Top 10 best superhero movies you probably didn’t see

From The Shadow and Supergirl, to Daredevil and Punisher, the 10 best overlooked and unappreciated superhero movies

Supergirl

The Shadow

10. The Shadow
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Cast: Alec Baldwin, John Lone, Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Boyle
Released: 1 July 1994
Buy: £6 on DVD from Amazon.co.uk

A pistol-toting, masked crimefighter with the “power to cloud mens’ minds” and change his appearance, a socialite whose telepathy threatens the secrets of the man she loves, and the last descendant to Genghis Kahn threatening New York City with an atomic bomb.

Savaged by critics as ‘corny’ in the high and mighty, oh so bloody worthy year that gave us the subtle and profound (sarcasm) Forest Gump, The Shadow is a tremendous romp – as you’d expect from Russell Mulcahy, director of cult Australian giant pig monster movie Razorback and equally daft action epic Highlander.

The evocative noir setting and laboured pulp dialogue that turned cinema-goers off The Shadow, along with 1996’s lilac excesses in The Phantom, pre-empted the more forcefully ironic likes of Sin City, Max Payne and The Spirit, while the spiritual fall and rise of Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) in the mountains of Tibet found an echo in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

Sky High best superhero movie

9. Sky High
Director: Mike Mitchell
Cast: Michael Angarano, Danielle Panabaker, Kelly Preston, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Released: 29 July 2005
Buy: £10.99 on DVD or £7.75 on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

Admittedly knowing that the director of Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked produced a family friendly superhero movie for Disney doesn’t exactly engender a huge amount of confidence, and while Sky High was a modest commercial success it didn’t engender the same level of geek love as the previous year’s Disney comic-book spoof, Pixar’s The Incredibles.

The truth is that Sky High is far cleverer than most mid-00s superhero movies, let alone Disney ones – depicting a floating school for the offspring of clichéd superheroes that echoes everything from the X-Men: Evolution animated series to recent indie comic-book Gladstone’s School For World Conquerors to Harry Potter.

Red State’s Michael Angarano plays Will Stronghold, the son of The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston), two of the world’s most loved superheroes, Bullied at school, his powers are yet to materialise and before long he starts to worry he won’t even have any. Relegated to sidekick status, when The Commander’s old nemesis attacks it’s up to the sidekicks to save the day.

Warm, good natured, and genuinely smart in its hit and run attack on genrte tropes, it also has an amazing cast. As if Russell was a geeky enough, the school principal is the one and only Lynda ‘Wonder Woman’ Carter, and the school’s supersonic coach is Bruce Campbell.

Dick Tracy best superhero film

8. Dick Tracy
Director: Warren Beatty
Cast: Al Pacino, Warren Beatty, Madonna, Glenne Headly, Charlie Korsmo
Released: 15 June 1990
Buy: £6 on DVD from Amazon.co.uk

Massively award winning and a massive box office hit, Dick Tracy, like The Shadow 4 years later, lodged itself sideways in the windpipe of some. The over the top kitsch employed by director/producer/star Warren Beatty kitsch dwarfs even The Mask, and its sense of grotesque – especially in the hauntingly absurd rogues gallery – can rival even Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.

The time stamped casting – Madonna as club singer Breathless Mahoney and child-actor-de-jour Charlie Korsmo as The Kid, in particular – overshadow the heavyweight talent on display as the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Goodfellas’ Paul Sorvino, The Godfather’s Al Pacino and James Caan pull on the prosthesis and primary colours to threaten our gadget-wielding, squared-jawed detective defender of an felt-tip-shaded 1930.

A stylish caper, filled with over-the-top performances and boundary quashing special effects, Dick Tracy was unfairly held up against the previous year’s Batman as if the world only ever had room for one comic-book crusader on the big screen.

7. Daredevil
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Cast: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Colin Farrell
Released: 14 February 2003
Buy: £3.40 on DVD or £7 on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

Kind of a tricky one – neither as bad as some people seem to think it is, nor quite as underrated as others seem to think it is, even the inconclusive consensus seems to fit the film’s sheer awkwardness.

