To coincide with the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s new film Glass, critic Travis Johnson trawls through cinema history to find the best superhero movies that don’t belong to Marvel or DC.
M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass is the concluding chapter to the saga he began way back in 2000 with Unbreakable (and sneakily continued with 2017’s Split). The film takes place in a world where people with superhuman powers are quietly waging clandestine battles against each other, pitting Bruce Willis’ mournful protector, David Dunn, against Samuel L. Jackson’s brittle-boned villain, Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price, with James McAvoy’s multiple-minded wild card somewhere in the middle.
It’s a welcome change of pace from the sturm und drang of the big Marvel and DC offerings that have dominated the box office for the last decade, and it’s not alone in that respect. While they’re not always as high profile as the heavy hitters of the genre, there have been plenty of quirky, left of field heroes and villains bestriding the cinematic landscape (or flying across the cinematic sky?). Here are 10 of the best.
Well before he brought Spider-Man to the big screen for Sony, Evil Dead director Sam Raimi was already itching to make a superhero movie. Denied the rights to both Batman and The Shadow, Raimi went DIY and came up with his own benighted urban avenger, Darkman.
Liam Neeson is scientist Dr. Peyton Westlake, who finds himself horribly disfigured and left for dead after his lawyer girlfriend (future Oscar winner Frances McDormand) runs afoul of crime boss Robert Durant (Larry Drake). Luckily, Westlake was researching a miraculous artificial skin for burn victims at the time he became one, and uses the stuff to don various disguises in his quest for vengeance (at other times he just looks like the Phantom of the Opera dressed up as The Shadow).
Endlessly inventive, deliciously dark, and beholden to nothing so mundane as mere “realism”, Darkman lacks the big budget punch of tentpole superhero flicks, but more than makes up for thanks to Raimi’s gonzo directing style and a willingness to embrace its hero’s pulp trappings.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird could not have possibly predicted how far their black and white Daredevil parody would go. In the 35 years since the pair self-published the first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the heroes in a half shell have graced the big screen no less than six times – but the first was the best.
Produced by Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was made on the cheap, with corners cut everywhere except on the Turtles themselves, which were realised by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. At the time, Henson himself said they were the most advanced creations he had ever worked with.
The resulting film is darker and grittier than you might expect, while still being relatively child-friendly. While later iterations got cleaner and greener, this first cinematic offering is a weird hybrid of crime thriller, superhero movie, and kids’ cartoon—which is to say, the perfect distillation of the source material.
The Rocketeer (1991)
Based on the late Dave Stevens’ much-admired comic strip, this slice of derring-do from future Captain America director Joe Johnston embraces the spirit of 1930s adventure serials more than any movie not heavily featuring a hat and a whip.
Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) is our hero, a stunt pilot thrust into adventure when he stumbles across an experimental rocket pack that enables him to soar like an eagle. Such a piece of technology would be dangerous in the wrong hands – like the Nazis, who are gearing up for World War II. And so the stage is set for a jet-powered romp across Golden Age Hollywood, as the newly-christened Rocketeer takes on matinee star and Nazi agent Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton doing Errol Flynn), and romances wannabe actress Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly).
Living up to its name, The Rocketeer barrels along, bringing with it plenty of action and not an ounce of cynicism. This is a loving tribute to a simpler time when men were men, America was America, and Nazis were there to be felled with a strong right hook to the jaw.
The Crow (1994)
The film that launched a million poor fashion choices back in the mid ‘90s, The Crow is the defining goth movie.
Adapted from James O’Barr’s raw indie comics and directed by Australia’s Alex Proyas, The Crow is a rain-drenched revenge drama that sees Brandon Lee’s Eric Draven returned from the grave to avenge his own murder—and that of his fiancée. Painting his face like a harlequin, he stalks the streets of a nigh-apocalyptic Detroit in search of the gang responsible, while the best alternative bands of the ‘90s provide the rarely-bettered soundtrack.
The on-screen story of The Crow is tragic enough, but even more so is the on set drama. Star Brandon Lee was accidentally killed when a prop gun malfunctioned, making what would have been his breakout role his last. Production was completed at the request of his mother and his fiancée, and the retooled film was released to both wide acclaim and cult adoration.
Mystery Men (1999)
Sometimes you don’t get Superman—sometimes you get the other guys. That’s the thesis behind this ahead-of-the-curve superhero satire that emerged from the pages of Bob Burden’s surreal Flaming Carrot Comics.
How’s this for a dynamite cast: William H. Macy, Ben Stiller, and Hank Azaria are The Shoveler, Mr. Furious, and The Blue Rajah, respectively, three sub-par superheroes who must step up to the plate to battle the evil Dr. Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush before all the recent unpleasantness) after they accidentally kill true blue super dude Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). Support comes from Eddie Izzard, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens, Wes Studi, and Tom Waits.
