Superhero films aren’t just for comic book fans. While many of the most popular and well-done hero films have been based around superheroes that first came to life in the pages of comics, quite a few have focused on completely original heroes who bring their own sense of justice to the big screen. With “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2” lighting up theaters over the weekend, I took at look at ten of the most notable non-comic superhero films of all time.
For this list the heroes in these films had to be completely original and could not come as a result of comic books. Heroes from literature of any kind were not considered, but those who became comic book heroes AFTER their films were released do count for this list as those are comic heroes that were film heroes first and are thus original properties as of their film release. Also no “imaginary” heroes within their own film on this list so as good as they are, “Birdman” and “Paper Man” will not be on this list. That being said you won’t see films with Iron Man, Superman, Batman, or Captain America here or graphic novel figures like The Watchmen. Also A SPOILER ALERT is in order as I will be discussing the plots of these movies.
Be sure to check out “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2” in theaters now. Read my review of the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe here.
10. “The Toxic Avenger”
Let’s just start off with possibly the most obscure film on this list. “The Toxic Avenger” lives on in cinema lore as one of the most famously popular independent and low budget cut classics of all time and is the flagship property of Troma Entertainment that spawned numerous equally popular cult classic sequels over the years. After nerdy janitor Melvin falls into a vat of chemicals after being bullied, he becomes the Toxic Avenger, a hideously deformed creature of superhuman size an strength according to the films companion animated series “The Toxic Crusaders”. Melvin goes on a violent, crime-stopping rampage and the bloody results are just oh so satisfying. Throwing away all the child-safe tropes of many superhero films of its time, “The Toxic Avenger” is a no-holds-barred superhero adventure that proved that not all heroes are as flashy or family-friendly as the ones on the pages of a comic book.
9. “Sky High”
A kid-friendly look at a world where superpowers are nothing really new for humanity, “Sky High” is a tribute of sorts to the tropes that make up other superhero classics. Gifted youngsters are admitted to a school called Sky High where they learn to harness their powers for good, although some chose the side of evil. When Will, whose parents are two of the most famous superheroes around, begins his tenure at the school without having seen his powers manifest he becomes acquainted with the “sidekicks”, the superhero equivalent of the outcasts in high school, and has to endure the same high school struggles as any normal student, but with a superhuman edge. Filled with many unique superheroes and a neat plot twist, “Sky High” may have faded into relative obscurity, but it’s a superhero film worth the watch with a lot of fun and interesting Easter eggs to catch along the way.
From DreamWorks Animation came this 2010 animated hit about a villain who has to take on the role of the hero after his arch nemesis backs out of the superhero game. “Megamind” was a charming and entertaining superhero comedy that was expertly cast and bucked a lot of the traditional clichés of superhero life as we saw a villain-turned-hero with a relatable and touching back-story and a hero-turned-retiree who shed some light on the boring nature of his blessed existence. When Megamind tries to makeup for the loss of his superhero enemy by creating his own hero to give him purpose, he finds himself having to fight off his creation and show the world he’s more than just a bigheaded bad guy. What makes “Megamind” such a worthy addition to this list is that it takes full advantage of its freedom to create something original, presenting a world the viewers can become invested in without expectations, and that made for a truly unique and entertaining story about identity and purpose, regardless of how the world sees you.
7. “The Specials”
A rather obscure concept from the mind of a man very familiar with superheroes, “Guardians of the Galaxy” 1 & 2 director James Gunn, “The Specials” is about what superheroes do on their day off. Simple as that really. Opposed to the heavy action of other films on this list and beyond, this film is a bit more down the earth with heavy dialogue and character development humanizing the heroes in a fashion no other superhero film really has time to do. The film focuses on The Specials, one of the worlds lowest ranked superhero teams who can’t secure sponsorship and backing or produce merchandise and thus find themselves at the bottom of the barrel among other superpowered teams in the world. We get a glimpse into a day off for the team and in a way the film transforms into an interesting study of how consumerism and corporate sponsorship could play into a world full of costumed heroes and tastefully mocks the many real-world clichés, from toys to sponsors, that come with any superhero property on the big screen. A similar theme was employed for the Ben Stiller-led comedy film “The Mystery Men”, but I chose to go with the much less known and much more respected “The Specials” for this list.
“Darkman” was the product of failure really, in more ways than one. Sam Raimi, who would go on to lead the first “Spider-Man” trilogy, had wanted to create a superhero film for a while and in 1990 created his own hero after failing to secure the rights of numerous comic book properties, including Batman who got his own film the year before “Darkman” was released. Raimi created a hero that would be the basis of his first Hollywood film with the disfigured “Darkman”, a scientist played by Liam Neeson whose face is disfigured after a fight with some bad men. Neeson’s character also happens to be a researcher who created a synthetic skin for burn victims, which he uses to survive as he tracks down his foes under the moniker “Darkman”. Thanks to his synthetic skin, Darkman can mimic anyone’s physical appearance and traits, making him a dangerous foe and the results of his post-burn surgery have gifted him with enhanced power and recovery time. “Darkman” was one of the first popular non-comic big screen superheroes and spawned numerous sequels as well as introducing action fans to the badass Liam Neeson could be.
