Superhero films have come a long way over the past few decades. What once was a genre filled with films panned by critics now features some of the highest-grossing and most critically-acclaimed films of all time. The early days of cheesy, low budget superhero films with bad costumes, bad effects and even worse acting have paved the way for a string of extremely successful Hollywood blockbusters. As with any genre though, there are those films that seem to slip through the cracks or are forgotten with time. It’s time that we shed some light on some of the more underrated superhero flicks that have made their way to the big screen.
10. Orgazmo (1997)
Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame, Orgazmo may well be the funniest film on this list. Writer/director/star Trey Parker plays Joe Young, a clean-cut Mormon with Bible in hand spreading the word door-to-door in the Los Angeles suburbs. After knocking on the door of sleazy porn director Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs), Orbison attempts to hire Joe to be the title character and lead of his pornographic superhero film, Orgazmo. Joe reluctantly agrees despite his conflicting beliefs, as he desperately needs money to pay for a wedding at a temple in Utah where his fiance Lisa (Robyn Lynne Raab) has expressed a strong desire to wed.
It’s a hilarious premise that showcases Parker and Stone’s ability to consistently shock audiences. The film features cameos from some of the porn industry’s finest (so I’m told), including adult film legend Ron Jeremy as Clark. While the film was a flop, it’s safe to say that you’ve probably never seen anything like Orgazmo before, and that is reason enough to give the one a shot.
9. Super (2010)
Written and directed by James Gunn, Super is a low budget superhero black comedy with dramatic elements. After losing his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) to a slimeball drug dealer (Kevin Bacon), ordinary guy Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) falls into a deep depression, but after seeing a cable access show about a superhero name the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), he’s inspired to take things into his own hands. Frank adopts a superhero persona called the “Crimson Bolt” and sets out on a quest to win Sarah back, despite having a ridiculous homemade costume and without any training or fighting skills to speak of. He enlists the help of comic book store clerk Libby (Ellen Page), who eventually becomes his sidekick and before long we realize that she’s even more mentally unstable than he is.
Wilson and Page have some great chemistry and play well off each other as a sad duo of pretend superheroes. Super received generally mixed reviews, although the humor, acting, direction and action scenes are all worthy of praise. Unfortunately, Super was a massive box office bomb, grossing a little over $422,000 against a budget of $2.5 million, making it Gunn’s lowest-grossing film to date. Despite the film’s lukewarm reception, this dark superhero comedy is worth seeking out.
8. Chronicle (2012)
Released in 2012, Chronicle is a found footage sci-fi thriller with superhero elements directed by Josh Trank and written by Max Landis. It follows three high school seniors who form a bond after gaining powers from a strange object they discover in the woods. At first, the trio use their abilities for mischief and personal gain until the bullied Andrew (Dane DeHaan) turns to sinister actions and revenge. Andrew’s cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and popular athlete Steve (Michael B. Jordan), are forced to combine their newfound powers in order to stop Andrew from wreaking havoc on their city. The film’s script is well-written, featuring several plot twists and turns as the film blurs the lines on good and evil. When paired with the excellent script, the compelling performances of the three lead actors leads to a surprisingly grounded superhero story and characters that the audience will genuinely care about. The result is a superhero movie that works on several levels and nails the internal emotional struggles of living with the responsibility of having superhuman abilities. Chronicle is a film that goes beyond the generic superhero premise and provides convincing insight into the mind of a superhero.
7. Mystery Men (1999)
Based on the Dark Horse Comic series, Mystery Men is the tale of seven wannabe superheroes led by the Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), the Shoveler (William H. Macy), and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria). For years, Champion City has been protected by resident superhero Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), but when he’s kidnapped by supervillain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffery Rush), this motley crew of superheroes spring in to action. This hilarious film features a huge cast of stars and the team is rounded out by Paul Reubens, Janeane Garofalo, Wes Studi, and Kel Mitchell.
Despite the film’s star power, Mystery Men failed to find an audience and earned just $33 million worldwide against a $68 million budget. It’s a shame because Mystery Men features an interesting setup, with Captain Amazing realizing that he’s been made obsolete due to his effectiveness as a crime fighter. He uses his alter ego, billionaire lawyer Lance Hunt, to argue for the release of Casanova Frankenstein in order to create chaos on the streets and continue his reign as Champion City’s golden son (which of course backfires spectacularly). While the film received mixed reviews upon release, it’s become a bit of a cult classic over the past two decades. Mystery Men is superhero satire at it’s best and it’s just unfortunate that it slipped through the cracks for most moviegoers in the late ’90s.
6. Defendor (2009)
A charming indie film about a mentally unstable man named Arthur (Woody Harrelson), who adopts the persona of a crime fighter and sets out on a search for his arch enemy, Captain Industry. Defendor crosses paths with a crack smoking prostitute named Kat (Kat Dennings) who befriends him initially to take advantage of his vulnerability but soon comes to care for him. Dennings is great in a role that showcases plenty of her signature slacker sarcasm. Harrelson clearly had fun with the film and gives a great performance in one of the most outlandish roles of his career.
Defendor uses everyday items such as marbles, lime juice, and a jar of wasps to combat his foes and their surprising effectiveness leads to some great scenes. Defendor was the first in the line of films that featured Average Joe’s suiting up as vigilantes that included Kick-Ass and Super. Although the film was made on a shoestring budget of $4 million it failed to even reach $100,000 at the domestic box office. Despite the film’s shortcomings, watching Defendor get the better of an enemy by unleashing an angry jar of wasps is an inspired display of crime-fighting that never gets old.
