone to make it seem like this list is taking a step down after discussing the works of the director of Werewolf Bitch, but I’m sure Lloyd Kaufman would happily oblige. Kaufman happily revels in all elements of exploitation, and his superhero parody, The Toxic Avenger, is the film that made the now infamous Troma Studios.
The film itself concerns super nerd, Melvin Junko, who falls into a vat of toxic waste and becomes the super violent hero, The Toxic Avenger. He takes on the duty as defender of Tromaville, bludgeoning and eviscerating anyone who continues to terrorize or take advantage of it’s citizens. Blood and Boobs (usually accompanied by the sound of a cowbell) ensue.
Toxic Avenger is trash, but very fun trash. The bad guys are really bad. Like, running over a child’s head with a car, bad. But the film is so cartoonish and silly that it is unlikely to offend anyone down to their core. And the parody of the modern superhero might be very on the nose (a bloody nose at that!), but Kaufman’s liberal views can be seen through all the carnage. Easily one of Troma’s best outings.
4. Robocop (1987)
Paul Verhoeven’s hilariously violent satire shows a future Detroit overrun with crime and corruption. An officer new to the force (Peter Weller) who is killed in the line of duty is brought back to life as the Toxic Av… I mean Robocop, a shoot a bunch of times and ask questions later half man, half machine. Verhoeven does not hold back when it comes to showing what the world will be like in the future; a violent and immoral playground for those willing to embrace it.
Just the kind of world that needs a hero who does not flinch at using extreme force. But Verhoeven also adds enough humour for the film to never seem too violent or dour. In fact, it’s a hoot! This is a must see for those who haven’t seen it. There must be some of those weirdos out there.
5. Darkman (1990)
Back in 1990 when comic book fan and director Sam Raimi was denied the opportunity to direct The Shadow (a decision that would seem insane today) he decided to take another route, and developed his own superhero for a big screen extravaganza. And what an extravaganza it is.
Darkman is pure comic book fun which, but like it’s title suggests, has a very dark side. Liam Neeson plays Peyton Westlake, a scientist who’s groundbreaking work on synthetic skin is nearing it’s completion. Enter Larry Drake and his thugs who, in their attempt to murder him, leave him with severe burns all over his body. The hospital that he is taken to uses an experimental treatment that essentially makes him immune to pain. With his scientific genius and new strength he goes into the night to seek revenge.
Raimi juggles the campy, horrific and dramatic elements perfectly and it’s not surprising at all that he’d soon be at the helm of one of the best actual comicbook superhero films of all time. Now where is the Spider-Man/Darkman team-up?
6. Heroic Trio (1993)
Watching a Johnnie To film today usually means you are going to see gangsters, probably with sunglasses on, either shooting at each other or bonding in some form or another. But back in 1993 To directed Heroic Trio, about 3 superheroines who have to team up to save the world from the dastardly Evil Master!
The plot is almost secondary though, compared to the high flying action, camp aesthetics, over the top sequences and hilarious moments. This is pure, silly fun, with it’s tongue planted squarely in cheek. The trio of heroes played by Michelle Yeoh (Invisible Girl), Anita Mui (Wonder Woman) and Maggie Cheung (Thief Catcher) aren’t only easy on the eyes, but pull off the difficult act of being funny and heroic at the same time. Plus, To regular, Anthony Wong is a blast as the Evil Master’s servant Kau.
7. Unbreakable (2000)
Probably the most serious and contemplative look at what being a superhero would be like in reality, M. Night Shymalan’s Unbreakable was more of a game changer in the superhero genre than it is given credit for.
Granted, most audience members had no idea they were in for a superhero origin story considering this was fresh off of The Sixth Sense, which also starred Bruce WIllis, and the advertising only hinted at the real plot. And speaking of plot, here it is!
David Dunn (Bruce WIllis) begins to suspect it is more than luck when he is the sole survivor of a train crash. With the help of comic book aficionado Elijah Price (Samuel Jackson) and his son (Spencer Treat Clark) he finally figures out his destiny.
Shymalan’s subdued pacing and earnestness in the storytelling cleverly tricks the audience into believing he is possibly telling a supernatural story again, so when the big reveal comes it is all the more rewarding. The characters seem real, and that sense of wonder usually found in supehero origin stories is replaced by confusion and glumness. A remarkable film that definitely stands out from the crowd.