Similar to the comic-based “Kick-Ass”, “Super” follows an everyday man who essentially decides one day to become a real life superhero. Another James Gunn film, this tale sees Frank Darbo become the Crimson Bolt after his wife is stolen from him by a strip club owner Jacques, played by Kevin Bacon. A black comedy, “Super” contains a humanized hero with a thirst for vengeance and justice who pretty much defines what a wanna-be superhero would be in the real world without the help of choreographers, action cuts, and hired writers to give him snappy one-liners and seemingly inhuman fighting abilities. He’s got his catchphrase “Shut up crime!” and a pipe wrench to get the job done, simple as that, and that’s all he needs. Plus he has a pretty cool sidekick, Boltie, to tag along in his adventure to rid his neighborhood of scum.
In 2005 an intriguing film came along by the name of “Hancock”. Will Smith was in his prime and everyone wanted to know more about the heavy-drinking mystery hero portrayed in the commercials. “Hancock” turned out to be a film about a reluctant hero who saved people because he felt like he had to and he did it with a reduced sense of responsibility and without any care for the damage he caused along the way, making him just as much a monster as he was a savior. When he crosses paths with a PR expert “Hancock” embraces a more professional persona. When we find that his encounter with that same PR man may be more destined than anyone believes, we get a bit of insight into Hancock’s back-story that helps enlighten both the audience and Hancock himself as to the man that he was meant to be. While it was a divisive film, “Hancock” was an important one for the 2000s as it showed that, in the right hands, original superhero properties could work without the help of the literature to give them relevance, especially as the dawn of the comic book hero film craze was right on the horizon with movie’s like the Spider-Man and X-Men films leading the way.
Superhero origin stories don’t get much better than this found-footage adventure from 2012 that sees a trio of kids inherit superpowers after coming across a mysterious otherworldly artifact. The teenagers document their transformations from normal kids to super powered humans, but when one’s personal issues at home starts to impact how he uses his powers we see a villain emerge that bends the bonds of friendship and family in favor of revenge. It’s a heavily grounded and impressively paced superhero film that shows possibly the most human “heroes” on this list. The found-footage style used for the film is satisfyingly effective and adds some perspective as if we are actually getting a peak into otherwise private moments in these kids’ lives that make for great context into their transformations without acting as simply pure exposition. We learn of their powers as they do and see their character evolutions and how their emotions impact their growth as super powered beings. When things finally take a massive turn at the end the stakes are turned up to ten when friend turns against friend in the middle of Seattle.
When M. Night Shyamalan was in his prime he could do no wrong. During that time he created one of the most underrated superhero films of all time, “Unbreakable”, which sees a normal, average guy, David Dunn played by Bruce Willis, discover that he has had superpowers his whole life, but never took the time to notice his impossibly pristine health and strength were all part of his gifts. The film forgoes any real major action moment other than one scene where Dunn finally embraces his power on a scumbag. The man is literally indestructible and we see an unwilling hero emerge from a man who, at the beginning of the film, is depressed with his life, cheating on his wife, and seeking some kind of connection with his son and the world around him. Also included is Elijah Price, also known as Mr. Glass who is portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. Price represents the other side of the superhero coin as the delicate, easily broken man whose bones are fragile beyond comprehension. We find out in a Shyamalanian twist at the end that Glass is a self-identified comic book-style villain who had been seeking to prove the existence of a man like Dunn knowing that if one extreme exists the other had to as well. It’s an interesting take on the superhero concept that promises to be further explored if the ending of “Split” is any indication…see I said Spoiler Alert for a reason…
1. “The Incredibles”
Was there ever any doubt? Both a tribute and, in many ways, a trend setter for the superhero film genre, “The Incredibles” is nothing short of an animated masterpiece that sees a family of heroes embrace their powers in a world where such heroes have been outlawed and forced to retire. Mr. Incredible finds himself in a mid-life crisis, yearning for his glory days as a costumed hero, and finds an opportunity to get back in the game. However, he comes face-to-face with the evil Syndrome, a man who idolized Incredible as a kid but felt shunned and began an anti-hero crusade to make himself the last remaining hero in the world. When the rest of the family joins in we get a non-stop, action-packed adventure full of everything anyone could want from a superhero film and not a single source material to be found. “The Incredibles” was a completely original team of heroes out of Pixar and Disney that has stood the test of time and upped the anti for every hero film that has come along sense, and every animated film for that matter even within its own studio’s stable. With the long awaited sequel on the way, we can only guess as to what the next adventure will be for the super powered family as we wait to see it unfold.