Certainly by now, unless you’ve been living on Mars or Canada or some other alien place, everyone knows about the growing popularity of major motion pictures about superheroes fightin’ evil ‘round the world. What some of you may not know (or care about, that’s just as believable) is that not all superhero movies are actually adapted from their most likely source, comic books. (“Graphic novels,” if you’re a douche.) In fact, it’s entirely possible that your favorite superhero film may entirely be the idea of a single writer/director who had a vision, and not one filmmaker’s response to nearly a century’s worth of stories.
The kryptonitic qualities of the “original” ideas in the Pizza Man trailer from earlier today got me thinking about other, better non-traditional superheroes. It’s entirely possible Frankie Muniz will make as memorable a Marty Stu as Tobey Maguire, but until then, there are certainly more actually “original” superhero flicks that aren’t owned by Disney or Time Warner. If you’re tired of the Marvel Studios factory, or bored of DC’s Man of Steel and Dark Knight duo, then allow me to present to you The Best Superhero Movies Not Based On A Comic Book (Or Other Source Material).
(Note: I’ve yet to see Chronicle, so it’s entirely possible this list is incomplete.)
The first and obvious choice. Director Brad Bird’s animated tale about super heroes coming out of retirement and emerging from their collective past shames owes a lot to Watchmen, The Fantastic Four, and many other comic books, but it’s disparate parts create an entirely original entity. The Incredibles does what every good genre movie ought, and that’s use the strict rules of its structure as window dressing for the deeper story being told underneath. That’s why it’s unquestionably still my favorite Pixar movie.
Don’t be mistaken, there’s no way this attempt to suck on Harry Potter’s teat — just replace the robes and Firebolts with tights and fireballs — is on the same level as The Incredibles. It probably wouldn’t even crack the Top Ten list of all superhero movies. But Sky High is a standard Coming of Age tale that has some unexpectedly great performances from Kurt Russel, Kelly Preston, Bruce Campbell, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Kevin Heffernan. Even Jim Rash, Dean Pelton from “Community,” gives a memorable turn as the father/henchman of the big bad. Plus, it gets the details about comic books just right, making the jokes and asides at medium’s expense a bonus even more unexpected than the damn near perfect cast.
James Gunn’s tale of the Crimson Bolt, a misanthropic revenge-seeker/would-be-do-gooder played by Dwight from “The Office,” is so tonally the different from the above entries that it could very well be it’s direct opposite on the super hero colorwheel. Where the kid flicks highlight the fantasy of it all, Super details what would really happen if somebody decided wear a mask and fight crime as a vigilante. Even moreso than its generic cousin, Kick-Ass, this is a gruesome wake-up call to anyone who thinks comic books should be a moral barometer. There will be blood spilt on both sides and nobody wins. But, hey, Ellen Page’s Bolty keeps things light! Well, for a time…
M. Night Shyamalan receives a lot of ridicule around these parts, and deservedly so to be sure. But every time someone uses the sadass* “Shyamalamadingdong” insult, it’s only because the director started off so well. Unbreakable certainly isn’t a movie for everyone, but as a thoughtful meditation on the core duality of superhero vs. super villain it’s the only game in town. It also happens to be excellently structured, despite the Dragnet-y ending, and wins points for taking super powers seriously. It also just happens to have Samuel L. Jackson’s best haircut ever.
If you ever wanted to know what Spider-Man’s Sam Raimi would have done if he’d gotten to make 1989’s Batman instead of Tim Burton, look no further. Darkman himself (as played by Liam Neeson in his first sell-out role) is a little more like The Shadow as a character, but Batman himself is also based on the Walter B. Gibson creation, so it’s a bit of a wash. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call Darkman the “Briscoe County, Jr.” of superhero movies, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that. Also, Frances McDormand!
This is why James Gunn is one of my favorite filmmakers. Before he did Super , a deconstruction of the Batman/Daredevil archetype, he pointed his microscope at the character dynamics of the X-Men. The analogues are those we’re familiar with from the real X-Men movies, the first of which was made the same year as The Specials. There’s a level of self-awareness amongst the team, almost as though they were comic book characters who just also happened to be real, that makes the blockbusters even more fun in retrospect. You just know James Marsden’s Cyclops probably resents the popularity of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine exactly like Thomas Haden Church’s Strobe loathes Rob Lowe’s Weevil — hell, that’s practically canon in the comics these days. Also, Paget Brewster and Judy Greer!
Honorable Mention: Meteor Man
I have a strong feeling that Meteor Man wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny today, but I loved it as a kid. Hell, I’d still probably love it, but I’m not sure I could include it in a “best” list. Still, even if it isn’t quite up to what Black Dynamite or The Hebrew Hammer accomplished, Robert Townsend definitely had a vision:
* Thanks, Jast!
Rob Payne also writes the indie comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter @RobOfWar, and his ware can be purchased here (if you’re into that sort of thing). He almost included Will Smith’s Hancock, but the last hour of that movie is so fracking awful that he just couldn’t bring himself to write a proper defense.