Produced just as superhero films were starting to get good, but by people who didn’t quite understand what it was that made them good – and given Mark Steven Johnson went on to do Ghost Rider, it’s fair to say he slumps into that category. The much canonised, R-rated directors cut may have returned a scene of Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) doing some lawyering and using his powers to help a junkie called Coolio, and cranked up the violence and Catholic hand-wringing – but the best and worst bits of the movie were already there.

On the one hand you get Ben Affleck being gormless and wooden, horrible Christian nu-metal blaring at every opportunity, an overcooked romance, a part-share in the blame for the dogshit sandwich that was Elektra, horribly reductive 90s action movie dialogue, a flaming sigil set-piece cribbed from The Crow, and Colin Farrell being ridiculous. On the other hand you get lovely Bryan Singer’s X-Men-style costumes, a cool sort of Dark Knight-for-MTV sense of brooding, gothic foreboding, a couple of fantastic set-piece battles, and Colin Farrell being ridiculous.

Never has the line between best and worst been so blurred.

Mystery Men

6. Mystery Men
Director: Kinka Usher
Cast: Hank Azaria, Claire Forlani, Janeane Garofalo, Eddie Izzard
Released: 30 July 1999
Buy: £2.25 on DVD or £7.16 on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

A commercial flop on release – scrimping back less than half of its budget – Mystery Men was the Watchmen/Incredibles-style superhero deconstruction half a decade too early.

Adapted from the cult Flaming Carrot comic-book about the group of unimpressive superheroes called upon to save the day, and featuring a top-tier cast including William H Macy as The Shoveler and Ben Stiller as Mr Furious, the lack of easy bonehead gags made it a miss with its target audience who were all still hooting along to the tepid and embarrassing Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me from the month before, but a absolute cult hit with comic-book geeks, then starved of decent comic-book movies.

Warm, fun and affectionately silly, Mystery Men was hamstrung a little by director Kinka Usher’s reluctance to let go of his past in advertising, completely changing the climax after a poor reaction from a test audience, but remains one of the few films to mock the genre from within, instead of pissing on it from without.

Supergirl

5. Supergirl
Director: Jeannot Szwarc
Cast: Faye Dunaway, Helen Slater, Peter O’Toole, Hart Bochner
Released: 19 July 1984
Buy: £3.68 on DVD from Amazon.co.uk

Despite being a spin-off from the Christopher Reeve Superman films and clearly a part of that same universe, Supergirl was met largely with apathy and poor box office takings. Not that either of those things are guarantors of quality. If anything that director Jeannot Szwarc later joined the crew of Smallville, Heroes and Fringe is a testament to how loved this picture is in superhero fandom.

Expanding on the cosmology considerably, we see Argo City and go into the Phantom Zone – introduced in Superman 2 as a sort of spinning mirror – and see Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater, who later also appeared in Smallville) struggle with Kal’s old weakness – magic – as she battles witch Selena (Faye Dunaway) for control of a powerful Kryptonian artefact.

Aside from being a good old fashioned, family friendly adventure, Supergirl is a triumph in two major areas – it’s led by a female protagonist and a female antagonist, with Superman‘s Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) as a sort of damsel in distress, and it’s a precursor to the sort of universe building that would be a big part of Marvel Studios’ Phase 1 as aside from Olsen’s role, Superman‘s non-appearance in the film is explained in a news report revealing that the Last Son of Krypton is off on a peacekeeping mission in space.

Super

4. Super
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon
Released: 12 September 2010
Buy: £3.48 on DVD and £8.06 on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

Sneered at by critics for its unpleasant levels of violence, and dismissed by many geeks for its superficial similarities to Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass, that James Gunn is now directing Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy should be proof enough that his one and only superhero movie as director (he also wrote 2000’s The Specials) must have been doing something very, very right.

Super is a very different ‘real world superhero’ film from anything we’ve seen before, and alien space god tentacles aside, it’s perhaps the most realistic. Exploring how delusional and driven you’d really have to be to think pulling on a onesie and battle crime is a reasonable reaction to a cruel world, Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) loses his ex-junkie wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) to nefarious drug kingpin Jacques (Kevin Bacon), and following a visit from alien space god tentacles decides his true calling is to fight crime with extreme, graceless violence as The Crimson Bolt. Like attracts like, and the morally damaged Libby (Ellen Page) comes on board as his sidekick – the sadistic Boltie.

