Superhero movies have grown to be immensely popular within the last 25 years, but while Marvel and DC certainly lead the way in terms of major brands, there also exists a wide variety of source material within the genre. And even beyond all of the indie publishers that generate features, there are also those films that exist as original creations – not adaptations of comic books or strips. It’s those latter titles in particular that we are here to highlight today.
This weekend will see the release of Glass, the conclusion of M. Night Shyamalan’s Eastrail 177 Trilogy, and with it in mind we’ve decided to collect a list of the nine best superhero movies that didn’t take specific inspiration from any established work. It’s an eclectic mix of films — both live-action and animated, and tonally light and dark — and overall proof that fictional vigilantes don’t always have to get their start with illustrations and speech bubbles.
We obviously wouldn’t have Glass without M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, and 19 years after its release it remains a fascinating bit of storytelling. It’s unlike any big screen origin we’ve seen — in that it weirdly only covers what are typically seen as the first two acts of the story — but it succeeds by being moody, compelling, and magical. At a time when costumed heroes weren’t everywhere in cinemas, it was special to watch David Dunn (Bruce Willis) add more weights to his workout and test his limitations, and you wonderfully teeter on the question of whether he is or isn’t superhuman. The pop culture environment has now changed, but the movie’s impact hasn’t.
Sam Raimi contributed in a major way to the growth of the superhero genre with his trilogy of Spider-Man films, but fans will note that it wasn’t actually his first toe dip into the arena. Instead, that happened more than a decade earlier when he made 1990’s Darkman. It was made for a whole hell of a lot less money that the web-slinger features, and didn’t have the same kind of advanced effects at its disposal, but to this day it remains an awesome thriller with a power we haven’t really seen in mainstream superheroes: being a master of disguise. The fact that the movie also has a heavy helping of Raimi’s horror sensibilities is just icing on the cake.
Josh Trank will sadly long be remembered for his unfortunate Fantastic Four movie, but at the same time we won’t forget the awesome film that actually got him that job. Chronicle combined the strengths of two burgeoning trends in the aughts — superheroes and found footage — and the result is a double dose of awesome and creepy. Plus, as a serious extra bonus, the feature is also the one that brought both Michael B. Jordan and Dane DeHaan to the attention of the world, and given the work they’ve done since, that’s an impressive legacy all by itself.
Pixar was at the top of its game in 2004 when Brad Bird took the helm of his first film at the studio, and together they made The Incredibles into something amazing. There are hints of Watchmen, some really stunning and creative action, and a beautiful 1950s flair, but what really sells this movie (and its sequel for that matter) is the amazing relationships between the members of the superpowered Parr family. This is one that could be watched hundreds of times and never get old.
James Gunn became a household name thanks to his work on the Guardians of the Galaxy films, but the reality is that his excitement about sci-fi and superheroes was showcased in his work years before his association with Marvel. His first go at it was writing Craig Mazin’s comedy The Specials — and while it’s certainly a film that is rough around the edges and clearly made on a tight budget, it also has a great deal of charm and basically suffers from being just a little before its time with its parody (it was released in 2000). It definitely wasn’t a success, but fortunately Gunn would eventually get another crack at the genre, and I’m not talking about Guardians. But we’ll get to that in a bit…
Released in 1987, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is not only an action classic, but also one of the great 20th century superhero stories, featuring a dedicated cop (Peter Weller) becoming more than human — specifically part machine — so that he can put a permanent end to crime in Detroit. It’s gruesome, and sometimes wholly disgusting, but it’s also filled with badass, explosive 80s-style action and driven by an awesome character’s journey for a new understanding of self. No matter how many times they bring this story back, the original will always be the best.
Long before he became the DC Extended Universe’s version of Deadshot, Will Smith first tried his hand at the superhero game with Peter Berg’s Hancock, and while not exactly perfect, it is one of the more interesting and unique original superhero features to be released. We’re certainly not used to seeing powered individuals as homeless drunks, but that’s not the only unexpected development as there wind up being some interesting rules for the lead character’s abilities. It’s a movie that didn’t turn out to be everything that audiences were hoping for, but it also definitely has a cool story to tell within the genre.
The Incredibles beat Tom McGrath’s Megamind to theaters by about six years, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as just “that other animated superhero movie.” While kids are certainly the focus for this one, the film is actually legitimately fun, and is unique on this list being the only one that centers on a villain. Will Ferrell gives a great performance as the blue, giant-headed titular character, and there are some real surprises that wind up unfolding throughout the course of the story.
Remember how I said that we weren’t done with James Gunn? Super is admittedly a bit different than every other title on this list, as Rainn Wilson’s Frank is a protagonist without real superpowers, but we’re counting it because of his seriously inflamed sense of justice, and his propensity for dressing up in a costume and mask to call himself the Crimson Bolt. All of the great markings of superhero movies are here, with an added dark twist that only Gunn could provide, and it’s as shocking as it is fun and weird. Wilson delivers one of the best performances of his career, but it’s Ellen Page who steals every scene as his hyper-excited sidekick, Boltie.
Of this selection, which movie do you feel is best? Do you think there is a title that we didn’t include that you feel deserves to be on here? Hit the comments section below with all of your thoughts, feelings, and opinions.
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