In a world where superheroes dominate the box office, it can be difficult to find new takes on comic book lore. The superhero film Deadpool gave us an unusually vulgar take on superhero mythology, but the Ryan Reynolds vehicle isn’t the first film to look at heroism from a different angle. Beyond all the streamlined Marvel films and brooding DC efforts, there’s a whole world of unconventional superhero films worth discovering, if only to see how super powers often aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Long before he took the helm of the first Spider-Man franchise, Sam Raimi paid tribute to comic book lore with this darker-than-average origin story about a normal scientist turned into an antihero bent on revenge after a gang of thugs lets him burn to a crisp. Liam Neeson brings surprising pathos to a performance wherein he is mostly covered with bandages or else using technology to disguise himself as other characters, and Raimi’s frenetic visual style makes every action sequence that much more exciting.
Adapting a controversial graphic novel, director Matthew Vaughan creates a film that begins as an attempt to bring real-world physics and brutality to a superhero origin story before turning into a brand of stylized violence all its own. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays the titular wannabe super whose attempts at heroism leave him crippled, before he’s joined by the larger-than-life Hit Girl, who more or less takes control of the film in its second half. Kick-Ass can never quite decide if it’s a superhero satire grounded in the world of a high school nerd or simply an ultra-violent, over-the-top comedy. It’s most certainly flawed, but it’s always entertaining.
The second major release of M. Night Shyamalan may be the most successful effort to integrate real-life drama with a larger-than-life superhero origin story. Using deliberate pacing and framing designed to recall comic book framing without calling attention to itself, Shyamalan tells the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who slowly comes to term with the life-changing realization that he is super-strong and essentially invincible. Samuel L. Jackson plays his eccentric mentor, Elijah Price, who guides him on his path toward heroism. Shyamalan finds a way to make super powers interesting with precise dialogue and emotional subtext rather than earth-shattering CGI battles.
Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn began his career in superhero films with a movie decidedly more difficult. Super follows the lonely, delusional Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) whose attempts at heroism are often more disturbing than they are inspiring. In his increasingly violent and ill-advised quest to free his ex-wife from her abusive gangster boyfriend, he develops a signature catch phrase (“shut up, crime!”) and gains a sidekick in Ellen Paige’s equally disturbed Libby, who begins as a manic pixie dream girl before becoming a complete lunatic. This superhero satire is the sort of comedy that makes viewers cringe in discomfort as often as it makes them laugh by taking every superhero trope to its real-life extreme.
This Will Smith vehicle is a prime example of wasted potential, as the initial focus of the story is lost with a third-act twist that completely derails the entire film. The first half is certainly stronger for its character study of the titular Hancock, a misanthropic superhero whose drunkenness and irresponsibility makes him more of a menace than a savior. Hancock’s half-assed attempts to improve his public image lead to some genuinely hilarious comedy, but alas, the film’s creative potential is squandered with a misguided attempt at world- and franchise-building that turned off viewers and critics alike.
6. The Incredibles
One of Pixar’s greatest films is also one of the greatest superhero films ever made. Director Brad Bird uses retro ’60s styles and clever satire of modern domestic life to breathe life into the story of a super-powered family forced into hiding and unknowingly drawn into a sinister scheme to destroy every “super” in the world. The familiar family dynamics of The Incredibles makes every larger-than-life adventure into something as relatable as it is exciting. The result is a superhero team more organic, endearing and thrilling than even the Avengers themselves.
7. My Super Ex-Girlfriend
This forgettable super-powered comedy wastes the talents of Uma Thurman as well as a novel concept on a bland execution that tries to squeeze all it can out of a single joke rather than actually creating compelling characters or explore comic book tropes in any sort of new fashion. Luke Wilson plays a man who dumps his needy girlfriend, not realizing that she is secretly a clingy superhero who uses her powers to routinely make his life a living hell. Maybe the idea would have worked better in a shorter format, but director Ivan Reitman can’t save a script like this from descending into mediocrity.
8. Sky High
No matter what the X-Men movies might have you believe, the idea of a school for superheroes in training is pretty damn silly. Sky High milks this concept for all the comedy it’s worth, creating a world with all the excitements of super powers and all the petty frustrations of high school. This Disney film is often derivative of the studio’s other efforts, but the novel take on the silly idea of superhero schools or societies is enough to entertain for two hours, especially with the likes of Kurt Russell, Bruce Campbell, and Dave Foley in front of the camera.
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