The blackest and weirdest of black comedies, Super isn’t for everyone (especially if you’re no fan of extreme, bone-crunching violence) but it’s undeniably a triumph.

The Rocketeer

3. The Rocketeer
Director: Joe Johnston
Cast: Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton
Released: 21 June 1991
Buy: £10.29 on DVD or £17 on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

Though part of the larger rash of ’30s style pulp heroes to make it onto the silver screen in the early to mid-90s, Nazi-bashing, dieselpunk defender The Rocketeer was an anomaly mainly because he was actually created in 1982 by writer/artist Dave Stevens and its a testament to the character’s air of authenticity that he’s often thought of as a contemporary to the likes of Doc Savage and The Phantom.

Picked up by DIsney for its toyetic potential (the character’s Bettie Page-inspired model girlfriend was swapped out for a more family friendly Hollywood extra), and only the success of Indiana Jones allowed the producers to keep the period setting against calls to contemporise it.

The second film (after Honey, I Shrunk The Kids) from former Indiana Jones and Star Wars art director Joe Johnston, the big-hearted heroics, pulp serial sensibilities, and a genuine character arc obviously paved the way for Johnston’s later superhero flick, Captain America: The First Avenger

Punisher War Zone

2. Punisher: War Zone
Director: Lexi Alexander
Cast: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Colin Salmon
Released: 5 December 2008
Buy: £2.99 on DVD or £8 on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

Everything that last 2012’s Dredd got praised for, 2008’s widely sneered-at and unappreciated Punisher: War Zone did just as well.

Like Alex Garland and Pete Travis’ Dredd, Lexi Alexander’s Punisher was an ugly, garish, graphic and uncompromising snuff film of a comic-book movie – basically everything the comic-book is, and if you didn’t like Punisher: War Zone – and indeed Dredd – problem was that you didn’t like the character.

Thomas Jane’s Punisher has a bit of a following, despite the 2004 version being so watered down that you could breed fish in it – it even has the big flaming sigil gimmick that we already rapped Daredevil on the knuckles for. As Frank Castle you can feel Jane’s pain and his reluctance to let people in as he larks about with his irritating comedy neighbours, but with Ray Stevenson you get the tightly focused, weaponised rage that makes the character such a force to be reckoned with even amid all the supergods and alien robots of the Marvel universe.

2004 Punisher is the tonally awkward first arc of Garth EnnisPunisher, ‘Welcome Back Frank’, adapted clumsily, Punisher: War Zone is the Ennis’ later bloody-knuckled Punisher MAX run transposed directly onto the screen. A good superhero movie gets right to the heart of the character and makes you think about what it is that makes them so iconic. Punisher: War Zone most definitely did that. Even if you didn’t like what you saw, this was the movie Frank Castle deserved.

1. Darkman
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Colin Friels, Larry Drake
Released: 24 August 1990
Buy: £6 on DVD (with Darkman II) from Amazon.co.uk

Though his Tobey Maguire-fronted Spiderman became Sam Raimi‘s defining superhero movie, in the late 80s the Evil Dead 2 director had his sights set on The Shadow, and when that didn’t pan out, Batman. Losing out to Tim Burton, Raimi returned to The Shadow and constructed his own ersatz version, Darkman.

The director’s first studio movie, Darkman is a demented combination of Raimi’s trademark gross-out horror, 30s pulp and monster movies, and the instinctual grasp of superhero storytelling that would win him so much acclaim a decade or so later.

Liam Neeson plays a gloriously overacting scientist Peyton Westlake who is left for dead by mobsters. Healed by experimental surgery that leaves his nerves severed and impervious to pain, with side-effect bursts of angry rage, Westlake continues his skin graft research – hoping to restore his own good looks and be reunited with his district attorney sweetheart Julia Hastings (Frances McDormand), but instead uses the quickfix temporary faces he creates a useful tool in bringing down the gangsters who wronged him.

The angry vigilante pushed away from his ordinary life and over the line is just as affecting as similar scenes in Batman Begins, and much more entertaining, thanks to the absurd rage-outs – “Take the fucking elephant!” – that make Darkman simultaneously big, dumb, intelligent, stylish and artless, and without doubt the best superhero film that nobody ever talks about.