Did you hear there’s a big superhero flick opening this weekend? “Avengers Endgame” is going to be bigger than the giant superhero movie from last month, and maybe even bigger than the one that’s coming this summer — you know, the one staring the superhero who was supposed to be dead at the end of that giant flick last summer?
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when superhero movies were a rarity. Studios considered the subject matter either too goofy or too expensive to shoot. Then came Richard Donner’s “Superman” (1978)*, and studios suddenly had reason to try to figure this stuff out.
But it was two bounds over a tall building, one bound back. The endearing innocence of “Superman” almost immediately gave way to schlock. Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) kicked off a second, grittier wave, but the rights to well-known characters were scattered all over the place, and occasional gems like Guillermo del Toro’s “Blade II” (2002) were few and far between.
And then came Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man” (2008).
Now, masks rule. In 2018, six of the top 10 movies at the U.S. domestic box office were superhero properties, including the only three films to top the $500 million mark. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing: “Black Panther,” “Incredibles 2” and “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse” (#15) are all great fun and prove that characters and themes can develop amidst all the CGI carnage.
Of course, there have always been smart, fun superhero flicks. And dumb, fun superhero flicks. They come from all over, not just the pages of Marvel and D.C. comics. And not just from U.S. studios, either.
Here’s a quick look at seven superhero movies you may have missed, but are certainly worth checking out. For this list, we are sticking with films that were released theatrically, so we’ll bound over several straight-to-DVD animated features that are also quite good.
*But first, back to our asterisk and a little more about the sensation that was Donner’s “Superman.” When adjusted for ticket price inflation, it still ranks ahead of all but a handful of superhero flicks at the domestic box office. And that’s just tickets sold — there’s no adjustment in those numbers for potential audience size (we’re talking 1978 here) and dramatic changes in film distribution. “Superman” opened on 814 screens; the wildly successful “Wonder Woman” (2017) ran on more than 4,100. “Superman” was #1 for 13 weeks; “Black Panther” held the slot for five.
They just don’t make hits like “Superman” anymore.
Now, on with the listicle:
#36 at domestic box office
Sam Raimi’s feature follow-up to “Evil Dead II” (1987) remains the best translation of a ’70s-era comic to the silver screen. The performances are joyously over-the-top, particularly Larry Drake’s turn as the glibly villainous Durrant. Joel and Ethan Cohen did unaccredited work on their pal’s script: “If you are not going to kill me, I have things to do.”
Our story so far: A scientist is horribly disfigured in an explosion, and undergoes experimental surgery that leaves him without bodily sensation. He goes nuts from there, raging around L.A. in artificial skin disguises (science!) as he gets his revenge and tries to reconnect with his love, played by national treasure Frances McDormand. Really.
Raimi’s use of shadow would make Gene Colan blush, and all the Dutch angels and crazy POV shots that drive Raimi’s horror flicks are on full display here. More importantly, “Darkman”’s hyper-stylized aesthetic conveys the teen-boy angst of a “dark” comic in ways Zack Snyder’ brooding drek can’t hope to match.
It’s just perfect fun. Where to watch online.
The Heroic Trio (1993)
Hong Kong; extremely limited U.S. release
We meet one protagonist as she’s kidnapping babies for a shady character named Evil Master (seriously). Another steals a kid from a hospital to use as bait. And these folks are Heroic. Only in Hong Kong.
Johnnie To’s action-fantasy is a wild ride from start to end, with Michelle Yeoh’s lead turn as Invisible Woman being the only restraint shown by anyone involved. Maggie Cheung steals the show as the fiery, chopper-riding Thief Catcher. There’s a ton of wire work, flying daggers and a melty corpse that just sort of bubbles and then blows up.
The film was a big hit in Asia and spawned a sequel, released just a few months later (Hong Kong cinema, ladies and gentleman), but has somehow fallen out of circulation in the U.S., at least for now. There might be a clumsy English dub posted on a popular online video-sharing site. Just don’t tell Thief Catcher that we tipped you off.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
#139 at domestic box office
Spun off from the seminal Batman animated TV series, “Phantasm” is a favorite among comics cognoscenti who prefer their Caped Crusader a little less, shall we say, gunny. A bloodthirsty vigilante hits the dark streets of Gotham, and Batman is faced with some actual detective work, as well as ghosts from his own tortured past.
