Superhero movies, how do they work? For decades, the only answer seemed to be “license a popular comic book franchise, then add cheesy special effects and loads of camp,” but there were occasional exceptions to the rule — and over the last decade and change, a growing number of filmmakers have gone beyond corny humor and F/X flash to explore other areas of the superhero mythos. With the found-footage/superhero hybrid Chronicle heading to theaters this weekend, we decided now would be the perfect time to draw up a supersized list of other non-traditional entries in the genre. We hope you’re ready to take flight, because it’s time for Total Recall!
A comic book artist (Michael Crawford) pressed into action by a buddy in the CIA who uses a series of awesome (albeit frequently malfunctioning) gadgets to fight crime as his most popular character? This writer can tell you from experience that in 1981, few films sounded cooler or full of more wacky promise than Disney’s Condorman. Alas, more often than not, the end result failed to live up to its wacky promise, and although in recent years it’s become a cult favorite for irony-engorged fans of 1980s kitsch, the movie fell into obscurity quickly after its disappointing theatrical run. John Corry of the New York Times offered one of its only halfway positive reviews, shrugging, “It is painless and chaste, and it has a lot of beautiful scenery and beautiful clothes. There are worse things to watch while you eat popcorn.”
You’ve got to be a little bit crazy to be a superhero — just putting on one of those costumes requires at least mild insanity — and Woody Harrelson is high on the list of actors who can communicate grim determination and a hint of mental illness with little more than a look. In other words, Peter Stebbings’ Defendor — an off-kilter drama about a psych patient’s quest to defeat the nefarious “Captain Industry” — should have been amazing. Alas, reviews were relatively lukewarm, and the movie barely received a theatrical release in the States. For some critics, however, Harrelson helped raise it above your average revisionist superhero drama; as James Adams of the Globe and Mail wrote, “Defendor is more a refreshment of a genre than a transcendence of it. But thanks to Harrelson, you’ll be a believer.”
He’s a mild-mannered office worker by day and defender of the innocent by night — but despite its protagonist’s rather ordinary-sounding superhero pedigree, Griff the Invisible lends a fresh twist to the genre by focusing on the budding attraction between its secret identity-sporting hero (Ryan Kwanten) and the daughter of a local shop owner (Maeve Dermody). It all sounds awfully cute, but most critics thought writer/director Leon Ford sidestepped his premise’s many pitfalls with a smartly written script and understated performances from his leads. “Brimming with imagination and driven by disarming lead performances, this ends up warm, funny and surprisingly deeply touching,” wrote FILMINK’s Cara Nash.
If Hancock had only been a Will Smith movie about an alcoholic, misanthropic crimefighter and his struggle to redeem himself with the help of a well-meaning PR exec (Jason Bateman), it could have offered a truly fresh spin on the big-budget superhero movie. Alas, Vince Gilligan and Vincent Ngo’s script didn’t stop there, tossing in a second-act twist involving Bateman’s comely wife (Charlize Theron) and a race of nearly immortal beings, and Hancock‘s Tomatometer suffered accordingly. Still, its $624 million worldwide gross is nothing to sneeze at, and it resonated with some critics — like Paste’s Sean Gandert, who wrote, “While the film never quite reaches an Alan Moore-level deconstruction of the superhero mythos, it has a fun time offering up all the joy of a big-budget action movie without taking things too seriously.”
Plenty of superheroes have gotten married and/or had children, but those stories tend to be full of tortured, soapy melodrama; conversely, Pixar’s The Incredibles is a thrillingly cartoonish — yet still deceptively sober — look at the way the comfort of domestic bliss can compete with the lure of high adventure, as well as a poignant meditation on the way our dreams, abilities, and expectations change as we get older. But mostly, it’s just another irresistibly fun entry in the Pixar canon — the story of a pair of retired superheroes-turned-parents (voiced by Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter) drawn back into their old lifestyle when Mr. Incredible secretly re-enters the crimefighting game. “The Incredibles shows once and for all what was right in front of our noses all along, that Pixar is not an animation studio but a movie studio,” wrote Bullz-Eye’s David Medsker. “And not just a movie studio, but the best movie studio.”
