I love superheroes, so much so that I have a whole category on this blog dedicated to Graphic Novels, and I love many superhero movies. In my opinion, the all-time best superhero movie is currently IRON MAN (note: I haven’t seen Captain America: The First Avenger yet, but I plan to finally watch the DVD next week). But there are some superhero movies that are not based on previously existing comic-book creations (although some were later adapted into comic-books) and are totally original. Some of those have been very good too. Here are my top 5:
I saw this film as a wee lad and always loved it. A struggling actor named Steve is hired to dress up as superhero called Captain Avenger and stand outside movie theaters to help promote a movie about that character. One night after work he’s at a local store when some guys attempt to rob it. Still wearing his costume, Steve stops the robbers, and the grateful owners tell the police that “Captain Avenger” saved them. The press picks up the story, and it makes the local news. Steve likes the feeling of being a hero, so he starts intentionally going out in his costume, looking for crimes to stop. This doesn’t always go well for him, as he gets shot in the arm, but the press continues to cover the story, and then the mayor of the city, who is facing a tough re-election campaign, decides to track down this hero, find out who he is, and force him to work for him, in order to cash in on his popularity. John Ritter starred as Steve and did a fantastic job with the character. This movie explores the theme of what would happen if a regular person decided to become a costumed vigilante in the “real world”, decades before and much better than later films like Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass ever did.
The thing about this film is that it is not meant to be taken completely seriously. It’s definitely a bit campy, although not over the top. Joan Severance plays The Black Scorpion, whose secret identity is police detective Darcy Walker. It’s a classic Clark Kent/Superman (or Diana Prince/Wonder Woman) set-up, where Darcy is the straight-laced shy lady who is able to act more forcefully, and embrace her sex appeal when she puts on her disguise. With the help of a streetwise mechanic/inventor named Argyle (played by Garrett Morris), Black Scorpion uses an array of high-tech gadgets, including a souped-up “Scorpion-Mobile” to fight the crimes that she can’t handle as a Detective, including a mysterious villain called The Breathtaker, who plans to poison the air of the city. This is not for kids, as it is rated R, due to a scene where The Black Scorpion seduces (or practically rapes) her male police detective partner (who is, naturally, fascinated by The Black Scorpion while completely ignoring Darcy), and gets fully nude. I won’t deny that Severance’s sex appeal is part of my enjoyment of this film but, overall, it’s just a fun little movie. This film spawned a squeal, also starring Joan Severance, which I also enjoyed, although it ups the camp level considerably, and then a short-lived TV series starring a new actress, which I have not seen yet.
Now, this is the film that really blew me away when I first saw it. A decade before he could get his hands on Spider-Man (supposedly, he was initially trying to get the rights to film Batman, but couldn’t, so he created his own new superhero), Sam Raimi directed this original superhero movie. Liam Neesom is a doctor who is trying to create a new synthetic skin, which could be used to help sever burn-victims. When he is murdered and left for dead by some mobsters, he uses his formula to create several disguises for himself. Not only can he recreate his old face, which was burned off in the explosion that was supposed to kill him, he can also create skin-masks that can make him look like other people. The big flaw is that the synthetic skin only last 100 minutes in direct sunlight, after which it dissolves, which is why he must stay in the dark as much as possible. Another result of his accident is that he can no longer feel pain, and has increased strength. Now as “The Darkman” he tries to get to the bottom of the mob conspiracy that did this to him, and now threatens the entire city, while also trying to see if he can perfect his skin formula, and live a normal life again. This movie is full of drama and action. Neesom does a great job as the lead, and so does Larry Drake, who plays the mob boss. I’m surprised this film is not remembered more. You could almost say it was ahead of its time. Heck, with all the other successful superhero movies these days, I’m surprised they haven’t tried to remake this by now, with a bigger budget. Neesom could play the bad guy this time, with a new younger actor as the hero. Anyway, there were 2 straight-to-video sequels (both without Neesom, but Drake returned for one), and a few comics produced, but none of them match the original film.
In fact, it was a tough decision on which films I’d list as #2 and #3. The two next films on this list could be interchangeable, because I loved them both almost equally, although they are vastly different. So how I judge them is also vastly different. In the end, for #2 I had to go with…
2/THE METEOR MAN
This film is criminally underrated, especially among comic-book fans. I had been considering doing a full-length review for this film in my Best Movies You’ve Never Seen category. The problem is, too many people who have seen it compare it to other mainstream superhero movies, which is unfair. This film is not trying to be a serious film like Iron Man, Spider-Man, Batman Begins, etc. It’s a comedy. Specifically, it’s a comedy for All Ages, something that a whole family could enjoy. Robert Townsend (who wrote, directed, and starred in this film) has made a film with a positive message, about a superhero who just so happens to be Black. Townsend plays a mild-mannered Elementary School teacher named Jefferson Reed, who lives in a neighborhood that is seeing a rising crime rate, due to the actions of a street gang called The Golden Lords (due to their all dying their hair the color of gold). The gang recruits young children to help carry out their crimes, including drug dealing, car-jacking, vandalism, and robbery. Everyone in the neighborhood is too afraid to stand up to the gang, and so is Jefferson.
One night Jefferson is struck by a meteor from space, parts of which are embedded in his body. He soon finds out that he now has amazing superpowers. He’s super strong, invulnerable, can fly, has x-ray vision, and many other abilities. When the neighborhood finds out, they enlist him to help solve problems. His mother (played by Martha Gibbs) makes a costume for him, and he becomes Meteor Man. This eventually draws him into conflict with The Golden Lords, and other criminal enterprises. Things get serious when Jefferson starts to lose his powers, and he has to try to convince everyone to stand up for themselves. I won’t spoil any more of this film but, like I said, it’s a positive film with a great message, namely, that just like in real life, we can’t wait for some “superhero” to solve all of our problems. Ultimately, it’s up the community to do it for themselves. And it’s got a cast that’s a who’s who of Black Hollywood, with major and minor roles from people like Bill Cosby to Luthor Vandross, and young Don Cheedle in what I think is one of his very first acting roles. It’s a shame that a film like this is all but forgotten, while HANCOCK, about a Black superhero who is a self-centered alcoholic, made over $200 million.
The best non-comic-book superhero movie, ever. Back when M Night Shyamalan was still considered a borderline-genius. Bruce Willis is the rock-hard “Security Man” and Samuel L Jackson is the evil “Mr. Glass”. As a comic-book reader, I can totally see how these characters would fit into a traditional comic-book story, yet by placing them in the “real world”, Shyamalan was able to deconstruct the whole concept of superheroes, and supervillains, in a way that I don’t think had been done before (at least not so well). An average man is the sole survivor of a plane crash and then is approached by a mysterious stranger who suggests that it was more than sheer luck that saved him. I love everything about this film, from the slow build-up of Willis’ character discovering his various powers and accepting what that means, to the increasing madness of Jackson’s character, and the desperation he feels about wanting to prove his theory about the existence of superheroes in real life correct. And then the reveal at the end? Loved it! I know some fans have wished for a sequel, but I don’t see any need. All that would do is turn it into a traditional superhero story, but I prefer to leave this as it is. Let our imaginations wonder what happened next.
Just my opinion.