About the only sticking point with this film is the animation, which for a kids’ TV show was revolutionary, but nevertheless is designed for mass production. A 40-inch screen is a great viewing format for “Phantasm.” The voice acting is iconic — no matter how many method actors want the role, Mark Hamill IS the Joker, and the character is particularly terrifying here. Where to watch online.
(We know we said we weren’t going to do this, but watch this one, too. Hamill Joker rules!)
Sky High (2005)
#39 at domestic box office
Critics liked this one better than audiences did — it’s a goofy family move in the tradition of “Spy Kids” (2001), and by the time of its release comics had gone well down the path to the navel-gazing nihilism that’s slogged its way into several recent cinematic flops.
But “Sky High” is a cartoony hoot, particularly Kurt Russell’s turn as super family-man Captain Stronghold and a one-scene cameo from Cloris Leachman. A kid starts high school and, wouldn’t you know it, finds out it’s a campus for kids of superheroes. What could go wrong? The story is formulaic, but the writing is brisk and everybody knows exactly what kind of film they are making. Where to watch online.
Tank Girl (1995)
#154 in domestic box office
“Tank Girl” is enjoying a bit of a cult revival these days, with limited re-release at cool kid theaters. It probably doesn’t hurt that the comics’ co-creator, Jamie Hewlett, went on to design the virtual band Gorillaz. “Tank Girl” is an interesting case study in how Hollywood latched onto young, edgy director Rachel Talalay (a longtime collaborator with John Waters), but then pulled the rug out from under her when the dailies came in.
We hesitated to put it on our list, because, honestly, it’s not very good. Studio-dictated edits just ruined the thing. But it has shiny, magical parts, most notably Talalay’s deft use of animated sequences to stretch her blown special effects budget.
The movie shoots to capture the vibe of satirical ‘80s British comics that molded much of the modern superhero ethos. The set design and Stan Winston’s Rippers makeup are great; Lori Petty is a little too goofy as the titular Tank Girl, who drives a tank in the Outback and dates a kangaroo. As you do. Where to watch online.
South Korea; no U.S. theatrical release — it’s all about Netflix now
Writer/director Yeon Sang-ho, who somehow made zombies kinda interesting again in “Train to Busan” (2017), artfully places this superhero story in “the real world,” a trick that U.S. filmmakers just can’t seem to master (see 2008’s “Hancock.”)
Ryu Seung-ryong stars a deadbeat dad who, after gaining super brain powers, tries to help out his spunky daughter as she faces down evil real estate goons. The film touches on themes of that are persistent in Korean popular film, and it’s quite violent (again, Korea). But the performances all match Sang-ho’s trademark earnestness as a filmmaker. He knows this stuff is silly, but he still cares, and so should his audience. Where to watch online.
Mr. Freedom (1969)
Box office numbers are irrelevant when it comes to art
For our last pick, we asked Dean Otto, the curator of film at Speed Cinema and an avowed non-fan of the superhero genre, for a recommendation. As you might expect, he went deep, giving us the only flick on our list with a Criterion edition release.
“It took me all of a minute to come up with William Klein’s “Mr. Freedom.” Furious over the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, director William Klein created a deeply acerbic and satiric superhero, Mr. Freedom, an imperialist braggart whose outlandish swagger is beyond belief. Like a comic book come to life, the outrageous costumes were designed by Klein and executed by his talented wife Jeanne Klein. Look for cameos by actor Donald Pleasence and singer Serge Gainsbourg.” Where to watch online.
We’ll add that there have been a handful of superhero satires over the years, with middling results. James Gunn’s “Super” (2011) is an ambitious swing that misses more than it lands; it’s certainly better than “Kick Ass” (2010), which bails on its premise and becomes what it proposes to critique.
Don’t get us started on “Hancock.”