Critical 5: Superhero Films Off the Beaten Path
Not an Avenger to be found.
When we look back on the film industry of the early 21st century, we'll likely consider it the age of the superhero. More spandex-clad heroes are raking in summer box office dough than ever before, and the formula has been arguably perfected with both of this year's heavy-hitters, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. And while these modern franchise machines are where we turn when we crave super-powered action, we sometimes forget the quirky and colorful superhero flicks of the '90s, before Bryan Singer's X-Men kicked off the current trend. Here are five great superhero films that have fallen by the wayside.
When cult icon Sam Raimi couldn't snag a directing gig for either of his two favorite superheroes, The Shadow and Batman, he created his own. Darkman's blend of traditional hero origin story and throwback monster movie fits perfectly with Raimi's zany style (which has disappeared lately, save for Drag Me to Hell). The film also benefits from an off-the-wall lead performance from Liam Neeson as Peyton Westlake, a scientist who seeks revenge on the mobsters who permanently disfigured him and left him for dead. Throw in a supporting turn from Frances McDormand and a Batman-esque score from Danny Elfman, and you've got a heck of a good time.
The Rocketeer (1991)
Based on the brilliant comic book creation of Dave Stevens, this period adventure tale might just be the most fun comic book adaptation this side of The Avengers. Director Joe Johnston recently tapped into this spirit in his recent take on Captain America, but the super soldier has nothing on stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), his stunning girlfriend Betty (Jennifer Connelly) and the Nazi rocket pack that turns Cliff into one of the most visually impressive heroes ever created. The Rocketeer has developed a cult following since its disappointing theatrical run, and for good reason.
The Phantom (1996)
Admittedly, The Phantom isn't likely to crack any lists as one of the best superhero adaptations ever made. Deep in the Bengalla jungle of 1938, Kit Walker (a very droll Billy Zane) battles greed and injustice as the purple-suited hero The Phantom, a position passed down through his family for centuries. Sounds ridiculous, right? But the film does justice to its pulpy comic strip roots with a breezy plot involving an Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt and a wonderfully hammy villain performance from Treat Williams. Everyone involved is having a great time, and the fun is infectious.
Mystery Men (1999)
Who needs Iron Man and Superman when you can have such iconic heroes as Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), The Shoveler (William H. Macy) and The Spleen (Paul Reubens)? In this odd but entertaining riff on superhero cinema, the deliciously evil Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) kidnaps Champion City's number one savior, Captain Amazing, and it's up to a ragtag bunch of wannabes to save the day. The jokes don't always soar, but Mystery Men is a strange and stylish ensemble piece for anyone looking for a change of pace.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Arguably the best on-screen interpretation of the Caped Crusader is also the most ignored, at least by the general moviegoing public. Ask many Bat-fans which film nailed the brooding, emotional essence of the character, and they will answer with this animated gem. In just under 80 minutes we see Bruce's early years fighting crime, an eerie mystery involving a hooded figure murdering mobsters, and a significant appearance by the one and only Joker (voiced by the inimitable Mark Hamill). With a surprisingly mature love story at its core, Mask of the Phantasm marks Batman's most personal big-screen struggle to date.