No surprises here. Arriving at the tail end of a flood of big-budget, effects-heavy comic book adaptations, Kick-Ass heralded a wave of revisionist takes on the genre with pitch-black humor, buckets of blood, and a terrific cast that included Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Howlin’ Nicolas Cage. While some critics contended that its kids-as-vigilantes storyline was too sick to be funny (A.O. Scott sighed, “I know it’s all supposed to be tongue in cheek and lots of fun, but frankly this turned my stomach”), the majority was having too much fun to complain. Arguing that it “at once embraces and satirizes contemporary action-film clichés with Tarantino-esque self-regard,” the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis called Kick-Ass “the latest in giggles-and-guts entertainment.”
He can fly, he knows kung fu, and he’s the only one who can save the world, which is more than enough to make The Matrix‘s Neo (Keanu Reeves) a superhero in our book — and given that the first Matrix‘s blend of eye-popping special effects and Joseph Campbell monomyth almost single-handledly proved that Big Hollywood films about virtual reality don’t always have to be lousy, we’d say it’s decidedly non-traditional. Subsequent installments failed to fully capitalize on the thrilling promise of the original, but that doesn’t take away from the film that the Las Vegas Mercury’s Jeannette Catsoulis said “grabs you by the eyeballs, hypnotizes you into a state of visual ecstasy, and doesn’t much care if your brain is following or not.”
Like the supremely silly Bob Burden comics that inspired it, Mystery Men was destined for cult status from the start — but for filmgoers who love biting satire cloaked in absurd humor, it’s an underappreciated, eminently quotable classic worthy of repeat viewings. Featuring a marvelous cast that included Wes Studi, Paul Reubens, Hank Azaria, Tom Waits, Janeane Garofolo, William H. Macy, and Ben Stiller at his impotent rage-spewing best, Men follows the increasingly ridiculous adventures of a ragtag crew of heroes whose powers are either almost useless (Macy’s alter ego the Shoveler) or may not actually exist (Stiller’s Mr. Furious). Calling it an “affectionate and astute mockery of the big-budget, star-studded, sci-fi/fantasy crime-thriller genre,” Boxoffice Magazine’s Caryn James praised its “genius, cameo-bursting casting and frequently hilarious writing.”
A romantic comedy with a fresh superhero twist, My Super Ex-Girlfriend explores the difficulties of breaking up with a neurotic, clingy significant other who just happens to be invulnerable. A cool idea for a movie? Absolutely — alas, Ex-Girlfriend turned out to be something of a super dud when it landed in theaters, debuting to weak box office and largely negative reviews that accused it of relying on unfunny sexist clichés. Still, some critics found it Super enough, including Geoff Pevere of the Toronto Star, who called it director Ivan Reitman’s “funniest movie since Ghostbusters” and enjoyed its “riff on superhero mythology that plays like a mashup of Bewitched (the TV show, not the movie), The Breakup and Fatal Attraction.”
We could hardly publish a list of non-traditional superheroes without including the mighty Orgazmo, who battles injustice with the power of, well, the orgasm. A proudly NC-17 release from South Park‘s Trey Parker (who wrote, directed, and stars), Orgazmo follows the vulgar travails of a missionary who’s roped into starring in a porn film and ends up becoming a real-life superhero…of a sort. “This movie,” argued Kevin N. Laforest of the Montreal Film Journal, “confirms Trey Parker as the Orson Welles of absurd comedy.”
Plenty of kids spend significant portions of their childhoods daydreaming about being a superhero — or being pals with one who could devote themselves to righting the wrongs and fixing the injustices in their lives. But what if you never stopped daydreaming? That’s the intriguing idea behind Paper Man, which stars Jeff Daniels as a struggling writer who turns to his super-powered imaginary friend Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds) when he needs someone to talk to. Sadly, most critics felt Paper Man failed to capitalize on its premise — or its stellar performers, which also included Emma Stone, Lisa Kudrow, and Kieran Culkin. For some, however, the cast was enough to recommend the whole. “Ignore the story of Paper Man,” urged Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum. “Concentrate instead on the delightful performances.”
A sort of slapdash blend of X-Men and Stephen King’s Firestarter, 2009’s Push follows the adventures of superpowered individuals (including Dakota Fanning and Chris Evans) on the run from government agents (including Djimon Hounsou) in the employ of a shadowy bureau that wants to use their paranormal abilities to create an army of super-soldiers. A disappointment at the box office, Push received largely negative reviews from critics who were put off by its convoluted storyline. For some, however, it offered enjoyable sci-fi thrills — including Matt Glasby of Total Film, who argued, “Sloppily conceived but directed with flair, Push is bound to split the vote. Look closely and its disparate pieces fit clumsily together; step back and the overall effect has an undeniable allure.”