5. The Mask of Zorro (1998)
The Mask of Zorro is a swashbuckling superhero film featuring the legendary character first popularized back in the 1920s. The film features Anthony Hopkins as Don Diego de la Vega, the original Zorro, as he attempts to escape from prison to be reunited with his long-lost daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and avenge the murder of his wife. Along for the ride is Zorro’s successor Alejandro Murrieta (Antonia Banderas) after the two men are brought together by what De La Vega sees as fate. In an era filled with big budget blockbuster superhero films, The Mask of Zorro is a throwback to simpler times and relies on well-choreographed fight scenes instead of special effects.
Hopkins and Banderas are fantastic in their roles as teacher and student and the two have some great chemistry. Like all great heroes, Zorro is bigger than life but what sets this story apart from others is the concept that Zorro represents is an idea, or set of values that isn’t just confined to one individual. The fact that multiple people have put on the mask and worn the cape gives Zorro a rich history and fascinating backstory that is unlike many others in the genre. The Mask of Zorro is a thrilling ride that can be enjoyed by long time fans and newcomers alike.
4. Dredd (2012)
We’ve already covered the awful 1995 film Judge Dredd here, but luckily for fans of the comic series the 2012 release of Dredd washed away the bad taste left by that earlier Stallone flick. Dredd stayed true to the comic book series and starred Karl Urban as Judge Dredd, a judicial officer with the power to act as judge, jury and executioner. Dredd is tasked by the Chief Judge with evaluating new recruit Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie judge with powerful psychic abilities, as they attempt to take down a gang dealing a new street drug called SLO-MO. The two officers battle trough the Peach Trees, a 200 story slum tower block full of cronies waiting to be dispatched with extreme violence.
Admittedly, this movie doesn’t feature a deep plot, but it works well as a balls-to-the-wall superhero action film. The film looks great and served as a shoecase for the resurgence of 3D that dominated the early portion of the decade. Despite the positive response from critics and fans, the film earned just over $41 million at the box office on an estimated $40 million budget. Dredd has carved out a cult following and found an audience that’s starving for a sequel but unfortunately the chances of that happening are slim at best.
3. Hancock (2008)
Hancock is a unique entry in the superhero genre and features Will Smith in the title role as a heavy drinking, disheveled, and reluctant hero. Hancock leaves a trail of destruction and collateral damage with every well-intentioned deed and couldn’t care less about his public reputation. After his antics grow old with the citizens of Los Angeles he agrees to accept help from PR specialist Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) and upon meeting his beautiful wife Mary (Charlize Theron), Hancock realizes that they have a strange familiarity and connection.
One of the best sequences sees Ray convincing Hancock to spend some time in jail to help rehabilitate his image and get a fresh start on being the prototypical superhero. While in jail Hancock encounters many of the criminals that he was responsible for locking up which to a couple memorable scenes. The film does a great job of exploring the emotional struggles of dealing with the weight of being a superhero. Will Smith is excellent in a role that allows him to step outside the typical, lovable, wisecracking, sarcastic underdog he excels at, as the character is rough around the edges and generally unlikable. The film performed well at the box office but never really got its due as a quality superhero film.
2. Unbreakable (2000)
This superhero film disguised as a standard thriller was written, produced, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, as the follow-up to his debut hit The Sixth Sense. Upon its original release, Unbreakable never really found an audience, but if you ask movie fans today what their favorite Shyamalan film is, many will pick this one. The story revolves around two central characters who are polar opposites and how their lives become intertwined. The first, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), is a Philadelphia security guard who discovers that he has special abilities after he emerges as the sole survivor of a horrific train crash and is completely unharmed. Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) suffers from a rare disease in which bones are extremely fragile and susceptible to breaks with very little force. Elijah is a comic book fanatic and believes that there must be someone on the opposite end of the spectrum, someone who is essentially a superhero.
Unbreakable is the kind of film that if released today would be praised for its unique approach to an extremely popular genre which makes this film even more impressive considering it was made almost 20 years ago. Unbreakable is a masterclass in filmmaking with some fantastic cinematography with each scene emulating a comic book panel. The performances from Willis and Jackson send this film over the top and cement it’s place as one of the most underrated superhero films of all-time.
1. The Rocketeer (1991)
Based on the 1982 comic book by Dave Stevens, The Rocketeer is a homage to the Saturday Matinee heroes of the 1930’s. The film wasn’t a huge hit for Disney but eventually found its audience on home video. The story revolves around a rocket pack stolen from Howard Hughes by a couple of gangsters from the Valentine’s gang. After a thrilling opening scene, the rocket pack finds itself in the hands of a young stunt pilot named Cliff Secord played by Billy Campbell. It turns out that movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) had hired Valentine’s gang to steal the rocket pack and will stop at nothing to get it back.
The Rocketeer is a great little action film that features a great villain in Dalton’s Neville Sinclia,r as well as standout performances from Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, and Paul Sorvino as mob boss Eddie Valentine. The special effects, handled by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), are excellent and still hold up well almost 30 years later. This high flying throwback to 1930’s pulp novels and Saturday serials is a must-see for all audiences.