A merciless piss-take of the whole superhero genre, Mystery Men’s big problem was that it came too early—just a couple of years later, say after X-Men and Spider-Man, and it would have been on a more certain wicket. A decade more, following the Marvel boom, and it would have been fire. As it stands, it remains a wonderful pop culture curio, and features the best Michael Bay cameo in the history of cinema.
Who better the bring Mike Mignola’s put-upon, stone-fisted demonic detective to the big screen than the now-lauded Mexican fantasist, Guillermo del Toro? It’s a match made in heaven.
Starring lantern-jawed Ron Perlman as the titular World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator, Hellboy mixes superheroes and the supernatural, pitting the pugnacious poll-horned palooka and his friends in the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence, including fishman Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, with David Hyde Pierce on vox) and pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) against the apocalyptic machinations of immortal wizard Rasputin (Karel Roden) and clockwork Nazi Kronen (Ladislav Beran). Horror, action, and wisecracks ensue in roughly equal measure.
Hellboy was successful enough to spawn an even better sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, in 2008, but sadly del Toro’s plans for a concluding third chapter came to nothing. Still, glass half full: we’re getting a reboot in a few months from The Descent director Neill Marshall, with Stranger Things’ David Harbour under the horns.
The Incredibles (2004)
It’s Disney, but it’s not Marvel—it’s Pixar! Four years before Iron Man ushered in the Marvel Age, director Brad Bird perfectly encapsulated the appeal of superhero comics in this animated extravaganza.
Forced into retirement after the government cracks down on superheroes (all that property damage!), super-strong Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is not enjoying civilian life. Luckily, would-be supervillain Syndrome (Jason Lee) arrives. Still, it’s gonna be a big job, requiring not just the help of Mr. Incredible’s wife and crime-fighting partner, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), but also their super-powered kids, Dash (Spencer Fox) and Violet (Sarah Vowell).
Yes, The Incredibles owes a lot to The Fantastic Four, but also digs deep into the ‘60s spy toolbox (fun fact: the rise of Marvel Comics and the big screen debut of James Bond are pretty much contemporaneous), delivering a sleek, pacey, and above all fun superhero romp that arguably set the bar going forward.
Hyper-violent, gleefully profane, and laugh-out-loud funny, Kick-Ass charts the increasingly bruising adventures of the titular vigilante, aka teen Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, later Marvel’s Quicksilver), whose ruminations on the lack of superheroes in the real world inevitably leads him to slip on a costume and start patrolling the streets.
The real star of the show, however, is Chloë Grace Moretz’s Hit Girl, a pint sized killing machine trained by her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, for crying out loud!) to slaughter criminals by the carload—which she does throughout the film, repeatedly and at length.
Subversive, sly, and ultimately triumphant, Kick-Ass is actually better than the comic its based on, thanks to on point direction from Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and a crackling script co-written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children).
Well before he knocked it out of the park with Guardians of the Galaxy, Troma alumnus James Gunn served up this disturbing slice of misanthropy dressed up in spandex, which sees Rainn Wilson’s put upon schlub process his wife (Liv Tyler) leaving him by squeezing into red tights and hitting wrongdoers in the head with a wrench.
Made for next to nothing, Super embraces the freedom afforded by its miniscule budget to go to some really weird places. Wilson’s hapless Frank Darbo thinks God talks to him—and God is voiced by Rob Zombie. His catchphrase is “Shut up, crime!” His teen sidekick (Ellen Page) is a violent psychopath. His arch-enemy is a drug-dealing sleazebag played by Nathan Fillion. The whole thing lurches from hilarious to disturbing to disgusting to strangely touching, often all in the same scene.
Super is a singular experience seemingly downloaded directly from Gunn’s id. It’s not for everyone, but those who can plug into it’s bizarre, transgressive, yet ultimately humanist themes will have a blast.
Before he crashed and burned with 2015’s ill-conceived Fantastic Four reboot, wunderkind director Josh Trank made his mark with Chronicle, a lo-fi found footage take on the superhero origin story penned by Max “son of John” Landis. Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, and Dane DeHaan are three friends who develop telekinetic powers after a close encounter with a mysterious underground object.
The found footage conceit is well handled, the drama builds nicely and yes, that is future Creed and Black Panther star Jordan. But the real standout here is DeHaan’s nascent supervillain, whose hellish home life makes his descent into darkness tragically inevitable. This one seems to have vanished from the popular consciousness since release, which is a shame—it’s smarter and more emotionally resonant than its genre trappings might have you believe.