A superhero movie done Bollywood style, 2011’s RA.One follows a relatively straightforward plot (video game designer creates an antagonist so badass that he escapes from the game to wreak havoc — and only one man can stop him!), but does it with tons of absurdly overstuffed flair, not to mention post-converted 3D and a 154-minute running time. Audiences loved it, making RA.One the second highest-grossing Bollywood film in history, and it earned a fair amount of critical applause in the bargain. While pointing out that it’s “The most expensive Bollywood movie ever made,” the New York Times’ Rachel Saltz called it “a sci-fi superhero thriller, is a kind of entertainment machine set to dazzle, Hindi cinema with a crush on high-tech.”
It’s somewhat difficult to argue that a movie as derivative as Sky High is truly non-traditional — it rips plenty of pages from the live-action Disney playbook — but how many movies revolve around the ups and downs of life at a high school for junior superheroes? Not many, and only one boasts the involvement of Kurt Russell as Captain Stronghold, Bruce Campbell as Coach Boomer, and Lynda Carter as Principal Powers. It’s all admittedly silly stuff, and a good deal more cartoonish than most of the movies on this list, but it does exactly what it sets out to do. “My 12-year-old self would have liked this movie a lot,” wrote the Village Voice’s Matt Singer. “The 25-year-old me likes it a bit more than he cares to admit.”
A lot of superhero movies show their heroes confronting some level of disbelief from the outside world — either from people who are stunned to see a costumed vigilante standing up for the downtrodden, or from friends and family who don’t believe our hero’s powers are real. When it comes to Les Franken (Michael Rapaport) in Special, this suspicion is completely appropriate — his newfound “powers” are really the result of an experimental antidepressant that’s inducing psychotic episodes and making him see and hear things that aren’t real. The generally dismissive reviews that greeted this low-budget effort didn’t help its limited theatrical prospects, but it gave Rapaport a chance to shine in a leading role and impressed critics like Ray Greene of Boxoffice Magazine, who called it “uproarious and always poignant” and wrote, “co-screenwriters and directors Jeremy Passmore and Hal Haberman have created a moving and pertinent parable for our medicated times.”
What do superheroes do on their days off? This early, low-budget effort from Super‘s James Gunn aims to find out, focusing on a middling team of non-superstar crimefighters like the Weevil (Rob Lowe), Ms. Indestructible (Paget Brewster), and the Strobe (Thomas Haden Church). Plagued by internal strife and public indifference, the Specials spend most of the movie just struggling to keep a grip on their personal lives, which lends the film a level of ordinary human drama missing from most movies about people with superhuman abilities. In his review for Film Threat, Ron Wells applauded The Specials‘ heart, pointing out that “Gunn and first-time director Craig Mazin seem to know and love this world and aren’t here to just take potshots at it for 90 minutes.”
Costumed crime fighter, or wrench-wielding lunatic? In the black comedy Super, Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is a mixture of both, and writer/director James Gunn leaves it up to the audience to decide which side wins. Featuring decidedly non-cartoonish violence and a rather depressing storyline, Super failed to catch on with audiences during its limited theatrical run, and alienated critics who felt it lacked enough laughs to work as a comedy, or a clear enough point of view to function as a drama. Still, it had its fans — like Duane Dudek of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who argued, “Just as you dismiss it as witless superhero parody, it switches gears in a way not especially subtle but for which you are unprepared. And when it finally declares itself to be a genre film, the surprise is that it’s not the genre you thought.”
It certainly isn’t the most action-packed superhero movie you’re ever going to watch, but for patient filmgoers, M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable makes up for its lack of straight-ahead thrills with patiently building tension and a quiet sense of dread. Bruce Willis stars in prime Sadface Mode as a Philadelphia security guard who meets a mysterious man (Samuel L. Jackson) who leads him to believe he might be packing a little something extra in his DNA. While not a runaway hit like Willis and Shyamalan’s previous collaboration, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable still made a healthy $248 million at the box office — and impressed critics like Marc Savlov of the Austin Chronicle, who wrote, “If you can manage that precious, tentative suspension of disbelief, you’ll find Unbreakable a rewarding meditation on the nature of heroes, both comic book and otherwise.”
Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Chronicle.