Avengers: Infinity War is set to be released on April 27th, and its record breaking success seems like the safest bet in Hollywood. With a budget estimated to be anywhere between $300 and $400m, everyone in the industry has just accepted that it’ll soar past the $1bn mark at the international box office and possibly become one of the biggest films of all time. Even a decade ago, the possibility of a film on this scale, one that encapsulated the story-lines and ensembles of multiple preceding parts in a franchise, seemed inconceivable. Now, it’s the most secure business model in town. They always said the geeks would inherit the earth, but few could have seen this pop culture landscape as the result.
Superhero movies, at least those in the traditional mould of that genre, have been breaking box office records and reshaping the modern blockbuster for a few decades now. Tim Burton’s Batman was the second highest grossing film of 1989 and the fifth highest grossing one of all time upon its initial release. On top of helping to spawn a franchise that reshaped the industry, various copycats followed in its shadow. This wasn’t like the original batch of Superman movies, which were successful but had questionable longevity in the industry. Post-Batman, superhero movies became vehicles that could balance commercial might with artistic flair, with the caped crusader himself becoming something of an auteur’s favourite.
The very way we think of movies is partly thanks to Batman: From the splurge of merchandising to the iconography focused marketing to the obsession with opening weekend box offices to the primacy of the PG-13 rating in the genre, and so on. For better or worse, superheroes are responsible for the Hollywood we experience today. The Marvel Cinematic Universe — and, to a lesser extent, the DC equivalent — merely fine-tuned that formula.
As a pop culture hot take writer, one feels an obligation to consume as much of the major properties as I can, since they are usually what dominate the majority of the ongoing conversations. Yet, to be honest, my interest in modern superhero cinema is pretty low. I don’t care all that much about seeing Infinity War, I still haven’t seen Black Panther, and everything surrounding the DCEU simply leaves me exhausted. There have been exceptions, such as my love for Logan, but that only highlights how little I am invested in anything that’s part of that increasingly epic franchise mold. When you have at least three movies a year to keep up with, and endless intertwining plots and never-ending ensembles to remember, it can’t help but feel like homework. The franchise model is so unimpeachable these days that my instinctual rejection of it feels like a tiny act of hopeless rebellion.
That’s not to say that I have no interest in superheroes. I read too many comic books to make that claim. When it comes to the films, I find my enjoyment lies more securely outside of those franchises. When you don’t have to worry so much about the weight of backstory, there’s more to appreciate in the telling of a single story.
It’s hard to define any superhero movie as a ‘non-franchise’ one since the formula is tailor-made for sequels, prequels and soap-opera style never-ending stories. So, for the purposes of this article, I am classifying any adaptation of a superhero or hero-style comic book character that is not part of a shared universe as ‘non-franchise.’ That means it can be a sequel or part of a series, but it can’t be part of the current crop of films where everything ties into a big climactic movie. It’s an arbitrary rule, I know, but I think discussing superhero stories outside of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universe context is worthwhile and reminds us of the history of a genre that’s as defining a part of Hollywood history as noir or musicals.
My favourite non-franchise superhero movie is indeed my favourite superhero movie ever, and somewhere in the lower half of my top 20 favourite films ever list. There is no situation on this planet that cannot immediately be improved by watching this film.
Of course, it’s Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.
This movie is to Guillermo del Toro what Batman Returns is to Tim Burton: They’re sequels to successful comic book movies made by auteurs where the directors in question have clearly just decided to spew their id all over the screen in the best way possible. That doesn’t make either of them weaker as adaptations of the source material, but it’s also clear that adhering to the comics was not their top priority.
I’m somewhat in the tank for del Toro, a filmmaker whose love of beautiful monsters is completely in tune with my own interests. He may have had more personal opportunities to tell those kinds of genre-savvy stories - from the gothic romance frenzy of Crimson Peak to the rebelliously sweet interspecies love story of The Shape of Water to the bleak fairy-tale of political strife that is Pan’s Labyrinth - but in terms of his work as an adapter, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army is easily him working at the peak of his powers.
The sequel greatly improves on the 2004 film in various ways: It drops the boring token white dude who’s only purpose is to be a beige audience avatar and proudly puts the paranormal figures front and centre; it embraces Hellboy’s sardonic humour and allows for suitably goofy moments; and it revels in the vibrancy of its world. This is a comic book movie that loves bright colours and strange creatures. Why would you soak your screen in sombre sepia tone when there’s so much grotesque beauty to gaze upon? Del Toro has clearly always liked monsters more than humans, and there’s no better platform for that adoration than a movie with a cigar smoking demon, a wistful amphibian, a Firestarter, and a comically German puff of smoke operating a diving suit. Want to know how good this movie is? It makes Seth MacFarlane - doing a bad German accent, no less - interesting!
I’m sure the R-rated reboot will be at least decent - David Harbour as Hellboy is casting almost as perfect as Ron Perlman - but it won’t feature a drunken Barry Manilow sing-along, and for that, we will all be poorer as a species.
So, what non-franchise superhero movie is your favourite? Let us know in the comments.